Chapter 1

 

After the argument with my mom, everything started spinning. Tilt-a-Whirl vertigo. Hoping a prescription for glasses would make the world appear the way it should again, I made an appointment with the optometrist for the morning of Friday, March 17, 2006.

The receptionist led me to a small examining room down the hall. The doctor had me read the eye chart, then asked me to identify a series of letters through various lenses. He dilated my pupils and checked the back of my eye. My vision, he declared, was twenty-twenty.

“Then why does everything keep spinning?” I asked.

“It’s probably neurological. You’d have to get more tests to know.”

I walked back to campus wondering what kind of disorders he had in mind. Turning off Waterman Street, I passed through the brick archway leading into Brown’s campus. Students were stream­ing to and from class, pouring out of buildings, playing Frisbee on the muddy quad. My cell phone started ringing and I hoped it was my mom calling me back. Normally I talked to her a few times a day, and I thought of her as my best friend as much as my mother.

But everything had changed three months earlier: New Year’s Eve, my twentieth birthday. I’d chosen to spend the night with friends instead of with my mom, and it had cost me. She’d thrown me out of her apartment the next day, and our argument had ended in my father’s driveway, where she stopped only long enough to toss my clothes onto his lawn and tell me that this was what I’d wanted. Since then she hadn’t answered my phone calls and I’d seen her only twice.

My sophomore spring was passing in a daze of vertigo attacks. I kept hoping my mom would stop being so stubborn and just call me back. I reached for my phone as I cut across the quad toward my art history class, which started in five minutes.

My brother’s name appeared on the caller ID.

“Have you talked to Mom today?” Brad asked.

“No, why?”

“Her boss called and said she didn’t show up for work.”

“Maybe she went to New Hampshire. I don’t know, but I have class now.”

“You have to get home.”

“Seriously?”

But he didn’t have to tell me twice. Immediately I knew some­thing was wrong. My two older brothers and I always knew where our mom was. We talked to her morning, noon, and night; she never turned her cell phone off, not even while she was at work.

Growing up, she’d attended every sporting event and school func­tion, juggling a full-time teaching job as a divorcée with primary custody of my brothers and me. Until our overblown argument on New Year’s Eve, she’d been completely dependable and I could always reach her.

She was never late for anything and called her boss by six in the morning if she needed to take a sick day. This was the first time in fifteen years that her boss had to dig up her emergency contact info, which listed Barbara Ann—our mother’s closest friend from the Massachusetts suburb where we’d grown up—as the person to call if something was wrong. Barbara Ann had called Brad, who immediately called our older brother Chris and me.

“Go now, Lindsay.”

My family refers to me by my full name only when there’s a problem.

“I have to take an exam at one. I’m leaving as soon as I finish,” he said.

A junior at Cornell, Brad was sequestered in upstate New York and the drive home was at least eight hours. I could make it from Rhode Island to Mom’s apartment in Massachusetts in two hours by train. Considering I didn’t have a three-hour economics mid­term to suffer through first, I knew I better get going.

Students strode by me as I stumbled to a nearby bench. I could feel another bout of vertigo coming on, the ground swooping up to meet the sky. The four barrels lining the path started to spin: Trash, Paper, Bottles, and Mixed Containers. I shut my eyes to still the chaos. I gripped the edge of the bench and waited for my best friend Cassidy to meet me before class, like always.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You look sick.” The bells rang out, signaling twelve o’clock classes.

“Something happened. I can’t go to class.”

“What is it?”

The last of the stragglers disappeared into buildings around the main green as I told her about my mom not showing up for work. We hurried off toward our dorm. Cassidy and I had met a year and a half earlier in an art class. She’d arrived from Vermont with a unicycle and an old guitar, which was enough to impress me. Sophomore year we were sharing a dorm room and trading thrift store T-shirts and beaded necklaces.

I threw my toothbrush and a change of clothes into my back­pack. Cassidy looked up the train schedule online.

“The next one leaves at one thirty. C’mon, you should eat first,” she said.

We went to the dining hall and I got my usual meal of salad and Diet Coke. The students around us were maddeningly carefree with their soft-serve cones and their campus newspapers. Instead of waiting around for the train, I felt like I should be hitting the road immediately, borrowing a friend’s car or hitchhiking. I stabbed a fork at my lettuce as the dread in my stomach turned to nausea. Cassidy kept saying it would all be fine. I pushed my plate away and looked up at the giant clock on the wall. I wanted to believe her, but the minutes were moving toward one o’clock impossibly slowly.

Cassidy reached for my hand as we walked downtown to the train station, her fingers glinting with the silver rings she always wore. My backpack thumped against my spine. I wanted to be overreacting, wanted this to be a false alarm, but something in Brad’s voice had faltered from his usual tough-guy stoicism.

I hugged Cassidy and bought a ticket for the northbound train.

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” she called across the terminal.

 

The train was packed with people leaving Providence for the week­end. I took the window seat beside a blue-suited businessman and began scrolling through the contacts saved in my cell phone. Starting with the A’s and working my way through the alphabet, I called friends and relatives—many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in months, if not years—to ask them if they’d heard from my mother lately or happened to know where she was. I tried to sound casual. I phoned old friends we’d sailed with every summer in Rhode Island, soccer moms from our hometown of North Andover, and the neighbor across the hall in Mom’s apartment building in New­buryport. I called information for more numbers. Everyone was quick to assure me that she probably just needed a long weekend away. I thanked them and moved down the list, feeling dizzy and trapped on the slow-moving train. My phone started to beep. I called my older brother Chris and told him to meet me at the Newburyport station. He’d left his office job in Boston and rushed to Mom’s apartment as soon as Brad had called a few hours earlier.

I sat pinned against the window, restless at every stop. My phone battery died halfway down the list of people who might have said, “Your mom’s right here.” The train crossed into Mas­sachusetts, groaned through Boston, and slid up along the coast, finally pulling into Newburyport. I was the first one off the plat­form.

Chris honked from the parking lot and I ran over and got into his Ford Explorer. He’d been pacing our mom’s apartment for the past few hours, trying to figure out where she’d gone. The drive­way was empty; her car wasn’t there. Chris said he’d even called the police, but they told him that people skip work all the time, and a person wasn’t officially considered missing until seventy-two hours had passed, unless we had reason to suspect a crime had been com­mitted. Even after Chris explained that this was extremely unusual behavior for our mother, the police officer said there was nothing he could do until Monday. We should try to relax; she probably just went away for the weekend.

But even as Chris told me that he’d called the police, I resisted the idea of involving them. As scary as it was to not know our mother’s whereabouts, I had no doubt that my brothers and I would find her. We knew her patterns and all the likely places she might have gone. Beyond her unswerving reliability, Mom had raised us in an air of intense privacy; as kids we weren’t supposed to tell anyone that our parents were divorced. Calling old friends to ask if they’d seen her lately made me feel like I was breaking her rules, but already I could sense that something more important had snapped.

As soon as I got in the car, Chris handed me our mom’s red suede purse, saying he’d found it in her apartment. Mom had given me this bag for Christmas two years earlier, and I’d returned it to her when I grew tired of it.

“Start looking through there,” Chris said.

“She always takes her purse.”

“I know.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look, Lindsay!”

At twenty-four, Chris was four years older than me, old enough to boss me around. He resembled our mom more than Brad and I did, with his narrow nose and chestnut hair. I started digging. Mom’s Wet n Wild lipstick was down to a dark red stub. I sifted through her drugstore reading glasses, a scattering of receipts and blank sticky notes, a handful of spare change, a hairbrush tangled with strands of dyed brown hair, a bottle of beige foundation, and her black wallet, bulging with credit cards, small bills, and creased photographs of my brothers and me. I couldn’t imagine where she would be going without all her essentials. I threw the bag on the floor and told Chris to drive faster.

A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of the white clapboard house on High Street. Mom had been living in an apart­ment on the third floor for the past year and a half. I’d been prepar­ing to leave for my first semester of college when she announced that she was done with North Andover.

“The boys are gone and you’re leaving too. Why would I want this big old house anymore?” she’d said at the time.

So Mom sold the house we’d grown up in amid talk of start­ing over. She rented an apartment in Newburyport, a picturesque coastal town forty minutes from North Andover, where she planned to make new friends, find romance, lose weight, and do all those things that amount to a second chance. We didn’t know anyone in Newburyport and weren’t sure why she was moving to a town that would double her commute to Woburn, where she worked as a special education teacher. My brothers and I didn’t question her motives, though. With the ocean just down the road, it seemed like a good place to start over. If Mom had any fears about a new beginning, she kept them to herself.

I took the stairs two at a time, up three flights, and reached for the spare key above the door frame. I threw open the door wanting to believe that Mom would be waiting on the other side, ready to put this whole misunderstanding behind us. The apart­ment was cluttered, same as always—books stacked beside the couch, an empty coffee mug on the table, and Mom’s brown cor­duroy blazer draped over the back of a chair. It looked like she had just run out to the store. Needed eggs, maybe milk. Like she’d be right back.

But her key chain was hanging on the hook in the kitchen, crammed with at least twenty keys, including the one for the Subaru Outback she’d bought a few months earlier. I never under­stood why she toted so many keys—I couldn’t imagine what they all opened—but along with her purse, Mom took this hefty ring wherever she went.

“Chris, did you see this?” I said.

“She must’ve taken her spare car key.”

“Then she won’t be gone long.”

After plugging my cell phone in to charge it, I emptied the purse and made a paper trail of receipts and sticky notes, trying to retrace our mom’s footsteps. A crumpled receipt for gas pur­chased at an Irving station near her office in Woburn, her Ameri­can Express card swiped at seven fifteen a.m. on Thursday, March 16. Meaning she’d gotten to work the day before about a half-hour earlier than the other teachers, who came in at eight. My mother was always punctual and often early, but never late—which was why her boss was alarmed enough to dig up her emergency contact info when she didn’t show up by midmorning.

A receipt for groceries purchased at Market Basket four days earlier: milk, cheese, hummus, and French bread. Photos devel­oped at CVS, a whole roll shot on the sand dunes of Plum Island, a barrier island between Newburyport Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean: sunsets, driftwood, and fishermen casting offshore. It all fit into her routine. I was about to give up and hurl the empty purse across the room when I noticed one more receipt, folded and tucked in an inner pocket.

“Chris—”

“What’d you find?”

“A receipt for a Budget rental truck.”

The yellow copy, dated Wednesday, March 15, made more sense to my brother than it did to me. Apparently the moving truck was all part of the plan. Mom had recently bought a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, fifteen minutes south of the ski condo where we’d vacationed for years. After almost two decades of working as a special education teaching associate, Mom was looking forward to an early retirement within a few years. The apartment in Newburyport was never supposed to be permanent; she was just taking some time to figure out where she wanted to settle down. Brad had planned to drive home on his upcoming spring break to help Mom transport a storage unit full of furniture to her new house. The truck was scheduled to be picked up the following week.

