by Alice Munro
from Runaway

While you could argue that the Lord’s Prayer is the springboard for “Trespasses,” Munro’s sixth story in Runaway, I would like to take a side step and examine the story through the lens of the 12 steps of AA. I like the exacting nature of the language of the steps, especially in regard to this story.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Bill Smith. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism was written in 1939. AA is famous for its twelve steps.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Steps 4, 5 and 9 are particularly applicable to “Trespasses. Step 4 requires a “fearless inventory.” Step 5 requires an admission of “the exact nature of our wrongs.” Step 9 requires the “making of amends.” Let’s be clear as well: AA requires the humbling of your self.

Let’s also be clear. The stories of Alice Munro present a deafening critique of the failings of conventional religion, but Munro also frequently explores the essential questions that religion seeks to answer.

Munro is distrustful of groups that attempt to assert control over individuals. The academic department of Greek at the University in Runaway’s “Chance” is merely one example. AA would likely be another such group that attempts to control individuals, when the individual’s own experience can be the only true teacher.

Nevertheless, the framework of AA’s Twelve Steps provides a useful lens through which to explore “Trespasses” because it requires honesty and confession, and because it requires, in particular, the admission that one’s life has become “unmanageable” because of alcohol.

(“Trespasses” also obviously refers to the version of the Lord’s Prayer in which one asks to be forgiven for “trespasses” and in which prayer one pledges to forgive others. AA does not require this prayer or any specific religion; it merely gives the alcoholic the map an alcoholic might follow to forgive and be forgiven.)

“Trespasses” is strange and upsetting. A couple keeps a baby’s ashes hidden  in a cardboard box. No ceremony to mark the baby’s death has ever been held. No explanation has ever been given to the living daughter that there ever was even a first daughter.

It isn’t that the dead baby was unloved or unwanted. Eileen and Harry had adopted her. And Eileen had immediately become pregnant. Desperation ensued. Eileen could not imagine how she could manage two babies as well as, probably, the loss of her profession, which was newspapering. Late in the story we learn that Harry wanted Eileen to have an abortion. Harry and Eileen argued, Eileen ran off. In the emotional chaos, Eileen had not properly fixed the baby’s car seat, and in an accident, the baby died.

Eileen denies that she was drunk at the time. There is, however, evidence that she drinks quite a bit and that she and Harry fight quite a bit. They fight to the degree that they hardly notice the fact that their second child, who is 13 or so, is drifting. The family has just moved in an effort to start over.

There is a pervasive carelessness here. The baby died due to carelessness, maybe carelessness about drinking and driving, and certainly about fastening a baby seat. The dead baby’s ashes are never buried. The new baby is given the dead baby’s name, as if to pretend the first baby never existed, or as if to pretend the death didn’t matter, and as if the guilt for the death did not exist. Their second child, their natural child, Lauren, does not know that the adopted child ever existed.

Instead of burying the baby in a semi-public way, Eileen and Harry have buried the memory of the fight, the drinking, the driving, the accident, and the baby.

Is that not what we do? Bury the things we do that were wrong and for which we are accountable?

Certainly, alcohol, and every form of alcoholism, requires us to carelessly bury any consciousness of its “wrongs” in the basement. One of the basic signs of alcoholism is denial. Another sign of alcoholism is neglect. Lauren, Harry and Elaine’s natural daughter, is thirteen or so and showing signs of neglect. They have moved to the country to start over, and Lauren is a freshman. She is not navigating the move very well, but neither Harry or Eileen seem to take any notice. It is if they are pre-occupied, not only by their new life, but by a need to be pre-occupied.

They fought, “flinging ashtrays, bottles, dishes, at each other.” And worse. “Both of them threatened the use of pills and razors.”

Lauren, the thirteen year old, is part and parcel of the whole lengthy fight, every time.

Lauren used to be unable to stay in her room, she had to be where they were, flinging herself at them, protesting and weeping.

These scenes were predicted “when Harry got out a bottle of gin and poured half a tumbler for himself, adding nothing to it but ice — the course was set.”

They would spend themselves on the fight. They would not stop when Lauren begged. They would have to take it to its end, maybe with one of them out in the yard, threatening to run away. Munro leaves us to imagine what effects these dangerous scenes might have on a child and what memories she would have to live with as an adult . . . what post traumatic syndrome they have created in their daughter.

Next day, they would be muted, broken, shamed, and queerly exhilarated.

They would defend themselves to Lauren. They would even try to claim that such fights were necessary.

There’s even a theory that repressing anger gives you cancer.

Says Eileen.

