Narcissism in Cynthia Bond’s RUBY

RUBY, Cynthia Bond’s debut novel, published by Hogarth, a trademark of Random House, is a love story between Ruby and Ephraim, a story about racism and abuse, and a story of survival, redemption and hope. After reading the first few pages, I knew this was a story that I would experience and not just read. Bond wrote the story in three books–Part One – Wishbone, Part Two – Two Bits and Part Three – Revelations and it’s 330 pages, but I read it in one weekend. Some aspects of the novel, Bond explains, are from her own life–“Some of my first memories are of listening to my mother tell stories about her childhood home, a small all-black East Texas town.”

Bond must know that wherever there is abuse and innocence intertwined, narcissism is also present. It is not until almost half way through the story that we learn the true nature of one Bond’s characters, Reverend Jennings, Ephraim’s father. On the one hand, Reverend Jennings is a (traveling) preacher, married with two children; and on the other hand, he is the kingpin of bedevilment and debauchery, depending on whose company he’s in. Since he is a preacher, above respectability especially during those times–the Jim Crow Era, no one questioned him or his motives, least not Ruby’s grandmother when he offered to drive six-year-old Ruby to Miss Barbara in Neches where she has made arrangements for Ruby to live-in and help out for which Miss Barbara would send her to school–since he was going that way to preach. Miss Barbara ran a bridal boutique, among other things…

A young Reverend Jennings, on one of his traveling preaching engagements, met the lovely (but naïve) Otha Daniels, who had just graduated from high school and was on her way to Fisk University, a prestigious all-black university, a bequeath of her deceased father, not to mention the fact that she was twelve years younger than he. However, within a matter of days, Reverend Jennings had managed to convince Otha to “rip out the seams of her own dreams and patch them into his.” They secretly married within the same amount of days, much to the dismay of Otha’s mother, but there was nothing that her mother could do about it. Otha’s fate had been sealed.

Although the honeymoon lasted a month, less than a week after their marriage, Reverend Jennings started complaining about everything Otha did, began coaching her on how she should dress and act when he was preaching, resented Otha’s “education,” and shamed her “in front of the congregation by speaking about Northern women who thought the rib was bigger than Adam,” when the guest congregation wasn’t responding the way he wanted. Of course, if Otha had really felt that way, she would not have thrown her dreams away for his.

By the time they arrived in Liberty, the small all-black East Texas town where Reverend Jennings lived, a few weeks later, his “face was a sullen stone that only cracked at night between white sheets.” When Otha’s mother became sick about a year later, Reverend Jennings refused to give Otha the money to go see her mother. However, he relinquished the money for the funeral a month later.

Only two of their nine children survived to birth, a girl, who at twelve had learned to despise her mother, as she poured coffee for her father each morning because her mother “was to slow about it,”  believing that God had singled out her father “to do his work, to rattle the Devil’s cage.” I suspect that Otha, by then, knew different. Once the Reverend beat his son Ephraim and “busted his lip, cracked two ribs and sent his last two baby teeth, the right upper canine and the molar beside it, down his gullet.” According to Otha, Reverend Jennings “hated the boy with a deep, unruly passion.”

Otha knew that there were other women. She could tell “by the way their eyes leapt and danced when the Reverend placed a hand on their arm or shoulders, by the sly cut of their smiles when they greeted her each Sunday.” When Otha suspected something even more sinister, that was the final straw as far as Reverend Jennings was concerned, and Otha found herself losing her grip on reality.

They all kinds of crazy. Some folks drink theyselves to stupid. Others so empty, gluttony take they belly hostage. And some get so full up with hate, it like to crack they soul. Hell, ain’t nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don’t.

Yes. There are all kinds of crazy. Like so many victims of narcissism, Otha couldn’t fight what she didn’t understand. She ended up losing her mind.

Parts of this novel was difficult to read and it haunted me for about a week after I read it (I still think about the characters), but I have nothing but praise for Bond for helping to expose the underbelly of sexual abuse that can never be pushed under the rug again. I loved this book, despite the difficult parts! I give it 5***** stars.

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