Here we are finishing up another of Alice Munro’s great short story collections. While we are about to move on to The Love of a Good Woman, it is not at all tempting to just “get through” what may be one of Munro’s greatest stories, “Vandals.” I had not read “Vandals” until recently as part of this project with Betsy. I was missing out. I’ve reread it a few times and I’ve been amazed and shocked while looking through its many layers.
The story begins with a seemingly straightforward letter. Bea Doud (we’ve met a few of the Douds in prior stories) has just lost Ladner. She met Ladner later in life, after a series of flings that didn’t go anywhere, and she feels she can live “inside his insanity.” He is a reclusive, ornery veteran who has set up his home almost as a natural preserve, though he is the god who goes in and manipulates everything and who stuffs the animals as if it’s more of a museum. When the story begins, Ladner has died in the hospital, and Bea is left with her thoughts. Her letter is one of appreciation to a young woman named Liza, a former neighbor. When Bea and Ladner rushed away for Ladner’s final visit to the hospital, a blizzard hit their little home out in the country, so Liza drove there to check on things. From Bea’s letter we gather that Liza discovered the home had been vandalized by teens. Liza boarded up the home, and Bea thanks her.
The letter continues on, though, touching on a strange dream Bea has where she goes to a graveyard seven years after Ladner’s death to collect his bones, unsure if this was a pagan act or a Christian one. Many others are also in the cemetery, practically celebrating, “tossing their plastic bags in the air.” As dreams do, things subtly shift around and Bea realizes she is not carrying Ladner’s bones — the bag is too light. No, she’s toting around the bones of someone much smaller. Some around her ask if she has the bones of the little girl, and she doesn’t know whom they’re talking about. She wonders if they’re talking about the little boy, Kenny.
Who is Kenny? What happened to him. She realizes it’s been seven years since “the accident” and says she knows that when the accident happened Kenny wasn’t that little anymore. What is going on? The first time I read “Vandals,” of course, I had no idea. But I was fine with this. Still, I didn’t expect the power and pain that Munro was delicately exploring.
Perhaps realizing she’s touched on something beyond gratitude, Bea never does send this letter to Liza. This is for the best, even if Bea herself never allows herself to fully acknowledge why.
“Vandals” goes around and around the central issue of open secrets, things buried, never mentioned, and the permanent damage such things exact on a long (or short) life. We learn how Bea and Ladner meet. We find out that at the time Liza and Kenny were their young neighbors, and they’d known Ladner for years. Liza and Kenny were welcome to come to Ladner’s whenever they wanted. Though on the outside Ladner didn’t appear friendly to anyone, for some reason he accepts Liza and Kenny almost as part of the household, and he teaches them day after day about the plants and animals and stars.
We don’t necessarily know that anything strange and painful has gone on until Munro goes back and shows us that it is Liza herself who vandalizes the home after the blizzard. When she gets there after the blizzard with her husband Warren (a name that continues to suggest a kind of wild, reclusive space), things are okay. Then Liza starts breaking things, and Warren, probably not understanding why but happy for a bit of chaos, joins in.
Again, on a first read you just have to kind of go with it. Most of what we’ve seen till that point suggests this comes out of the blue. But slowly and with extreme subtlety Munro lets us know that this is just one act of vandalism that is just the barest shadow of truly horrific acts of desecration and destruction that have taken place in the past and permanently altered Liza.
Ladner is not who Bea thinks he is. But it’s clear even Bea know this. Her letter of appreciation must also be one of apology, an attempt at expiation. She has made such an attempt before by paying for Liza to go to college. She knows the open secret — that Ladner sexually abused Liza for years, a maybe Kenny too; at the very least, Kenny was a witness. And the topography of Ladner’s land is a complicated web of delight and pain, education in the worst ways:
Here are the scenes of serious instruction where Ladner taught them how to tell a hickory tree from a butternut and a start from a planet, and places also where they have run and hollered and hung from branches and performed all sorts of rash stunts.
These are the explicit memories Liza recollects as she walks Ladner’s land. But here she is sensing the worst memories almost more than recalling them:
And places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass.
And just look at this terrible scene of shame Liza feels though she has done nothing wrong:
When Ladner grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her, she had a sense of danger deep inside him, a mechanical sputtering, as if he would exhaust himself in on jab of light, and nothing would be left of him but black smoke and burnt smells and frazzled wires. Instead, he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from its flesh and bones. He lay so heavy and useless that Liza and even Kenny felt for a moment that it was a transgression to look at him. He had to pull his voice out of his groaning innards, to tell them they were bad.
