Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
“A stunningly beautiful story told by a gifted writer.”
— Meredith Hall
An award-winning memoir about a life-changing journey spanning three decades, one continent and a world of possibilities.
Praise for Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
“Short Leash isn't quite a dog book even though the cover and title relates to a big, lovable black Lab named Barney. Instead, it's a impossibly beautiful portrait of two damaged souls and how they lean on one another to heal, hurt, and find their way back to happiness after unspeakable tragedy. Through it all, Gary writes with a sure-hand, crafting beautiful, rhapsodic passages that span every emotion.”
– Craig Manning, Independent Publisher.co
“Janice Gary achieves a remarkable feat, taking the reader on a vast inward journey toward freedom from the effects of real trauma in her youth as she walks her dog in a public park. With Barney by her side, she faces her deepest fears and discovers the grace of the natural world, the power of love and the potency of her own strengths. There were innumerable times when I was just knocked over by this book. This is a stunningly beautiful story told by a gifted writer.”
— Meredith Hall, author of The New York Times bestseller Without a Map
“Sometimes redemption comes in the form of a rambunctious four-legged creature. Such is the case with Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance. In this beautifully written book, the author’s beloved dog Barney tugs and ultimately drags his emotionally damaged human companion through parks and paths to an inner place of strength, joy and freedom from her painful past.”
— Mira Bartók, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir The Memory Palace.
“Gary's book reminds me not only what dogs bring to our lives—their warmth, strength and acceptance of the imperfect humans they live with—but of what words are for. The words in Short Leash leap off the page, carving Barney, his imperfect human and their extraordinary landscape deep into my memory. Luminously spiritual, unflinchingly honest, this book re-makes its genre into a profound meditation.”
— Louise Bernikow, author of Dreaming in Libro: How a Good Dog Tamed A Bad Woman and Bark if You Love Me.
Awards and Recognition
Winner of the 2014 Nautilus Award for Memoir and Nature
About the Nautilus Awards: The Nautilus Awards recognizes exceptional literary contributions to books promoting spiritual growth, conscious living & positive social change while stimulating the imagination and offering the reader new possibilities for a better life and a better world. Former recipients include Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Julia Cameron and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Other Prizes for Short Leash: Finalist for Eric Hoffer Award for Memoir and the May Sarton Award for Women’s Memoir
Available online and at fine booksellers
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap …
— Ted Hughes, “Wind”
We had been in Key West only five hours when the shit hit the fan. Six fans. One in the kitchen, two in the living room, one in the bedroom, and the two in the dining room where my dog lay on a red oriental rug panting incessantly, his sleek black-and-white body trembling from head to tail.
I squatted next to Winston and pressed my hand against his chest. His heart beat erratically. “What happened?” I asked my husband.
He ignored the question. “Where the hell were you? I called. I texted.”
“I turned off the phone,” I said. “I’m sick. I didn’t want you to wake me.”
“Well you’re awake now.”
I was awake alright. Awake and alarmed. Winston stared out into space, his eyes glassy and unfocused. It seemed like he didn’t even know I was there. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“I don’t know,” Curt said. “One minute he was walking down Duval Street with me and the next thing I know he could hardly move. I had to carry him home the last two blocks.”
Instinctively, my hand moved to Winston’s belly. The first thought was bloat — a twisted gut, always a possibility for large-chested breeds like his boxer–pit bull mix. But his stomach wasn’t distended. I pulled back his lips. Pale gums. Not a good sign. I considered taking him to an emergency clinic but simply walking through the door of one of those places could cost hundreds of dollars.
“Take him now,” my sister screamed over the speakerphone. She said it could be anything — bloat, internal bleeding, a brain hemorrhage. After hanging up, Curt and I looked at each other suspended in a trance of uncertainty. My sister was known for histrionics when it came to health, canine or otherwise. I asked Winston what he wanted to do. Like Jesus rising from the dead, he got up on shaky legs and walked to the front door. “I guess we’re going,” my husband said.
We hadn’t even been in town long enough to unpack. This was not a vacation. It was something bigger, a trial run for living and working on the edge — the southernmost edge of the country — a jumping-off point for artists and eccentrics who had one foot on the ground and the other on something much less solid. But the endeavor felt jinxed from the start. Leaving three days before New Year’s Eve, we ran smack into holiday traffic and an accident that had us crawling through the state of South Carolina for hours. In Georgia, we passed a burnt-out carcass of a car frame — a stark reminder that one wrong lane change could end everything. Even worse, for most of the trip my husband was sick with a terrible cold, which, despite my best germ-avoidance techniques, left his body and began to assault mine by the time we reached the Florida state line.
Winston’s crisis gave us our first lesson in what it was like to live in the Florida Keys. Outside the ubiquitous convenience/liquor store, all-night resources were far-flung and limited. The only emergency veterinary clinic in the entire island chain was 50 miles away in Marathon. And there was only one way to get there — U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway — heading back in the direction we had come.
Usually, driving on the Overseas Highway thrilled me in a way nothing else could. It was all sea and sky, the waters a liquid kaleidoscope changing from aqua to olive to cerulean to a million shades of turquoise with the slightest shift of light or shading of cloud. I loved that water so much that my last will and testament included a map indicating the exact spot on Bahia Honda where I wanted my ashes scattered. But at 1 in the morning with no moon, an invisible sea, and the threat of rain in the sky, the only thing out there was a black void, and in that void I saw another road, the one we had traveled earlier that day, traversing a sea of grass into a time and place where the confluence of the ordinary and the mythical appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.
Coming down we had driven from Naples to Homestead on the Tamiami Trail, an old two-lane highway connecting the west coast of Florida to the east at the southernmost tip of the state. The trail, named for its Tampa-to-Miami route, bored straight through the heart of the Everglades as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ earliest attempts in the 1920s to drain the Big Cypress Swamp.
The asphalt unspooled across a vast expanse of grass, extraordinary in an ordinary way, full of nothing but sun, sky, sedge, and glittering water concentrated in concrete canals, which constricted the rivers that once flowed freely. The only visible wildlife were birds — predators mostly: falcons, egrets, herons, and cranes arcing in wide circles high above the marshes, searching for their next meal.
Somewhere mid-route, a large white heron flew out of a tree and soared across the road in the direction of a drainage ditch on the other side. As the bird made its descent, I turned my attention to my iPhone and some god-knows-what internet headline. Suddenly, my husband yelled out, “Shit! What the hell?” His voice was so startling I immediately looked up from the phone, and there, on the tarmac in front of us, saw what he was screaming about — a mangled white bird body, its twisted white plumage flapping in the breeze.
Then it — and we — were gone.
“It was that van,” my husband said, motioning toward the windshield. Two cars ahead, an old tan minivan slowed and wobbled toward the shoulder.
“The bird was flying across the road, when bang, just like that! It went straight down into the path of the van.”
I turned to the passenger window and studied the landscape of the Glades. Sun glinted silver on a patch of water. Two hawks soared against a blue-white sky. I felt my heart drop into my stomach. “This is not good,” I said.
“What do you mean?” my husband asked.
“A white heron dying like that. It’s a bad sign.” As the words left my lips, I felt a weight pressing on both of us.
I come from superstitious people, Eastern European Jews who created elaborate rituals and mythic narratives as a way to elude the dangers of poverty, death, and religious persecution. Safe was never safe. Brides could be raped and killed while traveling to meet their grooms in the next village. Boys sent out for milk might end up with their heads lopped off by drunken Cossacks sweeping through town. The only way to control the uncontrollable was through tricks of the mind, making deals and appeals to the demons, the dybbuks lurking just out of sight.
Growing up, my mother wouldn’t let us pass over open safety pins. Bad luck, she’d say. So was walking back into a house once the door had been locked. But all the closed safety pins and doors in the world didn’t stop me from walking out the door one morning to find my father dead in our driveway, a suicide finally carried out after years of threats. It didn’t protect me from being taken down and raped on a dark street far from home. Still, or maybe because I know bad shit can happen anytime, anywhere, I look for signs.
‘A white heron dying like that. It’s a bad sign.’ As the words left my lips, I felt a weight pressing on both of us.
It’s complicated, this way of seeing the world. My default setting is not logic, but supposition, born of an overactive mind constantly searching for metaphor and meaning. As a student of Zen Buddhism, I’m fully aware that in order to see the true nature of things I must free myself from this web of delusion. “Life as it is,” my sensei says, which means a dead bird on the highway is just a dead bird on the highway. But I struggle with this. Magic and myth are part of my epigenetic inheritance. There is a crazy witch living inside me who constantly fights the clear-seeing samurai warrior on the Noble Eightfold Path. And although I’m embarrassed to admit it, more often than not, it’s the witch who wins.
After hitting the bird, the driver of the van pulled over and turned on their emergency blinkers. At first, I thought he had stopped to check on the bird, but no doubt he wanted to see if his car had been damaged. I pulled up Google and entered Great White Heron symbolism. There was some new age bullshit about taking a stand and finding stability. Another site said it represented following intuition. When I found a brief mention that the bird could represent death, I followed my intuition and stopped my search.
“It means death,” I told Curt at the time.
He gave me a puzzled look. “Whose?”
“My Mom. Maybe yours. That’s my guess.” Both of our mothers were in their 90s.
We continued on in silence. A large wooden totem loomed ahead, marking the Miccosukee Visitor’s Center, which advertised gator shows and airboat rides. I must have still been in shock from seeing the shattered bird; I remember how I longed to jump out of the car, hop on an airboat, and glide down that silver water, stopping time and movement to make sense out of what had just happened. But we continued on the Tamiami Trail to its terminus at Homestead where we picked up the Overseas Highway and made our way down the Keys while the cold germs settled into my body and the memory of the white bird fluttered in my head.
The emergency clinic was easy to find; it was one of the few places on Marathon that actually looked open for business at 2 a.m. We rung the bell and were buzzed in by a pleasant blonde woman who took us directly to an examining room. Within minutes, a young vet dressed in blue surgery scrubs entered. He bent down, listened to Winston’s heart with his stethoscope, and then stood up and studied him. Winston moved slowly across the tiled floor, wagging his tail half-heartedly when the vet called his name.
“I think your dog is stoned,” he said.
My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “Stoned?” my husband asked. “How could he be stoned?”
Apparently there were many ways a dog could be stoned in Key West. A roach dropped on the sidewalk on top of an errant French fry. A piece of pot brownie discarded on the curb. A bud embedded in a splotch of ice cream, slurped up by a quick tongue. It seemed crazy. But possible.
Our mood lightened for a moment. If it was true, we’d have a great story to tell; our dog would forever be known as the Little Stoner. But even though he looked stoned and acted like it, I couldn’t shake the dread that followed me all the way down the highway to the clinic.
“What about internal bleeding?” Before leaving the house, I had done some quick research on Winston’s symptoms on the internet. It seemed like a possibility.
“Maybe,” he said. “But I’ve never seen a dog with internal bleeding wag their tail.”
That barely moving tail was a faint shadow of Winston’s usual boisterous greeting. The vet suggested my husband drive to the 24-hour Walgreens to buy a drug-testing kit. Who knew you get those things in a drug store? I hoped the test would prove he was stoned. But as I sat on the stool under the harsh fluorescence of the examining room, the white bird sat next to me, his mangled feathers fluttering like the panic in my gut.
“I could do an ultrasound if you want me to,” the vet said.
