The Complicities


By Stacey D’Erasmo

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Award-winning author Stacey D’Erasmo tells a haunting and emotionally affecting story about a woman trying to rebuild her life after her husband’s arrest, and what she knew—or pretended not to know— about where their family’s money came from. 

After her husband Alan’s decades of financial fraud are exposed, Suzanne’s wealthy, comfortable life shatters. Alan goes to prison. Suzanne files for divorce, decamps to a barely middle-class Massachusetts beach town, and begins to create a new life and identity. Ignoring a steady stream of calls from Norfolk State Prison, she tries to cleanse herself of all connections to her ex-husband. She tells herself that he, not she, committed the crimes.

Then Alan is released early, and the many people whose lives he ruined demand restitution. But when Suzanne finds herself awestruck at a major whale stranding, she makes an apparently high-minded decision that ripples with devastating effect not only through Alan’s life as he tries to rebuild but also through the lives of Suzanne and Alan’s son, Alan’s new wife, his estranged mother, and, ultimately, Suzanne herself.

When damage is done, who pays? Who loses? Who is responsible?

With biting wisdom, The Complicities examines the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves—that we didn’t know, that we weren’t there, that it wasn’t our fault—are also finally stories of our own deep complicity.   


Part One

The Whale’s Breath

Even now, I walk around with this feeling all the time, I want to say, You don’t know how it was. I want to lay it all out so the whole shape of it is clear; it’s so much bigger and stranger than you’d think. It wasn’t what you’d imagine, not for any of us. Not even for him. We were like the blind men and the elephant, so I guess you could say this is me drawing the elephant. Or the whale, as it turned out.

Because—and this is another part of my point, this is what’s so frustrating about how stories like ours get told—there was so much that we didn’t know because we didn’t know one another yet. So much that I didn’t know. And the things I knew couldn’t help me when there were all these other things that I didn’t know were happening. Besides, facts only take you so far. And even facts look different next to other facts.

For example: how big was his crime? Bigger than a breadbox, smaller than Chernobyl. If, let us say, the roof of your local high school gym collapsed during school hours because of shoddy construction, it was that big. So maybe it would be only a day in the national news, unless it was your child who was in gym class when the roof fell in, and then it’s the rest of your life, and the lives of everyone you know. It depends on where you’re standing.

Of course, I happened to be standing very close, because I was Alan’s wife. Noah was just a teenager. In our case, the crime had to do with money—Alan worked in money—but it could have been worse. There are so many ways to go wrong, terrible ways. I’m not saying he didn’t commit a crime; he did things with people’s money that you aren’t really supposed to do, he’d been doing it for a long time, and he got caught. I thought he was clever about currencies and exchange rates, but it turned out he’d been doing other things. Anyway, people who were already rich got angry. But the damage, to switch metaphors, is like water damage. It isn’t proportional to the crime. It seeps and spreads unpredictably. At first people don’t understand why there’s a water stain, as it were, on the ceiling, or where the dripping is coming from. And then they do. And then it gets very bad. Life gets impossible, pretty much, and people have lots of opinions, and they say you destroyed their family’s future, but did anyone care about our family and what was happening to us? Why were we suddenly the bad guys?

Although the trial and everything after took a long time, it felt as if in one day my entire life vanished. Alan went to prison. I left him, left what was left of our Boston life, which wasn’t much, and came out here, to Chesham, Massachusetts, a lower- to middle-class beach town indistinguishable from the many such beach towns that line the curved upper arm of the Cape. Chesham is on the ocean side, a freckle not far from the Cape’s elbow. By then, Noah was in a so-so college in Kansas and refusing to speak to me for leaving his father. My mother had vascular dementia and was living in a nursing home in Vermont. My father was dead. My two older sisters pitied me with all the silent vehemence with which they used to envy me. Our former friends dropped me. I was alone. I had no plan, just an instinct to get out of town for a while until I could figure out what to do next.

