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Book Reviews   |    
Working With Available Light: A Family's World After Violence
Reviewed by Merle Brandzel, M.S.W.
Psychiatric Services 2001; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.52.9.1262
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by James Kalven; New York, W. W. Norton, 1999, 320 pages, $24.95

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While running one sunny fall afternoon on Chicago's lakefront, documentary photographer Patricia Evans is severely attacked and sexually assaulted. Although her physical wounds heal relatively quickly, both she and her family must deal with the aftermath. It becomes apparent that "healing" is not an appropriate word for this process, for Evans does not, and cannot, return to being the person she was. She has been "shattered," and this word becomes one of the themes in her effort to find a new self that can once again relish life.

James Kalven, her husband and the book's author, writes this story from his unique perspective, describing his wife's trauma and its effect on the family and their marriage. Some feminists have been irate, feeling that this was not his story to tell. Yet he brings to the telling of the story a passionate wish to understand what happened to his wife, and as an "outsider" he helps other outsiders learn about rape and its consequences, knowing full well that he and they will never entirely understand what it means, nor the devastation it leaves.

Working With Available Light covers the period from 1988 to 1993, the first five years after Evans' rape. In frequently poetic and flowing prose, Kalven chronicles their story and their realization that recovery is not a progression. Much of Evans' focus is the effort to deal with the fear that becomes the basis for her functioning. Although she eventually regains some ability to control her physical comings and goings, the internal process is like scribbled lines, leading here and there with no apparent direction.

Patsy—as Evans is called throughout the book—describes how she is transformed from an "author of her own narrative, free to plot her life, into the object of his (the attacker's) will, a prop in his grim story." She deals with the loss of freedom, the guilt—she feels that she owes her attacker because he did not kill her—the anger, and, most overwhelming, the sense that she has escaped annihilation.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, the conversations, themes, and dreams become repetitive. Kalven himself acknowledges that "the big scene—the violent confrontation …is tempting in part because it can be rendered in real time. The years of a life cannot be. …We are disposed to find anger more interesting than patience, betrayal more interesting than loyalty. …And a violent act fascinates in a way that the lifetime of grieving and healing (or failing to heal) it sets in motion does not."

Later he writes, "Imagine Patsy waking each morning, day after day, month after month, to the same sensations and fears, to the same gray light. So many indistinguishable days. So much effort, working against an undertow of panic, to get through the day. The fear that life will always be like this. 'I need for it to be over.'"

Ultimately Kalven's act of writing this book is a gift to his wife. Patsy appears to be a very private person. "My natural impulse would have been to suffer in silence—and to suffer the consequences of suffering in silence. But the fact that he's writing the book allows me to keep talking." And "he has to listen." The book not only allows her to keep talking but also encourages her, pushes her. We are the richer for her unfailing honesty and Kalven's patient wish to understand.

Ms. Brandzel is a social worker practicing in central Massachusetts.




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