DEFAULT TO GOODNESS
I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.
—Louisa May Alcott
[Breakfast at Tiffany’s meets Mommie Dearest in Memphis, New York, Athens, and London]
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
—George Bernard Shaw
All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
“A happy childhood… is the worst possible preparation for life.”
[book cover: marble statue of Medea (William Story/1868) holding knife/Metropolitan Museum]
Alexandra is the female David Copperfield. She is educated, polite, and kind, but the people in her world don’t appreciate those qualities very much. She is shy and becomes an acute observer of others. Her curiosity about people, their interests, their families fascinate her. Alexandra, an emotional and spiritual orphan, is trying to learn how to live. Her mother is a bipolar alcoholic who frequently rages and does shockingly cruel things to Alexandra. Her father is a closet homosexual who is too busy with his affairs and secrets to pay any attention to his only child. Alexandra turns to men in a search for any semblance of love or affection. The results are frequently harrowing, often just funny. At the same time, she works very hard at many jobs: teacher, production planner of mattress ticking for a Fortune 100 textile company, and writer and editor at many magazines. But the traumatic experiences of her childhood continue to haunt her. She finds comfort in books and films and excitement from new men, preferably foreign. Will she get a happy ending or end up stuffed inside a rusty garbage bag by an unhappy suitor?
[Music: Twentieth Century Fox –The Doors]
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
[music/Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess]
April 22, 1983
Earth Day and Day of My Last Drink
High Falls, New Jersey
The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him. Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle? Another Frances Farmer?
I have never been so scared in my whole life.
I got married six months ago.
Would my husband divorce me? Would I become a homeless woman sitting beside overflowing garbage bags on the streets of New York?
I felt like an astronaut floating in space whose umbilical cord to the spaceship that would return him to Earth had just been severed.
I was instructed to wait in another room. “Does your husband beat you?” the kind nurse asked.
“No, never,” I answered with quivering lips.
“How did you get all those bruises?” she asked.
“I bumped into the furniture and fell off my bicycle.”
It was true. I was riding an old Schwinn from the Pellisades health club to my apartment building in heavy traffic after dark. (Every alcoholic goes to a health club daily, right? I did; it was my futile attempt to exert some control over my behavior, which I hated, but could not stop.)
When I got married, I left my one shabby room in Manhattan for New Jersey. I hated New Jersey almost as much as I hated my alcoholism. Parts of New Jersey are really beautiful; I just didn’t live in any of them. Living in this congested town beside the George Washington Bridge represented unequivocal failure to me. It had all the disadvantages of an overcrowded city, as well as a boring suburb with insufficient parking places. I left Frenchtown (a suburb of Memphis), Tennessee, so that I could end up in Port Lincoln, New Jersey?
Why was I traveling by bicycle? I hadn’t driven a car since I was 17 after having an almost fatal encounter with a tractor-trailer on a major east-west thoroughfare in Memphis. When I went to Thorncliff College in Westchester County, I didn’t need a car because I could take the train that runs alongside the scenic Hudson River to Grand Central Station.
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.)
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.
[Tchaikovsky/Concert for Violin in D, op. 35]
October 6, 2000
Port Lincoln, New Jersey
The phone rang. I didn’t answer, but waited for the machine to record the
It began: “This is Janet Emerald. I live next door to your mother. She’s in the Frenchtown jail. She was arrested for drunk driving after she drove her car into a restaurant. She called us from jail. We’ll post her bond and take her home. Call me. 901-751-3232.”
Immediately, I called her back. Janet sounded totally in control. She explained that my mother drove her Volvo through the side of the Trafalgar Cafeteria around 5:00 PM. Miraculously, no one was hurt. After she rammed through one side of the dining room, she backed up and totally demolished a lamp pole. My 81-year-old mother’s face was bruised, but she had no other injuries. Not even her glasses were broken. (Great TV ad for Volvo!)
I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted-living facility.
When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.
The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned. Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied. The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.
My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her. There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing–even when I was very young.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.
My mother and I were master/slave; Hitler/Jew; shark/bloody leg; Mr. Murdstone/David Copperfield; Johan/Henrik in Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband.
Whenever someone asked about my “Mom,” my gut reaction would have been to answer, Mom? I don’t know anyone like that. Nancy, the popinjay, the vituperative termagant, was certainly no Stella Dallas.
To my mother every aspect of life was categorized as a bargain or overpriced. That included me: poor Return On Investment.
I had no siblings. To visit her after I left home for college, a formal invitation was required. If she didn’t want to see you, she wouldn’t open the door.
I remember looking down from the upstairs hall window in our saltbox colonial house to see my paternal grandmother standing at the front door and ringing the doorbell. She had driven from Cotton Fields, Arkansas, about a two-hour drive. My mother refused to open the door. My tired, old grandmother returned to her big Buick in our driveway and left.
