31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 11: “Black Dahlia & White Rose” by Joyce Carol Oates

May 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Black Dahlia & White Rose

Black_Dahlia_White_RoseElizabeth Short was twenty-two years old in 1947. Born in Massachusetts, she had come to Hollywood with dreams of stardom. She ended up being savagely murdered, her body severely disfigured, bisected at the torso, exsanguinated, and left obscenely posed in a Los Angeles field. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the tabloids, Short’s murder remains one of the most notorious unsolved homicides in Los Angeles history.

The case is a source of abiding fascination for amateur sleuths, true-crime buffs, gorehounds, and those with an interest in the corrosive aspects of celebrity culture. Unsurprisingly, it captures the imagination of Joyce Carol Oates, who has forged a five-decade-long career examining, at least in part, a particularly American strain of violence, a strain quite frequently associated with race, gender, and class.

In an essay entitled “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?,” Oates addresses the question thus: “Since it is commonly understood that serious writers, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists, take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist.” This is somewhat disingenuous: the question was not “Why is your writing violent?” but “Why is your writing so violent?” Why, that is, over a career that has been staggeringly, almost incomprehensibly, prolific and protean, shifting focus among genres, modes of storytelling, narrative voices and approaches, does Oates’s authorial sensibility always seem to circle back around to the subject of violence?

Elsewhere in her essay, Oates takes umbrage at the implication that as a woman writer, she should follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf and confine herself to more reliably domestic or subjective material: “The implication is that if Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf had lived in Detroit, they might have been successful in ‘transcending’ their environment and writing novels in which not a hint of ‘violence’ could be detected.” This neglects, on the one hand, the fact that most of the violence in Oates’s fiction occurs in the domestic sphere and, on the other, that the initial question (once again) refers to much more than “a hint” of violence in her work.

A writer does not choose her sensibility. Oates’s sensibility is, above all, grounded in the history and psychology of America, a country that was born in revolution and that remains steeped in social, personal, and political violence. It is also, thanks to Hollywood, a country that maintains a fraught and largely contradictory relationship with celebrity. One of Oates’s most scabrous novels – Zombie – is a first-person account of a serial killer modelled on Jeffrey Dahmer, who (along with Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, et al.) has some claim to celebrity status in the American psyche.

Unlike Zombie, “Black Dahlia & White Rose” focuses not on the perpetrator of violent crime, but the victim. This is also typical of Oates, who, as a feminist writer, is deeply concerned with the gendered nature of violence. “War, rape, murder and the more colorful minor crimes evidently fall within the exclusive province of the male writer,” Oates comments in her essay, “just as, generally, they fall within the exclusive province of male action.”

In the story, the voice of Elizabeth (Betty) Short narrates her experience posthumously, or, as she puts it, “post mortem“: “Post mortem is this state I am in, now. That you do not know exists when you are ‘alive’ & you cannot guess how vast & infinite post mortem is for it is all of the time – forever and ever – after you have died.” In fractured and stuttering prose – which resembles, perhaps not incidentally, a police officer’s crime-scene notes – Betty recalls her encounter with Dr. Mortenson (Dr. M.), colloquially known as The Bone Doctor. Dr. M. “did seem like a ‘gentleman,'” Betty claims, “though old & starched-stuffy as hell but clearly he had $$$ & seemed kindly disposed and not a tightwad.”

What Betty doesn’t know is that Dr. M. has a history with a venal celebrity photographer named K. Keinhardt, who shoots nude women for men’s magazines and pinup calendars. Their relationship is this: Dr. M. pays Keinhardt a sum of money ($25 each time, thought Keinhardt eventually ups it to $35) to watch through a peephole as the photographer shoots his naked models. One of these models is a shy young aspiring actress named Norma Jeane Baker, who would later find immortality as Marilyn Monroe.

Oates’s masterstroke in “Black Dahlia & White Rose” is to imagine that Betty and Norma Jeane were roommates, and to alternate the narrative POV to include Norma Jeane and Keinhardt’s voices alongside Betty’s. By providing a variety of perspectives, Oates is able to zero in on the poisonous aspect of celebrity culture, which forces the women who enter it to divest themselves of their own identities and individuality in the name of selling a manufactured image to a willing public.

Norma Jeane and Betty Short both found fame – albeit of a very different nature – but both had their own selves obliterated in the process. Both women lost even the claim to their own names: In Oates’s story, Norma Jeane is told that her Christian name is “an Okie name,” and Baker is “dull.” Marilyn Monroe, by contrast, “did not seem real but a concoction like meringue, that would melt in the slightest rain.” For her part, Betty loses her identity along with her life, being remembered in the popular psyche through the moniker attached to her mutilated corpse by a rapacious media hungry for a sensational story.

The women who submit themselves to the celebrity machine also find themselves prey to the depredations of an exploitative male-dominated industry that can only ironically be called the “entertainment” business. “Guess what I paid Norma Jeane?” Keinhardt asks after he manages to talk her into posing naked for him (having accurately recognized that the starlet is “desperate for money & broken-hearted,” her film career “stalled at zero”). “Fifty bucks. I made nine hundred!” Keinhardt dehumanizes Norma Jeane even further, referring to her as “a piece of candy – to be sucked.”

In Oates’s conception, the debasement of this culture is directly responsible for harm inflicted on the women who work in it; unbeknownst to Betty, it is Norma Jeane that Dr. M. had his eye on initially, having witnessed her posing for Keinhardt. Here Oates elides the distinction between those who inflict harm on women by exploiting or degrading them in the process of making a buck, and those who inflict physical harm on them through murder and desecration. She also asks provocative questions about the role fate plays in all of our lives: if Norma Jeane missed being the Black Dahlia killer’s victim merely by chance, what does that say about the nebulousness of celebrity, and the capricious nature of those of us who consume it?

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