I had always envisioned my mother by the sea—she had dreamed of owning a bed-and-breakfast on a Rhode Island bluff we sailed past every summer—but she took a turn for the moun­tains instead. Normally she included me in every decision, right down to making the grocery list. But things had changed since our New Year’s Eve fight. We’d barely spoken since, and I knew next to nothing about the house she’d bought. Still, I hoped that’s where she had gone.

Chris called Budget rental and learned that Mom hadn’t picked up the truck early. My next thought was that she’d gotten in her car and driven north, wanting to map out the furniture arrangement in her new house or shop at the nearby outlet stores. Maybe her cell phone had run out of battery power en route. She would plug it in and call one of my brothers or me when she got there, but the worry was in the waiting. She phoned at least one of us every morning by the time she got to work. She was my morning alarm, and instead of saying prayers at night, I talked to her.

Chris had already called 411 and requested the phone number of our mother’s future neighbors in New Hampshire. Once con­nected, he introduced himself and asked if they’d seen any cars in the dirt driveway beyond their barn. Any lights on in the windows? They said the property looked deserted but promised to keep a lookout. The Budget receipt implied that Mom was following a plan, one she’d eagerly shared with my brothers and the details of which she’d stubbornly kept from me in the wake of our argu­ment. Even if I didn’t know where the house was located or what it looked like, a house in the mountains sounded simple enough. For years Mom had been saying she needed to simplify; things were finally falling into place. I held on to the yellow scrap of paper as if it were irrefutable proof that things were still as they should be.

There was also the possibility that she hadn’t gone north yet. Maybe she was just playing hooky and would come walking into the apartment any second. She would apologize for making us worry and relay an amusing story about her day off. Since this seemed just as likely, we decided to wait it out. Instead of chasing after her, it made more sense to remain at home base and wait for her to come back.

Brad got on the road at four, right after finishing his midterm. He had transferred from Boston College—Mom’s alma mater—to Cornell for his junior year. He called Chris and me at least ten times during his ride. We leaped for our cell phones, thinking Brad was about to say that he’d gotten hold of Mom, while he was hoping to hear that she’d just walked into the apartment. As the hours wore on, the calls became our way to keep Brad awake on his drive. After feeling exhausted for weeks, he had finally gone to the doctor a few days before. Tests revealed that he had mono, which explained his fatigue, fever, and sore throat. We were worried that he would fall asleep at the wheel and flip his truck into a field full of cows.

On his sixth or seventh call, Brad told us to go to every gas station that Mom might stop at on her way out of town. He was hoping they’d have security cameras recording the pumps. A video clip of a white station wagon pulling into the frame and a fifty-three-year-old woman pumping gas. How it would tell us what direction Mom took or where she was heading, we didn’t know. She’d bought a half tank the day before at the Irving station near her office, but we figured she’d top it off if she were planning a getaway.

We left a note on the kitchen table before leaving:

Mom,

We came home to see you. Please call us.

Love,

C, B, and L

Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Getty—we checked all the Newburyport stations without any luck. The pumps were old and the signs dis­playing the prices had not yet gone digital. The thought of security cameras in such a quaint suburb was absurd. We got on I-95 north and looked for gas station symbols on the blue service signs that lined the road every few miles. Six p.m. and the sun had set with­out our noticing. The interstate pulsed with yellow headlights. We followed an exit toward a Getty station and entered the adjacent convenience store, where the clerk on duty was a few years younger than me. He flipped through the day’s receipts to see if he could find one that matched our mother’s credit card number, but we grew impatient watching him dig through the thick wad of paper slips.

“She drives a white Subaru Outback. Midfifties, five-four, chin-length brown hair, probably wearing jeans, looks like a mom. Anyone like that come through?” Chris asked.

“Lots of people come and go,” he said.

“Do you videotape the pumps?”

“The tape’s locked in the office, but the manager comes in at eleven.”

“Think he’ll be able to show us the tape?”

“Don’t see why not.”

“Okay, we’ll come back then.”

“Actually I might’ve seen someone who fit that description this afternoon.”

Music to our ears. But even if our mother had passed through, it told us nothing about where she’d gone next. Still, it was some­thing.

Chris and I got back in the car. We knew it was time to call our father. In the seventeen years since their divorce, they’d never learned how to get along. Mom had done her best over the years to convince my brothers and me that he was not a good man, and even less of a father.

“We have to tell him,” Chris said.

“Fine. You call.”

He was probably in the middle of dinner, but like our mother, Dad always answered the phone.

“Dad, it’s Chris. Something’s wrong.”

“What?”

“It’s our mom.”

“What about her?”

“We can’t find her.”

“Can’t find her?”

“She didn’t show up for work. We’ve been looking for her all day.”

“She’s probably up at your ski condo.”

“She’s not there,” Chris said. “Brad’s driving home from Cor­nell and Lindsay’s with me.”

“Call me tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll hear from her by then,” Dad said before hanging up.

Chris slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Dad thinks we’re overreacting.”

“What did you expect?”

Chris swallowed whatever he was about to say and looked out the window. I knew Dad wouldn’t share our immediate alarm. Our mother was hardly his favorite person. It baffled me that my parents had been married for almost two decades. Mom acted out of emotion, Dad out of logic. He was a Princeton man, an engi­neer, and then president and CEO of a high-tech company until selling it at the age of fifty. He had also married another woman whose name was the same as my mother’s: Michele. An unfortu­nate coincidence as well as a constant reminder to my mom that she had been replaced.

Dad and his new wife lived in a beachfront mansion along with their beautiful towheaded child, Maggie. At fourteen years old, I suddenly had a new sibling. In my mother’s eyes, this was against the rules. A man was supposed to have only one wife, one set of kids. Even as my mom was so keen on starting over, it seemed she had never forgiven her ex-husband for seizing his own second chance.

Dad’s version of starting over included undertaking the resto­ration of an enormous old house as well as an early retirement so that he could be a stay-at-home parent. When he wasn’t occupied with Maggie, Dad was building cabinets, gutting old bedrooms, landscaping, and otherwise trying to restore his property to a Gats­byesque splendor it hadn’t seen in decades. He was a Renaissance man, still as fit and handsome as he was when my mother met him in college. His eyes were the same deep blue as the waves that broke on West Beach, right outside his bedroom window. By all outward appearances, his second chance had panned out quite nicely.

Chris and I drove around Newburyport for a while, checking parking lots for a white Subaru while speculating about where our mom could have gone. We went back and checked her apartment for any clues we might have overlooked. We called her cell phone several more times, but it continued to go straight to voice mail. Even though we still had at least an hour before we could view the gas station video, we got back in the car. Being on the move was easier on our nerves than sitting in the apartment; we were hoping to spot Mom’s station wagon or even pass her on the road.

But it was hard to tell what kinds of cars we were passing. March in New England meant the sun went down by six p.m. and the only light thereafter came from headlights, an indifferent moon, and a smattering of stars. Chris pulled into a liquor store parking lot off the highway. The adrenaline-pumped afternoon had collapsed into utter fatigue. Worrying was tiring. We reclined our seats, hoping to rest until eleven o’clock or until Brad called again, whichever came first. He’d been driving straight for the past six hours and had about two more to go. I shut my eyes, but I was no closer to sleep when a policeman rapped on the driver’s side window and beamed a flashlight in our eyes. Chris rolled down the window and we both sat up a little straighter.

We knew the officer would be of no use until several more hours passed, so there seemed little point in explaining our pre­dicament. Easier to just let him assume we were causing trouble outside a liquor store on a Friday night. We rolled up the windows and got back on the road, and for a few minutes I hated the cop, even though he’d done nothing wrong. It never crossed my mind to turn my frustrations on my mother, who had put us in this pre­dicament in the first place.

Ten thirty. We cruised through Newburyport, past the board­walk and the waterfront restaurants, looping through the brick-faced center of town for the fifth or sixth time. Everything was closed. Coming up on eleven, we drove back to the Getty station. The same kid was sitting behind the counter, no manager in sight. Apparently the manager was taking the night off and had forgotten to press the Record button on the camera that morning. The kid told us this without looking up from his magazine. We got back to Mom’s apartment just before midnight.

We did our best to not wake the neighbors, but the wooden stairs creaked and groaned and our footsteps echoed up through the halls. We opened the front door, willing Mom to be dozing in her easy chair, feet up on the ottoman, wineglass on the end table. But the lights were just the lamps we had turned on before leaving.

We called Brad to tell him about the dead ends we’d run into at the gas stations. He was still a half hour away, and I pictured him cruising in the fast lane, palming the steering wheel while going over the possibilities for the hundredth time: her new house, a weekend getaway, a dead cell phone battery, an explanation that would make perfect sense when she returned. Even as he told himself to stay calm, I knew he was as scared as he’d ever been, a fire-alarm fear difficult to explain to anyone but Chris and me—because we felt it too. It was completely out of character for our mom to take off without telling us. Her mood swings could be brutal, but her temper always cooled quickly, and she was nothing if not consistent in phone calls, care packages, and visits. She was the glue that held us all together.

I crawled into my mother’s bed, searching for her body’s inden­tation. Chris lay on the couch, a trail of receipts stretching across the floor in front of him. We called out to each other in the dark.

“She probably just went away for the weekend,” I said.

“It’ll make sense in the morning,” he replied.

Neither of us sounded convinced. I pulled the blankets up under my chin. Minutes or hours passed, marked by the faint whoosh of cars on High Street and the dim beam of headlights across the ceiling, like signals from an erratic lighthouse. I finally fell asleep, tangled in the roses of my mother’s sheets.

 

Excerpted from MISSING, by Lindsay Harrison. Copyright © 2011 by Lindsay Harrison.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

What is Missing about? The time your remote control got lost in the couch for two weeks?

It is pretty sad when the remote goes MIA. My book happens to be about my mother going missing for forty days. I was a sophomore in college when I got a call saying my mom had failed to show up for work. I rushed home, met my two older brothers, and began looking for her. We scoured her apartment, traced her credit cards and cell phone, drove around in circles, filed a missing person report, hung missing person fliers, appeared on New England news channels, and spun crazy theories of murder and kidnap.  In short, it was a lot worse than a missing remote.  I just wanted to change the channel and go back to my mundane college life!

The weeks crawled by without any leads. Things were not looking promising, but I refused to give up the belief that we would find our mother and everything would make sense again. She was my best friend; I talked to her multiple times a day. Not knowing her whereabouts was truly terrifying. Finally, after forty days, we found her, in circumstances far worse than anything my insomniac fears had prepared me for. A diver discovered my mother in her car, submerged in the ocean off the end of a fishing pier.

 

Damn.

I know. The second half of the book attempts to reconstruct a life that could have ended so tragically. At the same time, I wanted to chronicle how my brothers and I grieved and attempted to move forward with our lives. The book is a search on so many levels. I guess you could simplify all this by saying it’s a search for who, what, when, where, and why.

 

So what made you want to write about the most horrible thing that ever happened to you?

Writing this book was more an act of necessity than desire. I needed a way to sort through my grief and get it out of my body. I also started writing with the naïve hope that by reconstructing those forty days in a chronological narrative fashion, I would have that big Aha! moment and understand how I’d really lost my mother. A rookie mistake.

