Joyce Carol Oates ‘A Book of American Martyrs’


Terence Mitchell who’s 29, a former US marine and a member of the catholic right to life organisation, The Lambs of Christ, had spent many hours in prayer before driving to the abortion clinic in Travers City with a double barrelled shotgun. After the shooting of the abortion doctor he made no attempt to escape from the police but surrendered his weapon and made a full confession to authorities


Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a huge work here, to try to render the right to abortion debate readable. In this piece of fiction set in the 1990’s and the aftermath of events she attempts to get up close to both sides of this divide, deep diving into the characters and events portrayed as Luther Dumphy early one morning, turns up at the Broom county women’s centre, follows doctor Guss Vorhees’ car in through the gate and turns his shotgun on Vorhees and his police driver killing both. She uses multiple first person narratives taking us into the minds of the protagonists, their lives and the events that lead them to this point. She begins with Luther Dumphy, who after a “strict” upbringing turns into a wild unreliable youth until he discovers religion at his wive’s church, The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesus, leading to his wish to become a preacher.

We follow his indoctrination process as we discover the background to the “debate” that isn’t one in the mid-west. One day a trip is organised by their church to see a professor Wohlman, an ex-Jesuit who finishes his presentation with the following declaration:


We the undersigned declare a state of war in the struggle to defend innocent human life. We declare our allegiance to the word of Jesus and not the law of man. We declare that we will not shrink from taking all earthly action required to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We declare that whatever force is necessary to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We declare that the martyrs Michael Griffin, Lionel Green, Terence Mitchell though they may have broken the law of the state have not broken the law of God though they have shot abortion providers who were about to commit the terrible act of fetuscide they are not guilty of murder but of intervening in the premeditated murder, that is to say that these courageous men committed acts of defence against murderers not to save their own lives but the lives of unborn children therefore their use of lethal force was justified.


Dumphy, who’s daughter had been killed in a road accident as he was driving, is portrayed as a sincere, fragile and easily manipulated person, just enough as to almost feel a certain understanding for him.

Vorhees is investigated mostly through the people around him, his wife and daughter rather than through himself, he was a staunch, even radical defender of women’s rights, at great danger to himself, he chose to work in medical centres where, through fear, no one else was prepared to work. Oates tells us of the Right for Life organisation’s published league tables where the higher up the table the doctors find themselves, the more likely they are to be assassinated, exactly because of these tables, and the pressure put on the law by declaring the perpetrators martyrs. His daughter learns more about him posthumously through interviews she carries out:


Interviews: Was it known to you that your father was a crusader for abortion rights? Did you know as children what abortion rights meant? Did you know that your father performed abortions? Did you know that your father had many enemies? Did you know that your father was considered difficult even by those that were his allies? Have you read your father’s published writings, his famous controversial address to the national women’s leadership conference 1987 in Washington DC? Are you familiar with that? “There cannot be a free democracy in which one sex is shackled to biological destiny”. Are you familiar with this much reiterated remark of doctor Guss Voorhees? Do you or have you ever felt as a girl that you are shackled to biological destiny or did you inherit a strong feminist identity from your parents?


No subject such as this where there is so much hatred, where the two sides cannot talk to each other can exist without hypocrisy, and here there are ladles of it, on Vorhees’ side where in fighting for the freedom of women he essentially takes away the freedom of his family. On the “pro life” side, the following quote goes deep into public relations denials to a case of clear support:


Though our church is staunchly pro life and opposed to abortion in any way shape or form as a legally sanctioned slaughter of the innocents in the United States at the present time. We do not and we have not ever condoned violence against the practitioners of abortion and those associated with them we do not condone violations of state and federal law and we do not excuse those who commit such violations despite of our sympathy for their moral convictions it is a profound step from believing that abortion is state sanctified murder to believing that an individual has the right to assassinate an abortion murderer. The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesusis adamantly opposed to such an act and is in no way associated with the practitioner of such an act. Though I remain in contact with Luther Dumphy currently incarcerated at Chillicothe correctional facility, Chillicothe Ohio. I am not in a position to provide any sort of information about him or to convey remarks made by him to any third party or to the media it is true I am involved in the Luther Dumfy defence fund which welcomes donations to aid in Luther’s appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court, cheques money orders cash as little as a few dollars as much as several hundred or thousand all are welcome and greatly applicable in the name of Jesus.


As a European, I have trouble understanding this “debate”, but Oates ends with some hope, through the two men’s daughters, that future generations could grow to understand each other.

This is a must read.

First Published in English as “A Book of American Martyrs” by Fourth Estate in 2017
Translated into French by Claude Seban and published by Philippe Rey as “Un livre de martyrs américains” in 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s