I wanted him to. He took Winston to the back. When he returned without him, his face told me what I had feared. “He’s bleeding.”
The foggy image on the ultrasound showed a swirl above his spleen. The X-ray that followed was clearer: a huge mass had ruptured and was spreading through his system. He needed to be stabilized immediately, the vet said. Then, the spleen would have to be removed. After that, a biopsy.
“Fifty percent of these masses are benign, fifty percent cancerous,” he explained. Our options were to operate and hope for the best. Or do nothing and have him die that night. There was no hesitation on our part. He was a young 11, puppy-like at an age some would say is old in a boxer. We were not ready to say goodbye.
Is anyone, ever?
We left Winston with the vet and drove back into the darkness. On the way home, bridge after bridge, key after key, I mentally dissected the incident of the white heron on the Tamiami Trail and compared it to what just happened. My husband saw the bird hit by the car but I only saw the aftermath. Curt witnessed the moment Winston went into shock; I only saw what happened after. Both events came out of nowhere, the bird doing what a bird does, the dog doing what he does, both taken down suddenly and in mid-movement. The similarities were startling.
My default setting is not logic, but supposition, born of an overactive mind constantly searching for metaphor and meaning.
One small detail gave me solace: We didn’t hit the bird, the van two cars ahead of us did. I clung to that distance of a few hundred feet as it were a lifeline. Maybe this meant Winston would be okay. Maybe this would be a close call and nothing else. Maybe, maybe, derived from the Old English may it be. Later that night, I repeated may it be in the form of a Buddhist metta chant recited over and over: May he dwell in the heart. May he be free from suffering. May he be healed. May he be at peace.
Some people push beads down a string as means of supplication. I pile words on top of words. Beads, prayer, paper, it’s all the same, an attempt to create order out of eternal chaos.
The surgery to remove Winston’s ruptured spleen was successful. (Dogs, like people, do not need spleens to survive.) He was sent home after three days at the vet with a cone over his head, a slew of medications, and a biopsy shipped off to a lab to determine whether the mass was cancerous. We picked him up just hours before my first memoir workshop began in Key West, one of three I would be teaching over the month. By the time we got back, I barely had enough time to run to the studio. After introductions, I gave the students a writing exercise and walked the art-filled hallways while they wrote, studying the work of local artists. The walls were covered with paintings of blue seas and tropical flowers. But my favorite piece was a 3-D installation of a baby doll with an eight ball around her neck entitled “Born to Lose.”
I wanted to buy that one.
The Friday after we brought Winston home, I sat on the oriental rug in the rental house, painting my toenails with polish while he lay beside me, his blocky black-and-white head ensconced in the plastic cone. Curt was out, making the rounds of the music clubs and I was still nursing the bad cold, sipping tea and watching the news. At one point, I got up to get something, and while looking at my dog or the television or anything but the floor, slammed my third toe against the hard plastic sole of the shoes I had thrown on the rug.
The pain was intense and familiar. I had broken my toes twice before — once right here in the Keys — and it felt a lot like those earlier injuries. Hoping it was just a bad sprain I iced it down and went to bed, leaving Winston to his deep sleep in the living room.
Sometime after midnight, I woke to the sound of Curt’s voice, alarmed and incredulous. Afraid that something was wrong with Winston, I jumped out of bed and stumbled into the living room. The dog was still sleeping on the rug where I left him. Curt was at the dining room table on his cell phone. When he saw me, he held the phone away from his mouth and whispered, “It’s Rob. He’s had a heart attack.”
Rob was Curt’s younger brother. He ate too much meat and worked ridiculous hours, but had no real health problems that we knew of. Now his wife Carmela was on the phone, speaking rapidly in her mixture of Tagalog and English, saying something about him losing oxygen on the way to the hospital. “He had a leg cramp,” she said. “We go to bed. I wake up, and he isn’t moving.”
The fan whirled above my head, still on high from when it was set for the afternoon heat. I stood there, shivering in my camisole and panties. In the dark of the dining room, the cell phone cast a ghoulish reflection on Curt’s face. “How is he?” I asked.
He stared into the phone and shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
The next day, I drove to an urgent care facility — a human one — and limped my way into the lobby. They showed me to a small examining room where I sat on a paper-covered table waiting for an X-ray machine to be rolled in. On the wall next to the table was a large print of a white heron standing in a mangrove hammock, its plumage as delicate as dandelion puffs in the wind.
“You again,” I said.
The X-rays came back, showing a break on the third toe of my right foot. The doctor taped it, gave me a couple Advil, and told me to rest and ice the toe. Putting my socks and shoes back on, I thought about how bad things supposedly came in threes. First Winston, then Rob. This toe would make three, wouldn’t it? I stared at the bird, as if it had the answer, but the beady eyes refused to meet mine. Before leaving, I snapped a picture of the heron with my phone camera, knowing I might need to prove — even to myself — that I had actually seen it.
Someone once told me that an aunt of hers was driving down the highway when a vulture flew into her windshield. “Can you imagine?” she asked.
Actually, yes, I can.
By the time I returned from the clinic with my taped toe, Curt had found out that Rob had already gone into cardiac arrest before he arrived at the hospital. The doctors had induced therapeutic hypothermia, hoping to stem any further damage to his brain by reducing his core temperature. Within 24 hours, they would begin raising his temperature again and monitor his progress. All we could do was wait, which we were already doing for Winston’s prognosis. Both of them — and both of us — were in that limbo borderland between life and death, knowing and not knowing.
That night, I lay in bed half-awake and half-asleep. In this hypnagogic state, part of me was in the bed in the rental house, and part of me was in my closet at home, going through the shelf where I kept the box holding the ashes of Barney, my dog before Winston. In the dream, Winston entered the closet and jumped up, first on me, then as high as the shelf where Barney’s box was. Then he fell from the shelf. When he hit the floor, he was no longer Winston but rather a box — his own cremation box. At that point, I awoke with the dreaded certainty of what the pathology report would reveal.
The following week, the veterinary clinic called. Several times. I kept ignoring it, wanting to wait until our visit later that week to hear the news. Finally I took the call. Just as my half-dream predicted, the tests came back showing the mass was malignant. It was hemangiosarcoma, the aggressive and always fatal canine cancer they had warned me about when we first brought him in. “I’m sorry,” the woman on the other end of the phone said.
Both of them — and both of us — were in that limbo borderland between life and death, knowing and not knowing.
I hung up, refusing to feel anything. Winston lay at my feet, looking the perfect image of a healthy and vibrant dog. “You’re going to have a good couple of months,” I said to him. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Over the next few days, as Rob remained in a coma, both Curt and I began hearing stories about people who had come back from hypothermia-induced comas with varying degrees of success. A lot of them were okay, if not exactly 100% perfect. In a reversal from my usual pessimism, I began to see Rob recovered and back at his farm again. He’d have to retire from work, of course, but he’d come out of this. Finally, he’d be able to take it easy, enjoy his family, slow down some.
It felt good to envision good things. I wanted to imagine a happy ending was possible somewhere in all this mess. But the Gods were in a winter mood, even in Florida.
Unbeknownst to us, when we crossed the Tamiami Trail on our way to the Keys, strong upper-level disturbances were already headed in our direction. Fifty miles to the north, Palm Beach County would be hit a few hours later by a 90-mph tornado; to the east, gale-force winds would end up pounding the coast, ripping up whole sections of shoreline. Nothing appeared on the horizon as we drove, not the toxic blood pouring into the spleen of our sleeping dog, not the time bomb ticking in my brother-in-law’s chest, not the rogue wave of air building enough strength and momentum to slam a bird into the path of a tan minivan and onto the pavement.
The wind is always blowing something our way. We just never notice until it knocks us off our feet. This may be the Buddhist in me talking, but it’s also my experience.
Rob did not recover from the coma when his temperature was raised. The doctors told us that if the machines strapped to his chest, nostrils, and veins were removed, he would not be able to function. There was an intense and delicate conference call between Rob’s wife, Curt’s mother, a hospital chaplain, and us in Key West about unplugging life support. The decision was made to let him go. He would have to be moved to hospice where we would wait for nature to take its course. It felt unreal.
Almost immediately after hanging up the phone with Rob’s doctors, we jumped into the car and drove back down the Overseas Highway for Winston’s follow-up visit. While he bounced around the room, covering the vet and her assistant in kisses that were thinly disguised entreaties for the beef-flavored biscuits in the jar on the counter, the vet again explained the aggressiveness of this cancer. Our options were limited. Chemo would only give him a few weeks more — at best. She suggested herbs and supplements. Not to heal the cancer, she emphasized, but to help him live better. We left with the herbs and some hope, a little anyway.
The wind is always blowing something our way. We just never notice until it knocks us off our feet.
Not long after we rescued Winston from a kill shelter in West Virginia, when he was still less than a year old, Curt and I sat in our den and watched a blur of a dog zooming around in circles with a deflated chew toy in his mouth. He was so full of joy and energy, it filled the whole room. Out of nowhere, Curt said, “This one’s a shooting star.”
I remember the dread that flooded my body in that moment. The pronouncement felt like a prophecy, not just an offhand remark. I looked at this pup racing around the house and feared he was indeed a shooting star. And now the star was falling.
Rob took his last breath less than 24 hours after being taken off life support. His wife told us that the night before the heart attack, Rob stood in the kitchen and told her he loved her. A few weeks earlier, she said, he had paid off the house. She wondered if he knew. Was it even possible?
On New Year’s Eve, the day before Winston’s first bleeding incident, we had stopped in Naples to visit old college friends. Dave and Sally were hippies with brains, an engineer-turned-herbalist and an arts advocate who was using her expertise in fundraising and political networking to save the west coast of Florida from falling into the sea. They were delightful hosts, offering good food and drink and heady conversation. Even Winston had a blast, running around their five-acre property with their dog Bandit, at one point breaking into a giant box of Milk-Bones and grinning wildly when caught in the act, as if this were the greatest party ever.
Twenty-four hours after the great Milk-Bone caper, we’d found ourselves in an emergency veterinary clinic examining X-rays of a burst tumor. Could all that partying with our friend’s dog on New Year’s Eve have caused the rupture?
“It’s possible,” the vet had said when I asked about it. “But it doesn’t matter. It would have happened eventually.”
By this time, I understood the rupture was inevitable. But what about the cancer? Was there something I could have done to stop it from happening?
Now I did what I could do: mixed vitamins into Winston’s food, stuffed Chinese-herb capsules into duck-and-pea-flavored pill pockets, measured out 60 drops of mushroom extract twice a day. I had no idea whether I was really prolonging his life or rubbing a good luck charm in the form of an exotic-medicine bottle.
Our remaining time in Key West was spent in a kind of shell shock. We drank lovely cocktails — maybe too many of them — smoked pot, and haunted the streets, taking Winston with us as we walked in the valley of the shadow of death among tourists in Tommy Bahama shirts and drag queens in high heels and homeless men who slept curled up like dogs in their blankets under the covered porticos of closed churches and shops.
One month later, we walked down a hill behind my husband’s family’s church with friends and loved ones to spread Rob’s ashes. After the service, we all went back to Curt’s mother’s house and sat in the living room talking about the things families talk about when they have lost one of their own. We had brought Winston, who waited at home during the funeral and acted as a therapy dog while we talked, offering up kisses and comfort until, bored by the lack of food and action, he wandered over to the fireplace and sat down next to an immense basket of memorial flowers.
