Why Sue Ellen Bridgers'by Susanne M. Miller
All We Know of Heaven
Should Be Taught in Our High Schools
Sue Ellen Bridgers, author of such award-winning novels as Permanent Connections, All Together Now, and Home Before Dark, has written a touching, yet deeply disturbing novel that explores a young woman's first serious romance and her unfortunate and painful experience with the decidedly unromantic subject of domestic violence. All We Know of Heaven is a conundrum; the book is lyrically written with beautiful prose; the story is at times soft and sensual, and other times, violent, angry, and horrifically realisticÑin short, a story that rings of truth, a tale with both the bitter and the sweet, full of joy and sorrow. A story of real life. The novel is uniquely written from thirteen points of view, including that of the protagonist, Bethany, and other major characters such as Joel, her husband, and Bethany's Aunt Charlotte, to the observations of minor characters such as Uncle Mac, Joel's brother Ed, Joel's parents J. C. and Emma, Aunt Charlotte's housekeeper Mena, Bethany's father Warren, and others central to the story.
All We Know of Heaven is an important, topical work that features a believable female protagonist (in fact the character of Bethany was a real person, a cousin of Sue Ellen Bridgers's mother), and for a variety of reasons, should be taught-and deserves to be taught-along side such young adult classics as The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, and The Diary of Anne Frank. In short, All We Know of Heaven should be required reading for every young woman in senior high school today.
Briefly, All We Know of Heaven is the story of Bethany, a beautiful and spirited young woman whose life has been scarred by the tragic death of her mother when she was only six years old, and the subsequent abandonment of her alcoholic father, Warren. Bethany's aunt forcibly removes her from her father's house shortly after her mother's death when it becomes apparent that Warren is unable to care for her. Raised by her mother's sister Charlotte, and Charlotte's husband Mac, Bethany appears to have a "normal" childhood. She is loved and well cared for, yet longs for a family of her own. At fifteen, Bethany meets Joel Calder, a handsome and brooding young man who, like Bethany, is the survivor of a horrible childhood. Joel is a troubled, young man who suffers the almost unbearable guilt and responsibility of the accidental shooting death of his infant sister. Against Charlotte's wishes, these two emotionally wounded young adults fall passionately in love as Bethany is convinced she can make up for Joel's awful childhood with her absolute, unconditional love. But soon after they are married something goes horribly wrong-Joel begins to abuse his young wife, first with verbal threats and intimidation, then with physical violence, and finally by holding a gun to her head. Fearing for her life, Bethany leaves with their infant daughter Caroline. Joel attempts to woo Bethany back, and when Bethany refuses, Joel incredulously murders his daughter, and then takes his own life, leaving Bethany a shattered and emotionally broken young woman alone to begin her life again.
All We Know of Heaven is a painful book to read-it is filled with emotional and physical brutality-yet there are a variety of reasons this book should be taught and discussed in the high school classroom. Of course, not all novels for young adults need to be didactic in nature, but there are lessons to be learned from this novel. These are lessons on self-esteem and self-worth; choosing a spouse; teen dating and domestic violence; when to stay and when to leave a troubled relationship. However, I believe the book should not be taught as a lesson about domestic violence. I believe students would be offended by this approach. Rather, the story illustrates these lessons in a compelling, beautifully written page turner. In All We Know of Heaven, the abuse doesn't begin for Bethany until after she is married. However, because Bethany is such a young bride, just out of high school, young adults can perhaps empathize more with her than an older victim of domestic violence.
The topics and themes of the book are compelling; readers will also find that each character is well-written and deserving of careful attention. For example, in examining Bethany's psychological motivations, we may conclude that if Bethany hadn't been so "needy" due to the loss of her mother at such a young age, she might not have been so totally consumed with Joel; perhaps if Joel had a better sense of self-worth, he wouldn't have felt the need to control and dominate.
