- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

By Heidi Julavits

Doubleday, $24.95, 368 pages

REVIEWED BY jennifer restak

How does an unremarkable adolescent girl become a subversive hero? Through a peculiar combination of forgetfulness and intent. In Heidi Julavits’ finely crafted fourth novel, “The Uses of Enchantment,” a girl with a spotty memory and a vivid imagination disappears after hockey practice one day. Her story, that she was abducted and possibly molested, disturbs the fragile peace of her New England town, only partly due to the fact that it may or may not be true.

A student at the Semmering Academy, a prestigious girls school in Salem, Mass., Mary Veal is the plain sister wedged between a star athlete and a poet. She is distinguished from adolescent girls elsewhere by an historic connection to crimes committed in the name of witchcraft.

A mural in the school’s long corridor, of women tied to flame-licked stakes, officially titled “The Disappearing Women,” but commonly referred to as “The Grin and Bear it Mural,” locates these young women in a place presently defined by privilege yet moderated by discontent: “They were taught by parents and teachers to keep their sadness to themselves even as they were materially spoiled in this suburban enclave with its lurid history of torment.”

Mary slips by under the radar of her parents or teachers until a class assignment on “Wronged Women” prompts her to behave in unexpected ways. A prior student’s claimed abduction casts a shadow over Mary’s imagination and she, too, disappears on the date her project is due.

The details Mary remembers resemble those of Bettina Spencer, a Semmering student who disappeared 10 years before, claiming she was molested by the Academy’s field hockey coach. Mary states she was abducted and molested by a stranger, a man whom she refers to only by the initial K. Mary is assigned to Bettina’s former therapist, Dr. Hammer, to “adhere” the disparate elements in her story, a story upon whose resolution her sexual innocence rests. While unable to provide conclusive evidence that Mary was raped, the medical exam administered upon her return indeed proves that she is not a virgin.

Ms. Julavits builds dramatic action through the intersection of three narratives: Dr. Hammer’s journals, Mary’s recollections and the events of November 1999, which mark Mary’s return from Oregon to Salem due to the death of her mother from whom she has been estranged since high school.

By providing the reader with competing interpretations of Mary’s story, Ms. Julavits places upon the reader’s shoulders the worthwhile burden of surmising the truth. In constructing her novel this way, Ms. Julavits shows great literary intelligence. She questions the conflicting values ascribed to the notion of truth while celebrating storytelling’s power to both disrupt and placate.

Ms. Julavits engages the problem of how testimonies of sexual assault by young girls of dubious credibility are received according to the agenda of the listener. The varied responses to Mary’s story reveal the motivations of those around her.

In a bout of professional rivalry, the school therapist, Roz Biedelman, a feminist analyst, accuses Dr. Hammer, an avowed Freudian, of suppressing the truth of Mary’s story. In an astute comment on the potentially self-serving strategies of feminist analysts fueling “the general climate of paranoia surrounding minors and authority figures in the mid-to-late eighties,” Biedelman aligns Bettina Spencer and the school administration against him.

Dr. Hammer weighs his initial diagnosis of true amnesia — with Mary’s stories the means of filling in the gaps in memory — against another, which is the product of the particular weight of expectation placed upon girls like Bettina and Mary. “I’d adopted the term “hyper-radiance to describe the morbid appeal of the Salem witch trials and the need for young girls, especially those girls raised in the repressive culture of New England to ‘magify’ themselves as the victims of spells and devilry at the very moment they came of sexual age.”

The reader may surmise that Mary has invented her story as a means of punishing herself for her budding sexual desire. However, as this inventive novel proves, competing truths lead to greater possibilities.

Mary’s mother has a great investment in believing Dr. Hammer’s claim that her daughter’s story is just a story. “Better a liar, her mother figured, better the disturbed perpetrator of a grand-scale hoax than an innocent victim of sexual assault.” The reader wonders to what extent her distorted logic reflects the internalized fears of this upper-middle-class community.

Just as Mary takes apparent pleasure in the invention of stories, so she tells Dr. Hammer she takes pleasure in sex. Has Mary willfully cast herself in the role of rape victim not only to account for her loss of virginity but to disrupt the status quo?

In her favorite game, Mary challenges Dr. Hammer to construct a story out of seven random objects. Dr. Hammer finds himself torn between believing the objects are indeed random or instead part of a chain of evidence confirming the truth of her story. As Ms. Julavits proves, in moments of uncertainty, all things are possible.

Jennifer Restak is a writer in New York City.

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