“Private Lies,” first published in the March 1983 issue of The Atlantic and a classic Bobbie Ann Mason story, is set in the western Kentucky of her youth—a landscape dotted with a growing number of fast food restaurants and big box stores. As Laura Fine notes, “The people of Mason’s stories are predominately lower-middle class white heterosexuals who could live in any subdivision or farm in the country,” and the characters of “Private Lies” are just those kind of people. Like Mason’s other characters, Mickey, Tina, and Donna are in transition.
Appearing in Mason’s collection of short stories, Love Life (1989), “Private Lies” introduces themes of loss, grief, and mourning by characters who seem divorced from their own inner feelings, as well as from each other. Furthermore, in “Private Lies,” Mason explores the shaky ground of gender in contemporary culture.
“Private Lies” has not received the kind of critical attention lavished on Mason’s other stories such as “Shiloh,” “Big Bertha Stories,” and “Love Life.” Nevertheless, with its laconic, spare style, and in its attention to painful moments of the heart, “Private Lies” is a story worth studying, one that reveals the importance of past relationships to present lives.
“Private Lies” is the story of Mickey Hargrove, his wife Tina, his ex-wife Donna, and the baby Mickey and Donna gave up for adoption eighteen years before the story opens. The story begins with Tina and Mickey talking about the baby; Mickey wants to find her, but Tina wants nothing to do with it.
Mickey is drinking scotch laced with cream, because he is developing an ulcer and believes that the cream will counteract the damaging effects of the alcohol. Tina, a nurse, thinks this is silly. Mickey is a real estate salesman, but he has been unable to sell a house for six weeks. Although the couple and their two children seem to be financially stable, there are a few hints that money is tight.
Mickey’s desire to find his daughter puts pressure on the marriage, as does Tina’s move to working the night shift at the hospital. Tina, in the past, has taken care of everything and made sure that their longer home in the evening, Mickey is responsible for keeping “the schedule rolling.” This includes helping his son Ricky with his homework and supervising both children while they watch television. Tina’s absences, however, also make it easier later in the story for Mickey to talk to Donna on the phone.
Mickey considers issues of privacy. He is uncomfortable with his job of selling houses because of the way people poke and prod into other people’s houses. He compares this to Tina’s poking and prodding into other people’s bodies as a nurse. The one place where privacy is being maintained in the story is in the adoption records.
Mickey then reflects on his relationship with Donna, his high school sweetheart. When she got pregnant, her family sent her to Florida to stay with her aunt. She gave birth there and gave the baby up for adoption. Mickey and Donna married after she graduated from high school, but the marriage was unworkable and only lasted three years. Donna later married again, but her husband died about three years before “Private Lies” begins.
In the next scene, Mickey is at Donna’s apartment. He has not seen her since her husband died, but he has called her on the phone to arrange the meeting. He wants to talk to her about going to find their daughter, whose birthday is the next day. When he watches Donna move around...
(The entire section is 935 words.)