In 1986, Judith Strasser ended an abusive seventeen-year-marriage. The end came, she tells us in the first sentence of her memoir, when her husband slugged her in the eye. His punch was the exclamation point that concluded the sentence of Strasser's marriage, a time measured by arguments, emotional abuse, depression, alcoholism, cold silences, and abandonments. It also opened a new period in her life, for her husband's blow freed Strasser to become the confident, creative woman who is able to write this difficult, often painful memoir.
Black Eye is told through two interwoven narratives. One story encompasses time spent during 1996 and 1997 at two writing retreats, Norcroft (on the shore of Lake Superior) and Ucross Foundation, in Wyoming, where Strasser crafted her memoir. The other story is narrated through the journal she kept ten years before, in 1986, the year her marriage broke apart. In that year, Strasser and her husband, Stu, were living with their two young sons in Madison, where Strasser worked as a public radio producer and Stu, unemployed, contributed funds from an inheritance. Strasser, bewildered, confused, diffident, uncertain, was in therapy; Stu, an alcoholic, refused to participate in any meaningful way in marriage counseling.
Black Eye's two narratives have essentially two narrators: the younger Strasser, learning through pain how to become her own person; and the older Strasser, who sometimes looks at her younger self in impatient dismay. What are you waiting for? the older Strasser wonders. "I want to say to this woman, go already. Leave. It's tedious, coming back to the computer again and again to find that you are still stuck in a relationship that is obviously abusive, obviously past time to end." As a reader, I find myself agreeing. Get on with it, I want to say, get out, get out. What's taking so long?
In some ways, this book is too close for comfort, for Strasser tears away the protective screen of narrative distance that keeps the author/narrator and her experiences safely apart from the reader. The journal sections are desperately painful, as the marital situation deteriorates, the children suffer, and the shillyshallying younger Strasser can't get up the courage to turn the key on her prison door and walk out. As a reader, I was there, inside the story, urging, prompting, pushing, judging, hoping, hurting. When the blow finally came, I almost had to duck.
For some readers, there will be too much pain, too long a lingering, too much rationalizing and denying. But that, I think, is exactly Strasser's point. Many women—including smart, well-educated, self-supporting women who consider themselves "feminists"—are trapped in abusive relationships, wanting to leave, afraid to go. In 1998, the year Strasser was writing her book, over one-third of American women reported being physically or sexually abused by a partner at some point in their lives. Strasser's journal entries capture that experience with a brutal, unyielding immediacy. They could be used as a case study to help emotionally battered women recognize their situation and find a way out.
Black Eye is a beautifully written, brutally honest story that takes an unflinching look into an ugly chapter in the writer's life and offers hope for a more creative future. It ought to be required reading for every woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship.
Judith Strasser is a freelance writer who conducts poetry and memoir writing workshops for adults and children. Her poems and essays have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies (including What Wildness is This: Women Write about the Southwest). Visit her website and her blog.
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