That’s the question that permeates Michelle Huneven’s thought-provoking, conversation-sparking 2009 novel Blame, the story of the aftermath of what seems like an open-and-shut case. Patsy MacLemoore, a boozy history professor with a string of blackouts behind her, is accused of running down—and killing—a mother and daughter. Patsy herself believes she is to blame for the tragic accident, and she offers no defense before being convicted of the crime. Her years after prison are dedicated to turning her life around. But then new evidence surfaces... Brigitt Hauck, RealSimple.com’s associate editor, moderated our May 2014 discussion of Blame.
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Blame: Chapters 1 Through 11
I don’t know about you, but I’m thoroughly enjoying our May book. In fact, I’m so invested that I’ve had to find alternate reads to prevent myself from getting too far ahead of schedule!
Though I’m turning the pages quickly, I feel like I’m still waiting for something—I’m not quite sure what—to happen. It may be because the beginning of the book led me to think Joey Hawthorne would play a more integral role in the story. Despite my interest in Patsy’s life, I can’t help but wonder if and how Joey’s story might surface again. Brice, though now her ex, still plays a significant role in Patsy’s life. Will Joey too?
Though Patsy has certainly done a terrible thing, I feel a sense of sympathy toward her. At first, it seems as if she has it all: a steady job, a beautiful home, and an enjoyable personal life. After the accident, she too admits that she thought she had things under control: “She’d always balanced her excesses with hard work. She held it together, or thought she had.” Being about the same age as Patsy’s character and living the young professional life in a big city, I hear the phrase “work hard, play hard” frequently. Is that mentality an excuse to engage in potentially risky behavior? Were you surprised when Patsy’s excesses caught up to her? To me, the scary thing about Patsy’s accident is that it proves how quickly your life (and other’s lives) can unravel when you walk such a fine line between control and out of control.
Coming off an Orange Is the New Black marathon, I was surprised that more of the book wasn’t devoted to Patsy’s experience in prison. There were a lot of similarities in terms of the prisons’ housing and atmosphere, but Patsy’s two years seemed to fly by (easy for me to say!). I would have liked to see more relationship development and understand more about how Patsy’s time in prison affected her. Though, I’m curious, did you think her sentence was fair?
During Patsy’s time in prison, we do get a glimpse into her growing relationship with Mark Parnham, the husband and father of the victims. I always find it fascinating when a victim’s family members can find a way to relate to the wrongdoer and even forgive him or her. I wish I could say I’d have that kind of strength. Are you surprised by Mark Parnham’s openness? How do you think this relationship might evolve as Patsy adjusts to life outside of prison?
As Patsy leaves prison to move to an apartment Brice arranged for her at the Lyster, I couldn’t help but worry she was breaking rule number one by returning to the arms of someone who tolerated (and, on occasion, may have encouraged) her excessive drinking. That bundled with Brice’s involvement with a younger man and her mother’s death had me holding my breath in anticipation of a relapse. Fortunately, it seems as if Gilles will actually be the type of support system that Patsy needs. How do you think AA, the therapist, Patsy’s friends, and even Mark Parnham will help her find some semblance of normalcy again?
I know we’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I think there’s plenty to mull over. Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments. I’ll check back in next week to discuss through page 203 (through Chapter 23 for all those with e-readers).
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Blame: Chapters 12 Through 23
I hope you’re all still thoroughly enjoying our May book—I know I am.
Let’s start with Joey: Many of you shared the sentiment that Joey must resurface at some point. She has, but very peripherally as March’s friend who occasionally happens to pop up. Maybe CatKib is onto something: “The book is about Patsy’s (the protagonist, not Joey) journey through her life. The first part with Joey plays in with her experiences with binge drinking with Brice (and giving Joey alcohol while piercing her ears!).” Perhaps Joey’s character simply helped show the depth of Patsy’s issues with alcohol.
Another comment that struck me was one from CSterle, who wrote: “Particularly, I’m concerned about Patsy and how she doesn’t really seem to struggle with getting sober much.” I fully agree, but I think that Patsy struggles with her addiction in other ways. It’s not always alcohol that’s the problem, but rather her inability to resist temptation. We see signs of this in her relationships with both Ian and Lewis. Patsy seems to know the implications of her behavior, but doesn’t seem to change her actions in response. Of her relationship with Ian, she says: “I know I shouldn’t put up with it. But I’m hooked. And I hate it. But at least it’s not drinking, or drugs.” Does that mentality bother you? I find it extremely narrow-minded. Just because your actions aren’t influenced by drinking or drugs doesn’t mean they’re not problematic.
