A Deep American Horror Exposed

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates; drawing by James Ferguson

Last November, Texas health officials imposed a new rule requiring funeral arrangements—either burial or cremation—to be made for fetal remains. The rule, which also applies to miscarriages in a doctor’s office (though not to those that occur at home), was roundly and rightly condemned as both nonsensical and inhumane. (In late December, it was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, and the case is still in the courts.) But I couldn’t help thinking of it in a somewhat different light as I read A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates’s slippery, searching new novel, which brings the reader deep inside the mind of a militant anti-abortion crusader and, in so doing, relentlessly dissects the liberal pieties surrounding the subject.

In one of the most discomfiting scenes in this extremely discomfiting book, Edna Mae Dunphy, whose husband is on death row for killing a prominent abortion doctor, leads a group of anti-abortion protesters in a prayer vigil to honor the “National Day of Remembrance for Preborn Holy Innocents Murdered by Abortion.” As her teenage daughter, Dawn, watches in horror, Edna Mae pulls box after box of fetal remains from the dumpsters behind an abortion clinic. “Fleshy, meat-colored, damp with blood,” the fetuses have been put in Ziploc bags and thrown out with the garbage; Edna Mae will bury them. One is a “kitten-sized creature with a disproportionately large head”; another has “tiny curved legs” and a “miniature pouting mouth.” “Thrown away like garbage!” one of the protesters mourns. “God have mercy on the murderers.”

God have mercy on us all! one might be tempted to exclaim after putting down this book. For as Oates demonstrates again and again, the difference between murder and what the novel’s religious activists call “morally justifiable homicide” is more ambiguous than it might appear. Luther Dunphy, a roofer in the grip of a personal crisis who joins the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and commits the crime around which this book revolves, is convinced that abortion is murder, plain and simple:

It does not matter if a woman’s pregnancy was caused by rape or incest or any mitigating factor. For how could it matter, to the infant in the womb, or to God who is the father of all?

By contrast, Gus Voorhees, the doctor Dunphy murders, believes in abortion on demand, for whatever reason. But the protesters’ chant “Free-choice is a lie,/Nobody’s baby chooses to die” haunts his wife, a lawyer who advocates for his cause:

It was true: but you did not want to think so.

The fetus wished to live…. But the power of its life—or its death—had to reside with the mother. No other alternative was possible.

From Black Water (1992), based on Mary Jo Kopechne’s fatal encounter with Senator Ted Kennedy, to the recent Carthage (2014), the story of a brain-addled veteran of the war in Iraq, Oates’s fiction has confronted some of the most morally troubling episodes in the recent American past. One might initially wonder why she has chosen the subject of abortion for A Book of American Martyrs (its title is an allusion to a foundational Reformation-era text about the persecution of Protestants), which begins in 1999 with the killing of Dr. Voorhees and ends in 2012, chronicling the sufferings of both the Voorhees and the Dunphy families after that defining incident.

The murder of abortion providers no longer figures prominently in our political landscape, but following Donald Trump’s election, this novel feels strangely prescient, and not only because the right to abortion is once again under attack—a threat evidently felt by the millions of women nationwide who took part in marches the day after Trump’s inauguration to protest the undercurrent of misogyny in his campaign and the anticipated anti-abortion policies of his administration. Recent events support Luther Dunphy’s view that there is a war going on, “a war within the United States…for the soul of America.” The battles may be different, but the war continues.

Oates’s oeuvre includes gang rapists, serial killers, and even the devil in disguise, but Luther Dunphy may be her most disturbing character—not because of the militancy of his beliefs, but because of how intimately we come to inhabit his consciousness. The novel begins with the shooting of Dr. Voorhees, which we view entirely from Dunphy’s perspective—“So swiftly the Lord executed my movements, there was not time in the eyes of the enemy to register fear or alarm”—and then spirals back through a tour of his psyche and his religious evolution, all expressed in his hellfire-and-brimstone-saturated language. A failing student who acts out his discomfort with sex by tormenting and raping the school slut, Luther meets Edna Mae and accompanies her to her fundamentalist church. There he feels “a turmoil in my soul as if I had come home, and would be recognized here.”

