The Big Girls by Susanna Moore; Alfred A. Knoph, 2007
Set in a fictional women’s prison in New York called Sloatsburg, the two principal characters are Helen, a recently incarcerated woman who has been sentenced for killing her two children; and Dr. Louise Forrest, the prison psychiatrist, who, unlike the other psychiatrists – rejects from the real world - has chosen to work there. The narrative voice alternates between these two, along with other voices, principally a ruggedly handsome prison guard named Ike, with whom Louise will have an affair; and Angela, a B-list Hollywood actress.
Most of the prisoners have committed horrendous crimes, although glimpses of their backgrounds goes a long way in explaining how the crimes may have come about; all having come from troubled and disturbing environments, many victims of abuse. Helen is different from the rest of the prison population; she is docile and compliant, and Louise comes to identify with her in some peculiar way, taking an especially avid interest in her. As Louise says of Helen: “An altogether closed person. Just my type.” Which helps pull us into Louise’s character and wonder equally about her.
Helen, we learn, was continually abused by “Uncle Dad,” her stepfather, an abuse that began when Helen was nine years old, while her mother accused her of being a “natural born liar” and made her eat hot jalapeño peppers. Through her one-on-one therapy, Louise learns that a young “friend” of Helen’s used to go to Uncle Dad in her place. The good friend is Ellie, obviously an imaginary friend in whom Helen still believes; until, that is, Louise is able to make Helen see that Ellie is her. It is a breakthrough for Helen, but is it healthy? Helen suffers a setback afterwards as she feels her own personality is disintegrating, but, with Louise’s help, she begins to do better and is allowed more and more privileges, such as being allowed to have her craft magazines and materials and being allowed to knit. Later, she will be released from isolation and allowed into the general prison population. But the “Horsemen” – men in black hoods on horses who bring her messages through God - will continue to speak to her.
But it is Dr. Louise Forrest who fascinates the most. Who is she? Why did she choose to work in a women’s prison? Why does she take such interest in Helen? We learn she had been married to a man named Rafael after knowing him only five weeks, primarily because she wanted a child. And she did have a son, Ransom, now an 8-year-old boy who is unusually close to his mother. So when Louise begins seeing the prison guard Ike, Ransom doesn’t like it. And problems ensue.
What we also learn about Louise: She had had a mental breakdown when her son was born, a fact that Rafael later used in their divorce case as evidence of her instability. Dark secrets emerge from her past as well. Now Louise drinks too much and takes prescription pills. She is genuinely turned on by Ike, the prison guard (who used to be an undercover cop), and the sex is steamy, but love is held at bay.
Interspersed among these personal histories is the savage everyday life at the prison and some background on the other prisoners. Lesbianism is rampant. And strong alliances are formed. Wanda, the Queen of the Latinos, is a powerful figure and not to be crossed. She has a “family” in prison – a husband, kids, relatives. Helen is asked to join the family and is flattered. Perverse it may be, yet one can understand the desperate need to belong to something and somebody.
The list of crimes – both in and out of prison – is staggering, and can at worst have an almost voyeuristic feel. Do we really need the scene where a guard catches a female late at night giving oral sex to another inmate, while a third watches from a top bunk? It is hard and graphic, but undoubtedly just what goes on so I could accept it.
The women’s histories are gruesome: One woman kept her newborn son in a closet where an ice skate fell on him and killed him. Another dismembered her boyfriend’s wife, and so on and so on. It is also hell inside the prison: a woman gets scalding water thrown on her face, another woman is stuck with a “shank,” a prison-made knife, and yet another cuts the finger off of another inmate. And this is just daily life.
Near the end of the novel, Helen comes to believe that actress Angela is her long-lost sister, which brings on many twists and turns, for Angela - perhaps too coincidentally - is the current girlfriend of Louise’s ex-husband Rafael, now a movie producer in LA.
Author Moore has definitely done some heavy research into the subject and tells it like it is, also with a few bits of informative history, such as the fact that there were no convictions of women for murdering their children between 1870 and 1930. For 60 years, the women were hospitalized, treated and released. None of them ever committed another murder. Any mother who killed her child was, by the very nature of her crime, out of her mind and needed treatment, not punishment. These days, state laws are strict and a death sentence is often executed. Insanity is not considered a mitigating factor. Neither is an IQ of 50, nor a childhood of abuse and torture. In one Texas prison alone, 68 women are there for having killed one or more of their children.
The prose is first-rate, intelligently straightforward and hard-hitting; the subject grim but engrossing. In Moore’s hands, it’s a worthy piece of well-researched work. Louise remains a somewhat sketchy figure, but I found her complex and engaging, a very real life figure. The continual interchange of narrative voice helps move the plot along and works well. For those who enjoyed In the Cut, another graphic novel, they will undoubtedly go for this one as well.