At the Valier library there was no copy of “Dancing on His Grave” by Barbara Richard, but the librarian immediately sent a borrow order to the Glacier County Library. The librarian there tucked in a sticky note: “Tough reading but well worth the time.” Now that I’ve read it, I agree.
The book is really written by every female in the family, to the extent that each of them could remember through concussions and repressions -- they had tried to block this stuff out of their minds for a long time. The mother, struggling to keep plowing along through life no matter what, had kept journals which she finally put into safety deposit boxes along with instructions to her lawyer and daughters in case her husband killed her. There was some hint that he had killed his own mother -- possibly by accident -- when he was living with her as a young man. At least she was found dead from a blow to the head: “from falling and hitting her head on the stove.”
Many people around here die rather mysteriously and there is no interest in how, often because -- as Alberta Bair says on tape as a very old woman about some man who had been killed -- her dad’s opinion was he “needed killing.” And some men believe that all women “need killing,” but especially those who are defiant or sexy or both. If this book were written about an Indian family, I wonder what the reaction to it would be. Barbara Richard, growing up white in hardscrabble High Line circumstances, had no tribe. Some of the neighbors half-knew what was going on, but were too afraid of this raging man to interfere. (One family who offended him -- with no intention of doing it -- had their house entirely trashed.)
In some ways, it’s surprising that more and worse things didn’t happen. The family fully expected to be killed and accepted that, except that each little girl felt the obligation to protect the others and especially their mother. Sometimes they succeeded in diverting and soothing the monster. The oldest girl was sexually abused for years until she graduated from high school. The father even took her on hunting trips with other men who never intervened, though they must have realized something was fishy. She escaped into a not altogether satisfactory marriage to another older man on an isolated ranch. What did she know about happy marriages?
The women never even considered going to the police. Evidently the neighbors also didn’t complain to authorities. When I was teaching, turning in a case of suspected abuse would guarantee that your contract would not be renewed. When I was ward clerk in a nursing home, turning in a case of actual abuse got about the same reward. In both settings, it’s against the law NOT to turn in suspected abuse. When I was an animal control officer, people were terrified to turn in an animal torturer for fear of violence being turned on them. When someone did turn in cruelty complaints, the complainant was likely to be female and old.
Often the cruelty complaints were unfounded. Because that’s the other side of this: if a person has been subjected to cruelty or has realized how much of it is free-floating around, it’s easy to see ghosts. Our culture is full of jokes like the one the library client told me and the librarian while she filled out the borrow order.
The FBI is looking for agents with nerves of steel who will do exactly what they are told. They have three possible recruits and are giving them the final test, which consists of sending them into a bullet-proof back room where their spouse has secretly been brought. Two recruits are male and the other is female.
The first possible agent is sent into the back room with a gun. There is a long silence. He comes back out with his face covered with sweat. “I just can’t do it. She’s such a good woman and I love her.”
The second man is given the gun. He goes back there and again after a wait he reappears. “Keep your job,” he says. “I don’t want it that bad.”
So the woman is given the gun and she goes into the back room. There are shots. Then there’s a lot of screaming and pounding. The woman comes back out. “Goddammit!” she says, “You gave me a gun loaded with blanks. I had to beat the SOB to death with a chair.”
Why are there so many jokes like this one in our culture? (Clue: jokes often are a way to tell a truth.)