Ladner has, it seems, been doing this for years before Bea comes along. They first met Ladner when they were seven and eight. Going to her dream, and the bag of bones that turn into both Liza and Kenny, it seems Bea knows but doesn’t accept what she knows. That she couldn’t send the letter suggests she knew even more than that. Does she also know who vandalized the home? Probably. Is she also a bit more at peace now that Ladner is dead and gone? It’s much more complicated than that. Others see her as if she has drifted off and is in a steady decline. To her, though, her last years feel “sadly pleasurable, like a convalescence.”
What a phenomenal exploration of pain and open secrets and the desire to ignore them, as well as the lifelong impact of each. Now, on to Betsy’s fantastic analysis of Bea’s decision to withdraw and ignore what’s going on right in front of her.
In her great 1981 book, Father-Daughter Incest, American psychiatrist Judith Herman discusses the way in which a certain kind of parental relationship fosters the possibility for incest. The authoritarian father imposes an imbalance of power on the family, and either out of fear or choice, the submissive mother withdraws.
Instead of prohibiting seductive or sexualized behaviors on the part of the father, mothers resist “seeing” the open secret which is hidden in plain sight. Herman delineates the multiple abuses taking place: the seduction, the physical abuse and the secrecy imposed on the child by the father; the lack of protection, solace, or action from the ineffectual mother; the lack of help from any quarter; and the active denial by various elements in society that such a thing could ever happen.
Herman posits that recovery for the daughter begins with a “safe therapeutic place.”
Some of Herman’s critics attacked the sexual politics implicit in her therapeutic theory. These critics claimed that reliance on the feminist position — that an authoritarian, paternalistic family structure is the precursor to incest — invalidated her argument. In effect, the critics denied that such a pattern existed.
Herman’s book has been in print for almost 40 years, however, and it maintains its magisterial lead in the research into father-daughter incest.
Open Secrets, the collection of stories published by Alice Munro in 1994, addresses the way women endure and survive the various kinds of paternalistic, entitled, and authoritarian mistreatment of women and girls by some men and some elements of society.
“Vandals,” the last story in Open Secrets, investigates the assault and rape of two children and the course of their lives post-trauma. This story is Munro’s assay into what incest might look and feel like, although in this case, the mother and daughter are a constructed relationship rather than a biological relationship. The advantage of this design is that the story gives us, through the real father and the adopted “father” and through the dead real mother and the barely present adopted “mother, a deeper sense of profound neglect and equally profound refusals “to see.” This is what predation requires.
“Vandals” also deepens the horror of the abuse by making the objects of rape not only the girl but also her brother. The horror of the abuse is additionally deepened by Munro’s flat methods of story-telling. Grandiosity of any kind does not suit Munro. Instead, she depends upon the ordinary strangeness of life to make her points.
Liza and Kenny are two kids who live out in the bush with their neglectful, widowed father. They seek out the strange man across the way, the man who lures children onto his property with peculiar stuffed animals that he has killed and stuffed himself. Thus he is much like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, although what Liza and Kenny are hungry for is not food but attention, and in Liza’s case, learning. Ladner taught them a lot about science. But he also taught them a lot about selfishness, seeing as he regularly abused them. There were places in the woods where Liza saw “a bruise on the ground” because of the “secret life she had with him.”
What is your way out of sexual predation? One way is for society to intervene. But we know that society will not intervene. A local school principal has gone out to Ladner’s to see if he will allow some kids to visit him. Ladner is admired by the establishment, the way Thoreau was admired or the way a priest is admired. This principal wanted to bring kids to Ladner.
Another way out of sexual predation is for an adult to intervene. But we see that Bea has chosen Ladner without any question regarding these children he has hanging around. Bea has spent so much time drinking and having affairs that children are not something she’s given any thought to. She doesn’t question in any way what these kids are doing hanging out with Ladner. What she sees is a rigid locked man whose immense “blocks of solid darkness” will provide her with the threat and structure that will keep her away from bars, keep her away from the men who tempt her.
Bea, as Liza says, “does not see what she was sent to see.”
Lacking the protections of society or individual adults, what is the way out of the abuse? One way out is suicide, and Kenny’s death by car accident feels close to suicide. Another is the wildness that Liza pursued, like Kenny, until suddenly she was surprised by a safe place – her fundamentalist church and the safety of her fundamentalist husband. “You saved me,” Liza tells her husband.
But Ladner’s predation leaves its indelible marks: terrible anger, terrible constriction, and a kind of death.
In the light of the ongoing revelations of the Catholic Church and its predation by and protection for priests, we have the story of Bea and Ladner, the one entitled, and the other, blind.
An online journal called “The Conversation” details the early history of reporting of pedophilia in the Catholic Church (see here).