Luther eventually becomes serious enough about religion to commute hours each way from his home in rural Ohio to ministry school in Toledo, but his mind is dull: he is surprised by the questions the other students ask (“had there been dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden?”) and bewildered by the prospect of coming up with his own ideas for sermons. And he still struggles with his old temptations: “Though I was married and rejoiced in my marriage…yet I was with whores often in the city of Toledo, when the weakness came upon me,” he later confesses. To his great shame, he is with another woman when Edna Mae, alone in their bedroom, miscarries a pregnancy at three months.

The turning point for both Luther and his wife is the death of their sixth child, a girl named Daphne. Normally suspicious of medical care, Edna Mae agrees reluctantly to amniocentesis during her pregnancy and learns that the fetus has Down syndrome. Horrified by the doctor’s suggestion that they “terminate,” she and Luther simply pray that God will give them a healthy baby. Though Daphne indeed suffers from Down syndrome, she is a sweet, never “brattish” child adored by everyone. “It’s as people say, the Down’s babies are special to God,” a neighbor says. Luther is driving home with her one day when a pickup truck pulls out onto the highway suddenly and causes a three-car collision, in which Daphne is killed. The accident doesn’t seem to be Luther’s fault: it’s snowing, the pickup failed to stop at a stop sign, he wasn’t speeding. But as perhaps any father would, he blames himself.

Luther is the epitome of the unreliable narrator—mentally unstable, unintelligent, suffering from shock and trauma. He acknowledges problems with his memory, initially believing that Daphne wasn’t in the car at the time of the accident. We piece together his story from his own tortured account as well as from the fragmented testimony of friends and neighbors, bystanders to the tragedy of the Dunphys. “You’d see sometimes, a look in Luther’s face, in his eyes, like a struck match hurriedly shook out—just the remains of it,” one says.

After Daphne’s death, Edna Mae falls into a deep depression, neglecting the housework and her personal hygiene. Luther, who claims not to understand why she grieves so deeply—“It is wrong of Edna Mae to so mourn Daphne, if God has taken her to dwell with Jesus”—at one point contemplates smothering his wife with a pillow: “It would be a mercy, to put the poor woman out of her misery.” (Emphasis via italics or quotation marks is one of Oates’s most frequently used devices. Sometimes it appears to be a stylistic tic, but more often it works to emphasize the idiosyncrasies of each character’s vocabulary: the anti-abortion crusader, the pro-choice activist, the pastor, and others all speak a distinctive lingo.)

Luther isn’t sufficiently psychologically aware to follow the twisted line leading from the accident to the “buzzing thoughts” that obsess him: his growing belief that God is calling upon him to murder Gus Voorhees. A line from Genesis repeats in his head: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” In his delusion, he imagines that Daphne might have been killed by an abortionist, rather than in the car accident. “Your own daughter, the murderer would strike in her mother’s womb if he had been able.” Somehow Luther comes to see Voorhees’s murder as retribution for Daphne’s death—a repellent idea. But to experience it from Luther’s perspective is heartrending. It is frightening to be so far inside this way of thinking, to know how deeply wrong it is, and yet, at the same time, to sympathize.

At one point, Luther and Edna Mae watch a preacher speaking on television about Operation Rescue. Unusually, Luther asks his wife what she thinks of the movement. “I think of how terrible it is—for their wives and mothers and their children… I think that there are many lives that are ended when a man is a soldier for Christ—not just the abortion-doctors’ lives,” she tells him. But he does not hear.

The other lives that end, in this case, are not only the lives (in any normal sense) of Edna Mae and her children, but also the lives of the Voorheeses: Gus, Jenna, and their three children, Darren, Naomi, and Melissa. Their story picks up in the second section of the book, titled “The Life and Death of Gus Voorhees: An Archive,” most of which is narrated, again in fragments, by Naomi, the middle daughter. (Later we will learn that this “archive” has been her lifelong obsession.) As children, she and her siblings weren’t sure exactly what their father did for a living: “Something to do with babies.” Soon enough they learn the principle behind abortion, still without quite understanding it: “A woman must have control over her body, that is a fundamental human right.” Again, precise terminology is important:

When I asked Darren, Does Daddy kill babies?—my brother grimaced and said loftily that wasn’t what they called them.

I did not understand this. What was them? Who was they?

Darren said, Feet-usses. They call them feet-usses, stupid.

