At the beginning of our Covid-19 induced isolation, I read Joy Williams’s The Changeling. The story focuses on Pearl, an alcoholic mother isolated on an island of children her late husband’s family collected like curios. Pearl finds herself—removed from the rest of society—loosening her grip on reality. The book was originally published in 1978, but because of a scathing New York Times review, was buried until its re-release in 2018.
Most mentions of media consumption currently involve a fluffy return to nostalgia, as people seek comfort and security in a time when we have none. Maybe I am a masochist, but I felt the urgency to lean into the gravity of our situation. To feel the weight of it all.
Joy Williams said of Pearl in The Changeling, “She had tried so earnestly once to be sane. But sanity, it was like holding onto a balloon . . . She would let it go. It was easy to let it go.”
Like Pearl, I felt that the reality I knew was beginning to slip away. Living in quarantine blends days and hours, muddling a clarity that comes from having control. When it was evening, I’d fill the bathtub with scalding water, submerging my body as I drifted away in this book. Beads of sweat would drop from my skin, and spots would creep into my vision when I stood, and I would feel calm and alive.
All of our psyches have drifted off into a sort of dreamscape, it seems. Social isolation and disembodied death tolls do that to minds. Instead of fighting it, I leaned into the rhythmic pull toward the unknown, the oceanic submersion to go deeper into myself.
Joy Williams said, “One of the great secrets of life is learning to live without being happy.” The acceptance of our situation—the practice of not running away—has been a cathartic one.
Elizabeth Estochen, author of For Love, and for Cruelty is a poet, writer, and editor in Denver, Colorado and Charleston, South Carolina.
Joy Williams is an American novelist, essayist, and short story author. She was born in Clemsford, Massachusetts in 1944. She wrote four books. She uses both minimalist and Gothic elements in her writings.