During the 1980s, victims began to speak out against the church’s systemic attempts to mask the scope of the crisis. In 1984, survivors of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe refused to be silenced by hush money, instead choosing the painful path of initiating public lawsuits in Louisiana. Gauthe ultimately confessed to abusing 37 children.
As these stories became public, more and more victims began to bring lawsuits against the Church. In Chicago, the nation’s first two clergy abuse survivor organizations, Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse Linkup (LINKUP) and the Survivors’ Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), were created in 1987.
In 1992, survivor Frank Fitzpatrick’s public allegations led to revelations that Fr. James Porter had abused more than 100 other children in Massachusetts. Widespread shock followed at the time as well as after Fitzpatrick’s appearance on ABC’s “Primetime Live,” when news anchor Diane Sawyer interviewed Fitzpatrick and 30 other Porter victims.
I include this lengthy squib for the purpose of establishing the dates: 1984, 1987, and 1992. “Vandals” first appeared in The New Yorker on October 4, 1993. The events detailed here could well be within what Munro knew of pedophilia at the time, especially given Diane Sawyer’s interview in 1992.
“Vandals,” of course, never mentions the Catholic Church, although there are numerous reasons we might associate this story with the church.
First, Ladner’s own name belies his sexuality, suggesting that he is just another boy, not a sexual man, in the same way that celibate priests claim a natural a-sexuality that is in fact mostly unnatural to most men. (In “Spaceships have Landed” Munro admits in Billy Doud that some men are in fact naturally celibate and saintly, but that it is a rare number is born out by the rare number of such men in Munro’s work.)
Second, Ladner, with the signs scattered about his property, claims, like the church, connection to an ancient history and ancient writers, although in Ladner’s case the writers are Aristotle and Rousseau. Curiously, these are writers who have connections to the evolution and byways of church thinking.
Third, Ladner’s taxidermied animals can be seen as a trope for the stuffed shirts of the church, the uniforms, the rituals and the dogmas of the church, all of which can represent both lure and safe haven for certain kinds of people.
Fourth, Ladner’s learning is a lure for children just as the schools of the church have been a lure for parents and children for centuries.
Fifth, there is the magisterial setting of Ladner’s land, which Liza describes as a different world, in places as “solemn as a church”:
[W]hen you cross the road . . . when you cross into Ladner’s territory, it’s like coming into a world of different and distinct countries. there is the marsh country, which is deep and jungly, full of botflies and jewelweed and skunk cabbage. A sense there of tropical threats and complications. Then the pine plantation, solemn as a church, with its high boughs and needled carpet, inducing whispering. And the dark rooms under the downswept branches of the cedars — entirely shaded and secret rooms with a bare earth floor. In different places the sun falls differently and in some places not at all. In some places the air is thick and private, and in other places you feel an energetic breeze. Smells are harsh or enticing. Certain walks impose decorum and certain stones are set a jump apart so that they call out for craziness. Here are the scenes of serious instruction where Ladner taught them how to tell a hickory tree from a butternut and a star from a planet, and places where they have run and hollered and hung from branches and performed all sorts of rash stunts. And places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass.
Munro specifically mentions that Ladner’s land can be as “solemn as a church” and that the smells can be “enticing” or “harsh,” as can be true in an old cathedral, with the dank cellars or the batshit in the ceilings or with the covering enticements of incense. There are the jewels of the “jewelweed” and the flies that naturally infest the dead bodies that are brought to the church.
Sixth, there is the actual sexual predation, which Liza describes as a “bruise on the ground,” and which she details thus:
When Ladner grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her, she had a sense of danger deep inside him, a mechanical sputtering, as if he would exhaust himself in one jab of light, and nothing would be left of him but black smoke and burnt smells and frazzled wires. Instead, he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from its flesh and bones. He lay so heavy and useless that Liza and even Kenny felt it was a transgression to look at him.
Seventh, there is Ladner’s open mocking of Bea, something that Liza feels keenly as a devastating humiliation, and something that is mirrored in the attitude that the church has to ordinary, non-divine women, in that they are not allowed to be priests or to participate in the holy rituals of the church.
Eighth, there is the pay-off intended to obtain the victim’s silence. In “Vandals,” Bea gives Liza money to go to college. Given what sexual predation does to people and given that what Liza needed was not more learning but real love and affection, Liza did not last long at college. The church is known for paying off its victims.
Ninth, there is the tangential connection between the church and “Vandals” through the use of the name Beatrice. Dante, in the 1200s, created a platonic ideal of divine love and grace in Beatrice, who was both a real girl his own age he had met at nine and whom he saw only a couple of times before she died in her twenties. She was someone he could have never married, given the marriage customs of the time, but given his life as a writer, she evolved in his imagination into a platonic ideal of divine love and grace.