I do have to admire Patsy’s ability to stay sober, despite temptations. I was rather appalled that Sarah showed such disregard of her friend’s issue by serving wine at an intimate dinner. Even her husband, Henry, seemed to think that was inappropriate. Still, Patsy resists and sticks to her guns even while her romantic interest continues to drink during many of their dates. Patsy seems committed to doing something good with her life. Do you think it’s possible to atone for such a grave mistake? If I were in her shoes, I wonder if I could ever forgive myself, even if I had been forgiven by others.
When Gilles is diagnosed with AIDS, we finally see that Patsy has come a long way in managing her emotions and impulses. Upon hearing the news, Gilles breaks down and Patsy holds him close (despite concerns at the time about how the disease was transmitted). Patsy tells herself: “Her own life had taught her that the surges of terror, the sense of drowning in a cold black wave, were temporary. Sooner or later a person crawled back onto solid ground.” I think that’s a reminder we could all use once in a while.
I wonder if part of Patsy’s stabilization can be attributed to her relationship with Cal? I was certainly shocked when they got together, and was particularly intrigued by Audrey’s hesitation to their marriage. Because of that, I was not surprised when Lewis entered the picture. Patsy and Lewis may not have had a distinctly romantic relationship, but do you think they crossed the line considering Patsy’s marriage to Cal?
As we near the end of the book, I wonder what kind of surprises we are in for. Will Patsy find a way to save her marriage with Cal? Will Mark resurface? We’ll reconvene after we’ve all finished the book, next Thursday, May 22, with (hopefully) some answers and plenty to discuss.
Before we dive in, I’m happy to announce that Blame’s author, Michelle Huneven, will be joining our discussion. If you have questions for her, simply comment below by EOD Friday, May 30, and she’ll answer them in an upcoming post.
Now, shall we start with Joey again? A few of you guessed there was something more to the accident.
You were right!
The way this information was revealed seemed slightly far-fetched to me, but I thought it was a clever way to loop Joey back into the storyline and tie up a few loose ends for those of us who wondered about her significance to the story. Were you surprised by the big reveal? I’m fairly certain I gasped out loud on the train.
I admired Patsy’s restraint in sharing the news. Rather than shouting it from the rooftops in an attempt to clear her name, her rational side kicked in to ensure the facts were verified first. Then, once it had been formally determined that Patsy was not driving the car, she opted not to share her story with the press. I have to admire that. I thought it showed both self-respect and continued respect for the Parnham family—even if it meant her name might never be fully cleared in the public eye. “She hoped she had helped. That would be some recompense. To provide a false tale that helped others was not such a bad thing.” Why do you think Patsy is still so willing to accept blame?
Perhaps it’s due in part to Cal’s reaction to the news. I’m curious: What did you think of his reaction? I thought it was really sad. In a sense, Cal is right when he says, “What happened got you where you needed to be.” Patsy was so out of control; she couldn’t even remember what happened that night. That being said, her whole life was drastically affected by an event that didn’t even happen the way everyone had decided it did. Sure, Patsy should accept some responsibility for her dangerous behavior, but was it necessary to spend the better part of a lifetime atoning for the consequences of someone else’s actions? It saddened me that her partner not only couldn’t share in her excitement, but even made her feel guilty about it: “A hot tide of guilt, familiar but with a fresh new froth of shame—shame that she’d thought she was free of wrongdoing—spread through her.” How much blame, if any, do you think Patsy should assume?
As the novel came to a close, I wasn’t surprised that Patsy decided to move out. I don’t think you can fully blame either one of them for the degradation of their marriage. They both kept significant secrets from each other and they showed little emotional connection as the marriage went on. So what do you think: Was sobriety and Patsy’s attempt to find a positive constant the bond holding their relationship together? How do you think Patsy will fare as she embarks on her own adventure with less of a weight on her shoulders?
Thanks to everyone for reading along this month!
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It’s a Michelle Huneven Fest!
