Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid: A Look at Nicola Maye Goldberg’s Nothing Can Hurt You

Here’s feminist Germaine Greer on fear:

“It’s interesting to me that women are encouraged all the time to be terribly, terribly frightened, and nearly always of the wrong thing.”

This isn’t an original observation. Mass media usually goes into a frenzy over the disappearance or the murder of young women, especially if that young woman is white and middle class. Fear sells papers, gets clicks, glues eyeballs to the screen.

The novel, Nothing Can Hurt You, feeds into this by depicting the world as essentially predatory towards women. This isn’t too surprising. A look at the back page of the book, in the “about the author” section, tells us that the author, Nicola Maye Goldberg, is a true crime writer. Fear is part and parcel of the genre. Nothing Can Hurt You is her first foray into fiction.

What’s strange is that the novel, which is about the murder of a young girl, mostly features sexual predation. In the opening chapter, a man named Ted Simpson, whose daughter is missing, stays the night with his friend and his friend’s wife, Marriane. When she comes to give him an extra blanket, he inexplicably puts his hand up her skirt.

What are we to make of this bizarre, if implausible, behavior? Certainly, we are to see the irony of a broken man consumed with searching for his missing daughter victimizing another woman, but what’s more is that we’re to see that this behavior is normal, everyday, even routine. A few chapters later, Goldberg gives us more sexual predation in a hotel scene, and in the last chapter, a neighborhood Dad gropes his children’s babysitter and then slips her ten bucks. There’s no penetrative rape, but we catch what underlies misogyny, namely entitlement.

The novel itself isn’t about sexualized crime, however. The book is about a rather simple murder. A young, moneyed, schizophrenic college boy named Blake Campbell stabs his art student girlfriend, Sara Morgan, in the neck while high on LSD. He confesses to the murder almost immediately, is taken into custody, tried, and mostly let off on a temporary insanity plea because he was high on LSD and off his usual meds at the time of the murder.

Young men killing their female partners is certainly a common phenomenon when it comes to murders. But unlike say spousal murder, the bread and butter of many true crime books and television shows, where money is the usual motive, murders committed by young men against their girlfriends are relatively unexplored. That was the chief draw of this book.

Only, that’s not what Nothing Can Hurt You is about. The fictional murder is mere back story, and we are given the salient facts of the case in little nuggets planted throughout the book. The novel is in reality a series of backward glances taken by people linked to either Sara or Blake. Each chapter has its own narrator, and though only a few of the chapters are written in first person, the writing has a confessional style. There’s a lot of blunt honesty, especially about dark desires or unthinkable thoughts, and very little of anything else. Everything is psychological; nothing happens due to circumstance.

Blake’s sister, for instance, has a daughter with behavioral problems, which leads her to wonder if violence is hereditary. The book later details a girl named Jessica, who Sara Morgan babysat. Jessica befriends a behind-the bars serial killer and writes him letters, in search of understanding. My favorite chapter was the penultimate one. In it, a local sheriff named Jonathan is investigating a missing child case with the aid of a psychic named Christabel, who we later learn is Sara’s mother. In one scene, Jonathan is searching the house, combing through the sordid mess of a girl’s bedroom, while fixating on a pair of pure white silk panties stained with menstrual blood. He looks out the window and sees Christabel on the swings, her shoes only skimming the dirt. Christabel’s odd spirituality has set her free from the sordidness of the world.

Of course, all violence is sordid. So the image is both uplifting and sad.

The novel also places Sara’s murder in parallel with the crimes of a local serial killer named John Logan. We all fear serial killers; they are a known quantity. The text seems to ask: but what about the Blakes of the world, these young men who frequently murder their girlfriends? They are a phenomenon of the world too. What drives them? Is it misogyny or something else?

The book has no answer simply because it doesn’t dare to imagine Blake. There can be no understanding. All you can do is be afraid.

Is Delusion Compatible with the Thriller form: A Look at Tarryn Fisher’s The Wives

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Spoilers abound. This article is a would-be writer’s look at a popular thriller novel.

Adding a single ingredient, like mental illness or drug abuse, can transform a run-of-the-mill mystery into a psychological thriller.

For instance, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train uses an unreliable alcoholic protagonist to narrate a basic mystery novel. Likewise, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window uses agoraphobia, only to a far lesser effect. Neither the alcoholism nor the agoraphobia is strictly necessary for the novels’ plots. In the case of The Girl on the Train, the protagonist’s drinking problem causes blackouts in her memory, thus delaying the unraveling of the mystery. Agoraphobia in The Woman in the Window serves primarily to create a debilitated/ reluctant hero. Again, the device is used to delay the novel’s progression.

And then there are thrillers that don’t use such gimmicks at all. They simply play with and undermine tropes. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and du Maurier’s Rebecca come to mind as examples.

Tarryn Fisher in The Wives, however, goes the first route; only she uses paranoid disorder as a twist. Whereas alcoholism and agoraphobia are part of the status quo of Hawkins’ and Finns’ novels, respectively, Fisher only introduces mental illness in the second half of her novel. Ultimately, delusion serves not to delay the plot but to explore the breakdown of a marriage.

The chief issue is whether using delusion as a narrative device is compatible with the thriller as a genre.

To answer that, let’s look at the book more closely.

Suspicion is the novel’s starting point

The Wives is a psychological thriller that reads like an old-fashioned domestic noir novel. Indeed, if it weren’t for the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, you could easily imagine the story taking place mid-last-century, especially with the regressive notions about marriage and wifedom.

(I know all that stuff is still alive and kicking.)

