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Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Rebecca Curtis’s “The Christmas Miracle” was originally published in the December 23 & 30, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

“The Christmas Miracle,” by Rebecca Curtis, is not for the squeamish. She says as much to K, to whom the story is addressed as a letter. This long story involves, among other things, thousands of silverfish in the trash compactor and animal eyeballs rolling around on the floor. What does this have to do with Christmas, you say?

That is the problem. The disjunct between the title and the first page creates so much vertigo I could hardly get through it. Regardless of faith, the reader assumes that a charming fable of selfless love will follow, perhaps à la O. Henry, perhaps à la Miracle on 34th Street, but the story that does follow is everything but charming.

Instead, it is hallucinatory, wild, confused, and garbled, and in parts, it is revolting. This appears to be Curtis’s intent, and I found it difficult to take. The seriousness of her subject, however, may justify her means.

The opening line is “Cats were dying.” Aunt D, the narrator, lurches crazily from concern for her sister’s five cats, to her own failed life, to an obsession she has with her three tick-borne diseases, to a conviction her hunger is due to the Bartonella bacteria. She details her sister’s annual Christmas party, something that involves eight pecan pies, forty dozen home-made cookies, and a gingerbread mansion. She tells how the family is trying to save their cats from the coyotes that have recently arrived in the neighborhood. She abruptly reveals two secrets: an in-law is failing to get pregnant, and the pater-familias is a pedophile. Aunt D herself had discovered him the Christmas before in a dark, empty room, “rubbing the butt” of the seven year old niece. This terrible revelation is followed almost immediately by the loony claim:

 Everybody in our family meant well and wanted to be a family.

What?! Wait a minute! Wait just a minute! Hold the phone!

In a way, Aunt D does pause. She devotes a paragraph to saying that the two little nieces are “beautiful, talented and privileged girls” and the uncle is “just” sick. She concludes, “bear in mind it could be worse.”

You begin to see why I had trouble getting through the first page, and the vertigo only multiplies. Because Aunt D and her sister are so damaged, they can barely pick their way through their lives, and they can barely do their jobs as mother and god-mother.

The only way to discuss this story fairly is to discuss what it’s really talking about beneath its Lenny Bruce-like assault on the reader. So what follows here is spoiler city. (I don’t want to dissuade you from the story. It is weird and requires a lot of puzzling, but its central subject is serious. It is probably the most memorable story I have read on this subject.)

Incest is a word not spoken in this “Christmas” story, but incest is obviously its topic. It is the secret that no one can mention, even when the evidence is obvious. When uncle-the-pedophile arranges to repeatedly get down on the floor so he can look up under the dress of the six year old, everyone sees it, but no one is able to name it, call it, stop it, or act on behalf of the child. Aunt D and her sister go to such dysfunctional lengths to ignore what they see that the reader deduces that they have their own incestuous history with this uncle as well.

When Aunt D’s father died, this rich uncle took his sister-in-law and four children and promised to pay for their education. The mother played the role of housewife. Aunt D’s loony mal-adjustment to life, her hallucinations, and her hunger points to her being the object of her uncle’s attentions in the past. Her sister’s ineffectual attempts to take control (like trying to save five cats or give a huge Christmas party) indicate her own damage as well. Most damning is the sister’s loony idea that sexual abuse or pedophilia should never be mentioned to the children.

The real tip-off to the incest of Aunt D and her sister is their mother, a woman who prayed an hour every afternoon in their childhood and went to church twice a week – thus absenting herself from having to protect her children. The fact that the older sister insists on denying that the uncle preyed on her daughter is further confusion.

Money is a means of persuasion in this family. The uncle having first promised to pay for four educations, Aunt D now uses awkward promises of money to try to get Adira, her niece, to fight back. That Adira knows how to bargain is frightening, but what is the most frightening is that for the past year, since the assault of the previous Christmas, seven year old Adira has taken to dressing in gray track pants and her Sponge-Bob tee shirt. Her mother, the one of the perfect gingerbread mansion, has taken no notice.