 

So what actually happened as you reconstructed those forty days?

The more I wrote, the more questions I had. Trauma shoots holes in your memory. There were details I chose to disremember. I had to keep emailing my brothers and my father to ask about specifics. This was risky, as they weren’t happy with my need to dredge up the past and put it on paper for strangers to read.

 

Can you say more about your family’s reactions?

Well, they came around eventually, but imagine someone asking you out of the blue, “Can you reconstruct the day that mom’s body was discovered?” Not pleasant. All memoirists will likely agree that writing a book about your family is an exercise in pissing off the people you care about the most. I just had to hold onto the belief that they would come to understand why I felt it was so important to write this book.

 

And why is that?

Well, my more selfish reason was to try to make sense of my own grief through writing. But in a larger sense, I hoped that this story would resonate with readers who had lived through loss. I knew the particulars of my story—the search, the grisly outcome, the complex family dynamics—are unique, but on a more basic level, the book is also a coming of age story that everyone can relate to. And unfortunately, most of us have experienced a loss or trauma of some kind. Different details, same emotions.

 

Do you think you’ve accomplished that goal?

I hope so. Receiving letters from people who have read my book and related to it is an amazing feeling. One woman said she’d considered ending her own life until she read my book and understood how much that would screw up her daughter. That one was heavy. Most are just thankful that I put this story out there, as a chronicle of grief and also a sort of tribute to my mother.

 

What was the writing process like?

Like doing surgery on my heart for three years. With rusty tools. Miraculously, the thing is still ticking.

 

It’s ironic that after searching for your mother, you became a “detective” for much longer in the book writing process.

Being a writer is a little like being a detective in that you have all these clues you have to align in the right order and hope you stumble upon a narrative with a suitable tone, style, voice, pacing, etc. You also have to do a lot of research, even in a memoir. Fact-checking your own life is a pretty strange trip.

 

Anything you were worried about while writing?

Mostly I worried about putting my family through the process of reliving our tragedy. I hoped they’d still talk to me and invite me to Christmas dinner.

 

How does it feel to have this book out there in the world?

My book release party was one of the best nights of my life. Seeing everyone I care about gathered at BookCourt in Brooklyn to hear me read was truly touching. Walking into a Barnes & Noble and seeing my book on the shelf is a thrill that I hope never wears off.

 

So you think it was worth it to surgically remove your heart like this, poke and prod it from every angle, and then stick it back in your chest?

I don’t recommend the process, but sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you find that the thing that was missing all along was right there inside you.

 

A little boy died
When he was seven.
He went straight up
To Heaven.

—My version of a nursery rhyme, age seven

 

Killing yourself at any age is a seriously tricky business. But when I was seven, the odds felt insurmountable.

My resources were so limited, after all. We lived in a one-story house, so there was nowhere to jump. The cabinet where the good silver was kept—the one with the knives that could make a nice, clean slice—was locked, and my mother had the key. We did have a swimming pool in our backyard, but who was going to teach me how to drown? I’d only just learned how to dog paddle.

It all started two nights before my seventh birthday, after a fight with my brother, Zach. I was a delicate-looking thing, pale as porcelain, with long red hair that flowed down to the middle of my back. Zach was ten, and big for his age. I didn’t care.

“You’re sitting in my chair,” I said.

Zach didn’t stop eating. “So?” he mumbled.

“Move.”

“You move.”

I could hear my voice growing shrill. “Move.”

“No, you move.”

My mother intervened. “Honey, let Zach sit next to his dad for a change. You come sit next to me.” She patted the empty chair to her right. Except for fancy occasions like Thanksgiving, we always had our meals at the L-shaped kitchen counter. My father would sit at the head; I’d sit next to him; then my mother; then Zach. I don’t know who had assigned these places, but that was how it had always been.

I felt my hand tighten into a fist. I could just go back to my room. I wasn’t that hungry anyway. But something deep inside me kept me standing there, transfixed. That something was so familiar, so real and omnipotent, I’d given it a name: the Black Beast.

I tried to negotiate.

“Not now,” I argued.

“Now,” the Black Beast insisted.

My fingers clenched tighter, so hard that my nails gouged into my palms.

Daddy hadn’t come home from work yet, so his chair was empty. There was still time to fix this, if indeed it needed fixing.

You could never tell with Zach. Of everyone in my family, I felt that he was the only one really keeping track of things. At ten, he could already see straight through me. He knew I was not adorable.

I gave him fair warning. “Zach, I swear, if you don’t move now, you’re gonna be sorry.”

He ignored me and reached for a tortilla chip, his hand passing right in front of me. Big mistake.

I grabbed the nearest fork and stabbed, hard, into his flesh.

There was a moment’s bloody satisfaction, like when you bite into a good, rare piece of steak and the juices flood through your mouth. The fork stood up straight from the back of Zach’s hand.

I’d skewered him like a bullfighter.

My mother swore and ran to get the first aid kit while Zach screamed. Thank God she was a registered nurse and knew exactly what to do. I don’t remember much of what followed—just that I was sent to my room, where I waited in terror for my father to come home.

It was the night of December 5, 1966. It was a good time to live in suburban Southern california. Building was booming, but you could still drive a mile or two out of town and picnic in orange groves. The smog was bad, but it produced brilliant sunsets. Out in the real world—the grown-up world I only caught whiffs of now and then—trouble was brewing: in four years,words like “kent State” and “cambodia” would enter the national consciousness. The Beatles would break up, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix would die.

But in Ontario, the little corner of the world where I lived, some forty-odd miles east of LA, none of that seemed to matter. Euclid Avenue, the eucalyptus-lined main street of town, was named one of the seven most beautiful avenues in the United States, and a good Sunday still consisted of church and a stroll beneath the trees. no one knew then that a blight was about to kill them all off, one after the other. In 1966, all was green and thriving.

Things weren’t exactly perfect at 1555 north elm court, but you couldn’t tell from the outside. The garage was freshly painted, the pink geraniums my mother had planted on a whim were blooming, and a brand-new fire-engine red Dodge comet stood in the driveway, waiting for us to hop in. But come around midnight, and you might hear a different story: voices brittle as icicles, aiming for the heart. I could hear them through my bedroom door, although I couldn’t quite make out the words. Something about money, usually; and sometimes, when the frost was particularly thick, the single word Rebecca. On those nights, I fully expected to wake up and find all the pink geraniums withered and dead. But to my surprise, they continued to bloom, and the neighbors looked on us as a fine family.

And so we were. Zach was tall for his age and strapping, with a shock of red hair even more vibrant than my own. My mother and father were both handsome people, trim and photogenic. In the few pictures I possess of us, we look like a kodak commercial: smiling, smiling, smiling. I remember hating being photographed as a child, and perhaps that accounts for my awkward grin. But even I could look angelic when I chose.

“There’s something wrong with her.” My mother’s normally cool, firm voice quavered. She was either on the edge of tears or extremely angry, I couldn’t tell which. I pressed my ear up against the crack in the den door, trying to listen harder.

“There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s only seven. Besides, she’s number one in her class.” My father’s kansas twang was followed by a crackle; no doubt a page of the Daily Report being turned.

“Put that goddamned paper down and listen to me. You call what she did to Zach tonight normal?”

Another crackle, then silence. “She won’t do anything like that again. I’ll make her give me her word.”

My mother laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. “She’d say anything to get you to forgive her. I mean it, Jack, I’m worried. One minute she’s sweet as pie, the next she’s a little fiend. And all those days she claims she’s sick when she really isn’t—”

“That’s just to stay out of school. All kids do that.”

“Not for weeks at a time. I tell you, something’s wrong with her.”

I heard the sound of a cup or a fist banging down on the table. “nothing’s wrong with my baby. Christ, she’s number one in her class.”

“You already said that.”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”

There was a moment’s silence, and then my mother began to cry. She rarely cried, except when she was so frustrated she couldn’t find the words to express herself.

“You always take her side,” she said.

“There are no sides here,” my father said, his voice softening.

“It’s just us.”

“I don’t know how to handle her anymore. And it’s not fair to Zach.” My mother was openly sobbing now.

“Shhh,” my father said. “If there’s a problem, I’ll fix it. You know I always do.”

I was glad I was only eavesdropping. I couldn’t have stood the sight of my mother’s tears. I crept back to bed, deeply ashamed of whatever was so clearly “wrong” with me.

Wrong with me, wrong with me. I knew my mother was right, of course; I’d always known I was different from other kids. I just didn’t realize how much it showed. How was my father going to “fix it”? What would they do to me if they ever found out how bizarre I really was? It wouldn’t just be a matter of being grounded then. They’d take me away and lock me up somewhere, and I’d never see my daddy again. I’d have to be more careful.

“Careful,” I whispered into my pillow.

 

My father stood in my bedroom doorway. There was a crease on his forehead that I’d never seen before.

“Why did you do it?” he asked.

“He made me do it,” I said with as much bravado as I could muster. How could I begin to explain what I didn’t understand myself? My father couldn’t possibly know, because I couldn’t possibly tell him, that “he” did not refer to Zach. “He” was the Black Beast, the monster that ruled over me and manipulated my moods. The Black Beast didn’t live under my bed or in the closet, like a proper childhood monster should. He lived inside my heart and head, leaving little room for hope or joy or any emotion lighter than sorrow. Sometimes he weighed a zillion trillion tons, and it was all I could do just to breathe.

But then at other times, the Black Beast switched my mood in exactly the opposite direction. I’d be agitated, irritable, giddy, and silly, all in quick succession. One minute the prick of a tag on the back of my sweater would make me writhe and scream; the next I’d be roaring with laughter at my own private jokes and pirouetting down the aisles of the supermarket. Those were “Disneyland days,” as my father called them, and although life in an amusement park can be exhausting, I still preferred them to the days in the dark.

Most children have a secret friend. But I never considered the Black Beast my friend. He was bigger than any mere childhood whim: he was a living, breathing creature that inhabited my body. I couldn’t just stuff him away in the toy chest and sit on the lid.

We fought constantly. I didn’t always want to do or say or feel the things that he commanded, because they often got me into trouble. But he was stronger than I was, and very persuasive. I’d originally named him “Black Beauty,” after one of my favorite bedtime stories, in an attempt to make him seem more like a pet. It didn’t work. When the Black Beast wanted his way with me, there was simply no stopping him.

I didn’t dare tell my father about this—or anyone else, for that matter. I thought that no one could possibly want a child possessed by a beast. So I cried that night instead: big, gulping sobs, bigger than my mother’s, because I needed my father’s allegiance more than she did. She was so attractive, she could get any man she wanted. I was a scrawny almost-seven-year-old, and there was nowhere else to turn. I shook off the covers and held out my arms. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” I said.

He came over and sat on the edge of my bed. “Do you promise never to do anything like that again?”

I nodded, crying harder. Daddy looked around and picked up Toto from the foot of my bed. Toto was the tattered stuffed dog I’d had since I was three, my constant ally, my dearest friend.

“Swear on Toto,” he said.

“I swear,” I said. The sobs were coming so thick and fast by then that I could barely get the words out. And then at last—at last—my father took me in his arms and pressed me to his chest.

My breathing slowed down instantly, the throbbing in my neck and temples eased. But just as my tears began to subside and I felt the universe slip back into its proper orbit, he held me out at arm’s length and shook his head. “You know, I’m very disappointed in you,” he said. “I want you to lie here and think about that for a while.” Then he got up and went back to the den.

I clutched Toto and thought about it. Thought about it, hard. There were really only two avenues open to me:

1. I could win back my father’s love, or

2. I could die.

Don’t ask me how I knew about suicide at such a tender age. The Black Beast knew all sorts of things that were better left unknown. I was fascinated by death; always had been. The nuns thought it was wonderful that I studied my catechism so intently, but the truth was, to me the Bible was just a great grisly story.

The same was true of fairy tales: I wolfed them down. not the saccharine Disney versions, but the unexpurgated Grimms, with their sawed-off heels and lopped-off heads and altogether dark and nasty vision. It satisfied something deep and hungry inside me to know that there was a way out of this life.

At the moment, though, it seemed easier just to try to win back Daddy’s love. I’d done it before—I knew how. Winning back my father’s love meant getting an A-plus at something. not an A, mind you. Mere As were for ordinary folk who didn’t have that extra special something it took to rise above the pack. My father made it clear to me: every A-plus earned crisp dollar bills, while straight As merited only pocket change.

I applied desperate logic. It seemed to me that all my father really lived for was my outstanding progress in school. He never talked much about his work as a real estate developer; he had no hobbies that I knew of; and when he came home, my mother greeted him with warmed-over argument. But he’d sit for hours in his brown leather chair, listening to me talk about my latest achievement, his face intent and a proud-to-bursting smile lighting his eyes. Nothing my mother said could disturb him then.

“Jack, the gas bill’s overdue.” “Jack, your meat loaf’s getting cold.” “Jack, did you hear me? I’m talking to you.”

So I figured I must be the reason he kept coming home. Narcissistic? Perhaps. But there must have been some truth to it.

No doubt he loved my mother and Zach, but he seemed to love those A-pluses best of all. I don’t know what they meant to him; I only knew the light in his eyes.

But how to get the A-plus? I looked over at the blank sheet of construction paper lying on my desk—my latest homework assignment—and shuddered. How could I possibly ace it?

Everything was wrong, all wrong. The paper wasn’t supposed to be white, it was supposed to be manila and marked across with thin blue lines so that I could print neatly between them. That was how it had always been; that was how it was supposed to be.

I’d told my parents about my dilemma, calmly as I could, and they’d searched the local stationery stores for lined manila paper, with no luck. finally, my mother wound up buying the offending blank white paper, and for a moment I considered blaming her for my predicament. But deep down I knew it wasn’t her fault—it was mine. I was the one who had claimed to be too sick to go to school for the seventh day running, so I wasn’t there to pick up the special paper that went along with the assignment.

All my mother knew was what she had heard over the phone from Sister Mary Bernadette: write a story about yourself and draw a picture to illustrate it. But how could I tell a proper story without the little blue lines? My handwriting wasn’t anywhere near good enough yet; it would sprawl all over the page. The result would be . . . catastrophe. I’d get a c—maybe even a c-minus.

No. Never. Death first.

It never occurred to me that my thoughts might be a little extreme. I knew what I knew: I had to stay the head of my class.

That was what held the fabric of my existence together: I had to be the best. The smartest, the most promising, the one to keep an eye on, the one to come home for. So there was really no other option left. If an A-plus was impossible, I’d simply have to die.

A shiver of fear ran through my body. I knew what death looked like, from having come across my pet mouse Jitsy last year, lying stiff and motionless in her cage. Her little red eyes were closed. I poked her and tried to shake her awake. When she didn’t respond, I ran to find my father.

“It’s not that kind of sleep,” he explained, gingerly picking her up by her tail and laying her in a shoe box. “Jitsy won’t be waking up.”

I was only five then, and I didn’t understand. “How come?”

“She’s gone to Heaven,” my father said.

Heaven I understood. We’d learned all about it in school.

Heaven was the place where good souls went to eat as much ice cream as they wanted the whole day long. Of course, there was that other place, but I didn’t want to think about it. Zach had shown me pictures from his third grade catechism: bodies twisted and tormented, writhing in pain while the flesh on their bones roasted as crisp as kentucky fried chicken.

I jumped into bed and jerked the covers up over my head. In spite of my mother’s frequent warnings about wasting electricity, I didn’t turn off my lamp. Some things, like bad grades and Hell, were best left to the light.

I slept fitfully the rest of that evening, with snatches of dreams that would have made the Grimm Brothers proud.

Then all at once my eyes fluttered open, and I was wide awake.

I glanced over at my bookshelf, at my rapidly growing collection of the lives of saints. not that I expected to be named a saint after my death. That dream would have to die along with me, because I knew full well that killing yourself was a sin. It was, after all, a terrible theft: the theft of God’s power over when to end a life. But I was clever. I had a plan.

It was all in the timing.

The way I understood it, before the age of seven, a child is considered free of sin. The soul is virgin territory then, innocent and unblemished. And here’s the kicker: so long as the child dies before she turns seven, she goes straight to Heaven. no messing around with purgatory, no chance of the devil getting a taste. Straight. To. Heaven.

I figured that qualified as an A-plus at death, and I was going to get it. Which posed a problem: I had only one day left to do the deed. I twisted around to look at the clock: just after five in the morning. Normally, I liked to take my time with things—figure out all the angles, meticulously check for errors—but I didn’t have that luxury. This would have to be a smash-and-grab operation. I knew where my mother kept her pills, the little blue ones she took every morning. They were in the very top drawer of her bureau, where she kept all her “unmentionables.” I wasn’t allowed to go in her bureau. I wasn’t even allowed to go in her bedroom, which she kept locked. But every once in a while, when she was in a particularly good mood, she’d let me in to watch her dress.

Watching my mother get dressed to go out for the evening was a bewitching experience. She’d start with a spritz of Arpège behind her knees and build from there, sliding into a pair of transparent silk stockings and snapping each garter shut with a satisfying click. Then she’d lay out a collection of slips on her bed: delicate skeins of silk and lace, too precious for me to touch. “Which one should I wear tonight?” she’d ask, holding them up against her body. She had lovely, luscious curves and hollows in all the right places. God had given her a body most women would die for, and then He turned around and gave her a face to match.

It wasn’t fair, I sometimes thought, surveying my own knobby body and desperately hunting for cheekbones. Why should she have so much and I so little—just a blaze of red hair that now and then looked pretty in the sunlight? But when my mother tried on her slips for me, all my longing was forgotten. I just stood in awe of her, so proud that such beauty ran somewhere through my own blood.

But the best part was when my mother got dressed for work. I didn’t usually get to see her then, because she left the house by six a.m. But I was frequently plagued by insomnia, and I’d slip into her bedroom with the dawn and watch her in the mirror, eagerly waiting for the crisply starched, immaculate white uniform and cap that transformed her into florence nightingale. She worked at a big blood bank in Skid row LA. I couldn’t imagine what she did down there, amongst the homeless and tormented. floated above them, no doubt, like the angel of mercy she was.

Everywhere, that is, except in our house.

“I take care of sick people all day long,” she’d snap if I came home with the sniffles. “Do you expect me to do it here too?”

For a nurse, she had surprisingly little patience with imperfection. Once when she came home rather later than usual, I noticed a stain on her apron and made the mistake of pointing it out. Right in the middle of serving the spaghetti, she ripped the whole thing off and flung it in the trash. “Filthy mess!” she said as she kicked it away. I wasn’t sure, but I got the impression she wasn’t referring only to the apron.

I rolled out of bed and grabbed my favorite flannel robe, the short one with the big yellow daisies. It wasn’t quite warm enough for December, but it was a gift from Daddy, and I loved it so much it was worth the shivers. I glanced again at the clock: ten minutes past five, which meant that my mother would be in her bedroom, getting ready for work. I tiptoed past her room, past the bathroom, to the kitchen. I couldn’t risk turning on a light, so I fumbled around in the spice rack until I found what I was looking for: the economy-sized box of black pepper. Steeling myself for the bite, I sprinkled some into my hand, brought it up to my nose, and sniffed hard.

Wham! A firebolt erupted inside my brain, and I began to sneeze convulsively—ten, twelve, fourteen times in a row.

Before the spasm could quiet down, I ran back down the hallway and knocked on my mother’s door.

“It’s me,” I said in broken gasps.

“What do you want? I’m getting ready.”

“I’m sick,” I said, letting loose a volley of sneezes for emphasis.

I could hear her exasperated sigh all the way through the door. She opened it up and stood there, one hand on her hip.

“What is it?”

I couldn’t really blame her. I was sick a lot, sometimes genuinely so, with a bad case of asthma and allergies, but more often than not with the pepper-induced kind. I knew how to hold the thermometer up to the lightbulb just long enough to fake a credible fever. I knew that sticking my fingers down my throat would make me throw up eventually. A swipe of my mother’s taupe eye shadow underneath my eyes created a convincing pallor. All good tricks that a lot of kids knew, but the right attitude was key: listless and lethargic, so bone-numbingly weary that the only proper place for me clearly was bed.

If you had asked me, I think I would have been hard-pressed to explain why I pretended to be sick so much. I loved my classmates, loved my teachers, loved the church. Just two weeks before, I’d been elected class president—surely St. Madeleine’s was the best school in the whole wide world. And I loved my parents, like a good child should: my father, who had never said no to me yet; and my mother, whom I sometimes confused with the Virgin Mary when she came to kiss me good night. I even loved my brother, although Zach lorded his three years’ seniority over me and kicked me under the table when no one was looking.

But all these wonderful things meant nothing to me when the Black Beast came to call. On really bad days, he stole my eyes from me, so when I looked at my mother’s prized pink geraniums, all I saw were the unpicked weeds. I saw the small strip of peeling paint on the garage and the dent on the comet’s fender. What I saw when I looked at myself was so frightful that I refused to look in the mirror. I even covered my spoon with my napkin, for fear I might catch a glimpse.

I couldn’t go to school then, of course. everyone expected so much of me there: the teachers, the students, the priest. I was supposed to be the first one waving my hand in the air with the answer, but I could barely hold it up long enough to brush my teeth. Everything felt so heavy then: my arms, my legs, my heart. My friends wanted mischief and magic from me. I was the schoolyard sprite, the instigator of all grand recess schemes.

No one wanted to hear how much it hurt just to smile, how hard it was to nod and pretend that I was listening to anything other than my own private howl. Or at least that’s what I assumed. I never risked the attempt. It was easier—safer, far wiser, no doubt—just to stay home, curl up in bed, and read.

Bed asked nothing of me but inertia, which was all that I could deliver.

Worst of all, when the Black Beast was in this kind of mood, I couldn’t do the one thing that made life truly meaningful for me: I couldn’t snuggle up with my father in his big brown chair and read the evening paper. Daddy came home late at night, but it didn’t matter. He always found time to read to me, to explain who Robert F. Kennedy was, what the fight for civil rights was all about, and why the Beatles mattered. for dessert, he’d turn to the funny pages and make sure that I got every joke.

But the Black Beast would do something strange to my sense of smell, so that my father’s beloved aroma of unfiltered camels and aftershave suddenly seemed noxious to me. It was easier just to plead sickness and go straight off to bed than to risk insulting him with my upturned nose. Plus I couldn’t seem to muster the exuberance required to scramble into his chair and bombard him with pertinent questions. Sustained interest in anything beside myself was practically impossible.

I slipped past my mother and sidled up next to her bureau. My timing was perfect—she was just about to take her pill. I watched as she uncapped the bottle, shook the tiny blue pill out onto her hand, then swallowed it with a sip of water. I imagined it traveling down the swan’s length of her throat, and I wondered if I’d look anywhere near as graceful when I downed the entire bottle.

She placed the bottle back in the drawer, then bent down to lace up her shiny white shoes. As soon as her back was turned, I rummaged around in her lingerie until, at last, I found it. I stuffed the bottle deep into my pocket and swung back around to face her, innocence engraved across my face. She was still tugging on her laces. So far as I could tell, she hadn’t seen a thing.

Now that I had the pills in my possession, I was eager to leave. Faking a couple more sneezes, I told my mother I felt dizzy and needed to go back to bed. She looked at me suspiciously. “What do you do there all day in bed?”

I blinked. What did she mean? What did she know? I never really thought that she’d noticed how much time I spent in bed—she was so busy working and making dinner and arguing with Daddy. I felt strangely violated somehow, as if I were being spied on in my undies. I decided to bluff, to play it cool.

“I read,” I said. “I rest. Sometimes I say the rosary.”

She frowned. “I don’t know why we pay all that fancy tuition if you’re never going to be in school.”

I’d heard this argument before, and a whine crept into my voice. “But Mom, I’m really sick.”

She ignored me. “Tonight, no matter what, we’re going to fix that hem. I won’t have you parading around in public looking like a ragamuffin.”

I suddenly felt genuinely ill. She was referring to my first communion dress, the lovely white froth in my closet, the hem of which had come partially undone. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, except of course for my mother. The big Mass was scheduled for this coming Sunday, five days away. And because I was the class president, I was certain that I would lead the procession up to the altar. every eye in the church would be on me, which was surely how God intended things, except—except that if all went well, I would be dead by then.

It wasn’t fair. I’d tried on that dress so many times I knew every seam by heart. I had a makeshift altar in the corner of my room, and I’d practiced in front of it dozens of times: the graceful walk up the center aisle, eyes demurely downcast, face aglow with anticipation. Then I’d sink to my knees and tilt my head back, my mouth slightly open, eager for God to enter me through His sacred host. Somewhere I had picked up the notion that a girl at her first communion was like the bride of christ. True or not, I felt as tingly as if I were waiting for my very first kiss.

The biggest moment of my life, and I was going to miss it. I walked back slowly to my room and sank down on my bed.

The blank white construction paper taunted me from across the room. Maybe, just maybe, my writing skills were good enough. Maybe if I used a ruler, the lines would be sufficiently straight, and no one would notice it was the wrong kind of paper . . .

But what to write? I’d been so worried about my printing that I’d never even thought of the bigger problem: I was supposed to tell a story about myself. It would have to be so deeply engross- ing that Sister Mary Bernadette would ignore the less than perfect lettering and feel compelled to give it a rousing A-plus. But look at my life: nothing ever happened to me. I got up, made my bed, had breakfast, went to school, came home, watched TV, ate dinner, went to bed. fish on friday, church on Sunday, dance class on Tuesday afternoons. Day after day, week after week, the same routine over and over again. The only thing of any interest in my life was the Black Beast, and of course, I couldn’t write about that. I’d be kicked out of St. Madeleine’s for good.

I curled up into a little ball, drawing my knees so tight against my chest that I could feel the outline of the pill bottle against my thigh. Just then I heard my mother’s footsteps in the hall. “I’m leaving!” she yelled.

“I’m asleep!” I yelled back, not realizing until I said it how silly that was. But the only answer I received was the sound of the front door slamming shut.

In spite of all the noise, my father still slept soundly in the guest room. He’d been sleeping in the guest room for as long as I could remember. My mother claimed he snored; he vehemently denied it. It was my job to wake him up so he could fix breakfast and take Zach and me to school. It wasn’t easy: my fa- ther could sleep through an earthquake (and had, several times).

He told me once that World War II had taught him how to sleep through anything.

It wasn’t quite time to wake him yet, so I decided to take a few minutes and figure out what to wear for the big event. I surveyed my closet: black seemed like the obvious choice. Then they wouldn’t even have to change me for the funeral. But my mother didn’t like how I looked in black, so the only thing I owned in that color was my witch’s costume from last Halloween. I worried how that might look to God—as if I were courting the devil. There was my Pop Warner cheerleading outfit, but the skirt had grown rather short this past year, and that didn’t seem very dignified. In fact, it seemed like I’d outgrown almost all my good outfits. except—of course!—my first communion dress.

I took it off the hanger and laid it out on the bed, taking care not to snag the loose hem. It was just the right white, like a freshly washed soul. real lace covered the entire bodice, and there was a scratchy petticoat underneath that made the skirt stand out stiffly from my body. I loved the slight discomfort against my skin. It was my very own version of a hair shirt—it made me feel as if I were doing penance.

And then there was the veil. I spread it out carefully next to the dress; a long length of gossamer fabric. I’d wheedled my mother into buying me the biggest one the store had in stock, even though she kept insisting it was too dramatic. I knew it wasn’t. Somehow, at seven, I already knew the effect that exaggeration could have on an audience. I’d had to use it often enough, so that the Black Beast could get his own way.

But of course, no one was going to see it on me now. My exhilaration began to deflate, until I realized that the veil would make a perfect shroud. I’d wrap it around and around my body, just like Mary Magdalene had wrapped Jesus’s body when she’d taken him down from the cross. I’d die in white, like a true bride of christ.

What would you most like to be asked?

That, to me, is the perfect opening question to any interview.  I wish more people would ask me about my writing process, rather than just about the content of my books.  I certainly don’t mind being an advocate for bipolar disorder, but I consider myself a writer first.

 

Okay, fine.  Where are you at this very moment, as you write this interview?

The same place I always write at — a little café in Beverly Hills called Le Pain Quotidien.  I find I write better out of the house, away from tempting distractions.  They let me sit here and scribble for hours, just me and a latte and a cup of gazpacho.  I’m so grateful to the café I mention it in the acknowledgements of my last book.  Come to think of it, I also referred to it in the epilogue of my first book.  I’m a café junkie, I guess.

 

It’s a pretty crowded place.  Isn’t it too noisy to write?

I wear earplugs, plus they always play classical music, which doesn’t bother me.  I have a certain rhythm in my head when I write, and classical doesn’t interfere with that.  Rock and jazz and more contemporary types of music, especially anything with lyrics, totally wreck my pacing.  Some people’s voices, if they’re too loud and nasal, also derail me.  Since when did it become okay to shout in public?  I think everybody should whisper — the world would be a much nicer place, full of secrets.

 

So the café gave birth to two books.  What are they about?

The Dark Side of Innocence:  Growing Up Bipolar is a childhood memoir about what it was like to grow up with a disease that at that time had no name.  I had no diagnosis, I just knew that there was something very, very wrong with me.  The book starts with a suicide attempt when I was seven years old, and continues with my increasing struggles with mood swings, alcohol, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors.  It ends when I’m eighteen years old, on my way to college.  I had gained a certain amount of insight by then, and was sure I was leaving all my problems behind me — which of course, I didn’t.

Manic:  A Memoir covers my adult life with bipolar disorder.  I describe how I managed to be a successful entertainment attorney, representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios, while secretly battling this devastating illness.  I also examine the impact of the illness — and my secrecy — on my relationships with various men.  I like to say that Manic was written from the inside out:  I tried to give the reader a visceral sense of what it’s really like to be bipolar.

 

Are you manic right now?

Nobody ever asks me that, although I think they secretly want to.  I suspect they’re afraid of insulting me.  The answer is no, I’m not manic at this time.  You would know if I was:  I’d be writing so fast there’d be no time for punctuation or grammar.  When you’re manic, you have to get your thoughts out of your head THIS VERY MINUTE, or you feel like you’ll explode.  Although I get an awful lot down on the page when I’m manic, I later discover that most of it is gibberish.

 

Do you think there’s a reason that you’re bipolar?

You mean like a higher purpose, a destiny?  At the risk of sounding pretentious, absolutely.  I attempted suicide on a grand scale on a number of occasions.  I never should have survived, never in a million years.  I think there has to be a reason why I’m still alive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s to tell my story and allow others to learn from it, and to feel less alone.  It’s possible that I’m deluding myself, but I rather like this delusion, so I’m sticking with it.

 

 

Please explain what just happened.

Jani Lane (Warrant) was just found dead. This is really weird — I’m just sitting down now to do this interview, and my inboxes are flooded with the news. Even though his cause of death is unknown at this moment, Jani did have a history -– like too many of us -– of alcohol problems. I planned on taking half a day off because it is absolutely gorgeous outside this morning, but this sets a different tone for me for the rest of the day. Mostly because I’m thinking about how his kids must feel.

What is your earliest memory?

Being told that my art was going to fail. I was around 8 years old I guess, and I was trying to make a submarine (like the one used in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”), out of oak-tag paper — big enough that I could get into it and go in the water. I remember coloring it with crayon for days and days on my bedroom floor. My cousin had stopped over at our house, saw what I was doing, and said “that’s going to sink like a rock.” I believe I had a revelation at that moment: I completely understood the meaning of the phrase “fuck you” after he hit me with his comment. Negative criticism is usually traumatizing for artists, because we take it as a personal attack. In my case, I have always used it as fuel. I finished the submarine, got into it, and realized it was too big to get through my doorway. The sinking fears my jealous cousin stirred in me would never have a conclusion.

“Some people were born just so they could be buried…”

If you’ve heard of Donald Ray Pollock, it was probably due to his collection of interlinked short stories, Knockemstiff published back in 2009, set in the titular town. His debut novel, The Devil All the Time (Doubleday) treads similar ground, spending most of its time in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tracking and recording a wide range of psychopathic behaviors by a motley crew of misfits and delinquents.

1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.

Opening Words

On a cold day in the autumn of 1998, eight years after my sister died, I went back to Cleveland to visit her grave with my hus- band, David. It was a bleak, overcast afternoon in November when we drove to the cemetery. My sister Kim is buried in that city of steel skies and flat lands in a place called Mount Olive Cemetery. I like the tone of authority in the name of her burial place. It feels as though she’s been anointed, lifted to a place of holiness. The cemetery is on the outskirts of the suburbs. We drove first through the orderly suburban streets, then under a stark bridge that appeared to lead nowhere, and then through the black gates. I thought after all these years that seeing again the sight of her gray headstone and the small plot of land designated to her on this earth would devastate me. Instead a long calm washed through me. I did not cry when I saw Kim’s grave. I read the inscription composed by my family: Kim Elizabeth, July 19, 1968–April 16, 1990, Our Beloved. Kim’s suicide has forever altered the way in which I re- spond to the world around me. It has transformed the way I think and feel about intimacy, motherhood, friendship, and our responsibilities to others. Her early death changed every pre- conceived idea I had of suicide, depression, suffering, parenthood, and our debt to another person. Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us.

I was wrong.

At her gravesite, beneath which lay the box that contained the flesh and bone that had comprised her physical self—the box that eight years earlier I had watched being lowered into the ground and had thrown dirt on top of, a Jewish ritual to signify the family’s responsibility to bury their loved ones—I was overcome with a familiar feeling of disbelief. I wanted, like Demeter, goddess of the spring who lost her daughter to the underworld, to plead with the gods to bargain back her life.

As the gray afternoon light moved through a stand of trees I wondered, as I had so many times, if Kim had really wanted to die or whether her act had been a cry for help.

I cannot go back to Cleveland without feeling the shadow of Kim over the city. It is in the color of the sky, in the shapes of the familiar houses on our suburban block, in the shade of the bushes along our front walk. Her loss is wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard. When I go into her bedroom—now turned into a kind of den, with a new desk and chair forced awkwardly into the room—I can only see it the way it used to be: Kim’s unmade bed, her clothes piled in a corner, her teddy bear thrown on the floor.

I still on occasion wake up in the morning and forget that she is gone, that she’ll never be able to have the baby she once wanted, that she’ll never know my son. I sometimes catch a quick flash of her face in my mind and it is as if she’s looking at me, trying to tell me something. I try very hard to listen.

Kim was the youngest of four girls, the only child of my mother and her second husband, the baby of our family—my baby, I sometimes thought, my Kim. My mother and we three remaining sisters reconstructed the weeks before she died. We read and reread the short suicide note she left. We recounted the last conversations, moods, phone calls; we talked to her friends and boyfriend, hoping that these conversations would explain why she’d left us. Her life and death have shaped each of us in profound ways. We talked and talked, among ourselves, with everyone who knew her, and didn’t get far. Then we stopped talking and mourned privately, each in our own way, trying to move on. But I could not really move on. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when my own son—at the cusp of adolescence, soon to be a young man—reached the age at which Kim’s life began to falter, that I knew I had to try to understand what happened to my sister. My responsibility as a mother made it imperative. I knew that in order to go on, to live my life, the life I have built with my husband and my son, my life as a writer and an editor, I had to go back and excavate her history. I had to understand why she would take her own life and whether I could have stopped her.

Kim was a decade younger than us, her three older sisters. All of us shared the same biological mother, but Laura, Cindy, and I were born from a different father. Our father came from a family of Jewish immigrants. He died when I was two years old, Laura three, and Cindy nine months. My mother, also Jewish, remarried an Irish Catholic man when I was eight years old; two years later she gave birth to Kim. My mother hoped Kim would bridge our not-yet-sturdy, second, Jewish- Catholic family and restore a home that had been shaped by grief and loss. But three years after Kim was born my mother and stepfather divorced, and our family went back to being a family of women.

When Kim died, I was living in New York City, newly married and three and a half months pregnant with my first child. My older sister, Laura, was also living in New York City, working in an art gallery. Cindy was married and training to be a psychologist in Los Angeles. Kim took her life in my mother’s garage, my mother asleep in her upstairs bedroom in the house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where we had all grown up.

The dialogue we have with the dead is never ending. That day at her grave I told myself that I would write about her for two reasons: to redeem her death, and in so doing honor her, and because I needed to understand what she had done and why in order to move forward with my own life. There were days, weeks, sometimes months when I was engaged with life—with my family, friends, and work—but it was as though Kim’s suicide hung over me, at the back of my thoughts, and it would creep up at times and I would feel frightened by it.

If I could recognize the forces that weakened Kim’s strength and attempt to re-create her inner world through my writing, perhaps I’d begin to understand what caused her to take her life. And maybe in doing so, I could forgive myself.

In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.

How had I let her disappear from view? How had we let her go? These are some of the questions I sought to answer.

Her grave that day seemed lonely amid the graves of strangers. That she was buried alone, not in a family plot (her death was so unexpected that no such arrangements had been made), represented to me the estrangement she had come to feel in life.

I took David’s arm and listened to the branches creaking overhead. I looked at the gravestones, some covered with fresh-laid flowers, others less attended. On the most fundamental level it did not seem real.

When I was a child, birds in close proximity had frightened me. Their skittish nature reminded me of my own reactions to a world made precarious by the sudden death of my father.

But when I saw a school of birds clamber over the sky at Kim’s gravesite, making a perfect V in the air, and saw one bird land on one of the monuments near her grave, I was filled with a strange happiness, as if Kim’s spirit were alive and present in the opaque November sky. I thought of T. S. Eliot’s lines in Four Quartets: “Go, go, go, said the bird: / Human kind can- not bear very much reality.”

I have twenty-one years of Kim’s essence stored up in my memory bank. The fallacy about death is its finality. Kim is as alive for me as if I were still at the foot of her bed, in her childhood room that was once my room, listening to her talk about the pair of jeans she had just bought at the Gap, or the day she had spent at one of the Lake Erie beaches, Mentor-on-the-Lake, with her girlfriends. Or sitting with her around our dining room table, her dirty blond hair fallen over her face as she worked on a thousand-piece puzzle of Mona Lisa or Monet’s Yellow Irises with Pink Cloud.

The gray November sky that afternoon carried within it the truth of something foretold. I regretted again, as I had at her funeral, that we had never given her a proper eulogy—that, too distraught, I had not been able to speak about her and the significance of her young life. Her funeral was shrouded in sorrow, shame, and incredulity. We were struggling to accept that she was gone, no longer able to shake her out of the long drift of delirium that compromised the last years of her life, never to see into her mercurial half-gray, half-blue eyes, never to touch her again. The rabbi spoke for us, said the prayers of mourning into the cold April air as we listened, hoping that the world on the other side of life was a better place. Two daysbefore she killed herself had been my birthday and she had called to wish me a happy day. Happiness no longer seemed part of the equation. The world felt tenuous and unsafe. Then I did not know how to grapple with or incorporate the violence of her act of resignation. I did not know how to grasp that she had wanted, at least that night, to die. Or perhaps had wished in those moments to be unlocked from her pain.

It seemed impossible, and I floated in the sea of my disbelief, still thinking that there had been a mistake. Though she was clearly dead—she had to be, my husband picked out her coffin—I could not accept it. I was still worried about her, convinced I could do something to change the course of what had happened. More, I was left with the belief that she had inherited the grief, loneliness, and pain of our family, and that her suicide was partially a result of this burden. I wondered whether Kim’s suicide had been inevitable.

Before it happened to Kim, the horror of suicide—that a person could take her life because of searing emotional pain—had seemed, while devastating and tragic, more of an abstract concept. Though I had known a few people who had committed suicide, one a childhood friend, over time I had pushed those losses into my unconscious. For years, even after Kim died, my defenses were formidable. If I were truly to have understood her state of mind then, I would have had to feel her pain unen- cumbered by the layers of protection I shielded myself with like thick sweaters against the cold. Every time I tried to grasp it I was overcome. It was as if I lived behind a blackened door.

In Moby-Dick, Melville’s masterpiece, Ishmael tells of his de- sire to meet the unknown when he undertakes the voyage of the sea in his quest for the whale:

Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, wild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.







To understand suicide is to try to comprehend the ungraspable phantom of life: the power of the darkness, fear, and weakness within the human mind, a force as mysterious, turbulent, complex, and uncontrollable as the sea, a force so powerful it may not be capable of withstanding its own destructive power.

After reading Moby-Dick, a treatise on the abyss and the inchoate and terrible power of inner demons, it does not surprise me to learn that Melville’s own son Malcolm died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of eighteen. Perhaps in writing the prophetic, meticulous novel of Ahab’s obsessive, diabolical quest for the white whale, Melville had hoped to crack open something of the mystery of his son’s or his own despair. Of the need to undertake the voyage, he wrote, “Somehow dreadfully, we are all cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

The page has been my container, my ship; my words my compass; my memory my harpoon in my desire to wrest coherence from the unwieldy material of personal truth. Whenever I come close to understanding the terrible mystery of suicide, it eludes me again, darting away like the mercurial whale beneath the surface of the ocean, plunging further into the depths of the un- known. When I think I’ve made my peace with the white beast, it rears its head, continuing to shadow the present. There is a desire to still the chaos, but it catches me when I least expect it.

When a young person ends his or her life, the grief of those left behind is complicated by despair, disbelief, fury, guilt, and shame. But my dismay has never been directed at Kim. It is directed at the world she was born into, the past that shaped what she would have to bear, and the failure of those closest to her and the community around her to offer the support and confidence that might have sustained her. Even in our darkest moments most of us have hope that life will turn for the better.

“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “And sore must be the storm / That could abash the little bird / That kept so many warm.”

At Kim’s gravesite I told myself that I would try to tell her story. In the years that followed I periodically researched and made notes, but I always put them away again, thwarted by complicated emotions and the moral dilemma of exposing my family’s private world, as well as my own.

A few years ago I flew to Los Angeles to spend a few days with Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a leading figure in the study of suicidology. That visit changed the way I thought about suicide, but it wasn’t until I began attending a monthly suicide bereavement group and listened to other survivors of suicide tell their stories that I was able, bolstered by the courage of others living with suicide, to write my story, free of disgrace. These pages narrate the story of what happened to Kim and my voyage to come to grips with her suicide. Since I cannot bring her back, I have struggled to make her lapse into darkness and the devastation of suicide understandable. Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. That is the reason I am writing this book.







The economic woes our society has undergone over the last three years were crystallized for me in a single story. On March 17, a man who worked at a city office in Costa Mesa was called into work to receive a layoff notice at the city maintenance offices. Huy Pham, an employee of that department, was at home with a broken ankle and not supposed to work. Suspecting the news, he chose to skip the meeting and instead went to City Hall and jumped off the roof.

In one bold, rash move, he exhibited an impulsive behavior that has more frequently crossed my mind and, I’d bet, many others’ across the country as, if not a rational response to our failed economy, most certainly an act that is not altogether shocking.

In early 2007, I was laid off from a job I’d held for nearly nine years.  It was a job I loved and a job that fit me like a clichéd, crocheted, personalized and otherwise lovely glove.  I was a bookseller at an indie.

In January of 2008 I got a second job after having taken a few language classes, hacking away at writing stories and going through every last bit of money I had saved from selling books (read: not much).  This new job involved writing and editing for an international engineering and project management firm.  It paid as much in six months as I’d ever earned in the best full year of employment since I was in high school.  It was corporate, and apart from being bearable because of a good friend who worked there, was so painfully dull that I once drew blood from my inner thigh while pinching it to keep awake during one of those two-hour, thrice-weekly corporate meetings whose riveting information would, in a small business, be disseminated perfectly in a five-minute conversation so we could get the fuck back to work.

Eight months later, in October of 2008, I was laid off for the second time in eighteen months.  It was also only the second time in my life I’d lost a job not by my own choice.

Beginning in November 2008, I began collecting unemployment and diligently applying for any writing/editing jobs I could find. I scoured industry postings, Craigslist notices, searched on my own for firms or persons which were looking for people with my expertise and figured, naively, that within a reasonable amount of time, I’d be employed doing something with words.

I started applying for jobs that were even tangentially related to writing and editing, jobs which mentioned that a successful applicant must be able to communicate effectively with the written word or simply be able to speak well.

I peppered these applications with occasional ones for delivery drivers – from auto parts to paper products to legal documents. Weeks turned into months, months turned into years, unemployment ran out, and I became one of the 99ers (those people who are not properly reflected in the most disseminated unemployment statistic, the Department of Labor’s U-3 number.  Once you are done with unemployment benefits, you simply vanish and become a ghost to U-3. This U-3 number is just one of the six ‘Alternative measures of labor underutilization’, the most striking, and accurate, of which is the U-6, a number which stands as of April 2011 at a seasonally adjusted 15.9 percent.  Even this U-6 number may not reflect the actual amount of people who are suffering un- or under- employment.  It is, after all, a figure that the government publishes, even though they use the U-3 number – a number which never hit ten percent because it is a psychological barrier that no one in control of analyzing and and publishing these figures could withstand politically if they wanted to be reelected or reappointed.  And because the government does take ownership of these numbers, I am going to go out on a limb and say our truer number reflecting un- or under- employment has remained perilously close to twenty percent).

Over the last two and a half years, I’ve cobbled together shards of extra money by selling books online, purchasing curiosities at thrift stores and hawking them on craigslist or ebay, generously being able to fill my gas tank with my dad’s Sam’s club membership, receiving a hundred or two from him as I spend time at his office and use his computer to search for jobs and run errands for him and act as a boy Friday.  Once, even, I found a ten dollar bill in a pair of pants at the Goodwill.  I felt like a scratch ticket winner.

I don’t live month-to-month, or often even week-to-week. Sometimes I live day-to-day, choosing on certain weeks to live without: phone or power or gas or water for a couple of days so I can scrape together enough cash to restart these services and then be able to: go online to search for jobs, see inside my apartment without a lantern, cook on my stove or take a shower.

Though I have so far managed to keep myself hoveled and Ramened, I have gotten to the point where I expect that sometime soon in my life I will take residence in a homeless shelter or a friend’s couch for an extended period of time.

It is, to be blunt, a mentally taxing endeavor and depression triggerer to wake up each morning with the first thing on one’s mind if the day will win or I will eke out a small victory against the day. On the good days, the day and I run neck and neck, on the bad days the day dunks me repeatedly in the deep end where I have no footing and can barely gulp a wet breath.

I have fallen deeply in love with Saturdays and Sundays not because they afford me time to enjoy myself, but only because I know on those two days that if I have any of my previously mentioned utilities in tact on a Saturday morning, I’ll have it at least until Sunday night because municipalities and cities do not schedule shut offs for weekends. Thank fucking god.

A few weeks ago, I hit a benchmark which, as I’m writing this, surprises me still. I have sent off exactly 400 resumes.  Though a handful have been for regular jobs in a warehouse or for driving gigs, most have been to magazines, newspapers, websites, journals, companies, individuals, institutions and other entities which have advertised a need for writers or editors.

I have applied across the state, across the country, even, on a few occasions, overseas. I have applied for job postings as an assistant writer for people who believe their life stories are ultra-intriguing and as a ghostwriter for people who have ‘a novel in mind’ but just don’t know how to get it down on paper. I even threw my hat into the ring for a job that involved writing ‘juicy stories.’ Had someone advertised a need to write a suicide note for fear of being misinterpreted legally and their estate thrown into interminable probate, I’d have sent off samples of the dandiest last-ever words.

I have reformatted my resume a dozen times to reshape it into what I think a particular firm would find most enticing. I have, since about submission 150, even included in my cover letter a note that I am willing to take the job and work gratis for the first month if only to prove my worth, to offer them up a voluntary probationary period in which they can assess if we’re a good fit or not.

I know just how desperate that must seem to the resume screener but desperation tugs at my thoughts only during the moments of the day I’m awake.

I have received a few dozen automated replies that an entity has received my resume, thanking me and that they will contact me if I fit a need they have. Out of those 400 resumes I have received no job offers and exactly, get this, one response.

It was, needless to say, a note saying I wasn’t quite the candidate they were looking for and was personalized in that way credit card offers are personalized – with the salutation ‘Dear Mr. Mark Sutz.’

Apparently, the other 399 submissions I made have disappeared into the same black hole in which float millions of lonely, uncoupled socks or into the same 900 mile high virtual slushpile in which linger dozens of my stories that literary magazines conspire to not read.

None of these other 399 entities has found it within their abilities to even send out a rejection email or letter.

I know I am not the only person in this boat, but those 399 non-responses have served to both build up a thick, cynical hide and redefined demoralization for me. I feel a camaraderie with people that I never would have four or five years ago.

I took my regular employment for granted and have now been firmly, absolutely, depressingly humbled.

I suspect I share versions of these feelings with many tens of thousands of anonymous worker bees across the country and stare with a similar stunned face into the mirror at night as I brush my teeth and wonder if I am indeed an unwitting character in an unscripted, unaired, unfilmed, unending episode of The Twilight Zone being sent into the future by a maniacal, time-bending puppeteer spirit of Rod Serling whose hand has crossed time and space and multiple dimensions and lodged itself perfectly up my ass and animates me by fingering my bowels.

Remove the hand, Rod.  Please.

I have, as many others also have done, reassessed every single choice I’ve made in my life that is remotely related to education and work. I have come to the conclusion that, somehow, in my acquisition of a BA and a Master’s, I utterly missed the boat. I feel, like Silent Cal said, an ‘educated derelict.’

Given the choice to go back in time just around high school, I’d place in my path a person who was a tradesman of sorts and a very persuasive one: maybe a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a taxidermist, a phlebotomist, a cryptologist, even a damn meteorologist, and I’d also give myself openmindedness enough to listen to that person and be taken on as an apprentice with him or her. I think I missed my ist somewhere along the way.

I suspect working with my hands would find me at least one more opportunity than moving bits of the alphabet around blank pages has found me.

I have thought greatly through my 400 blows about what the value of work is in our country, what the value of the worker is, what it means to negotiate a system which we have been told since we could speak is the greatest on the planet.

The only thing our country certainly owns as its unique brand is an ongoing lesson, perhaps even a type of indoctrination from early on, that rampant, unabashed capitalism is the only way out and the thing we all deserve.

There isn’t a kid in the country who doesn’t understand that if you buy a few lemons, some sugar, a stack of cups and a pitcher that you can’t double your money simply by laying out your cost per glass of lemonade on one side of a piece of paper and then doubling it on the other side then hawking it on the sidewalk on a hot summer day.

Making a profit is something that kids from Hawaii to Maine understand and are told is something uniquely, personally, rightfully American.

I do not disagree that it is a keen and necessary lesson, but it is not the only one.

A lesson they’re not told, one I wasn’t told by my father, a disciple of pure, unfettered Capitalism, is that behind this profit motive are dozens of other concerns, chiefly involving those profit-making things, human beings.

I won’t go into those dozens, but I’m pretty certain whoever is reading this might have been softened a bit to recognize a few of them by, if not personally experiencing the ride on our economic slide, at least knowing someone whom has been affected by it.

The sad thing is that even the dumbest, most selfish, fish-breathed, communicatively challenged bosses that exist (for me as recent as my penultimate superiors) understand how to eke out another point at the cost of a person.  To a degree, they’re as knowledgeable about the economy as Warren Buffett. Buy low, sell high.

Some of them should take an etiquette class and learn about responding to earnest inquiries for employment.

Come to think of it, that’s a job I’m well qualified for.  Hire me to write your rejection letters. At least those folks will know someone out there has heard them.

What is memoir?

The word derives from the French, mémoire and from the Latin, memoria meaning memory, or a reminiscence.


Why did you write a memoir?

I did not think of my book as a memoir when I was writing it. It defied categorization. I thought of it as giving life to the experience of my investigation. In that sense it was driven solely by the need to discover.


Do you believe in muses?

Yes. My sister, Kim was my muse for this book. The persistence of her memory guided me.


Were there other guides?

Yes, Melville was a guide. In Moby Dick Melville refers to “the ungraspable phantom of life,” which for me is a perfect metaphor for suicide.


Is all art driven by investigation? By the need to discover?

If it is going to maintain a sense of urgency, it must.


Will you write another memoir?

As I said, my book is not solely a memoir. I don’t mean to be coy. It is more than that. I write about my experience living with my sister’s suicide, and also attempt to recreate her inner world. The book is also partially research driven. It is not only an account of what I have remembered. I am interested in writing another nonfiction work.


Why did you choose to write the book as nonfiction, rather than as a novel for instance?

I wanted to take down the veil that keeps suicide in a closet. If I wrote the book as fiction, I would still be hiding behind a veil. In a novel a reader might believe the “felt” emotion, but not necessarily the experience.


What has been the most rewarding aspect of publishing History of a Suicide?

I have taken satisfaction in hearing from readers who have been moved by it. I receive emails daily. The book is hitting a nerve. It doesn’t surprise me since suicide takes the lives of 30,000 people every year, if not more since many suicides are not disclosed. If 30,000 people commit suicide each year imagine all the lives that have been affected. I have heard from parents, siblings, friends and lovers who have lost people they care about to suicide. I have heard from readers who have been suicidal themselves or struggle with depression. I have heard from readers who are simply interested in reading about a subject that in one way or another impinges upon all of us. One of my favorite letters was from a twenty-year old college student. She wrote that after reading my book she realized that we are all more similar than we assume and that we share thoughts and struggles. That touched me.


Do you write books to touch your reader?

Yes.


Any last thoughts?

The irony of featuring an excerpt of History of a Suicide on a site called The Nervous Breakdown has not escaped me.


James Brown’s memoir The Los Angeles Diaries is one of those books that writers hear other writers discussing with reverence, and that’s how I discovered it in 2004. This River, out now, serves as a postscript to The Los Angeles Diaries, and it equals its precursor in both skill and vision.

James Brown’s prose is tight and spare, which contrasts starkly with the chaos of his life, including the suicides of both his siblings, and his own battles with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Each chapter from The Los Angeles Diaries and This River is a stand-alone piece. The layering of chapters—and now of books—delivers a staggering panoramic perspective.

Of This River, Tim O’Brien writes, “A beautifully crafted and intensely moving book. Without artifice or pretension—without false moves of any sort—James Brown goes after the biggest literary game: death, love, children, degeneration, hopelessness, hope.”

Jim and I met when we discovered that our books had the same release date of March 1st. I was already a fan of The Los Angeles Diaries and had emailed him long before to tell him. We soon decided to team up and do readings together, as well as simply support each other through the publication process. In this spirit, he agreed to answer my questions.

 

 

 

 

In The Los Angeles Diaries, after a scene with your father, you write:

I’ve mined the territory before, if not this particular moment then something like it, and I’ve done it so often that I find myself confusing what actually happened with how I imagine it. In trying to sort between autobiography and fiction, or invention, and then trying to put the pieces together so that they make some kind of sense, I’ve come to think that the truth as it occurs isn’t of much use to me other than, say, as a catalyst for a story.

As a writer, I’m curious about this passage. I’d just like you to comment further. Why memoir over fiction? Or not. You’ve written fiction as well. How do you distinguish the two, etc?

 

Memory is fallible. It is also non-sequential. I can’t recall the past precisely as it may have occurred, especially whenever it is I’m writing about took place many years earlier. But I can recall more than its essence, and what I’m after when I write memoir is an emotional truth that, I hope, transcends the straight, literal experience. Memoir is not journalism anymore than it is fiction. At the same time there are lines you simply don’t cross in memoir that you would or might in fiction. You must tell your story, to the best of your abilities, as honestly as you can in memoir. It’s presumed you’re telling the truth in this genre, and you owe it to your reader to uphold that presumption, or promise. To blatantly do otherwise is to lie, and that’s the art of fiction, not memoir.

 

We’ve discussed a little about subject matter—whether you choose what to write, or whether it chooses you. I’m wondering if you could speak on this topic?

 

I believe the material chooses the writer, if the writer allows it. You write about what you care most about, what you know most about, what you think most about, the memories that haunt, your obsessions, your shortcomings, your successes and failures, and how all these experiences and feelings have shaped how you see yourself and others, particularly those you love most in this crazy world.

 

You come from a working class background. You and your brother and sister chose to pursue careers in art. Can you speak about this?

 

I’m not sure. I think my brother set the pace when he chose acting. His passion was contagious, though our mother started him on this path when he was just a kid. My brother, like my father and sister, were also big readers, and I think I originally began writing to please my brother, since I looked up to him so much, and soon enough it became a passion, which is a good thing, because as a teenager I’d also developed a strong interest in crime, the easy money, the rush that comes from robbing and stealing, as well as drug and alcohol habits.

 

Do you envision a third memoir? Or is that impossible to know?

 

I do envision one more memoir, but I can’t, and won’t, return to the dark places of my first two. This third one I want to be about getting and staying sober. I want to show another side, a better one built around this wonderful gift I’ve been given in sobriety, a second shot at life.

 

Did you have a structure in mind for your memoirs or did the pieces collect and build into a cohesive whole?

 

I had a structure in mind, but it wasn’t sequential. I wanted to write about only those events in life that affected me most, the memories I couldn’t shake, that I’d lived with for years. I felt if I didn’t write The Los Angeles Diaries, if I didn’t just come out and tell the truth about the things that haunted and troubled me, of the ugly person I could be and had become in large part because of my addictions, that I could never move forward. The book has a beginning, middle and end, just not in that order.

 

Your prose is, like O’Brien points out, without artifice or pretension. I’m curious about what writers you admire—and which writers influence your work.

 

Actually I’m a big fan of Tim O’Brien, and his work, particularly The Things They Carry, has had a strong influence on me. I also admire Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Hemingway.

 

You have quite a history with the publishing industry. Can you give an overview of your experiences and comment on the industry?

 

The industry has been good to me, though I could always complain that my career could and should be better. But what’s the point of whining? “Less successful” writers would call me ungrateful. “More successful” ones would think I’m jealous. The point is, it’s the process of writing that defines success, not publication. You know when you’re doing good work, and when you’re on a roll, a streak, there’s your real pleasure. And it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

Jim and I will be reading at Skylight in Los Angeles on March 16th at 7:30 p.m. and at Vroman’s in Pasadena on March 24th at 7:00 p.m.


My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

Teddy Ruxpin. Does anybody remember him? If not, Teddy Ruxpin was an audio-animatronic toy bear into whose backside was built a cassette tape recorder that played stories with names like “Help Teddy and Grubby Find the Treasure of Grundo!” The whole process involved something called “differential pulse-position modulation,” which means Teddy Ruxpin’s mouth would move along with the “pulse” of the audio, creating the illusion Teddy was actually talking to you. This doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but remove the mediocre “Grundo” cassette and replace it with Mötley Crüe’s “Shout At The Devil” and you’re onto something. You’re onto animatronic blowjobs. And for a ten-year-old, this kind of mischief is the ne plus ultra of existence.

First of all, no self-respecting ten-year-old is going to be caught dead owning a Teddy Ruxpin. This is why younger brothers and sisters—neither of which I had or have—were so important. Larry, a friend of mine if only out of disgruntled, juvenile, sexually frustrated convenience, had a younger sister who had a Teddy Ruxpin and, once we had successfully locked her inside her closet, we’d run over and tear into her toy chest, rip out the “Beware of the Mudblups in the Land of Grundo” tape and rock out–quite literally–with our cocks out. Now, “Shout At The Devil” was a crucial soundtrack for three important reasons:

1.) “Shout At The Devil” kicks ass.

2.) If you squint just right at the album cover (see inset), the Crüe can be construed as hot babes, except of course for Mick Mars, who makes a solid case for the ugliest specimen in rock and roll.

and

3.) By throwing in that breakneck glam, Teddy’s mouth would move with extraordinary speed, prurient speed. Ideal blowjob speed.

Larry’s mother must have wondered where all her Pond’s cold cream went, because it became evident early on that Teddy Ruxpin’s unlubricated maw was too abrasive on our penises and the cold cream, applied liberally to the top and bottom of his trap, made the process exceedingly more pleasurable.

It was the summer of 1985, a year designated by the United Nations as “National Youth Year” and, unofficially, “The Year I Really Started To Experiment With The Possibilities of Places I Could Put My Penis.” The year of the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, whose exploits I followed with what my father referred to as “unhealthy enthusiasm.” Of astronaut Barbie (who, while exotic and cosmic, could not be fucked, we determined).

Larry and my crapulous affair(s) with Teddy Ruxpin came to an abrupt end when we decided it might be fun to stuff both our dicks inside Teddy Ruxpin’s mouth to the Crüe’s “Too Young To Fall in Love,” for whatever reason. The zeitgeist? Probably not. Our stiff, chubby little worms were too much for Teddy. The bear began to seize, Vince Neil’s vocals began to tremble and as it turned, no amount of Pond’s cold cream could provide a means of egress for our desperate little dongs. Teddy Ruxpin clamped down.

At first, this malfunction was cause for laughter. We scooted around Larry’s sister’s room, howling at the scenario taking place. After Larry’s sister punched her way through her closet and found us in flagrante, our howls took on a different timbre.

“Cathy, get out!”

“It’s my room, Larry! WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO TEDDY? MOOOOOOMMMMMAAA!”

Momma. What a terrible thing to hear. You hear of men in battle, the toughest bastards around, screaming for their Mommas. Momma. Oh, Momma. Oh this ends badly. Larry’s mother, who for some reason never recognized that for weeks her daughter would be regularly locked in the closet while her son and his best friend face-fucked a toy bear, would now find a horrific scene. Two boys with their penises stuck inside Teddy Ruxpin, pants at our ankles, as Cathy, who would have been around eight, yanked on Teddy from one end while we made every attempt to extricate our dicks from the bear. A real sordid tug-of war.

Ben Taub is the hospital you go to in Houston if you’ve been shot, stabbed, burned to an exothermic crisp or get your penis stuck in a talking bear. It’s a ghastly place. Larry’s mother drove both Larry and I to the Ben Taub emergency room, where, naked, we sat crying in our humiliating position, penises partially digested by Teddy Ruxpin, “Shout At The Devil” still roaring out of Teddy’s speakers. A man who appeared near death, covered in gore and waiting around to postpone his reward saw the two of us in the waiting room and spoke.

“The world is a sea of rats, isn’t it, boys?” he said, through thanatoid chortles. Larry and I looked at anything but this pestilent old street crazy; we weren’t prepared to acknowledge anything or anyone.

“A fucking sea of rats,” he repeated, fingering one particularly gruesome wound with grubby fingers.

Larry and I were eventually ushered into a foul-smelling room, attended to by a Dr. Kaplan. He asked us our names, the usual drill. We mumbled our names, through hoarse tears. Then he said this:

“You two probably think this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen don’t you?”

“I dunno.”

“I dunno.”

Dr. Kaplan applied something stronger than Pond’s cold cream and withouted us and our tormented members from Teddy Ruxpin. I wondered if he liked Mötley Crüe, if it bothered him–I wouldn’t have wanted to offend anybody’s sensibilities. He gave us hospital gowns and told us to wait, that we’d have to be checked over one more time, just to make sure no permanent damage had been done. Relief. I was relieved for a moment, until I decided to ask,

“Dr. Kaplan. Is this the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?” Dr. Kaplan seemed relieved to be asked.

“Thought you’d never ask!,” he said, continuing,” My first year as a resident, I saw a man who tried to cut his own head off with a chainsaw.” This didn’t seem much weirder, just bolder, permanent.

“Gross,” I said. Larry continued crying, sure he was going to “get in trouble.” Get in trouble? Larry, we’re in trouble, dude. It’s terrible, this kind of trouble. You go along just fine, skirting disaster until you don’t. Then what? Then tragedy. But just before it’s tragic, it’s not. We were so close to not being in this situation. Was something else at work? This is an argument for God. Not a benevolent God, just a God. You could argue everything is an argument for him/her/it.

“The weirdest part, though,” Dr. Kaplan went on,” he almost did it. But he didn’t. He lived.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Swear to God, he did. Do you want to know how they sewed his head back on?”

“Yeah.”

“They removed most of his anus and used that tissue to reconnect his neck and head. Talk about a butthead!” Dr. Kaplan laughed uproariously. We laughed nervously. What the hell just happened? Nix. What would happen? We would have to go home soon. What would my parents say? Was this something to be grounded for? This story would get out. Fifth grade was around the corner. I still hadn’t the slightest clue what to do with my penis. No hope, no salvation, existential hunger. Rotted, sweaty teeth. Parental love wears thin. This is the age one acquires enemies. This is when we are at our worst. This is a story, ammunition, a big powder keg, a cache of hellhounds. We didn’t want blood, but we got it. The story would get out.

But until now, it hasn’t.

Of course, how could one compete with the new kid, Davey Martell, a military brat transfer from California who took 5th grade center stage, charging 50 cents a head to people interested in watching him auto-fellate himself in the boy’s bathroom? One couldn’t. The worst part? He wasn’t even that flexible.

Sometimes the world is a sea of rats.



kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


***

(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.