Alice Munro’s “Runaway” and women’s accountability

Alice Munro’s story Runaway is about a young country woman who runs away from an abusive husband. Her freedom is short-lived, however, as she soon steps off a Greyhound bus to call him. She’s at a gas station and has regretted her decision.

Clark comes to get her and in the weeks following, he’s duly chastened by her actions. His response empowers Carla, but later events suggest her empowerment is only temporary: in the story’s coda, we learn Carla suspects Clark of having killed a missing and much-loved pet. Its absence provides a backdrop to the cycles of domestic abuse rendered by Munro—when it comes to this couple’s marriage, we see a slow build-up of tension, a dramatic release and, of course, great make-up sex.

I’ve taken a lot of criticism from feminists lately. Much of it has to do with how I see victimization being proclaimed by hordes of western women, hordes who in fact enjoy a great deal of freedom. I’m puzzled by their claims and suspect that the power and status conferred by victim motifs is what drives women to incorporate them into their identities. This isn’t to say that there are no victims—I’ve met plenty—but most belong to groups that are obviously disrespected: the elderly, the disabled and the economically disenfranchised. Rarely have I seen comprehensive victimization in women who have access to education, healthcare and financial stability. This raises a question: when it comes to victims, who really qualifies?

If there’s anything the mainstream media is good at, it’s maintaining and nurturing blind spots. With women and victimization, two obvious ones spring to mind: the issue of self-responsibility and abuse perpetrated by women. Both of these get short shrift, especially in instances where the abuse is directed at children. Many of Munro’s stories are correctives in this regard, a fact that I believe explains at least some of her popularity. While in Runaway she captures cycles of abuse in an unhappy marriage, a secondary pattern of behaviour also emerges. Carla is controlled by an angry and unpredictable man; however, because she’s also like most of us–she craves balance–she abuses others in turn. Passive-aggression is how she does it and her neighbour Sylvia, a newly widowed woman, is her target.

When Carla plots her escape, she turns to Sylvia for help. Carla cleans house for Sylvia and recently helped her with the more practical aspects of her husband Leon’s death. The women bonded during that time, largely because Carla got into the habit of making light-hearted and impromptu gestures, gestures that reminded Sylvia of a life beyond her role as caregiver. After the funeral and an extended trip overseas, Sylvia is eager to see Carla to deliver a figurine she found on her travels: it’s of a young sprinter and, in her mind, is symbolic of the younger woman’s spirit. During that meeting Carla breaks down and asks for help. Sylvia lends her clothes and money and makes arrangements for Carla to stay with a friend in Toronto.

It’s those clothes that Clark returns that evening. In fact it’s the middle of the night when he begins tapping on the doors and windows of Sylvia’s home, startling her awake. What follows is a tense exchange through half-open French doors. It’s an argument conducted in the deep darkness of a country evening, and lit only by the ghostly headlights of passing cars.

Clark’s intention was to intimidate Sylvia and how he arrived at that point should make us re-evaluate some of what we know about battered wives. During pillow-talk meant to arouse Clark, Carla lied about Leon, saying he had made sexual advances toward her. Given their dire finances, Clark comes up with the idea of blackmailing Sylvia: Leon was an award-winning poet of great renown and Clark believes Sylvia will pay to keep his bad behaviour secret. It’s a patently dumb idea, but one triggered by Carla’s lie. The situation deteriorates even further, however. Carla now needs to stop Clark and the only way she can do so without revealing her complicity is to create a distracting crisis. The crisis is to engineer an escape, and that can only be achieved with Sylvia’s help.

What makes the story poignant is Sylvia’s naive concern for Carla. In fact, she and Leon’s intentions toward the young couple had been good all along; in return, both Clark and Carla schemed against them. While Carla cuts a more sympathetic figure–it’s clear she’s on the losing end of the relationship–Clark’s abuse is mitigated by the fact that Carla isn’t above using others too. I suspect this trickle-down pattern of abuse often unfolds in reality but is rarely examined. It’s just not politic for feminists to do so.

And this is where the damning phrase, victim-blaming, has a lot of answer for. It’s also where we need to step up our understanding of why both genders resort to violence to resolve domestic disputes. If we women want to be taken seriously, we need to stop being victims at every turn and get honest about our own capacities for villainy. We also need to acknowledge that children–those truly innocent victims–often get swept up in the crossfire initiated by two parents, not just one.

We can begin by supporting each other and cultivating true self-possession, the kind that can question all ideologies, including feminism. I know that as a young woman, practicing self-possession often went hand-in-hand with feeling isolated.

