Note: The following article is reprinted from a story I wrote for the Boulder Weekly. The interview with Joyce Carol Oates was conducted by phone.
The JonBenet Ramsey murder case is one of the most written about crimes in the history of the United States. In the days, weeks, months and years since her Dec. 26, 1996 murder, JonBenet has been the focus of front-page features in every major newspaper in the country. The strangely lurid photos of the child beauty queen have appeared on the cover of dozens and dozens of supermarket tabloids. Magazines from The New Yorker to Vanity Fair gave the unsolved case serious treatment, as did hundreds of other mainstream publications.
JonBenet’s case has been the subject of at least six true-crime books, including the 1998 bestseller by Lawrence Schiller, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. In addition to traditional print sources, the Web is also filled with speculation about the murderer’s identity. Typing “JonBenet Ramsey” into Google yields more than 535,000 hits, including more than 1,800 articles about the July 9 apology and exoneration of the Ramsey family by the Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy, based on new DNA evidence.
Into this whirling mass of words, speculation and rumors steps one of America’s top writers, Joyce Carol Oates. Her new novel, My Sister, My Love, is about the Rampikes, an upper-class, dysfunctional family, whose 6-year-old daughter, an ice skating prodigy, is brutally murdered in the family home. It’s a largely satirical examination of the culture that produces children’s beauty contests and of the tabloid media that feast on people’s lives. Oates refers to the setting as “tabloid hell.” Its narrator is the Rampikes’ son, Skyler, who is just 9 years old when his sister is murdered.
It’s not the first time that Oates has sought to illuminate one of the nation’s top news stories through her intense fiction. In her remarkable novel Black Water, she reset Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1968 Chappaquiddick accident in the early 1990s and told it from the perspective of the woman who lost her life in the car. She wrenched that tragedy from the realm of the political (much has been made of how it has influenced Kennedy’s career) into the world of human drama by focusing on the victim’s thoughts and memories as the water closed in around her.
“When I wrote Black Water, I wanted a character like Senator Kennedy,” Oates said. “I wasn’t writing Senator Kennedy. My character was much older. I’m looking for an equation in these true stories and trying to make it fiction. The characters are fictitious.”
When Oates set to writing My Sister, My Love, she began looking for the true story that might serve as a launching pad for the issues that she wanted to address. It wasn’t so much the grisly details of the murder that fascinated her, although she was familiar with them from writing a piece for The New York Review of Books reviewing the literature of the Ramsey case back in 1999. Rather, it was what the story said about contemporary America that interested Oates.
“I wanted to write a novel from the perspective of a young person from a notorious family, those families that are often in the tabloids and have reporters constantly following them around,” Oates said. “I envisioned a young person, an innocent person, in tabloid hell with no place he could go.”
She toyed with the idea of writing a novel from the perspective of one of O.J. Simpson’s children, and in fact Skyler’s fleeting love interest in the novel is the offspring of a professional athlete who was tried and acquitted of stabbing to death his ex-wife and her male friend. But in the end she settled on the Ramseys because she was intensely drawn to the drama of the children.
“At a certain point I thought of the Ramseys. I must have seen that little girl’s made-up face 500 times,” Oates said. “The photos of her in the beauty-queen outfits were everywhere for a long time. I know literally nothing about her brother Burke Ramsey. I didn’t look up anything. I wanted to write about a young man traumatized.”
Astute readers will almost immediately spot differences between the Ramseys and Rampikes. First of all, the Rampikes live in Fair Hills, N.J., and not in Boulder. Secondly, the mother, Betsey, is an ex-ice skater and is training her daughter to be a figure skater rather than a beauty contestant and dancer. Third, Betsey’s husband, Bix Rampike, is an ambitious young man in his early 30s just entering a high-powered career, while John Bennett Ramsey was 53 at the time of his daughter’s murder and was at the apex of a lucrative career.
Skyler’s narrative reveals a severely damaged person, both as a young child in the Rampikes house of the mid-1990s and in the present day as a 19-year-old recovering addict living in New Brunswick, N.J. The damage has been inflicted by his parents, Betsey and Bix. Oates does an amazing job of imagining what life must be like inside the family of a child prodigy. Almost everything else is shunted aside by the over-zealous mother, including Skyler, in the desire to make her daughter, Bliss, into a skating star. Bix, in pursuit of his career, is almost wholly absent from the lives of his children.
In the two years leading up to the murder, the children are shuttled from one ice rink to another. Both of the Rampike’s children are heavily medicated with psychiatric drugs, while Bliss is also given a regimen of performance-enhancing pills and shots. Skyler describes how his younger sister would perch on the edge of her bed because it would hurt to sit down after her shots.
“I’m very concerned with the pharmacological revolution among children,” Oates said. “A high percentage of children are medicated. You walk around a mall on the weekend, and so many of the kids you’ll see will be taking something. Many of my friends are on anti-depressants. I’m not criticizing it, but in children these drugs must be over-prescribed.”
Contemporary child-rearing comes under fire in My Sister, My Love as Skyler describes a horrific series of play dates in a tone of biting satire. These dates aren’t with children that Skyler likes; rather they are with the children of the town’s movers and shakers. Skyler is just a pawn in his mother’s social climbing. The kids play together in a totally unsupervised atmosphere, while the parents disappear.
