Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Jonathan Ames. His latest book is called You Were Never Really Here (Vintage). It has recently been adapted into a major motion picture starring Joaquin Phoenix. Ames also writes for television, having created the shows Blunt Talk (Starz 2015-2016), starring Patrick Stewart, and Bored to Death (HBO 2009-2011), starring Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis.
“Her heart was not hardened but her skin was thick,” writes Jean-Patrick Manchette of the titular protagonist in his last, unfinished novel, Ivory Pearl, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith with a superb ear for Manchette’s incomparable voice that easily shifts between the grit of the hyperfactual—“…in his right hand he held a semiautomatic Sauer Model 38 chambered in .380 ACP and fitted with a silencer”—and the nimble ability to sketch with the sparest of words the heart of a character, laid out, in this case, in three easy steps: “She wanted to become a professional photographer. She dreamt of meeting Robert Capa. She had an alarming predilection for images of dead bodies.” Ivy is a survivor who at one point casually, almost happily, admits having conveniently lost her appendix when she “caught that Viet round in ‘52.” And like so many other of Manchette’s characters, she also knows her jazz. Everything helps when you’re on a mission.
Manchette once called the crime novel “the great moral literature of our time,” which for him meant dealing not just with the traditional tropes of the policier or the noir, but in situating the narrative in the wider world, with its geopolitics and the masters of the dark arts of politics and espionage. It’s what initially separated Manchette from his generation of French thriller writers, who tended to adhere to the American model: bad guys do bad things, good guys (or bad guys turned, at least for a few hundred pages, better, with an option to relapse at any time) restore order. There were always a few outliers who were paving their own unique ways in the genre, but Manchette was the most politically committed of them. Born in 1942 to parents who had fled the Paris banlieue during the German Occupation, his family returned to a working-class district south of Paris in 1945. In his teens he began to read detective and science-fiction novels and comic books, all the while immersing himself in American films. He also became enamored of American jazz, and began playing tenor and alto saxophone. When he was eighteen, in 1960, he became politically active, describing himself as a “militant gauchiste,” especially with what was happening with France in Algeria. Apart from writing his own novels, he wrote screenplays for, among other, Claude Chabrol, and was a translator of many American thrillers and detective novels, including several books by Ross Thomas.
With his acute political conscience and a heightened sense of morality comes, in this latest translation, a dedication to the history of our times, from the end of the Second World War to, had Manchette not died of lung cancer in 1995, the Cuban Revolution and beyond. In his journal entry for December 13th, 1988, Manchette writes of creating a néothriller, something more ambitious than the genre he helped to create, the néo-polar, developing a single storyline over several volumes, all dealing with covert action and featuring a single heroine, Ivory Pearl. This Balzacian project, as he describes it in his journal, was never realized.
Ivory Pearl, a photographer who has been witness to the climactic political moments from the fall of Berlin in 1945 to pre-revolutionary Cuba and beyond, is one of J-P Manchette’s most indelible and rounded characters, someone full of potential for later volumes, and it’s our loss that he died leaving the work unfinished. All credit, then, to his son, Doug Headline (Manchette in English means just that—a newspaper headline), for providing the reader with Manchette’s notes on how the work would have continued had he not died.
It opens with the apparent kidnapping (and possibly death) of a young girl, Alba Black, the niece of an international arms trafficker, whom we meet again only years later when Ivory tracks her down to Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Such is the foundation for this story, which is not just a tale of survival and grit, but reflects in its time-frame and settings Manchette’s obsessions with political movements all across the globe. In March, 1956, Ivory is in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Eight months later Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others would end up there to prepare to battle the Batista regime, eventually, in the first hours of January 1959, taking over the government. Alone, with the proficiency learned only from hard experience, she sets up camp, prepares her photographic lab, drinks rum, smokes a cigar, and sleeps under the stars. What she doesn’t know is that she’s being watched.
