poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

February 28, 2014

Les Misanthropes Take Manhattan

“I came in like a wrecking ball…” I was slumped in the backseat with my luggage, singing along to the faint emissions of the radio as the cab climbed the Queensboro Bridge out of Manhattan en route to La Guardia. I fantasized of a million wrecking balls destroying the city behind me so I would never be able to return. Not even in my memories. I fought back tears and tried to distract myself with the changing scenery. It was late in the evening when we escaped the steel behemoth sliced through with blazing sun, crossed the East River and descended into street level shade. Queens was gritty and gaudy and pulsing with life. While I was ready to be leaving New York, I was struck with regret that only on my journey home was I privy to a glimpse into its unpolished soul. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” He meant driving into Manhattan of course. Leaving it was another thing entirely, especially if one were fleeing a claustrophobic hotel room all wrong-headed on pricey cocktails and danger. “You, you wre-eh-eck me.”

It could have been the Triborough Bridge.

I grew up in a small Midwestern town living vicariously through 1970′s & 80’s children’s books set in New York City. Books about school kids who take buses and subways by themselves or who spend nights in museums. But each time I visit I am always a bit sad that it does not inspire in me a marvelous reverie. The New York City of my reality has never lived up to the New York City of my imagination, of my expectations. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies is the problem. Mind you, I don’t dislike New York. Quite the opposite. It feels too comfortable to provoke exhilaration. Too familiar to be disorienting. Too everything to be anything terribly unique. Possibly something in me is broken. Perhaps it is perfectly logical, my disappointment. I accept without debate that this city is the penultimate specimen of human existence, a microcosm of our “condition,” that the entire rest of the world could break off and fall into space forever and still anyone could get a pretty accurate understanding of Homo sapiens from New York City. Certainly my ambivalence is justified. The working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia.

***

We sat in Central Park atop a stone bench with a frozen pond to our backs, watching people watch tumblers and buskers and each other. Someone under a bridge was singing an aria, a homeless woman or a ghost, I wasn’t sure. I told him I wasn’t sure why I was here. In New York. I suggested he was fundamentally unhappy, impossible to satisfy. He spoke of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, of the cheerful optimist who accepts life as it is and of the misanthrope who believes things could be better. That, in fact, the unhappy man is an idealist, whereas the happy man is a cynic. There we were, a couple of misanthropes out for an afternoon of recreational people watching. The story of Molière’s protagonist made me feel better about being sad in New York, but I still didn’t know why I was there. We got up, and he gathered a snowball. I panicked and implored him not to. But rather than hurling it at me, he turned around and threw it into the pond with a splash. “Thin ice,” he confirmed, smiling widely, eyes too aglitter. I surveyed the hole in the pond. It really was.

Before I got into the town car for the airport I left a letter at the front desk of the hotel. It was a town car, not a cab. The doorman had put me in a town car. It was a love letter signed, “I still hate you.” It was just a regular letter and not a love letter, no more than the Triborough is the Queensboro or a town car is a cab. Different details, same obligatory journey to an inevitable destination. In it I let him know that I had been able to get the Guggenheim tickets and apologized for all the crying.

They began at the Modern restaurant at MoMA, the tears. Delayed flights, no sleep and a lack of hot water at our charming vintage hotel would have in reality been enough to make me cry. I’d held back stoically. After finishing the better part of lunch and a build-your-own G&T, I excused myself to use the gender neutral washroom. I was delighted by the concept, glad we can all agree gender is a construct – why make life more complicated than necessary? Moments later it became obvious no amount of enlightened thinking could to transform the blood on the tissue into an outdated opinion. It’s a good thing I pack my purse for the apocalypse; slim chance the fellow in the next stall would have been of much help. I haven’t had a period in a year and now I get one in a gender neutral bathroom. In New York. On holiday. With him. Him who is a him and me a her, nothing neutral about it. The nefarious heterosexual agenda blocked in the court of biology. I returned to the table and wept. I apologized. “Crying is beautiful,” he said comfortingly. So I continued to cry. The room had emptied of the lunch crowd, and the waitstaff looked on brazenly, even smiling when I caught their eyes, as if they were watching a performance, a scene in a foreign film: a married man, a foreigner, buys an unmarried American woman a $200 lunch, and she sobs. She sobs so much she puts on her sunglasses before leaving. No one knows all the reasons she is sobbing. Secretly she is worried she may not have picked the correct combination of bitters and tonic and is perhaps crying about that too.

After lunch I asked him if he were Catholic. There had been a discussion of morality (of course, but also of the aesthetic immorality of flat lighting.) “No. My family is, but I’ve not even been baptized,” he confided. I was genuinely stunned. Up to this point, I’d lived my whole life convinced I was the only actually existing non-Catholic Catholic who had not been baptized. “Well,” I said, exquisitely relieved, “I guess we’re going to spend eternity together in hell anyway then…” and smiled. We looked at tacky souvenirs being hawked along the streets and wandered toward the park, where a large protest against Venezuela was occurring. I didn’t know why they were protesting. They seemed happy.

The tears late that night were worse, angry tears. He’d accused me of being indecisive so I made a decision then and there to leave for a drink. The hotel room and the hotel itself, while appropriately intimate, lacked space enough for the both of us and our confusion and frustration, which it seemed at the time the whole of Manhattan could not contain. Rather than arguing about what we were really arguing about (about what? about “it” was all he could get out) we argued over the thermostat. I was too cold, he was too hot, I wanted to turn up the heat, he kept getting up and turning it off, he was going on about the laws of physics and I about roasting chickens. The temperature in the room had nothing more to do with the thermostat than thin ice had to do with the pond.

I’d inexplicably developed an obsession with Grand Central Terminal during my hours in the city. Movies portray it as intimidating, dangerous, chaotic. A narrative device that swallows up innocent tourists and allows hunted criminals to escape scot-free. A place where people and things disappear in the blink of an eye. I felt a perverse sense of security here. Sometimes in the middle of the night, while my jet-lagged companion slept, I would go out for a cigarette and be drawn down Vanderbilt Avenue like sailor to a siren. Maybe it was the possibility of escape it offered. Maybe it was the constellations on the ceiling, assuming I knew where I was going, happy to guide me there. Maybe it was its sheer size, allowing me to take deep breaths. Maybe it was just the word, “Terminal.” Even now, back in Chicago, I cannot shake the urge to wander down to Vanderbilt Avenue each time I step out for a cigarette. And I can’t. And it’s killing me. … So when I threw on my coat, having firmly decided to flee the climate crisis in room 1067, he followed me to Grand Central Terminal.

Inside the Campbell Apartment, a dark wood paneled bar with thick velvet couches nestled under the station, I cried again. It doesn’t matter why. It is the oldest story in the book. I accused him of using me between thick gulps of a $20 Delmonico which he was paying for. I know, and this knowledge made me cry too. Neither of us, sitting at a little table in a dark corner, were saints. I cried because I wanted to be angels, because we were after all. I cried because I still didn’t know why I was in New York. I cried because the ice was too thin and the room too cold. I cried because around us trains were departing in all directions while we were stuck on a Houellebecqian platform loaded down with our idealist baggage and non-Catholic Catholic guilt, unable to agree upon a shared destination. Most likely it was just PMS, the tears.

We left the bar and went in search of pizza. For a moment I was truly happy, New York happy, thinking a $20 cocktail and a 99 cent slice of pizza was the absolute perfect meal, and absolutely most perfect in New York. For a moment I felt dizzy with the city, the ink black night and orange grease-stained plates and eerie fog rising from manhole covers and gin-induced glamour.

Back at the hotel, with the lights off, I still wept. He got up to use the bathroom. It was locked. We were locked out of our own bathroom. I sat up laughing in bed while a workman with enough keys on his belt to open every room in Manhattan liberated us. We went back to bed. I asked him to tell me a story, but he had no stories. I assured myself that once I left New York I could crawl out of all these metaphors and see the situation for what it really was and drifted off to sleep.

***

I didn’t cry at all the following day after he left for a meeting with clients. May as well live, said the lady in a neighboring hotel. According to Truman Capote, nothing very bad could happen to a person at Tiffany’s, so I began my morning there, wandering aimlessly through rooms of diamonds and pearls and china and Art Deco sumptuousness. I glanced at the men sitting at what looked like bank managers’ desks, consulting with salespeople about engagement rings. They all looked a bit mortified. They’d decided to become saints and were looking like they too could use a $20 cocktail. I felt sad for them. One day they were going to be in a strange city with a strange woman who would cry and ruin all their fun, no matter which rings they eventually decided upon after laborious consultation. But the creamy vertical displays of delicate necklaces and earrings were divine. And the woman at a counter who answered the clerk’s inquiry, “Special occasion? In need of replacement?” with, “No, no. It’s just time for a new ring.” She was divine. It was true, nothing bad could happen to a person in here. Not even to a Communist. “You aren’t American,” he’d joked the first night, “You are a Communist.” It was funny because he was a French Capitalist.