At one of these playdates, Skyler and a classmate compare diagnoses. The classmate explains that he is a G.C.S.S. (Gifted Child Syndrome Sufferer), while Skyler can only counter that he is I.D. and I.A.D.D. (Incipient Dyslexia and Incipient Attention Deficit Disorder). The friend helpfully adds that Skyler just might be A.P.M (Acute Premature Melancholia), as well. Eventually, Skyler is prodded to try some of his classmate’s medicine and ends up having a hallucinogenic incident before almost being thrown out of the house.
“In the past, many of these things were just personality quirks,” Oates said. “People of genius have always had different personalities. I don’t think Einstein was normal at the age of 4. Many of the disorders in the book are real, and they are taken from my research.”
As Skyler continues to struggle for his parents’ attention, his sister Bliss is literally being smothered by it. Her workouts, her diet, her hair: all are closely monitored by Betsey. Oates describes Bliss’ skating costumes, largely modeled after JonBenet’s real-life outfits, in great detail. It’s a sickening catalog of inappropriately seductive items. If they weren’t based in fact, they would be written off as the grotesque fantasies of a child pornographer.
In these passages, Skyler’s narrative takes on the detached feeling of a news account of the event. It’s as if the details are too painful for him to remember in his own words. Here’s how he describes one of his sister’s greatest skating triumphs:“The All-American-Girl Ice Jubilee in Bangor, Maine, in early November where in a ‘Vegas showgirl’ costume of glittering white sequins and filmy white feathers, long tight sleeves with ermine-trimmed wrists, stardust in her ‘upswept’ hair and on her eyelids, and crimson-lace panties teasingly visible beneath, Bliss Rampike ravished both judges and audience with a skate-dance performance of that sultry-tango pop-American classic ‘Kiss of Fire.’”
Bliss’ death seems fated in My Sister, My Love. The ice skating star is becoming more and more disenchanted with her role in the family and on the ice. She is suffering from phantom pains and has just come off of a disastrous showing in her latest competition. Her mother is blaming her for the breakup of her marriage, and she can’t seem to learn even the simplest things from her tutors. She’s a portrait of melancholy, pleading for her brother’s help in the middle of the night when she wets her sheets. Still, she manages to attract a bevy of admirers.
“One of the passages is about how it’s so strange that people want some part of Bliss’ celebrity,” Oates said. “They just want to be near her. But she’s just a shy, insecure, unhappy child. When you get through the aura of celebrity, you often just find a wounded person that other people are using.”
Oates’ description of the night of the murder and its immediate aftermath is a haunting work of fiction. She wraps the true brutal events of JonBenet’s murder into the narration of an innocent child. Looking back on it from a distance of 10 years, Skyler still can’t make out the circumstances of the evening, although the reader will come away with a clear sense of who the murderer was in Oates’ version of the crime.
At night, before the children go to sleep, Bliss begs Skyler to draw a red heart on the palm of her hand. He knows his mother will be upset if he does it, but Skyler eventually gives in. We know that JonBenet was found with a red heart drawn on her hand. Later, Bliss wakes Skyler up and asks him for help, but Skyler doesn’t want to deal with his sister’s sheets again so he doesn’t get up. He’s also tired beyond his usual state because he was given an extra dose of medication. At one point in the middle of the night, he wakes up to find his mother working on a letter. He never seems to make the connection to his mother’s late-night writing and the ransom note.
He wakes up to his mother shaking him at 6 a.m., demanding to know where Bliss is, where he has hidden her. Skyler, wracked with guilt and shame and feeling the effects of too many drugs, doesn’t even know if he had anything to do with his sister’s death. Years later, this question still haunts him. The body is found by Bix in much the same way John Bennett Ramsey carried his daughter up from the basement of their home. The ensuing investigation also suffers the same flaws that occurred here in Boulder.
Once Bliss is dead, Skyler is shuttled between psychiatric institutes and boarding schools. Neither of his parents manages to establish a meaningful relationship with him. He only glimpses his mother in the tabloids or on afternoon talk television. His father, thoroughly absorbed in his career, mostly ignores his son. Bix Rampike, a former college football player, only reaches out to his son when giving occasional advice about what it means to be a Rampike man. In fact, Bix’s machismo, along with the macho world of corporate America that he inhabits, creates a wide gulf between the sensitive Skyler and his father.
“That corporate culture is more alive and well than ever under Bush,” Oates said. “I spent a couple of years looking at Fox News. Bix is a sort of Bill O’Reilly — a swaggering, macho, conservative Christian personality. It’s disturbing and alarming how these people come out of the woodwork in an era like this. In other times, the bigotry and misogyny would be there but hidden away a little more.”
Now, 10 years later, Skyler is compelled to write his story. He’s one of Oates’ odder narrators, which is saying a lot when you look at her varied career more than 40 years. His satirical story includes scores of entertaining footnotes and even a novella within the novel, which makes the 560 pages go fairly quickly. There are many stops and starts, and repeated scenes, as Skyler attempts to remember the pertinent events. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the narration is that Skyler is a completely real person. His tale and his world is an exaggeration of many of our society’s worst attributes, and yet the person in the middle of this alternate version of America is lovable and vulnerable.
“It’s meant to be emotional. He’s really struggling with his story,” Oates said. “He’s saying, ‘God I hate writing. I’m trying to make you feel something about these people in the tabloids.’”
In the end, Skyler finds some peace of mind and begins to reconstruct his damaged life. He begins to emerge from “tabloid hell” with the help of a down-to-earth preacher and some caring people.
“One of the answers is to return to simpler values,” Oates said. “Non-charismatic, basic religion on a very human level of helping one another is a start. We need to find community in a small group of people, not in celebrity. We need other people. You can’t look inside your heart all the time for the answers. You need a community.”
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