Oates Takes on Brawley and Rev. Al

Joyce Carol Oates impresses not just with her prolificacy but also with the generally high quality of her output. That’s not to say the nib of her pen always yields gold, like her recent and magnificent The Accursed; she dredges her share of base metal, such as her last, Carthage. Which brings us to her latest, that comes quickly on the heels of her less than stellar effort.

As reviewers have pointed out, JCO has patterned The Sacrifice after the real-life case of Tawana Brawley. In November 1987, Brawley claimed to have been raped and ravaged by white cops and an assistant D.A. The crime allegedly occurred near her home in the small up-state New York town of Wappingers Falls. The case garnered national attention, particularly for its nature and the media noise created by Al Sharpton, and attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason. Ultimately, a grand jury found all charges groundless. The defamed assistant D.A. sued the parties for defamation, won, collected from Sharpton, and continues to collect from the others, including Brawley.

In JCO’s treatment, the action transfers to an invented town near Passaic, NJ, and Newark, probably to take dramatic advantage of the population density, history of racial animosity, and brutal police tactics (all much more muted by comparison in a small, rural town). Or, maybe, because Oates lives in Jersey.

The girl, Sybilla Frye, is 15. Her mother, Ednetta, discovers her in an abandoned fish factory in defiled condition, exactly like Brawley. And like Brawley, Sybilla refuses to cooperate with police. Her mother, Ednetta, shields her as best she can, until the Rev. Marus Mudrick (as they disclaim: purely fictional, bears no relation to anyone living or dead, wink, OAC) and his meeker and more cautious lawyer brother Byron assume control. Near riots ensure. The racial divide widens and deepens. Discharged and troubled rookie cop Jerold Zahn has his honor and memory defamed posthumously. In the end, it’s all in service of a lie by a mother and her daughter afraid of her brutal stepfather, a man who regularly beat her and Ednetta, and a preacher absorbed by his personal need for fame.

JCO does an excellent job of helping us onlookers understand the hellishness of living in a segregated town, in near-destitute poverty, surrounded by constant brutally, within families, between neighbors, and imposed by the authorities. What’s sacrificed here is civility, humanity, and hope. (For a more academic appreciation of how this works, you might try On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, a book with methodology flaws but nonetheless enlightenment for many.)

There are more sacrifices here, too. Justice gets dumped in favor of personal gain by the Rev. and his brother. And, yes, along with justice, visibility for a race relations problem people try to ignore. A young officer suffering mentally over his self-perceived failure to succeed as a cop sacrifices, unknowingly, the rest of his pride and honor after death, and his family is put through emotional hell. Also sacrificed, attempts at achieving any kind of understanding and reconciliation between the police and those they are supposed to safeguard. Though brutal and the true cause of the conflicts, the father, Anis Schutt, from anger and fright, sacrifices himself by choosing a blazing and vindictive gun battle end to his life. And, of course, Ednetta and Sybilla sacrifice themselves on an altar to a cause and to greed out of fear.

JCO has proven quite adept at inserting herself into the lives of others and projecting their and, often, shared issues onto a national screen. Her most effective use of this technique is her really superb recreation of Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. If you’ve never read Blonde, you’ll want to put it ahead of The Sacrifice.

As for The Sacrifice, while not among her best, still a good effort on topics perennial in America: racial prejudice, police brutality, and the general and daily betrayal of values we Americans sincerely think we believe in but seem to have the hardest time practicing and feeling in our hearts.

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