"You think you know about pain?" (Ketchum 3)
What an amazing opening line. Ketchum knew exactly what would draw the reader in and what a horrific ride he takes us on. David gives us a close and personal journey into the world of pain. Not only do we witness Meg's physical and psychological pain, but we watch as her younger sister Susan endures atrocious pain too. Then there is David's pain. Perhaps at times his is less sympathetic, because in so many ways he causes the pain of guilt that stays with him the rest of his life, but it is pain none the less. His whole reason for recording the events of that summer long ago is to finally express the guilt that he feels.
"Pain can work from the outside in.
I mean sometimes what you see is pain. Pain in its cruelest, purest form. Without drugs or sleep or even shock or coma to dull it for you.
You see it and you take it in. And then it's you." (5)
David is a fascinating character. As readers we usually expect to identify and care about the protagonist in a story, but David makes this either difficult or uncomfortable to do. We don't want to identifly with him, because we are too afraid this may say some disturbing things about ourselves, but how can we not identify to some degree. What would we do if we were in David's shoes? I would hope that I would have acted differently, but part of what makes The Girl Next Door so truly terrifying is that somewhere in the back of the readers mind we are unsure of ourselves. David embodies the pain of his decisions and in some warped way becomes the pain that was inflicted on Meg. For the rest of his life he lives with this pain. He cannot hold a relationship because of the terrible things he saw. He pays daily for his actions, or lack of action.
I wanted to focus on David, because I thought his character was the most interesting and complex when it comes to identification. He has so many chances to make the right decisions and he bypasses them with excuses that even he knows are wrong.
"I drank the beer and thought of Meg. I wondered if I should try to help her somehow. There was a conflict here. I was still attracted to Meg and liked her but Donny and Ruth were much older friends. I wondered if she really needed helping. Kids got slapped, after all. Kids got punched around. I wondered where all this was going." (148)
This scene happens after Meg went to Officer Jennings for help and Donny slapped her for telling on his mother. David already knows that things have gotten out of control in the Chandler houshold, yet he still uses the excuse that kids get slapped around as a reason to wait the situation out and see what happens. This begins his pain of allowing himself to "see." His "conflict" of Donny and Ruth being "old friends" is only an excuse. They really aren't his friends, which comes to light at the end of the story when they lock him up with Meg and Susan. Ruth manipulates the local children with beer and cigarettes this is why David believes she is his friend. She has become the cool mom. Even David's mother doesn't like Ruth. Perhaps she doesn't even know why she doesn't like her, but there is something in Ruth's nature that she doesn't trust.
David is young and still impressionable. What twelve year old boy, or girl, wouldn't be happy to escape the strictness of his parents house and venture over to the neighbor who treats him, somewhat, like the adult he is not. But, this is not an excuse. We, as readers, find it difficult to excuse David from his behavior just because of his young age. We know that at twelve you are more than aware of right and wrong. Ketchum was smart to capture this story within the 1950's setting. This was a time that is usually reflected as the American family ideal, yet we know that discipline and beating one's child was viewed much differently back then. People stayed out of other peoples business and didn't want to get involved. It was more difficult then to convince a parent that your friend didn't deserve the punishment they were recieving, because the parents figured kids do bad things they must deserve the punishment. They would probably find it hard to fathom that the punishment was akin to torture.
But, these are still not excuses for David. He knew. He caused his own pain. And even the adult David is difficult to feel empathy for, because in his recollections he makes it clear that the power of the abuse seduced him right along with the others, even if he didn't physically hurt Meg himself. There is a period of time David avoids the Chandlers, when he decides to venture over they now have Meg in the basement and the boys are using her like a "tackle dummy" (156). This is the first time I truly despise David, and it is because he tastes power and he becomes the animal that the others already are.
"...suddenly it was clear to me again that all she could do was take it, powerless. And lose.
And I remembered thinking at least it's not me.
If I wanted to I could even join them.
For that moment, thinking that, I had power." (156)
"But for the first time I saw her as essentially other than me. She was vulnerable. I wasn't. My position was favored here. Hers was as low as it could be." (156)
"For the first time I felt that maybe Meg's separation from us might be justified.
I wanted to feel it was justified.
I say that now in deepest shame." (157)
David's feelings of power begin to outway his knowledge of right and wrong. His adult feelings of shame are a little to late, yes? This is aspect of the novel, for me, was one of the truly horrific and disturbing themes. The animal nature versus human nature. The dark side of our humanity and how easily we allow it to come forth. David exemplifies this nature perfectly and in that way the reader can identify with him. It's just an identification that we would never want to vocalize or admit to.