Excerpt 85

My cousin and I recently connected by email.

We are old. His father and my mother were siblings. Pennsylvania Dutch. Highly intelligent. Well educated. Good looking. Also…narcissistic, alcoholic, unloving.

Everyone is dead.

We have begun to share our stories. Both of us have experienced emotional amputations. Both of us were slowly suffocating from the Burmese python of alcoholism.

 We are trying to understand our lives.

He wrote that I was always reserved, controlled, smiling.

I stopped drinking 40 years ago. Piece of cake compared to surviving my childhood.

Today’s email to him:

Never touched alcohol until I was 20.

It was Magic!

Numbed all the emotional pain. Deleted my shyness. Gave me infinite energy; I almost felt that I could fly. Worked all day in an office. Returned to my dark studio apartment.  Drank wine before date. Dinner and sex. 4 hours of sleep. Back to the office.

Had no money. Worked hard as a teacher, tutored after school for extra dollars, went out with men Every night for free dinner. Got job at Burlington Industries to make living wage. Executive assistant to president of Klopman Mills. After six months was promoted to production planner of House Fabrics group (only woman in the group), the most profitable division. Hated it!!! All numbers. I am a Word person. Did it strictly for the salary. Awful environment. Crude, vulgar, predatory garmentos. Worked mucho overtime. Hoarded cash so that I could work in the competitive, underpaid world of publishing.

Always tried to be perfect to earn my parents’ love and approval. Some crumb of love and affection for their only child. A hug, kiss on the cheek, a pat on the back. A compliment. An ice cream cone for that A+. ZERO. We never touched…except for my mother’s slaps across the face when I was young for daring to disagree.

After the Mack truck crash, and I landed in the hospital, my parents stopped by for about 10 minutes nightly on their way to dinner.

The nurse screamed:  You are a terrible mother! Bring her pajamas from home, her slippers, her hairbrush.

My mother refused to allow me to talk with a psychiatrist. I was 17.

It was the first validation: I was not the bad one.

If you have no safety net, you cannot afford to make enemies.

When I was in college, I was told that I could only return from NY to TN at xmas.

My mother said, “Find someplace else to go. Your visits inconvenience me.”

Years later, my college roommate reminded me…Remember when our dorm caught on fire before xmas? We had evacuated, but you went back inside to get your plane ticket from the closet because you were more afraid of your mother’s wrath for losing the ticket than burning to death.

During college vacations (campus closed) went from cheap hotel to cheap hotel and man to man. (Read Jean Rhys. She is my kindred spirit!)

After I met my second spouse, I was miraculously blessed with many opportunities to experience ineffable joy…and a sense of peace and safety…for the first time in my life.

The darker the tunnels, the brighter the eventual sunshine.

Have always had self-control. Again, survival. Growing up with Mommie Dearest. Total submission and the relentless smile were my impenetrable armor.

Had incredible capacity for alcohol. The wooden leg. White spiders and dry Manhattans. Five drinks, and I started to relax. Several Metaxa brandies late in the evening. Never lost control. Never sloppy. Never lost my purse. Never woke up in strange place. Never had blackout. Never slurred my words.

The glamorous island of 1970s-80s Manhattan…Carlyle Hotel/Bemelman’s Bar. Bobby Short walking his two dalmations on East 57th Street. Stork Club. La Caravelle. Le Cygne. Casual evenings at the boisterous PJ Clarke’s on Third Avenue. Mortimer’s at a front table. Gino’s with the zebra wallpaper on Lexington Avenue. Gawd, it was fun!

Men told me that they liked me better smashed; I actually showed some warmth and tenderness.

Yes. PA Dutch culture is unique.

And so were our parents.

Excerpt 84

Throughout my adult life, I’ve tried to understand what experiences and influences Nancy, my mother, endured to warp her into the woman she became.

One incident is heartbreaking: Shortly after my birth, she took me to visit my grandparents in Pennsylvania.

While we were gone, my father had wild homosexual orgies in our house.

When she returned, there were broken whiskey bottles and cracked eggshells everywhere; the eggs had been thrown at the walls.

The silverware from her great-grandparents had been stolen.