I had a little money in my checking account from the divorce, my wits, two suitcases, and a car that I quickly realized would stand out too much in Chesham. I rented a house about a ten-minute walk from the small center of the small town. It was more a shed with electric baseboard heat than a house, a shingled shotgun shack with half-suns made out of painted strips of wood on the front. Darker inside than I would have liked, a low ceiling, a musty scent. A kind of upper half-floor on which the bed—i.e., the futon—could lie, with a plexiglass skylight above the bed. Tacked on at the back of the house/shed/shack, however, was a small addition with a double-paned clerestory window. It was unclear what this room, which opened off of the kitchen, could have been—something to call an extra bedroom for summer rentals? But it was this small, secluded, semi-useless room that contained the house’s one beauty that made me rent the place right away. Of all the ugly things I could afford, this one had that long eye set high above, and light slanting down from it.

I sold the expensive car. With some of the money, I bought a little green used Honda that smelled of cigarette smoke inside and had only two working doors, both on the driver’s side. The seats were covered in that fake velvety stuff, dull gray-brown, with splotches. The smoke was baked into that fabric, nothing would ever get it out, and anyway, somehow I believed that the smoke was what was holding the car together at all. The hubcaps were rusty, the gas cap was loose, and the windshield wiper in the back window didn’t work. The car was cruddy, but it ran, and it provided great cover.

So there I was: alone, forty-nine, still pretty enough: straight blonde hair and a straight nose, a slender build. I am physically stronger than I look, even freakishly strong in the arms and hands. My butt is bigger than you might think it would be when you see me from the front. In front, I’m ladyish, but behind I’m a bit of a donkey. In Chesham, I could pass for any number of unremarkable women: soccer mom, boutique owner, high school teacher, whoever. I used my maiden name: Suzanne Flaherty. Around here, that’s the kind of name that’s so familiar it almost doesn’t seem like a name at all, just a part of the landscape, like a hedge. That was how I wanted it, because people make a lot of assumptions about someone like me.

I mean, look: sure, you can call me complicit, but there’s complicit and complicit, isn’t there? It isn’t only one thing, one label that explains everything in every situation. There isn’t complicity but complicities, errors of different sizes, plus there are other factors, choices that in hindsight maybe weren’t right, but in the moment it seemed different. Other people have done a lot worse things. Pol Pot. Drug cartels. Sex traffickers. And we weren’t like those Wall Street buffoons you’ve seen, the nouveau riche ones you can see coming a mile away by the supernatural glow of their teeth veneers. I graduated summa cum laude from Smith. Alan was a complicated guy, and he truly was so smart. Incredibly smart. We sent Noah to Montessori school. We listened to NPR. Our friends were really interesting people, local artists and a chef and gay guys who went to Burning Man every summer. We composted before hardly anyone else was doing it.

No one ever really believes that you didn’t know, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing. I knew that a good life cost money, that’s what I knew, and I knew how smart Alan was and how hard he worked. Let’s put it that way.

The upshot was that when I got to Chesham, I had no résumé, even though I’ve worked hard all my life. My last job on paper had been as a publicist for a wine distributor, but that was way back when Alan and I were first going out, and those skills didn’t mean much here, anyway. This is a year-round town, not all summer rentals, and it traffics in tangibles: things to eat, wear, use, smoke, or help you stop smoking. A little praying here and there. A rehab center in the next town over. Also, commercial fishermen, Brazilian and Ecuadorian immigrants who staff the kitchens and hotels and the many motels, the Almeida Butcher and a restaurant next door run by the butcher’s son, a yoga studio next to a Snip ‘n Wave Beauty Parlor, a few CBD emporiums. It was clear that I was going to have to improvise.

I got the idea from that room with the clerestory window. It was so calming in there. It reminded me of a place I used to go to get massages all the time in Back Bay. My favorite masseur was a man named Eagle, who had to be forty-five if he was a day and always smelled of sage. Maybe that’s why I rented the house, subliminally. I was standing in that empty room wondering what to do with it, and all at once I remembered the scent of sage. I thought—and I have no idea how this could suddenly happen, but it did, it was a strange time in so many ways—well, maybe I could do that. I could try, couldn’t I? What did I have to lose? Who would know if I failed? I found a little online course and it didn’t take more than a weekend to do it and then print out a certificate. I framed the certificate and hung it in the otherwise empty clerestory room. Eagle had something like that on the wall in the Back Bay place, hanging under the shelf with all the plants.