I took a cab, a real one, to the Guggenheim to see the Italian Futurist exhibit. He’d procured tickets from a client’s wife who worked there, but he was now unable to go, so I went alone. I was sorry he missed it. He was naturally prone to boyish exhilaration brought on by feats of modern engineering and aerial views of a metropolis. The previous day we’d gone to the top of the Empire State Building, where he lingered over exhibits detailing its construction and celebrating the financiers who made it all possible, perhaps feeling a place in their legacy. He financed spectacular constructions himself. I paused before the photographs of wide-armed workmen and impossible amounts of steel. “It looks like Stalinist propaganda, no?” I said and strode off in search of King Kong. Outside, I made him point out the Brooklyn Bridge to me and took his photo with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The French and their Liberté… Such a romantic notion, so much suffering in its pursuit. He worried that I was not impressed as we surveyed the city below. Surely he could forgive a girl from Chicago for failing to find novelty in tall buildings. I watched ant-sized ice-skaters while he read the names off corporate headquarters as if crafting an ode to the free-market.

Point 1. of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto: “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.” The Futurists, like all artistic movements co-opted by brutish politicians, get a bad rap. But I found the ethos appealing as an antidote to the prevailing Zeitgeist, to our culture of Xanax and Internet voyeurism and flat lighting and entire lives synced to smartphones. We live in fear of the unplanned and of emotions. I envied these artists who not only believed things could be better but were enraptured rather than depressed by the fact. It all felt so impossible, here in the future.

There was an entire room of the exhibit devoted to a Diaghilev ballet starring no performers which boasted a stunning dress rehearsal but never opened due to a labor dispute. Is that not the best story you’ve ever heard? I’d recently seen a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, which caused a bona fide riot at the Paris Opera House when it premiered. I felt a new kinship with Diaghilev, so eager to sink time and energy into futile passions. Perhaps after my death an entire room at the Guggenheim will be devoted to my doomed affairs which, in retrospect, were beautiful and radical ideas thwarted only by the tyranny of others’ quaint expectations.

I returned to Midtown. It was a sunny robin’s egg blue afternoon. School children lined up outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pale stone buildings of the Upper East Side with all the same green awnings had an anxiolytic effect, much appreciated in spite of myself. I bought some hazelnut bread and kefir at a market where the woman on line in front of me, aged, in fur and too-large sunglasses indoors bought $50 worth of tulips, and this made me happy even though I am a Communist. I walked on, past the circus of feathered pony carriages amassed outside the Plaza Hotel and the Bergdorf’s where I once used the restrooms to change into opera attire after a day of sightseeing (La Bohème at the Met, I cried, like in the movie,) and down to the New York Public Library.

The women’s restroom on the upper floor of the New York Public Library was the first and only glimpse I got into the heart of New York’s dog-eat-dog world of ambitious dreamers. It was like being backstage at a Miss Universe Pageant but for modern day Sylvia Plaths. Someone should really devote a think piece to it. I’ve never seen so many intelligent young women try so hard to appear as if they’re not trying so hard in my life, and I lived a year in a woman’s dorm at Northwestern. I felt miscast in my motorcycle boots and beret and metallic black eye-shadow. Where was I, Amherst or Manhattan? In what universe does a Midwest girl go to NYC and feel like too much of a badass? I wanted to climb atop the counter and make a speech: “Ladies! (nothing too gender neutral happening in here) You are all divine gardens, go cultivate yourselves!” … In the glorious Rose Reading Room I read Shklovsky’s A Hunt for Optimism and composed the letter. I wasn’t crying, but when I glanced up, I found the woman seated next to me at the mile long wooden table staring at me, brazenly. She didn’t pretend not to be and smiled when I met her eyes. I smiled back, unsure of what all this smiling was about.

Back at the hotel, I had an appropriately priced drink, gathered my luggage and left the letter at the hotel desk. I smoked one last cigarette, one last excuse to stroll down to Grand Central, before informing the hotel doorman of my destination. He could call a cab or put me in a town car for $40. I had $60 for cab fare, so I took the town car. Before ascending the bridge out of Manhattan, we passed a diner called “Moonstruck.” It seemed like something I’d make up in a fit of third rate poetic license, but it was real. And then that fucking song came on the radio. “Don’t you ever say I just walked away…” New York, you have to be kidding. The view of the city disappeared behind me while the entire weight of it settled into my heart. I’d left the letter at the hotel addressed to him, to be delivered upon his return, thankful for the Guggenheim tickets, apologetic for the tears, some Hollywood movie line about him making it impossible for me to hate him and I really hated him, some Italian Futurist nonsense about singing the love of danger. But it occurred to me it could just as easily have been a letter written to New York.

It could have been signed, “Love.”

February 5, 2014

Is Annie Hall Damaged Goods? An incest survivor/cinephile’s perspective on l’affaire Woody Allen.

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One room in the basement of the Midwest ranch house where I grew up had been converted into a den. The décor incontrovertibly child molester chic: cheap paneled walls, beige shag carpet, fold-out couch, mounted deer head and the second TV in our home, the one with a VCR. The surrounding rooms, laundry, storage and workshop remained unfinished, lending the den a creepy, soundstage artifice. This was the room where my father would take me to screen pornographic tapes and pleasure him. It was also the room where I, alone and of my own volition, watched my first Woody Allen film and decided I wanted to make movies. Apparently this was a profitable profession for awkward intellectual types. Not all of my innocence had been destroyed in that room.

I was preparing to go to college and deciding upon a major. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than get the hell out of Dodge. I chose film and Russian, not with any serious career strategy in mind but because these were my interests when I was 16. I wanted to go to NYU, but my mother said it was too far away. I landed at Northwestern. My dream of becoming a filmmaker waned after spending lots of time around other people with the same, no, with the genuine ambition. I enrolled in all the film theory and history classes instead and carved out a niche in which I wrote obsessively about cinema, propaganda and the molding of identity. My interest in Russia metastasized. And my admiration for Woody Allen slowly grew into something precious and reliable, like elderly friends exchanging correspondence across continents, or that corner bar in your old neighborhood. Whatever emotional or financial, familial or romantic storms blew into my life, Woody Allen would still be churning out new movies, I’d still be going to the theater to see them and leaving feeling just as dizzy and gorgeous as the first time I saw Annie Hall.

I only became aware of Allen’s lascivious interest in minors after discovering his work. Even then, most of the press, which, as an 18 year old, I was hardly absorbing ravenously, focused on an adopted daughter of consenting age. (Was it? Was I guarded from the more upsetting accusations by a parent’s click of the remote? Did I simply do a successful job of ignoring or mentally suppressing the allegations of child abuse? I’m told people like me are good at that type of thing, forgetting stuff no normal person should forget.) Regarding Allen’s daughter-bride, one felt self-consciously Puritan for objecting too very loudly, yet too viscerally disturbed to say nothing at all. But celebrities do outrageous things every day, and paying too close attention to the fact has always left me feeling petty and small. It was the 90’s. Clinton was President, and I just wanted people to do their jobs and keep their sexual indiscretions a bit more discreet. I’d yet to tell anyone of my father’s. I’m not sure I’d honestly told myself. I reasoned that if no one knew about it, it didn’t really happen. It only existed in my memory, like the flick flick flick of a movie reel at a screening for one. Not part of objective reality, out there, in the world. I had by this time stopped conceiving of my father as an actually existing human being but as something more akin to a monster under the bed, or in it, as it were. Again, not real. Memories can’t hurt you. Just like dreams. Or movies.

