Somewhere around 5 billion articles, reviews, essays, and Intro to Contemporary Lit term papers take up the subject of “Violence in the Writings of Joyce Carol Oates.” It’s nothing new to cite the physical and explicit, subtle and subversive, brutalities that pervade so many of Oates’s stories and novels. But Oates is generally dismissive of any suggestion that her work is uniquely violent. Or at least unusually, unnecessarily so: she once famously remarked, “When people say there is too much violence in my books, what they are saying is there is too much reality in life.”
In “Between Us There’s a Secret,” we notice the characteristic undercurrent of impending violence in the ninth-graders who taunt Juliet, as well as the ominous “shaved-headed boy.” But what initially seems dangerous about Stonecrop turns out to be a kind of benevolent omniscience; he is not threat but savior. Instead of finding a world in which tragedy and crime are inevitable ends, we see intimidation and force used constructively, the grim facts of contemporary existence recast.
And what of that strange foreshadowing toward the story’s conclusion? “There would be no further close contact” between Juliet and her unlikely savior, “no words exchanged, for more than four years.” “Between Us There’s a Secret” is excerpted from a novel, and this line can be read as a hint at the eventual development of a relationship between Juliet and Stonecrop. At first this suggestion is jarring. Though Juliet has been saved from her pubescent aggressors, we’re so attuned to danger that kindness as the conclusion seems improbable, even incongruous. But perhaps this is Oates’s intent: violence and love inextricably muddled. In these perplexities, does Oates come closer to the “reality in life”?