14 February 2023
On The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
I picked up this book because it came up one day at Blue Mesa Review. Anthony Yarbrough, our fiction editor, was explaining that for the most part, BMR publishes literary fiction over genre fiction. He mentioned that literary fiction is more focused on a main character/protagonist; I raised my hand and pointed out to him that in the last issue of BMR, they’d published a fiction piece titled, “The Message,” where the protagonist was an undefined “we” consisting, ostensibly, of townspeople. How did this fulfil the criteria for literary fiction, as he presented it?
Anthony explained to me about literary fiction where “the royal we” serves as a protagonist, and gave The Virgin Suicides as an example. This was news to me. I ordered the book that moment, then read it. It was a fast-paced, interesting, mind-blowing read.
Before I began writing this, I did a quick google search on the book to see the top hits on themes/critiques for the story, just to be sure I wasn’t missing something. Let me incorporate those into my review. Here, I’ll cover these aspects of the book: playful imagery/language, debatable misogyny, the royal we, debatable sexualization of the Lisbon girls (the male gaze), the why of suicide, and I’ll end on a personal note regarding Eugenides’ final claim of suicide as “selfishness.”
Eugenides makes a ponderous subject matter palatable with his engaging, playful use of imagery and word choice. Almost every other page, I scribbled in the margins, “I love this sentence!” Here is one of my favorites: “But now he took the retainer and dropped it in the toilet. He pressed the handle. The retainer, jostled in the surge, disappeared down the porcelain throat, and, when waters abated, floated triumphantly, mockingly, out. Mr. Lisbon waited for the tank to refill and flushed again, but the same thing happened. The replica of the boy’s mouth clung to the white slope” (57). What’s most interesting about this particular moment is that the royal we could never have known it happened. The detail of this moment was witnessed only by Mr. Lisbon, if it happened at all. This, to me, indicates our protagonists’ fathomless imaginations, trauma-trapped in adolescence.
One of the criticisms I found in my brief search was that the book is misogynistic. I’m not going to spend much time on this; I do not believe it’s misogynistic. But…because why not, let’s apply the Bechdel Test to be sure. The Bechdel test, in determining whether women in literature/film are subjects and have agency, includes three criteria:
1. The work must have at least two women
2. who talk to each other
3. about something other than a man.
Eugenides’s story easily fulfills all three criteria. Not just for two women, but for nearly all the women in the text. You have, obviously, these five sisters, but you also have their mother, Old Mrs. Karafilis, and other women, who all execute free will and agency. The sisters execute (pun intended) their agency to its extreme via the act of taking their own lives. No; they do not only talk about boys. These are fully-fledged characters with dreams, interests (especially thoroughly developed musical interests), and complex thoughts. I do not find this story misogynistic.
The Royal We:
As I read, I couldn’t help but try to determine who the members were of the royal we. Here is a list I compiled: Skip Ortega, David Barker, Tim Winer, Chase Buell, Joe Larson, Vince Fusilli, Zachary Larson (only 5), Buzz Romano, Peter Sissen, Kevin Head, Tom Bogus, Joe Hill Conley, Carl Tagel, Demo Karafilis, Tom Faheem, Paul Baldino. Certainly, this list might not be complete; moreover, it may be inaccurate. The thing is that the reader never learns, never knows.
The royal we, it seems to me, is used to mirror the sisters. It represents, as a single body/consciousness, the neighborhood boys who witnessed the sisters’ lives, behaviors, relationships, and demise. This parallel is evidenced as the boys read Cecilia’s diary after her suicide. Our narrator(s) write of that diary, “…Cecilia writes of her sisters and herself as a single entity. It’s often difficult to identify which sister she’s talking about, and many strange sentences conjure in the reader’s mind an image of a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food, or suffering visits from affectionate aunts” (39). Further, they write this:
“As the diary progresses, Cecilia begins to recede from her sisters and, in fact, from personal narrative of any kind. The first person singular ceases almost entirely, the effect akin to a camera’s pulling away from the characters at the end of a movie, to show, in a series of dissolves, their house, street, city, country, and finally planet, which not only dwarfs but obliterates them.” (40)
Is Eugenides attempting the same by the use of his royal we, here? Eugenides’s camera likewise pans out, to show how the interested witnesses (not the disinterested witnesses, like other parents, but the “we” the same age as the girls) perceived of the sisters’ situation.