Years passed. Memories ended up hurting. A lot. People were told, families fell apart, threats were made, restraining orders were required, psych wards were slept in and, worst of all, my own private nightmare became part of objective reality. But upon unburdening my soul, present life too became real. Crazy romances were had and nervous breakdowns. Travels abroad, lobster boils, midnight phone calls to boys to come kill the spider in my apartment, infinite earnest conversations about literature or movies that sometimes ended in someone storming out of a restaurant, analysts’ couches, therapists’ sofas, movings-in and breakings-up, wet city streets and foggy streetlights and stolen kisses and cabs and jazz and I don’t think any murders but yes a lot of vodka. I never consciously aspired to be a character in a Woody Allen film (ok, save for the few months after the first time I saw Annie Hall.) But I took intimate pleasure in those moments when I could have been. With my track record, I preferred him directing than the God of my youth. Moreover, because he kept making movies, and I kept seeing them, I continued to be treated to a deeply longed for feeling of being understood, known. He kept up with my life like an inquisitive aunt, the external and interior: Europe, check. Crazy painter affair, check. Wanting so madly to live in 20’s Paris, check. Losing all of my financial stability, having complete breakdown and drinking Stoli like water, check. Uncanny.

The actresses, we’ve heard them swoon over his roles for women. I walked out of Blue Jasmine, after having lost everything of my own, dumbstruck. Hollywood – which one must admit, it’s a funny thing we are putting Allen in this category, “Hollywood,” it’s off, no? – it produces almost singularly fucking idiotic roles for women. One dimensional: The Smart One, The Pretty One, The Crazy One, The Innocent One, The Nurturing One, the Dangerous One, The Heroine, The Evil Bitch. Woody Allen can write all these parts into one character and with fascination where others would resort to easy judgment. The fact that any filmmaker would write women as multi-dimensional beings gave me joy. The fact that he’s great at moral ambiguity may or may not be worth celebrating. Amid my own suffering his movies provided a reprieve, an escape and, most importantly, moments of feeling my that own fucked up yet vaguely eventful life was connected to the human condition, somehow universal enough to end up in a major motion picture. And not as a warning or lesson or some bullshit cultural propaganda about how a girl should be. Dignity, if you will. Validation. Solidarity with these other messy women he seemed to love, or at least let be themselves in all their glorious messiness. And if they could be loved… In not the least of ironies, watching his make-believe characters made me feel more real and human than much of my actual experience of reality. I will here unabashedly assert that this is one of the key functions of art.

I’ve no interest in selling the world on the merits of Woody Allen’s films. People love them or hate them or have no opinion one way or the other, and what should it be to me any more than if you love or hate Picasso or Fitzgerald or have no opinion one way or the other? God forbid I were judged solely on my media consumption habits. More than no accounting for taste (there is some actually,) there’s no controlling what resonates with us and what does not. A swoon gives fuck all about metrics. Yet in the criticism I have seen of his better films, the chief complaint is aimed at their subject matter rather than technical skills like direction, mise-en-scene, writing, lighting, pace and whatnot. Self-absorbed privileged people who just talk talk talk about their self-absorbed privileged lives. It’s an over-simplification, one I may have used myself in a dig against a Chekhov play, but admittedly a genre not for everyone.

Unless you actually are trapped in a provincial hell! Woody Allen invited me into a world where people talked openly about their depression, made references to Russian literature and debated the pronunciation of artists for sport, where people took long walks home framed by the towering cityscape, with Gershwin or some melancholy jazz playing in the background. An antidote to my rustbelt “chic” and small town “charm” existence romanticised by urban intellectuals who would run screaming from the street I grew up on. In real life, my life, people never talked about anything they were feeling, made references to TV commercials and debated local sports players. There were not even any sidewalks for walking home down. And if you said “jazz” you seriously had to clarify “not Kenny G.” Not that any of these things are empirically worthy of scorn. But feeling like the weird one all of the time, having maybe one other human being around with whom you share multiple interests, it gets old and lonely. We didn’t have the internet in the 80’s. So where others have seen Allen’s films as homages to annoying rich white people, I saw them as portals to parallel universes where humans were unabashedly cerebral and couldn’t drive and were totally open about their emotional failures. Even their moral repugnance was refreshing, as most of it was safely in the milieu of messy relationships and often worn on their sleeves. Characters in Woody Allen films are defined more by the sources of their shame or unhappiness than by their careers. In my town, everyone was a stoic and a saint and you just had to guess how many bodies were buried in the woods behind their houses. There are people like that in Allen’s films too, and he does a nice job of capturing the suffocating hell of being trapped in a room with them. Those panic attacks, formulaic but palpable. His shticky lack of joie de vivre allowing him to inquire again and again of his characters, “Why do you even go on living? How can you even go on living?” I can’t think of a more poignant question. Their answers are often tragic or comic. They’re rarely inspiring, and sometimes cringe-worthy. But Allen, like Chekhov, is an ethologist not a spiritual leader. He has the questions, not the answers. Moreover, he’s a filmmaker and a writer. It’s fantasy. Storytelling. His movies have no moral or aesthetic obligation to be about anything other than what they aim to be about. Film School 101, guys.

I read Dylan Farrow’s essay in the New York Times recounting her abuse by Woody Allen. I believe her, if people are keeping score. I could not live with myself if for moment I thought I may be perpetuating the culture of responding to people who confess to abuse –and it feels like a confession- as if the victims were the abhorrent and dangerous ones, the sociopaths. I am too familiar with the off-handed remarks about “moral panic” and the systematic discrediting that goes on in almost every instance of incest survivors talking about their own lives. Even among friends and family who do believe you there is often an unmistakable “let sleeping dogs lie” policy. Even in the mental health support services outside organizations specifically for victims attitudes still range from, “we’re not here to debate if it did or did not happen but to talk about your current issues,” to “client is seeking attention, has victim mentality, ‘claims’ own father sexually abused her as a young child.” I would not be shocked if a significant number of practitioners and lay people in 2014 harbor the Victorian belief that claims of childhood sexual abuse are projections of subconscious fantasy gotten all confused up in a weak child’s mind. It seems we are willing to believe anything, however bizarre or damaging, EXCEPT that grown men violate women and children. In fact, I would argue that the systematic profiling of women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse (or rape, etc.) as lying/manipulative/deranged is potentially as damaging as the abuse itself. I don’t think anyone who has enjoyed a Woody Allen film is implicated in the abuse Farrow describes. I do feel that everyone asserting that she is lying/manipulative/deranged is implicated. This is exactly what perpetrators bank on. This is exactly why people do not come forward. This is exactly how institutional discrimination functions. Neither you nor I nor any journalist nor Woody Allen himself can attest better to Dylan Farrow’s life experiences than Dylan Farrow herself. Period.

Is it irresponsible of me to accept her word on the chance she could be making it all up, considering the damage it could do to his reputation? If you would err on the side of protecting a grown man’s feelings or career over a young child’s welfare, I am afraid to even ask why. Do I think the court of public opinion is the place to decide these verdicts? No. Unfortunately, neither is our criminal justice system. Innocent until proven guilty is great for crimes that can actually be proven in a society that actually wants to protect victims. Besides, it is not simply a legal issue. No jail sentence can change the fact that Farrow cannot escape the image and legacy of the person who triggers in her such fear, hurt and grief. My father is not a celebrity, and I still must be vigilant and police my life in a way that makes me feel safe and protected from his presence. I cannot even imagine never being able to escape it.

But Woody Allen is not my father. And I am left with the eternal question: Can one separate the art from the artist? Certainly there is some percentage of the time a direct relationship between moral corruption and artistic creation. Exploring unspeakable acts or desires provides one with a rare insight into existence and meaning, and probably some violent need to purge the soul, maybe through the act of creation. The willingness to explore the deeper corners of the psyche may require suspension of morality to reach them. The creative mind, churning out fantasy after fantasy may lose the knack for discerning reality, or maybe never cared for it much to start with. The twin drives of destruction and creation. However, I don’t think delinquency is required of an artist or storyteller, nor do I think creating art absolves one of sin. What I do find incredulous is the idea that one can be a great artist in spite of one’s moral failings, any more than one can be a great lover in spite of being a tax cheat, or that I can be myself in spite of myself. I’m also perplexed by the idea that an artistic creation can catch moral cooties from its creator, that it cannot be judged on its own merits. Neither of these assertions, both bandied about in public conversation, strike me as having much substance. I truly fail to see why we cannot acknowledge that creative genius and human cruelty can co-exist in the same soul, why we cannot accept that a creation has value beyond that of its creator (and this is film, what of the hundreds if not thousands of other people who worked on his films?!) but does not provide a free pass. People are not all good or bad, but combinations of degrees of both. In Allen’s case, they happen to be very extreme degrees, in my judgment. Some will say his films are crap, which is fine, so long as something besides the fact that he’s a creep informs this opinion.

