Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Big Girls.
According to a recent Amnesty International document, 148,200 women are incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S; 70
percent of prison guards are male. “"Many women in prisons and jails in the USA are victims of sexual abuse by staff,” reads the report. Between 48 and 88
percent of women inmates have experienced sexual or physical abuse before getting into trouble and being incarcerated.
The female inmates I’ve met (one year, I taught writing at a small jail) were smart, raw, creative and abused.
Susanna Moore’s new book, The Big Girls, may give the female prison population a boost in its public perception.
Set in a women's prison north of Manhattan, the novel tells it like it is, yet
Moore makes the prisoners more empathetic than some writers.
The novel is told in four voices: that of Helen, a married, twenty-eight-year-old woman who killed her two children; her psychiatrist, Dr. Louise Forrest, a single woman with a few problems of her own; a corrections officer in the prison, Ike Bradshaw; and a movie star, Angie, who becomes involved with the first two women. In fact, all four become entwined in unpredictable ways, except for Bradshaw and Angie. Moore is adept and clever at alternating points of view, but I found it less satisfying than only one or two. We don’t get to know each character as well as in a single or double point of view. Nevertheless, readers will have no trouble following who is speaking.
The characters are portrayed unflinchingly, chillingly, and, surprisingly, also somewhat warmly. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, each gained my empathy if not sympathy. It is difficult to give sympathy to a murderer of her own children, but in the case of Helen, we find out she is mentally ill – probably schizophrenic. Even she has her nice moments: she gives people gifts; she misses her children.
In one admission, she says, “The people in my life who hurt me the most are the people who told me they loved me the most. Not that they really did love me the most, they just wanted me to think they did. Dr. Forrest is helping me to understand that. I don’t want that confusion to happen with her or anyone else ever again.”
In prison, Helen spends her time measuring everything – spaces, books, notebooks, etc. - and telling her lifestory, real and imaginary, to Dr. Forrest. The psychiatrist becomes attached to Helen – as she also does to Ike Bradshaw, in a totally different way - and the former attachment hurts Forrest in the end. Dr. Forrest has a son, Ransom, who ferries back and forth between the psychiatrist and her former husband (who is now living with Angie, the movie star in California). Ransom is deeply, negatively affected by all the odd, sometimes unhealthy relationships.
The book is most shocking in its vivid descriptions of the rape and molestation of several of the female prisoners. I had to avert my eyes on several pages. I believe these stories, but I cannot bear to consider the violence.
Although overall the narrative flows well and holds reader interest, a few things seem implausible. For example, the relationship that comes into being between Helen and Angie at the end doesn’t quite ring true, nor does it when Ransom washes his new pet parrot. Would a child actually give a parrot a bath? Maybe…
Susanna Moore isn’t afraid to take on sex and violence; she often writes of poverty and despair – and of complex relationships. Her other novels include
My Old Sweetheart, The Whiteness of Bones and Sleeping Beauties. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates has labeled her work as similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne for its “substance and achievement.”
The Big Girls would be an excellent book for a women’s studies or a criminal justice class. It exposes its readers to the inner lives and motivations of both prisoners and personnel in one American jail – and it may open readers’ hearts to the unsafe and often abusive situations that exist for women in many of these institutions. Prisoners are people, too, no matter their crime.