In “Open Secrets,” Alice Munro uses a disappearance to explore the introspection — the desire, not just to solve the mystery, but also to find some personal meaning — that goes on in the hearts and minds of those who remain. I’ve written a bit about the “lost girl” plot before, particularly in my review of Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock (here), a fantastic film that famously does not offer any resolution to the central mystery. Similarly, Munro is not interested in letting us know exactly “what happened”; she interested in the ramifications of uncertainty as well as the dark suspicions that reveal much more about the person harboring the suspicions than they do about the suspicious event itself. By keeping the mystery open, the reader is invited to participate in the dark suspicions.
This story begins just after an unfortunate event. Heather Bell, a young woman new to the small town, was out hiking with a group of girls, led by Mary Johnstone. Mary has been leading groups of teen-age girls on this hike every June for decades. Now in her early sixties, the group is not what it used to be. Fewer girls want to attend. It’s not the event it used to be. On this particularly terrible day, though, Heather Bell asked if she could go back to fetch a sweater.
In the old days Miss Johnstone would probably have said no. Get a move on and you’ll warm up without it, she would have said. She must have felt uneasy this time, because of the waning popularity of her hikes, which she blamed on television, working mothers, laxity in the home. She said yes.
Yes, but hurry. Hurry and catch up.
Which Heather Bell never did do.
The character we follow is not Miss Johnstone, though, nor Heather (for clear reasons), nor, even, any of the other girls out on the hike, though we hear from them. Rather, the closest we have to a central character in this story is a woman named Maureen Stephens. One of the first things we learn about Maureen is that she and her husband, a lawyer who has suffered a stroke, do not have children, and that many years prior she was one of the girls on Miss Johnstone’s hiking trip. She is somewhat younger than her husband, and we learn, almost as an aside, how their marriage came about: “She developed the qualities her husband would see and value when hiring and proposing.”
Being a long-time member of the community, even having gone on a hike with Miss Johnstone, and being the lawyer’s wife, Maureen finds plenty of opportunity to hear the various theories surrounding the disappearance of Heather Bell. Strangely, Munro presents some of the details and theories in a kind of song or nursery rhyme throughout the story (the story even begins with one). Here is one that presents a few of the theories:
And maybe some man did meet her there
That was carrying a gun or a knife
He met her there and he didn’t care
He took that young girl’s life.
But some will say it wasn’t that way
That she met a stranger or a friend
In a big black car she was carried far
And nobody knows the end.
As we might suspect, neighbors begin to suspect each other. Behavior that was overlooked before as being simply “strange” now appears more sinister. A suspicion turns into a certainty.
But more interesting even is Maureen’s examination of her own relationship with her older husband, a man she has always been subservient to and who she’s not particularly comfortable with sexually. She can see the side he presents to the world — one of authority and propriety — and she sees the side that comes out in more intimate quarters.
I am still wrestling with more of the story. I’m curious about the connections between the disappearance and Maureen’s own life. I can sense there’s more to it than what I’ve gleaned having read the story a few times. I’m hopeful to learn more, but, of course, that knowledge is not always forthcoming is part of the theme.
“Open Secrets”, the title story of Munro’s eighth book, is great but demanding. A story purportedly about open secrets remains, in the end, an unsolved mystery. Thirteen-year-old Heather Bell has disappeared while on an overnight hike, and at the end all we know for sure is that she has neither turned up in person nor has her body been found.
One of the reasons the story is challenging is that the reader is impatient for Heather to be found. I notice that on the first reading I wrote on the story’s eighteenth page, “another thirteen pages to go!” The story was developing through many threads, the way life does. I, however, just wanted Heather’s disappearance solved.
Open Secrets: An author whose girls and women run away
At the story’s close, the narrator solves my problem:
Heather Bell will not be found. No body, no trace. She has blown away like ashes. Her displayed photograph will fade in public places. Its tight-lipped smile, bitten in at one corner as if suppressing a disrespectful laugh, will seem to be connected with her disappearance rather than her mockery of the school photographer. There will always be a tiny suggestion, in that, of her own free will.
