Mama is painfully sensitive to the nature of her two very dissimilar daughters. There are also women who are so preoccupied with the world at large that they are ignorant of the needs of human beings right under their noses, in their own family nucleus. Such a woman is the narrator in J. California Cooper’s “The Watcher.” She too has a daughter and a son, probably in their late teens or early twenties, who live at home. But she is not only insensitive to their needs and characters; she is totally disillusioned about her relationship with them, which for all intents and purposes is non-existent.
One is suspicious of her from the outset when in sentence two she says it is part of her community duty and her duty to God to “always, always” try to do right and help people. From her moral declaration, the narrator complains that while she takes time to do for others, she gets no thanks for it. This woman who claims to fear God and white folks reveals her level of intelligence by confiding to us that she “hollers” at white people on television talk shows and tells them what they need to know but “they don’t listen to nobody (7)!”
Having established the character of the narrator, Cooper reveals how the narrator “helps people” by sticking her nose into their personal lives, on the lookout for sin, to the degree that she destroys people’s reputations and even their marriages, and they end up moving away. In one case, a husband shoots his wife because of the unfounded information the narrator tells him about her.
The narrator is so obsessed with what she calls doing her “religious duty” that she engages her own husband to help her keep an eye on the single woman across the street at night while the narrator sleeps because she suspects her of sinning with some man. The husband keeps an eye on her all right and ends up divorcing the narrator and marrying the single woman across the street.
While the narrator is doing her “religious duty” looking for sin in everyone in the neighborhood and even in a nearby parking lot at night, her own daughter is trying to abort a fetus in her bedroom at home, where she also got pregnant. Her son, who she says keeps to himself, overdoses on heroin and dies right in his own bedroom at home. But the mother’s rationale for all this is, “You can’t see everything (8).”
Instead of taking her daughter’s pregnancy and attempted abortion, or her son’s death from a drug overdose, or her husband’s leaving her for the woman across the street as a wake up call, she further entrenches herself in what I will call her block watch. Her parting lines convey her mind set, “I’m watching the minister too! There is a sin there somewhere (9)!”
Cooper is masterful at winding the reader in with one scenario after another in which the narrator finds sin in the neighborhood, starting with a woman who used to live across the street, while in her own house she has neglected her own children and husband.