Thursday, December 18, 2008

"My Sister, My Love": decidedly not a fairy tale

Joyce Carol Oates, author of 37 novels, gets some material for her fictional accounts from the dark and twisted true tales of real life. And "My Sister, My Love," (2008, HarperCollins, 562 pp.) is no exception. (Before I go any further: This review contains spoilers!!)

The lengthy tale, told from the point of view often memory-impaired recovering drug-addict 19-year-old Skyler Rampike, and sometimes from his aching 9-year-old self, is based (not loosely at all) on some of the facts surrounding the murder of Boulder, Colo. child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey (aka Bliss Rampike in this work).

JonBenet's murder in the basement of her family home around Christmas, 1996 was highly publicized. I'm sure you all remember it well. Her parents, the well-to-do John and Patsy Ramsey, were subsequently scrutinized by the "tabloid hell" of journalism.

JonBenet at the time of her brutal murder at 6 - but even as young as 4 - was a highly stylized, even sexualized, child star. Photos of her in myriad costumes and poses, like a little make-believe doll all, are all over the Internet, even 12 years later. I believe it was finally determined, through advances in forensic DNA processing, that it was indeed an outsider who broke into the Ramsey home and killed the innocent child.

However, her brother, Burke, who was 9 at the time of the murder, was looked at as a suspect for some time. So were his parents. Mother Patsy Ramsey died of cancer a few years back. (also echoed in this novel, but with a modern twist). Today, Burke has presumably gone on with his life. According to my Google results, Burke's now 22, living in Atlanta, with his dad.

But what was the boy's life like in the intervening years - the years between his sister's death and his becoming an adult? How did this family trauma and national attention affect him?

We can only speculate that it was beyond horrible.

Oates' interpretation shows the nice, obedient "Mummy's" boy (Skyler Rampike) reduced to rubble, mentally and physically. His parents, who had used their children as tools to climb the social ladder, cast him away after his sister's murder to whatever psychiatric hospital, drug rehab or private school for the troubled rich would take him). But not before his mother, Betsey, had planted the seed in his mind that HE had killed his sister. His father, the larger-than-life corporate figurehead Bix, never really giving him the time of day after it was determined the boy would not be a star athlete like his Big-Daddy. (Bix's aggressive parenting results in Skyler incurring an injury that will plague him lifelong for every step he takes).

So, through the novel, we sympathize with but also doubt and pity poor Skyler. We concede that it's possible he killed his beloved sister, who after all received more attention from the folks because of her skating prowess. He was jealous, we think.

But we are also introduced to the cold, one-dimensional parents who did little to help the troubled child after his sister was gone other than foot the doctors' bills. We wish Skyler could escape that life and find some peace. And in the end, we are left with a tiny bit of hope for that - even as Skyler is left standing at a crossroads of sorts.

Written partly from a child's perspective, and containing misspellings, handwritten items, and on almost every page - extensive footnotes, "My Sister, My Love" is Skyler's tool of catharsis. And though it is a long book (I had to renew the 14-day book for a second two-week run from Pottstown Library, to my chagrin), the ending is revelatory. It's not exactly an enjoyable read, but it does keep your attention.

No comments: