For this post, I’d like to look at “faith” and “trust” as two separate concepts. I have used them interchangeably in class, and even in previous blog posts, though they do not always have identical meanings. We have talked a lot about trust in Big Machine, specifically Ricky Rice’s trust in others and his trust in institutions. That is something I would like to get back to. Right now, I would like to look at Ricky’s faith in religion. His faith in the Washerwomen.
Ricky pieces the story of the Washerwomen together slowly (as he does with many other stories), first sharing it with us from an almost outside-perspective. We know Ricky isn’t an outsider here, as he shares in Chapter 26 that he admits to being a part of a “Christian cult” (104). I say we get an “outside-perspective,” because at first, Ricky also makes it seem as though he has doubts, like Lavalle’s readers do. We get the story of Sargent Rice first, and Ricky seems a bit perplexed as to why his father follows the Washerwomen. His father always responds, “common sense” (114). To Ricky, this answer is unsatisfying. Throughout the next few chapters on the Washerwomen, Ricky makes note of all the ways in which they were different than other families. From their beliefs on public schools, holidays, television, and prayer, Ricky reminds us often that they are not like everyone else. I was extremely curious in the part of Big Machine where Ricky tells us of the questioning and answering that happened between the Washerwomen and the children. “We were meant to ask, and the Washerwomen had to answer. That was the next part of our Sunday service.” (261) The children were allowed to ask the Washerwomen any question at all, and they always responded. In Chapter 50, Ricky and his sister Daphne begin to question the Washerwoman’s motives and religion, and this leads to tension and “doubt,” but ultimately it seems as though Ricky still holds his faith in them. I believe the last we hear about the Washerwomen is when Ricky (or Rose) kills his sister.
When Ricky explains his faith, he says, “They seemed to shine like beasts of prophecy, their vitality more persuasive than any words.” (163) But, I still cannot understand why Ricky places so much faith in these women. Is it just about faith? Is it blind faith? Is it because they provide comfort?
This might be a stretch, but I did find bits of my story within Ricky’s. I do not want to equate myself with Ricky, because I understand we are two entirely different individuals with entirely different experiences, but perhaps the anecdote I am about to bring up can help ground me in the reading in a way.
I come from a family that is fairly religious (more so than others, I think). My whole family is from India, and currently living on Long Island, and so I have always felt and looked very different from everyone around me. In elementary school and middle school, I would always get questions about my faith and my identity, but they were always questions that made me feel like I was supposed to be singled out. Like I was supposed to be on display, for my classmates to point at and whisper. I had never had a problem with my faith, until it started to create this distance between myself and others. I had been taught that my faith served to protect me, yet here it was abandoning me in front of my classmates and my friends, and so I abandoned it. I tried to disassociate myself from my faith and identity any time I sensed a difference, because that difference made me feel neglected. Like I was (figuratively speaking) under attack.
It isn’t the differences between the Washerwomen and families on the ‘outside’ that troubles Ricky, like it troubled me. I bring this up, because in a very literal way, the Washerwomen and the parents fail to protect Ricky and the other children. Right before Daphne loses her life, violence ensues. All the families in the building turn their backs on each other when the police come up with their guns drawn, looking for answers. “I never doubted that our parents could do this to us. Tackling and smashing the cops who’d finally arrived. Even offering up their own children to the gun. I never doubted they could do this because they adored the Washerwomen too.” (215) I do not know how to explain this, but it seems like faith and protection go together. The parents have never doubted the Washerwomen because they had never been given a reason to doubt them. Ricky and the other children, on the the other hand, are no longer protected by the words of the sisters and risk losing their life. And this is, consequently, where their “community ended.” (216)
I do not know where I am headed with this analysis, nor do I know if it makes sense, but I am trying to work it out. It seems reasonable to expect to be protected by your religion, but in that last scene, faith, protection, and doubt all clash with one another. The story of the Washerwomen is not the only time faith and religion are brought up within the novel. The Dean is supposed to act as “an oracle.” (96) Realistically, how much protection does he offer Ricky?
When Ricky talks about heroin, he also uses religious or mystical language. “I put those baggies in my pocket, thinking of them almost like a talisman, an evil to ward off greater evil. In a way heroin had already protected me.” (154)
I have not gotten to Friday’s reading yet, but will the Washerwomen be mentioned again? How have they shaped Ricky’s spiritual life? In class the other day, we were asked to come up with a question we had about the book. My question was, “What are we supposed to do when faith fails us?” Though at the time, I hadn’t shaped this question in response to the Washerwomen, or even, religion, I would like to address it again in this context, but this time, re-worked. “*Did* Ricky’s faith fail him?”