The novel is about a polygamous marriage. A woman named Thursday shares her husband, Seth, with two other women. As a joke between them, they nickname the two other wives, Monday and Tuesday. The purpose of this polygamy is both cultural and practical. Seth comes from a polygamist family settled in Utah, where such arrangements aren’t unheard of. The second reason is that Seth wants children, while his career-oriented first wife, Tuesday, doesn’t. As a compromise, Tuesday and Seth agree he will divorce Tuesday and marry Thursday, but he will also continue his relationship with his first wife, whom he still loves. As part of the agreement, neither wife will meet the other; their sole connection will be through Seth. It’s all very mature and adult.

The new, shiny, youthful third wife, Monday, comes into the picture when Thursday suffers a traumatizing miscarriage that requires a hysterectomy. Monday will now be the uterus in this polygamist affair. At the start of the novel, we learn Monday is already pregnant.

That’s the basic setup to the story: three women married to one man. Thursday, the novel’s protagonist and now the middle wife, feels that her place in Seth’s life is precarious. She doesn’t have the allure of the first wife, who has the longest history with Seth, is youthful, despite her age, and a bit glamorous. Nor is Thursday actually young like the second wife.

The novel’s inciting incident occurs when Thursday discovers Monday’s identity from a hospital bill she finds in Seth’s pocket. Monday’s actual name is Hannah, and she lives two hours away in Portland, Oregon. After a little internet stalking, Thursday comes across her picture. Hannah isn’t the blonde surfer girl she imagined, but has Nordic supermodel beauty. This inflames Thursday’s growing insecurity: she grows jealous and a little obsessed. Thursday tracks Monday/ Hannah to a beautiful, well-kept house that suggests a Norman Rockwell happy union, which is yet another stab to Thursday’s ego. But Thursday also sees cracks and fault lines. There are no pictures of Seth and Hannah in the house, and tiny bruises cover Monday’s arms. Thursday’s mind jumps to the conclusion that Seth is abusing Monday. In a sick way, this scant evidence of unhappiness gives her hope that she can gain a firmer/ more dominant foothold in the wife hierarchy. Soon after, Thursday’s growing obsession extends to the first wife, a successful lawyer named Regina. Because Regina has an online dating profile, Thursday catfishes her to get evidence that she’s cheating on Seth.

The novel’s second half gives way to paranoia

About halfway through The Wives, a major narrative twist occurs. Thursday finds herself locked away in a mental institution after she confronts Seth with her suspicions of spousal abuse. During her stay in the asylum, the doctor suggests that Thursday has been hospitalized in the psych ward before, which comes as news to both us, the reader, and the character. Why doesn’t she remember this? There are two possibilities: either the doctor and Seth are gaslighting Thursday or she is delusional. I immediately started thinking of novels like The Woman in White, in which the asylum plays a huge part of patriarchal control. As Fisher is more interested in creating a character study, she goes down the second route. The second half of the novel is in some sense pure fantasy: a paranoid delusion that illuminates Thursday’s psychology.

Drawbacks to writing a thriller around a delusional character

One aspect of the thriller genre is that they are semi-mysteries, but unlike regular mysteries, thriller novels progress through action packed scenes or, in the case of psychological thrillers like The Wives, through twists and turns in the narrative. Fisher carries on with the thriller elements well into the third act of the novel. After Thursday is released from the psych ward, she concocts a theory that her husband is a sick individual who gets off on impregnating his wives and then slipping them an abortifacient that causes the women to miscarry. This is based on the memory of Seth giving her an herbal tea just before her miscarriage. We later learn that Regina also suffered a miscarriage and that Seth had given her the same tea.

In the fourth act, during a confrontation between Seth and his three wives, is when Thursday suddenly remembers reality: (1) that she is not married to Seth, but is actually his mistress, (2) that she owns the house Monday lives in, and (3) that she was picked up at the hospital, not by her husband, but by her father.

This is the point when many readers will throw up their hands in frustration. As I mentioned above, thrillers are a little like mystery novels and therefore rely on facts; thus, using a delusional character undermines the genre. We don’t know what we can and cannot believe. In fact, Thursday could be sitting in a psych ward just imaging everything. Delusion robs fiction of reality and therefore impact. We tend not to care about things that aren’t real.

What’s more is that delusions feel like a cheat ending in thrillers: a sign of a novelist who can’t come up with a proper ending.

The Final Twist

Delusions, however, can serve as an excellent means to study a character’s imagination. And this is why The Wives is brilliant.

The final twist of The Wives is that it’s not a thriller at all, but a character study of a woman who was dumped by her husband after she lost her child. After the final confrontation scene between the husbands and wives- during which Thursday cripples Seth by shooting him in the spine, Thursday returns to the psych ward for further treatment. Thursday doesn’t get criminally charged because her lawyer makes the case that (1) Thursday is crazy and (2) Regina, the first wife, tricked Thursday into believing Seth slipped both Regina and Thursday an abortifacient.

In the last pages, Regina visits Thursday in the asylum. Thursday says, “I’m glad we both got away from him,” to which Regina replies, “This isn’t a little club. I’m not like you. You’re crazy.”

After that, Thursday goes off the rails and attacks Regina, smashing her forehead into Regina’s nose. “Help,” someone screams. “She’s going to kill her!”

Thursday thinks: “I am helping. I’m helping myself.”

And that may be the final twist of the novel. Regina and Thursday are the same person- the first wife who becomes the mistress, and that by destroying Regina, Thursday is freeing herself of Seth.

The story isn’t about paranoid delusion at all, but about a split personality.

Note: (Parallels to du Maurier’s Rebecca) In terms of both subject and theme, the book mirrors Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel, Rebecca, which is also a book about a second wife and feelings of jealousy. The thematic similarity was so great that I actually guessed the ending to The Wives. I knew some calamity would befall Seth, and since there was no Manderley to burn down, I guessed he would end up crippled, a la Mr. Rochester. I even guessed Seth would end up wheelchair-bound.