In cinematic terms, Ivory Peal is a thoroughly modern character—tough, resilient, courageous and not without wit, bringing to mind Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. Though the novel was originally published in 1996, even twenty-odd years later Ivory seems alive, completely credible. Place her in any tense situation and she’ll own the scene. The fact that this is an unfinished novel should not deter readers, especially those who’ve been reading Manchette’s English translations published by New York Review Books. It’s a rich, elegantly-plotted work that, even had the author lived to see the series to its final volume, still must be considered one of his strongest efforts, standing alongside Three to Kill and The Prone Gunman.
Says Amy Hempel: “This book has dark humor, recklessness, exhilaration….I felt I was reading a writer who would tell harder truths than many other writers, and she turns this nerve against herself to good effect.”
And Sarah Manguso says: “Chelsea Hodson tests herself against her desires, grapples with their consequences, and presents a surgically precise account of what they were to her. These essays are bewitching―despite their discipline and rigor, you can smell the blood.”
“I had a real romance with this book.” —Miranda July
A highly anticipated collection, from the writer Maggie Nelson has called, “bracingly good…refreshing and welcome,” that explores the myriad ways in which desire and commodification intersect.
From graffiti gangs and Grand Theft Auto to sugar daddies, Schopenhauer, and a deadly game of Russian roulette, in these essays, Chelsea Hodson probes her own desires to examine where the physical and the proprietary collide. She asks what our privacy, our intimacy, and our own bodies are worth in the increasingly digital world of liking, linking, and sharing.
Starting with Hodson’s own work experience, which ranges from the mundane to the bizarre―including modeling and working on a NASA Mars mission― Hodson expands outward, looking at the ways in which the human will submits, whether in the marketplace or in a relationship. Both tender and jarring, this collection is relevant to anyone who’s ever searched for what the self is worth.
Hodson’s accumulation within each piece is purposeful, and her prose vivid, clear, and sometimes even shocking, as she explores the wonderful and strange forms of desire. Tonight I’m Someone Else is a fresh, poetic debut from an exciting emerging voice, in which Hodson asks, “How much can a body endure?” And the resounding answer: “Almost everything.”
Nick had presence. He was a tall, solid bodybuilder. Sharp, chiseled angles defined his jaw and shoulders. He wore a worn green T-shirt and jeans to his first therapy session. The muscles in his chest and arms were more defined than on anyone I’d ever seen. When he shook my hand, it felt like he wore a catcher’s mitt. I could barely get my hand around his.
I don’t intimidate easily, but I felt humbled by his size. He seemed a yin-yang blend of power and stillness.
“Hey,” he said as his catcher’s mitt swallowed my hand. “Hey.”
“Cool.” Nick pointed to a large leather recliner. “It’s all yours.” I gestured toward it.
If he had asked for my chair I wouldn’t have batted an eye in finding somewhere else to sit. “Can I take notes?” I asked.
“Knock yourself out, man.”
“So what brings you here?” I clicked my pen.
“Took a course at NYU and it was cool. Like I opened up. Group therapy course, and the dude teaching it was cool. I didn’t open the throttle on what was percolating, but I asked him, like who knows about this kind of thing, and he said you’re the dude, so, like boom.” He flicked his fingertips for emphasis. “Here I am.”
“I’m the dude for . . .”
“Psychodrama, man. Like, I checked you out, you know, Googled you and like that.” He made typing gestures with his fingers on an imaginary keyboard.
“Oh, right.” I nodded.
“So, bingo.” He turned his palms faceup. “So, what was percolating?”
He looked at me. Then everything about him changed. This intense, strong, intimidating, powerful man folded into himself. His large frame had been squarely positioned in the chair, fingertips resting gently on his kneecaps. Now his hands retracted. He looked down and away. His straight back and magnified chest seemed to have withered. Like a life-sized balloon, his air had been let out.
“Yeah,” he muttered into his hand.
“It’s okay. We don’t have to do this all today.” “Right.”
“But it seems powerful.”
“Yeah, right,” he continued, looking away. “It’s like, everything.” “Everything?”
