Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1798
Elizabeth Dewberry’s first two novels, published under the name of Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, were both first-person narratives in which a young, lower-middle-class Southern woman describes an agonizing conflict between the expectations of her society and her own needs. In both Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and Here Are...
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Elizabeth Dewberry’s first two novels, published under the name of Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn, were both first-person narratives in which a young, lower-middle-class Southern woman describes an agonizing conflict between the expectations of her society and her own needs. In both Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and Here Are the Highlights (1990) and Break the Heart of Me (1994), the heroine is torn between the patriarchal doctrines of Christian fundamentalism, the faith in which she was reared, and her own sense of right and wrong. The protagonist of the first novel has to deal with an abusive husband, and the heroine of the second with crippling memories of childhood sexual abuse. When the books end, each woman has acquired both a new understanding of herself and a firm faith in her own worth.
Like these novels, Sacrament of Lies is set in the South and narrated in the first person by a young woman protagonist who is struggling to survive in a male-dominated society. However, the milieu is very different. What is a very intense private conflict between a state governor and his daughter takes place in public places, in fine restaurants, in elegant ballrooms, in lavish hotel suites, and in the palatial governor’s mansion itself. Moreover, the social prominence of the characters and the governor’s obsession with his political future mean that even at the most private moments, the public is always invisibly present, dictating his course of action.
The setting of Sacrament of Lies is southern Louisiana, primarily Baton Rouge, the state capital, and nearby New Orleans. The events related by the narrator occur over the course of a year, from Mardi Gras to Mardi Gras. However, the novel actually begins in the afternoon of the second Mardi Gras, with the heroine, Grayson Guillory, sitting on the steps of St. Louis Cathedral, half-expecting to be murdered at the behest of her father, and it ends at midnight, when she returns to the Cathedral after a confrontation in which it is he who is killed. In the intervening chapters, Grayson recalls the events of the year before, beginning with the death of her mother, Marie Guillory, whose death, Grayson believes, was not the suicide it was claimed to be but cold-blooded murder. Eventually Grayson finds proof that her father, Governor Guillory, killed her mother with the aid of the family physician, Dr. M. W. (“Mike”) Fontenot, and Grayson’s own husband, Carter.
Grayson’s quest for the truth is made more difficult by her doubts about her own mental soundness. Over the years, she saw her mother periodically succumb to alcoholism, depression, and paranoia and becoming increasingly dependent on the medications prescribed for her by Dr. Fontenot. It is only natural that Grayson should ask herself whether her suspicions are just manifestations of an inherited weakness, activated by the traumatic moment when, summoned by her father, she entered her parents’ hotel suite and saw her mother lying dead on the bed.
In some ways, it would be simpler for Grayson to believe that her husband and her father are right: She is going through a period of mental fragility, a bad dream from which she will awaken. However, Governor Guillory and Carter are a little too solicitous for her to believe they are really interested in her welfare. Months later, at the Inaugural Ball, Carter confirms Grayson’s suspicions when he tries to force upon her some unidentifiable pills he says came from Dr. Fontenot. Now Grayson knows that Carter has been ordered to render her harmless by keeping her so drugged that she will seem irrational. Then, not only will no one believe any accusations she makes, but in due course she can be put away in a mental institution.
However, there is nothing wrong with Grayson’s thought processes. Indeed, she can see very clearly why her father would want Marie out of the picture. His primary motive is political: He wants to run for president of the United States and cannot expect to be elected if his wife is unable to function in the role of First Lady. A secondary motive is the fact that he has been having an affair with Marie’s sister Audrey, who becomes his wife a few months after Marie’s death. If Audrey had any doubts, she is now effectively silenced; moreover, her own ambition to become America’s First Lady gives her every reason to believe whatever her new husband tells her.
Once Grayson is certain that her father was responsible for Marie’s death, she has to face the fact that there is no one in whom she can confide. Everyone Grayson knows well is closely associated with the governor. Carter is a member of his staff, so is Dr. Fontenot. The coroner who pronounced Marie’s death a suicide is Dr. Fontenot’s brother, and everyone else in an official position, including those in law enforcement, is also the governor’s dependent.
The only person Grayson feels she can trust is her godmother, Lieutenant Governor Laura Cormier. However, though she is sympathetic to Grayson and seems to believe her story, Cormier is concerned about the political consequences should Governor Guillory be forced out of public life. She points out that the governor has accomplished a great deal for the people of the state, while his opponent has an unsavory history and, if elected, would undoubtedly move the state backward. Therefore, Cormier urges Grayson to consider the greater good and keep silent.
