“If you want to meet me, you will find me in my books,” is the opening scrawl of “A Body in the Service of Mind,” a 2021 documentary about the life and work of author Joyce Carol Oates — screened at Congregation Beth Shalom on Sunday.
The screening was part of the congregation’s CBS Film Series, which presents movies that are about someone, something or somewhere that is of importance within the Jewish community.
Leading Sunday’s screening was Zannah Warlick, director of the CBS Film Series. Warlick said showing these films is part of community outreach, but that she believed Sunday’s showing was unique.
“I think it’s very interesting for people to learn about creatives or anybody in history, and find out information that they didn’t already know or they didn’t know at all, and I didn’t know much about Joyce Carol Oates,” said Warlick. “I try to pick films that if you’re watching the film, you’re gonna learn something … I want you to walk away knowing something, you’re finding out something that you didn’t already know.”
Before the screening of the film, Warlick gave a brief introduction about Oates and why she felt it was important to screen the film to those in attendance:
Oates grew up poor in Upstate New York and lost her father to suicide at an early age. Her sister had “severe autism” and was institutionalized, never to be seen again.
The first of her family to graduate high school, Oates would also later be the first to earn a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, ultimately dropping out of her Ph.D. pursuit to devote her time to writing. Her first novel was published in 1961. Oates did not find out until the early 1970s that she was Jewish and that her heritage was hidden from her. This played heavily into her future works.
“The stories she has set to paper have often aimed to give voice to the marginalized and those who have struggled to feel heard or protected in the United States,” said Warlick. “Power, corruption and brutal marginalization are recurring thematic threads in her writing.”
The story of how the documentary came to be is interesting: A Swedish journalist named Stig Bjorkman was writing about Oates for a Swedish newspaper and traveled to Princeton, New Jersey — Oates’ home — to meet her. He was enamored by her. So, for 16 years, he begged to make a documentary about her, to which she finally conceded.
The film begins with her life in the present day: She wakes up early, skips breakfast, and writes until lunch before going on a walk or hike with her husband. Her diligence when writing is a hallmark of hers. She blamed her cats.
Oates was known for writing at least one novel a year, if not more, and when asked about her impressive volume she said every time she wanted to stand up from her chair, her cat would dig its claws into her legs. So she remained seated and wrote. In 62 years of writing, she’s completed 61 novels.
Her novels are often described as violent, which she attributes to upbringing and her sensitivity to the news. “Them” is a novel said to have really put her on the map and revolves around the 1967 riots in Detroit. The riot began as Detroit police raided a “blind pig” — an after-hours club. It was a hot and humid day.
“‘All hell is gonna break loose,’ He cried. ‘Heaviness. What could break loose out of this heaviness? The temperature was rising to 95, humidity high, dense, such heaviness such flat, baking oppressive heaviness as if the soul of the street itself were melting to vapor, losing all strength, disappearing,’” read the words of “Them,” narrated in the film by Laura Dern. “‘What was there to distinguish black from white in such a mist? Everything will crack open. It needs to be cracked open and pitted, the pits spat out. Why should everything stay fixed? We’re on a roller coaster and the car is rocking. A little wind is all we need.’”
Oates would, later in the film, in her own words, describe her writing style.
“In novels I’ve written, I’ve tried to give a shape to certain obsessions of mid-century Americans,” said Oates in the film. “A confusion of love and money of the categories of public and private experience of a demonic urge I sense all around me — an urge to violence is the answer to all problems. The use of language is all we have to pit against death and silence.”
The CBS Film Series is held every month. To find out which films it will be screening in the future, readers can email [email protected] to join its mailing list.