Many a woman has felt trapped in a bad marriage. But what Mary Oxley describes in her slim autobiographical work is out of the ordinary. Not only is her husband a heavy drinker and gambler, abusive and unfaithful, he’s also a cross-dresser.
Shock Horror: A Wife’s True Story, is a disjointed chronicle of Oxley’s unhappiness. Life with her husband has become intolerable, his secret unacceptable. “You were born a male. Accept the facts, and stop this ridiculous imitation,” she writes, although it’s unclear whether she ever actually says this aloud to her husband.
The era is the 1980s. “Society is not ready and in my opinion will never be,” she writes. Regardless of the decade, this could have been a fascinating look at how a woman comes to grips —or not—with a side of a husband she never knew. No doubt she felt betrayed and lonely. Yet such potential is lost in a stream-of-consciousness conversation about her misery. There’s no description of why she initially fell for her husband, and readers never really know him—or her. For all of her supposed disgust, she hosts a party for her husband and other cross-dressers. At first, it seems as if she’s trying to understand his reality, but then she returns to her default position of fury.
The book’s flaws are not in its topic, which is rich, nor even its attitude, which many could understand. The problem lies in the author’s inability or unwillingness to go beyond her anger to show the nuances of how living with a deep secret plays out. One exception is when she describes how her husband is forced to wear gloves in the summer because he forgot to remove nail polish. That kind of gripping detail goes a long way to explain not only her angst but his as well. In the end, she might feel better having unloaded her despair, but readers will find this overall journey more taxing than insightful.
Also available as an ebook.