If this were a scene in a movie, I’d be lying on a couch being informed by an analyst that my continued love of Woody Allen films despite my belief that he molested his daughter can be explained by my “daddy issues” – a term that makes me want to crawl out of my skin because it suggests I am still a child and the main effect of sexual violence against children is kink. I would be told that I want to love my father but cannot so I project it on to Allen, who reminds me of my father because he digs the kids. Close but no cigar, Dr. Freud. Indeed, my ambivalence about Allen comes easily because of my own experience with my father: I have already learned to live with evil even in the spaces where it should not be, physically or psychologically, and still find rare moments of happiness and meaning in those spaces. Or, not having mastered the ability, I have had gobs of practice. I’ve never been afforded the expectation that life fit comfortably into any preordained narrative. That only happens in the movies, you know… Besides, if I did have daddy issues they would more likely be projected onto some sexy alpha badass like Vladimir Putin or James Spader, not a little basket case. Enough about that.

I am, in addition to being a survivor of incest, less exceptional in my love of film and art and great storytelling. And I can’t avoid the question which must haunt many of Allen’s devotees: What if? What if we lived in a truly just society and upon the first inkling that he may be mistreating children he were investigated and put behind bars forever? Some would even advocate the death penalty for those who rape young children. Surely no such person should avoid severe punishment. And who even knows when and with whom his behavior began. Do such desires suddenly pop up midlife? Unlikely. Would it be worth it for the children if it meant no Woody Allen movies? Can we weigh one’s contribution to society against one’s crimes against humanity? Would you personally be willing to take responsibility for there being no Woody Allen oeuvre, or, insert the writer, painter, inspiration of your choice here, the one that made you get an MFA or got you through that breakup or whose painting hung in the bedroom at your grandmother’s, if it meant preventing or stopping the harm done to a few children, with the only evidence of such harm being the victim’s word? “Yes,” you say. “YES!  YESS!!  Children over art!” you declare. “THINK OF THE CHILDREN.”

Everyone’s all about the children in public discourse. The actual reality for many children would suggest we do a lot more thinking of the children than working to ensure the safety of the children. Forgive me if I am cynical about your professed idealism. Forgive me if I feel like you are shouting a bit too loudly. Forgive me if I wonder what you are going to do with that outrage besides create a public record of your stance against child abuse. Forgive me if I expect a bit of nuance in our public debates. I myself am against child abuse, if I am going on the record because we’ve turned a teachable moment into an Inquisition. I thought that was a given, along with murdering innocent old people. No one is going on record in support of it. Lower your voice; you are making me uncomfortable.

I’m also familiar with the power of art to heal. Theo Decker did not carry that damn painting around his whole life simply because it was a convenient plot device. (I just finished The Goldfinch, and you’re going to keep hearing about it from me for another ten months minimum.) I’ve always felt safest, most innocent and most decent in an art museum. Many of my fondest memories of my mother, who passed away when I was 25, are of days I’d skip class to have a day in the city with her at the St. Louis Art Museum. (Aside: her name was Rosemary, and when goofing around I would taunt her, “Look at my eyes! They’re not normal!” An added layer of kinship with Dylan Farrow.) She had been an art teacher before I was born, had done the whole living in Florence studying frescoes bit, and surrounded her children with art, art history books and all of the art supplies we ever asked for. I was far more interested literature, but literature was what I buried myself in with the door closed after my father got home from work. After school, with my mother, I’d be sprawled out on the living room floor pouring through glossy encyclopedic tomes on Michelangelo and DaVinci or paining kabuki faces on the backs of paper plates. It is perhaps no coincidence that I associate art with my mother and those late afternoon hours of peace before my father’s car rolled into the drive. To this day I use the Art Institute of Chicago as personal refuge, asylum.

I imagine walking in one day to find the walls bare and galleries emptied because of the sins of the men behind the work. I doubt most of them were saints. Hell, I doubt most of the saints were saints. And who would get to decide what sins counted? Sexually abusing a young child, we can all, most of us, a majority I think, agree that would be a bannable offense. (What about paintings commissioned by the Church – what level of moral corruption do they expose us to, implicate us in?) Being an advocate of genocide, we should definitely not be entertaining the works of those assholes. Rape? I am not sure the idea of women being allowed to consent to sex even existed when maybe 90% of the paintings in your average great museum were completed. And if we get into the sin of being intoxicated with anything but the Holy Spirit, bam, no gods left in my church. Yes. In our game of historical revisionism, I would have Allen locked up too. Because think of the children, but protect them too for crying out loud! But I am not going to pretend this is a case which presents no ethical dilemmas or provokes no soul searching. I’m not going to pretend it is not messy. It’s Woody Allen. He wouldn’t give us a scandal if it weren’t dripping with messiness, loads of guilt and some tedious debate about art.

Perhaps we opt for the simplistic solutions, public condemnation of his entire legacy or smug dismissiveness of the whole matter, in order to avoid guilt by association. Of course we do. The only insight worth adding to that is actually a very very very fucking important insight: If you feel guilt by association from simply watching a film or thinking about someone you admire doing something unconscionable, pause for a moment to imagine the guilt felt by victims. Observe the intense and irrational power shame and horror and denial and grief have over even the average bystander when we speak of childhood sexual abuse. And realize this is an inkling of what an actual survivor experiences. And know that it doesn’t go away with the next news cycle.

Secretly I worry the vocal support for Daryl Farrow is only from people who never liked Woody Allen’s movies anyway, myself excluded, and his being publicly outed as a child predator makes them feel vindicated in their filmgoing habits. This incessant scouring of magazine archives for poor reviews – as if making a slew of crappy films were more damning than abusing a child in his care, the real nail in the coffin of his reputation. What are you even doing? You read the New York Review of Books – you don’t even own a pitchfork. It doesn’t work that way anyway, you know. I’m aware of no law of nature that states talent and corruption are mutually exclusive. Mind you, it does not work the other way either. Believing Allen to be a man of great skill and worthy of a lifetime achievement award does not necessitate your disbelief of Dylan Farrow’s accusation. And if you were as righteous as you seek to appear, you would know a person’s account of childhood sexual abuse is absolutely not ever an invitation to gloat, regardless whose side you take. As if there were clear sides, as if we were discussing a football match. Secretly I panic we will give Woody Allen a proper show trial, make an example of him and wash our hands of it, go about pretending incest and all of its psychological, emotional and social repercussions do not exist. Secretly, like many, I don’t even want to believe her. I don’t. And the truth is, I don’t want to believe it happened to me. Who among us would want to believe it happens ever, at all? And I want the outrage to be aimed at my father who doesn’t even make brilliant films but works for a large oil company killing the planet. And I want to believe people are good and children are safe and art is sacred and my joy isn’t tainted. And I want her to walk up to him one day and gun him down in cold blood so we can live vicariously through her instead of Annie Hall. Don’t do that Dylan.

Short of advocating heinous crimes, I support Farrow doing what she needs to do, for justice, closure, education, healing, sanity, all of it. If that means writing an Op-Ed or asking no award be given, fine. I don’t know what withholding an award from a man who isn’t into awards or shaming actresses just doing their jobs will accomplish, but I do sincerely hope this can be an opportunity for awareness-raising, not just about one celebrity’s sins, but about the effects of abuse and the systemic hurdles facing those who survive it and who wish to come forward. I don’t have high hopes, but I’m giving everyone a solid chance to prove me wrong.

I’m going to continue doing what I need to do. And sometimes that will involve burying myself luxuriously in a Woody Allen movie. I know, my solidarity skills with real life humans need some work. Survival has made me a lone wolf. Survival has also made me fierce about holding onto the good memories, savouring the delicious bits and taking sanity where I can get it. I’ve lost so much, if parting with my soul-mates Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris is optional, I must decline. I won’t forgive Woody Allen – I’m with Ivan Karamazov on this one, no one gets to do that on the victim’s behalf. And it is not my place to say what his penance should be – I’ve no interest in saving his soul. But I will still watch his films. And I will still love them, perhaps even more than before. Perhaps I’ll open a foster care for all the orphaned Manhattans and Match Points no one wants because they came from a bad home, shit parent and they’ve only become more dysfunctional and toxic over time, and we’ll have weekly support groups, and when I am 60 Vice will write about the crazy incest survivor who built a shrine to Woody Allen films in her studio apartment.

How can I even watch them? By employing the suspension of disbelief required of any audience from any filmmaker, which is really not unlike that required of a young girl instructed to lie/lay down by her father for something that will become their little secret. We all know how to do this instinctively, how pull focus when our needs and desires lie beyond the gut-wrenching reality in the foreground of our lives.

