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Control as Original Sin

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 38-40. Used by permission.


It isn’t until several days after the accident that Lottie lets herself—makes herself—think about it. Think about how it was for all of them, for Cameron and Elizabeth, and for Jessica." The opening paragraph of Sue Miller’s novel For Love hints at the answer to the novel’s central question: "Where are the 20th-century love stories?" Her answer: "They’re not allowed." And why are they not allowed? Miller never explicitly answers this question, but her story testifies to the shallowness of modern love and of couples afraid to make the leap of faith into commitment and trust. Unable to give up control, says Miller, modern lovers settle for sex, passing infatuations, boring marriages.

Miller’s novel, for me her best and most mature, explores the interlocking lives of a small group of friends. The accident that Lottie wills herself to put out of mind and then recall is the novel’s central event, the moment when everyone’s personal control is temporarily erased. Jessica, a young woman who works as an au pair for Elizabeth, is accidentally killed by Lottie’s brother, Cameron. He is driving at night in the rain to confront Elizabeth, the woman he thinks he loves. Distracted by his worry over Elizabeth’s phone call informing him that she will return to her husband, Cameron does not see Jessica until she steps directly into the path of his car. It is an accident—but nevertheless Cameron was distracted, and he was driving the car. He must share responsibility for the accident.

Elizabeth also shares some of the blame; she initiated the affair with Cameron, and she sent Jessica out to intercept Cameron. Lottie knows that she, too, bears some of the blame because she made the suggestion that led to the fateful summer affair between Elizabeth and Cameron. In Miller’s universe there are those who know they are responsible for their actions, and there are those so lost that they deny responsibility for anything. These are, in effect, hardened sinners and repentant sinners.

Lottie, the book’s narrator, reports her experience with both types of sinners, and it is upon her own growth from hardened to repentant sinner that the book is built. As the novel begins, Lottie has returned to Boston from a troubled marriage to prepare her mother’s house for sale. Her 20-year-old son Ryan joins her to work on the house, and his presence sets up a familiar Miller situation: a mother struggling simultaneously with her roles as parent and daughter. Miller builds her narrative around physical, sweaty work on the house, a growing intimacy between Lottie and Elizabeth during coffee-break conversations, and Lottie’s discovery that her brother’s obsession is being exploited by Elizabeth to fill her lonely summer months.

Miller, a disciplined novelist, reports only what Lottie sees or hears—including an ingenious use of recorded telephone messages. Control is an absolute necessity for Lottie. It is her way of dealing with a sorrow begun in a loveless childhood (her father went to jail for fraud, adding to her sense of uncertainty). Lottie wills herself to deal with problems only when she can no longer put them aside. She now recalls painfully that as a child she was programmed to fail by her alcoholic mother (Cameron was to be the successful child).

Bruised by her first marriage—to Derek, Ryan’s father—Lottie has an affair with Jack, a romantic fling made possible because Jack’s wife has suffered several debilitating strokes. The wife dies, and Jack and Lottie marry; reality intrudes, and Lottie runs away. These details have the flavor of a soap opera, but through them Miller probes the nature of love (a topic that Lottie, a free-lance author, is researching). With a superb realist style and sensitivity to relations between men and women, Miller explores her insight that intimacy cannot survive in an atmosphere that emphasizes control.

The control/trust dilemma implicit in Miller’s story might be described in Christian terms as original sin—the absence of trust in others and in God. Miller (whose father, Jim Nichols, taught church history at several Protestant seminaries) does not employ such theological categories. But her novels suggest them, and they also indicate—as in Lottie’s final journey—that original sin need not have the final word.

Each of Miller’s three novels focuses on a family in trouble. In The Good Mother a family is disturbed by an ambiguous encounter between a child and a mother’s lover. In Family Pictures a retarded child, who the mother insists must remain at home, exercises control over a family.

Lottie’s research on love leads her to John Donne, an encounter Miller describes with her lean and evocative attention to physical detail: "One night—this was about ten days before the accident—she was reading Donne’s love poetry. Just a few of them before she dropped off to sleep, she told herself. She was propped up in bed, and the circle of light fell on the worn white sheets and across the yellowed pages of the old book. A musty smell rose from it as Lottie turned the pages, a smell that weighted the words with physical meaning for her. ‘For, not in nothing, nor in things/Extreme, and scattering bright,’ she read, ‘can love inhere."

Lottie moves finally toward a moment of catharsis in which, after confronting her brother with his destructive, possessive love for Elizabeth, she begins a long trip alone. She has begun to sense, with Donne, that love is not going to inhere in "things," and she has made a decision to start life anew. The journey is undertaken with the added burden of a severe toothache which Lottie tries to ignore, relying for relief on strong pills. This becomes a memorable metaphor, written in Miller’s precise physical style, of a person denying reality.

As in her earlier novels, Miller eschews a conventional happy ending. Her characters descend too far into pain and conflict for easy conclusions. They must settle instead for new beginnings built on broken pieces, which in For Love are as diverse as an old house restored and a painful tooth replaced—and as hopeful as a tentative relationship that promises to begin, for a change, with trust.

 

 

 


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