So, this story is not really about miracles, or Christmas, or cats, or illness, or hunger. This story is about a familial pattern of incest, as well as a familial pattern of denial, and the inevitable result: identity confusion and dysfunction. Aunt D’s adult illnesses, hunger, hallucinations, and lack of job success make more sense, once you realize that she was probably sexually used by the uncle in her childhood, part of the price of the money the uncle provided. “I knew I shouldn’t cause trouble,” she says.

Aunt D believes she loves the nieces but she isn’t able to describe them in as much detail as she describes all five of the cats. This invisibility is part of the little girls’ vulnerability. The fact that their mother is obsessed with the big house, the big party, and the big role as cat-savior also puts her little invisible girls at risk. That she would even let the uncle in the house after Aunt D’s report of abuse is unbelievable. But that is, in fact, what families do.

The grandmother exemplifies the neglect, silence, and deafness that typify an incestuous family. Against orders, the grandmother lets one of the cats out. The cat is killed right in front of the window. “But I was right there,” she says stubbornly. This stubborn denial of responsibility is also typical of mothers in incestuous families. The abuser is the meal-ticket, and mothers cling stubbornly to a meal-ticket even if they know the meal-ticket is abusing a child. In the case of this story, the uncle has been an oil-well of meal-tickets.

The emphasis on the narrator’s hunger, the coyote’s hunger, and the sister’s hunger is a natural effect of the neglect and insufficiency of care.

Names are a problem in this family and a problem for the reader as well. The cats all have real names that don’t shift. The other characters do not seem to have stable names, and Aunt D is liberal with her abusive nicknames for her niece – “smellface” and “tardface.” (I can hardly bear her use of the latter.) The story is addressed to someone named K, who of course reminds us of Kafka, but Aunt D says K is Russian – more identity instability. While much more could be said, suffice it here to say that the instability of names is an interesting device that underscores the author’s probable point: that incest destroys the formation of a stable self.

This instability of self is echoed in the narrator’s sense of hearing her bacterial infection speak to her. The infection’s voice is, in fact, an alternative Self which she calls Bartonella. Bartonella speaks truth to power. In contrast, Aunt D has a “rational me” that decides it’s okay if the uncle looks up the little girl’s dress, and at the same time, she has a crazy self that thinks she “wants to kill something” because she allowed the uncle to look up the little girl’s dress.

I mention the deafness I hear in this family, but Curtis makes a point of blindness. The last cat standing is Crow, and she has a habit of presenting “my sister” with mice whose eyes have been gouged out. It’s as if the cat is a sign from another world, signifying that it was time for “my sister” to open her own eyes. The grandmother tells a story about Jesus spitting into the eyes of a blind man to restore his sight. In a way, I see Curtis spitting into the blindness of her readers in order to restore our sight.

Finally, the hallucinations that the narrator experiences are related to the out-of-body experience that sexual assault victims use to survive an assault. The narrator describes seeing that very look on the six year old’s face when the uncle was assaulting the little girl.

In the Page-Turner interview (here), editor Willing Davidson describes the story telling style as “anarchic,” as if the author is turning the tables on conventional modes of storytelling. Actually, the style reminds me of Poe, in that the author uses mental instability as her method of storytelling. In Poe’s case, it is a variety of paranoia directing the story telling, while with Curtis, the mental instability is directly related to the effects of incest. Incest is the force that creates the anarchy in this story.

But let’s get back to where we started: the title, “The Christmas Miracle.” The story’s miracle is that one of the cats fights back and survives. She has lost all of one hind leg and half of the other, but she survives. At story’s end, Aunt D says of that moment in the vet’s office: “It was a miracle she was alive.”

Okay, don’t get lost here – we’re still talking about the title. Ordinarily, I would consider the Christmas miracle to be something having to do with a message of peace, love and acceptance. In this story, the miracle is not acceptance, but the necessity to use our native animal urge to fight for our lives. Really fight.

In her Page-Turner interview, Curtis says that the ultimate turn in the story, when the sister orders Uncle Pedophile out of the house,  was suggested by her writers’ group. It is hard to understand why Curtis herself did not write this part, as it seems to be the real miracle. Without the sister finding the courage to turn the uncle out, there would be no miracle. I almost wonder if Curtis knew this had to be the ending, but needed her readers to engage in writing the story – much as I am doing here.)