He shook his head slightly. “Wow, man. Wow, this is more fucked up than I thought. Can you handle this?”
How was I supposed to answer that type of question? I didn’t even know what we were talking about.“Like I said, we don’t have to do this all in one day. Don’t push yourself.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the whole fucking problem, isn’t it?” His intensity surprised me. “That’s all I fucking do is push my fucking self so I don’t have to deal with this shit, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got to deal with this or I’m just going to stay fucked. I’m just going to be living the life I think I should, instead of the life I was meant to live.”
“You’re dealing with it now in the most direct way possible. You
brought yourself in here to do the work. Right now, you’re in this moment and you’re doing it. There’s no more direct way to deal.”
It appeared as if he was slowly being filled with helium. His body unfolded and he inflated back to his original stance and presence. The transformation was palpable. Wherever he had gone, he had returned. The conversion took a full minute. A slight smile crossed his face as his fingertips returned to his kneecaps. “Cool.”
“Very cool.” What else could I say?
As if the helium had reached the liftoff point, he rose out of his chair and stuck out his catcher’s mitt. It felt like an unspoken game of Simon Says. I stood up and shook his hand.
“Same time next week?” he asked. “There’s still a lot more time, you know.” “Nah, I’m cool.”
“Yeah, I got it. I’ll leave a check with your secretary.”
I was stunned, and a bit intimidated. Was I going to try to stop this guy from leaving? Not a chance. “She’ll set you up for next week,” I said as he let go of my hand.
Nick turned to the door, then stopped and turned toward me.“Read your book, man.”
“And you decided to come anyway?”
“This chick I know, Suzanne, I think she knows you, gave it to me to read. Just wanted to see if you could handle it.”
“How’d I do?”
“I think we both passed the audition.” He smiled. I laughed.
“Later.” Nick walked through the door. Nick had been in my office four minutes.
* * *
His hand swallowed mine again as he shook it and sat down in the same chair.
“So last week was a blast, eh? What do you do, pump special gas in here so people can feel shit they don’t want to feel so they can heal up?”
“My secret is out.”
“So what made you want to write a memoir?”
“It was just in me,” I offered. “It felt like something I had to do.” “That’s cool. I get that. That part about your cousin with his chicken-
shit habit and your channel-swimmer patient with the White China overdose blew me away, man. Blew. Me. Away.”
“Thanks. Sounds like you know the language of heroin addiction.
Do you write?”
“Me? Nah. Well, like lyrics and shit, but not like write-write.” “Lyrics? You write songs?”
“Yeah, you know, it just felt like something I had to do.” “I’ve heard that before.”
“What kind of music?”
“Whatever.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Sid, Kurt, Neil, Bruce, Bowie, Amadeus, whatever.”
“That sounds like a range.”
“Yeah, actually taught a class a while back on variations and similarities in composer styles.”
“Where did you teach it?” “Harvard.”
I smiled at what I thought was a joke.
“They have their heads pretty fucking far up their asses there, but it was cool. The students dug it.”
“Yeah, it’s a college up in Boston.”
“Oh, that Harvard.” Was he auditioning me again? “Any other places?”
“Juilliard, but only strings. Stanford, percussion. That was a sweet gig.” He rapped off a series of drum riffs on the edge of the chair.“Back then down and around to NYU, Tisch, doubled back there to do the PhD thing . . .”
“Yeah, but the dissertation stalled me, and I couldn’t figure out a reason to finish. So, wham-bam back to England and in love,” he paused to hold his right hand to his heart with his eyes closed and his left hand up in the air, “and then did the lighting for the Globe Theater. Then the young lady said she couldn’t live with a fucking addict, so I shot up, OD’d, and awoke ten years later as a tenzo in a Zen monastery in Massachusetts.”
“You’ve taught at Harvard, Juilliard, Stanford, and NYU. And you were the cook in a Zen monastery?”
