“Escapes,” by Joy Williams, is a story I return to again and again, obsessively, beseechingly. Whenever I read it I am as desperate as the girl-child narrator who is both preoccupied and embarrassed by her “uncomprehending love” of her drunk, single mother. Each time I enter this terrifying little masterpiece I am never disappointed: I cull new symbols and meanings from this slim, deceptively facile, story about a young girl and her alcoholic mother who go to a magic show in Portland.
As the title suggests, it is a story about escaping from life, mainly through drinking, reading, and magic. As a writer, and a child of an alcoholic, the tension between the young narrator and her mother is very familiar. The mother drinks daily and even smells “like the glass…always in the sink in the morning.” Like the narrator, the antiseptic smell of vodka still reminds me “of daring and deception, hopes and little lies.” “Escapes” is not only about the humiliation and confusion of seeing a parent drunk, but also about bearing witness to a parent’s decisive abandonment and self-destruction.
Self-destruction is wholly natural for the narrator’s mother who, although she has been drinking for the entire drive to the magic show, disappears during intermission to take one too many nips from the bottle. The mother leaves the very young narrator to smoke candy cigarettes in the lobby and look tough while the other children ogle her: “she was where she went when she drank without me, somewhere in herself,” the narrator says of her elusive mother. While the narrator does not levy judgment on her mother for drinking, for leaving her for long stretches, she does feel cheated. As a pre-literate child, she feels trapped in reality, dependent: “We spent a great deal of time together, my mother and I. This was before I knew how to read…Written words were something between me and a place I could not go.”
I don’t often get the opportunity to talk frankly to other children of alcoholics: we are a shameful bunch, full of repudiation and excuses, so it’s not often we can openly recognize each other. “Escapes” alludes to this shame. The young narrator’s continuous sense of helplessness, that overwhelming emotion that characterizes the early life of children of alcoholics, is palpable throughout this story. My own early life was full arguments I didn’t understand and imaginary places, like drunk, like books, I could not yet go. Powerlessness permeates childhood in general but I’m convinced that children of alcoholics feel the burn of impotence more acutely. There is this feeling, when your parent drinks, that you are utterly reliant upon someone unpredictable and insane; it’s doubly confusing when you have no reach into that adult world, which is characterized by rabbit holes, escape hatches, and trap doors.
Triggered by a mysterious signal from her own internal world, the narrator’s mother suddenly appears onstage in the second act and begs the magician to saw her in half: “I’m willing though I know the hazards,” she tells him, “I can be trusted because I don’t know how it’s done.” After the mother is led offstage by the forgiving usher, the child-narrator becomes distressed by the usher’s generosity: “His kindness made me feel he had tied us up with ropes.”
At the start of the story, the narrator is told that Houdini can escape from coffins, water-vaults and all manner of chains and ropes and so the usher’s cloying sympathy is as suffocating as Houdini’s fettering accessories. At the start of the story the narrator also wonders whether Houdini “couldn’t get out of being dead.” “’He met his match there,’” the mother quips back. If death is the ultimate, unasked for, escape, then suicide is the final bought-and-paid-for ticket to a vacation from life. The usher begs the mother not to take this vacation: “'you must pull herself through,'” he tells her.
In the final paragraph, we learn that: “As it happened my mother was not able to pull herself through, but this was later.” As it also happens, the narrator is unable to pull a Houdini-like escape from her mother. They drive home from the magic show in the mother’s old blue convertible––large American cars are one of Williams’ trademark metaphors, her serious playthings. In the final searing line the narrator explains that, “I got out of it, but it took me years.” Whether the ‘it’ refers to the car, the narrator’s own future drinking problem––the five-year-old narrator already has the habits and gestures of a grizzled barfly–– or her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, is unclear. Yet all three of these condemning fates require a magnificent death-defying form of escape.
“Escapes” is a continual reminder that, except for dying, all the evasions we construct, are temporary. It is a story full of compelling contradictions: it is at once stylistically familiar and strange; it stirs up both a deep sorrow and a sense of optimism; as well, the mother character is at once hateful and sympathetic, as all complex characters are. I love this story not only because I can relate to it personally––I still haven’t gotten out of “it”––but because, at the core, “Escapes” is about how a lack of accountability between a parent and child, between intimates, can be both a beautiful and monstrous exercise in human freedom. “Escapes” never fails to remind me that it’s not escaping from life and its responsibilities which is problematic, it is the resurfacing.
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