I’ve got so much to report, starting with the fact that Michelle Huneven has answered all of our questions about Blame, which you’ll find below with a message to you from Michelle herself. AND, here’s a bit of nice news: She and her publisher have also set aside a signed copy of Michelle’s new novel, Off Course ($26, amazon.com), exclusively for a member of the NOBC. Last night, I threw the names of all of our May participants into an envelope and pulled out that of our friend karingham, so the copy is now on its way to her. As for the rest of us, the next best thing: We can get a peek at the book by reading the first chapter here. Enjoy!
To the Real Simple Book Club:
I am so pleased and honored that you selected Blame as your book for May. Thank you! I hope Patsy et al engendered a lively discussion. I enjoyed answering your questions, and wish you all many wonderful reading experiences to come.
From reader aStarc: This book was filled with so much raw truth and honesty if felt like an autobiography. I actually was shocked by seeing “novel” and not “biography.” Where did the inspiration from this book come from? Did you know someone like Gilles? Cal? or other characters from the book, because if not, then bravo to you, they seemed like “real” people.
Thank you. I am flattered and gratified that the novel seemed so true and honest that it appeared to be autobiographical. In fact, it is surprisingly UN-autobiographical. Of course, it has bits and pieces of me and people I know in it, but none of the characters, except for Brice and Gloria, are based on real people—and Brice is so changed that his prototype, the person I based him on, didn’t recognize himself. The inspiration came from three different places.
1.) I heard a man tell a story once about how his ex-wife was murdered at a time when he was in an alcoholic blackout. He assumed that he had done it. “The motive was sure there!” he said. But he hadn’t killed her. In spite of himself, he had an ironclad alibi, and all the evidence pointed to someone else, a man who eventually confessed. This story unfolded quickly, in a matter of days, but what would happen if you assumed you were guilty for YEARS?
2.) I’m also interested in how people remake their lives when they’ve gotten into trouble. I wanted a smart, intellectual woman to get into deep trouble, then lead a new, reformed life, only to discover later that she wasn’t guilty of the crime, or at least not as guilty as she thought. Was the good life she’d led still a life worth living? Did those years of service and atonement amount to a good life, even though they were inspired by a misapprehension? Can we really, reliably determine our own redemption? I didn’t know the answers to these questions when I started writing Blame, and I’m not sure I know them now. But Blame was written, in part, to think about deeply about these.
3.) My third inspiration is, in fact, one of those autobiographical nuggets scattered throughout the novel: Like Patsy, I was never automatically convinced that I was a good person. I worried as a child that I was “claimed by darkness.” I wanted to be good. I didn’t DO anything terrible or criminal, I wasn’t mean or dishonest, yet I felt guilty and blameworthy and lived with a great deal of shame, just in being myself. Perhaps this is a result of certain parenting, perhaps it’s just a temperament some people are born with—but there are a lot of us who are like that. What happens when someone who is so shame-based gets accused of something criminal? They pick up the guilt, like a check on the table. They take it on.
As for Gilles: I once met a “boy toy,” a kid about 17 who had already been lovers with (and discarded by) some very famous men. I was shocked by the kid’s history—and yet the young man himself was very engaging and sweet and smart. I wrote Gilles partly to understand and empathize with a person so far out of my usual realm of experience.
Cal is a type, one I’ve run into many times. He is the wise man with the crazy wife, the man who lets his wife “carry” his illness/neurosis/darkness so that he can appear saintly. Carl Jung once wrote about a man who seemed saintly from every aspect; Jung examined this man for days and could find no flaw in his apparent goodness and perfection. “And then,” Jung writes, “I met his wife.” When Patsy is no longer the wounded bird, as she gets mentally and emotionally healthier and stronger, Cal has less and less connection to her. When she is possibly freed from her guilt, he can’t tolerate the enormous shift in their dynamic. He functions best with people he can take care of, like the men he sponsors, and his daughter, March.
From reader CatKib: Where do you put the “Blame” on crimes as the result of alcohol? Society says it is a disease or addiction for one half of society (upper class and celebrity types) that rehab will take care of in 90 days or a social stigma of a people who are on local Crime Stoppers or police blotter for theft, DUI, and murder... I liked the character of Gilles. I believe he would have been truly happy (unlike Cal’s jealousy?) with Patsy and would have wanted to throw a party. What do you think? I like history as Patsy. Is it a passion for you?