How can I still love them? This is a far less easy question to answer, and I have been working at my entire life. I have to love myself, and my father created me. If Annie Hall is damaged goods, why should I even go on living? How can I even go on living? Probably by self-medicating with a cocktail of therapy sessions, Russian novels, the entire jazz catalogue my friend downloaded for me before moving away, writing something completely self-absorbed as a purgative, and hopefully making someone laugh now and then. Go to a boring party. Fall in love. Maybe catch a movie. Typical stuff a person may do to distract from the sheer horror of existence. Less than inspiring? Cringe-worthy? Not for everyone?

And I’ll continue telling my story and drawing attention to the array of injustices facing survivors of incest long after you’ve finished reading this and judging me for loving Woody Allen movies.

That is my why. That is my how.

March 16, 2012

Fragments, or, An exercise in unbridled narcissism.

Filed under: Uncategorized — poemless @ 4:19 PM

A Day At The Museum

With shuffling stomping out-of-shape masses who have a plan and a map and anxiety at the realization or just fear of the group metastasising, of losing their 6 year old daughter to the imaginary pervert probably lurking behind the Seurat probably scheming to take their 6 year old daughter to buy her ice cream (guilt that they haven’t) and play with her forever (guilt that they can’t.) With pretty forever-teenage Asian girls in skinny jeans posing on staircases giggling as if possessed by teletubbies. With a student painting a painting of a painting which is a fascinating process to watch, sure, but is it art? With Miro’s Circus Horse and Lefebvre’s Odalisque and whole rooms of Monets in nursery pastels that wash over my troubled soul like heroin or evening lilacs. With myself swearing an oath that I will never again visit the art museum with an artist and will never again feel bad about loving what I love because another ego demands it. With the desire to skip and twirl through the Modern Wing flooded with irrational winter sunlight and summer warmth to say aloud, “This is ours! This is all ours, don’t you see?” With two college kids pleading bewilderedly obliviously with an entry guard who has informed them they may not bring the pizza they’ve just ordered into the museum.

Idea

A personal General Strike.

A Kafkaesque Bureaucracy of Concern

You have to stay safe. You have to get better. You have to do the work to get better. You have to go to work. You can’t go to work. You can’t afford not to work. You can’t afford to worry about that now. Why aren’t you worried what will happen? I am so worried about you. You have us all worried. You worry too much, You have to find something that makes you happy. No one can make you happy. Happiness is choice. You are responsible for your own happiness. You are responsible for your own welfare. You are responsible for your own life. If I think you’ll hurt yourself it is my responsibility to have you hospitalized. These are your options. You have options. You don’t have a choice. You can’t do that. There is no such thing as can’t. You have to make your own decisions. No one can do this for you. Why do you think you have to do this on your own? Why are you so afraid to ask for help? Why are you doing this to us? Why do you think you are special? Do you think the rest of us don’t suffer? Everyone gets depressed but we get up and go to work because we don’t have a choice. You’ve made a choice to be depressed. You are not depressed, you are [lazy, self-pitying, irresponsible, weak, stubborn, self-involved, a wreck, generally pissing me off please stop calling.] Why do you want to die? Why can’t you see what I see in you? You are young and intelligent and attractive, warm and engaging, funny. You are brave and courageous. I admire your determination and willingness to face your problems. I admire your ability to take risks and be resilient. I admire your honesty and candor. Your writing is so beautiful it makes me cry. You better not be lying to me. Lying in bed and crying wont fix anything. You’ve lost a lot; it’s normal to cry. It’s normal to feel this way. It’s a normal reaction to trauma. It’s a normal reaction to loss. It’s a normal reaction to having to live in this world am I right? But you probably do have a chemical imbalance. You probably have a personality disorder. You probably just think too much. You probably just need a vacation. You’ve made a lot of progress. Give yourself some credit. Let me know if there is anything I can do. I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do for you.

Broadway Bus Exchange

Lady: Sweetheart, while you textin on you phone can you send Jesus a texmessage fo me?
Me: Ok. What should I tell him?
Lady: Tell him, “Jesus, I love you!” And I love you too sweetheart.
Me: I love you to. I don’t think I have Jesus’ number. Do you know it?
Lady: Haha! Yeah, send the text to JESUSINEEDYOU!
Me: If only it were that easy.
Her expression changed from urban goofball to urban voodoo woman. She raised an eyebrow and pointed a long fingernail at me. “Oooh. Oooh, you.” She shook her head in a knowing way. She got off the bus but kept looking back at me like I was a phantom.

Ghost Neighborhood

I have (this is true now – I am not telling you a story) dreams in which I return to places I have only ever been in other dreams. Most recently it is a large grassy square, like a park almost, situated in the middle of a spooky old neighborhood. In the middle of the park thing is a large stone fountain, defunct, or a monument of some sort you can climb atop or hide behind. It is always dusk or night or about to storm, always cast in an eerie glow of deep blues and patina and wispy fog. It’s a type of place where ghost children gather to play mean games. Surrounding it on all four sides are avenues lined with Victorian homes and canopies of trees. Even though it is always dark and damp in this grassy square, if I walk down any street a block or further away, there is a late summer sun and golden leaves line the curbs and crunch under my foot. Every time I venture into the neighborhood I get lost. Every time. Eventually someone comes looking for me and takes me back. Every time I tell the mean ghost children in the park (they are like mean hipster ghost children, haughty and cliquish) I don’t want to join their games, they become cruel and taunt me. In my dream this is located on the West Side of Chicago. But it is also very similar the the neighborhood in the town I was born in and where some of my family still live.

Email

“Thank you for your inquiry. If you come in for groceries, we will give you groceries. If you come in we will give them to you.”

Attachment Disorder

Please check the one that best describes you:

A. I am able to form close meaningful bonds with one or more of the following: Parents, Lovers, Pets, Therapists.
B. I am able to form close meaningful bonds with one or more of the following: Celebrities, fictional characters, people I have only interacted with in online forums, myself.
C. I am able to form close meaningful bonds with No one.

If you answered C., congratulations! You have done the hard work to assimilate and adopt the values of your environment. Take that bonus and treat yourself to an island vacation (psst. the post-colonial, vaguely despotic ones have to-die-for beaches.)

If you answered B., know that these are not unusual feelings to have given the pervasive role media and social networking plays in our society. It is completely acceptable to care about the welfare of people on reality TV. Do not let anyone make you feel ashamed of this.

If you answered A., you may be suffering from an attachment to the person who brought you into the world, the person with whom you routinely exchange bodily fluids, small animals who have evolved to love you in exchange for food, or a person to whom you have told your most intimate thoughts and feelings. This is highly risky behavior and will probably result in an unhealthy self-image. Seek help immediately. But perhaps not from a therapist, you know, given your issues. In fact if you did that, it would be a clear illustration of the “rescue-seeking behavior” your kind are notorious for. Don’t get help. Should probably just off yourself. But tell someone if you are thinking about that so they can save you and blame you for being attention-seeking later. Good luck! You can do this!

ATTN!: I am not a licensed professional and you should not be taking advice from me. If you think you have a disorder get professional help if you want but you’re probably really ok but please don’t take my word for it but also don’t stress out about it either.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to make a charitable donation to the author, it is always welcome!

September 19, 2011

Ghost Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — poemless @ 5:33 PM

“Toscha, I think we have a child ghost,” my brother confided in me after a recent move to St. Charles, MO. I have the kind of family that has ghosts…

I’m not trying to convince anyone that ghosts do or do not exist. I don’t believe in God. Or angels. Or monsters. I do believe in ghosts. I was raised by a crazy Irish woman. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of idiocy, but I think there is enough evidence to the contrary. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of an overactive imagination and romanticism, but you don’t need a ghost story to know that about me. It seems a pretty harmless belief to have. No ideological agenda. No evangelizing, no political lobbying. Ghosts neither confirm nor undermine my worldview, no more than bunny rabbits or paintings hung on a wall. They are part of the deal. Bad teeth and ghosts.

Of course it is natural for you to want to challenge such beliefs and offer up alternative explanations for the events I am about to recount. In general I support the scientific method and rational, objective attempts to understand the world around us. But the following stories need not be true or untrue. The point is, I have them. Largely against my will.

