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Lack of Protective Capacity in John Irving’s “Until I Find You”

Here is the First Commandment of Motherhood and the Law: Thou shalt demonstrate protective capacity.

Simply: I don’t often see self-protective capacity, let alone the capacity to protect others.

I finally read “Women Who Run With the Wolves” due to my burgeoning love of Jungian analysis in myths. (Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Ring of Power was my personal ah-ha moment regarding dysfunctional family histories, I highly recommend it and its look at the Wagnerian Ring Cycle). I missed it the first time around when it was published and republished in the nineties. That was my time of waiting tables at a macrobiotic café while studying anthropology, listening to Dead Can Dance, and trying to understand the emic perspective from my Persian employers who fled Iran for the US when the Shah was deposed. How I missed that monumental work of nineties perspective is beyond me.

Like “Until I Find You”, “Women Who Run With the Wolves” is long, surrealistic, and at times very tough to get through – I admit to skimming parts and it having a longer-than-usual shelf life next to my bed. But it has an important point, illustrated in her analysis of Blue Beard: Stalking the Predator, which is the concept of self-protection and the ability to “sniff out” predators, to rely on instincts, and to teach this diminished skill to our children.

Then I read “Until I Find You” by John Irving, and every novel I ever read by Joyce Carol Oates came haunting (which is why I quit reading her, she’s excellent, but a bit uncomfortable). I had another aha moment. Here’s the boiled down reviews from Amazon:

1. You will love it or hate it, no in betweens.
2. It largely repeats the themes of Irving’s earlier novels – just a little more autobiographical.
3. It is long – over 800 pages – and I admit to skimming for action verbs (how I handle tedious parts).

I concur with everyone of these. The Novel was set in the 1970’s as the sexual revolution went mainstream. Sex is the focus, and everyone is having sex – even shockingly the boy, who is graphically molested in the novel by a grown woman. I give Irving kudos, it takes a brass pair to describe these acts, then to propose the provocative question: was I damaged even if I wasn’t hurt? It’s his question folks, not mine, rightfully his question as only a survivor can ask, and he does answer affirmatively “yes” through his story that these are thieves of innocence.

Irving inverts gender stereotypes. Men are simple, safe and loving, it’s the society of women which are dangerous. Men manifest their losses on their bodies. Women convert their losses into a sinister pain to be inflicted on others as proxies. Telling his tale of loss of innocence (coming of age) which history is inverted and retold in the end from an adult perspective – even in his Jack-as-child narrative we find a chilling tale: Lack of Protective Capacity.

Although his history is later inverted, Jack starts from here: His mother is a victim who did not demonstrate self protective capacity. She listened to a young man who said he’d love her forever but didn’t. She became a fallen, single mother who drags her son through Baltic Europe looking for his dead-beat father through the network of tattoo artists. Once the story is inverted, she is portrayed as a perpetrator, while the other female ‘lead’ Emma inflicts versions of her own abuse until she is diminished into a friends and protector. Leslie merely quashes innocence, until she too is neutralized into another role.

Not one of these women demonstrated protective capacity. The men in this novel are entirely helpless. Irving draws two worlds: the inside emic perspective of these women, which Jack is brought up in in early childhood – and then out of as etic “truth” from men’s perspective is written into the novel, causing Jack to abruptly lose his neuroses in a Freudian theme of individuation. But what about these women?

I don’t know if Irving knew this or meant it, but not a single woman in his autobiographical novel knew or demonstrated protective capacity of themselves or others. It is a skill, an art, to teach loss of innocence rather than to have it stolen. I do not blame victims, but I see so many opportunities each day for self-protection to be taught. Teens appear to have an inability to grasp the inherent evil existing in the world around them. Daughters and sons are not taught ‘the rules’ to safely go out and have a good time without getting hurt: Don’t walk away from your drink – drink it or buy another, everybody who came together should leave together, they’re not your friends if they won’t watch out for you or take care of you and vice versa. Kinda simple stuff like safeguard your heart, don’t fall for bad-boys: pirates, rogues, or other ne’er do wells, jealousy is not loving. For sons: don’t believe if someone tells you they’re on the pill, not becoming a dad is your job. Avoid people who are always victims. Be careful of who you call a friend. Don’t be afraid to judge to your own benefit. Relating to my post, first amendment options: watch what you say online. Don’t take privacy for granted, but definitely use your settings. Don’t friend everyone who asks. We anticipate mistakes, everyone makes them and they are the best learning lessons of life if they’re not too bad. I sure wish there were less trial and error though, and a little more wisdom.

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