It was a striking scene, the black-and-white dog, the red-and-black fireplace, the towering display of white roses and pink-flecked lilies. I took a picture with my phone’s camera. It was so perfect it looked staged. Like in a magazine.
Not long after Winston’s pose, my husband walked him to the car and noticed that he seemed unusually unstable. In the car, Winston was restless, unable to sit down or stay still. By the time we arrived home, we knew for sure something was wrong. We drove to the after-hours vet clinic near our home, where an X-ray confirmed another bleed. “Could a tumor grow that fast in six weeks?” I asked.
“Yes,” the vet said. “That’s what this cancer does.”
She suggested putting him down. Curt and I sat in the bare room with our spacey dog debating whether to end his life. First we said yes. And then no. Then we asked Winston what he wanted to do. The door to the hall was open. Just like in Key West, he got up, walked into the lobby, and proceeded to the exit on the far end of the room, where he waited patiently to be let out.
For two days Winston was fine. Then, one evening, while napping in Curt’s office, he jumped off the couch and stood there glassy-eyed and immobile. This time, there was no discussion about taking him to the emergency clinic because we knew what was happening. As his symptoms worsened, he crept off to my office and curled up under my desk, obviously wanting to be alone.
In the morning, when I walked into the office, I didn’t expect he would still be with us. But he was. Kind of. He was obviously weak and unstable.
With each passing hour, he showed signs of being more alert, but my illusions about his prognosis were stripped away. I knew tumors were lining up inside him, each one with a fuse that varied between short and shorter. I called the animal hospital and scheduled a time later that afternoon for the euthanasia. By the time we arrived at the vet’s office, Winston had recovered enough to jump up on the assistant and give her kisses. It killed me to see it. This time, I didn’t ask him what he wanted to do. I didn’t give him a chance to walk to the door. I let it close, knowing it was shutting on both of us.
If there is anything more painful than this, I don’t know what it is.
According to a Mexican proverb, whatever you do on New Year’s Day is what you’ll be doing all year.
What I was doing: traveling, witnessing sudden turns in fortune, facing deaths, fighting a cold. Also: witnessing wonder, beauty, wide blue seas, and infinite night. And this: sitting in a veterinarian’s fluorescent-lit examining room made of tile and metal, looking past the nothingness in the air and seeing molecules filling empty space, watching the dance of the hidden and ever-present — the there, here, the here, there — all of it, revealed.
Aside from the pain of losing a loved one, Rob’s death set off a chain of repercussions that forced my husband and me to revisit our wills. As the younger brother of a man with no children, Rob was the next in line to receive most of what we had. Now, the legal mumbo jumbo of “what if” became alarmingly real: What if A is deceased before B, what if B is deceased before A, what if neither Beneficiary E nor F is alive …
In the lawyer’s office with its cherrywood bookcases and soaring windows, I could see my old-world grandmother huddled in the corner, saying Men tracht und Gott lacht.Yiddish for Men plan and God laughs.
Following the charts with their lines of succession, all I could think was, You’re right, grandma.
I have three advanced degrees and a healthy aversion to anything that smells like a cult. My religious life is focused on the here and now, or is at least a Buddhist’s attempt at it. Even so, I wear evil eye bracelets to ward off danger. Rings with precious stones that supposedly contain mystical powers. One of my bracelets is a mala made of skulls carved out of wood, a reminder that life is short and death ever-present. I stare at those skulls each morning as I slide them onto my bony wrist. You’d think I’d have gotten the message by now.
But nothing says death like death itself.
A few days before leaving Key West, things seemed to be settling down. Curt and I took a kayaking trip into the dense mangrove islands east of town. In the midst of the hammocks, the water was calm and easy, and I had no trouble paddling through the narrow root-lined passages. But by the time we headed back, a freshening breeze threaded the air and rain clouds hovered on the horizon. As we entered Cow Channel, the water was already churning with small whitecaps. I quickly fell behind. It was a struggle to not be blown off course.
Halfway across the channel, I saw a white heron fishing in the shallows. I called out to Curt, but he was too far ahead and the wind carried my voice away. Was the bird a sign? Did it mean we had finally come full circle?
In the middle of unruly waters with a wind that seemed bent on turning me around, there was no time to dwell on it. Maybe it was a sign, or maybe I was just a woman in a small boat with a big need to believe. Keeping an eye on the sky, I grabbed the double-bladed paddle and pushed against the current, determined to outrun the dark clouds.
The rain began just as I pulled into the dock.
One year later, I stood on that same dock. Now, planks of fresh pine outnumbered the weathered wood. Except for those boards and a couple of blue-tarp roofs jutting out above the tree line, it seemed hard to believe that only three months before a monster hurricane named Irma roared into this channel carrying the sea on its back. Boats, buildings, and lives were destroyed. Bang! Just like that.
There is an old Zen saying: Everything changes.
And for now, I’m still here.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands | Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross
You could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.
Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it — all that experience, all that emotion? What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.
Fiction writers have the old tried and true (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle to turn to for structure. Conflict leads to a crisis/climax point which forces the protagonist to confront something (either themselves or a foe). The outcome of this changes everything and leads to resolution.
While narrative nonfiction writers can borrow from fiction and use some of the same techniques, the very nature of the material we are working with dictates we approach storytelling in a different way. Fiction writers start with nothing and create a world. Memoirists start with an entire universe that already exists. We are more like sculptors than painters, relying on the advice of Michelangelo, who supposedly said he made the statue of David by taking away everything in the stone that was not David. We create story by carving and cutting to the bone.
That means deciding who and what we want to pull out of the block of stone. When I sit down to tell a story, I have to ask, whose story is it — the child who longed to be accepted? The young woman who stood up to her fears? And what is the heart, the very essence of the story I want to tell? The answer to that question leads to structure.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Just a slight shift in the emotional center of a story can influence not only the “how” (order, time, chapters, sections) but the “what” (the scenes, the dialogue, the people, the experiences) that will become the bones of the narrative.
I suggest my students answer the question “What is it about?” at least five times and keep asking it until they understand their core theme. There can be many answers to this question — and many things a story is about — but it’s essential to identify the overriding theme at the center of the story that connects everything.
Once we have a sense of this core, we start to impose limits, a backdrop for the play to play out against. We inhabit so many worlds in a lifetime. For the purposes of structure, we need to ask which one of these worlds contains the most dramatic instances of conflict and crisis, moments that would make good storytelling — and even more importantly, still call to be unpacked, laid out end to end and examined.
A good place to start is time and setting. Deciding on a fixed time or place does not mean you cannot write outside of that time or place. What is does do is provide an anchor for flashing forward and back. This is important because a memoir needs a structure that will support time travel. We live our days wandering back and forth between past, present and future. Life does not unfold in a neat triangle of conflict, climax and resolution but is more like a ragged ridge made of many triangles, with some crisis/climax points not occurring until years after the inciting incident. The challenge of memoir is to shape the fluid nature of existence.
We start by understanding what story out of the many stories of our life we want to tell. Then we assemble the skeleton, working outward from the spine, the very core of what our story is about. As the hip bone connects to the thigh bone, the connective tissue of memory and meaning begins to form. And the story takes shape.
Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up
First published in The Spring Journal: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Fall 2014
Light fills the hall of the old Key West Armory, streaming in from the high windows like fairy dust, soft and white and unusually strong for a winter’s day in January. The house buzzes with excitement until Margaret Atwood steps onto the stage and a hushed quiet fills the room. I crane my neck, hoping to get a glance of her from my seat in the very back row, but I’m too short and the woman in front of me too tall. Frustrated, I shove my purse under me to get some height and there she is — her unruly mane of wiry hair, her too-white complexion, her eyes— blue, steely. Steady.
Perched on my roost of leather and lumpy wallet, I’m not steady at all. I feel like a flighty bird unseated by an inexplicable feeling of anticipation mixed with dread. The blank pages of my journal rest in my lap, open and waiting.
Margaret takes her seat on the raised dais, like a Goddess or a Queen, which she has been to me ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale, a science fiction fantasy that chilled me to the bone every time I held it in my hands. Don’t be silly, I’d tell myself. There was no reason to fear what kept creeping into the back of my mind while turning the pages, which was that this could happen, might happen— that our freedom, our gains as women in America were merely a rickety scaffold holding up a barely built cathedral.
In 1985, when the book came out, I had just left a bruising career as a punk rock singer and was diving into the “Dress for Success” eighties, throwing away my spandex and stilettos for the female version of male suits, complete with the floppy “feminine” bow ties women were encouraged to wear as they entered into the corporate class. We were post-liberation women, well past the messy fight for access to contraception and abortion fought by our older sisters, moving on to executive suites outfitted with soft carpeting and glass ceilings. Atwood’s story of fundamentalist Christians stripping women of their rights and dividing the female population into breeders and groomers and “Marthas” was just elaborate futurist fiction, right?
Twenty-seven years later, I have come to hear the woman whose words have haunted me ever since I read them. Among the sea of bodies near the front seats, someone raises her hand and asks Margaret how she came up with the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale. Did she think something like this could ever happen to women? Really?
Atwood barely blinks as she gives her answer. “I didn’t make any of this up,” she says. “It has happened and it is happening.”
I can feel my heart sinking below the polished pine floorboards she speaks of the handmaiden Leah in the Bible, of the way women are used and abused around the world, of the threat of fundamentalism and fascism, the use of fear to coerce women and enforce the privilege of patriarchy. “You can always tell when authoritarian rule is on the rise. The first thing they do is attempt to take control of women’s bodies.”
I scribble her words as fast as they are spoken, but after awhile the roar inside my head is so loud that that very little gets through. What I had intuited when reading this book, what I knew in my heart and could not allow into my head has just been confirmed by the woman who wrote it.
It has happened. It is happening.
And I can’t pretend otherwise anymore.
As a child, the tales that nurtured my young mind were of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, stories full of castles and curses and handsome princes. Growing up in a chaotic household with a father who was both a King and an ogre and a mother who fed me on fantasy and fear, fairy tales were not make-believe, they were must-believes, the only way out of a world where a small girl had little control over her life and even less power in the kingdom.
“You think you’re Cinderella, don’t you?” my father would say when I balked at doing chores at home or tending to the small tasks he assigned me when I accompanied him to his dry-cleaning store on the weekends. Half-joke, half-rebuke, we both knew he was stating the obvious. I dusted and washed and baked at home, bagged clothes, took lunch orders and cleaned the bathroom in his store. Most of the time, I didn’t mind the work, even took pride in it, because it made the King favor me. What I did not see was how this affected my Mother, who had Queenly dreams of her own, and my sister, who was forced into the role of Court Jester. Like Cinderella’s evil step-mother and step-sisters, both of them envied me — although there wasn’t much to envy besides the attention of the King.
Then again, what else mattered? In our family, our culture, our 1960’s America, where women had limited options in the outside world, the favor of the King was everything. Women, big and little, were pitted against each other in a world that hinged on access to the men who ruled. Limited resources to male privilege made enemies of sister and sister, mother and daughter, a dynamic that exists to this day in the stereotype of the catty, back biting woman .
Surviving in a landscape of lack takes cunning. You must find ways to slip in through closed doors; be grateful for the scraps you are fed, shed clothes, shed soul, giveaway yourself and pretend to like it. Do not see. Do not hear. And do not speak unless it’s what the powers that be want to hear.
