Joy Castro, “Grip”

Reader: Kate Johnson

Joy Castro’s abbreviated yet succinct word choices make “Grip” a compelling read. The essay comes in at 365 words, yet manages to make leaps and bounds in exploring domestic violence as well as the lengths that a mother is willing to go to keep her child safe.

At the onset, we are faced with the image of a twenty-one-year-old mother and an infant child. They are in a “tiny apartment” where a “bullet-holed paper target, the size and dark shape of a man, its heart zone, head zone, perforated where my aim had torn through” is now hanging above her child’s bed. The reader’s assumption at the time may be that there is no other empty space on the walls, but by the end of the narration, she indicates the mother’s willingness to hang this image above her child’s bed in a place of prominence as a sort of warning. It served as reassurance of what she is capable of should harm come to her or her child, referring to it as a “promise.”

The scene changes to that of her stepfather, recently released from prison, and how he tracked down the narrator’s own mother and broke into the house. Castro writes, “My mother lived. She wouldn’t say what happened in the house that night … she hung a screen between that scene and me. It’s what a mother does.”

The entries come in a sort of staccato of thought, not unlike the firing of a pistol itself—short, robust bursts. Her word choices are pointed and concise, haunting and beautiful. They pull you in and through. The intensity of her devotion to her child is exquisite. She manages to take a world of cramped apartments and domestic abuse and make it a world that one may actually want to visit—a place where strong women thrive and provide, were they are empowered and persevere.

There is, of course, the title of the aptly named essay, “Grip,” which may seem initially to refer to the handle of a pistol, but gradually becomes something more nuanced: the attachment one feels for a child or a loved one, the grip of feeling; as well as constraint or duress, not unlike that which you may experience in an unsafe, abusive relationship, in which fear grips.

Castro’s longest sentence is the opening, at forty-seven words; the second longest sentence is the last, at forty-two. Conversely, her shortest sentences are three words each: “A bad neighborhood,” “An infant child,” and “My mother lived.” The second-to-last paragraph is three lines long, and each sentence is exactly twenty-three words. The essay is shaped and insistent.

In her last sentence, Castro turns to address her child, and the essay becomes a vow to provide utmost protection.

Discussion Questions

  1. Castro, a good shot, must have been to a shooting range many times. Why did she keep this target?
  2. How does Castro’s mother’s choice to withhold the details of her own assault shape the narrator’s precaution?
  3. Is there a morbidness in hanging the target where Castro hung it? Is it a sign of strength? Weakness?

Creative Exercise

Limit yourself to one life experience and write on it as succinctly as possible in less than 350 words. The object here is to choose fewer words as well as words that show. For example, instead of describing a house as “old,” remark, perhaps, about the “peeling paint.” This imagery goes much farther in painting an image in a reader’s mind and makes your writing more interesting.

On the Reader

Originally from Grand Haven, Michigan, Kate Johnson now resides in Okemos, Michigan, with her husband and son. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University with a baccalaureate of arts in English, with a concentration in creative writing.