This particular line of Eileen’s is very important. It’s important, although Munro makes no note of it and leaves it to the reader to do so. But you might not take note of it unless you are reading the story twice. Eileen claims that she is repressing, in particular, “anger”. But we know, given the box of ashes in the basement, that she is repressing responsibility, accountability, you name it. Guilt. If you will.

Have their lives become unmanageable?

If they were to conduct “a fearless inventory,” would they see that they had hurt each other and that they had hurt, almost beyond repair, their daughter?

I am reading right now David McCullough’s book about the Wright brothers, and in it he quotes Wilbur as saying what you need is “the right parents.” Wilbur’s father was a bishop, of all things, a bishop who encouraged his children to read Bob Ingersoll, the great atheist. Wilbur’s parents were the ones who encouraged their children to read and read and read and skip school if some important inquiry needed to be finished. And their mother was the one whose death on the fourth of July was mourned for the rest of their lives.

What if Eileen died before things have changed (and maybe even if things have changed)? Would Lauren feel anything but relief?

The conclusion of Munro’s story is the familiar scene for the child of an alcoholic. The daughter is awakened in the middle of the night to be a partner to a bizarre ceremony.

Harry and Eileen want to “bury” the first Lauren and they have invited her birth mother to be a part of the whole thing. Eileen’s admission regarding the death of the baby runs like this:

I wasn’t speeding and I certainly wasn’t drunk. It was just the bad light on the road and the bad weather.

There is the fact, even if she wasn’t drunk, of the bad weather. That Eileen took off with the baby in the bad weather in the dark.  Is she responsible for that bad decision?

And then, there is Eileen’s phrasing. She says: “It was just the bad light on the road and the bad weather.”

Has Eileen “admitted the exact nature of her wrongs,” to use the AA language, step 5?

Does the appearance of Eileen’s “just” tip us off to the fact that this isn’t really a “fearless inventory?” Does that one word tip us off to the fact that this terrible scene is not really “making amends”? Either to the birth mother or to Lauren?

In fact, I would posit that Munro uses the word “just” on purpose in Eileen’s speech, in order to make us do a double-take. Is Eileen being “just” and fair? To the baby who died? To Lauren? To Harry? To the birth mother?

Is it “just” that the second Lauren will have vivid memories of her powerlessness during Harry and Eileen’s long fights? Is it just that in the middle of the night Harry and Eileen force a parody of a religious service on their daughter? Does this strange ceremony really make amends for the memories that Lauren will have for the rest of her life? The fact that she had to listen to bottles breaking, the threat of harm, the (repeated) threats of suicide, and that she was old enough to think she might be able to stop them?

You have never been such a child if you don’t think those memories are not life-long, and you have never been such a child if you think that long after the parent’s death you don’t wonder if you could have “saved” them.

Munro’s brilliance is that she often leaves you with a “maybe yes/maybe no” answer. There are several examples of that here.

Do Harry and Eileen make an admission of guilt that is “searching,” “fearless,” and complete?

To this reader the “trespasses” that Eileen and Harry have committed are the ongoing trespasses of the alcoholic. It would be nice if their dark and secret burial ceremony changed them in any way, the way AA changes people. But this reader leaves this burial scene with no assurance that the drinking, the fights, and the dramatic suicide attempts will stop. And until they do, Lauren’s life will be one car wreck after another, every night. Until she runs away.

Note: If I were teaching this story in a class with a bunch of avid readers in it, I might get as many takes on this story as there were readers in the class.

I have taken my space here on “Trespasses” to take a look at one angle only. I feel sure there are as many good angles on this story as there are good readers.

There is the element of paradox in this story, for instance, in that perhaps Harry is right, that this made-up religious ceremony is actually as holy as a traditional one. A really good student might be able to argue that in fact Harry and Eileen have done what I do not think they have done — that they have changed.

Another take on the story would be to emphasize the importance of Delphine, the birth mother. A companion take to Delphine is the issue of whether secrets can ever be truly buried, or denied, or escaped. I would, if pursuing this line, take a close look at the paradoxical nature of Delphine’s sudden appearance.

Another take on the story could be to emphasize Harry’s desire to start over. Or to examine Eileen’s ambition.

The whole issue of the title word “trespasses” is an essay in itself. Just what is a trespass? Just how did “trespass” come to appear in the English version of the Lord’s prayer? Why do we have at least three different translations (debts, trespasses, sins)? What do these competing versions have to do with this story? Why did Munro choose this word for the title? Just what exactly does Eileen mean when she suddenly blurts out, “Forgive us our sins?”

I merely wrote about what mattered to me, what spoke to me, at the time I read the story. I really enjoyed thinking about the story using the lens of AA. I welcome any challenges to my take. Munro’s method appears to absolutely invite discussion and disagreement. The real issue is not whether there are different takes — of course there are different takes — the real issue is whether your take holds water.

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