The way I learned to survive was by following the bread crumbs of my fairy tale heroines. I was crafty. I kept my mouth shut, did what my father told me to do. I learned to flatter him and listen and not say what was on my mind. I was really, really good at this, anticipating wants, needs, moods before they erupted into rages. If something happened that felt wrong, I buried my feelings, took on the shame and didn’t say a word. It was obvious what happened to women — like my mother — who talked back. They were cursed: Bitch. Cunt. Friggin’ whore. Blood was spilled. Bruises appeared.
As I polished the faucets and waited to be rescued, I bided my time and bit my tongue. I believed, with all my heart that one day my prince would come.
The world is upside down. My father is dead, having taken his life four years before. Woodstock has come and gone. The youth counter-culture has made its mark and the war in Vietnam is finally over. Women have burned their bras and pushed back against male chauvinist pigs. Roe v. Wade has just passed, granting women the right to a safe and legal abortion. Contraceptives have made “free love” possible. It’s a good time to be young and female in America.
At nineteen, finally unfettered by my father’s chains and “the man’s” rules, I am a wild child. My world is weed and long-haired hippie boys, rock and roll, women’s lib and power to the people. I hang with hippies and break the rules. I call myself a feminist and claim that anatomy is no longer destiny. I can go anywhere, do anything. I am woman. Hear me roar.
But the truth is I am more kitten than lion. I am naïve and needy, wanting so badly to be a part of something bigger than myself that I routinely ignore the darker truths lingering on the edges of my beloved counterculture.
At a Santana concert, I dance with a hundred others in a daisy chain, our bodies facing the crowd of people who have gathered around us in a circle. Each time I pass a certain part of the circle, hands reach out and grab my breasts and crotch. A year later, walking among the crush of people in the streets of a Florida Spring Break town, anonymous hands again grab my ass, my tits and I keep walking, shocked and silent and untrusting of the truth my body knows. I ignore the way my beloved male rock icons write lyrics in their songs that demean and debase “chicks” like me. Ignore? Hell, I’m so clueless, I sing along.
But being voiceless for so long drives me to want to express myself. I write my own songs, sing the blues of strong women — Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton. After my first year of college, I run off to California to become a rock star or at the very least, to live in the land of peace and love. Heading out to a friend’s house on a dark night, I am jumped on the street, choked almost to unconsciousness and dragged into an abandoned garage where I am raped. After it’s all over, the man who has assaulted me empties my pockets. He robs me of my last twenty dollars but returns my small stash of pot. “Here,” he says. “I don’t want to take your stuff.”
Even though I’m in shock, I realize the irony of his statement. He has just taken everything, including the soul of who I might have been.
The day after the rape, I call the Berkeley Women’s Center Hotline. Two women arrive in a van and take me to a Consciousness Raising session, which in a happy coincidence is being held on that very day. I do not report the rape to the authorities, nor does anyone suggest I do. In the early 1970’s, police are “pigs,” the enemy. There is no rape hotline, no rape kits and not much support from law enforcement. In those days, the standard advice from the police is “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
In a room full of macramé plant holders and paisley prints, I become the focus of the consciousness-raising. What happened to me, they point out, has been enacted on women for centuries. I need to turn it around, use my experience to empower myself and other women. To drive their point home, they quote passages from Eldridge Cleaver’s recent book, Soul on Ice, where he advocates raping white women to further the radical black agenda.
My mission now is to become a soldier in the sexual wars. “Remember,” they say, “The personal is political.”
At first, I eagerly take on this mantle of activism. Being angry feels a lot better than feeling fear and pain. But no amount of feminist raging can take away the obvious. I am fearful. I am in pain. And I’m ashamed of feeling this way, because the message is loud and clear, even from the women who claim to fight for women. Get over it.
The problem is I can’t.
For three decades, I will suffer from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological disorder that, ironically, was first identified for veterans of the War in Vietnam the same year I was raped. Sexual assault and “domestic” trauma will not be acknowledged as triggers for PTSD until the mid 1990’s and even then, women will not get the help they need because they are ashamed and afraid of being blamed for what happened to them. The prevalent view, one that hasn’t changed much over the ages, is that most women are either lying or asking for it.
As America enters the 21st century, thousands of women like me, will still hide, still pretend they are “over it,” limping like emotionally foot-bound Chinese courtesans through the rest of their lives.
When I walked out of that consciousness-raising session in Berkeley, it was like a blindfold had been ripped off of my eyes. I saw evidence of women’s subjugation everywhere: in the working world, in academia, in the newspapers, in ads, on billboards, on television. It was overwhelming to be this clear-eyed, this awake to how woman were kept in their place and indoctrinated into submission.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Untreated and traumatized, being cognizant of the endless onslaught of female repression became too much for me. I returned home to Ohio and let go of fighting for women, instead concentrating on navigating through the world with my invisible handicap. Although I shook with fear when I walked on the streets alone, I got on with my life as best as I could. I went back to school, rode the wave of the rights that had been established for women, pretended things were not that bad, not for me, not for women in general. I took a Women’s Studies course where the most strident voices in the room were those of the lesbian separatists. Although still committed to the idea of women’s rights, I became unsure of exactly what being feminist meant.
I liked men. I wanted a boyfriend, a husband, a life. My problems, my own struggles took center stage. The pervasive misogyny I saw right after the rape receded into the background. To be honest, it was a lot easier just not to look.
Like my fairy tale heroine, Sleeping Beauty, the sting of reality was too much for me. I welcomed the trance of not knowing.
Meanwhile, thorn bushes began their steady climb up the castle walls.
The 1980’s threw kingdoms all over the globe into a panic. Religious fundamentalists in Iran dethroned a king and took Americans hostage. The Ayatollah and his followers banned woman’s mini-skirts and freedom, hiding them in burkas and confining them to the walls of their homes. In our own country, Ronald Reagan and his cronies ushered in an age where politicians curried favor from the religious right, asserted their voices as the “moral majority.” Our economy took a dive. Gas prices went up. Manufacturing jobs began to go down.
The revolutionary fervor of the 1960’s and 70’s was gone. What was there to fight about, anyway? The Vietnam War was over, women had their rights, black and white America was integrated. The youth culture was no longer young. Hippies were out. Yuppies were in. Conspicuous consumption became the drug of choice. People had kids, mortgages, responsibilities.
Women, who had been college-educated in unprecedented numbers in the previous two decades , began to think about having careers, not just jobs. A quiet revolution was taking place in the business world, driven not only by equal opportunity but by the need for additional income to maintain a family in an economy burdened the soaring inflation of the 1980’s. Women were no longer relegated to being nurses, teachers or secretaries. We could be managers, bankers, even doctors and lawyers if we got into the few allotted spaces in law or medical school. Skirted suits gave way to pantsuits, which were as much an acknowledgement of women’s place in the business world as it was fashion statement.
Great strides, it seemed. But while we took on increasing responsibilities, our roles as homemakers and mothers did not change. Now we had full time jobs in addition to kids and household tasks. We were working harder than ever, for lower wages than men in jobs that offered limited promotional opportunities, often in a workplace culture of sexual harassment. The old pattern of keeping silent to keep what little we had became the fallback position. Feminism didn’t seem relevant anymore — after all, we had the ability to plan pregnancies and earn a living. Wasn’t that enough?
Because women were no longer forced to depend on a man for their basic needs, they had more choices. The divorce rate skyrocketed as women who were able to support themselves left abusive and unhappy marriages. Sisters were “doing it for themselves,” Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox sang in 1985. Of course, for many women that meant leading the life of a single parent, saddled with more responsibilities than ever. Our freedom became another kind of ball and chain.
Who had time to think about what had not changed for women, that we were still underpaid and overworked, that we were under-represented in Congress, the Boardroom and the very top echelons of business. American women, including our daughters, sisters, aunts, friends and mothers, were still victims of rape, harassment and domestic violence. In fact, for many, domestic violence did not end with separation or divorce, but took on a new, darker edge as boyfriends, lovers and husbands continued to threaten, stalk, beat and murder women who had the ability and gall to say “No.”
In 1976, only three years after Roe v. Wade granted women the right to a safe and legal abortion, The Hyde Amendment passed in Congress, which banned the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape or incest and the health of the woman. This was the first volley in a long and unrelenting battle of the legislative chipping away at the right of a woman to determine her fate. Abortion clinics were protested by picketers holding up pictures of fetuses in jars, then by threats and violence.
We turned our heads as we drove by those demonstrators with their bloody fetus signs. We kept re-electing male lawmakers who further eroded a woman’s right to choose by adding clause after clause to the Hyde amendment, further weakening a woman’s right to choose. We went about our lives, thinking our work was done.
Were we asleep? Or just too damn busy?
I was asleep.
It was a willful sleep, assisted by alcohol and drugs to keep the flood of fear from rising to the surface. The goal was not to feel. Not to know. To dream the dream of denial.
Then my fairy tale came true. I married my handsome prince. We bought a small castle and lived somewhat happily ever after.
But my prince did not rescue me.
We can try to run away from our past, but it attaches to us like a shadow, waiting to be made conscious and freed. Because of the dynamics of my childhood, the too-close relationship with my father and unsteady one with my mother, I became a woman who turned to men for friendship as well as love. I longed to be “one of the boys,” both for protection and the fear of acknowledging myself as a powerless woman.
Locking away my true self behind a persona of bravado, I hid the effects of the rape well, keeping silent about the terror that consumed my body when walking alone on the streets. By sheer guts and the company of my husband and canine protector — a fierce wolf-husky — I was able to navigate my way in the world.
Eventually I took steps to resuscitate my dreams. I went back to graduate school and got a degree in cable communications, a new technology which was just beginning to take hold across the country. And along with my husband, I formed a punk/new wave band.
It was the band that was my undoing.
Being the only woman in a rock and roll band is like having an all-access pass to the boy’s locker room. I never knew there were so many derogatory terms for women or so many inventive ways to refer to sexual acts. At first, I tried to assert my own artistic vision, but I grew less confident among their smirking comments and grunting asides. My guitar player, a particularly messed-up misogynist, had strong and strange views about women. According to him, sex with females was supposed to be only for procreation, which might have explained his proclivity for sex with men and disgust for the many women he did fuck. He was a strong personality, charming and abusive like my father, and I fell under his spell, eventually allowing him to dictate the way I dressed (stiletto heels, push-up bras), the way I did my hair (bleached and teased), they way I sang - which he insisted should sound as “little girly” as possible.
If I ever had ideas about putting my own words into the world, my own music, the music of a strong woman singing about her life, that dream was slowly slipping away.
When the guys joked about women I knew and liked, or ended rehearsals with a call for ‘poon hunting, I shrugged it off, laughed at their “jokes.” Why? Because, the potential reward — the fame and fortune to be had — was worth the compromising and denial. And like a lot of women who align themselves with anti-women men, I foolishly believed being in their camp made me immune to their disdain.
I felt like a traitor to myself.
Hippie chicks, punk girls, we all have to grow up sometime. After the guys in the band decided they didn’t need a “chick singer,” I resumed my career aspirations, dressing in bland polyester suits and slowly rehabilitating my wild, bleached-out hair. Alone in my room, I wrote songs that reflected my deeper self, writing a lot at first and then a little and then very little.
I tried to make it in the corporate world, and was quite good at it, even though I felt like a fraud. Eventually, the psychic wounds I had tried to stitch shut with booze and drugs began to rip open. I dreamed of my father pulling me into the grave with him.
