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Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me
Submitted by Ann Brian Murphy (profile)
Title and Author: Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me by Roddy Doyle
Genre: Short story
Themes: Domestic violence, alcoholism, romantic love, community and family
Class type: Women
Roddy Doyle's short story, published in The New Yorker (February 5, 1996), is taken from his novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors. It's a first-person narrative of Paula, an alcoholic battered woman. The story opens when the police come to the door to tell her that Charlo, her estranged husband, has been killed by the police in an attempted robbery. The story then alternates between present and past, as she reacts to his death and remembers falling in love at their first meeting, and repeatedly circles around the first time he hit her, acknowledging, finally, their long, terrible life of violence and drink.
The story is complex and challenging, but these very complexities offer great opportunities for discussion. Doyle spends considerable time, for example, establishing the deeply misogynist culture of Ireland in the 1960s, and the students are often shocked by that culture, as they are by society's silence about domestic violence, the failure of family and church and healthcare providers to ask Paula about her wounds. So we have great discussions of our own society and the ways that we still marginalize women and enable violence. Similarly, the confusing structure invites discussion about why her reactions are so confused and how the story's structure conveys Paula's shock and post-traumatic stress disorder.
--Discuss the scene when Paula and Charlo first meet. What is the vision of romantic love in this scene? How does that vision of romantic love connect with Paula's tolerance of Charlo's beatings?
--How many times does Paula describe the first time Charlo hit her? What is different in each version? Why do you think she keeps coming back to that event? And how does her awareness change each time she describes it?
--Discuss the way Paula describes her family and life in adolescence. What is the attitude toward women in this society? How did this attitude contribute to Paula's sense of herself and her reaction to Charlo's violence? What connections do you see between the way Paula's father treats her and the way Charlo treats her?
--Write for five minutes on your reaction to the way this story is written. What makes it confusing? Why do you think Doyle chose to write it this way? What does it tell us about Paula?
--Pick one scene you find powerful or puzzling and write about your reactions to it. What does it reveal about Paula or Charlo? About their society? How would it be different - or similar - in our own society?
--What question would you like to ask either Paula or Charlo? What do you think they would say in reply?
Notes: The story is Irish, set in the 1960s and '70s, and requires some discussion of both language and setting. And the structure can be confusing, so I usually explain before we read it that the narrative will shift back and forth between past and present.
Other reading: The story works well with Sharon Olds's "I Go Back to May 1937" and Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz."
For some insight into the author, see the article "Roddy Doyle writes well about what he doesn't know"
"Someone once told me that we never remember pain. Once it's gone it's gone. A nurse. She told me just before the doctor put my arm back in its socket. She was being nice. She'd seen me before.
I fell down the stairs again, I told her. Sorry.
No questions asked. What about the burns on my hand? The missing hair? The teeth? I waited to be asked. Ask me. Ask me. I'd tell her. I'd tell them everything. Look at the burn.
Ask me about it.
In the hospital.
Please, ask me.
In the clinic.
Ask me, ask me, ask me. Broken nose, loose teeth, cracked ribs. Ask me. I felt ashamed, only myself to blame.
Sometimes it was different. Sometimes I'd think that I could escape if I could get behind the right curtain, if I was asked the right questions.
Charlo was always beside me, always near, but if I got the right doctor or nurse I'd feel safe. They'd see, and they'd take me away. They'd take me through a door and I'd be gone before Charlo knew it. I'd have the kids out of the house before he got home. We'd be gone without ever having to look at him again. They'd help; they'd do it for me. There was a room up at the top of the hospital where we could stay, a place where he could never find us, with huge windows and a balcony. The right curtain. I just had to be in the right place in the queue. Open Sesame. I'd be led behind the curtain and it would be over. I'd be mended and safe. We'd be happy and safe. I'd get worked up waiting. I believed it was just a matter of luck. Maybe this time. A nurse would look at me and know. A doctor would look past his nose. He'd ask the question. He'd ask the right question and I'd answer and it would be over. One question. One question. I'd answer; I'd tell them everything if they asked.
I'd have told them everything. I swear to God I would have. If they'd asked. I'd have whispered it. If they'd asked me first. He pulled my arm behind my back and lifted me off the floor. It would have been easy after that, watching them listening. He hit me. He kicked me there. He burned me here. He did it. He did it. Save me. I'd have told them everything. I just had to be brought behind the curtain, asked the right question.
Ask me. Ask me. Ask me."