The problem with this story is not so much that it is revolting, which it is in places, or a revolting take on Christmas, which it is in places, but that it is so gelatinous in form. There are so many shifts, so many layers, so many hallucinations, and so many instabilities that the story is hard to keep straight. Nonetheless, it may be the most memorable story I have read on the topic of incest, twinning as it does, the desire for a Christmas card family with the invisible self that incest creates.

What you come away with is this: incest is a double lock, an open secret welded to stubborn denial. That kind of double lock makes mothers, daughters, and godmothers crazy deaf, crazy blind, and just plain crazy.

16 thoughts on “Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle””

  1. avataram says:

    Willing Davidson praised this story on twitter, so I had my doubts about it. While reading it on the train, I slept off many times. Awful narrator, awful story – looks like Curtis used the story as a vehicle to advertise her side business of being a holistic nutritionist and TNY let her.

  2. Abby Johnson says:

    Have never weighed in here before, but the preceding comment is so harsh that I feel obliged to counter. I found the story funny, a nice mix of ghastly detail and overall sympathy for the human debacle. It’s a cockeyed tribute to family life. I was wondering what the author was going to do with a title like “The Christmas Miracle.” (To those who have read the story –I apologize for using the word cockeyed here.)

  3. Trevor says:

    The post has been updated to include Betsy’s (fascinating) response.

  4. Absolutely loved this week’s story. Personally i loved that scene of the grandmother outside when the coyote attacks, and she’s just standing there… Looks like after all that praying, she’s still not ‘seeing’ what helps look like.

  5. (… and that of course should have read: ‘what help looks like’. Sorry, I was too fast)

  6. Jan Wilkens says:

    Betsy, your analysis is a brilliant piece of feminist perspective and how “uncles” can be the provider and the destroyer. I appreciated your deft insight into the response given by the grandmother and her detachment from responsibility:”But I was right there,” she says stubbornly. This stubborn denial of responsibility is also typical of mothers in incestuous families.”
    I suspect if that “denial” was not present, suicide of homicide would be the direction a witness to incest would arrive.
    I once went to an interview for a teaching job and by the end of the interview I told the woman I was not interested in the job for a variety of reasons. The interviewer then started telling me she was a “third generation incest survivor.” That was over 15 years ago but it has a lasting impact on me because I deeply understood how that ” survivor story ” is always right there asking for a witness. I suspect she shared that with me because we would never see each other again.
    The NYer story made me deeply uncomfortable and I agreed that it was memorable but it was hard to deconstruct . Thanks for your great anslysis.

  7. Betsy says:

    Jan – thanks for your kind words.

    In her Page-Turner interview, Rebecca Curtis points us toward “incest”, although she calls it pedophilia. She talks at length about how no one would read a story about pedophilia, so she is left with having to embed the tough truth in an entertainment. That long interview is worth reading.

    Your comments about the “survivor’s need” to tell and retell the story are interesting. Although the two stories share nothing in common, I think Paul Theroux’s “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” also addresses the long-term effects of childhood abuse. Theroux’s story was more specifically timely, given the new of the past year and the past ten years.

    Finally, I mention Judith Lewis Hermann, psychiatrist at Harvard. Hermann and Curtis are both deadly serious – but the one is a story teller and the other is a researcher.

  8. avataram says:

    Betsy, I found the story very difficult to read – the vertigo you mention in your post was too much for me – Thanks to your wonderful deconstruction, I re-read the story and re-read Curtis’s interview -now I feel it is all there, and wonder how I misread the story and the interview.

    I also feel, without your post, it would have been impossible for me to figure out what was going on. Thank you!

  9. Betsy says:

    avataram, so nice to hear from you. The story reminded me of the recent Penn State situation – how so many people missed what was right in front of them.

    Just want to say here that your commentary on the recent Romesh Gunesekera story was invaluable. I recommend both that story and your insights on it.

