“There is no such thing as bravery; only degrees of fear.” – John Wainwright
In her work Man Crazy, Joyce Carol Oates depicts the stunning journey of Ingrid, the prodigal daughter, as she conquers the harrowing journey from death to rebirth. Internalizing all that is violent and self loathing in her youth, Ingrid understands the brutality of man and her personal inadequacy. Before abandoning the girl and her mother, Ingrid’s father imparts his wisdom, “[People] cause their own sorrow” (15). With this, Ingrid’s penance is her punishment.
Oates’s intricate narrative shifts between lucid and hallucinogenic, all the while enforcing Ingrid’s continual self-deprecation and effacement. She devalues and debases herself to gain esteem in the circles of men who want nothing but to exploit her because, “always men can sniff out the degree of your desperation…and force you to do things you don’t want to do or don’t exactly want to do at that time, or in that place, or in that way” (101). But “it’s the men who treat you like shit you’re crazy for. For only they can tell you you punishment is just,” or as Ingrid understands, deserved (224).
Indeed, it is punishment that Ingrid seeks, at least, partly. Because no matter her effort, Ingrid will always fall short, unable to approach the standard of perceived perfection set by her deeply flawed, but beautiful mother, and her absent father (whose violent nature remains to haunt her). Anxiety overruns her. Ingrid scratches and picks scars that mar her beautiful, porcelain skin. Love drowns her as she fornicates with “boyfriend” after “boyfriend”, unwise to the fact that their attention is a temporary condition that will harden faster than “the cold phlegmy cum on [her] thighs” (239).
And so, Ingrid remains pitiable and pained, “but if the pity is strong enough, you won’t be blamed” (158). This is where Oates strikes a balance. Her character has an awareness that “this [tragedy] has happened before and it would happen again and no one could stop it despite the words that are uttered, the guilty eyes, the shame” (82). The inevitability of it, the powerlessness as she acquiesces her need to be loved, to be complete. “It was the boys’ eyes that mattered” after all (105). Because she wanted to matter to them.
But she never did, despite early premonitions “not to expect mercy from such hands” (37). It is therefore baffling that Ingrid did not anticipate the result, that “it was always a surprise” when “ they would go from moaning how beautiful you are…to that sound of reproach and threat” (128). “The need to hurt further than they’ve already done, and irrevocably” (239). Yet, somehow, Ingrid is able to extricate herself, literally crawling out of the depths of physical captivity and mental enslavement. She escapes a Satanic cult and a drug addiction. She reunites with her mother and is poised to be wed to a man who “doesn’t judge”. Miraculously, Ingrid expresses the desire “to do the right thing always, to love the right people” (277). This is Ingrid’s wish on her twenty-first birthday.
I share Ingrid’s desperate desire to be loved. I ache with the same yearning to be acceptable to others, and adequate enough to accept myself. My plight to overcome anxieties is hers. I envy this girl who suffered so much but was freed at a young age, finally able to live her life (albeit with wisdom of experience that I would not wish on any woman). Meanwhile, my pain endures with each passing year. I am not strong like Ingrid. I lack her ability to commit, to escape. I have yet to crawl out of the depths to salvation. I am still the cause of my own sorrow.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Man Crazy. Plume, 1998
Painting – “Body of Innocence (for Coronal Displacement)” by Paul Cristina