And I began a long process of healing myself.
The night I was raped, I did not scream. I did not utter a single word. Not once. The voice I was trying to birth as a young woman in California, the voice I attempted to wrestle out of a childhood of not being heard, left me that night.
It took a very long time to get it back.
When I finally could speak again, I wrote a book. It was about a woman who needed to walk with dogs by her side for most of her life, a child who both loved and feared her father; a girl who witnessed the dismantling of her mother’s voice by a man wracked by the twin furies of mental illness and a broken heart. It was about a young woman whose spirit was banished to the underworld for a very long time.
It was my story and I said so.
You cannot hide when you write a memoir. As I was writing, I had to push past the critics in my head who told me to give up, who asked “Who who wants to hear about this — a decades-old rape, a woman held captive by her own thoughts, a childhood of terror and silence.” “Who?” I swatted away at the voices, kept my head down and fingers on the keyboard, because I thought I knew the answer: other women who have been raped; other people who have lived in fear and shame; anyone who has been told to shut up.
I needed to hear it. Hear the sound of my own voice finally saying what it needed to say so desperately, for so long, but never could.
And as I found out, other people needed to hear it, too.
Once my words were out there for anyone to see, a strange thing happened. I discovered that my story was not just my story. It was and is the story of many people who tell me, in whispers, in phone calls, in e-mails, at book fairs — it happened to me, too. I never told anyone.
This, I realize, is how spells are cast.
And how they are broken.
Let’s talk about the spell of silence. Or not talking about the things that we cannot stand to see. Things like rape. Incest. Murder. More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. Yet we stay quiet. We do so to protect ourselves, to remain invisible so we will not be shunned, shamed or annihilated. These dark truths are taboo, a violation of the social order. To utter them is to rip the veil off the lie. To invite disorder. Chaos, even. But that is the only way to create change.
Judith Herman, in the introduction to her landmark book, Trauma and Recovery, states, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of the word unspeakable
The price we pay in keeping silent is considerable. Around the world, women are enslaved, tortured, murdered, kept ignorant, hidden, mutilated, raped, beaten, battered and stoned. Even worse, they made to feel responsible for their abuse.
It is this shifting of the blame on to women that helps keep the seal of silence intact and makes the crime much more palpable — both to the one who commits it and society at large. I am thinking of what my own father would say every time he beat my mother: “She asked for it.”
Who would ask to be beaten? Who would ask to be raped, to be abused, to be held against one’s will? The assumption that a woman is guilty until determined innocent is the story that we, as a society, tell ourselves in order not to believe, not to hear, not to protect women. It is the story that keeps women from telling their stories. It is held in place by shame, the most potent curse of all.
Shame mutes the tongue, keeps the unspeakable unspoken; because to speak of what happens is to indict oneself. Shame says not that one was wronged, but that one is wrong. It protects the perpetrators and perpetrates a climate where the unspeakable can happen again… and again.
When the publicity phase began for my book, I found myself wrestling with using the word “rape” to describe what had happened. “Assault,” I wrote for one publicity blurb, then “attack.” Then, sexual assault,” which felt slightly more accurate and slightly more comfortable than the shame-loaded word for what occurred.
During a radio interview, I did the old soft sell and said the book was about the thirty years I spent enduring the effects of being “attacked” on the streets of Berkeley. The interviewer, a woman, said, “Well, yes. But … Oh, let’s say what it was… You were raped.”
“Yes,” I said. It was a relief to have it all out in the open.
After the interview, she told me that she too, had been raped as a young woman. “It’s time we stopped skirting around the issue.”
Skirting around the issue instead of addressing it head-on. Isn’t that what we wearers of skirts are supposed to do?
From that time on, I worked on confronting my reluctance to speak the word. The more I said it, the more the consonants and vowels of that unspeakable word were formed, the easier was to own it, contain it, wring the core of its meaning into being.
The origins of the word come from Middle English, where the meaning referred to the violent seizure of property. Later, it denoted the “carrying off a woman by force,” which eventually became, “forcing of another person to have sexual intercourse against their will.”
But it this first definition, “a violent seizure of property,” that provides the key to understanding the heart of the problem for women. The fact is, underneath it all — despite voting rights and the equal opportunity and the ability to decide whether or not to have children — remains the age-old assumption that women are property.
If you are property, you can be owned but you cannot own yourself. If you are property, laws can be made restricting your use and boundaries.
The United Nations recently underwrote an unprecedented study on violence against women worldwide. Out of 10,000 men surveyed, one half reported the use of physical and/or sexual violence against a woman and one quarter of those surveyed admitted to rape. The most common motivation that men cited for committing rape was to sexual entitlement — a belief that men have a right to have sex with women regardless of consent. In other words, women’s bodies as public property.
As American women, we know we’re one of the lucky ones. We have access to education and freedom of expression; we can work, play, vote, drive cars, fly planes, crash through glass ceilings, travel unescorted through our days. And we can own property. But ownership of the female lands — including that small but fertile acreage of womb and uterus inside us — is still very much in dispute.
That brings us back to the Handmaid’s Tale, narrated by a woman who was once independent and free but now finds herself living the life of an anonymous breeder. If you think this is a fairy tale, consider this: Between 2011 and 2013, over, 205 abortion restrictions have been enacted on a state level*, more than the last ten years combined. A woman’s access to and means of contraception is on trial at the highest levels of government.* Rape, the violent seizure of a woman’s body, continues to be seen not as a crime, but as a lie made up by women who regret having had given in to their sexual urges. This unspoken assumption underlies the assertion by several politicians during the 2012 United States congressional election that during a “legitimate rape” a woman cannot become pregnant because her body shuts down the reproductive cycle*. It also speaks to the bullying of a thirteen year-old girl who was gang-raped in 2013 by members of local football team and accused on social media of “ruining lives” when she pressed charges against her perpetrators.* And what happens if a pregnancy does occur as a result of rape and a woman does not or cannot obtain an abortion? In thirty-one states, the rapist is granted paternity and custody rights. * Think about it: there are laws on the books that grant perpetrators access to his victim for the rest of her life.
Perhaps the most alarming trend in anti-female legislation is the current enthusiasm for fetus “personhood” bills that are being floated through state legislatures. This law, which denies a woman the ability to terminate a pregnancy for any reason, grants more rights to a zygote than the adult human whose body it resides in. In essence, it reduces a woman to a version of Atwood’s handmaiden.
When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, my psyche was still too unstable to endure the fear and outrage the story awakened in me. But writing and telling my truth has transformed me. I can speak again and I’m not going to shut up, even though it’s still scary, even though coaxing the words out can be hard and difficult work, even though I know there will always be those who will try and silence me and my kind.
“Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their story is told,” Judith Herman says. “Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth …are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and the healing of individual victims.”*
Walking the malls and streets of America, I see little girls everywhere dressed as fairy princesses in crinoline tutus and pale pink tights. How I would have loved to be able to dress like that in public as a child. But I’m concerned that another generation of women may be falling for the illusion that they are powerless and that their only way out is to dream of handsome princes and magic potions. A high school teacher tells me that many of her female students say their plan for the future consists of marrying a rich man who will take care of them. The fantasy lives on.
Fairy tales were originally written in code to warn children — especially girls — how to make their way in a hostile world. The advice was subtle but clear: Be patient like Cinderella. Be passive like Snow White. Be beautiful like Sleeping Beauty. And keep silent. Magic will save you, the stories say.
I say words will save you, save all of us.
This is how it works. We tell our secrets, our shame, our suffering. We hold each other up as one story after another, one tale, then two, then more, get told. We begin to see that bravery has its own kind of beauty.
When Sleeping Beauty awoke, nothing had changed; all was as it was one hundred years ago. In fairy tale terms, that’s a happy ending. In reality, it’s a nightmare. Women have suffered for centuries and continue to do so. We cannot afford to re-live the past. Unleash your voice, your anger, your truth. Wake to your own story.
This is how new endings begin.
 J.H. Bishop,”The Explosion of Female College Attendance,” Cornell University CAHRS Working Paper Series (11-1-1990):1
 Frederucj S. Jaffe, Barbara L. Lindheim, and Philip R. Lee, Abortion Politics: Private Morality and Public Policy, (McGraw Hill, New York, 1981), pp. 129.
 Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, (Knopf, 2009)
 Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press; 2 Sub edition (December 5, 1991)
 Fulu.E.,Warner,X.,Miederma,S.,Jewkes,R., Roselli,T, and Lang,J.;”Why Do Some Men Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It? Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific”; UN Partners for Prevention,(September, 10, 2013), pp. 42-44
Winner of the Christine White Award for Memoir (Goucher College) and the Ames Award for Essay. First published in Literal Latte, 2005.
My father’s eye never slept. It floated in a drinking glass on the edge of a pink porcelain sink, dreaming of blinking and winking under a black-fringed frame and waiting for me to stumble into the bathroom to observe my most private moments. During these midnight encounters, I carefully avoided looking directly at the eye. It wasn’t that it was creepy, although in some ways I guess it was. It was just a habit of mine, the ingrained reaction of a child trained to look and not see.
My father liked to point out that this was no cheap, “off the rack” eyeball. “See the veins?” he’d ask, pointing to the eerie red lines etched across the white glass globe. “And look at the color.” It was just like his good eye — hazel flecked with bits of gold and green. Resting in his gouged-out socket, the eye was virtually indistinguishable from his other, real one. But separate from my father, it seemed to have a life of its own, possessing an innate intelligence of the know-all, see-all kind, like a magic eight ball or a hypnotist’s magnetic glare. Sometimes I wondered if the eye could see more than my father could, more than any one of us living with him could see. In the middle of the night, I wanted to ask it why things were the way they were. But it was just a piece of glass, an illusion my father hid behind. And the eye wasn’t talking.
My father, however, loved to talk and I was the perfect audience— captive, attentive, admiring, gullible. Each weekend, in order to make sure I knew what he did for a living, I accompanied him to work some 45 miles from our home in the Watchung Mountains to his dry cleaning business in Newark, New Jersey. As we cruised up and down Route 22 in his pale green 1962 Volkswagen van, he pontificated on every subject under the sun. The highway was my classroom, the van, a school on-wheels, my father, a private tutor.
“What does that say?” My father pointed to a sandwich board. The hand-painted lettering escaped in a blur of black and white before I could answer. My eyes fixed on the next sign, crudely tacked on the side of a small outbuilding and I read as if my life depended on it: “Bill’s Rad-a-tor Repair. Same Day Service.”
“It’s pronounced ray-dee-a-tor,” my father said. “Keep going. Wherever you see words, read ‘em.”
We approached a wide, white sign tottering on top of a tall steel totem. “Blue Star Shopping Center,” I yelled out. A billboard appeared shortly after, featuring two giggling women with sparkling white smiles: “double your pleasure!” Up ahead loomed the proud golden arches of Mc Donald’s Hamburgers. “One...thousand sold!”
“Look again,” my father said. “That’s one million. See the one, then a comma, then six zeros? The six zeros mean a million.” I studied the zeros as the arches disappeared behind us.
“Wow. That’s a lot of hamburgers.”
“Sure is. Now keep reading. You’re doing a great job.”
My eyes sped up and down the highway searching for slogans, sale announcements and store names. It was a game — catching sentences in a net and bouncing them back to my father with rapid-fire precision. There were words everywhere and I ate them like jellybeans, jamming them into my mouth. My father corrected, illuminated and informed me of the greater meanings behind the words. He had seen it all before.