The Intersection

Growing up, my mother and brother were quite fond of recounting stories of ghosts, esp, etc. and felt a combination of annoyance at my rigid intellect and pity that it limited my repertoire of experiences. Whole other worlds I was cut off from, out of sheer stubbornness. Apparently part of their special “gift” included the “knowledge” that I was secretly like them, just less self-aware. I was dragged to psychic readers who nodded in agreement. Oh I had it. It. I was just too busy hating the world and sticking my nose in books. This was all discussed in the way old women might sit around a bridge table mewing on about how Pearl’s granddaughter who works at the soup kitchen could be a real catch if she just put some effort into her looks. Full of unrealized potential, but too myopic to realize it. Well, I pitied them in my own way too. I spent my childhood agnostic and became a professed atheist at the age of 9. And they were still praying. As if that is how things got done. Pathetic.

One night, dark, a bit wet, I sat in the front seat of my father’s truck as he drove me home from a friend’s house. We came to a stoplight and sat chatting. It wasn’t a rural road. It wasn’t the city. It was one of those depressing arteries that run through what we might now call the exurbs, lined sometimes by undeveloped land, sometimes by fast food joints, the occasional mall or church. Not enough traffic to create lively atmosphere, but enough so that if a person walked out into the middle of the highway someone would notice. I turned my eyes away from our discussion and back to the intersection to find a man standing right in front of the truck. The moment I realized someone was standing in the street, looking me in the eyes, the light turned green, and before I could scream for my father to stop, he hit the gas and … we didn’t hit anyone. My father continued talking while I sat there in shock. What had just happened? Traffic had moved normally, no thud, no horns, no screams, no sirens. Maybe I’d imagined it. Obviously I’d imagined it! No one dresses like that nowadays. A floppy wide-brimmed hat. Overalls? Maybe it was just the traffic lights and rain playing tricks with my eyes. No. This was not a figure, not a a shape. I can still see the expression on his face, feel our eye contact. Soon my father noticed I’d stopped talking. “What’s wrong? Hey, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. [For real he said that.] What’s going on?” I began to cry inconsolably but couldn’t form any words. We got home and walked in the door. “Toscha’s upset about something and won’t talk to me about it. Maybe you can find out what’s going on with her. Cried the whole way home…” my father pronounced to my mother. For hours I could not speak. I could barely breathe. I could only nod “no” during the following interrogation. No, nothing happened at my friend’s. No, no one had done anything to me. No, it wasn’t school. No, it wasn’t a boy. Eventually I gathered myself. “But it’s stupid. … There was a man in the intersection. … And we drove through him. … I mean, you know, through him.” I sat on the ottoman opposite my mother’s chair, collapsed into her lap and resumed sobbing.

“Well, these things happen,” my mother consoled me.

Try as I might, I was unable get the image of the mysterious man out of my head. I believe the word “haunted” is appropriate here. So this professed atheist began to pray – to whom or what I cannot say. For him. Whoever, whatever he was, he’d seemed sad and scared and imploring. I prayed for peace for his soul. Again and again.

What else was there to do?

The Farmhouse Fire

My father’s German ancestors had come to America in the 19th Century and set up shop on some land outside of St. Louis. I wasn’t too close to his family. An aunt and uncle lived about 30 minutes away on this ancestral land, but we visited them maybe 7 times in 18 years. The farm was still operational and, I suspect, still a significant source of income, despite the occasional flooding from the Mississippi River. In fact, several of those 7 trips involved all night sandbagging operations. To this day I remember my aunt and uncle as incredibly charming, polite, educated and cosmopolitan – uncommon traits in his family. They lived in a tasteful modern home. Not much of what you’d think of when you think of farms, apart from the surrounding swaths of soybeans and corn, and my great grandmother Hildegard’s house.

My great grandmother lived on the farm, within view of my aunt and uncle’s home, and we would walk over to see her during our visits. I never knew her well as she’d become senile even before I was born. She must have been nearly 100, and everything in the farmhouse seemed to out date even her. Both she and the house were tiny, so with the decor, it was like a doll house. A musty dollhouse. A musty dark dollhouse. There was electricity, but I never saw it used. Between the claustrophobia-inducing scale, the heavy fabrics laden with a century of smells and the struggle to converse with someone who has no concept of what decade it is, our visits sucked the air out of me, making me lightheaded and gasping for oxygen when we left. I never understood how anyone could live there. The tasteful modern home of my aunt and uncle was only a few yards away, and I secretly imagined my great grandmother normally lived there, with them, and just sat in this dollhouse-farmhouse when we visited. Like for historical reenactment. But I knew that wasn’t true.

After my great grandmother died, my uncle, who ran the volunteer fire department, offered up her house to trainees. I guess I wasn’t the only one unnerved by the place. We came over that day to ooh and awe, but also I suspect for moral support. We were after all, destroying a bit of family history. I don’t know if it was the German immigrants who built the tiny farmhouse, but if not, it had to have been their children.

It was an overcast autumn day and the orange flames against the steel sky were captivating and somber. The women sat in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen watching the blaze across the way and drinking coffee while the men supervised outside. The volunteer firefighters seemed not terribly concerned about putting out the fire in a swift manner and the dollhouse-farmhouse was quickly engulfed. My uncle took Polaroids and came inside and handed them to us. We politely thumbed through them. Dollhouse-farmhouse being prepped for fire. Dollhouse-farmhouse set on fire. Dollhouse-farmhouse on fire. Young woman in a turn of the century dress coming out of the front door of the burning dollhouse-farmhouse. Dollhouse-farmhouse burnt down… Wait. What? “Hey, hand me back that picture,” my mother requested. Apparently she had been the only one looking at them with interest, not just politely shuffling them and passing them on. “Who is that?” she asked my aunt. “What?” I demanded. She handed me the photo and cocked her head in that, “Can you believe that shit?” way she always did.

A young woman, maybe 20, stood in the frame of the front door of the burning house. She was transparent and her face was a blur, but otherwise, it was clearly a fucking woman on the fucking porch where no women were, let alone a woman with a mass of curly hair and a full length, high neck dress cinched at the waist. There was a collective gulp, a shooting about of looks, a raising of eyebrows. And then, as if the person in the picture were, you know, a normal person, not a “person who can’t be seen with the naked eye and has probably been dead for a century while this here photo was taken an hour ago” person, a discussion commenced in which attempts were made to identify this beautiful creature who may have occupied the house we just destroyed. If anyone questioned the idea that it was a ghost, they kept the fact to themselves. Perhaps they were too polite. Perhaps you’d need to be mad to look at a photograph of a woman and declare it to be anything otherwise. We poured more coffee. The charred remains of the dollhouse-farmhouse stood ominous in the cold autumn evening.

They gave my mother the Polaroid. At some point I got it, after she died, probably, when I went through her belongings. My brother recently asked me for it. I don’t know where it is and I am sure as hell not going to look for it. I can go the rest of my life never seeing a photo of a god damned (possibly literally) ghost again. I don’t even want it in my home. I may have destroyed it. How awful. Imagine, you are just sitting at home, already existentially cut off from the world by death, and then someone sets fire to your home. No one you know is alive. You have nowhere to go now.

Where did she go?

The Seated Woman

“How did you like it?”
“I really prefer Moscow. I could never live in St. Petersburg.”
“Moscow is a city of the living. Petersburg is a mausoleum.”
“You have no idea.”

St. Petersburg, Russia. Halloween. We’d raided the Maly Theatre’s costume shop and went gallivanting around nightclubs dressed like Pushkin characters.

For our excursion, we’d been set up in a hotel/dormitory steps from a magical little bridge guarded by golden griffins. Late one night I left my chaperon-approved lodging and skittered through the dark, winding snow-filled side-streets, passing countless cats lurking in door- and alleyways and the occasional drunk falling out of a dimly lit cafe, to my friend’s apartment by the Fontanka. I felt like a Dickens character. The city, cleaner, safer, more civilized and attractive than Moscow by miles, gave me the creeps. I’d wanted to leave from the moment I arrived. I was thankful to at least have someone to stay with. A home with a family and a heavily occupied kitchen table. Because I had to get out of that hotel.