Robert never intervened.
Not once in his life did my father telephone me. Always, at camp, I eagerly awaited the sporadic arrival of his terse postcards, printed in perfect block letters and with a stamp meticulously aligned with his text.
A few times I dreamed that I had sex with my father. My way of getting him to be on my side against my mother? It would mean that he loved me so much that he would reject young men sexually and choose me instead?
Some people are born rich, others are born beautiful. The most fortunate are born wanted.
I began to sink under my cumbrous emotions.
My mother thought that I needed to become more independent; I was five years old.
Camp Hopewell didn’t accept five-year-olds, but my mother convinced them that I would be no trouble at all. There were no ghosts of Faulkner at that place. Nothing literary or artistic. Just a shit-brown lake, a roller-skating rink, and a few ramshackle cottages for all the boys and girls. The girls’ bathrooms had no curtains, just wooden partitions between the toilets, so I only could go to the bathroom when no one else was around; my innards are very modest. We slept on lumpy bunk beds and ate on warped picnic tables covered with red ants.
I didn’t know how to swim then and almost drowned in that putrid lake. My counselor told me to swim from the shore to the floating rope in front of the diving platform. I doggy paddled toward it, as some older boys attempted to create a tsunami with their flailing arms and legs. Temporarily, I was blinded by the deluge. I paddled with all my might, coughed up brown water, and finally made it back to a spot where my feet could reach the bottom.
In the lake, I was afraid of drowning. Out of the lake, I was afraid of being bitten by one of the cottonmouths that slithered through the dense brush surrounding the camp’s grounds.
[music: Handel’s Messiah: “My Redeemer Liveth”]
Frequently, we were ordered to hike. Long, long hikes on hot, humid afternoons. We returned to base camp covered with bites from mosquitoes and chiggers and open wounds from the barbed-wire fences we crawled under. From an early age, I learned that boys would rescue me if I were sweet and docile; cute Jimmy always carried a water canteen on these unpleasant perambulations. He shared his water with me and gallantly pulled up the barbed wire on the lower rungs of the pasture fences so that I wouldn’t cut myself while sliding under the wires. The next time we were rolling skating, [music: Strauss’s “Explosions Polka”] I kissed him on the cheek and said, “Thank you.”
The kids around us went wild:
“Jimmy and Alexi sitting in a tree…
First, comes love,
Then, comes marriage.
Next comes Alexi with a baby carriage.”
I remember the first and only time my father expressed physical affection toward me. Nancy had gone out one night. He put me to bed, something which my mother never did. He read Sleeping Beauty to me from a worn-out book that I treasured. It was a strange shape—rectangular with a long length and short width, the binding was gone, the pages were faded.
When he finished the story, he gently caressed my forehead and softly sang, “Good night, Ladies, Good night, Gentlemen, we’re going to leave you now.”
It was one of the best nights of my childhood. To this day, if a man gently caresses my forehead and hair, I begin to feel as though I were melting and experience emotional stirring.
My father always reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. His aloofness, detachment, even the extended trip to Central America to sketch and paint the Mayan architecture and coastal landscapes.
My father had his blond Sebastian, too, but it was a fully realized passionate, lengthy homosexual union. Even a cold, cruel father was in the picture. My Arkansas grandfather, the gruff, unhappy cotton farmer, the son of an alcoholic, relentlessly exerted his destructive influence over the emotional component of my father’s personality.
Robert seldom mentioned his childhood, but on one rare occasion—the only time he ever visited me alone in New York, he was en route to London to meet a client–he stated matter-of-factly, “My father did everything possible to destroy my self-confidence.”
It was the only personal conversation that we ever had. We were sitting in Mme. Romaine de Lyon’s restaurant eating asparagus omelettes by a window with white lace curtains.
Was he aware that he and my mother flawlessly performed the same act upon me?
He also described a recurring dream that he had: He and my mother were standing in the yard of his childhood home in Cotton Fields, Arkansas.
“We’ve killed someone,” he calmly stated to my mother.
I guess he felt guilty about his treatment of me, or rather his infinite indifference. It was his way to apologize, the best that he could do, under his steely emotional armor.
Another time he pretended to crack the ice—in August!— 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.
Every night the three of us went to a restaurant for dinner, not fancy places at all. Nancy, my mother, would call Robert at his office to give instructions: time and name of restaurant. There was a large department store downtown, close to the Mississippi River, called Silversmith’s. It was my favorite; our waitress in her too short pink-and-white uniform always gave me a soft pat on my cheek and told me how much I had grown.
Both of my parents smoked after dinner, and I hated the smoke, but we always sat at the dinner 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?
to be continued…