Advertising? “You can sell shit if you package it right.” Psychology? “Head shrinking, like the voodoos — a load of crap.” But sometimes, our conversations left me in a daze as he told me all that I needed to know and more than I wanted to hear. One trip might start with a discussion of my mother’s pregnancy, move on to where babies come from, and end with the revelation that cowboys have sex with sheep. This nugget of information was disturbing on several levels, not the least of which was that I always thought of sheep being with shepherds and shepherds being God as in The Lord is My Shepherd. As my father talked, I pictured an evil cowboy hiding behind a tumbleweed bush doing unthinkable things with sheep right under the Lord’s nose. I didn’t want to know anyone had sex with sheep — not even sheep, and I certainly didn’t want God anywhere in that picture. So I banished this information to the dark place in my head where all the strange things Daddy said and did got stored, and looked out the window reading signs, signs, signs.
One morning, as we passed by the intersection of Shop-Rite and the Leaning Tower of Pizza, a car cut in front of my father, forcing him to swerve sharply towards the median strip. “Goddamn sonofabitch,” he cussed under his breath. “If that asshole knew I how little I could see, he wouldn’t dare drive like that.”
Before that moment, I’d never even considered that my father might see less than other people. I covered my left eye with my hand and looked through the windshield. Cover. Uncover. See. Not see. The world wasn’t cut in half exactly, but a big piece of it was left out. By looking at him, you’d never know my father saw less of the world. He was a master at the art of optical illusion. His fake eye was so good and his way of looking at you so skillful, that you’d swear he had full and complete vision.
My father was born in Newark, New Jersey on April 5th, 1919, the only son of a Russian immigrant laundryman and his seamstress wife. He had been a healthy and rambunctious young child until, at four years of age, he ran across the parlor room with a sharp pair of tailor’s scissors in hand. His foot caught on the rug, tripping him, and the blade, the boy, the eye, collided, tearing a hole of blood and tears. His parents tried to find the best help available to them, but in the 1920’s, ocular surgery was a crude science. Still, the doctors managed to keep his eye intact.
“They told Mama and Papa that he should never cry because of the damage to his eye,” my aunt told me. “They spoiled him, gave him whatever he wanted, anything at all” to keep the tears at bay. He wore big, thick, glasses but his eye always looked lazy, what my aunt called “a little funny.” But not so funny as to stop a third grade teacher from exhibiting him to the other teachers in grade school, lugging him from classroom to classroom to show off his lush, “girly” eyelashes. “Have you ever seen such eyelashes on a boy?” My father would repeat this story over and over, speaking of it more often than his tragic accident.
There was another story that seemed to be connected to the eyelashes somehow, involving a hotel, a bathroom and a mysterious stranger. On the few occasions we drove by the crumbling Cedars Hotel in the resort town of Lakewood, he’d point to the upper floors. “When I was a kid, a man tried something funny there.” He never elaborated what the funny thing was, and at nine years of age, I didn’t want to know more. There was no warning attached to the tale, no be careful of strangers message embedded in the words. As I look back, I can see this was a confession disguised as an illuminating tidbit of life story, a statement of fact told as if he was a tour guide and I was a passenger on the bus trip of his life. But at the time, it was merely confusing. “I told the guy to cut it out. I wasn’t like that. I was a normal boy.”
Was my father ever normal? At twelve years of age, a basketball thudded directly into his damaged eye. The fragile retina detached, leaving doctors no recourse but to sever his eye. My father lost all hope of ever easily appearing normal again.
Once in awhile, he wore an eye patch, like the Hathaway shirt man. “For comfort,” he said, but it embarrassed me. You couldn’t pretend to have a normal father when the eye patch made adults stare and kids point at the pirate in a short-sleeve business shirt. It was also hard to look normal when the police showed up on your doorstep once a month, called in by neighbors alarmed by the violent sounds escaping through the walls of our house.
My father worked 14 hours a day, 6 days a week with a difficult and long commute. My sister and I were always excited to see the Volkswagen van pull up into the driveway, forever hopeful that the Daddy we loved would be the one to walk in the door. On his best days he entered the house a natural comedian, witty and charming. But more often than not, he lumbered in under a dark cloud, a threatening portent of bad things to come. One minute he was my father, the one I adored, the normal looking one. The next minute he was a pirate, a cyclone, a Cyclops literally tearing down the walls.
My mother nearly always took the direct force of his fury when he erupted. Unlike me, she never seemed to understand that his emotions could shift without notice at any moment, never recognized the signs of his storm warnings. While I monitored the atmosphere, she charged ahead, tossing words like dry kindling onto his smoldering rage as I watched horrified, knowing with terrible certainty what would happen next.
One night in particular, the signs were not good. I heard the front door slam followed by footsteps thundering down the stairs to the den. My mother broke spaghetti into a pot of boiling water while I hurriedly set the kitchen table. A few minutes later, my father loomed in the kitchen door. “Why isn’t dinner ready?”
I concentrated on placing the forks to the left of the plates just where my father had told me they should be.
“Guess what, Daddy? The Zimbardo’s dog had puppies and they all look like Jeff.”
Jeff was our dog.
He glanced in my direction with unfixed eyes, as if he’d been distracted by a slight noise, then snapped his gaze back to my mother.
“I said — why isn’t dinner ready?”
My mother turned to face him.
“I’m cooking it,” she said.
I knew what was coming.
Whenever he was displeased with my mother, my father hurled the ing part of whatever she said back to her as a verbal assault. “You’re do-ing. You’re listen-ing. You’re get-ting.” He could make ing sound so foul that it curled my toes just to hear it.
“Yes I’m cooking. Even you can see that!”
My father picked up one of the Flintstones glasses I had just set on the table and threw it in the direction of my mother. She quickly moved her hand to cover her face and caught the glass in mid-flight. It shattered on the hard knob of her wrist, slicing a deep cut into the back of her hand. Rivulets of blood zigzagged down her arm.
“I don’t want cook-ing when I come home. I want dinner on the table.”
My father grabbed the table and pulled it across the floor into the living room. The glasses I had placed so carefully just minutes before crashed onto the bare floor as he headed straight towards the front door.
“Look what you make me do, you friggin’ bitch!” He tore open the door and hauled the table down the front steps.
I ran into the dining room and cowered in the far corner. Through the open door, the sound of breaking plates and the dull thud, thud, thud of the table bouncing down the short flight of stairs rang in my ears.
“Now maybe you’ll have dinner ready for me when I come home.”
He retreated upstairs to his bedroom. My mother wrapped a dishtowel around her hand and headed outside, where the table sat on the lawn surrounded by broken dishes, spilled condiments and scattered cutlery. As I bent down to pick out bits of plate from the grass, a car rounded the curve in front of our house, then slowed to survey the scene. I pretended not to notice, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl from school pressing her face to the window. I wished I could dig a hole and hide, disappear from this lawn and the road in front of it that would lead me to the school bus the next day and the jeers and catcalls that would inevitably fly like paper spitballs at my solitary seat. My father could hide his physical handicap, but it was beyond his ability or desires to cover up the one raging from inside, the wound that bled unchecked onto every inch of our home, spilling out into the street and engulfing all of us in its horrible wake.
During the 20 mile drive to the hospital, I sat next to my mother as she drove one-armed and silent, the bloody towel-wrapped hand resting limply in her lap the entire way. The doctors stitched her up with a needle and thread, an event I did not witness but fantasized about the entire way home. If flesh and blood could be sewn back together like a torn dress, maybe my parent’s marriage could too.
When we arrived home, the kitchen table was back in the kitchen. So was my father, sitting quietly at the table reading the newspaper and eating a sandwich. Gauze circled my mother’s hand, which now resembled a fat white fist. My father glanced up at me. “Get me a soda from the fridge.” I opened the refrigerator and handed him a can of cream soda. He took it and looked back down at the paper. He didn’t thank me. He didn’t look at my mother. He didn’t ask about the damage he caused. He sipped his soda and turned the page of the Newark Star-Ledger like nothing had happened at all.
“Tell me what you see.” We were in his car again, this time flying high on the web of concrete and steel overpasses connecting northeast New Jersey with the bridges and tunnels of Manhattan. Asphalt fields spread out below us, a soot-covered landscape crowded with squat buildings, acres of trucks and cars and railroad flats stacked as high as houses. In the distance, large orange letters on the roof of the Monsanto plant proudly announced “better living through chemistry” as the sulfurous smell of rotten eggs seeped inside the van like a toxic cloud making it a challenge, an act of courage, to take one breath after another. Black scaffold towers stood watch over the highway, skeletal dragons spitting angry black and yellow flame into the sulfurous sky. Above it all, higher than the overpass itself loomed cement smokestacks as tall as lighthouses. The stacks belched thick clouds of smoke, rising like mountains over the concrete plain.
“Look at the sky,” my father said. “Tell me. What colors do you see?”
I stared at the sunset horizon. It seemed almost level with us on the elevated overpass.
“Blue... and pink.”
“Um…” I searched the smog-stippled clouds, trying to decipher subtler shades of color. “Purple.”
I looked again, forcing myself to steady my gaze on the deepening twilight. More colors emerged as if coming into focus for the first time. How could I have missed them?
“Orange! And yellow! And white, of course.”
“That’s right. It’s all there if you keep looking.” My father glanced over at me and looked back at the highway. “You have two eyes,” he said. “You should see twice as much as I do. I always want you to look — again and again and again — until you see everything there is to see.”
Here’s what I see: I see myself in the shower with my father, staring at the pink and black tiles glistening on the wall, trying to avert my eyes as he soaps up his penis, crowning it with foamy white suds. Hot water streams down his back, as both of us stand naked side-by-side waiting for the water to drip off our bodies. He makes me watch as he flicks droplets of water off his chest, stomach and buttocks. “This is the right way to do it,” he says. “This way you don’t have to use the towel as much.” Even though he teaches me this same lesson year after year, I pay attention. I am a good student.
I see my mother sleeping night after night on the couch, her preferred bedroom, while I sleep with my father in his bed. She never seems to notice that I am lying where she should be, in his arms, my head on his pillow until he kicks me out in the middle of the night when I am twelve years old and whispers in a husky voice we can’t do this anymore. In the car, he tells me he wishes he were born later so he could marry me, but I don’t want to marry my father. I want to marry Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees.
There are many things I do not want to see.
My father makes me look anyway.
“You’re the oldest. You’re going need to take care of things.” I was fourteen years old, consumed with boys and boy bands and my own painful insecurity. Without knowing it, I had become my father’s therapist and priest, trapped in the confessional of the Volkswagen Van. It was freezing cold, as it always was at 5 a.m. in the winter when I accompanied him to work on Saturdays. I was preoccupied with keeping warm while the heater got going. It never seemed to work right.
“You need to listen carefully,” he said. I stopped messing with the heater and looked at him. “I want you to take care of your brother and sister.” He stared straight ahead, his gaze fixated on the road, his profile a ghostly shadow against the gray light.
“I won’t be around much longer.”
My brain repeated the words, trying to make sense of what it just heard. He won’t be around much longer? I fought to find an answer. A few years before, there had been talk of my mother divorcing him, but nothing ever came of it. I had no idea what he meant. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t worry. You kids will be taken care of.”
“But where are you going?”
His voice was calm and slightly upbeat. “I need you to listen very carefully to me.” My body froze in alert panic on the cold car seat.