A closer look at Bethany reveals the damaged psyche of a young women whose life is that of a potential disaster waiting to happen. Although Bethany appears to be a well-adjusted young woman, she is deeply scarred from the loss of her beloved mother and the emotional abandonment of her father. In Motherless Daughters (1996), a significant work that focuses on how girls and young women cope with the loss of their mothers at a young age, author Hope Edelman writes:The motherless daughter-especially one without an available and supportive parent-begins from a point one step back. She first has to establish or reestablish a secure emotional base. As John Bowlby observed . . . of women who lost mothers before their eleventh birthday, a girl without a secure emotional base "may become desperate to find a boyfriend who will care for her and that, combined with her negative self-image, makes her all too likely to settle for some totally unsuitable young man."(157)
In addition, these young women may also "look to a partner to meet most of their needs, to give care in a self-sacrificing, compulsive manner and often attempt to find security and love through sexual contact" (157).
Bethany's relationship with her father is nearly non-existent. Even though Warren was an alcoholic before his wife's death, he sinks further into a haze of alcoholic self-abuse and grief after her death and is useless to Bethany. In essence, both of Bethany's parents have died. According to Edelman, Warren fits the mold as the classic helpless father/surviving spouse:When chronic bereavement causes a father's helpless state, when his grieving seems to have no limits, he often succumbs to intense despair, apathy, or depression. He may lose interest in his appearance and let his home deteriorate, and his children may suffer emotional or physical neglect. Only one parent has died in this family, but a daughter feels that both have disappeared. (118)
In Motherless Daughters, one woman whose father emotionally abandoned her after the death of her mother describes the type of man she wants to fall in love with: "I would imagine a hero carrying me off on the back of a horse. The kind of relationship I dream of now is with a man who's always bigger than me, stronger than me, protecting me." (119). Perhaps Bethany's mother's death left her with such enormous emotional longing it could only be satisfied by an all-consuming love that would ultimately strangle her. Or perhaps Bethany was looking for a strong-willed man, a man unlike her father, who would protect her and guide her along life's rocky path. Whatever emotional needs were initially satisfied with her relationship with Joel, it seems as if Bethany finds what she's been looking for her entire life. The central issue is, however, at what point does a "strong" man become a "bully"? At what point does "protection" become "control"?
Students may choose to focus on questions about Bethany's decisions as another means of probing into Bridgers' characterization. Could Bethany have ever suspected Joel of being a potential batterer? Were there warning signs that Bethany just missed? More likely than not, Bethany had never come across spouse abuse in her young lifetime. In the 1930s, problems such as domestic violence weren't discussed in polite society. In many ways, little has changed in sixty years. This point is well-illustrated in a conversation I had with author Sue Ellen Bridgers in May 1998, at which time I asked her about a particular scene that I found most troubling. The scene is set on Christmas Day, and Bethany, who has been married to Joel nearly a year and is pregnant, leaves her sleeping husband on Christmas morning to visit her Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Mac. Bethany knows that she and Joel will be spending the holiday with his family, yet she is lonely and homesick and longs to visit Charlotte and Mac and to share some holiday joy with her own family. Charlotte welcomes Bethany with open and loving arms; her kitchen is full of family and love, a roaring fire warms the hearth and there are freshly-cooked biscuits and hot chocolate enough for everyone. Bethany is happy and laughing and filled with the holiday spirit when suddenly Joel storms into Aunt Charlotte's house. He is livid with Bethany that she would leave him to visit Charlotte and Mac without his approval; after all, Bethany's place is now with him, not Mac and Charlotte! For an instant, Bethany believes Joel has come to join her and the family for the holiday-but instead he slaps Bethany across her face, showing to all the world his great displeasure with his young wife. Aunt Charlotte and the rest of her family are horrified, and Joel immediately begs Bethany for forgiveness, which he is given. Curiously, Uncle Mac stands idly by, urging Charlotte to let the young couple "work things out."
