Monday, October 26, 2009

The Girl Next Door ... to a Coward

Not often has a story so viscerally affected me as “The Girl Next Door” did. For fiction to engage emotions and elicit a response, any response, is a good thing right? It is better to get some level of response than to bore the reader I will grant. But do you want the reader to so loathe your main character that they are rooting for something terrible to happen to them?

This novel is told from the point of view of an adult man remembering back to the most horrifying part of his troubled youth. As a pre-teen in a seemingly typical suburban setting he was given a glimpse of madness and evil. Right next door actual torture was taking place. What’s worse is the torture was of a supposed friend of our guide and narrator.

Meg is a beautiful girl who is orphaned by a car accident. Meg and her younger sister Susan, who is crippled and has to wear a harness of some kind, are sent to live with Ruth and Ruth’s sons. They all live next door to the narrator, David.

Pretty early on David lets the reader know Ruth is not right. Much of her erratic and odd behavior is not unlike Annie Wilkes, the not-so-gentle nurse, caretaker, and number one fan of Paul Sheldon in “Misery.” There are the long bouts of silence, the lack of hygiene, the hysterical anger and over reaction to trivialities. Also, Ruth obsesses on Meg, sees her as some kind of young hussy, not unlike the one who probably stole Ruth’s husband away. At least that’s how Ruth tells it, or, more accurately, how David the narrator tells the reader Ruth tells it.

I will continue to return to David the narrator’s point of view. I think it’s a key point in this story, and I wonder about his reliability.

Meg and Susan are interlopers into Ruth’s world of boys. At the most simple Ruth sees Meg as competition for the attention of the males in her life. At worst Ruth is a sadistic monster who goes mad with absolute power. Regardless, soon Meg goes from house guest to basement prisoner and is tortured daily over the summer of this story until she finally can’t take anymore and dies because of it.

As I said before, my response to this book was immediate and strong. I kept waiting for the narrator to get his ass in gear and do something, DO anything. He never really does. Even his attempt to help Meg escape keeps himself at arm’s length, safe in bed over the evening hours while Meg, after weeks of torture, malnourishment, and dehydration has to try and get away from her captors.

All this narrator has to do in this book is tell his parents. That’s it. Just open his mouth and tell them the new girl next door is being abused. David’s mother is no fan of Ruth’s to begin with. In fact, David’s mother is happy to see Meg take an interest in David through the painting she gives David. David’s father would have looked into it probably just as an excuse to escape the doldrums and tedium of going home to a failing marriage (again, if David the narrator can be trusted on the state of his own family).

He doesn’t open his mouth. He doesn’t get a weapon from his own home and try and break Meg and Susan free. He doesn’t spirit Susan away, which he very easily could have, and at least save her the blowback from all the torture heaped on Meg. He does nothing.

As a narrator the reader has to wonder about the validity of his point of view. True, the story he tells is damning to himself, but only slightly so. The horrors visited upon Meg I don’t doubt in the slightest. Ruth’s odd behavior I also believe. But it is the convenient way that David is present but doesn’t participate … much. It’s the convenient way that Meg welcomes him and talks to him as a conspirator when Ruth and the others aren’t around.

David gets to have both sides of this story. He gets the perverse pleasure of seeing Meg’s nude body. He gets to feel the power of not being the focus of the torture and humiliation. Then he gets to give Meg a modicum of aid and comfort between torture sessions to salve his conscious.
There is no way to verify or refute David’s point of view. By the end of the book Ruth is pushed down the stairs and dies rather conveniently. Her sons are carted away and wouldn’t talk to David again if they get to choose. Susan, David claims, maintains contact for a while, but she disappears into the history of this narrator.

And of course Meg can’t say anything because she’s dead, and David might as well have been the one holding her head under scalding water or putting cigarettes out on her body or raping her.

This story works in that the reader is put in an uncomfortable position. The reader is aware of what is happening, is a witness to these events, but is helpless. David makes himself out to be helpless, but he’s not helpless. He’s selfish. He fears getting in trouble for his part in these events. His unwillingness to step up and take responsibility, a responsibility he most certainly has earned, doomed a person, a supposed friend, to weeks of torture and eventually premature death.

David’s cowardice prolonged this entire series of events. How scarred is Susan by his inaction? Might Ruth’s other kids have been influenced for the better by someone stepping in sooner rather than later? This story is premised on the fact that most people would sit idly by and let this happen. I don’t believe that for a second.

David’s initial reticence to turn Ruth in, or to go to his parents was believable. But this story escalates the violence towards Meg to such a degree that no one would stand by and let this happen, even to someone they didn’t care about. Unless that person was the ultimate coward.

David cares more for his own skin, his own reputation, for himself than anything else. I don’t feel sorry for his inability to maintain a marriage. I don’t feel sorry for the constant guilt he carries around. One of his most self-serving statements occurs near the end of the novel. On page 295: “And I had some small sense of what it must have felt like for Meg all these weeks, all alone down here.”

That statement alone spun me into a quiet rage. David’s point of view, this near pleading with the reader to believe him when he says he couldn’t do anything, that nobody would believe him, that “back then” things were different for kids is just rationalization and garbage.

The coward dies a thousand deaths. When David finally dies and he gets to see Meg again, he better hope she isn’t holding the door open to a basement bomb shelter.


  1. Yeah, he was awful and he royally pissed me off too, but when I think about his almost begging to be thought of as a victim, I feel sorry for that part of him. The part of him that worked so damn hard to forget what he's done and what he's let happen. To hide it from himself. He's a person just a step away from insanity. Good riddens! Elsa

  2. The psychology of witnessing is fascinating. We witness from a second level... and we're left feeling just as helpless to change the outcome. I felt a sense of imprisoned helplessness reading the book the first time, and now I see this as Ketchum's narrative ploy: to keep us out but to not let us escape the trauma.