As a crusader for a cause he believes in with all his soul—“He’d saved lives. Lives of girls and women”—Gus moves from clinic to clinic, uprooting the family each time. The clinics tend to be in conservative rural communities, and the children are harrassed by their classmates. Naomi, at school, is handed a white box containing fetal remains (the same type of box that Edna Mae will later remove from the dumpster); Melissa brings home a flyer that reads “A baby killer lives in your neighborhood.” Piousness does not prevent unwanted pregnancy. It sometimes happens that the women who protest in the clinic’s parking lot find themselves seeking Gus’s services, for all the usual reasons:

Because I can’t let anyone know that I am pregnant…. Because I am too old…. Because I will lose my job…. Because the father would kill me…. Because the father is married…. Because I am too young…. Because I did not want to be with him in such a way but he made me to prove I loved him…. Because God will understand. It is just this one time.

If Oates initially seems to overstep in demonizing Dunphy—not only is his name Luther, but he has a birthmark on his face that is like the “sign of the beast”—it becomes clear, as the novel unfolds, that he and Voorhees have much more in common than either would think. Indeed, the two families are strange mirrors. Dunphy and Voorhees resemble each other physically; both are about the same age and height. “Your father was afflicted with the sort of blindness that some religious visionaries are afflicted [with],” a friend of Gus’s tells Naomi.

And like Dunphy, Gus may be driven by motives he does not entirely understand. On a trip to China in the 1980s, he sees corpses of girl babies floating in the river. Soon afterward, he and Jenna adopt Melissa from China, a desire on his part that Jenna worries is “deeply irrational, unexamined.” Clearly, the corpses remind him of the fetuses for whose deaths he is responsible, and the adoption is his own attempt at restitution, just as Dunphy clumsily, misguidedly seeks to avenge the death of his own daughter.

After the murder, both families disintegrate. Jenna surrenders her children to the care of friends and relatives. In another heartbreaking scene, she tells Naomi, then a teenager, “I can’t be your ‘Mommy’ any longer.” Her disappearance mimics Gus’s abandonment as a child by his own mother, who left her husband and young son to pursue a career as a philosophy professor. Edna Mae becomes addicted to OxyContin and ceases to fulfill her maternal obligations for years as the family waits, in suspended animation, to find out what will happen to Luther, sentenced to die.

In each case, it is the eldest daughter who carries on the family name. Naomi Voorhees, resolved to gather every scrap of evidence about her father’s life, becomes a documentary filmmaker. After flunking out of high school, Dawn Dunphy renames herself “D.D.” and becomes a professional boxer, carrying her father’s banner as “the Hammer of Jesus.”

“Always a woman is happy, a baby in her arms,” Luther reflects at one point, thinking of his wife with her young children. Nothing, in the world of this novel, could be further from the truth. From the women seeking abortions at Gus’s clinic—who are called, in anti-abortion parlance, “mothers”—to the multiple generations of mothers who abandon their children, the rejection of motherhood is a constant motif. “Their faith has made monsters of them,” reflects Edna Mae’s sister as she glimpses the “National Day of Remembrance” protest on television. But Gus Voorhees’s faith makes a kind of monster of him as well: he pursues his cause without concern for his own children’s needs, in defiance of his wife’s pleas that he seek a less dangerous way to practice medicine. And what, in mythology, is more “monstrous” than a woman who refuses to mother? “People think that women are ‘nurturers’—not warriors,” an interviewer comments to Dawn after a boxing match. In their own way, every character in this book is a warrior.

As a state-sanctioned version of “morally justifiable homicide,” capital punishment can be seen as a kind of mirror image of abortion; indeed, Nat Hentoff and other civil libertarians have argued that it is morally inconsistent to support abortion rights and oppose the death penalty. Gus and Jenna, good liberals, “always disapproved of capital punishment.” The mild words pale next to their children’s desire for revenge on their father’s killer. Like the Christian women who furtively seek abortions, Naomi finds herself eagerly awaiting Dunphy’s execution. The novel follows both families through the agony of the six and a half years Luther spends on Death Row, until his appeals are exhausted. Over and over he is granted a last-minute stay of execution, only to have the clock start ticking again.

