The Big Girls by Susanna Moore
“That’s when it began to dawn on me maybe I wasn’t going to die. And that’s when I REALLY got crazy.” Coming from Helen, imprisoned for life for the murder of her two young children, that’s saying something. Helen’s childish voice is one of four that animate Susanna Moore’s sixth novel, The Big Girls. Matter of fact and occasionally confessional, this often shockingly ugly story takes place primarily at Sloatsburg Correctional Institution, a women’s prison huddled alongside a perpetually gray Hudson River.
Helen is a shy woman in her late 20s, whose history of repeated sexual abuse has led to a personality split and delusions. Though compliant and thoughtful when medicated, she’s visited periodically by visions she calls the Messengers: stomping Biblical horsemen, who drove her to kill her kids. Her recounting of the treatment she received at the hands of her stepfather, “Uncle Dad” -- the sobriquet strikes a perfect note of bland sickness -- and the raw violence and twisted case histories of the other inmates would be distractingly brutal in less apt hands. But Moore skates on the safe side of pornography, owing to her metered telling: almost clinical at times, and avoiding completely pity or voyeuristic interest.
Helen’s shrink, Dr. Louise Forrest, is a “spinsterish” divorcee; ambitionless and lonely, she’s softer than is safe for a prison doctor. She gets dangerously close to Helen, drawn to her empty-canvas quality: Forrest projects her own demons onto her patient’s medicine-scrubbed sadness. The briefly drawn recounting of her past alludes to loneliness, trauma, and a dangerous openness to being emotionally dominated. She seems to solicit this from Helen, opening herself to the woman in slight but ever-increasing ways.
In this landscape of sick women, the narrative’s third voice, Captain Ike Bradshaw, is never more than marginally written. A sexy corrections officer who, unusually, takes no liberties with the “big girls” of Sloatsburg, he floats unconvincingly into Dr. Forrest’s orbit. They have sex -- exciting for her, and capable of giving him a mild jolt of conquest -- and begin a tentative relationship, which is promptly derailed by Dr. Forrest’s son, Ransom, who claims that Bradshaw chased him around the Forrests’ apartment with his penis out.
Ransom is sent to live with his father and his father’s movie star girlfriend, Angie Mills. Helen and the doctor’s lives intersect in Angie, as Helen is convinced that the woman is her sister, and corresponds with her through the mail. Angie’s flat honesty and honed survival instinct make her Helen’s polar opposite: she’s as self-reliant and starkly self-aware as Helen is reticent and deluded.
The novel’s most compelling character, however, is Sloatsburg, with its complex system of rules and a rigid social structure that is constantly overturned and reinforced by sudden flares of violence, consistent as the prison’s Monday-night movie. The system, meant to break down prisoners even as it affects rehabilitation, seems to break Dr. Forrest instead, while the inmates find ways toward stunted survival via internal family structures and their own subset of laws.
Though The Big Girls has redemptive moments, they’re infrequent and undercut by the characters’ hard-learned practicality. Only Dr. Forrest maintains a sense of wonder, but she expresses it in severely messed-up ways. This is never so clear as in a section near the novel’s close, where she paints a surreally nostalgic picture of standard prison violence. In the end, the book suffers from the sheer surfeit of cruelty -- glibness sneaks in.
The Big Girls by Susanna Moore