Books · Emotional Health

Women as Victims: ‘The Hand That Feeds You,’ by A.J. Rich

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


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Last week, I wrote about women who put up with their husband’s “epic flaws” because the pleasures and benefits of long-term marriage and family in the context of love and forgiveness make it worth it in the end. But how do you know when epic flaws are actually abusive traits that are harmful to you — and that love has nothing to do with it? A new novel, by A.J. Rich, called The Hand That Feeds You, attempts to answer that question while at the same time providing a new entry into the genre of highbrow semi- literary thrillers.
The novel has an interesting history: it is actually the work of three writers. It started with a true story from the life of writer Katherine Russell Rich. She had been dating a man who eventually proposed marriage. But he was vague about the details of his personal life and he was unable to spend holidays with her. After growing more and more skeptical, she hired a professional hacker who discovered through his email that he was deceiving not just her, but several other women. He was actually living with another woman, but he was also dating several others on the side.
In the grand tradition of a woman writer scorned (see Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, for one), Rich began writing a novel about her experience. She had just begun, however, when the breast cancer she had beat 24 years earlier, something she had written about in her acclaimed memoir The Red Devil, returned and ended her life just a few months later.

The story was resurrected by two of her closest friends: Jill Ciment, a literary novelist, and Amy Hempel, a writer of short stories. Neither had ever tried writing a thriller. But the end result is The Hand That Feeds You, a wonderful, complex, deeply felt novel that speaks very directly to the question of why women are so often become victims.
The protagonist, Morgan Prager, is a student of “victimology” at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she is a psychology graduate student. Through one of her online research projects (probably not a good idea, ladies) she meets a wonderful, sensitive Canadian man, Bennett, who lives in Boston. As the novel opens, Bennett has been spending more and more time with Morgan in New York. They have just decided to marry when she comes home in the middle of the day one afternoon to her Williamsburg apartment to find he has been mauled to death by dogs—her two pit bull rescues, and her beloved Burmese Mountain dog, Cloud.
The rest of the novel involves unraveling this mystery. What happened in her apartment? How were her gentle dogs driven to murder? Trying to get in touch with his parents in Canada, Morgan discovers Bennett’s identity is a fiction — all of it. But then, who is he, and what were his motives with her and the other mysterious women who keep popping up as she investigates him with the help of her lawyer brother, his law school friend who is an animal rights activist, and a glamorous woman who volunteers at the shelter where the city is keeping her dogs while a decision is weighed on whether they should be “destroyed” as dangerous animals.
The story deals very compellingly with the issue of how intelligent, savvy women can be taken in by abusive men. For example, looking back, Morgan sees how she ignored all kinds of red flags
that might have warned her that something was wrong with Bennett. He was controlling and arbitrary. His answers about his past always made sense somehow, but the end result was that she was never able to meet his friends, family, work associates, etc. for some reason. It always worked out that they were isolated, alone together. And, of course, he didn’t get along with the dogs. . .
In Morgan’s research, she asks the question if there is a type of woman who is attracted to the role of victim, and the answer is yes, and also no. There’s no doubt that one of the overwhelming factors that predispose women to being abused is a history of abuse, especially in childhood. Women grow up feeling ashamed and unworthy, and abusive men can sense potential victims. Yet why are so many women, like the character in this story, who have no history of abuse, able to fall for men who mistreat them? It was clear that the writers, Rich’s friends Hempel and Ciment, had some investment in the story that may have gone beyond seeking revenge for their friend: ‘“Did we kill him on Page 4 or something?” Ms. Hempel said, giggling, in a New York Times interview. “We couldn’t wait.” One can’t help wondering if they too weren’t drawing on personal experience, or at least, a wellspring of anger, when they wrote these scenes of a world-class heel getting payback. And if we haven’t been there personally, we all know someone who has.

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  • Tammy Brownstein November 29, 2015 at 8:47 am

    I really feel for the woman that feel they have nowhere to go just because they would like the long term marriage. I mean, what kind of life is that when you cannot really enjoy it the way you want because of the man you are married to?