Years later, Robert, my father, painted a Matisse-like watercolor that included several dramatic elements of that night—broken bottle, cracked egg, his childhood home in Arkansas, hers in Pennsylvania, broom (her “career”) (I am certain that he was also imagining the classic witch’s broom), paintbrush (his “career”), leafless tree with gnarled, exposed detached roots (his family and marital life).

The gestalt is eerie and disturbing.

My parents were a lifelong mystery to me. Whenever I was alone in their house, I would rummage through their chests of drawers—always meticulously returning items to their original placement—in hopes of finding clues to their behavior, which seemed so alien compared with the love and warmth I witnessed among my friends’ parents.

In my father’s bureau, I found pills for treating venereal disease. In his bookcase, he kept several novels by Gore Vidal and a copy of Great Cases in Psychoanalysis, which I found fascinating because of the kinky sexual case histories.

I believe that my father was trying to understand himself. He was born into a cruel era for gay men. On some level, I think that he felt that he needed to be punished for his relentless desires.

Our WASP culture before the 1970s, harshly frowned on the psychiatric profession. Our culture said: Fix yourself. Self-reliance above all.

Excerpt 83

Who are The True Privileged of this world?

They are the children who grow up with unconditional love.  It is the most cherished gift, a supreme advantage, an unshakeable foundation that will support you—mind, body, spirit—for life.

My mother could barely tolerate perfection, much less the infinite flaws of a child. I was expected to need nothing, ask for nothing, never disagree—only to offer blind, submissive obedience.

There were no bedtime stories. Never. Cuddles, kisses, hugs…never.

To put me to sleep, Nancy gave me a tall glass of Maker’s Mark bourbon and 7-Up. The tall glass was elegantly painted with a couple dancing, dressed like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

It was the perfect metaphor for our family: To the outside world, we looked perfect.

Inside, was our own hell on earth. Robert, my father,  never intervened. He was absent during most of my life. He traveled extensively for work or frequently lived in his converted office/apartment far away on the other side of Memphis.

Excerpt 82

I was eighteen years old and a college freshman before I was allowed to select my

own clothes. My mother “owned” me; I was not a human being,  but her personal property.

There was a small shop in the “ville,” as we college students called it.

I purchased a cerulean blue-and-white polished cotton long-sleeved blouse in October of my freshman year.

It should have been framed in ornate gold and hung on the wall for posterity, as though it were an expensive handmade kimono from Kyoto.

One more step away from my mother had been taken.

In Memphis, Nancy had dragged me to several enormous discount warehouses with names like Atlantic Mills, after our cafeteria dinners. She spent hours digging through piles of scruffy clothing and periodically commanded me to try something on. When I tried on a pair of slacks, she made me bend over to check the fit; it was humiliating. I had to follow her around—for hours—with a shopping basket.

To this day, I will do almost anything to avoid shopping. After college, I became an avid catalog customer, even though I lived in the middle of Manhattan. And later came the Internet and Ebay, smartbargains.com, and overstock.com—gifts from the clothing gods for sure!

Excerpt 81

This Be The Verse


They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

    It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems. Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin.  Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber, Ltd.

Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Excerpt 80




She is legitimate.
But appears to a
Man at dinner at eight on a Tuesday at a
Madison Avenue coffee-shop counter to be a
Her soft scrambled eggs stubbornly resist the
Paroxysms of her esophagus as the
Gray-haired, gray-eyed, gray-suited
Stranger erects himself on the stool beside her and
Comments on the darkness of her seedy toast.
Charred thoughts of the past, of being watched, always watched
Choke her movements. She
Exposes impeccable manners.
Fingers firmly grasp the fork, as she raises her eyes to
Probe his face. Quickly lowering the pronged instrument to the
Hard plate, she slowly rises to pay the bill—one
Account finished,
Another just begun.
Manhattan’s aggressors strangle her sweet pliability of temper and womb.

{From the book, Furrow, by Anne Weitzer}

Excerpt 79



The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of the house across the street from us. The NAACP had purchased the house for an African-American minister. Every weekend several of our neighbors strutted up and down the street carrying loathsome signs painted black and white: “N——, Get Out.”

The one Jewish lady, Mrs. Roseborough, on our block (and the only homeowner who had a swimming pool) had produced Tennessee Williams’s first play, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay, in her backyard.