I thought of it all as an experiment, something to do in between the life I had left and whatever I was going to do next. Kind of like a hobby. It was easy to set it up. In one weekend I had decorated the room in Early Coven and picked up a space heater and a table that would do. With a twin-size futon on top, and towels and blankets and sheets on top of that, it felt great, just like the real thing. I nailed a face cradle to the table, hammering efficiently. I bought some oils like those Eagle had used and a few CDs of soothing instrumental music. I put up a flyer with those little tear-off tabs on the bulletin board at the small, quaintly shingled library in town. I bought a gauzy, embroidered top made in India and drawstring pants. I pulled my hair back into a simple ponytail.

The first two clients were nothing special, though they seemed satisfied enough when they left. The change happened with the third one. When she came through my front door, my first thought was, Olive Oyl. Everything about her was long and pale: long legs, long arms, long neck, long face, long hands and feet, a long braid of salt-and-pepper hair. Her name was Julie, she said. She was one of two librarians at the small library.

“Suzanne,” I said, shaking her long hand. I led her to the clerestory room. “Please undress and lie facedown on the table, under the sheets.”

“Oh, cool,” said Julie, peeking into the room. By candlelight, the photos of the prairie, the Sphinx, and a beach in Goa looked inviting and expensive and a little blurry in a good way. The space heater hummed cozily.

I closed the door, waited a few minutes, and tapped.

“Come in!” she called out.

I went into the room to find Julie undressed, hair loose, lying on the table under the sheet and blankets, face in the cradle. “Is it warm enough?” I asked.

“Yup.” She wiggled her long feet.

“Lavender or plain oil?”

“Oh. Well, plain, I guess.”

I turned on the music, oiled up my hands, and put my palms on the base of her long, pale neck. Eagle always started this way with me. My thumbs aligned on Julie’s vertebrae. Her body seemed like a slender length of cloth that could twist and slip through a keyhole. She breathed in, breathed out a minty smell. Her back was smooth, white, and narrow, dotted with a few moles here and there. Her shoulder-length hair was ridged from her braid. I pushed down with the heels of my hands. The muscles just beneath the skin were strong, resistant; they felt like pebbles wrapped in leather. I stood on my tiptoes to get a good angle to push down at the place where her neck met her shoulders. Her fingers fluttered under the sheet as I worked. In the flickering candlelight, the sepia grass of the prairie in the picture almost seemed to move in a breeze. The space heater glowed.

“Pressure okay?”

“A little more, if you don’t mind, hon,” she replied, voice thickened by the face cradle.

I pushed harder, gliding my oiled elbow along the rim of her shoulder blade. Her elbows, eyes up along her body, were rough and red, with deep furrows. The skin above her elbows was rough, too, untended. The muscles in her arms were well developed, but her skin everywhere was the same shade of white, as if she rarely spent much time outside; there was little difference between the color of the skin in the middle of her back and the color of her arms and face.


She nodded.

I re-oiled. Her skin, parched, soaked in the oil. Her right side was tighter than her left side, her right shoulder higher than her left. I figured it must be from right-handedness, but it gave her the appearance of being in a continual state of shrug, even when prone.

“You’re new here,” she said.


“Where you from?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Long way.”

“I guess,” I said. “Breathe in, please. Hold it. Now breathe out.”

I pushed down hard and she sank more deeply into the table. “Ooof,” she said. I covered her back and began on her hands and arms. I watched the clock: half an hour head to feet, turn over when you’re ready, half an hour feet to head.

Julie’s breathing had slowed by the time I was finishing with her left hand and scooting around the foot of the table to begin on her right hand. Her left arm slipped, dangled off the table, so I had to scoot back and gently tuck it against her side. The gold of her wedding ring gleamed, slick with oil. A branch rustled against the massage room’s clerestory window. Julie’s right hand was rougher than her left. The nails on both hands were short, unbitten. I interlaced my fingers with hers and moved our joined hands back and forth, rotated our wrists. Her wristbones were pronounced. All of her bones were pronounced, long and thin as she was, which made massaging her feel curiously anatomical, even medical. The leg-bone connected to the thigh-bone. She was all perfectly joined structure.