My first night in town, during a fitful sleep, I sensed someone enter our room of the hotel/dormitory. Having had my share of experiences fending off the thieves who preyed upon American travelers in Russian dormitories, I sat up ready to pummel my unwelcome guest with the first object I could grab. There was no one there to pummel when I opened my eyes. I returned to a not-quite sleep/not-quite awake state. I thought my roommate opened the door, left, and came back in. She did this several times throughout the night. She wasn’t having much luck sleeping either, judging by the frequency with which the door opened and closed, each time letting in a blade of the light from the hall … though each time I’d look, she was back in bed. Trying to combat disorientation and exhaustion, I closed my eyes tightly and begged sleep to come. Each time I did this I saw the same image: a woman was sitting on the chair by the dressing table at the foot of our beds. What horrible dreams now, I muttered, pulled the covers over my head and waited for the long night to end. Dawn could not come soon enough. 4am. 5am. 6am. … 7am. … 8am … That’s when I truly began to appreciate how far north of the equator we were.

Sometime around 9am we both sat up and discussed the possibility of just getting on with our day. The sun had not come up, per se, but the sky had lightened to a dreary overcast grey.

“You had trouble sleeping too?” I grumbled.
“Yeah, I finally gave up trying,” my roommate lamented.
“Where were you going all night? The lounge? Anything exciting happen?”
“I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Oh? I must have dreamt it…”
“Yeah…”
We both looked at that chair by the dresser at the foot of our beds, and back at each other.
“Look. Can we get that fucking chair out of here?” she said. We couldn’t haul it into the hallway fast enough, even knowing we’d risk the wrath of the stern, potoatoesque woman whose singular purpose in life was to make certain all house rules were obeyed at all times. We got a lecture.

The following day the chair reappeared in the room

The following night I began my trek to the apartment on the Fontanka.

The House on State Street

Many of the residents of my hometown of Alton, Illinois will tell you that they live in the most haunted small town in America. Even as a believer in ghosts, I find this difficult to digest. What about, oh, all of New England? Still, more often than not, you can find an out-of-towner trolling our streets in search of paranormal activity. Underground railroad, Civil War cemetery, birthplace of assassins and jazzmen … we’ve had our share of difficult history. Throw in the Victorian mansions, steep cobblestone streets, antique shops and riverboats and if ghosts didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

When my mother remarried, she moved into a large old brick house on State Street, one of the main avenues in the historical district which begins up near the old orphanage, winds its way down the bluffs past Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church and ends at the Mississippi River. I came to stay with them for a bit during a hiatus from college. For some reason, I was given a room on the first floor, despite a number of unoccupied bedrooms on the second floor, as well as a converted attic. “So is this place haunted?” I flippantly asked my mother as I unpacked. Seemed to fit the bill. “Nope.” I was kind of bummed. Living in the most haunted place in America and I never get a ghost? I felt reassured though. The idea of a ghost was exciting, but the possibility of having a whole floor to myself at night with undead roaming about was not.

That night I awoke several times to the sound of someone moving up and down the back stairwell which led from the attic to the basement. (The front stairs led from the foyer to the upstairs rooms.) The head of my bed abutted the stairwell wall, and the rhythmic creaking was impossible to ignore. I waited for a glimpse of kitchen light to appear under my bedroom door, for the sound of running water, for the tv in the living room to come softly on. And waited. Maybe it was the dog or one of the cats. Maybe it was just the house settling. Maybe it wasn’t. The procession up and down the stairs continued like clockwork every night. Too slow, heavy and deliberate to be a pet. Too pointless to be human. “Mom, are you sure this house isn’t haunted.” “These old houses make noises, Toscha.”

I’d been there a few weeks before my wide-eyed and mischievous step-sister pounced. “So have you heard her yet?! You know this place has ghosts? Oh yeah, we went to the historical society and did the research and everything. It’s a Judge, he’s the mean one, and his sister, who never married. She’s harmless. Surprised you haven’t noticed them yet. She’s in the attic and walks down the back stairs at night. He’s in the front stairway. It’s why no one uses the front one.”

“You lied.”
“I didn’t want to unnecessarily upset you.”

Unlike my previous experiences, I never actually saw our supernatural housemates on State Street. The front staircase was the type you wanted to run up or down without looking behind you. As for the spinster, once I accepted her presence as a fact, life went on as normal. A door would open and you’d say, “Please close the door,” and the door would close. Same with the lights. It was quite something. Often, when standing at the kitchen sink, a window in front of me and the stairwell behind me, I’d sense someone at my back. I could not look up for fear of seeing a second party in the window’s reflection. ” Please go,” I’d whisper, and the feeling would pass. The attic noises were difficult to ignore, even for my step-father, who vehemently does not believe in ghosts. He would routinely awake to the sounds above him, get his shotgun (yes, shotgun) and take it up to the attic, ready to assail a thuggish intruder. “Get ‘em?” we’d tease. “Shut up.”

On holiday break one year, a group of us students piled into a car and drove home from Northwestern. According to the plan, I was the first to be dropped off, and the others would stay with me for the night before continuing their cross-country trek back to their respective parents. With five visitors in the house, someone had to sleep in the attic. “There’s a whole bedroom up there, you’ll have the space to yourself,” my mother assured a young man travelling with us. “Or you can sleep on the couch if you want,” I said, flashing a look at my mom. The young man opted for the attic. The next morning we all wandered bleary-eyed into the kitchen for coffee and home-made breakfast. “Sleep well?” I asked, nervously, doing my best fake nonchalance act. The responses ranged from exuberant exclamations of gratitude to the polite nods of people unable to converse before coffee. The young man remained silent. “You don’t look like you slept well…” I fished. His voice cracked, “No.” He was a solid shade paler than the previous night and visibly shaken. I sat up and proclaimed, “The attic’s haunted! Oh yes, there’s a ghost and…” As I eagerly explained the whole story to my captive breakfast audience, the young man shot me a harsh accusatory look, as if to suggest he’d been subjected to an evil experiment against his will. I apologized. Sincerely. I never asked what happened to him that night. The look on his face alone was enough to sate my curiosity.

Years later the old house was sold. It became unreasonable to maintain a 6 bedroom home with ancient wiring and incurable drafts once all the children had grown and left. On moving day, the last thing to be removed from the home were the pets, who’d gone missing. We called, we searched, we offered treats and made threats. I knew the one place I hadn’t looked yet. I gathered all my nerve, and walked up the back stairs all the way to the attic to find the most remarkable of scenes: The pets, gathered round in a semi-circle, sitting at attention, eyes fixated on the same point in space. They looked at me, and then back at … well … It broke my heart. “I’m sorry. They can’t stay. They have to go now. A new family is going to move in, with children, and pets. You will not be alone. Say goodbye, you guys, we have to go.” I scooped up the cats. One made a break for it and headed back up the stairs, as if some force were drawing them to that room. I went back for her. Pets in tow, everyone waved goodbye to the old house on State Street as we all drove away for the last time.

Well. Not everyone.

Who knows if ghosts are real or not. Like love and inspiration and art and dreams, they fall into a category of phenomena that need not be explained to send our hearts racing and heads spinning, to make us reassess the nature and limitations of our own existence, to encourage humility and wonderment and courage. Which is pretty cool. For all my intellectual rigidity and stubbornness, I can get behind all that.

All that and a good story.

February 21, 2011

Who is worth saving?

Filed under: Uncategorized — poemless @ 3:27 PM

This is in response to inquiries, and also my own need to write. No one is obligated to read or respond to it. If you choose the read it, you may feel put off by the tone and/or resentful of the intrusion of my problems into your life. I am posting this on my own site, for myself.

I don’t know where to begin. I will start by saying that I have $80, an existential crisis, and no idea what to do next. But that does not explain how I got here, and people always demand an explanation for such things. I myself am not entirely sure how I got here.

I will start at the beginning. Growing up I was abused from my earliest years until I left home. I have never had any closure. No one got enough love in their childhood, I know. Some children are sold into sex slavery, I know. But this is about me. I was sexually abused by my father from the age of 5 until I was 9, and attempts continued thereafter. I was violently physically, emotionally and verbally abused by my father until I cut off all contact with him. On an average day, after dinner he’d remove a large leather belt and beat me to a pulp, and after bed time, he’d come in and act out scenes from the adult magazines he’d show me. I never blocked out or forgot these events. If it had been a stranger doing this to me, it would be a tv movie, a news scandal. Since it was my father, it was “no one’s business.” Shame, fear of him killing me, concern no one would believe me kept me from telling anyone. I often hear people say, “you can’t live your life in fear.” Oh, you’d be surprised…

People had to have known, though. Especially my mother. There are psychological reasons she didn’t prevent it. But the fact is, she stuck up for him, punished me when I refused to be nice to him, when I became morose, ridiculed my lack of friends, etc. Kids also have to see doctors. Not one ever asked me about the cuts all over my arms. I begged my 6th grade teacher to adopt me, to get me out of my home. The school made no welfare check inquiries.