She became a target for the KKK, as did my parents, because they refused to participate in the Sunday marches. Not long afterward, a Molotov cocktail sailed through our window, and obscene and threatening phone calls were becoming a common occurrence at three in the morning.

Often, Robert was out of town on business trips and sexual escapades, so my parents decided for safety’s sake that it was time to move.

            My parents sold our house to a lovely black lady, a missionary, who traveled back and forth to Africa. Her niece, Zola,  was one of my favorite playmates. Until my father died,  Zola’s aunt was his landlady; he rented the small office building behind the house for more than thirty years. It was always a mutually respectful relationship.

Excerpt 78

Both Alexa and I are childless by choice. Thank God for Mary McCarthy and diaphragms. Someone said McCarthy did for diaphragms what Melville did for whales.

When we were in our teens, we made the decision not to become mothers.

Our mothers had branded us with pain.

Excerpt 77

Thanksgiving Day


My father and I went to the local Holiday Inn for dinner. My mother drank too much the night before and was unable to dress and leave the house. She stayed in bed while we set forth for roasted turkey and pumpkin pie, my favorite meal.

In the buffet line, we ran into one of my father’s friends/clients: Anastasia. She looked much more like an East Village resident of Manhattan than the dweller of an architecturally conservative apartment building in a good neighborhood of Memphis. She was more Harvey Fierstein than Anita Bryant. Anastasia was flamboyant with her heavy makeup, colorful clothes, and Lucite handbag, which completely exposed the contents.

If I had looked closely, I might have seen the Trojan condoms; Anastasia was a wealthy divorcée who got her kicks by pimping for the secret society of artistic, homosexual men in the neighborhood.

She threw raucous parties where handsome youths and older patrician men were introduced. Women were invited also, but they tended to be in their 50s and 60s and were oblivious to Anastasia’s maternal machinations.

Excerpt 76


[music: Schubert’s Death and the Maiden ]

My father later wrote–on one of his signature postcards–in all seriousness, “If you move to Greece, I guess we’ll see you once every ten years.” I was 22 years old.

He expressed neither sadness nor regret. Robert did not express emotion. Never.

He was always reserved and aloof. Neither joy nor despair ever dared to cross his face. His emotional armor was impenetrable.

But what was truly in his heart?

I never found out…not even after his death.

Excerpt 75

When I slept with a man for the first time, I was almost 21, completely sober and terrified. My Brooklyn lover was a Jewish dental student at New York University. We did it on a water bed in a closed wing of Bellevue Hospital.

Afterward, he said, “I feel like I’ve been through a meat grinder.”

Excerpt 74

Both of my parents smoked after our restaurant dinners, and I hated the smoke, but we always sat at the table for an interminable amount of time.

Nancy feverishly discussed current events, which usually involved vehemently lambasting the local politicians and complaining about the price of everything. That was the pattern: Nancy talked her staccato talk in her rebarbative tone. Robert and I listened.

Sometimes, I took a book to the restaurant. I knew that was very bad manners, but my parents permitted it, as I sat quiet and motionless, with my ankles daintily crossed. One of my favorite books was a biography of Julia Ward Howe; I was spellbound when I read about her writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which became a famous Civil War song.

The orange-and-black hardcover book had been borrowed from the library. (I must give my mother credit where credit is due; she often drove me to various libraries, dropped me off, and picked me up hours later.)

Why did that book make such an indelible impression? At age eight, did I understand that to survive my childhood, it would take all my emotional strength? That not enough would be left over to support any kind of conventional life? That the battles that awaited me would color the rest of my days?

Afterward, the three of us walked to the two cars, but never together. Nancy always charged ahead several paces in front of my father. He held the middle position. I brought up the rear like a little ugly duckling.


My pretty, blond mother was German; I have always had a special affinity for dark, Jewish men. (What would Freud say about that?)

Or, as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Sleepless Nights to her mother in Kentucky: “I love the Hebrews.”


Writing in my diary is my therapy. Goethe said:

“The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, molded and reconstructed in a personal form and an original manner.”

Often, I wish I were a ballerina so that I could sweat blood for beauty and for art. I gesticulate in front of the mirror, with my arms outstretched reaching farther and farther.

Art has helped more people recover from abuse, abandonment, and betrayal than all the psychiatrists in the world.