By Alexis Eastman
In Frank McCourt’s infamous autobiography turned bio-pic Angela's Ashes, the titular Angela is forced to offer her body to a repugnant relative in exchange for the scraps of his fish & chips; dinner for the 12 year old Frankie McCourt and his younger brothers. Frankie sits at the filthy table and licks the greasy newspaper clean listening to the audible rhythm of his mother’s sexual sacrifice happening just up the stairs. Of all the horrors young Frankie faces in front of the camera, including the death of his twin brothers, this sits the heaviest on his malnourished shoulders, worse even than the humiliation of the school shoes repaired with old tires. It occurs to him then, for the first time, that his life has always come at this cost.
Like Frankie, Room’s young Jack, lives his entire life under a similar contract- the sacrifice of his mother, Joy, in exchange for his protection. And like Angela, Joy bears the cost of her son’s safety not only mentally but physically; her teeth rotting out of her mouth and her broken bones left painfully untreated.
Also like Angela, Joy is a villain. They are sympathetic, empathetic even, but villains nonetheless. Why didn’t Angela just leave the alcoholic Malachy McCourt Sr. who spent all the dole money on pints? To Frankie, it was her who kept him there, who kept creating more mouths to feed and who kept failing to feed those mouths.
Joy is a villain to her mother- who accuses her of being insensitive to the devastation she felt at Joy’s abduction. How could Joy be so dismissive of her pain?
Joy is a villain to the interviewer sitting across from her in her Mother’s living room asking why she didn’t just entrust her freshly born son to his so-called father? Apparently it's journalistically irrelevant that Jack’s father - un-affectionately referred to as Ol’ Nick - abducted Joy when she was 17 and kept her trapped in a single room shed as a sex slave for over 7 years, the first two of which - before Jack - were spent entirely alone.
Joy is a villain to Jack when she shatters his world view - finally telling him that the world doesn’t stop with Room, that in fact there is a Whole World outside which is big enough to hold trees and dogs and grandparents. Why can’t he go back to being 4 and too small to hear these painful truths? Why can’t he have a different story?
Ol’ Nick isn’t Real to Joy’s Mom, to the interviewer or even to Jack (who is always locked in Wardrobe when he is around) so his complicity in Jack and Joy’s suffering is lost in the swirling mental mess of trauma. But Joy is Real to them and so are the unspoken violations she suffered. Pity has a way of turning to hate - so when Mom, the interviewer, and the audience look at Jack it evokes empathy and hope for a future; but when they look at Joy they only see how far she is from who she was, a monument to the exact opposite of hope: reality. Joy feels the weighty guilt of being Patient Zero to the Newsome Family Trauma, and her suicide attempt-as-apology renders her even less sympathetic than before – how could she be so selfish and leave Jack all alone?
One must suppose that the empathy for women like Joy and Angela exists in different movies - movies that tell the stories from before their children, movies that explain how they came into the situations we have come to know and judge.
Emma Donoghue, the author of the screenplay and the novel on which it is based, seems to have taken an adventure in alternative narrators and unwittingly revealed the tiny bean in each of us that secretly hates our parents for making us to exist at all. Room is the horror movie of that parental responsibility which forces you to watch both mother and son pay the mental, emotional and physical cost of having been son and mother to each other. Each of them is forced to sacrifice themselves for the other, each of them takes out their pain on one another. Sometimes that pain gets to be too much and Joy has what her and Jack call 'Gone Days' - days spent unable to rise from bed, staring at the wall, and leaving Jack on his own to make finger-shadow wolves. One imagines her mind tumbling with her love for Jack and the feeling that just as her parents are responsible, in a way, for everything that lead her here, she is responsible for the pain that Room and life cause Jack.
But unlike Frankie, who escaped to America still tangled in the love and hate for Angela, Jack isn’t tangled. Spending the first 5 years of his life in a single Room taught him acceptance. Just like he accepted himself, and the reality of Room, Skylight and Sunday Treats, he accepted Joy, Gone Days and all.
When Joy returns from her post-suicidal hospitalization she breaks down and apologizes to Jack, the confusion of her hate for Ol’ Nick and her parents, and love for her own child swirling in her head. “I’m a shit, Ma,” she sputters. But Jack isn’t phased. Room was enough - after all, it went all the way to the end - so Ma is enough too. He replies without hesitation “But you’re Ma.” And that’s just it.