“I found an insurance policy that pays on suicide. You know what insurance is, don’t you?” I nodded my head in automatic response, a dumb wooden bobble-head nod. “I have a plan: I’m going to kill myself. You kids are going to get the money. One hundred thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money kiddo.”
I stared out the window at the bare trees whizzing by, trying to comprehend the full meaning of what I had just heard. We must have gone a mile or so before I could speak. Finally, the words rushed out of my mouth, sounding whiny and childish. “I don’t want the money, Daddy.”
“Oh, sure you do,” he said. “Trust me. You’re not gonna have a father. You’ll need it, alright.” The words sank into my chest, descending like a shroud. We stopped at a red light where I stared at the gutter, trying to avoid looking at my father. Someone had thrown a half eaten McDonald’s cheeseburger on the side of the road. The ragged patty of gray meat and congealed cheese lay stiffly in a blanket of dried bun, and the sight of it nauseated me. I thought about the one million sold, I thought of the big yellow arches in front of each store, I thought of the thin, square-edged French fries served in grease-spattered paper bags. I did not think about what my father had just said. We did not talk about it again that day.
But over the next year, he mapped out various aspects of the plan as we motored up and down Route 22. He had to pay the insurance for a full year before it became enforceable. The business would be sold. So would the house. My mother, sister, brother and I would move to Ohio to be near our Aunt. We would have plenty of money — the one hundred thousand dollars. “Of course,” he said, “your mother will piss it all away.”
On the first of each month, my father mailed a check to the Prudential Insurance Company. The payment stubs began piling up in the glass jar he kept on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. Winter melted into spring. My August birthday came and went. School started and I began my first year at Watchung Hills Regional High School struggling with algebra, insecurity and frizzy hair. The white perforated stubs continued to grow in the glass jar. Leaves piled up around the apple trees in the side yard. There were phone calls with lawyers and papers to sign as my father began the process of selling the dry-cleaning business to his partner. Weeks went by with no discussion of the “plan.” Instead, there was talk of moving to Plainfield and West Orange, periodic rumblings of “starting over.” My father began reading the want ads as well as the obituaries. All in all, things were looking up.
Then around Thanksgiving, my father asked me how I felt about living in Cincinnati. “You’d live near your Aunt Letty. Wouldn’t you like that?”
No. No way no. I knew what he really meant: moving to Cincinnati was part of the plan that meant a move without him. I kept telling him I don’t want to move to Ohio, I never want to move to Ohio. No Ohio, no Ohio no Ohio — my code words for please, please, don’t kill yourself.
In January, a “For Sale” sign went up in our front yard. My father was quiet now, quieter than I had ever seen him. The raging episodes — screaming at my mother, hurling our dinner at the walls, throwing dishes across the room— disappeared as if they had never happened.
On a cloudy February morning, I found my father in the living room dressed in his coat and hat. He appeared so much smaller than I knew him to be — more like a lonely stranger in a dark overcoat than the towering man I knew. When he finally noticed me standing at the foot of the stairs, he turned towards me. “Don’t worry,” he said quietly, “things will be different from now on.”
His words opened a door, letting in a strong breeze that pushed me across the room to him. I spoke without thinking, words rushing out of my mouth like Fizzie tablets bubbling over the rim of a glass, grape foam running down the sides, pouring over the ledge of the table, bubble words just spilling out.
“Does this mean you won’t yell anymore, Daddy?”
He looked at me without saying a word, his good eye welling with tears as his face softened into a mass of wrinkles. Before I could take back the question, he began to weep.
I only saw my father cry once before, in that same living room, after his mother’s funeral. I had no idea what to do. If he yelled, I could run from him. But with his face in his hands, his sobbing in my ears, I stood rooted in numb horror, able to back away only when my mother ran to him, her voice electrified with shock as she cried, “Manny, what’s the matter?”
Not long after that morning, my father got into his car and disappeared as if dressed for work, although the store had been sold and he wasn’t going to work anymore. On his feet were cloth bedroom slippers.
We all spent the day waiting, holding our breath for his return. He didn’t come home for dinner. He didn’t come home at bedtime. He wasn’t there when I woke the next morning. All day long, I kept returning to the living room window, hoping to see him pull into the driveway. As the sun began to fade, I looked again, and this time saw his car parked up the hill, pointed towards our house. There was a barely visible figure behind the wheel. When I pointed the car out to my mother, she said nothing. A half hour went by. Then an hour. Finally, my mother turned to me. “Go get your father.”
Although his car was parked only a few hundred yards away, it felt like miles. My steps were that of a lead girl, with weights for shoes and a chest full of concrete. As I approached the car, my father rolled the window down slowly. He stared at me.
“Mom wants you to come in.”
There was no answer. I hugged my coat and looked away uncomfortably. Then the car started up. “Get in the car,” my father said. We drove back to the house in silence.
That evening, I asked him where he went. “Nowhere special.” I pleaded with him to tell me where.
“A diner. Up north.”
I pictured him in his cloth slippers sitting at a booth alone. He read the paper and ate eggs with fried potatoes. I was the invisible diner sitting across from him. I could taste his pain.
Less than two weeks later my father was dead, lulled to sleep by the poisonous breath of a garden hose. My mother found him unconscious in the driver’s seat. Her screams catapulted me from my bed to the front yard, where I found her struggling with my father’s heavy body as she attempted to pull him out of the car. I remember how cold it was on that gray dawn, so cold the air stung my face and frost bit into my bare feet as I ran towards the driveway. I remember the hose still stuck in a crack of the barely open window of the open car door, the hissing sound it made as it exhaust escaped from the still-running car. And most of all, I remember my father’s body, limp and lifeless, lying crumpled in the driveway on a patch of dirty ice.
In a strange way, I felt relieved.
My father was buried with his glass eye firmly in place so he would have two eyes in heaven. For a full year after his death, I imagined him looking down on me from the majesty of the many-colored clouds. He was my father who art in heaven. The Lord was his Shepherd now, helping him to see everything clearly. I was sure of that.
Within two years of my father’s death, my own vision began to falter. I needed glasses to see things far away. The farther away he was from my life the harder it became to see him. My father came back into focus slowly, over a period of a long, long time. He appeared only after I lifted a hand away from a covered eye, recovering most, if not all, of what had been hidden from view.
My father loved me. He wanted to marry me. I was steak and my sister was ice cream. “You know steak is better for you,” he replied when I asked who he loved better, “but sometimes you just want ice cream.” I saw nothing wrong in that, in being a piece of meat for my father to throw on the grill. There was no rape, no touch, no name for what happened to me. Nothing wrong. Everything wrong.
Twenty years later, my mother told me that only days before he killed himself, my father confessed he was repeatedly molested as a child. “It was his older cousin Nathan. You know, the nut.” My father swore he had never said a word about this to anyone. But of course he had. It was the story of the Cedars Hotel, the insistence that he was a normal boy, the teacher exhibiting his “girly” eyelashes at school. He never spoke of losing his eye, of the pain of surgery or the fear of losing his sight. He spoke only of the wound no one could see.
I am my father’s daughter. A current of sadness runs through me, a tidal river rising and falling with the pull of the past. During rainy seasons, floodwaters swell over the banks threatening to overwhelm everything in their path.
But I do not plan a suicide, even though I know how.
Instead, I look at the sky. Yellow. Orange. Red. Purple.
Then grey … and more grey.
Night falls. Darkness follows.
And still, I keep looking.
Madness and Terror and during the reign of the the DC Beltway Sniper
First published in The Potomac Review 51, Spring 2012
Can’t sleep. The words circle through my mind like a mantra as I drag myself out of bed, slap on some makeup and get my dog into the car. By the time we reach the park, it’s almost noon and I’m sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and thoroughly disgusted with myself. Normal people get up in the morning, even if they have slept badly. Normal people accomplish things by lunchtime. Normal people don’t obsess that their life is going to hell just because they wake in the middle of the night. The announcer on the radio drones on, a blur in the background until a live news report breaks in, crackling with urgency. This morning, while I’ve been sleeping — or trying to — four fatal shootings have taken place in a two hour period in nearby Montgomery County.
The details are sketchy, but this much is known: all of the shootings have occurred within a ten mile radius of the I-495 Beltway surrounding the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. The victims appear to be random — a retired schoolteacher mowing a lawn in Rockville, an Indian cabdriver pumping gas at an Amoco station, a Hispanic housekeeper waiting for a bus outside Leisure World, a suburban mom vacuuming a Dodge Caravan at a Shell station. At each shooting, witnesses report a white van speeding away from the scene of the crime. The police think the deaths may be related. But it’s too early to tell.
In the park, thirty-five miles east of the shootings, I lock my car and leash Barney, trying to remain as alert as possible on three hours sleep. Barney is a Lab-Rottweiler, ninety-five pounds of meat and muscle wearing a metal hook collar that makes him look like a canine member of the Hell’s Angels. He is my protector, a watch dog who guards my sense of security, which unfortunately, is never secure enough. For one thing, I’m a woman, which, in certain circumstances, can be a distinct handicap. And at 5’2 and weighing less than my dog, I’m well aware it wouldn’t take much to take me down.
The day unwinds like any other. I go to work, take meetings and return home without any major somnambulistic screw-ups. Throughout the evening, the television stays on. In between commercials, the news department breaks in, urging viewers to stay tuned to for the latest updates. No shootings have occurred since the morning massacre. Then, at 9:15 p.m., a seventy-two year-old Haitian carpenter walks across Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington and is felled by a single bullet. Every media outlet in the District converges on the site.
That night I can’t sleep again, though it’s not the sniper keeping me awake. I’m terrified this latest bout of insomnia will spiral into the paralyzing anxiety attacks that have accompanied it before. I practice yoga breathing, then switch to tensing and relaxing various body parts, then give up on that and change positions (many times) before getting up to visit the bathroom (many times). Finally, I count backwards from two hundred. When I reach one, I’m still awake. And twice as frantic.
The next day, as Barney and I walk down the park road, squirrels rush through the leaves, gathering nuts as if nothing has changed. A hawk glides through the sky and swoops over a distant patch of wood. I think back to last summer when a Chihuahua puppy was picked up by a red-tailed hawk in its own backyard. It seems no matter where you are there is always a vulture circling in the clouds. Just this morning, a woman was shot by an unseen assailant while loading packages into her minivan in a parking lot in a Michael’s Craft Store outside Fredericksburg, Virginia. Police speculate the shooting may be linked to the D.C. area sniper.
I do the math. Fredericksburg is ninety miles south of D.C. on I-95. If the sniper is willing to travel ninety miles south, surely he will think nothing of traveling thirty-five miles east.
As we pass a picnic table, Barney noses around a pile of ashes on the ground, hunting for some bone or gristle from a long-ago summer cookout. “Cut it out,” I yell, pulling on his leash. He looks up at me, his graying muzzle smudged with a mustache of soot. I bend down to rub off the ashes, but before I can even get my gloves off the sound of gunfire echoes in the distance. My heart pounds against my eardrums. The sound repeats, sputtering this time, followed by a loud rumble. Just a truck,” I say to Barney, louder than necessary.
We head over toward the meadow, which is only a chain-link fence away from the main road. Walking in the open like this while a nutcase is on the loose is not the smartest thing to do, but I do it anyway. It’s as if I’m throwing up a dare to the Gods of fate. Come and get me, see if I care.