I asked the author why Mac didn't physically admonish Joel with a punch or slap of his own, or at the very least, forcibly throw Joel out of Mac's house. I imagined Mac had a bit of the spirit of the Old West in him, and nothing could be worse for a man as righteous and God-fearing as Mac than to see a proper young lady such as Bethany be hurt. However, Sue Ellen reminded me that in this era for a cultured gentleman such as Mac to react that way wouldn't have been "polite" or "proper." She also reminded me that Mac does briefly discuss the incident with Joel. But still I find Mac's reaction problematic; and in my opinion, he lets Joel off the hook. Mac's only acknowledgment of the incident is a subtle piece of advice he gives Joel long after the incident in his kitchen on Christmas morning: "Things go better when a man treats a woman gentle" (108). Because Mac's reaction is so indifferent, Joel may feel there are no real consequences to his violent actions against his wife. (Note: I have found this particular section of All We Know of Heaven to be a good place to inform students of the historical contexts of violence against women, such as the origin of the phrase "rule of thumb." This British Common Law of 1767 allows that a man can chastise his wife with a whip or stick no greater than the width of his thumb, thereby legislating domestic abuse. Another, more current, example is that in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, aggravated assault against a stranger was a felony by law, but assaulting a spouse was a misdemeanor.)
Readers will not be able to discuss the characterization of Bethany and Joel without consideration of the issue of domestic violence. All of We Know of Heaven realistically illustrates that domestic violence doesn't just happen overnight. Although Bethany was not aware of such things in the 1930s, today we know there are definite patterns and warning signs of abuse. As a child and young adult, Joel Calder exhibited many of these warning signs, which include serious problems with temper tantrums, continual fighting at school or between siblings, (Joel is sent to a military boarding school to "straighten out"); lashing out at objects, inside or outside of the home, (older brother Ed comments on more than one occasion his fear of Joel's violent temper, knowing how Joel could "get worked up . . .over the least little thing"); treating pets cruelly or abusively (as a child, Joel kills a puppy); threatening younger siblings with violence (Joel accidentally kills his younger sister, yet we are left to wonder if it was really an accident); and attempting to get attention through hitting, kicking, or choking (as a young adult, Joel boxes to releases his pent-up rage at the world). Pre-battering violence includes verbal abuse, hitting, throwing, or breaking objects and making threats, and it's important to note that men who reach the pre-battering stage almost 100 percent of the time resort to actual battering. The beginning levels of violence include pushing, grabbing, and restraining; moderate levels include slapping, pinching, kicking, or pulling out clumps of hair. Severe levels of domestic violence are indicative by choking, beating with objects, use of weapons, and rape, all of which Joel inflicts on Bethany. Symptoms of abuse include the use (or misuse) of the following: emotional abuse; male privilege; economic abuse; coercion and threats; intimidation; isolation; minimizing, denying, and blaming; and children.
Joel exhibits many of the symptoms of abuse/misuse of power and control throughout the book. He engages in emotional abuse by making Bethany feel bad about herself (when pregnant, Joel found Bethany fat and no longer physically desirable), and by making her feel guilty for wanting to work outside the home. He uses male privilege by making all of the major decisions in their lives such as where to live; and keeping her in isolation by living as far away from her family as possible. The less Bethany saw of Charlotte and Mac, the happier Joel was. Joel uses intimidation by throwing dishes and smashing things, yelling at her for cutting her hair, and being physically violent, hitting and punching Bethany, and threatening her with a gun while she slept. Additionally, Joel's abuse of Bethany always follows the cycle of domestic violence: It begins with a period of tension, followed by an explosion of anger, rage, and violence, and finally the "honeymoon" phase, which is most pleasurable to the victim. It is here that he cries and begs forgiveness and promises it will never happen again. He is on his best behavior, until the tension begins and the cycle starts all over again.
Thus, All We Know of Heaven serves a social and didactic purpose in that it teaches young adults about domestic violence, while presenting them with a fully-drawn pair of protagonists.
