"Alive, She Cried" has caused me so much controversy that I think it's worth a few minutes to do something a writer is never supposed to do: explain a story. If you don't like your stories explained, head on home. If you haven't read the story, please read it before going on.
When I was eleven years old, I used to read my mother's magazines. She took all the pulp writing she could get her hands on: Modern Romances, True Detective, True Romances, Modern Detective.... I was eclectic in my tastes as well, supplementing my comic books with her fiction. So it was that I was lying on the waxed wood floor of the southeast corner "playroom" of our house in Colorado Springs, the one on Wahsatch, when I turned a page of a detective magazine and saw a picture I have not forgotten after 45 years. It was a naked woman, possibly the first nude "pinup" I ever saw, but the detective magazine had an excuse for the nudity. She was not a thing of naked flesh but an artifact. Her husband (boyfriend?), in a fit of jealousy, if I remember the details correctly, had smeared her entire body with sulphuric acid and her skin was a gleaming porcelain glaze. He had done everything but her hair and her eyes. And she was alive. Her eyes were staring into the camera.
I don't know for sure, forty years later, if I dreamed this image. Perhaps it has invented and embellished itself with the passing years, but I don't think so. Perhaps it was a hoax, like the bat boy of our contemporary tabloids, a woman with poryphyry or that terrible arthritis that reduces the body to statuary. (I knew a woman, a few years ago, in the advanced stages of that arthritic condition, and she looked a bit like my memory of the picture.) But how would they have persuaded her to pose for the picture?
Dream or reality, it has haunted me ever since. For years I thought that what haunted me was her pain. I began to understand, decades ago, that it was something else. It was my inability to comprehend how anyone could endure inflicting such pain on another creature. Other stories stayed with me and I knew they were stories waiting to be written, like the boy who killed a little girl so his mother wouldn't find out he'd seen her naked (eventually I wrote both a poem, "Magpies," and a story, "Shed," about these children). But I could find no story here, nothing but the horror.
What came together to make the story was realizing that even though it is the monster we need to understand, it is not the monster's story at all, but her story, the story behind those pleading eyes. Something that has always troubled me is that we memorialize the monsters, not their victims. We can identify Ted Bundy, but hardly anyone remembers the names of his victims. The man who murdered nurses in Chicago, but not the nurses; the man who chopped of a hitchhiker's hands, but not her name. "Son of Sam." Let their names die. In the Middle Ages, their corpses would have been hung in cages to rot, feed crows, and fall apart. Let their names die, and avert our eyes from them.
The eyes of this woman had a story in them, not pain. She had passed beyond the pain into shock, and it was her voice I needed in order to make the story work. That is why the title refers to her, not him. But she couldn't tell the story directly. Give her a voice in that shell of ruined skin, and all she could do would be to scream. Let her tell the story from some logical beginning, and at a certain point, when he attacks her, she can no longer tell it. Tell it in third person, as an omniscient narrator letting each character speak their piece, and it becomes nothing but a how-to torture manual or a court case with the verdict inevitable. And the idea of posing as narrative God was wrong for other reasons. So it was his voice, not so hard to capture, really, that would have to tell the story, and somehow I would have to let her speak through him.
Tough challenge. Once I understood who he was, what the nature of his character could be, that he could do such a thing, I began to write, listening to his emotionless drone. He speaks in grammar as chaotic and fractured as his thinking. In places the meaning is lost in his solipsistic constructions. I discovered recently that his voice echoes Freddie Clegg, the undistinguished monster in John Fowles' The Collector, a masterful book that I love but had not read for twenty years. Like Freddie, Frank's logic is perfectly clear to him and his meanings never obscure.
And when he reports her words, they are as refracted as his logic, so that we can only glimpse the mind thinking them. When the story begins, Clare lives at peace with her body, whole in her union of spirit and flesh, in a way Frank cannot comprehend. But she cannot lecture about this. She can't even be thoughtful about her "philosophy"; I could not let Clare be educated and articulate, because then I would be faced with a new mystery: Why would such a woman stay with such a man? So I had to reduce her story to bits and pieces, letting him tell it, and leaving her to act out her simple paganism for us to judge independent of his sick judgments.
The story is about eyes and looking. It opens on that theme, when Frank calls her nudity "parading"; what is a parade, but a congregation of watchers and watched? It is inconceivable to him that she is naked just because she likes to be. Frank watches her. She watches him react to her sensual appeals. He assumes that she is being looked at by a lover and that she wants to be seen. She plays the role of "exposed" stripper when Frank angers her. He is disgusted by "seeing everything." He denies wanting to see "certain things." He imagines her lover doing more than looking, and is disgusted. He watches her watching him. And his God has surveillance cameras everywhere.
The story is about the separation of flesh and spirit that I have analyzed elsewhere. Frank is the essential ascetic, his loathing of flesh worthy of a Desert Father or Essene. Frank can do what he does to her because for him, the body is a meaningless container for the self inside. Her trivial hedonism sickens him because he sees the body as a filthy encumbrance, a mold to break out of. He is hardly in a body, to hear him speak. At one point he says, "I almost touched myself, but not really." The punishment he metes out, when he attacks her, is to transform her body into a true container, a vessel of stony, false flesh. He reverses the Pygmalion myth.
There are parts of the story that lie under it like organs and bones, giving shape but invisible or distorted themselves. Here are a few: No, she does not have a lover. Yes, she did love him, once. The title comes from a Doors song, and is meant to offer some promise that he will be punished: "Alive, she cried. Waiting for you, outside." Finally, Frank is utterly honest with us, but his self-awareness is practically non-existent; is it possible to lie only to yourself?
And no, he is never called "Frank." I almost worked his name into the narrative, but no opportunity presented itself, and I realized that the effect of the name was not worth the stretch it would take to use it. If I used it, it would be meaningless unless I called him "Francis" at least once, and that would be too obvious. Her name would have to do. "Clare" was the name of the woman St. Francis abandoned to become a monk. She herself became St. Clare, the founder of the Carmelite nuns.
And why Francis and Clare? Because gentle St. Francis approved the massacre of the Albigensian heretics. Because I realized, as I wound the dramatic monologue to a close, finishing the bare facts of the story, the real reason the woman had haunted me for forty years. In her eyes was the question that no religion has ever found a suitable answer to. That question made the omniscient narrator singularly inappropriate. In its baldest form, the question is this:
Where was God while Ted Bundy was using the blade of his hunting knife to rape twelve-year-old Kimberly Leach in the shed of a pig pen?
Frank gave me the first answer I could believe. He was outside, content in His omnipotence, watching.