By Simon Perras-Dyotte
In “Moving on”, a short story published in 2015 by Diane Cook, the characters live in a dystopian universe. Situated in the United States of America in what seems to be a timeline contemporary to ours, exists an organisation called the “ Placement team”. Very little details are given about the origin, the structure , or the reasons behind its existence. What is known is its purpose; When someone becomes a widow and is under an unknown wealth threshold, the group takes that person’s life over completely. All belongings are cataloged to be auctioned off to the neighborhood. The new widow, in this case a middle-aged woman about which we don’t even know the name, is then brought to a “Women’s shelter”. She is to be re-educated with the goal of being married off to someone else. A wealthy man will eventually pick her out of a list of widows to become his new wife. At no point in this chain of events has the protagonist have any word to say about the matter. This short story explores how the grieving process is a long and difficult one that, when not done properly, renders someone psychologically vulnerable to manipulation and control. A normal grieving process goes through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance(WebMD) . Someone who is given time to process the change and slowly work his way through the cycle is a lot more likely to return to normal within a reasonable time frame ( usually several weeks or a few months). In this case, authority figures try to force the widow to go straight to acceptance, so that she can accept a new husband as fast as possible. Problem is, the process is impossible to artificially accelerate without damaging someone’s mental state. After a good indoctrination, a layer of normality might be created, but under it, the negative but necessary stages of grief ( anger , bargaining and depression) will continue to build up, destroying the person from the inside and weakening her willpower. This might actually be useful to the “Placement team”, as it makes their patients/prisoners easier to control, and it’s not like their end goal is their wellbeing.
For starters, The women shelter is built, and administered, like a prison. The description of it is eerily similar to one that could very well apply to a high-security jail, as in this passage of page 46 describing the outside pen: “The fences are topped with barbed wire. Guards sit in booths and observe.”In addition to physically preventing the women from escaping, the infrastructure creates a feeling of powerlessness, hindering her grieving process by controlling her day to day life. They do not let her even a modicum of privacy, and she knows it. When her hysterically-written letter is found, she sees it as normal, thinking that, “I can’t even muster surprise. Of course they would find it”(Cook 52). She doesn’t feel like she can be herself at any moment, she is always watched. How can someone let their emotions out if they know someone is always watching over their shoulder ? Her only other option is bottling everything up, instead of working with her emotions.
Secondly, the main character is flooded in new information, all designed to transform her into the ideal wife; a woman that knows her way around the house, and obeys her husband. An example of this is given at page 49:
“There are so many Handouts and packets. We have been given schedules and rules and also suggestions for improving our lives and looks.[…]We are encouraged to take cooking classes, sewing classes, knitting classes[…] There are bedroom-technique potlucks and mandatory “Moving On” seminars.”
Right after losing her own husband, she is pushed to prepare for another one. The non-stop classes do not let her any time to grieve. She is brutally molded into someone else, her overloaded mind being easily manipulated. The protagonist is thought some techniques to actively forget about her dead husband. She is supposed to replace her husband with another random man, to erase all memories of him:
“We’re each given a framed picture of a man, some model, and I take it back to my cell and put it by my bed as instructed. I’m supposed to replace my husband’s face in my memory while being careful not to get too attached[…]What I prefer is no longer of concern”.(46)
The placement tries to rid her of her husband’s memory so that she can quickly be paired with another one. They want her to jump over stages of grief , going straight from shock to acceptance : “My case Manager says this is normal and that the feeling of detachment comes from shock She says that if I can hold on to it and skip over the bewildering grief that follows, I’ll be better off. The grief stricken spend more time here.”(46). They insist on the fact that she should aim to get out of there as fast as possible, by being chosen. If she wants to get out of this prison, she needs to act like they tell her to. Escaping is presented as a fantasy, something the protagonist knows is impossible. About those who try, she says: “ I doubt she got it. They never do”(51). This statement is actually a testament to the success of the Placement team at molding her into a women that just accepts her new life without making a fuss.
Another way they find to control her grief process i that when she seems to show some signs of having fun, they nip it in the bud. When she meets her “window friend” at the bingo night (used to keep social reflexes alive in the prisoners), he immediately has an effect on her. As soon as she starts laughing at his jokes, she is spotted: “ A guard watched us disapprovingly. We looked to be having too much fun.”( 48) Afterwards, when she starts flirting with him through the windows, she is denounced and immediately transferred to another floor. This shows that she is to be deprived of all individuality; she is not to have any relationships with another man. Her sole purpose is to become someone else’s wife. Widows seem to be treated as property in this dystopian universe, objects that are to be transformed into an ideal wife/husband. Having meaningful relationships, or just innocent fun, would greatly help the protagonist to get herself through the grieving process, especially the depression stage. However, this would make her less malleable and likely to fit well with her new husband, which is why this kind of behaviour is to be prevented at all costs. They even go as far as trying to make the inmates actively alter positive memories, in case they can’t outright delete them : “I’m supposed to pretend our wedding day was lonely, and that rather than love and happiness, I felt doubt, dread.”(46)
Finally, a last example of the Placement team forcing her hand is a pretty obvious one. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist starts to break down: “ My handwriting is looped and sleepy. The pages are worn… In the letter, I am begging. My tone near hysterics.”(52). In this letter, supposedly addressed to her “window friend”, she suggests they should escape from their respective shelters together. She invents a fantasy where they could elope together and live the perfect life, created from scratch. The problem is that the letter is clearly meant for her dead husband, with the man being a mere placeholder, as she admits to herself. When her letter is discovered, she is summoned by her “Case Manager”. She simply states :
“Be sensible… I can’t put your name on any list until you’ve shown you’re moving on.”
“But when do I grieve?”
“Now” She says, as though I have asked what day it is.(53)
They present grief as a very straightforward process, hand-waving away the problem. This is the final straw that breaks the protagonist, sending her into a depressive phase for several months. She lets herself go by overeating, until she is told to cut it out, as that kind of behaviour is frowned upon ( not because it’s unhealthy, but because it doesn’t look good in the eyes of the future husband). She starts to take what the Placement Team says as the only truth, without question: “ There are other ways to be happy. I read that in the manual. I’m trying them out. My case manager says this is healthy”(54) This is when we know their strategy has worked; She doesn’t have her own free will anymore; she does as she is told, as it should be…
Boyle, T.C., editor “Moving On” The Best American Short Stories 2015,New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015. 44-55.
“What Is Normal Grieving, and What Are the Stages of Grief?” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/balance/normal-grieving-and-stages-of-grief#1. Accessed October 15, 2017