We live in a harsh world, and I would expect some high school English teachers to come under fire for using All We Know of Heaven in their classrooms. Several high school teachers I have spoken with are fearful of teaching the book-they feel it's too violent, too sexual, too "dark." But take a look at all the "classic" texts currently being taught in our high schools on a regular basis; titles such as The Scarlet Letter, and Romeo and Juliet. How can the title of The Scarlet Letter be ignored-much less the text-for it is the very red letter "A" which stands for "adultery" that is the central theme of this often-taught classic? How can one teach Romeo and Juliet without addressing the subjects of premarital sex and suicide? These titles I have mentioned are also at times, too violent, too sexual, and too dark, yet they have stood the test of time in classrooms.
All We Know of Heaven is an exceptional novel, and, like the above mentioned classics, I believe it meets all of the criteria of Ken Donelson and Allen Pace Nilsen's suggestions for evaluating the problem novel, as established in Literature for Today's Young Adults (fifth edition.) The book is strong, interesting, and has a believable plot centered around a problem that a young person might really have (teen dating violence/domestic abuse); the novel has the power to transport the reader into another person's thoughts and feelings (especially by the author's use of the various characters' points of view); the novel's characters "come alive" as believable with a balance of good and negative qualities (we see Joel's good side, the side Bethany falls in love with, as well as his bad side); the setting enhances the story and is described so that the reader can get the intended picture (a vivid portrait of southern life during the depression); the novel has a worthwhile theme (domestic abuse); the novel flows steadily and easily, carrying the reader along; the novel speaks to more than a single group of readers; the novel demonstrates a subtlety that stimulates the reader to think about the various aspects of the story; and the novel has a way of dealing with the problems so that the reader is left with insights into either society of individuals or both (81).
Domestic violence should to be addressed in the classroom as students today live in an increasingly violent society. Sharing this book can help illuminate a subject that is too often ignored. I am optimistic there will come a time when controversial young adult novels such as All We Know of Heaven will be universally taught in the classroom. In Reading Their World, Linda K. Shadiow echoes my hopes: "Ébooks are part of the larger social contexts of the times. Whether the books promote, report, or challenge the context, they become part of the conversation about what it means to live and grow up in an external world that is often as confusing as one's internal world" (61).
For more information on domestic and dating violence, I recommend these resources:
Graham, Dee L. R. and Edna I. Rawlings. "Bonding with Abusive Dating Partners: Dynamics of Stockholm Syndrome." Dating Violence: Young Women in Danger. Barrie Levy, ed. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1991.
Levy, Barrie. In Love & In Danger. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1993.
Levy, Barrie, ed. Dating Violence: Young Women in Danger. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1991.
Levy, Barrie and Patricia Occhiuzzo Giggans. What Parents Need to Know About Dating Violence. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1995.
Malik, Shaista, Susan B. Sorenson, and Carol S. Aneshensel. "Community and Dating Violence Adolescents: Perpetration and Victimization." Journal of Adolescent Health. 21 (1997): 291Ð302.
Metro Nashville Police Department home page, Domestic Violence Division. http://www.telalink.net/~police/abuse/index.html
Bridgers, Sue Ellen. All We Know of Heaven. Wilmington, NC: Banks Channel Books, 1996.
Donelson, Kenneth L. and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.
Edelman, Hope. Motherless Daughters. New York: Dell Publishing, 1996.
Shadiow, Linda. K. "The Development of the Young Adult Novel: A Progression of Lessons and Lives." Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom. Virginia R. Monseau and Gary M. Salvner, eds. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers, 1992.
Susanne M. Miller recently graduated with a Master's degree in English from Youngstown State University, where she is employed as an Editorial Assistant for the NCTE publication, English Journal. She was previously employed in the marketing field as a writer and media director for eighteen years.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Miller, Susanne M. (1999). Why Sue Ellen Bridgers' All We Know of Heaven should be taught in our high schools. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 5-8.