I was a kid the first time I decided to kill myself. Then in high school, then twice in college and later in my 20′s. I only actually attempted it once, after the abuse became public. Many people didn’t believe me. My father stopped paying for college, stalked me, threatened me. I consulted a lawyer who told me the statute of limitations re: the abuse had expired. Of course I did not want to live in such a world.

To be clear, I have had many joyous, fulfilling, enriching, warm experiences in my life. My mother was creative and whimsical; I had a wonderful education; I have had the opportunity to travel; I have sucked the marrow from the museums, libraries, gardens, bedrooms and kitchen tables of life. I don’t define myself by only negative experiences. But in spite of my efforts, they continue to define me. Still I’m not the kind of person who needs reassurance of my worth. I know I can be pretty fucking amazing. Even buried in the rubble of bad decisions, even in destitution, I think I’m brave, brilliant, and, were I to wash my hair, kind of smashing.

My mother died when I was 25, leaving me with a brother who has his own share of struggles, and a step family. They are… what they are. They are probably correct to insist they owe me nothing. I don’t really understand them, to be honest.

When my mother divorced my father after he did not deny the abuse, her divorce settlement stipulated that my father would be entirely responsible for my education. He never paid a thing. The Student Loan people garnished my already meager wages. “We’ll ruin your life.” They said. I told them someone had beat them to it. Next they’ll want a kidney. But I can’t face my father. Not on my own.

I’ve missed a lot of work. Last year I began having “atypical migraines.” I still have bouts of these neurological misfires. Hell. Also ate up all my time off. Then I got the flu and a sinus infection. Pretty routine in itself, but missed more work. Being sick also makes me depressed. It makes everyone depressed. Except what is “depressed” for most people is “normal” for me. So when I get depressed, suicide notes are involved. Actually I hate the word “depression.” It reminds me of bored housewives or self-pity. I don’t have low self worth. I’m not intellectually dull. I’m not listless. I have severe panic attacks, sense everything acutely, amplified, feel literally paralyzed with terror, and then a kind of safety switch in my brain is flipped and all functioning stops. Like, before the fuse is blown.

I don’t like or will these things to happen. I’d love to be able to cope without crisis. In fact I usually only realize what is happening long after it has begun. Then my first reaction is to ignore it. Everyone says, “just keep going…” It’s also the easiest course of action. One that also doesn’t work. Still, no one wants to admit they are failing to accomplish very basic things. And if I do talk about it, people tend to classify it as melodrama. As if I exist to entertain them. So I ignore it until I am standing in front of a hot bath with a razor and my cat is staring at me. I can’t do that to the cat. It’s always a pet who saves my life. It’s why I have to have one. Then I relent and approach the brick wall that is my family. “Winter makes everyone blue.” “I’m sorry, I can’t relate to that.” “You’re on your own.” “Don’t you have someone else you can talk to?” Then I call the doctor who has a legal obligation to help. Drugs, therapy, now, please. I do whatever I can to avoid the hospital. People are treated like criminals in “the unit.” I realize the social aims of drugs and therapy run counter to my personal values. But my personal values aren’t going to mean a lot if I am dead.

I’m not even sure why I want to live. Besides stubbornness. Letting people willing to fight for social justice, defend intellectual pursuit, demand real croissants remain available in America just off themselves seems counter to everything I hold dear. The world frankly needs more people like me, not fewer. Also I am not finished.

My job pays about 20K. This is a possibly a living wage, depending on your definition of “living” and where you reside. I can’t afford a computer or to have my painful teeth fixed. But I live. Or did, until the Student Loan Nazis started getting generous with their take. Between that and missing work, I fell very behind. It all just snowballed. Because my reaction to crisis tends to be what it always was: close your eyes, go to a better place, don’t let anyone know, don’t move a muscle, he’ll leave soon…

I spent years working on this. But I guess you are never “fixed.” And frankly admitting that I have a VERY serious problem dealing with life, I have to think about why. And I resent having to think about that. I’d get a lobotomy if it meant I could never think of it again. I don’t want to admit I am damaged. I don’t want to give him that pleasure.

If you’re facing homelessness, Just go to work!!!

I get up everyday at 6:30, take my medicine, feed my cat, have a panic attack, cry hysterically, decide today is the day, decide no I am not going to do that, decide I need a plan, decide my plan is shit, throw up, take painkillers because just breathing hurts, call someone, collapse from sheer exhaustion, rinse and repeat.

I think I am in shock or something.

My family says homeless people are losers and cowards. I would like to see them live on the streets. (Not my brother, who has been homeless, because I kicked him out, which I’ve never forgiven myself for.) No, the people who would not part with one of their many big screen tvs to save a life. So easy to be judgmental from a beach in Hawaii, a Christmas feast, a church pew.

A lot of judgment is silly -perhaps my own acts of judgment too. Still, I have had it with the deification of my mother. I mean, I understand Stockholm Syndrome, but at some point you are responsible for the safety of your children, no? Or do I get to be the only one for whom personal responsibility trumps the psychological effects of trauma? I mean, does it occur to ANYONE that I might find her actions horrid? I mean besides mental health professionals, because that’s the first thing they ask, “Where was your mother? Are you angry at her?” There. Yes.

So these family stories… There is a lot of mythology in them. I already feel my family has written me off. Totally. Their MO is tough love. Suffering? Need help? Need support? Messed up? Silent treatment. Disowned. It’s why I kicked out my brother. My gut said not to, but my family said he had to learn a lesson. I’m terrified to think of what kinds of lessons a person learns on the streets. I probably deserve what is happening now for that one moment.

I am trying to make sense of what is happening to me now. It seems I sabotage myself. Not because of low self esteem. Not cowardice. Not laziness. Out of a perverse desperate desire for someone to save me. It sounds childish because it is. No one came to rescue me when I was a child being tortured by my father day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I need to know someone will save me. Which I guess is another way of saying loved. People telling me they love me has no effect on me. My father told me that. Just empty words people say to justify their actions, or lack thereof.

“Only you can save yourself.” First, that is a pretty fucked up attitude. Personally I believe that we all have to try to save each other because that’s what being a decent, empathetic, civilized human being means. I suppose people are free to aspire to nothing more than base animal instincts to consume, shit, fuck and die. I have higher expectations of people. Secondly, it’s a lie. Otherwise there would be no need for search and rescue teams, the medical industry, legal representation, fire departments, social services and many other institutions we take for granted. Third, I may very well be able to save myself all by myself, but science says my success rate increases if I have company. Oh and hoping things work out doesn’t count. I hope that for the man who sleeps by the hot dog stand. It helps. Me, to sleep at night. Lastly, when people DO try to save themselves, the very same people who say, “only you can save yourself,” bitch about that too, because you go and muss up their status quo. And spend taxpayer dollars!!! “Only you can save yourself” is code for, “leave me out of this.”

I don’t even know why I should try to return to being a barely functioning cog in a system that clearly doesn’t give a shit about me. Parents, doctors, teachers, family failed to protect me from ongoing harm when I was a minor. The justice system failed to punish my father or provide me closure. I got an education but with the price of indentured slavery. My employer failed to provide me with an income that allows me to afford basic things like a computer or dental care. This might be common. This might be miles better than some situations in 3rd world countries. Still a long list of failures.

For my part I have also failed. Failed to pay bills, to seek help in a timely manner, to plan for the future, to ensure my health and safety. That’s big. Huge. Possibly insurmountable. But if it warrants the death penalty, all politicians in the country should be lined up in front of a firing squad. Fuck, at least I haven’t put other people’s lives at risk.

Don’t tell me to stay strong. I’ve been stronger than most and for longer. Don’t tell me to stay positive and then walk away because you can’t even deal with it. Don’t pray for me. I am not a stranger whose plight you saw on the news.

I am a real live human who is scared, overwhelmed, broke, failing, running into one closed door after another, no one’s problem, no one’s daughter, and the only person I know who thinks I am worth saving.

I don’t know what comes next. Death, more suffering, miracles?
I guess the only thing I am sure of is, no matter how I resolve this, I’m probably going to anger a few more people in the process. If I can get through this, they can get over that.

December 31, 2009

С Новым Годом! Happy New Year!

Filed under: Uncategorized — poemless @ 3:47 PM

Will be back from holiday hiatus next week. Until then, enjoy your holiday, my dear readers!

July 28, 2009

Hello world!

Filed under: Uncategorized — poemless @ 7:10 PM

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