Man Crazy by Joyce Carol Oates. Abuse. In a word, that is what this book is about. But it's not about abuse that comes upon us out of the clear blue sky. It's about the abuse that we call down upon ourselves like a judgment from heaven through a desperate need for love where no self-love is and acceptance where we cannot accept ourselves, our need to fill a void at our core where there is a vacuum where self-esteem should be. It's not a matter of blaming the victim to say she brought abuse upon herself; it's not saying that she deserved it, that she got what was coming to her. A victim of abuse may be innocent and still be responsible for attracting abuse; in fact, she may flirt with it,crave it, chase after it, even beg for it on her hands and knees, "hurt me daddy hurt me hurt me..." hardly understanding why.
Ingrid Boone is the not-so-reliable narrator of "Man Crazy." A young woman so addled by drugs and eating disorders, by compulsions, obsessions, and low self-esteem, so starved for attention, in particular, male attention, that she is hardly sure herself what she remembers and what she has "dreamed." Her early life was spent on the run, literally, as her mother moved Ingrid from one small town to another ahead of the law. Ingrid's father, Lucas, is wanted by the police for the killing of a man that everyone agrees deserved killing. But you can't just go around killing people on your own initiative, unless, of course you work for the government. Which Luke did, as a pilot in Vietnam. He got used to doing a lot of horrific things in Vietnam that he won't talk about and that make it impossible for him to return to anything like a normal life. He's more than a tad unbalanced, Lucas is, but he loves his wife and child, that we're never made to doubt. But a "Father Knows Best" lifestyle just isn't in the cards for Lucas Boone. So he makes a living as a renegade pilot, doing the kinds of unlawful things that renegade pilots do, literally and figuratively flying under the radar, and dropping in on his nomad family whenever and wherever he can, which isn't often enough for either Ingrid, or her mother, Chloe.
Lonely, vulnerable, still-blonde-and-beautiful, Chloe is a woman in the prime of her life who feels that prime slipping away. She's a man-magnet who's gone a little man-crazy herself. She auditions a steady stream of walk-ons in a futile attempt to fill the void that her husband has left in her life. She isn't providing the best example to her daughter, but,at the same time, she means well. This isn't the life she pictured living; she's trying to make the best of a bad situation; she's just trying to ease the pain of a life irreparably ruptured.
And that's what makes "Man Crazy" not just a black-and-white story of an innocent girl's victimization, but a complex moral allegory where none of the main characters are wholly good or wholly to blame. Everyone's damaged, everyone is a victim of circumstance.
But it is Ingrid's dilemma that takes center stage. She's the one whose struggle most concerns us, whose tragedy we suffer, and whose triumph we root for, knowing that any triumph for someone like Ingrid will be conditional, relative, and limited. For Ingrid, triumph may simply be survival.
It is Ingrid who is "man crazy," her head in the clouds, literally and figuratively, forever looking into the heavens for her pilot father and, here on earth, searching for a surrogate Daddy in all the wrong places. Predictably enough, she starts her search in the back seats of cars driven by high school boys with one thing on their minds. She loves the feel of their strength, their need, their compliments, their attention, no matter how self-serving and manipulative, no matter how brief. Sure they only one want thing, but it's more than nothing, and Ingrid feels like nothing without it. She soon graduates to men, the rougher the better. She has made the leap that connects pleasure with punishment, love with cruelty, sex with self-loathing. No one who hasn't jumped that jump herself can understand how it's done, but it's done, and done all the time. If you've been trained all your life in a certain way, it's easier than you might think.
Ingrid eventually ends up with the man of her dreams; the problem is that her dream is a nightmare. Enoch Skaggs is the Daddy of All Daddies—the cruel, dark, sadist every woman of a certain Sylvia Plath-type fantasizes about, the vampire-lover who'll use you up and throw you out. Skaggs is a biker who literally believes himself to be a son of Satan. Ingrid through sheer passivity becomes part of his gang-cum-cult called Satan's Children. At the deserted farmhouse where they live communally, Ingrid is subjected to a systematic depersonalization sexual and mental, all the time believing herself to be in love, along with other women in his "harem," with the mesmerizingly evil, charismatically messianic Skaggs.
This part of the novel is truly skin-crawlingly chilling, verging on the nauseating, as Oates spares you little in the way of gang rape, cutting, beating, burning, killing, and dismemberment. If you've ever read Kate Millet's "The Basement" you won't have forgotten it and you'll have some idea of what's in store for you here. The only difference is that in "The Basement" the horror is unrelieved, it's all black, right to the blackest of ends. In "Man Crazy," there is a ray of light at the end of the black hole, but I'll say no more except to say that it is there, and knowing it's there, may be the only thing that keeps you going through these otherwise unrelentingly ugly pages.
That's not to say that this isn't a book well-worth reading. It is. But more for the complex and psychologically sophisticated insight that Oates brings to the subject of abuse, free of the falsifying cant of political and sociological correctness than for the thrills and chills and gross-outs. The important message Oates conveys is that we may not have chosen the bad situations we were born into, the dysfunctional parents who raised us, or the psychological problems these situations engendered that lead us to make bad choices again and again, to attract and be attracted to those who abuse us...of these we may indeed be innocent. But at the same time, beyond a certain age, we can't truthfully say that we had nothing to do with the abuse we suffer as a result. We are each of us responsible, the final analysis, for what we bring upon us, even the innocent. It's a matter of cause-and-effect. Which is not the same as saying we deserve to be abused. Of course, no one does. But if you ask for it, one thing is as certain as an equation, there will always be some sadistic creep out there eager to give it you.
It's significant that the only person who can rescue Ingrid Boone is Ingrid Boone herself. But first she must reach the absolute nadir of personal negation, the earth cellar of self-abnegation. Her feet must touch the bottom, which you might see as the top of the rickety, worm-eaten coffin laid like a roof above the oblivion of death before she can stand up on that flimsiest of platforms and say "I've suffered enough. No more!"
This is where Oates leaves Ingrid Boone, and where we leave her, too. It's just the first step, but it's the most important step of all.