Desperate for information, Dawn and her brother go to the library to look up “lethal injection” on Wikipedia. They are horrified to learn that most doctors refuse to participate for “‘humanitarian’ or ‘professional’ reasons,” and thus mistakes are often made. (The reader may wonder, again, about the ethics of a medical establishment that refuses to participate in capital punishment but has no qualms about abortion.) Their fears are realized in their father’s execution, which takes longer than two hours: the corrections officer designated to carry out the sentence has trouble finding a vein, and in the confusion of the moment, he administers the drugs in the wrong order. For most of the novel Oates’s prose is clipped, with many one-sentence paragraphs that speed the momentum of the text, but in her description of Luther’s agonized death her language takes lyrical flight:

His brain was extinguished by degrees. His soul was extinguished by degrees like a panicked bird fluttering in a small space being struck by a broom again, again, again…. As the poison flooded his bloodstream his organs shut down one by one. Liver, kidneys, heart. His blood turned to liquid scalding lava. He was resolved not to scream but—he heard himself scream…. His heart was racing to keep ahead of the poison. He began to die in quicker degrees. His clenched fingers had turned white and were becoming cold, and his toes and feet were becoming cold…. Neurons in his brain were extinguished like lights going out one by one—a string of Christmas tree lights. His most painful memories were extinguished. His birthmark was extinguished as if it had never clung to his cheek like a rabid bat. His happiest memories were extinguished. A very young child laughed into his face and closed its arms around his neck and was gone in that instant. Another cried—Da-DA!—and was gone in that instant. He was being lifted, with care—a woman’s hand gentle at the small of his back, and a woman’s gentle hand at the nape of his neck. A sweet smell of milk overwhelmed him. He was bathed in liquid heat and in blinding light opening his eyes wide, wider to take in such a wonder.

Afterward Luther’s body is taken to the prison morgue, where the corpse cools to thirty-six degrees. Oates’s cadences turn biblical for these last moments:

Total darkness in this place and not a single reflection of even muted light. Even the faintest eclipse of light, there was none. The darkness on the face of the deep before the creation of light before the first day of creation and total silence, not a breath neither inhalation nor exhalation.

It is the only island of poetry amid the novel’s sea of relentlessly churning prose.

In Soul at the White Heat, a collection of her recent nonfiction, Oates reprints a lecture in which she explores various sources of the artist’s inspiration, among them “social injustice.” She defines it as “the wish to ‘bear witness’ to those unable to speak for themselves, as a consequence of poverty, or illness, or political circumstances…. The wish to conjoin narrative fiction with the didactic and the preacherly. Above all, the wish to move others to a course of action—the basis of political, propaganda-art.” Among such works she includes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hard Times, The Jungle, and others.

Though it is not didactic or preacherly, and certainly not propaganda, A Book of American Martyrs also belongs to this tradition. Like much of Oates’s other recent work, it is clearly an attempt to speak for “those unable to speak for themselves”—the uneducated white working class. In the presence of the Dunphys and their distinctive religious and family culture, this novel is most alive, especially in its portrayal of Dawn.

Tormented at school, disappointed by the one teacher who takes an interest in her, and finally expelled for attacking a group of boys who sexually assaulted her, Dawn finds solace only in boxing, a sport that allows her to act out the rage that has paralyzed her since her father’s arrest. Boxing has long been of primary interest to Oates, and she brings all her knowledge to the depiction of Dawn’s career, vividly depicting her training regime, her relationship with her coach, her surprise victory in her first matches. Like her father, she is an initially unsympathetic character who becomes more understandable—if not necessarily more likable—through deeper knowledge.

“Most of us who write hope to evoke sympathy for our characters, as George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence prescribed,” Oates writes in Soul at the White Heat.

We would hope not to be reducible to a political position, still less a political party…but we write with the expectation that our work will illuminate areas of the world that may be radically different from our readers’ experience, and that this is a good thing.

Oates is sometimes spoken of as a novelist of sensationalism, her Gothic and morbid tendencies emphasized. In fact, A Book of American Martyrs is a deeply political novel, all the more powerful for its many ambiguities. With its depiction of these families caught literally in the crosshairs of the anti-abortion movement, this novel may well shock and offend readers. But it fearlessly exposes not only an element of American society rarely seen in literature, but also the hypocrisies of those who would pass judgment on it.