This use of royal we gives a sense of community and conference between these witnesses, which allows them to have not only more access to the sisters’ life events (think multiple sets of eyes), but also a greater comprehension of it all, via collaborative discussion. Without the royal we, how could such a complete picture exist of these girls in their home? We needed boys to peek in at the Lisbon’s windows, watch from the treehouse, attend the party and the dance—otherwise, the story would need to be told by one of the Lisbons themselves (which it could not be). It’s creative and innovative what Eugenides does here. I rather enjoyed it for that reason.
Sexualization of the Lisbon Girls:
Another criticism I found during my brief search was that these girls were sexualized in the story. It’s an interesting criticism…and I don’t wholly disagree. Maybe the girls are sexualized—as is probably most clear via the character of Lux. But then, of course, the royal we in the story was a bunch of pubescent boys during the time of the suicides. At the time of writing, they are middle-aged men, but the events impacted them emotionally for the rest of their lives. So…what do pubescent boys think about? Amirite?
Nevertheless, although there is a stain of sexualization of each of these girls as the boys perceive them, I feel the royal we was invested in them at a level deeper than sexual. They strove for an emotionally intimate connection, which I think can be seen here: “They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn’t help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us…It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us…” (243). These boys wanted to give the girls what they believed would save them: a true connection. Must true connection be devoid of sexuality? I wager not…that sexuality was an aspect of their perspective does not devalue their interest in the sisters. Indeed, it makes that interest very raw and very human.
This novel places a magnifying glass over suicide (almost literally, as the royal we conducts a case study) to determine why it happens. Many possible causes are evaluated, including culture, family/parenting, and PTSD/copycatting.
In my own experience, I’ve found that our American culture tends to press down and away negative emotions. We don’t want to feel bad. We only ever want to feel good, so we suppress anger, hate, uncertainty, anxiety/stress, despair, sadness, and the like. We take antidepressants so that we absorb more serotonin, to feel good. In other cultures where I’ve lived, even grown men are not afraid to cry, to grieve, to rail when mad. Eugenides touches on this via Old Mrs. Karafilis:
In the end it wasn’t death that surprised her but the stubbornness of life. She couldn’t understand how the Lisbons kept so quiet, why they didn’t wail to heaven or go mad…Demo explained it to us like this: ‘We Greeks are moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. Putting up Christmas lights after your own daughter does it—that makes no sense. What my yia yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.’ (169)
Old Mrs. Karafilis was startled that there was no visible grief, that the Lisbons suppressed all their negative emotions. Gabor Maté writes in The Myth of Normal how unhealthy this is: where we do not express our negative emotions, they will come out in other ways, such as mental or physical illness. Eugenides doesn’t just gently point at this, he screams it: “In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept thee world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws” (239). These girls lived (as we all do) in denial of reality, suppression of negative emotions, rejection of negative experience as natural, a part of life. Resistance against the full spectrum of emotion was likely a partial contributor to the five sisters’ suicidality.
But culture cannot be the sole culprit, right? The Lisbon girls’ parents could have helped them navigate our culture in a healthy way, but they did not. Then, once Cecilia had committed suicide, the parents could have, again, led their remaining daughters toward grief healing…and again, they did not. Instead, the whole family operated in a state of dissociation and denial.
Even before Cecilia took her life, Mrs. Lisbon was too strict with her girls. They had rigid rules and expectations to the extent that the girls were barely socialized. But once Cecilia committed suicide, Mrs. Lisbon made things worse: “[Mrs. Lisbon] had done more than take the girls out of school. The next Sunday, arriving home after a spirited church sermon, she had commanded Lux to destroy her rock records” (138). Instead of connecting with her girls as a manner of teaching them how to be or how to regulate their emotions, Mrs. Lisbon pushed them away by overregulating them. On top of that, Mrs. Lisbon became inaccessible herself, emotionally, as she dissociated: “Other kids found congealed bowls of spaghetti, empty tin cans, as though Mrs. Lisbon had stopped cooking for the girls and they lived by foraging” (142). There are incessant hints at parental emotional abandonment throughout the text.