Thus Munro makes running away a distinct possibility, a choice, a choice made out of necessity, out of your own “free will.” Out on the overnight camping trip (from which Heather disappeared), the girls play truth or dare: “I dare you to run away,” says the text.
What makes it ironic is that Maureen, the housewife through whom we see the story, is someone who should run away. Her husband, the lawyer, has in the past denied her sex, saying it is childish, telling her to “grow up,” which “humiliated” her. It is possible he is the one who gave permission for her to have her tubes tied when she miscarried, perhaps because he wanted to be done with sex with her entirely. It is for sure that since his stroke the lawyer has broken into a habit of bizarre and violent sex in which Maureen is an employee or a slave rather than a beloved partner. Running away, for dutiful Maureen, would be understandable.
Running away is a repeating theme with Munro. Think: “Runaway,” “The Albanian Virgin,” “Train,” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” “To Reach Japan,” and others. In each case, there are necessary choices to be made, choices which provide for survival, or make it impossible.
The possible violence done to Heather underscores the actual domestic violence done to Maureen.
Open secrets: Sexuality is powerful, and if repressed, it may out itself in weirdness or violence
The provincial society actively denies and represses sexuality. Munro details the wild energy that puberty awakens in thirteen year old girls, and it seems an open secret that girls and women are sexual beings, although society pretends they aren’t and punishes them for it if they are.
Three of the men in this story have weird sexualities, and to further complicate things, all three men are mute in some way. One is surgically muted, one is stroke muted, and one is wife muted.
The surgical mute is an old, voiceless widower, a piano tuner who has ironically lost his vocal cords, and someone who displays women’s underwear around his place. This man seems to try to alert a neighbor to a violent drowning, but due to being mute, he cannot make himself understood, and due to being peculiar, he cannot be trusted.
Another man is a prominent lawyer who has for years denied his wife sex and tells her it’s childish, but after a stroke this same man develops an appetite for raping her. What has he been doing all the rest of the time? Something on the side? A little rape on the side?
A third man seems childish in his appearance, and his childishness is accentuated by the weird way, when holding his wife’s hat in his lap, he strokes the feathers on the hat. This same man is conspicuously involved in hosing off a group of thirteen-year-old girls who suddenly appear in his yard. Turned on by being wet, the girls become Canadian Lolitas. This man, this hose bearer, is conspicuously off on his own the morning Heather Bell disappears.
The open secret with these is that, although their sexualities have been repressed or muted, they are still sexual beings, and the sex, now twisted, still insists on itself.
A case can be made for each of the men (the stroked lawyer, the cancer victim, and the emasculated husband) to have raped and murdered the Heather Bell, but in the end, it is also just as likely that the girl, if attacked, was murdered by a stranger. That the guilt could be smeared so broadly appears to attest to Munro’s belief that sexual repression was both widespread and no good.
How does a society get this way?
The town cultivates an annual sex education hike for teen girls. The leader of the annual hike is a local unmarried saint who came down with polio while a teenager and was, for a time, in an iron lung. She had a vision that Jesus had appeared to her and told her to get up, get back up to bat, and this appears to have saved her life. The town feels comfortable with the idea that she is the right choice to be their sex educator. The reader gets the idea that this is short-hand for the thousands of battles fought in local school boards regarding sex education, with one side wanting full disclosure about sex to children and the other side wanting religion to do the educating and schools to have nothing to do with it.
The town saint lectures the randy girls that they must guard against the urges of men and boys, thus setting up the ideas that a-sexuality is saintly, that only men have sexual natures, and that it is women who, as lovers and mothers must reign in and control men. That the fourteen-year-old girls are randy and full of themselves and full of rebellious ideas is no surprise to a regular Munro reader. The arc of a woman’s life in Munro is punctuated by a sense of emerging power in teen girls (both sexual and otherwise), the violent attempt by society to root that power out of them, a disastrous marriage made too young, and the grown woman’s eventual reclamation of her autonomy (both sexual and otherwise).
Heather Bell is one of these rebellious teenagers, and the saintly hike leader, now a little on in years, loses control of the situation. Heather runs off, presumably to find her sweater, and she disappears. Precious time elapses while the hike leader pronouncedly ignores her disappearance. She is presumed dead, but to the reader, the possibility that she has merely run away is (at first) just as great. The silence created by her disappearance stands for the way the town itself, the way society itself, tries to mute the citizens of a powerful human expression that is central to its well-being.
An echo of Shirley Jackson
The story has, in its stark weirdness, a similarity to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Both stories present a situation where the whole town seems to look the other way in the presence of wrongful violence. What’s wrong is an open secret, the secret being that they are trying to repress sexual feeling, but sexual feeling will have its way, regardless. (In Jackson, it is not sex that is the open secret but the Holocaust.) In each story, the towns cannot keep themselves from continuing to behave in exactly the same way, year after year. And each story ends with one person being scape-goated. In Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the town chooses someone to stone once a year. In the Munro story, the addled widower is taken off to the asylum, as a means for the town to assure itself that justice has been done — by scapegoat. But in addition, in “Open Secret,” the girl has disappeared, perhaps been raped, perhaps been murdered, perhaps drowned. The open secret in Munro is that all the repression and silence leads in the end to violence, rape, and being muted.
In the meantime, however, Munro has been clear to suggest the girl may have simply run away. Regardless, whatever the ending, the disappearance has somehow been caused by the silence around sex.
An echo of William Faulkner an “A Rose for Emily”
Reminiscent of the town collective consciousness in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” a wily and unpleasant servant in Lawyer Stephens’ house plays the role of the town; Frances listens at doors, retails gossip, is certain she knows what she knows, and she mythologizes. The ballad she writes celebrates both the girl’s innocent death and the fact that no one will ever know the end. The ballad is captivating, and it gets typed up, because the writer wants to get it into the newspaper. She is a kind of seer for the town who rises above mere gossip to give an interpretation, one that posits that it’s equally possible the girl either ran away or that she was murdered. But Frances also romanticizes violence and rape, cementing an attitude that violence and rape are part of an incontrovertible order in which sexuality must be repressed.
This servant who listens at doors is also privy to the sexual violence in the lawyer’s marriage, thus being an exemplar of the fact that it’s an open secret that sex in some households is a violent event. Thus the servant also stands for what children already know, long before the town saint gives her annual lecture.
In the same way, the servant’s ballad serves as an exemplar of all the literature (poetic and otherwise) that accepts sexual violence as a sad fact of life.
An echo of Henry James and The Turn of the Screw
Sexuality is the powerful unnamed evil in The Turn of the Screw. A newly arrived governess tells the story of the death of a child, possibly at the hands of a former governess and her paramour, or at the hands of their ghosts. The reader is also invited to consider whether the governess herself is responsible (either through naiveté or actual derangement) for the child’s death. The reader is invited to decide how much of what the naïve governess sees is true and how likely it is that some initiation into sexuality is the cause of the child’s death.
Similarly, in “Open Secrets,” we are left to decide whether we know who killed Heather Bell or if she died at all. And similarly, repression is clearly an actor in both stories.
How do we know what we know? Visions, double vision, intuition, and second sight . . .
Munro’s town “saint” recovered from polio and is revered for the story she tells of herself, a story which is also a town myth. Mary Johnstone tells how she was impelled by Jesus to get up and walk, a Jesus who appeared to her in a hospital doctor’s guise. Everybody knows it was just a doctor, but the fact that the saint believes it was Jesus is a pleasant and reassuring alternative.
The saint makes it possible for the town to believe two separate and opposing things simultaneously: that Mary Johnstone was cured by modern medicine, and that she was saved by her vision of Jesus. “Thus, they can also believe other separate and opposing things simultaneously, such as knowing that humans are obviously sexual creatures, and believing that it is best to put a tight lid on most sexual desire.”
