Study Guide

Love Medicine Abuse

By Louise Erdrich

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Far from home, living in a white woman's basement, that letter made me feel buried, too. I opened the envelope and read the words. I was sitting at my linoleum table with my textbook spread out to the section 'Patient Abuse.' There were two ways you could think of that title. One was obvious to a nursing student, and the other was obvious to a Kashpaw. Between my mother and myself the abuse was slow and tedious, requiring long periods of dormancy, living in the blood like hepatitis. When it broke out it was almost a relief. (1.2.2)

Albertine and her mother, Zelda, don't seem to have the healthiest of relationships. Case in point: Zelda decided not to tell Albertine right away that June had died, arguing that she just thought Albertine would have been too busy to come home. Of course, that doesn't take a genius to decode: the implication is that Albertine acts too busy and important for her family, in Zelda's opinion. But since Zelda keeps things nice and passive aggressive, the "abuse" that she and Albertine heap on each other is "slow and tedious" rather than violent or direct.

Lynette's face, stained and swollen, bloomed over the wheel. She was a dirty blond, with little patches of hair that were bleached and torn. (1.2.58)

Unfortunately, there's more than psychological warfare and abuse going on in the novel—there's actual physical abuse as well. This is our first introduction to Lynette, whose husband, King, hits her routinely. In fact, soon after this moment, she gets attacked again.

And even now, King was saying something to Lynette that had such an odd dreaming ring to it I almost heard it spoken out in June's voice. June had said, "He used the flat of his hand. He hit me good." And now I heard her son say, "…flat of my hand… but good…" Lynette rolled out the door, shedding cloth and pins, packing the bare-bottomed child on her hip, and I couldn't tell what had happened. (1.2.61-63)

Apparently, the Kashpaw family is no collective stranger to physical abuse. As Albertine watches King threaten and then ultimately assault Lynette, she gets flashbacks to June talking about an unnamed person (likely her husband, Gordie) beating her.

The two aunts gave her quick, unbelieving looks. Then they were both uneasily silent, neither of them willing to take up the slack and tell the story I knew was about June. I'd heard Aurelia and my mother laughing and accusing each other of the hanging in times past, when it had been only a family story and not the private trigger of special guilts. They looked at me, wondering if I knew about the hanging, but neither would open her lips to ask. So I said I'd heard June herself tell it. (1.2.90)

Now that June has passed, Aurelia and Zelda don't find the story of how they almost killed June as children super funny… however, it doesn't sound like it was a terribly funny story to begin with. The Kashpaw children seemed to have abused June freely, and she just put up with it—in fact, in this case, she welcomed it. She'd already had a pretty rough life, so perhaps that's why she didn't feel equipped to battle with her siblings.

I stumbled straight into the lighted kitchen and saw at once that King was trying to drown Lynette. He was pushing her face in the sink of cold dishwater. Holding her by the nape and ears. Her arms were whirling, knocking spoons and knives and bowls out of the drainer. She struggled powerfully, but he had her. I grabbed a block of birch out of the woodbox and hit King on the back of the neck. The wood bounced out of my fists. He pushed her lower, and her throat caught and gurgled. (1.4.36)

Albertine wakes up from her overnight drinking fest with Lipsha to realize that Lynette and King are fighting, and she finds King trying to drown Lynette in the sink. After she breaks up the incident, Lynette and King somehow make up and take the car just a few feet from the house so they can have sex.

"I will boil him from your mind if you make a peep… by filling your ear." (2.1.60)

Man, there really are a huge number of examples of abuse in this book—and different kinds of abuse, too. In addition to family disputes involving psychological and physical abuse, here we just get pure sadism.

Okay, Sister Leopolda genuinely seems to believe that she would be helping Marie by boiling the devil from her mind, but it's pretty clear that she's just crazy and makes religion all about pain, suffering, and abuse.

That was when she stabbed me through the hand with the fork, then took the poker up alongside my head, and knocked me out. (2.1.99)

As if pouring boiling water on Marie wasn't enough, when Marie decided to fight back against Sister Leopolda, that sadistic nun stabbed Marie through the hand. Then, she passed the resulting wound off to her fellow sisters as stigmata. How's that for some smooth talking and quick thinking? Too bad she didn't put that to, you know, non-evil uses.

A neighbor had come by and hit the door with a broom handle. Their voices went down after that. (16.1.17)

Toward the end of the book, we get a third-person chapter devoted to following Howard Kashpaw's thoughts and perceptions. Apparently, his parents made so much noise with their fighting that the neighbor had to bang on their door to try to get them to stop.

"… I was in Nam." "He never got off the West Coast." Lynette leaned back to me with a bleary confiding look. Not that she'd been drinking. She seemed punch-addled or half asleep. "We listen to him anyway." She winked. "How he does blab on." (16.2.4-5)

Apparently King and Lynette are still deep in the cycle of abuse, with Lynette seeming punch-addled as she talks to Lipsha about her husband. As you might imagine, Lynette doesn't have a ton of respect for her husband, and it shows here.

He had pulled Grandma's leg once too far. Her goat was got. She was so mad she hopped up quick as a wink and slugged him between the shoulder blades to make him swallow. (13.1.124)

Lipsha's attempt to work some "love medicine" on his grandparents goes horribly awry when his grandmother gets so frustrated with Nector's joking around that she slugs him on the back… which causes him to choke. And die. Although accidental, this violence has some big consequences.

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