One of the most striking things about An Untamed State by Roxane Gay is how raw it is. Gay does not spare the reader or their potential sensibilities when she tells the story of Mireille Duval Johnson, a Haitian-American lawyer, mother, and wife. Mireille has committed the crime of being born to a family of privilege in her captors’ eyes, and over the course of 13 days, they will remind her of that using mentally, physically, and spiritually abusive methods.
To be sure, Mireille’s privilege is really only strikingly evident in Haiti, still considered the poorest country in the Americas according to the CIA World Bank (thanks to some racist economic embargoes), and one of the poorest in the world. Gay paints a vivid picture of a beautiful island where those with the resources live an idyllic life, while the unfortunate endure misery. Mireille is naturally drawn to this polarized island, even telling her white, American husband Michael that he cannot love her if he doesn’t love Haiti the way that she does. It is on one of their visits to her parent’s luxurious Haitian chateau that her attackers strike; taking her captive and leaving her husband to deal with a country he doesn’t know well, and bourgeois in-laws that he’s not particularly fond of.
Her kidnappers don’t see her as a human being, but as something to be humiliated, violated, abused, and beaten repeatedly for money. Her abusers don’t care about the long nights her father worked, or the sacrifices made in the U.S. by both parents in order to have a better life both here and in Haiti where her parents now permanently reside. All they know is that her parents live in a mansion in view of the people living in abject poverty right outside its high concrete walls.
Mireille’s kidnappers are led by a charismatic sociopath nicknamed Commander. He is manipulative and baleful, envious, and is aroused by inflicting pain, and all manner of inhumanity on women. Because Mireille is not a shrinking violet, and she is much like her stubborn father, she clashes with Commander frequently, who in turn, makes it his business to break her down in every way imaginable.
For Mireille’s father, principles are vastly more valuable than freeing his youngest child posthaste, which becomes a serious point of contention between him and Michael, who wants her back immediately. As Mireille makes call after call at the behest of Commander for a hefty ransom, we see her father remain disconcertingly calm, and more focused on sending a message to the poor masses by way of Mireille’s misfortune, than freeing his daughter.
via WeHaitians.com, 2006
There is no beautiful reunion when she is freed, either. She might be free in the physical sense, but she is in a mental solitary confinement from which only she can free herself. Anyone who attempts to pry her from her emotional and mental confines is met with resistance, and rightly so. I don’t want to get into what exactly Mireille experiences while holed up for two weeks, but I cannot stress enough that Gay doesn’t cut any corners, and she isn’t vague when describing the abuse meted out by the kidnappers.
Gay is an amazing writer. I often read several books at the same time, but I couldn’t pick up any others because An Untamed State is that captivating. Gay is incredibly gifted at storytelling, and at times, I honestly felt like a silent observer, or a ghost in the shadows bearing silent witness to the atrocities Mireille had to experience. That is how powerful Gay’s writing is. With that said, I could have done without some of the dramatics between Mireille and Michael. I didn’t think it was necessary to go that in-depth into their immaturity for the book to be great. It was definitely a bit distracting to read about how high-strung Mireille is, and how doltish and self-centered Michael can be. If I could have reached into the book to slap Michael, I would have… Several times.
I can’t say if Gay was making a statement about privilege and remaining “blissfully” ignorant, but the reality wasn’t lost on me. Mireille and her family don’t seem to care about the impoverished women who are sexually assaulted just outside of their front door. They’re concerned with planning a lavish party or going to the beach. It just goes to show that being ignorant of the world around you won’t make your “bubble” impervious. In the end, what affects the most vulnerable, can, and if possible, will come for any and everyone. Hopefully, none of us have to learn the way Mireille did.