“So you know about the tenzo, cool. Learned the ultimate mantra there too, Om Mani Padme Hum,” he chanted with his eyes closed. “Praise to the jewel in the lotus, man. Also, did a summer gig at Princeton one year and two semesters at Cornell. You know what I like about Cornell?”
“Is there an Ivy League school you haven’t been to?” “U Penn.”
“How’d you miss them?”
“You’ve got to drive through the war zone, man, to get there. Fuck them. They probably wouldn’t dig my groove anyway. But I do love Ben Franklin.”
“What instruments do you play?”
“Trick question, man, we’ll be here all day. Shorter answer is what don’t I play.”
“The hung, man. I can play it, but it’s too intense for me. I trip out.” “I don’t even know what that is.”
“It’s a drum, man, looks like a spaceship and sounds like one. Forget it. If I play that, it’s like I’m on acid.”
“Wait until you see this segue; you’re gonna love it.” “Go, man, go.” He box-punched the air.
“What kind of drugs did you, or do you, use?”
“Smooth, man. Picked right up on the acid thing. Well, you’re gonna get the same answer as the instruments, man. The shorter list is what I didn’t take.”
“And that would be . . .”
“Belladonna, man. Once I heard Manson did that, I just freaked for some reason and kept it off the list.” He looked at me intensely. “But let me anticipate your next question. My drug of choice? Heroin, man, the occasional speedball, but man, for a little rush-o-mundo and to keep from crashing, but there is nothing like the poppy, man. That was it. Hence why I liked that bit about you, and your cousin, and your patient.”
“Right,” I said. “How bad?”
“How bad?” he said, letting himself laugh. “How bad is there? I mean I’d do anything, give anything to get it. Anything.”
“Okay, how about the flip side: Why’d you stop?” “’Cause I lied.”
“There was one thing I would give to get it.” “And that would be?”
“My life, man. I realized it was taking it a dime at a time and that just woke me the fuck up.”
“How’d you quit?”
“Planned an OD, wrote down the dosage, history, got all my medical information together, blood type, admission forms, signatures. Everything. I even made a recommendation about what drug they should use to revive me. Shot up, walked into Columbia Presbyterian and passed out with the information stapled to my shirt. They saved me and then got me clean.”
“I had no money. I knew it would work.” “Then what?”
“Then I stayed sober—still clean, mind you. Eleven years.” “How long were you in the hospital?”
“A month or so. Never looked back. It took me ten years to pay them back for saving my dumbass life.”
“48,611 dollars and twelve cents.” Nick launched into a perfect a cappella version of the song by the Who: “I call that a bargain, the best I’ve ever had.”
“You can sing.”
“Thank you very much,” came the Elvis imitation. Then he turned serious again. “Hey, you know what that song ‘Bargain’ is about?”
“Most people think it’s about a drug or a person, but it ain’t.” “Then what?”
“God,” he said. “Pete was talking about God.”
“That actually makes sense. You know, most people wouldn’t have even thought to pay that back.”
“Right intention, right action,” he said matter-of-factly. “The eight-fold path?”
“Buddhism is where it’s at, but I’m just chipping away at the mountain.” “How so?”
“I still got a long fucking way to go with right speech.”
* * *
“So?” Nick sat down.
“So,” I echoed, “bring me up to speed.”
“Actually, man, I think I’m ready. I am definitely tired, but I’m ready.” “Do I know what for?”
“What is this, like the sixth session?” “Eighth, actually.”
“Then I’m definitely ready.”
I had learned to let Nick find his way. I answered him by opening my palms slightly toward him.
“My fucking mother, as opposed to just some mother-fucker, came to see me last night.”
“I was wondering when we would get around to your mother.” “Yeah, if it’s not one thing it’s your mother, right?”
“So my fucking mother comes last night and I tell her I’m in therapy, and she laughs.”
“She isn’t very empathic, is she?”
“You don’t need therapy, Nick,” he said in a mock woman’s voice. “How did you respond?”