Grayson might well have taken her godmother’s advice had it not been for the homemade video her mother left where she would find it, in which Marie appears on camera to accuse her husband of planning her death. Grayson cannot ignore her mother’s final plea. Since it is clear that no one she knows personally will help her, Grayson decides that her only hope is public outrage and delivers the video to a television reporter. After it is aired, both Carter and Dr. Fontenot die under suspicious circumstances. However, at the Fontenot home, Grayson finds the evidence she needs to convict her father, at least of the doctor’s murder. Now Grayson knows her father must get rid of her. In their final meeting, he tries to do so, but Audrey turns on him, he is killed, and Grayson survives.
Some critics have classified Sacrament of Lies as a mystery or as a psychological thriller. Certainly it has many qualities of both. Like a typical amateur detective, Grayson uncovers the truth without any help from the police. Like a typical thriller heroine, Grayson is isolated, uncertain whether she can trust anyone else or even her own perceptions, and beset with dangers. However, like the best works in both of those genres, Sacrament of Lies is also a serious novel. Its theme is the age-old conflict between good and evil. As has been pointed out, Dewberry’s novel may have been inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601). Certainly her plot has marked similarities to Shakespeare’s play: the murdered parent; the murderous ruler; the hasty marriage; the craven followers; and a protagonist, half-mad with grief and doubt, who summons up the courage to identify, test, and finally expose the murderer.
In both works, the horror of the protagonist’s situation is intensified by the fact that the culprits are so well masked as to appear to be mentally unstable. Dewberry utilizes this theme by beginning her story in Jackson Square on the last day of Mardi Gras. Everyone around Grayson is masked; she alone is not in costume. Thus, the author sums up what Grayson has discovered during the previous year, that the corrupt often attempt to hide their crimes by putting on a mask of respectability. Ironically, when the governor meets Grayson, intending to kill her, he is wearing the mask of Richard Nixon, another politician whose deceptions were exposed. This is the mask he removes just before pulling out his gun and explaining to Grayson how he plans to get away with murdering her. This time, however, both literally and figuratively, he goes to his death unmasked.
Another repeated local allusion emphasizes a related theme. What one sees in Governor Guillory is an obsession with power. It seems likely that, as Cormier insists, he began his career intending only good for the people of Louisiana. However, he became obsessed with power, just like his real-life predecessor Huey Long (1893-1935), who Grayson says was her father’s idol. There are frequent references to Huey Long in Sacrament of Lies. For example, Grayson mentions that the legendary Louisiana governor is portrayed, larger than life, on a mural in the hotel where Marie died, and when Grayson and her godmother go outside of the capitol building to talk privately, they pass both the place where Long was shot and his grave on the grounds. It is no accident that Grayson finds her mother’s video in a hollowed-out volume of T. Harry Williams’s definitive biography of the politician. Obviously her mother hoped that Grayson would see that Guillory was now as ruthless as Long became, that, like Long, Grayson’s father had been totally corrupted by power.
Where Sacrament of Lies departs most obviously from the plot of Hamlet, however, is in the relationship between father and child. The father whom Hamlet revered is dead and nothing can taint his memory. By contrast, Grayson’s father, whom she has always adored and who still professes his love for her, is very much alive. She even knows how to keep his affection. All she has to do is to play her role well, work in his campaigns, charm his constituents, laugh at his womanizing and, most important of all, help him remove any obstacles in his way. This would mean that Grayson would have to embrace his values, however, and, as Carter and Dr. Fontenot discover, even that would not have guaranteed her safety.
At one point in Sacrament of Lies, Grayson recalls that once she thought her father could do anything. To his daughter, he was not just a good man but almost a god. Unfortunately, when a man begins to think of himself as a god, he is doomed. Sacrament of Lies is an interesting treatment of an age- old truth: When one denies one’s own humanity and that of others, everything will be lost in the end. Grayson loses her illusions, but she will still go to Ash Wednesday services at St. Louis Cathedral. Her father loses everything, the love of his daughter, his reputation, his life, and his soul.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (December 15, 2001): 702.
Library Journal 127 (January 15, 2002): 149.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 3, 2002): 21.
Publishers Weekly 249 (January 14, 2002): 39.
The Times Literary Supplement, February 8, 2002, p. 24.