El Salvador


(from my book: “Furrow”)

Refugee worker shot behind peaceable ear for
Hearing, feeling, thinking the
Woman, three months’ pregnant
Learns that husband is dead.
Government officials deny that.
Americans hurl helicopters to
Kill others with MGs, X, Y, Z.
Old women cry and clench knotted fingers around
Blood-soaked threads in
Terror of nothing they understand.
Babies wail for milk from
Mothers without nourishment for
Nine nights.
Temporary tents for temporary faith.
Man’s inhumanity to man.

excerpt 6: Default to Goodness

Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.

He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.

Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.

He  drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door. After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.

Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head.  I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.

My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin. She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.

“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.

“I can’t stop drinking.”

“I slashed my wrists. See?” Melanie said.

I wasn’t really expecting a coherent conversation. Melanie exhibited her bony, scarred arms. I was really trying to be calm and sympathetic, but I just wanted to escape.

“I’ve been attacked. I want to leave this place now,” I told the nurse on duty who came in to check on us.

“You’re safe now. Don’t worry. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

“Please let me use your phone.”  She pointed to a public telephone down the hall.

I made a collect call to my husband, Joseph.

“I hate you. I really hate you. An insane man just tried to kill me. Come and get me. Now. This place is filled with certified lunatics, and that’s no exaggeration.”

Joseph replied in a stern voice, “I’ll come tomorrow morning.”

During the night, he arranged to have me transferred to another hospital, Fair Hope, in Sumac, New Jersey. (What a strange coincidence; I remembered that my parents were married in Fair Hope, Alabama—I would have named their marriage rendezvous location: No Hope. Ever. Ever. Ever.)

The following morning the Walter-Mitty type staff psychiatrist tried to convince my husband and me, as we sat in his dark-brown dreary office with worn-out leather furniture, that I should stay put.

“Out of the question,” said my 53-year-old husband in his most authoritative executive voice.

He immediately drove me to Fair Hope Hospital where I lived for one month.

A member of the cleaning staff stole my navy leather handbag–with the exquisite brass hardware and clasp–from my closet, but other than that, the experience of living with a group of men and women, who had endured far more than their share of life’s cruelties, injustices, and tragedies, was almost an epiphany; I began to believe that a different life was possible.

During the day we had group therapy with counselors who all were recovering alcoholics and/or drug addicts. I was an oddity because I had never used drugs. Not once. Most patients in their 30s had at least experimented with every powder, pill, or injection available.

As Boris Pasternak wrote, “I   don’t like people who have never fallen or


stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless, and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its


beauty to them.”


He was right, of course. I wish that we had met; Dr. Zhivago is one of my all-


time favorites. And I’m very fond of late bloomers; he was sixty-eight when he won the


Nobel Prize for Literature.


We ate our tasteless meals in a bland cafeteria. Only decaf coffee was available from a large metal container, so I was really sleepy for the entire 30 days. Most of the patients were men, so my roommate, a pretty, blue-eyed  blonde, around my age,  and I got lots of attention. We also were among the youngest.

We were the lucky ones, who had been forced into rehab before the devastating effects of alcoholism took their toll: debilitating neuropathy, memory loss, grizzled complexions.

One patient had to have his arm amputated; he was drunk and waved his arm out the car window…a truck roared by, too close.

Every night we went to an A.A. meeting. I met a woman who had watched her brother hacked to death with an ax by a stranger in her backyard; a man who was just released from jail for grand larceny and who ran a prostitution ring from his Irish bar on First Avenue (He begged me to work for him as a call girl after we were discharged from Fair Hope); a good-looking, sanguine, irreverent man in his late twenties who had spent years traveling on luxury cruise ships pretending that he was a Catholic priest and befriending and bedding older women if they bought him enough champagne; another woman stood outside with her mother and sister as her father burned to death trapped in their suburban house; a shy, thirty-two-year-old female, who was the unwanted only child of an abusive alcoholic manic-depressive mother and charming, artistic homosexual father, who found neither the time nor the energy nor psychological fortitude to protect his daughter from his wife’s violent rages and relentless cruelties.

That one was me.

excerpt 5: Default to Goodness

My father made the decision—from the beginning—to sacrifice me, in order to save himself.

There was a truly pagan element of masochism, sadism, and self-destruction to the family dance of the Smiths.

This model gave me an uncanny ability to adapt to all the selfish monsters that would confront me, want to maintain a relationship with me, or exploit me.


Another time, in August, Robert pretended to crack the ice in the backyard birdbath, as my mother watched from a window. He wanted her to take him to a psychiatric hospital.

But it was all a trick; he wanted to get her into the looney bin! They never made it there. On the way to the hospital, she grabbed the steering wheel and wrecked the car.

So my father retreated once again into his basement office with the sawhorses, pigeon holes for blueprints, and shelves lined with art books and Gore Vidal novels. He began planning his next extended escape to Monhegan island, off the coast of Maine.




Excerpt 4: Default to Goodness


Bill, the Harvard-educated Bostonian, who adopted six Vietnamese refugee children. He was an infantryman during the war.

Many years later, his wife left him and the six children.

After that, I think he blamed all women and hated them.

His routine: Take a woman to a Japanese restaurant, give her a dozen white roses, take her to a Karaoke place with private rooms and maul her there, as though he were an out-of-control teenager with very bad manners.

“Touch me anywhere. Touch me anyway you want. Play with me. Hurt me.”

So much for Harvard gentlemen!



The dashing Iranian [born in the United States] who called himself Persian. He introduced me to champagne brunches. He lived with an airline stewardess [that’s what they were called long ago], who was very sloppy. She wanted to have a baby so that she would have an excuse for quitting the flying, but not the fucking.

He loved my apartment because it  was always so neat.

Once, I drank too much and vomited in the taxi with him.

He was very gracious, said nothing, and gave the taxi driver a big tip for the carwash.

Afterward, I thought our relationship would be immediately over.

But he shocked me by taking me upstairs, putting me into the bathtub, pulling out my Tampax, and having sex with me, blood and all.

We dated a few years in the mid-1970s, before the Shah of Iran was overthrown and forced to leave his country in 1979.

Another lover:

A refined Southern WASP rolled over in my  bed, stuck his legs up into the air like a dead cockroach, and requested, “Lick my asshole. It’s clean.”

Men and their insatiable urges and fetishes!