Her feet, however, were a mess. She had large bunions on both feet, knobs of bone that pulled her feet into watery diamond shapes and crowded her toes backward onto one another, like a line of falling dancers. Her heels were cracked. One ankle looked different than the other, bigger. Did that mean she had broken it at some point? Or was she born like that? I coated my hands with oil and rubbed as hard as I could on her misshapen feet, these stepchildren and burden-carriers of her body. I didn’t know why a librarian would have such terrible feet, what was in her past or her genes that did this. I didn’t ask. To me they were like duck feet, some part of her below the waterline, invisible, that did all the work and took all the weight. I went five minutes over on her feet.

I covered her feet again with the sheet and blanket. I put a hand on Julie’s shoulder and told her softly that she could turn over when she was ready. The wind moved over the prairie in the candlelight. The branch rustled against the clerestory window. The space heater sighed its hot breath. She woke, snuffled, wiggled down, and turned over. I put the little buckwheat and lavender pillow over her eyes. Her shoulders softened under my hands, nearly leveled. And then it happened.

It’s difficult to explain what it felt like. The easiest part to say is that my hands felt hot and alive in a way they never had before. I was doing the things the instructor had showed me how to do in the video, but my hands knew better, they were smarter and more precise than anything my mind could direct. My hands knew, and my arms knew, and my body knew where to stand to get the right degree of leverage and how to push.

“Damn,” said Julie. “That’s great.”

But I already knew that, or I should say, my body knew it. For the first time in my life, I knew exactly what I was doing. I had never felt so competent. I knew right away that I could do this. I could help people this way. It was exhilarating, and it just flowed. I flowed. I knew that I was where I was supposed to be, at last. I rubbed Julie’s earlobes and behind her ears, pressed around her hairline. The skin on her temples was so thin that I was almost afraid I would tear it. That was Julie: the battered feet, the elegant height, the fragile skin with the veins beating quietly beneath. I knew what she needed, where to push.

After, I waited for her in the living room with a glass of water. She was so tall when upright, like a walking tree. She looked taller, even, than when she had arrived. She sat down in a chair to put her sensible shoes and thick socks on her hobbled feet, twisted as roots.

“Wow, did I need that,” she said. I handed her the glass of water. “My husband just fussed all week. He has multiple sclerosis. Been in a wheelchair for a year now.” She drained the glass. “You ever been married?”

“Once. Not anymore.”

“You must get a lot of guys in this town picking up on you.”

“Not so much.”

Holding a hair tie in her teeth, she quickly rebraided her hair, banded it. She was upright, efficient, and slightly reserved. “Well, thank you, Suzanne. This was great. Maybe I’ll have another sometime.”

“Tell your friends,” I said.

“Totally.” Julie reached into her bag for her wallet. “Welcome to Chesham.”

I nodded and smiled as I put the cash in my pocket. I walked her the very short distance to the door, waved goodbye as she got in her car and drove away, tooting the horn. I went back into the massage room, where the candles were sinking into waxen puddles. The sheets where Julie had lain were faintly marked by the impression of her oiled body, like the shroud of Turin, if Jesus had been really tall. I gathered the sheets and put them in the cotton laundry bag under the massage table, folded the blankets, put the eye pillow away, blew out what remained of the candles, turned off the space heater. I lay down on the massage table for a few minutes, absorbing the ebbing warmth of the room. I got up, left the door open, and sat down in the living room to read a book of poetry by Mary Oliver. The lingering heat and the faint scent of skin and candle smoke wafted toward me. Even as my entire life had crumbled behind me, and my future was uncertain to say the least, I was content. I was entirely content.

