In a partial and disorganized set of notes for an essay for her English class at a private school, a sixteen-year-old girl tells the story of a set of events that lead her to a house of correction and to an opportunity to contemplate her life and begin over again. Though the details are not presented in chronological order, the full story does emerge upon careful reading.
At fifteen years old, the narrator, the child of wealthy parents in one of Detroit’s most affluent suburbs, escalates her habits of stealing and vandalizing by shoplifting a pair of gloves from an “excellent” department store and gets caught. Her parents react by hushing everything up and smoothing it over, and she never gets whatever attention she was craving. Her mother just wants to know why “if she wanted gloves, why didn’t you say so?”. The narrator thinks, “I wanted to steal, but not to buy,” but she doesn’t tell her mother. Consequently, her next act of rebellion is even more drastic. She walks out of school and runs away to downtown Detroit, where she is so out of place that she doesn’t even know what a pawn shop is for. Alone, vulnerable, and still desperate for the affection her chilly parents deny her, she is easy prey for Clarita, a prostitute, and her pimp, Simon, a drug addict. After an unspecified period of prostitution and abuse, the narrator is eventually picked up by the police and turned over to a juvenile facility. There she clings stubbornly to her rebellious posture and refuses to give information that would allow her to be released to her parents. Acting tough, “she says to the matron / ‘m not talking about anything, not because anyone warned her not to talk, but because she will not talk.” She tries to fit in with the other girls there and seems to take some pride and pleasure in thinking she belonged. She is sadly mistaken, however, as she discovers one night when two of the girls corner her in the bathroom and beat her savagely, just because she is rich and white and privileged. After a stay in the hospital she returns to her Bloomfield Hills “traditional-contemporary home” with her parents. By the time she composes these notes, she has returned to school at Baldwin Country Day and is in the care of a psychiatrist. She seems to be working out her desire toward self-expression and her quest for identity through her writing and her therapy rather than through desperate and self-destructive behaviors like the ones that landed her first in Simon’s bed and then in the house of corrections.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Joyce Carol Oates, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.