Joyce Carol Oates takes readers on a journey through tabloid hell
Nine-year-old Skyler Rampike's privileged life takes a triple Salchow into disaster when his beloved six-year-old sister Bliss, the darling of the tri-state ice skating world, is found brutally murdered one midwinter morning in the basement of the family's Fair Hills, New Jersey, home. The ensuing breathless media coverage casts such a toxic cloud of suspicion over the family that even Skyler wonders, could he somehow have killed his own sister?
Corporate CEO Bix Rampike and stage mom Betsy, both prime suspects, quickly exile their surviving child to a series of boarding schools for the famous and notorious, for his own good of course. During the next decade, Skyler's adolescence becomes both prescribed and proscribed by a host of acronymic disorders: PDD (Premature Depression Disorder), CAS (Chronic Anxiety Syndrome), OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), even the dreaded HSR (High Suicide Risk). Betsy, meanwhile, becomes a fixture on the talk-show circuit, where she shamelessly promotes the Christian cottage industry she has built around her daughter's unsolved murder. At 19, drugged, unloved and with little left to lose, Skyler seeks redemption by writing a painstaking autobiography, My Sister, My Love.
Owing to the pervasiveness of that selfsame tabloid hell, readers will immediately recognize My Sister, My Love as the JonBenet Ramsey murder on ice, explored here in all its gothic creepiness with appropriate satiric flourishes by that prolific lioness of Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates. Long fascinated by the corrosiveness of fame, Oates has drawn from true-life events before, most notably in two of her numerous Pulitzer Prize nominees: Blonde (2000), an imagined autobiography of Marilyn Monroe, and Black Water (1992), a novella inspired by the Chappaquiddick incident.
Why riff on the Ramsey case? Chalk it up to the insidiousness of tabloid journalism today. "I was noticing how we've developed into a kind of tabloid culture where even the New York Times is reporting on things that, in the past, might have been left to the tabloids," she explains. "The Monica Lewinsky case is the most notorious, where something of an essentially trivial and private nature is elevated to prominent attention."
Oates briefly auditioned the O.J. Simpson case as a jumping-off point, having already written an O.J.-inspired young adult novel, Freaky Green Eyes, before deciding instead to turn the Ramseys into the Rampikes.
"My focus was always on what it would be like to dwell in tabloid hell, to have a name that, when you introduced yourself to anybody anywhere, the name would precede you with this sort of aura of scandal," she says.
Recognizing in the JonBenet case the opportunity to hijack the narrative drive of a whodunit, Oates playfully litters her novel and its talking-to-the-reader footnotes with enough red herrings to feed greater Oslo.
"The more you look, it has the teasing mystery of a locked-room case, where there are only a few suspects, unless you think that an intruder did it," she says of JonBenet's murder. "This case doesn't go away. It's officially unsolved and remains out there, sort of like a vast riddle."
Although police quickly ruled out JonBenet's nine-year-old brother Burke as a suspect in the 1996 murder, he remains one in cyberspace. "I don't know anything about him, and I deliberately don't know anything about him," Oates says.
To get in the mood for mischief, Oates vicariously immersed herself in a steady diet of Fox News.
"I had the whole Fox News syndrome," she says. "I was watching Fox News while I wrote the novel, watching Bill O'Reilly. I do come from a Christian background and the Christianity on Fox News is just used for political purposes, it's so transparent. Bill O'Reilly always used to say 'secular progressive' for left wing. Secular progressive sounds pretty good to me! Fox News? I call it Hawk News. I don't watch that anymore. I just can't even look at it now." She detoxed with "The Daily Show." "He's excellent," she says. "I get a lot of news from Jon Stewart."
Oates engages in considerable sleight-of-hand with Skyler's narrative, which moves freely between the observations of the 19-year-old author and his nine-year-old self, both admittedly under the influence of prescription mood elevators. Skyler is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unsteady one whose highly intelligent digressions, including a rather desultory 55-page attempt at a novel, account for the narrative's herky-jerky pace.
"The kind of writing Skyler is doing, this conscience-examining and going inward and remembering every little thing and going back over his past obsessively because he's obsessive/compulsive isn't really helping him understand what he needs to know, which he finally will be told at the end of the novel," Oates says.
The author herself received a surprise near the end of writing My Sister, My Love when police arrested John Mark Karr, a 41-year-old former schoolteacher who confessed to the JonBenet murder, though DNA evidence later cleared him.
"I was so shocked because I had already invented someone [neighborhood pedophile Gunther Ruscha], but [Karr] seems even more weird than my character," Oates says. "I said to my editor, I don't know whether I can keep on with this novel because real life has overtaken it. It was so embarrassing that people would think that I was just following this when actually I had already invented him."
By the time Skyler receives a climactic deathbed letter from Betsy that answers his most fundamental questions, he's already well on the road out of tabloid hell, thanks to kindly Pastor Bob, a born-again ex-con who practices what he preaches.
"Skyler is kind of going back to this very simple form of religion or Christianity where you do good if you can but you don't have to do it on TV or have a huge ministry," says Oates. "I really like Pastor Bob. With all his flaws, he has no pretensions. He doesn't even necessarily believe in God, he just feels, OK, here we are, we have to help one another, let's make the best of it."
Jay MacDonald attended college in Boulder, Colorado, where JonBenet was murdered.