Mrs. Hubbert relays to Lawyer Stephens and his wife how she’d been laid low by a boil, and how she’d taken “a couple of 222s.” This commonly prescribed Canadian drug was a combination of an anti-inflammatory, caffeine, and codeine. Marian describes how she’d been awakened from a drug induced “doze” by the dog barking, which in turn had been brought on by mute Mr. Siddicup out in her yard doing a wild pantomime of someone drowning. After it became clear that Marian could not understand what he wanted, he disappeared, and Marian took a couple more 222s. Here is an example of completely obstructed vision. While Mary Johnstone knew right away that she must respond to her vision of Jesus, Marian Hubbert could not decipher or answer the vision she had of Mr. Siddicup. The opposite of a saint, Marian is a dead vessel, incapacitated by codeine. Only later does she realize that Mr. Siddicup’s pantomime might have had to do with Heather Bell, and possibly, just possibly, her husband and Heather Bell.
Intuition and Second Sight:
Finally, Maureen, through whom we experience the story, has a kind of vision of her own, one we commonly understand as intuition, but one which also seems close to the Gaelic phenomenon known as second sight.
In “Scots Belief in Second Sight,” Emma O’Neill says:
Dr Johnson in his Journey to the Western Isles book (1775) acknowledged that while it was a dying belief among the Lowlanders, the Highlanders still very much held Second Sight to be fact. It is the common talk of the Lowland Scots, that the notion of the Second Sight is wearing away with other superstitions; and that its reality is no longer supposed, but by the grossest people.
How far its prevalence ever extended, or what ground it has lost, I know not. “The Islanders of all degrees, whether of rank or understanding, universally admit it. Except the ministers, who universally deny it.
Strong reasons for incredulity will readily occur. Yet the Second Sight is only wonderful because it is rare, for considered in itself, it involves no more difficulty than dreams.
We learn that Maureen senses that life can have alternative explanations, or that a person lives in the constant shadow of alternative possible lives. She lives with a brutal old man, and at the same time, she can have visions of an energetic young man honoring her with a present. At the same time as she is making custard at the stove, she can also have a vision of terrible clarity and brutality: that she sees a hand being pushed down onto a stove burner. And the reader knows that Maureen is seeing the way the town represses sexuality until it is scarred and twisted. Maureen’s gift is second sight.
Artistic Vision, Intuition, and Second Sight:
While Maureen has visions of both vibrant sexuality and repressed sexuality, and while her “second sight” has the immediate truth of intuition, we have to wonder where the intuition and the inspiration of the artist fall in the spectrum of truth.
Maureen, after all, is not the poet that Frances is.
She may be what her husband called “The Jewel,” but it is Frances who wrote the Ballad of Heather Bell. Munro, as in “The Albanian Virgin,” undercuts the role of the writer. Frances is repellent: mean, disrespectful, and a gossip who listens at doors. But her ballad works. It tells the story and it encapsulates the mystery of Heather Bell — that “nobody knows the end.” Frances can tell her story and can be the artist, precisely because she listens at doors and entertains “far-fetched” gossip.
Maureen, the extraordinary Jewel, is no mere scribbler. For her, “trying to tell” what she sensed and saw is not easy. It’s “startling.” And years later, that long ago moment when she “seemed to be looking into an open secret,” is evasive; she cannot quite remember it.
What Munro is saying about vision and artistic vision is not quite clear either. It is as if Frances is the scribbler, facile and eager, but Maureen is the artist, having to tell, being unable to tell, what it was she saw that day at the stove. Frances gets the romance and pathos of Heather Bell’s disappearance, and she finds the right place to publish: the newspaper. But it is Maureen who “sees” that the sorrow is that of an entire society, a society that, like Marian Hubbert, stops men, stops women, as if they were children, from enjoying sexuality.
Marian Hubbert’s husband had taken the brown feathered hat from Marian that had been bothering her, and he sets it in his lap, and in a pantomime of self-gratification or masturbation, begins to stroke it. Marian, “with a burst of abhorrence” stops him. She “clamped a hand down on his.”