The surprising thing was that Julie became a regular client and she did tell her friends. When the first set of tear-off tabs were gone, I put up another flyer with a fresh set. Over the course of about six months, I developed the beginnings of a little practice. It was hardly any money, but I was so excited to have discovered my gift. Finally, I knew why my hands and arms were so freakishly strong, and they got stronger still. With my hands, I cared for the sore and wounded, the flabby and scarred, the small-town real estate agents and retired schoolteachers, who lay on my table. And I realized something, too. Every body—every knot beneath the skin, every scar, every hitch in someone’s walk—tells a story, although most of the people who came to see me didn’t seem to know the stories that their bodies told. They just wanted, they said, to relax a little. They had stress.

But their bodies were more forthcoming. One lady wore a bathing suit for her session, which amused me until I noticed that the suit had a prosthesis built into it for her missing breast. Her feet were perfect, little toenails like scallop shells. I almost wept. Her muscles were pliant, supple, almost no tension anywhere. She had been through something terrible, clearly, but her body showed no fear, no holding. Bathing suit or no, she was utterly unguarded. A large, dark-skinned man of few words and with a lazy eye lay heavily on the table, his muscles like concrete. It was hard work; I was sweating. He was completely silent. I wondered why he was even there. When I reached the small of his back, though, he began to shake and then to cry. I said, “Hey, hey,” sat him up, gave him a tissue. He hung his head, fingers pinched at the bridge of his nose as if he had a nosebleed. “Fuck,” he kept saying, curved into himself. “Fuck fuck fuck.” He couldn’t meet my eye, couldn’t finish the massage, and left a massive tip. Another man, who had very abundant body hair, kept trying to guide my hand toward his semi-erect penis as he lay face-up. “Absolutely not,” I said, feeling like Little Red Riding Hood admonishing the wolf. “Get up and get out.” That happened more than once, to be honest, but I wasn’t daunted. A few wolves were nothing compared to all the open souls I was meeting, and helping, on my table. I counted myself lucky to have found my vocation, even at my age, even after all that I had lost.

I needed more money, though, so I got a bartending shift on Tuesday nights at a bar called Waves out on Route 28. I was lucky to get that, too. The usual bartender also worked as a home health aide, and she had just gotten an overnight client on Tuesdays. The married owners, Karen and Jerry, gave me a try-out; I read up in a cocktail book the night before; as it turned out, though, hardly anyone wanted anything much beyond a beer or a tequila shot, served with a smile. I got the shift. At Waves, I served drinks to some of the same people I had seen naked that week on my table, but they hardly ever made the connection. Context makes things visible or invisible. Or maybe they did make the connection, but they didn’t want to embarrass themselves, or me. I didn’t know, or care. If they were acting like they didn’t know me, I acted the same. The customers at Waves told me their stories, too, and all I had to do was lean against the ice machine and nod now and then. I was learning what a powerful thing it is, to be heard. Like my massage clients, the customers at Waves might come in as strangers, but they left as friends.

This was the small time, the narrow time, after the crash, and I have to admit that I sometimes miss it now. In the moment, I was in a ragged sort of shock. I was so lonely. I couldn’t believe how fast everything, and everyone, had evaporated; I called Noah every single day, but he never picked up or called me back. The so-so college would only confirm that yes, he was alive, and yes, he was attending classes, but, as they kept saying, he wasn’t a minor, and they would certainly let him know that I had reached out with concern. During the small time, it was as if Alan disappeared into a black hole in my consciousness. I couldn’t summon him up. There were days when I wasn’t sure I could entirely remember his face. Sometimes, my phone rang.

An electronic voice would say choppily, “Will you accept a call from an inmate at Norfolk State Prison?”

“No,” I would say, and hang up.

“Will you accept a call from an inmate at Norfolk State Prison?”


“Will you accept a call from an inmate at Norfolk State Prison?”


“Will you accept a call from an inmate at Norfolk State Prison?”


“Will you accept a call from an inmate at Norfolk State Prison?”


Alan got released early, but no one told me. The calls stopped coming, but I figured he’d just given up. I was busy surviving. I had a date in my mind for when he’d be released, but I didn’t know that that date was already irrelevant. See what I mean about information? Meanwhile, Lydia was falling in love with him. I’ve tried to imagine what Alan looked like to Lydia, what it all looked like from that angle. When Lydia and I finally met, and later began to talk, it was as if the man she loved both was and wasn’t the man I’d loved.

