Prolific writer and National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates does not shy away from controversial themes. Her 40-plus books include an interrogation of the JonBenét Ramsey murder, a look at the underside of Hollywood celebrity, and an investigation into a spiritual hoax’s effects on unsuspecting townspeople. She has also repeatedly zeroed in on family life, digging beneath the surface to reveal the fault lines that cause bonds to fray and relationships to unravel.
Her latest novel, A Book of American Martyrs (released Tuesday), tackles abortion. It centers on two households—the anti-choice Dunphys and the pro-choice Voorhees family—people Oates suggests are martyrs to their respective causes.
This premise is a flawed, even dangerous, setup, presenting reproductive rights advocates and violent anti-choice zealots as equally fanatical. What’s more, Oates’ attempt to humanize the perpetrators of violence falls flat and teeters precariously close to blaming the victims of arson, assault, and murder for their opponents’ criminal deeds.
One verbal interchange should suffice to elucidate the point: The conversation takes place between the daughter of the assassinated abortion provider Dr. Gus Voorhees and her uncle nearly a decade after the murder: “No one tried seriously to suggest that (the killer) Luther Dunphy was insane. But what of your father, Gus Voorhees? He was not insane, of course. But Gus Voorhees was a kind of suicide—de facto. In his defiance of his enemies, in the risks he took, your father was courageous but also—he must have known—suicidal.”
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It’s a head-spinningly asinine assertion. To wit: Oates seems to believe that sanity demands that providers slink away in the face of threats and possible menace. This maddening takeaway poisons A Book of American Martyrs for, as we all know, without providers there is no reproductive choice. Worse, it’s a profoundly misguided, reactionary position. Turning the other cheek may have its place, but standing firm and resisting is frequently necessary too. Lastly, this bit of dialogue presages a profound insensitivity, for only the most callous human being would make a statement like this to a still-grieving child.
But let me step back and tell you a bit more about the book. The novel introduces Luther Amos Dunphy, his wife Edna Mae, and their four young children. The Dunphys are a devoutly religious family. As members of a virulently conservative, rigidly patriarchal, fundamentalist Christian church, Luther and Edna Mae firmly believe that both abortion and birth control are sinful, a violation of God’s law that will lead to secular humanism and destroy the world. The Sunday services and weekday Bible study they attend hammer home these messages and provide a forum for the celebration of anti-choice victories at the state and federal levels. And predictably, in addition to railing against abortion, the pastor constantly reminds the flock’s wives to serve their husbands as supportive, loyal helpmates.
For their part, Luther and Edna Mae support anti-choice extremist groups such as the Army of God and Operation Rescue. This keeps them busy: Like others in the congregation, they spend untold hours berating women as they enter and exit a local clinic. They also organize periodic prayer services for the “unborn” and routinely harass the staff of the (fictional) Broome County Women’s Center in rural Muskegee Falls, Ohio. Is this enough? Luther wonders. What if it is not?
Eventually, Luther becomes so overwrought by the continued legality of abortion and contraception that he gets a gun and, on a random weekday morning in 1999, he kills Dr. Augustus Voorhees and his volunteer clinic escort, Timothy Barron, as they enter the clinic. Although Luther is quickly incarcerated, he takes comfort in knowing that his name will be forever linked to other real-life so-called martyrs, including Michael Griffin and James Kopp.
The murder is a horrifying incident, and you might expect Oates to present Luther Dunphy as a villain. She doesn’t. Dunphy is sympathetically drawn, a damaged soul who is poorly educated, underemployed, and emotionally raw. Indeed, readers’ heartstrings get an additional tug when they learn that several years earlier, Luther and Edna Mae lost their 3-year-old daughter in a car accident. In Oates’ vision, they’ve been unable to grieve—or even talk about Daphne’s passing—because their church has urged them to see her death as God’s will, something that can neither be questioned nor rebuked. “She’s with the angels now,” they’re counseled.
Small wonder that the family has become more than a little unmoored. While Edna Mae finds solace in pain medication, Luther strays, falling into bed with random women he meets in out-of-town bars. Their kids, meanwhile, are neglected. Guilt mounts. It’s a dismal scenario, and it is hard not to feel compassion for this family’s considerable trials, separate and apart from Luther’s heinous act of violence.
Not so for the Voorhees clan. In the aftermath of the murder, the lives of Dr. Voorhees’ widow, Jenna Matheson, and their three children are completely upended. In fact, Jenna is so freaked out she all but abandons her children, dumping them with their paternal grandparents and taking off for parts unknown. It’s confounding that in a book of 768 pages, Jenna is so sketchily drawn that her motivations remain a mystery and her disregard for her kin remains unexplained.
Instead, in the wake of Augustus Voorhees’ murder, Oates fixates on two characters—Luther’s daughter, Dawn, and Augustus’ daughter, Naomi, both of whom were adolescents at the time of the crime. The two have little in common. Unlike high-achieving and economically secure Naomi, Dawn dropped out of high school and began working a series of low-paying jobs. Despite this, she has found salvation: boxing. Calling herself D.D. Dunphy, aka “The Hammer of Jesus,” her bruising technique has led her to become a welterweight champion and garnered a fair amount of media attention. When Naomi, a student of documentary filmmaking at New York University, discovers this, she attends several matches, motivated by curiosity as well as envy, rage, and resentment. She eventually finds a way to interview Dawn and insert herself into her counterpart’s life.
Nonetheless, by positioning Luther Dunphy and Augustus Voorhees as equally culpable in their intersecting tragedies, Oates misses a tremendous opportunity to support reproductive freedom. She knows better: At one point she lets one of the minor characters acknowledge that “abortion is inevitable—there will always be abortion. It must be freely available.” I don’t know why Oates didn’t pursue this line of reasoning more fully, but in failing to do so, she missed an important chance to denounce those who believe they have the right to impose their morality on the rest of us. It may be easy to pity the Dunphy family—they’re an extremely sad lot—but the political impact of their hateful worldview remains an affront to human dignity and the right to autonomous decision-making.
Truly, when all is said and done, only one of the book’s characters, Dr. Augustus Voorhees, is a true American martyr. No matter the tribulations he endured, the fictional Luther Dunphy is a murderer. And no matter how hard Oates tries, even a writer of her caliber can not transform him from assassin to hero.