Two days later, with the shooter still at large, I’m no longer so brave. I stick to the interior of the park just in case someone decides to take potshots through the fence. The leaves fall, creating space where there was none and I can’t help but see it: the summer leaving, the fall coming, the sniper out there somewhere but not here. In my chest, the soft hammering of panic is beginning its silent journey to the center. As we stroll past the gold-leaved birches, I am being taken down, slowly, deliberately, and the shooter is so well hidden I don’t even know it’s happening.
This is how it goes. I’m walking under a blue sky watching three geese soar through the clouds when a thought erupts like a bullet pulling a bird from the sky: Remember, it says. That’s all it has to say. It’s a trigger. Click. What I remember is panic, hopelessness, the fact that I cannot sleep, cannot dream, cannot stop myself from falling into the endless well of fear at the center of my being. The blue sky fades. The black clouds return simply by remembering them.
Still, life goes on. I go to work, keep up with the reading and writing assignments for graduate school, cook dinner for my husband and take care of my dog. At night, I retreat to my computer, where, under the bronze gaze of Ganesha, destroyer of obstacles, words fly out of my fingers creating an essay about my father and the year leading up to his suicide. Sometimes the memories are too intense and a scene lived through words can crack my heart wide open, unleashing a flood of grief and tears.
The writer Patricia Hampl says “to write one’s life is to live it twice.” And it’s true, because after decades of blocking my father out of my mind, I see him wherever I go. At times, it’s as if he’s talking to me. There are other voices too, the ones that tell me I am insane, that I will never hold another job, I will never sleep again, finish my graduate work, or do anything I want to do. As the voices drone on, I show up for work, keep up with the writing and chat pleasantly with my classmates online. To look at me, you would think nothing is wrong. No one suspects a thing.
Meanwhile, the sniper has hit again. Fifty-three year-old Kenneth Bridges is killed while pumping fuel at an Exxon station off I-95, twenty miles north of Richmond. The police put out a sixty-mile roadblock along the interstate, but call it off after six hours. Once again, the sniper has vanished from the scene. Two days later, six miles west of Washington, D.C., forty-seven year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin is shot dead in the parking garage of a Home Depot located next to a Michael’s Craft Store.
One entire day goes by without a shooting. Then another. For five days, it’s as the sniper has driven off the beltway and out of our lives.
Almost overnight, the park quiets as fall descends on eastern Maryland. The chorus of cicadas dwindles to occasional solos. Bird chatter is softer, less frequent. I can’t help but notice it, even with the constant chattering in my head. I see small things: the green leaves of a birch tree fading, the gradual shades of yellow. Spider webs, opaque on a gray day, shimmer radiantly when the sun comes out. Nothing stays the same. Not for long.
As we walk, I imagine the sniper cruising down Hillsmere Drive right outside the park. Barney tilts his nose into the air, blissfully unaware of all the turmoil going on in the world. How wonderful it would be to be a dog, to live fully and freely in each moment.
I bend down, touch the slick blackness of Barney’s fur and bury my head in his neck. Just by touching him, I’m comforted, soothed by the soft movement of his ribs as he breathes, the raspy panting as he stands to catch his breath. Despite his looks, he’s a sweetheart who adores humans and lets babies ride on his back. But who am I fooling? Barney isn’t free, he’s a prisoner, leashed and chained whenever he leaves the house. He has to be. If another dog wanders into his territorial circle, even a friendly one, Barney morphs from a sweet, loving Lab into a killing machine, attacking the other animal mercilessly until they’re bloody and punctured, not stopping until he’s dragged away. Because of this, I have to keep him under constraint restraint. If he were free, he’d be all over this park. If he were free, he’d be able to ignore me when he turns in the direction of the woods near the playground and I say, “No. We’re not going there.”
He hears the weakness in my voice, the “no” that is less a “no” and more “I don’t think so.” He stops, plants his feet in place, and refuses to go any further. The sight of him standing there with his big black Lab-Rottweiler head pointed longingly toward the woods makes me want to cry.
“What the hell,” I say to the clump of fall-red poison ivy at my feet. I turn toward the sound of children shouting and follow Barney’s lead. We pass through the buffer of woods and reach the playground without incident — no dogs, no snipers, no random acts of any kind — just leaves and trees and nuts falling off the branches.
I pick up the rough shell of a Sweetgum pod and think about nuts, the kind that fall from my family tree: my father with his depression, my sister and her bi-polar mood swings, my cousins, aunts, members on both branches of my family whose minds battle against them. As I step over the soft earth of molehills on our way back, it occurs to me that there is logic to keeping yourself in perpetual panic. If you can’t think straight, you can’t do much of anything: no writing, no trying, no leaving yourself wide open to attack from others.
A whole day goes by without a shooting, then two, three, a full week of no activity. The entire region holds its collective breath, waiting for the inevitable. I stay glued to the radio and television, listening to police news conferences several times a day, tracing my finger over maps in the newspaper that detail each death by location and date. I search the highways for a white van, the kind servicemen use, the vehicle always mentioned as being seen at the scene of the crime. Like everyone else around here, I want to be able to do something to make this madness stop. And I can’t.
At 8:00 in the evening, thirty-seven year old Jeffrey Hooper is shot in the parking lot of a Ponderosa Steak House approximately seventy miles south of the Capital Beltway. This is when it becomes apparent to me that whoever is doing this no foreign terrorist but one of us, a red-blooded American who appreciates the subtle pleasures of a sizzlin’ steak, Texas toast and an unlimited salad bar. An inside job. The words resonate in my head. Inside. I’m beginning to understand in a way I never have before that this terrifying panic, this remembering, this thought prison of mine is an inside job, created, fed and set in motion by no one else but me.
Long ago, my psyche hatched a crazy scheme to protect me from what I could not bear to see: a father tormenting himself and his family with uncontrollable rages; a beloved parent constantly threatening suicide; the imminent fear of that threat actually being realized. The solution was distraction through internal confusion, reality jammed by the sound of my own thoughts. That mechanism has grown as I have grown, become misshapen and monstrous, no longer a protector but a bully, obsessive and relentless, taking on a life of its own. Now there are words for it: obsessive-compulsive disorder, low-grade depression, words that have been written next to my name on a doctor’s report. Most of the time, I can keep it under control. At least I like to think I can.
By week’s end, a cold front blusters its way into the region, arctic air fighting with the receding southerly front. The winds blow a steady twenty knots, gusting to thirty-five at times. As Barney and I head to the parking lot after a short morning walk, we’re almost knocked over by a rogue wave made of air. I turn my back, stumble before getting my footing again, then hunker down into my jacket and wait for it to pass. The wind howls. Everything in its path bows before it, including me. In that moment, I know I am powerless against the winds that rage within me. The thought is strangely freeing.
The next day, the police confirm the discovery of a four-page note found in a plastic bag nailed to a tree in the woods adjoining the Ponderosa parking lot where the last shooting occurred. It consists of rambling, cryptic passages that address the police directly. The sniper writes: Your children are not safe, anywhere, anytime. And we know they are not; he has already tried to kill one of our children, a thirteen-year old boy on the sidewalk in front of his own middle school. We are dealing with madness here; we all know it, and still, life goes on.
I take Barney to the park, reel his leash out and watch his sleek Lab body wiggle in three parts as he walks ahead of me. He has always walked this way, the front quarters moving independently of the middle ribs, which move independently from his hindquarters. My heart sinks as my eyes fall on the inward-facing hooks of the prong collar jiggling around his neck. After years of trying harnesses and leashes, it’s been the one thing that has stopped his runaway pulling and given me some amount of control when he goes after other dogs. He doesn’t seem to mind the collar, even waits patiently as the prongs are hooked around his neck. To look at him, you’d think he’s a happy-go-lucky guy who happens to be a canine bully and killer of small animals. But what kind of life does he really have?
I watch him lick a wet leaf, his entire being focused on the texture and flavor of what is most likely dog urine. When I murmur his name, he circles his tail in happy response. As we walk on, I ponder my question. What kind of a life does he have? A good life, I decide. A life with a woman who knows exactly what kind of beast he is and still loves him.
Maybe it’s time to see myself as clearly as I see my dog. Perhaps it’s possible to be inherently flawed and still have a decent life.
A day after the police find the note outside the Ponderosa steak house, a man identifying himself as the sniper calls the police. The call is traced to a pay phone at an Exxon station just off the interstate outside of Richmond, Virginia. Police descend on the area in force, zeroing in on a white van idling beside the pay phone. Two men, both illegal immigrants, are taken into custody. They are found to have no connection to the sniper and are turned over the INS. Meanwhile, the killer is on the loose, the elusive white van still swimming among us.
How does it happen, this seeing only what you want to see? I think about all the changes I’ve been going through: starting graduate school, worrying about money, writing about my father and the impact unlocking those memories has had on me. Barney squats over a shrubby young pine and I hear myself say, “No wonder I’m going insane.” It makes me laugh, and then the wind begins laughing with me, tickling the tulip trees, which in turn release their burden of leaves.
That’s when I know it’s time to leash this crazy dog running wild inside me. For years, I have gone on and off of antidepressants, taking them only as an act of last resort and only for as long as it takes to get out of the hole I periodically fall into. Medication is my prong collar, the thing that keeps my inner beast contained. I hate to do it, but when the depression takes over, it’s the only way that I can get up and walk into my life again.
A day after the cops bust the illegal immigrants for the sniper’s phone call, I’m awake, tossing and turning in my bed. It’s 5:56 a.m., the same time that bus driver Conrad Johnson steps out of his Metro bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland and breathes in the cool morning air before his route begins. A single shot rings out from the direction of the basketball court across the street, landing in Johnson’s chest, making him the tenth fatal victim of the sniper. The following day, the police release a statement alerting the public to be on the lookout for a dark-colored Chevy Caprice with New Jersey plates.
The white van, the one we have all been watching for, turns out to be a red herring. For weeks, we have all been looking at the wrong thing.
In the early hours of the morning of October 24th, a truck driver sees a car fitting the description of the Beltway Sniper’s vehicle at a highway rest stop in western Maryland. He calls the State Police. Thirty-three minutes elapse before they arrive on the scene to awaken and arrest two men sleeping in the car. One is a teenager with a Caribbean accent. The other, a tall, solemn man, says nothing as he is cuffed and taken away.
Following the arrest of the snipers, we learn many things. The Chevy Caprice had been sighted repeatedly at the scene of the shootings, but law enforcement officials chose to ignore it. The shooters concealed themselves in the trunk of the vehicle and shot out of a small hole cut into the rear taillight of the car. The snipers were black, not white as suspected. The tall man was in a custody battle with his wife, who lived in the Washington, D.C. area and shopped at Michael’s Craft Stores. Talking heads discuss possible motivations: revenge, money, power, insanity.
In my head, elevated levels of serotonin begin putting out the brush fires sprouting between the synapses in my brain. As the medication kicks in, the obsessive thoughts become quieter, and as the days go by, quieter, still. I sleep at night for a few hours, and then a few hours more. Things begin to return to normal, whatever that is.
One week after the sniper has been caught, the park meadow glitters with the first frost of the season. Clouds float by, taking on the benign shapes of fluffy cartoon characters. Back in the car, I reach behind and rest my hand on Barney’s blocky Lab head, grateful for the quiet miracle of loving and being loved without having to say anything. We sit for a while like this, watching squirrels run from tree to tree. Then I open the windows and let the cool breeze enter.