“Stared at her for like two minutes, and she stared back. Then I simply said: I will need therapy for the rest of my life. Then I burned a hole in her eyes with mine.”
“What did she do?”
“She had a fucking shit-fit, and started going off on me,” he said, making gestures with his fingers poking into the air in front of him.
“When are you going to grow up?” he said, poking to emphasize each word with an air jab.
“What did you do?”
“She poked me in the chest and I really had the image of just grabbing and breaking her finger,” he said, biting his lower lip.
“What stopped you?”
“I knew I wouldn’t stop until I broke every bone in her fucking body.”
“Good choice, then.”
“She said some other shit about me not needing it. Then she asked the six-million-fucking-dollar question.”
“‘Why do you need therapy? You had a good childhood.’ I lost it, man,” he said, raising his voice. “I wanted to slap her silly, but as I was thinking how I would do that, she dropped a bomb.”
“What’d she do?”
“She got all quiet. In a rage, she started screaming at me what a piece of shit I am, what a loser fucking drug addict I am, then she started poking me and trying to kick me.”
“Nick, I’m sorry that happened to you. What did you do?”
“I had a split second where I envisioned breaking her fucking neck with one fucking snap, but decided I would kill her with my words.”
“I said, ‘I’m in therapy because of what you fucking did to me.’” I kept nodding.
“She sank into a ball on the floor and started rocking, scream-crying, and I didn’t do a fucking thing but watch her crinkle on my kitchen floor. I hoped she would die from the awareness. I watched her like you watch road kill flop around after it’s been hit by a car.”
“Then what happened?”
Nick was now burning that hole into my eyes. He deflated again. Right in front of me he folded up, just as he had done in our first session. He wasn’t sucking his thumb, but he could have been.
“This is that spot, huh?”
“Not today, man. I can’t do this today,” he mumbled into his fist. Nick almost seemed to liquefy and leaked off the chair and toward my office door.
“Don’t push yourself, Nick.” “I gotta go.”
“Next time, man.” He slunk toward the door, head down. “Next time,” was all I said.
* * *
“When I was six, something happened,” Nick said the moment he sat down.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” “I guess we’ll see, man.”
“You probably can’t tell me everything; it’s almost certainly too much for one session. But what would you be willing to share with me?”
“I was running around, just being a kid. Making noise, freaking out, whatever. I was six, man. So, I was doing whatever the fuck six-year-olds do. I had no idea my mother was a borderline with bipolar disorder. She was intense; I knew that, but I didn’t realize how fucking crazy.
“She ran at me with scissors in her hand, grunting, being a wild woman. Crazy shit. Most of the time she didn’t even pay that much attention to me, so I thought she was playing. When I saw her coming at me I thought it was a game.”
“But it wasn’t no fucking game, man.”
DAN TOMASULO is the author of two previous titles, most recently Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir(Graywolf Press, 2008), winner of the 2009 Rebecca’s Reads Written Arts Award in Creative Nonfiction. He co-authored Healing Trauma: The Power of Group Treatment for People with Intellectual Disabilities (2005), the American Psychological Association’s first book on psychotherapy for people with intellectual disabilities, and is also the author of Action Methods In Group Psychotherapy: Practical Aspects (Taylor & Francis, 1998). His second memoir, American Snake Pit, was selected as a finalist for The Southampton Review’s 2016 Frank McCourt Memoir Prize and the screenplay has received over 20 awards at international film festivals since June 2017.
American Snake Pit is a powerful title for your memoir-but the subtitle is even more intriguing: Hope, Grit, And Resilience In The Wake Of Willowbrook. Can you tell us where it came from?
The title came from Bobby Kennedy in 1965, after he toured an unannounced visit to Willowbrook, a large institution in Staten Island, New York. He stood shaken in front of the cameras and said: “We have a situation that borders on a snake pit.” That film clip really grabbed my interest and American Snake Pit was born. But in spite of this ominous image of a “snake pit,” this is a book about hope. The tremendous courage, bravery, and hidden skills of the people I helped move into the community by way of this experimental group home is astounding. It’s what’s possible when people are given the right opportunities.
