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Roxanne Gay’s "An Untamed State"

Haitian Woman, Trapped Inside a Cage

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Physical violence against women, not exactly an elevating topic, especially when it is graphically described.  How strange—or perhaps how likely—when the writer is a woman.  How disturbing from any perspective when women become victims, not just of sadistic men but also of the men in their own families who ought to be protecting them, not contributing to their destruction.  This is what happens in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.  Reading the book makes one feel like holding a jackhammer.  One careless slip and you are maimed, tortured, bludgeoned, like Gay’s main character, Mireille Duval Jameson, visiting her parents in Port-au-Prince along with her American husband, Michael, and their one-year-old son, Christopher.

This is how the story begins:

“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.

“They held me captive for thirteen days.

“They wanted to break me.

“It was not personal

“I was not broken.

“This is what I tell myself.”

You might say that the opening is a pack of lines, even the “impossible hope” of her kidnappers, though the term hints at a classic syndrome involving kidnappings: the victim begins to identify with her abductors, muting their actions with sympathy. She says she was not broken, which is questionable, though the next sentence expresses her own doubt about that.  Mid-way through her captivity, things looked different. She felt so degraded that she said she was no one. Her death would not matter. Gang-raped by seven men, tortured, increasingly abused (if that is possible) as the days stretch on and her family does not pay (a million dollars).
untamedstate

There’s a tug-of-war going on involving male egos. Mireille’s father, Sebastian, as a matter of principal will not pay for his daughter’s return, though he is rich, and had she been returned promptly she probably would not have been tortured. The physical abuse does not begin immediately—only after her kidnappers become increasingly desperate. Her husband, Michael, wants to pay the money as soon as contact is made but is thwarted by his father-in-law, so there are three different parties (all male) involved. Mireille is treated as if she were some kind of shuttlecock, battered back and forth among them.  If she were Sebastian’s son, would the same scenario have unfolded?  Probably not, but women are more often the victims of kidnappings in countries like Haiti than men.  And Haiti?  “We loved Haiti.  We hated Haiti.  We did not understand or know Haiti.  Years later, I still did not understand Haiti but I longed for the Haiti of my childhood.  When I was kidnapped, I knew I would never find that Haiti ever again.”

She’s destroyed way before the thirteen days elapse, realizing after only a few days that “I had to stop thinking about my old life.  I was no one….  I was
nothing.” And the day she is released—after the money has finally been paid by her father—she says to the captor in charge of the others, “You should have killed me.”  And then she reflects upon what has happened, “Once upon a time, my life was a fairy tale and then I was stolen from everything I loved.  There was no happily ever after.  After days of dying, I was dead.”

That’s the end of the first half of An Untamed State, and you wonder now that she is free, how can there still be more to Mireille’s story.  Sadly, this is when the truly horrific part of her life begins.  “For a moment, I thought it might be possible to be whole again.  I did not know how long it would take to get there.  I did not know how to find my way.”  Mireille’s PTS is horrific; she doesn’t want to be touched by anyone, including her husband.  She repeatedly isolates herself and engages in dangerous acts.  She believes she is no longer alive.  Worse, she believes her kidnappers will capture her again, even after she is taken back to the United States.

An Untamed State is an absolutely wrenching novel.  I could find no information about Gay, other than a list of her earlier publications.  Was she born in Haiti?  I don’t know.  What I am certain about is Gay’s enormous talent.  She’s an absolutely fearless writer.

Roxanne Gay: An Untamed State

Black Cat: 367 pp., $16

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.