Friday, October 5, 2018

A Dark Heroine for Dark Times: Victoria Helen Stone's JANE DOE

What's the next word that pops into your head after someone says the word "sociopath"? I'm betting that "romance" or "heroine" are not likely to make your short list.

And perhaps it's not quite fair to term Victoria Helen Stone's latest novel, Jane Doe, a romance. A work of suspense, definitely. A novel of romantic suspense, yes—but only if you welcome a work in that sub-genre that doesn't depend on putting a female body in danger for its major thrills. Jane Doe starts, in fact, after violence has already been visited upon a female body, the body of the narrator's best friend, Meg. Meg has been subject to both verbal and physical abuse: the former at the hands of her manipulative former boyfriend, Steven Hepsworth; the latter at her own hands, through the one act of control Meg can take: killing herself.

Bringing Meg back isn't possible. But avenging her death certainly is, especially for a person like Jane. When Jane was a kid, she knew she was different from most people. Especially her emotional, melodramatic family. As Jane explains, she didn't feel sorry for her older brother when he was sent to jail for selling stolen goods out of the back of her car, like her parents and grandmother did; it only seemed logical. Being white, Jane reasoned, her brother's sentence was far more lenient than those given out to many men of color in the same situation, so why complain? Besides, she knew what a lazy, shiftless guy he was. Hadn't he only gotten what he deserved? "Nasty, cold-blooded, selfish, grasping, uppity, ungrateful goddamn little bitch," her family replies (37).

And Jane can't disagree. She doesn't feel emotions, unlike most other people do, or rather, she has some emotions, but she "can usually choose when to feel them. And more important, I choose when not to" (5). A situation stemming in part from her own childhood, raised by careless, selfish, at times abusive parents who allowed her to be abused by others as well.

Jane didn't understand what she terms her "disability" until she took a Psychology elective her senior year of high school, and came across the concept of sociopathy, or what the current DSM Manual labels "Antisocial Personality Disorder." Reading about all the serial killers and other criminals labeled as sociopaths, Jane was at first upset by her discovery. But further research reassured her: "Most people like me don't grow up to be killers. We lie and manipulate and take advantage, but usually that just makes us great at business. Yay for capitalism" (37).

One feeling Jane does allow herself is loyalty to Meg, the single person who stood as her friend despite her oddball lack of social graces. And so after Meg takes her own life after years of being alternately praised and then denigrated by Steven, Jane decides to take revenge into her own hands. Who better than a sociopath to bring down a sexist, manipulative, self-righteous man?

To that end, Jane takes a leave of absence from her high-powered financial job in Malaysia and scores a job working in data entry in Minneapolis—at an office whose supervisor just happens to be Steven. Knowing just what kind of woman Stephen goes for from all her long phone conversations with an emotionally upset Meg, Jane dons the mask of shy, uncertain, easily controlled girl and performs it for Stephen's benefit.

And Steven is instantly smitten.

Steven, of course, us completely unaware that all the while Jane is narrating a running commentary about Steven's own manipulations, selfishness, and lack of empathy. Is Jane the real sociopath, here? Or is Steven?

Jane's plan is to worm her way into Steven's life, even to the extent of becoming his girlfriend, so that she can get close enough to find out his "weakest point" and then exploit it, so that he will "live in misery for years" (39). As Jane explains it:

This relationship will be tedious and nearly unbearable, but the end will justify the means. Maybe I'll destroy his family. Maybe I'll set him up for embezzlement. Maybe I'll kill him. I'll find what's most important to him and then I'll take it away. However that plays out is fine with me.  (29)

By acting as if she has a Meg-like personality, Jane shows the reader rather than just tells what it is that a man like Stephen needs from a woman—and worse, what a woman has to hide and suppress of her own thoughts, needs, and desires in order to prove herself "worthy" of a man like Stephen. Jane's acerbic commentary only adds to the biting gender critique:

I nod but let him see that I'm shaken by the very idea of putting out. A woman shouldn't have her own sexual needs. My role is to resist. That makes me a nice girl. (17)

After all, everyone knows that women are responsible for how men behave. If we're not careful, they might decide to take what they want. They can't help it. But somehow I'm the one with the psychological impairment. (61)

In the first years of our friendship, I was fascinated by the way Meg interacted with me. She always made herself smaller, and they always loved it. At first I admired it as manipulation, but I later realized that once she'd established herself as small, she couldn't make herself bigger again.... She would shrug and say she felt shy with men she liked, but that wasn't it. It wasn't shyness. It was fading. She dimmed her light to make a certain kind of man feel vibrant. And it worked. (71-72)

But during the early days of her campaign against Stephen, Jane runs into someone she knows from college—an old boyfriend, Luke, who seems eager to take up with her again. As Jane and Luke begin to become reacquainted, the reader is again show the difference between a man who uses a woman for his own benefit, and a man who wants to engage with a romantic partner for their mutual pleasure and joy.

Will Jane kill Stephen? Will she dig up some good dirt on him, and share it with friends, family, and members of his father's church? Or will Luke find out about her vengeance plot and insist she stop or he'll leave her? Or might Luke convince her that turning the other cheek is better than demanding an eye for an eye?

With so many commentators today suggesting that the #metoo movement has unleashed indiscriminate female anger, anger uncaring of the innocence or guilt of the men it targets, it seems a stroke of genius to create an female figure of vengeance who is not driven at all by emotions.

A fascinating, on-point inversion of the woman-as-crazy-stalker trope familiar from the film Fatal Attraction and its many followers, replacing the misogyny of the male infidelity morality tale with a razor-sharp critique of the misogyny inherent in patriarchy.

Jane Doe
Lake Union Publishing, 2018