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I’m not religious in the least, but my mom was raised strictly Baptist and ended up leaving the church completely. My mom and I have had many conversations about God and religion: how some people utilize religion to find stability in their lives, a moral code, or to better serve a personal agenda. I remember talking to her a few years ago about “The Sacrifice of Isaac”—my mom hates this story, and after hearing Frank’s sermon (a parallel to this Biblical story), Frances reminded me very much of my mother in the way she reacted to the overall message. Like Francis, my mom didn’t care if there was more to the story and it didn’t matter that Abraham didn’t sacrifice his son. What mattered to her was the potential of a God who would demand that of a parent, and how this could relate to our world if such a being existed.

Wolff’s “The Night in Question” utilizes religion as a catalyst for the loss of dependency shared between two siblings, and in doing so Wolff also explores the way they interpret the idea of God. Throughout the story, Frances hints at how wild and destructive her brother used to be, however this is a sharp contrast to the well put-together man Frances is visiting. She is clearly put off by the change in her little brother, noting how he speaks differently, dresses differently, and presents himself as a stronger man than he may actually be. After Frank is confronted, he says, “I had to change. Change the way I thought about things. Maybe I sound a little different too.” (Wolff, 642) Frank uses religion as a coping mechanism, needing the security God offers him to come to terms with faults and past trauma in an effort to better himself and move on. Frances, however, believes that only she can solve these issues and that the use of an outside source, such as religion, is completely unnecessary.

Frances and Frank come from a past of abuse, one where Frances fought tooth and nail to protect her little brother from an angry father. This shared trauma created a very close relationship bordering dependency on each other; Frank is more manipulative of this relationship, whereas Frances uses it to feel needed, perhaps even greater than herself. The change in Frank signals a change in their relationship, and his belief in God is a threat to the power and capability Frances thought she had. Frank changing himself to better follow a belief system he’s trying to adopt seems to be an acknowledgment of the abuse he faced and how he’s trying to handle himself without his sister’s influence. Frances, however, clings to anger and relishes in the fight, and her brother no longer needing her is crushing. Frances eagerly challenges his faith as if she is trying to remove the force in his life she determines is a threat to her place in it.

She could still taste that smoke and hear her father’s steps on the stairs, Frank panting beside her, moving closer, his voice whispering her name and her own voice answering as fear gave way to ferocity and unaccountable joy, It’s okay, Franky. I’m here. (Wolff, 643)

There are many people who, due to abuse or addiction (or any personal conflict), turn to religion in search of guidance and a sense of belonging. Religion can provide structure and stability for those who are otherwise incapable of maintaining this for themselves, like Frank. At the hands of an abusive father, Frank never had the opportunity to develop the faculties necessary to enforce and follow inherent, kind, structure, and likely grew up believing very few could love unconditionally. There is also a possibility of this idea being completely rejected, however, as this symbol of authority can be incredibly threatening to those who prefer to have complete control over their lives, like Frances. She is so threatened by the idea of God, and so confident in her own strength, that she strives to crush her brother’s budding reliance. I think Frances perceives the presence of God in Frank’s life as the bullying, abusive, figure of their father and yet another reason for her to fight for and protect him.

After hearing her brother retell his church’s most recent sermon, Frances is understandably horrified. In each siblings reaction to the story of a man who had to choose between sacrificing his own son or a train full of people, there is a clear relationship built between their past abuse and how this effects their perception of the world—especially through religion. Frank is fascinated by the conflict within this sermon and the challenge posed presumably by God. He doesn’t question and is ready to accept wholeheartedly, secured by the knowledge that God has a reason for his demands. Frances, however, fights as she always has—she refuses to believe in a God who would challenge a parent like this. If it were true, this would be a significant blow to everything Frances has done for Frank, and her brother’s acceptance seems to devalue the relationship between them and the abuse Frances took on in order to protect Frank.

I’ve personally never reached a point in my life where I’ve wanted or needed to believe in God or a God-like being. I’ve come to realize that religion is incredibly complex and that each and every story and guiding moral can be interpreted differently between different people—good and bad—and while it may work for one person, it may not work for another. To apply both sides to damaged siblings is incredibly eye opening. Not only does Wolff portray how different people interact with the idea of God, he does so while also relating religious belief to the trauma of abuse and the complicated relationship between Frances and Frank.

One Response to “The Relationship Between Religion and Abuse Victims in “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff”

  1. Aislan: This is thoughtful and beautifully written.

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