Let me explain. I was sharing an apartment with a friend who was making all the classic dating errors. She tried too hard and became intimate with men too soon. Consequently, she was often getting dumped and when she did, I found myself sharing space with someone who was chronically angry and showed it by slamming every door she opened. Since I was a few years older and had made my own mistakes, I learned from her and adopted a different paradigm. I accepted that whether I liked it or not, a hierarchy existed in our culture when it came to dating: if a woman gave away too much too soon, she would lose value in most men’s eyes.

So I started my own personal rebellion: I carried mad money and was prepared to use it. This was in the 90s, when a screwball aspect of the Zeitgeist–that of over-valuing brutal honesty–somehow became a free pass for all bad behaviour (as in “I robbed a bank this morning, but hey, at least I’m being honest”). This meant that on dates where men revealed things I found unacceptable, I took them at their word and usually left. So that guy who admitted he’d slept with his ex right before meeting me for dinner? I went to use the ladies’ room, saw an unalarmed exit and used it. The man who was just being honest when he said lonely women should become second girlfriends? I got out of his car at a red light and hoofed it to the metro station we’d just passed. In my mind, both dates qualified as losing propositions and I couldn’t think of one reason to stay in the company of these men a minute longer.

The problem was that many of my peers, including that friend, undermined the efforts I was making to raise my personal bar and set clear limits. It was telling because instead of saying no to bad behaviour, she and many others I knew tolerated it and then relished feeling victimized, relished feeling like martyrs. It was disingenuous behaviour, but behaviour I came to see was widespread and deeply entrenched. Unfortunately not much has changed: I still see women going out of their way to be offended and in doing so, missing out on opportunities to mature.

And this is the problem with feminism’s current focus in the sex wars. There’s a tendency to magnify vulnerability and minimize responsibility. There’s also a concerted denial around some certain hard truths: the fact is that a crime like rape, especially rape committed without witnesses, is hard to prove. It’s also true that imbibing alcohol or drugs makes giving consent either impossible or impossibly complicated. Moreover, if a man is as drunk as a woman, he too can claim he was raped since taking advantage of a drunk partner, in a legal sense, means that a man or a woman can be a predator.

Denying these facts may feel satisfying, but when we do so, the real casualty is the truth. The reality is that saying no to sex or drugs, especially early in the evening or early in social negotiations, is usually enough to avoid serious problems. Women with the self-possession to do so have always known this, which is why so few of them are at the vanguard of feminism.

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai

Runaway is a great story when it comes to understanding that female victims can be perpetrators too. For example, we acknowledge the connection between childhood abuse and pedophilia–we know that perpetrators have almost always been victims–but we punish pedophiles anyway. When it comes to women who fail to act, especially those who fail to remove children from dangerous circumstances, we respond as though these women’s failures result in lesser consequences for children. However, don’t children suffer similarly or worse when an indifferent or self-absorbed mother fails to protect them? Examining child abuse from the perspective of children who have lived with abusers and enablers seems a fruitful way of understanding that broader social issue, but it’s a perspective that doesn’t get a lot of air time. It’s eclipsed by the more popular view that women living with abusers are also victims and so softening our perspective of their guilt, when it comes to their children, is only fair. But is that really a good idea, given all the social services available to women today?

Carla doesn’t have children to fail, but she does fail her goat Flora. In a relationship that’s all about payback, Carla’s tepid attempt to leave Clark hasn’t resolved their differences. It’s only angered him to the extent that it’s cost Flora her life. By the end of the story, we know that Carla knows this and knows she is living with a man spiteful enough to kill an animal she loves. What colours her character unfavourably is that she decides to stay with him regardless. Her dependence on him is such that she cannot deal with reality; she cannot tell herself a painful and obvious truth.

Dealing with reality seems less and less a priority of western feminists. Instead they have evolved into navel-gazers who are now evolving into narcissists. They have conveniently forgotten that women in other parts of the world face the unimaginable daily. And it’s an oversight that can’t be explained by a lack of information. I’m reminded of the unimaginable every time I ask my mother about her life during the second world war, or see a young woman like Malala Yousafzai asserting her right to be educated. We need to remember what real suffering looks like and acknowledge that calling the privileged countries we live in “rape cultures” is a sign of neurosis, not truth.

Contrasting characters like Carla and Sylvia remind us that there are degrees of suffering and that not all pain is inflicted on us. What Munro also shows us is that some bad experiences are not down to masculine villains. They’re simply down to the choices we make.

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