In “Accidents of Marriage,” Randy Susan Meyers explores a marriage undermined by one partner’s rage and the other’s complicity. The subject, emotional abuse, is usually addressed as a component of domestic violence, but Meyers’s novel explores how destructive emotional abuse by itself can be.
Maddy and Ben have been married for 15 years. Ben is a lawyer, a senior trial counsel for the Boston Public Defender Division. Maddy is a social worker who specializes in domestic violence. They have three children. Emma, 14, is entering her freshman year at Boston Latin and chafing at parental restrictions. Gracie, 9, is quiet and artistic. Caleb is an energetic 7-year-old, constantly asking questions.
The first chapter establishes the dynamics of this troubled family. Maddy is home after a “gut-wrenching” day at work, longing for a Xanax, hoping that Ben will come home from work in a better mood than when he left for the day. Ben has a volcanic temper. Maddy never knows what will set him off. He rages. He hits walls. He throws things. But he never hits her or the children.
It’s summer. The heat trapped inside their Jamaica Plain Victorian drains what’s left of Maddy’s energy. She’s thinking about what she can put together for dinner when Gracie yells out from the next room.
Caleb has broken a glass and stepped in the shards. Blood is pouring from his foot. Maddy copes with the accident, soothes the children, and succumbs to their pleas for ice cream. Enter Ben to find Maddy and the two children collapsed on the living room sofa surrounded by dirty dishes.
Emma and Gracie manage to defuse Ben’s anger by volunteering to make him something to eat. Maddy retreats to the laundry room rather than watch the girls wait on Ben. “It drove her crazy watching them being trained in the fine art of placating an angry man.” She roots around in the cleaning supplies and finds a stash of the pills that enable her to live with her husband.
Everything changes for the Illica family one day when rain and road rage result in an auto accident that leaves Maddy in a coma and Ben facing the possibility of criminal charges.
The story unfolds from three points of view, Maddy’s, Ben’s, and Emma’s. In the early chapters Maddy agonizes over her marriage. It wasn’t always this way. When she and Ben met she was swept away by his charm and passion. She still loves him, but she hates the way they live. In later chapters she copes with brain damage.
The chapters from Ben’s viewpoint reveal him as a self-centered bully and a man terrified of failure. He’s aware that anger is an integral part of his personality. His outbursts have a cathartic effect. It’s as though he’s addicted to rage. It’s a mark of Meyers’s skill as a storyteller that she manages to make Ben a somewhat sympathetic character. Beneath the anger is a well of insecurity, a fear that he’ll never measure up to the mark set by his father, a respected judge.
Emma’s story illuminates the destructive effect emotional abuse can have on a child. When Maddy returns home with brain damage, Ben relies on Emma to look after her sister and brother and keep up with household chores. It’s a heavy burden for a teen, even with the tireless assistance of her maternal grandmother. Ben gives Emma adult responsibilities and at the same treats her like a child.
Her anger at her father triggers a pivotal moment in the story.
Meyers deftly deploys a large cast of major and minor characters in telling this complex story. Her painstaking description of both emotional abuse and brain injury are impressive. “Accidents of Marriage” isn’t for anyone who insists on happy endings, but it rewards readers in deeply satisfying ways.