What was Sylvia doing when Alan was released? Ringing up people at the Walmart in Providence, I think. Or was she a greeter? I can’t remember, and I don’t like thinking of her in that life. Seventy-plus and ringing up plastic crap or handing out the sales flyer at the door—no. No. Say what you want about Sylvia, she’s smarter than that. She would have wanted to know that he’d gotten out, because she had kept track of him as much as she could for so many years. Because of the news coverage, she knew when he went in, but no one reported his release. And who else would have told her? I didn’t know. Lydia hadn’t met him yet, and anyway, she wouldn’t have known that Sylvia even existed. I was the one who told Lydia about Sylvia, years later. Alan certainly wasn’t going to get in touch with Sylvia; he’d long since written her off. So Sylvia was just standing there at the door of Walmart in Providence, saying “Hi” and “Heya” and “Howdy” and “Welcome.” A major part of her story had just begun, but she didn’t even know it.

For Lydia, it began like this:

On her lunch hour, she waited in the line composed mostly of elderly people at the community center in South End. Young, willowy, blonde Lydia towered over the rest not only in height but in vibrance. At the front, a handsome older man stood at a metal desk under a banner that read State of Massachusetts Debt Advice. Ask us what you can do now! Lydia had her papers in order in a manila envelope. She held on to the envelope with her good hand, the left one. The handsome older man had taken off his suit jacket. Lydia took her hat off, fluffed her hair, bent her head so that her hair fell over her face.

Behind her, a man said, “Free, my ass. What about my time?”

Lydia turned around to smile at him—a gnome, he seemed, with glasses too big for his face, a bit of blue tape at the base of one of the lenses—and he said, “Shit, lady, what happened to you? You look like Phantom of the Opera.”

“Fire. Long time ago.” Lydia turned back around. We are only as sick as our secrets


  • "[A] perfect outing . . . With smooth shifts in perspective and understated and precise prose, D’Erasmo demonstrates a mastery of the craft. The result is propulsive and profound."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "The Complicities had me enthralled. This gripping, human tale of our crimes—financial, environmental, self-delusional—is impossible to put down. D’Erasmo weaves a thriller of a tale, exposing sticky webs of corruption that entangle our lives and fates, even those who fantasize about their innocence, redemption and escape."—Samantha Hunt, author of The Unwritten Book: An Investigation
  • “The Complicities is a subtle masterpiece. Imagine a voice—lyrical and low, intimate and insistent—whispering in your ear. Half-told truths simmer below the surface, like the uneasy murmuring of a conscience. Mesmerized, you listen. There is menace here in D’Erasmo’s disquieted world, and terrible beauty, too. Things are not what they appear to be. We are not who we think we are, either, and yet we are complicit.”—Ruth Ozeki, author of The Book of Form and Emptiness
  • “In Stacey D'Erasmo's wonderful new novel, The Complicities, the past catches up to the present and overtakes it. All the scattered misdeeds and cut corners and malfeasances come together as crimes, big and small, and the characters either see the criminality or try to ignore it. But this suspenseful novel sees it all, and I found myself enlightened and deeply moved by its compelling story.”—Charles Baxter, author of The Sun Collective
  • “What does it mean—in such a corrupted world—to reckon with and atone for our own complicities? Stacey D’Erasmo’s latest unspools with the twisty intensity of a psychological thriller and the oceanic depth of a literary tour de force. The Complicities is an electrifying novel of powerful moral complexity, from a treasured writer working at the height of her powers.”—Laura van den Berg, author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears

On Sale
Aug 1, 2023
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

Stacey D’Erasmo

Stacey D’Erasmo

About the Author

Stacey D’Erasmo is the author of four novels and one book of nonfiction. She has been the recipient of a Stegner Fellowship in fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction, and a Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize from Lambda Literary, among other awards. Her essays, features, and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, the Boston Review, Bookforum, the New England Review, and Ploughshares, among other publications. She is an associate professor of writing and publishing practices at Fordham University. 

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