“Like Walking to the Drug Store, When I Get Out” is much more than a threatening letter. It is an embodiment, in the person of Oates’s own psychotic “pen-pal,” of the rage and hostility society’s outcasts feel. One cannot be sure whether or not the prisoner writing the letter in the poem is a real-life or a fictional person, but Oates, like most celebrities, has been threatened several times by persons who might be considered mentally disturbed and dangerous. In a Writers at Work interview (1981), she recalls a time when she was not allowed to teach a large lecture class at the University of Windsor because, during the previous night, one of her students had received a phone call from an angry, distraught man who announced he intended to kill Oates. The poem is about the irrational anger the prisoner feels toward Oates and others, but it is also about the palpable terror he is able to inspire in the reader.
The reader feels victimized just as Oates must have in the above threatening situation. The end result of the poem is to make the reader feel hunted and powerless. When one is the object of a fantasy or an imagined slight or wrongdoing and the fantasy is uncontrollable (by the imaginer or the victim), it is truly terrifying. Oates is often asked why her writing is so violent, a question she considers insulting and sexist, as though a woman cannot explore dark, intense, violent themes successfully. Oates is particularly effective at creating the violent, vengeful, obsessive persona in “Like Walking to the Drug Store, When I Get Out.” It is, perhaps, a fulfillment of traditional gender roles that the victim in the poem is female (Oates herself) and the victimizer is masculine (the prisoner). Regardless of their sex, readers are likely to be unsettled by this poem. There is an undercurrent of madness in the persona of the letter writer: He is self-absorbed, self-righteous, and self-deluding. Furthermore, his final threat is directed at the reader as well as Oates. The “you” in the poem is truly the “you” reading the poem: “Believe me, if I started murdering people/ there’d be none of you left.” All of these combine to make him terrifying and terrifyingly real.