You have gone straight to a very interesting and complex ethical question and injustice that looms large over our society. A wealthy, privileged person can be an wild, rampaging addict or alcoholic and only see hospitals and rehab centers; if they steal or rob or, like Patsy, kill someone, they or their family can usually hire a good enough lawyer to minimize their punishment. Poorer people, especially POC, who exhibit similar behavior usually have an entirely different experience. I did research what sentence Patsy would receive for her crime and, frankly, I was shocked at how minimal it was. She pled guilty and didn’t ask for or receive any kind of special treatment—and still, she was sentenced to only four years, which was cut in half for good behavior. But there was the interesting extenuating circumstance, which I discovered in my research, that she couldn’t be prosecuted for being drunk because she was on her own property!
I agree with you: Gilles would’ve thrown a big party for Patsy—and catered it, too, with all her favorite foods. He would’ve said, “Oh, don’t listen to Auntie. He sees you freed from guilt and he’s just afraid you’re going to fly away!” I am not a huge history buff, and not a history professor. I have a close friend who is a history prof, and she was one of several I consulted in the writing of Blame. I do enjoy reading history—and writing about Patsy led me to read a lot of history. You can’t really tell from the novel, but I read many books about the progressive era and American cultural history in the first half of the twentieth century; I got terrific reading lists from the history professors I consulted. My favorite of all the books I read was Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Although published first in 1962, you will read it and think it was written last week: It describes the two factions of American thinking, the populist and the intellectual, and how they have been at loggerheads since Andrew Jackson came to prominence in the early nineteenth century. The book is beautifully written, easy to read, and full of colorful characters, good stories, and clear, compelling analysis.
From reader dconnolly: 1.) Why did you choose to omit quotation makes for all dialogue? (This did distract me in the beginning, but then seemed to help serve as a filter for some events). 2.) Do you have personal experiences with AA?
1.) I like to give myself a technical challenge in each book and omitting quotation marks made me think much more about dialogue as I wrote it. I did hear that a lot of people found it challenging and—a confession—sometimes when I dip back into Blame, I, too, find it challenging! But I also think that the lack of quotation marks gave the novel an immersive interiority, that it puts you somehow deep in there with Patsy, experiencing the world as she does, from inside her mind. If you read my new book, Off Course, you will be pleased to see that I use quotation marks. Scarily, the book I’m writing now sometimes uses them and sometimes doesn’t. I don’t know what to make of that!
2.) Alcoholics Anonymous is an anonymous program, so if I did have personal experience with the program, I would be obliged not to disclose it. The reason for this, as I understand it, is not only to protect AA members from the social stigma of alcoholism, but also to protect the organization from its members setting themselves up as examples of the program, or experts. Apparently, in the early days of AA, certain celebrities went public about their membership in AA, and then relapsed, which didn’t help AA’s reputation and potentially discouraged many in need of help from seeking it there. I wrote about the anonymity issue regarding Blame for the L.A. Times Opinion page. If you’re interested, here is the link.
From reader IzaKorwel: Why were the victims of the accident Jehovah’s Witnesses? Was there something deeper in symbolism of that, or just an explanation to put them in Patsy’s driveway?
I am interested in religion and the variety of religions. I went to seminary for two years in my late thirties thinking I would become a Unitarian Universalist minister. My second novel, Jamesland, is all about religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an extremely interesting organization, the only “apocalyptic” sect that has incorrectly predicted the end of the world three times yet continued to thrive. I had a close friend and an ex-boyfriend who were both ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and we talked in depth about their experiences. For the novel, I also read a lot about the JWs, and I talked to those who knock on my door. So my answer to your question is: both. JWs are fairly often in my driveway, which gave me the idea. But I was also very interested in how families can be internally split when some of the members become JWs and others don’t. It’s not uncommon, and can cause deep rifts, although the official JW position is that members should stay married to their non-JW spouses. I imagine that Mark Parnham had very complicated emotions about his wife and daughter being active members of a religion whose values and beliefs he could not share.
From reader BringSunshine: Why did you choose to have Gilles die? He was such a colorful character that I would love to have remained through the story.