You’ve gotten some very notable writers and mental health professionals to endorse the book, Phil Zimbardo and Adam Grant among them. Reviews of the book have said they laughed and cried throughout. Can you tell us what the book is about and how it evokes this range of emotions?
In 1979, I was hired to manage an experimental group home taking the most disabled and difficult clients out of Willowbrook, which had been identified as the worst asylum in America.
There were multiple abuses going on inside the hospital and when Geraldo Rivera took his camera crew in to film the atrocities, it sparked legal action that demanded the folks in the institution be treated more humanely. Over 100 court decisions later, New York State was required to try to relocate everyone into community-based homes—even the most severely handicapped.
These experimental homes—the first of their kind—were meant to fail. They were only supposed to show that we had tried, and that nothing could be done for these folks. No one believed we could make it work, which ended up being a tremendous incentive for us. The end result was a surprising and interesting mix of humor and pathos. Many of the behaviors of patients were unique and hysterical, while others are deeply saddening and heartbreaking. We had one resident whose sense of smell was so acute that he could detect who owned which pencil just by smelling it. Another resident stripped naked in the middle of town the first time she felt rain because she’d never felt a downpour before; in all her time in an institution she had never been outside while it was raining and misinterpreted it as shower time.
What happens in the book?
Seven intellectually and psychiatrically disabled individuals with profound behavioral problems and amazing hidden talents are moved into a community group home with some not-ready-for primetime-staff, myself included. The town hates us and tries to find ways to keep us from becoming permanent residents. One of those ways is to impose a requirement that we all have to be out of the house in under two minutes during a fire drill. At the time, this seemed impossible, given our lack of staff and the disabilities of the residents.
There are some powerful twists in the story that readers will find fascinating. I can’t reveal the ending, but what I can tell you is that things worked out better than expected. Think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—but with a happy ending. What is important about these experimental group homes and what happened at Willowbrook is that mental health became a civil right in America. Today, every nursing home, prison, and residential facility must care for the mental welfare of its individuals.
Was it hard to write about these difficult experiences and also try to mix in humor?
Not really. I was a standup comic and comedy writer while I was finishing my PhD and working in the field of intellectual disabilities, so I’ve always had this back-and-forth way of looking at some of the most difficult things in life and trying to transcend them through humor.
You were a standup comic?
Yeah. But please don’t tell my mother—she still doesn’t know. I was on the circuit back when Andy Kaufman was in his heyday and Eddie Murphy was just starting out on Saturday Night Live. In fact, I have some stories about Andy Kaufman that I’ll write about one day. He used to come into the Improv with all the rest of us comics and we’d try some new material out. One night this got out of hand… but that’s a story for another time.
Who are some of your major influences as writers?
Oliver Sacks, Irvin Yalom, and David Sedaris are my heroes, but I’ve also been deeply influenced by the work of Martin Seligman. After getting my PhD I went back to school to get an MFA in creative nonfiction, because I wanted to be a crossover professional like Sacks and Yalom. In fact, I wrote my thesis was on fusing writing styles from both Yalom and Sedaris.
After my first memoir came out, Confessions Of A Former Child The Therapist Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), I went back to school for my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania. I went through a bit of a dark time and wanted to see what this new subfield in psychology was all about. After I graduated from the program, I realized how important hope was in my life. I wanted to use stories as ways to instill hope in others, so I took on the task of crafting this story as an example. From the feedback I’ve been getting, it seems like this is happening.
You’ve also written the screenplay for American Snake Pit. Can you tell us about that?