  10. Josh says:

    In taking advantage of the lull in my work, I just got around to reading this piece. I find the relevance to Christmas at home simple to distill: the vertigo, confusion, and calamity of the story a familiar mess for anyone who’s had to spend the holidays with family. (Or maybe my family is especially dysfunctional, but I doubt it.) This piece is about twisted family dynamics (uncle’s unspoken pedophilia and Kunda’s silent shame over her inability to conceive, to give two examples) and the protagonist’s interior struggles to deal with all this and her own set of issues.

    I found things got a little out of control in the portion leading to the animal hallucination scene near the end. I’m not sure the reinterpretation of each character as an animal in the protagonist’s hallucination necessarily “worked,” and I’m not sure that all the nastiness (silverfish in the trash bin, blood and guts in the forest) contributed much. You don’t want to eat dinner while you read this story, but otherwise I really enjoyed it.

  11. danthelawyer says:

    Betsy: Thank you so much for your excellent reading of this story. It helped me appreciate it so much more, understanding the several levels at which it exists and is told.

    I still have reservations: First, I found the author’s “Bartonella” tedious, and the hallucination scenes particularly tiresome. I have to think there was some other way to frame the narrator’s urge to “speak truth to power.” Also, following a commenter’s lead, I read the interview at NY’s “This Week in Fiction,” and was surprised to confirm that indeed, Curtis is a holistic nutritionist, whatever that means. The reason I was surprised was that in the story, that aspect of the narrator’s life came off as ridiculous to me. I felt that her purported success with infertility patients, for example, was part of the narrator’s unreliability. If she meant for us to take them seriously, it throws the rest of the story into doubt. Maybe that’s what Curtis wants — to make us question whether any of the story “actually happened” (to the extent any avowedly fictional story actually happened). I don’t get the sense from the interview, though, that she’s interested in being that meta (viz. her preference for ancient Russians over Barthelme).

  12. Betsy says:

    Dan – Thank you for your comments.

    I have to agree with you. The story is memorable, but you do wonder if there was “some other way to frame the narrator’s” purpose.

    A poem appeared in this week’s NYorker: “Obituary” by Dan Chaisson. It has several memorable lines, one of which does a turn on the word abscond, and the other of which does a pivot on the word loot. The poem feels as if it is about the North Korean uncle of Kim Jong Un who was executed last week. but there is so much static and nonsense in the poem you really don’t know who it’s about. At the same time, bits of it remind me of Dennis Rodman. Other bits are impenetrable. The point is probably that there are lots of Hamlets and lots of Claudii, and it could be about any number of people. But the nonsense makes my head hurt. Or maybe that’s just the snowstorm making my head hurt.

    Curtis and Chaisson both appear to enjoy giving the reader the runaround.

    I thought your points about unreliability of the narrator were also telling.

    Josh – I was interested in your idea that maybe the animal hallucination part didn’t work, didn’t advance the story. I thought the same thing. It felt like an add-on. There is this, however. Hallucinating is an extension of the “out-of-body” detachment from reality that abuse victims experience during the assault, especially if the abuse is repeated. I thought Will Mackin was more effective in his use earlier this year (in “kattekoppem”) of the psychotic break.

    Nice to hear from both of you! That story took a lot of effort out of all of us.

  13. Betsy says:

    That’s “Kattekoppen”, by Will Mackin.

  14. Ken says:

    I agree with the general line here–very interesting, certainly engrossing, yet incoherent. It started like best-seller type stuff and when the farting cat emerged I cringed, we don’t need more of this type of ‘humor’ in the world. Curtis does overstuff her tale and yet it’s also very affecting and the parts about child abuse have a definite power. The grisliness didn’t bother me and seemed appropriate. I agree, though, that her hallucinations of people as animals and her humanizing of her disease do not work as strategies.

  15. Betsy says:

    Yep. If I hadn’t set it as a goal to read every story, I would have stopped with the farting cat. Curtis assumes a “tough guy” pose that I think is sometimes hard to control. At the same time, I think she wants to point out you can only save so many – so which is it going be – cats or children?

  16. Ken says:

    I agree that she does make some good points and there’s much good here but it’s necessary to first sift out a lot of chaff.

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