Oh, I know! I hated that Gilles died. But it was the early ’80s, and young gay men who’d had unprotected sex with multiple partners had a shockingly low survival rate. I lost a number of friends and acquaintances during that time, many of them as colorful, talented, and delightful as Gilles. In writing about him, I hope that in some ways, I memorialized them. The loss of Gilles in the book is just an inkling, the faintest echo of the tremendous losses suffered during the AIDS epidemic.
From reader karingam: Is this book based in part from true accounts of prison or AA stories? I loved the ending! We can use our imaginations to lead Patsy in several directions!
When writing this book, I talked to everyone I knew or could meet who’d been to prison of jail. The character of Gloria (Patsy’s sponsor) is based on a woman I knew who went on a manic tear, embezzled money, and then drove across country handing it out to people. (She, like Gloria, said that it was almost worth it, except for the prison part…) This woman generously told me all about prison and fire camp, but remembering her experiences in detail was not easy for her, and I watched as her face grew darker and more troubled as she went deeper into her story. I was touched and grateful for her willingness to revisit the terrible trauma of being in prison for the sake of my novel. Later, when Blame was published, I was extremely gratified when I went to read from it and speak at a halfway house for women in recovery who were transitioning out of prison. Those who had read the novel refused to believe that I hadn’t done time. “Come on, Michelle. You can tell US!” they said. But I haven’t been to prison. Even so, just imagining it was intense. I spent months writing about Patsy in prison (researching, writing, rewriting), and those were dark months. After she got out and was living in Pasadena, I noticed that my whole life brightened. I felt free, too!
I’m glad you liked the ending. Some people have found it disconcerting, and one reader sent me a “better” ending that went like this: There was a knock at the door. Patsy opened it, and there was Lewis. And then, his lips were on hers and their souls met in joy, and would never again part. THE END. For some reason, I love that: It makes me laugh and laugh.
From RS.com deputy editor Maura Fritz: We talked a lot here about Patsy’s guilt and her punishment and about Cal’s implication of her regardless of whether her name gets cleared. Do you see validity in his point?
I was surprised by how many readers were divided on this point. Some have said to me, “Of course, Cal is absolutely right.” Others think he’s a rigid old sourpuss. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. Cal, for all his recovery, is not a very self-aware person. On some level, I think he is mostly reacting to the fact that he could lose his last connection to Patsy if she is cleared of wrongdoing. The guilty, beaten-down, fragile Patsy is the woman he married. Already, over the years, she has stabilized and become a lot less fragile and a lot more independent; with the revelation that she was not driving the car, she potentially becomes less guilty as well. Cal is reacting to that possibility, which could irrevocably alter their dynamic. So his knee-jerk reaction to Patsy is DON’T change. He wants to keep her implicated and guilty because those are some of the factors that originally bound them together.
At the same time, Cal makes some valid points. Her drinking led directly to a terrible and tragic situation. The accident was an accident no matter who was driving the car; but it was an accident that might have been prevented, or at least cleared up sooner if the parties in the car hadn’t been drunk. Patsy was clearly victimized by a cowardly man who didn’t come forward to claim his share of responsibility, a man who left the scene of a fatal accident. But Cal would assert that she was victimized first and foremost by her own drunken judgment. It is said that for every time a drunk driver is apprehended by law enforcement, he or she has driven drunk 25 other times. Think of how many times Patsy drove drunk and wasn’t caught! If she was caught and incarcerated for the one time she actually handed the keys to someone else (who in this case was another drunk person, of highly questionable character), does it matter that much? I would say it does matter, and it doesn’t.
Patsy should feel some relief. She has, for the past two decades, arranged her life to make amends for the terrible tragedy she caused. Knowing that she wasn’t fully responsible for the crime has got to ease her burden. Of course it also brings up those questions I wanted to address: Has her life of atonement and good works (not to mention her marriage) been worthwhile? I would argue that some of it has been worthwhile and some of it hasn’t. One thing is clear, she has outgrown her marriage. The lifting of some responsibility for the accident at last allows Patsy to be done with her self-imposed reparations. Enough is enough. She paid her “debt to society” with prison. She’s made amends to Mark Parnham by actively addressing and improving their relationship and by paying for his son’s schooling. She will always carry sadness and bear some responsibility, but I think she deserves to feel that the active work of her atonement is complete, and she can now move unburdened into a more open-ended and hopefully happier time in her life.