The discussion about the murder had been going strongly, until I offered up a roadblock. “What exactly was going on in that house?” I asked my students.
- Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Forman Crane. 256 pages. Cornell University Press. $60.95.
- Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris by Sarah Maza. 352 pages. University of California Press. $24.95. New in paperback.
I had assigned Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I did not intend to derail the conversation with my question — I had thought the answer, my answer, would be obvious to all — but it turns out I did.
Jackson’s story is a wicked little tale of a 12-year-old girl who poisons her entire family save two: an uncle who miraculously survived, and an older sister who was spared from the young girl’s wrath. The motive is only hinted at, a few remarks here or there. The novel focuses on the on the aftermath, on how the village ostracized the surviving family members. But my students shut down when I asked the question, so I pursued.
“Think,” I told them. “What would cause a 12-year-old girl to wipe out her entire family? What would cause her sister, when pushed, to say they all got what they deserved?”
As we retread the book carefully, with this question as a lens, I started to feel that maybe I was betraying the book, taking it off in a direction it did not necessarily want to go. I was imposing my own agenda on the novel, using it to prove that, while it’s almost accepted wisdom that adolescent boys are rage-filled thunder gods, ready to wreak death and destruction upon any around them, a girl must have a pretty good reason to lash out. Maybe instead I should have felt it was natural for a 12-year-old girl to poison the sugar. After all, another writer of wicked words, Kathryn Davis, accurately summed up the mental state of 12-year-old girls in her novel The Thin Place:
The minds of 12-year-old girls are wound round and round with golden chains, padlocked shut, and the key tossed out the car window on the way to the fast food restaurant. This is probably a good thing, since what they keep in there isn’t always very nice. Human sacrifices, cockeyed sexual adventures both sadistic and masochistic, also kitties with balls of yarn and puppies chewing on slippers and soft pink babies and disembowlings.
And yet when I started reading Sarah Maza’s Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris, a story of a teenage girl who poisons her parents, killing her father, my first thought was, “He must have been raping her.” When I first started reading Elaine Forman Crane’s Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell, a story about an adult male convicted of murdering his elderly mother, my first thought was, “I bet this was about money.” In Violette Nozière, the father was raping his daughter. In Killed Strangely, it was about money.
So no wonder I thought it obvious there must have been sexual abuse lying at the core of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, forgetting that the stories we tell ourselves in any given culture line up with what we already believe and want reinforced. But never mind that for now.
During the time of Nozière’s trial for murder, the story was different. Most of the Parisian press refused to believe that Violette’s father had been raping her. Not that incestuous abuse was unheard of, of course. Maza includes background on similar cases — examples of farmers in rural areas who, after the death of their wives, looked to their eldest daughters for sexual gratification. And while this was seen as unfortunate, it wasn’t necessarily shocking. (Those people in rural areas are backwards anyway, according to the storyline.) When another murder made the headlines, a young man who killed his father-in-law when he learned he had been sleeping with his daughter before she was married off, it was assumed the motivation was the old man’s money. Everyone disregarded the possibility that a young husband would have been enraged with the man who abused the woman he loved.
But the Nozière family were not backward, rural dwelling, illiterates, and so the press refused to believe her story. Her father had a lucrative job with the railroad, and her mother was secure enough not to have to work at all. Violette was sent to a private school, where she started to act out. The same behaviors that we today would see as obvious markers of abuse — the promiscuity, the tempers, the pathological lying and fantasy world about who her parents really were, the illnesses of unknown origin and nonspecific symptoms, the attachment to older men — were seen as the actions of a spoiled brat. The only conclusion was that this girl had poisoned her parents’ drinks, insisting to both that this was actually prescribed medicine from the doctor, and killed her father and tried to kill her mother for money to buy clothes. The jury agreed, and sentenced her to death. France was hesitant, however, to start executing women again, and commuted her sentence to a lengthy prison sentence. After World War II and a few changes in French government, she was released.
Rebecca Cornell’s son Thomas in Killed Strangely was not so lucky. The case was much less clean cut — it wasn’t entirely clear that there ever was a murder — and yet the jury and the public opinion was unified as it was with Violette. Rebecca’s body was found one night in a small Rhode Island town in 1673, in her bedroom, on fire. It was quickly ruled an accidental fire, as the old woman often smoked her pipe at night, and with layers upon layers of highly flammable clothing, it was not unheard of for a woman to accidentally set herself alight. But the whispers started soon, and the ghost of Rebecca Cornell appeared to her brother, cryptically saying the fire had been no accident.
Suspicions were laid at the feet of her son Thomas almost immediately. It wasn’t just that he was around — there were a lot of people around in the house that night, as well as an unlocked door leading to the outside. Something about their arrangement felt…unnatural. Emasculating. Thomas was a man in his 30s, on his second wife, with several children, and he was financially dependent on his mother. They did not live together so that he could take care of his feeble, ailing mom. It was clear that she was the matriarch, he could not afford to house his family on his own income, and she was charging him rent. There was much discussion over the fact that she had the larger bedroom, with the grander bed. The son knew his expected place, and he fought against it and resented it. She feared for her life, she whispered to friends. Who did nothing about it until her life was taken from her.
There was no clear sign of murder. The body was exhumed and examiners claimed to have found a wound that they explained as caused by a stabbing with an iron spindle, but that was after the ghost, after the rumors, after the public outrage, after Thomas declared that probably his mother was justly killed by God, a statement that did not exactly help his cause. They may have found it only because they were looking for it, whether or not it was there. There was no clear sign of Thomas’s involvement. And yet the story fit and Thomas was hanged, protesting his innocence all the while.
My own verdict? Thomas obviously did it. Violette was obviously being abused by her father. And there was obviously something nasty going on inside that house. I don’t always pick up a book in order to have my worldview challenged and shattered. Despite whatever efforts of the author to break through my obstinacy and inject a little doubt, just as often, I’m looking for something to reinforce what I already believe about how the world works. And because I’m looking for it, I am sure to find it. • 4 June 2012