In a mirror of this, Marian sees a hand press another hand down on a burner — a warning.
In silence this is done, and by agreement — a brief and barbaric and necessary act.
So society warps sexuality. It brutally punishes any reliance or expression of its comfort.
Maureen had wondered:
But suppose you did see something? Not along the line of Jesus, but something?
At that, we understand that Maureen suspects that Theo Slater, Marian Hubbert’s husband, may have killed Heather Bell. At the same time, however, we know that what Marian sees is not just the possible guilt of one specific culprit, but the collective guilt of an entire society.
Open Secrets: Church
When the girls gather to go off on their hike, it is in the United Church basement, and their leader is Mary Johnstone, to whom Jesus had once appeared in a vision long ago. Mary had gotten polio at thirteen or fourteen, and she was in an iron lung.
Jesus said, “You’ve got to get back up to bat, Mary.” That was all. She was a good softball player, and He used language He knew she would understand. Then He went away, and she hugged onto life, the way he had told her to.
Part of her hugging onto life was to accept her role as disciple, or saint (two words that Munro herself never uses). The town accepts Mary Johnstone as a given.
So — she was crazy. But everybody let her talk about Jesus in the hospital because they thought she was entitled to believe that.
And Mary is a kind of disciple. She has supported herself, has never married. And she has “devoted her life to girls,” saying she had “never met a bad one, just some who were confused.”
Where the town may have got it wrong was to abdicate its own role in the care and nurture of its girls. Mary Johnstone is both a pure religious nut and a practical Canadian: she has “hugged onto life”; she preaches, get up and walk, “get back up to bat.” The center of her message and example is completely on target.
But when the town assigns her the role of sex educator, it has gone astray. Mary J. is no Mary Magdalene. Mary J. doesn’t know anything about sex. She may have a calling regarding softball, but she cannot claim any experience or skill at sex. Munro is saying, tongue in cheek, a girl’s only choice is to get up and walk away from Mary as sex educator.
Mary Johnstone is off message; her sanctuary, the church basement, is no sanctuary. Frances, the repellent housekeeper, is right on one count, at least. She doesn’t like Mary Johnstone; she doesn’t like people “who made too much of themselves.”
So Heather Bell is doing what Jesus told Mary J. to do: get up and hug onto life; get up and go; live the life you are naturally good at; run away if you must.
Open Secrets: time and the writer
Maureen Stephens has the Gaelic name and maybe the real gift of second sight.
In kitchens hundreds and thousands of miles away, she’ll watch the soft skin form on the back of a wooden spoon and her memory will twitch, but it will not quite reveal to her this moment when she seems to be looking into an open secret, something not startling until you think of trying to tell it.
And the backbone of the open secret is that when sexual feeling is denied or silenced or brutally punished, it will nonetheless still insist on being expressed, but the expression will be scarred in some way. When sexual feeling is silenced, it becomes ever more difficult to access in any normal way.
Another open secret is that writing and getting it right is not that easy.
It’s a strange story, in that at the time of its writing, the sexual revolution is twenty years in the past. It’s as if the author, while not in love with all of the results of sexual freedom, wants to remind us of the constraints of the past that made the revolution necessary.
It’s a ghost story — a story with no solutions — and because it has no solutions, it has staying power.
And the artist? There’s gossiping and listening at doors, the way Frances does, and then there’s waiting for inspiration or intuition (or second sight) the way Maureen waits. Time brings you to it, the time it takes to thicken a custard on the stove (forever). I am reminded that Alice Munro has said she’s done some of her writing while waiting for the potatoes to boil. And the intuition can be over in a flash and can be lost over time. Frances, in her speed, gets the pathos and the romance, but completely misses the moral point: that society could be different. The ballad accepts such violence as a part of the human condition.
In her slowness, Maureen — the jewel — “sees something,” something far more complex and elusive than does Frances. Thus does Munro bid us pay attention to the time she takes with writing and the time she has devoted to writing.