Munro’s Bea is a truncated version of idealized love. She is not surrounded with divine light. Instead, she buzzes. Although Liza loved Bea as Dante loved Beatrice, Bea is completely incapable of saving the two children. Later, Liza realizes:
Bea could have spread safety if she wanted to. Surely she could. All that is needed is for her to turn herself into a different sort of woman, a hard-and-fast, draw-the-line sort, clean-sweeping, energetic, and intolerant. None of that. None of that allowed. Be good. The woman who could rescue them — who could make them all, keep them all, good.
What Bea has been sent to do, she doesn’t see.
Tenth, Liza is compelled to make an offering to Bea, a sacrifice. Liza gives Bea a gift, an earring that had belonged to her mother, in hopes that it would erase the humiliation that Bea had just endured from Ladner, and in hopes that it might inspire in Bea the love that Liza needs. But when Ladner just remarks, “You could wear it in your nose,” Bea was silent, because she had maybe “forgiven Ladner or maybe made a bargain not to remember” her humiliation.
And finally, the worst of all: there is the effect of Ladner’s abuse and Bea’s refusal to see. The abuse lingers in the mind long after it is done:
P.D.P. [Pull down your pants]
[Ladner] had to pull his voice out of his groaning innards, to tell them they were bad.
He clucked his tongue faintly and his eyes shone out of ambush, hard and round as the animals’ glass eyes.
This is the learning that Liza and Kenny really learned. That they were bad.
How do girls and women survive childhood sexual predation? Note that Kenny does not survive.
Herman theorizes that girls and women can survive sexual predation if they are given a safe place. Munro supplies that with Liza’s marriage to Warren and her submission to the fundamentalist church. Liza says to Kenny: “You saved me.”
Munro notes, however, the legacy of violent anger that victims must control. Liza, given the opportunity by Bea to go up to Ladner’s old house in the bush, ostensibly to “check” on it, instead trashes it. In a fit, she breaks the stuffed animals and scatters the pieces, strews papers all over the floor, throws flour and pours maple syrup. The place is a mess. Kenny joins in a little, getting out a bottle of ketchup. Liza takes over, however, and she uses the ketchup to write:
The wages of sin is death.
Liza vandalizes not just Ladner’s house, however, but also the church itself. In his letter to the Romans (6:23), Paul actually says:
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul, fairly or unfairly, is the writer most associated in the church with the hatred of women. Liza is commenting on Ladner’s death and the punishment that he deserves, but she is also commenting on her own state of grace (despite the crime of vandalism), given her recent embrace of Christianity. The fact is, through Ladner’s abuse, Liza’s rightful nature has been removed, much the way Ladner had remove the innards of the once living animals.
In her anger, Liza out the idea that there might be a “gift of God” of life.
Liza’s innocence and natural purity has been removed and she has been stuffed instead with an unnatural sense of “bad-bad-bad” and the idea she must be “saved” from herself.
Munro’s art and mastery are such that the reader’s first encounter with the story is a profound sense of the alien.
Due to the art of the story, the first thing you think of is not the Catholic Church and its predatory priests and its long history, like Bea, of looking the other way. Your first reaction is to marvel at the gothic strangeness of the tale and to wonder what it was you had just brushed up against.
These tropes that create the profound strangeness — taxidermy, the divination of bones, the use of “signs,” the interest in philosophy — would all make productive long papers, as would the way Munro has structured the story: four parts, the first from Bea’s point of view, and the last three from Liza’s. The structure, which depends upon an omniscient narrator, moves slowly through profound strangenesses to the final revelations.
But I would close instead with homage to a specific realm of Munro’s mastery, that of her ability to depict the language and thoughts of girls and young women, especially her ability to describe the indescribable: seduction, threat, predation, assault, and the attempted destruction of key parts of the self.
“Vandals” is a magisterial story of great reach and almost unfathomable effect: it has an immense philosophic reach, it questions the church, it is grounded in real people, it deals with the contemporary issue of pedophilia, it explores the way trauma torques, scars, and destroys, and it gives the territory of male entitlement real reach.
“Vandals” posits that pedophilia is the theft of self, as if what we are really talking about when we discuss incest or child abuse is the seizure of self and the replacement of a sense of self with stuffing, leaving the children to become dead-men-walking, only unnatural remnants of the natural adults they should have been.
Perhaps the real majesty of this story is that it says all it has to say and still retains, at the end, almost as much mystery as it started with. We do not know why Bea is so damaged; we do not know what Kenny ever really thought; we do not know what caused Ladner to do as he did; we do not know what becomes of Liza or whether she ever is able to see that it is not she who was ever bad-bad-bad.