Mr. Lisbon was no better. Of course, both parents should have been grieving. Instead, however, it seemed that they were denying that emotion. And that left nobody to care for the girls’ grief. “‘I couldn’t go in,” Mr. Lisbon confessed to us years later. ‘I didn’t know what to say.’” Later, Mr. Lisbon was fired from his teaching position: “He was dismissed. And returned to a house where some nights, lights never went on, not even in the evening, nor did the front door open” (157). I don’t disagree here with the message that he was failing; however, just like everyone else in that home, he had no help. It’s not that he isn’t responsible for all that transpired…he was…and he did not take any action to ward against it. Like everyone else inside that home and community, he was afraid to look it in the face—but if he had, perhaps things would have transpired differently.
One snapshot I found fascinating was Mrs. Larson’s guilt/shame about being a potential cause for their daughters’ suicides: “When we asked her why she had never pursued the psychological counseling Dr. Hornicker offered, Mrs. Lisbon became angry. ‘That doctor wanted to blame it on us. He thought Ronnie and I were to blame.’” (138). This reaction is all too true to life. Parents immediately go to a place of shame whenever they realize how culpable they are in their children’s struggles. YET we are culpable (I say, as a fallible parent, myself). Just because we feel ashamed does not mean we should turn away or ignore that truth.
Finally, Eugenides points toward PTSD and copycatting as causes for the suicides after Cecilia’s. He writes: “The report maintained that as a result of Cecilia’s suicide the surviving Lisbon girls suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. ‘It’s not unusual,’ Dr. Hornicker wrote, ‘for the sibling of an A.L.S. [adolescent lost to suicide] to act out suicidal behavior in an attempt to come to grips with their grief. There is a high incidence of repetitive suicide in single families.’” (152). The Lisbon family (but especially the girls) were given no grief coping tools whatsoever.
This theory strikes close to home, for me. It happened within a family from my own High School. The mother was suicidal (but never succeeded in an attempt), and at least two of four daughters became suicidal as well. Two committed suicide—one of them was my close friend. I always speculated that there was something to this idea of it “running in the family” or that siblings might copycat such behaviors. Did my friend and her sister copycat their mother’s behavior? Like the royal we, I can never know. Which brings me to my final point…
The true cause of the suicides is ultimately unknowable. Because the royal we never had the opportunity to be inside the Lisbon girls’ heads, because they could never ask the Lisbon girls, they will never truly understand why they all killed themselves: “Almost daily we met to go over the evidence once again, reciting portions of Cecilia’s journal…Nevertheless, we always ended these sessions with the feeling that we were retracing a path that led us nowhere, and we grew more and more sullen and frustrated” (233). No explanation is available. This is a universal, I suppose, as we have each known someone who committed suicide and will never determine why it had to happen that way. This unknown manifests for so many in the form of guilt: we should have known, we should have seen it coming, we should have been better friends/siblings/parents/classmates/neighbors. I think we all feel this to some degree.
Suicide as Selfishness:
One last note, and I’m out. This book ends with a message on the “selfishness” of suicide that I am not at all certain is considered permissible, these days. Eugenides writes,
The essence of the suicides consisted not of sadness or mystery but simple selfishness. The girls took into their own hands decisions better left to God. They became too powerful to live among us, too self-concerned, too visionary, too blind. What lingered after them was not life, which always overcomes natural death, but the most trivial list of mundane facts: a clock ticking on a wall, a room dim at noon, and the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself. (242)
Now, I recall having this very same thought the first time, in my twenties, that someone distantly associated with me (a friend of a friend) committed suicide. I recall telling my friend that this was my thought. I believed it because—well, who gets to live with your suicide? Everyone else. For you, you get to escape all that negative emotion. You never have to see how your death impacts those who love you.
My friend dealt me a verbal wrist-slap for that sentiment: his friend who had committed suicide was not selfish, he said, he was sick.
Therefore, the past two decades, I’ve deliberately avoided thinking of suicide as selfish. I’ve tried to place myself in the shoes of the suicidal…and have even, once or twice, found myself in that very same headspace. Now that I’ve been there, I know it’s true: the suicidal cannot see the selfishness because they cannot see beyond their own despair. In that sense, suicide is both the ultimate in selfishness and not selfish at all—for how can you think of things that at the moment do not exist to you?
Eugenides’s categorization of suicide as selfishness was at first a slap across the face and then a relief, for me. Let’s leave it at that.