I actually wrote the screenplay first. There’s a lot of moving parts in this book and writing a screenplay helps you get the storyline exactly right. There’s no wasted energy in a screenplay. After I wrote it, I went back and finished crafting the book. Once the book was in its nearly final form, I went back and put together a much more detailed and richer script. The screenplay has now been out and about since last June and has one over 30 awards at various international screenwriting and film festivals. The most recent wins are: First Place, Genre Grand Prize for Best Historical Drama at the Las Vegas Screenwriting Contest; Third Place, Best Screenplay Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York; and a finalist for the prestigious Cannes Scriptwriting Contest for Best Historical Drama. At the end of April one of the contests will be doing a complete table read of American Snake Pit. I can’t wait to see that!
You’ve identified this memoir as creative nonfiction because you’ve had to fictionalize parts of it to hide identities and circumstances, and yet there are accurate historical passages in the book about Willowbrook. What was it like to blend fiction and nonfiction?
First, it was necessary to mask the identities and circumstances from which I learned all this material. Parts had to be fictionalized as a way to tell the story without revealing the identities of the individuals. This goes way beyond just changing names. People with such unique disabilities and talents can be identified rather easily, so I had to take great care in mixing and creating various scenes and vignettes to support the understanding of an individual’s circumstance, while also masking any identifying details. In the end, this story is similar, but certainly not identical to my own.
What is your hope for the book and screenplay?
I’m donating the proceeds of the book to YAI National Institute For People With Disabilities and the book has been set up as a fundraiser so that any human service agency that wishes to can get the book from the publisher directly and sell it as a fundraiser without paying royalties to me. My hope is to raise funds and awareness about mental health in the United States and to help people become more tolerant and kinder to each other. In the end we are all here to help one another have better lives.
Anything you would like to ask of your readers?
Does anyone know Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg?
DAN TOMASULO is the author of two previous titles, most recently Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2008), winner of the 2009 Rebecca’s Reads Written Arts Award in Creative Nonfiction. He co-authored Healing Trauma: The Power of Group Treatment for People with Intellectual Disabilities (2005), the American Psychological Association’s first book on psychotherapy for people with intellectual disabilities, and is also the author of Action Methods In Group Psychotherapy: Practical Aspects (Taylor & Francis, 1998). His second memoir, American Snake Pit, was selected as a finalist for The Southampton Review’s 2016 Frank McCourt Memoir Prize and the screenplay has received over 20 awards at international film festivals since June 2017.
My aunt died in a car accident when I was six. We buried her, a fetus in her belly. She was only 26.
I try not to hear my own biological clock ticking. I came across a chart. It was labeled, “The Age Factor.” There’s a picture of a healthy pregnant woman. Above her, the caption: “Likelihood of a woman conceiving after trying for a year.” To the right of her belly are percentages broken down by age group. My group, 40-44 is 36%, not bad, but the one after it, the one I’ll be in soon, 45-49, is only 5%.
Sunday morning, in my twenties, a baby is crying somewhere in the apartment complex. I lie in bed amazed at its fierce demand. I want not to cry. My father always said, Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about. I learned to cry softly so no one would be bothered by it, to do it with muffled sniffles and the silent roll of hot tears, not like this baby, crying with all its might. After a few hours, I wonder if I’m hearing things. Is that a baby or just my own sorrow? Finally, another neighbor yells, “Shut that fucking baby up. I’m trying to sleep.” The baby stops so suddenly I wonder if they’ve put a pillow over her face.
In my early thirties, I wrote a letter from my future self asking my current self why I didn’t give myself the very things I wanted most: after dinner, Dutch apple pie with its brown-sugar-and-butter-crumble topping, and babies with their soft skin and big, round eyes. It took me a long time to realize I wanted, first, a different birth by a different mother, a mother who never left me in the middle of the night, who wasn’t part of a lineage of women who believed how they looked was more important than who they were, and that having a man was more important than keeping a daughter.
In my late thirties, we stand in the elevator, going up to my apartment, when my girlfriend turns and gives me the news: she’s pregnant. I wait a beat then congratulate her, trying not to think of the tests run on my own body, confirming persistent cysts on my ovaries. The doctors had hoped the cysts would diminish, but instead they’ve flared up on the left side, too. The pain makes me tired. The cysts make me bleed more during my period. Blood pours out of me onto the tiled bathroom floor. I become anemic. They prescribe iron tablets, which hurt my tummy and give me ulcers, and make me bleed more internally. All this bleeding, and the menstrual blood comes out a dark crimson, like I’m corroded and rusted on the inside.
