I had an ambivalent reaction to Dani Shapiro’s Black & White. By coincidence, while I was reading it, I read an article about adult survivors of child abuse that helped me focus on what was bothering me about the themes and conclusion of this novel. I’ll talk about that later.
Clara Brodeur has not seen her mother since she left home at the age of 18. She is a seemingly ordinary housewife with a nine-year-old daughter, but she has a secret. Her mother is Ruth Dunne, a world-famous photographer who made Clara’s childhood miserable by documenting it with evocative, nude photos.
Clara’s life is interrupted by a phone call from her older sister Robin telling her that their mother is dying, and she can’t cope anymore. Despite herself, Clara finds herself in New York City, where she is forced to face her feelings about her mother.
The strength of this novel is its finely observed descriptions, especially of Clara’s memories of the photo shoots–both from the point of view of a young child and then overlaid with adult awareness. Shapiro accomplishes the difficult task of explaining only with words both how striking Ruth’s photos must be and why they are disturbing. Clara feels that she has had her life stripped bare for the entire world and her relationship with her mother destroyed because of Ruth’s obsessions.
Of course, the novel evokes questions about art and its importance, whether the creation of an object of art justifies Ruth’s treatment of Clara, the impact of abuse upon the family, and so on. Perhaps I should warn now about spoilers, although I will try not to reveal too much.
Emily Yoffe’s article in Slate deals with how there is often a societal pressure put upon adult survivors of child abuse to reconcile with their abusers and bring them back into their lives as the abusers get older. She points out the possible destructiveness of this expectation as well as the possibility of more harm to the original victim, or as she puts it better, “the potential psychological cost of reconnecting.”
One of my problems with this book is that it buys wholeheartedly into this assumption that reconciling with and forgiving one’s abuser is automatically healing for the abused, with a much too indulgent and simple-minded conclusion. Robin has been telling Clara “it’s not about you,” and suddenly she realizes that is true. But it is about Clara. Moreover, when Clara asks why her mother didn’t stop, her husband answers “Because she couldn’t.” I’m sure that is true, and Ruth’s form of abuse is admittedly different than sexual or physical abuse, but if you ask a sex offender why he or she doesn’t stop, you’re going to get the same answer.
Shapiro’s novel provides too facile an answer to her heroine’s problems and then wraps everything up in a pretty package. Not a satisfying or particularly realistic ending to a novel of promise.