I hear my one-night stand walk down the hall to the bathroom, pop the top of the trashcan open. I knew it was buried there, away from a dumpster-diving, desperate woman who wants babies, who isn’t beyond going after what he’s left behind. Lifting the lid, squatting next to the rim of stainless steel, looking for the rubber, ribbed balloon filled with swimmers, but of course, he knew better than to leave it on top. I move tissue, most of which I discarded after fitful tears on lonely nights. Then I see a tissue laced with bright blood, not my own. Perhaps from the one-night stand who’s left, or another person passing through my apartment. I know I shouldn’t root further, but now I want to see it, the proof of it.
It happened. The sex. His climax. An act toward creation. A liquid galaxy contained in a bubble. Potential for life. Think of other women as despairing as I am. What are we capable of? What am I willing to do? I allow myself just to contemplate it, how I might lie upon my back, hoist my legs up in the air, bend my knees to improve the angle, then part myself, like a mouth ready to drink.
I know about spermicide; most condoms contain it, fumigation for the weeds, but the little guys are durable. They’ve made it under worse circumstances. So, I imagine pouring the contents inside of myself, like pouring a salve on an open wound, one might feel a burn at first—that’s the shame—before feeling solidarity, like cement poured to lay foundation, rebar holding it all together. Brazen enough to self-fertilize, let something take root. This is what I dream of as I fall asleep on the hard tile, arms wrapped around a cold can, fingers gripped tight, I might never wake up, never let go.
In the dream, you tell me my baby is dead. You tell me, this can happen sometimes. All I do is howl. I realize I am howling aloud, and as I wake, tears stream down the side of my face seep into my earlobe.
My boyfriend shifts in bed, and I realize my crying is disturbing his sleep. I roll over, try to cry quietly, inadvertently fall back into the same dream, except now I am wearing a cream-colored silk nightgown that visibly shows my prominent belly. And I realize, you are my doctor, standing before me, repeating as if I hadn’t heard the first time, “Your baby is dead.” The words echo inside my body.
I clasp my hands around my belly. I feel no movement, although I am sure you are wrong.
“We will schedule the delivery,” you say.
I look up, hopeful, but you’re upset. “Haven’t you been paying attention? Your baby is dead.”
I begin to cry again. But this time I sit up, fully awake in bed, and feel my belly, which is flat from a lack of pregnancy.
The room is warm. I get up and go into the bathroom to breathe cool, fresh air, to get the blood circulating in my body, to avoid falling back into that horrible dream where you are surely waiting to break the news to me, again.
In the morning, as my boyfriend and I eat breakfast, I stare down into his bowl of porridge covered with melting cinnamon. The hemorrhage-colored mixture makes me think of a girlfriend in college. She got pregnant and was going to have an abortion, except she had a miscarriage before the procedure could be done. She took me by the hand and pulled me into the girl’s bathroom stall to show me the bloody clump in the toilet. I stared down, trying to make out fingers and toes. After I bore witness, she flushed.
My boyfriend stirs his porridge and asks me if I had a nightmare last night. I nod, but he does not ask what it was about, and I do not volunteer the information. It’s a private matter. Although I badly want to confess—I lost our baby.
Of course, it was just a dream.
He knows I want a baby, in a general sense, but for some reason I don’t want to tell him the dream because then he’ll see me for what I am: a 41-year-old woman worried she’s running out of time, worried she’ll run out of eggs. I cannot admit this to him as we’ve just moved in together. Unpacked boxes crowd our narrow hallway. We are so quiet with one another, but my belly growls loudly. We do not talk about my dreams. Instead, we pass each other milk and sugar for coffee. We talk about the weather; the forecast calls for some much-needed rain.
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