DEFAULT TO GOODNESS
I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.
—Louisa May Alcott
All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
[Breakfast at Tiffany’s meets Mommie Dearest in Memphis, New York, Athens, and London]
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
–George Bernard Shaw
“A happy childhood… is the worst possible preparation for life.”
[book cover: marble statue of Medea (William Story/1868) holding knife/Metropolitan Museum]
Alexandra Smith [a female David Copperfield] is a new and improved version of Grace Caldwell Tate in John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live…a courageous woman with powerful instincts, a renegade who defied convention, yet, always remained a model of kindness and good manners. Her insatiable curiosity, inability to tolerate routine, troubled relationship with her parents, love of art, literature, and men, careened her through adolescence, an impetuous first marriage with a handsome Greek, several careers, a life-saving then stultifying marriage to a much older Jewish mensch, numerous pre- and post-marital affairs, tragedies, and, finally…The triumph, against all odds, over adversity through boundless determination, perseverance, and—most important–truly living by the Golden Rule.
(and lots of mommie porn with wealthy, powerful men; she was the mistress of several multimillionaires in the 1970s)
[Music: Twentieth Century Fox –The Doors]
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania.
[music/Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess]
April 22, 1983
Earth Day and Day of My Last Drink
High Falls, New Jersey The psychiatric male nurse rifled through my small canvas bag. With a black magic marker, he wrote “Smith” on the crotch of every pair of my white lace panties. Trembling, I stood silently beside him. Would I spend the rest of my life in this god-forsaken hellhole in the wilderness of New Jersey? Would a bored psychiatrist give me a shot, so that I would become just another inmate doing the Thorazine shuffle? Another Frances Farmer?
I have never been so scared in my whole life.
I got married six months ago.
Would my husband divorce me? Would I become a homeless woman sitting beside overflowing garbage bags on the streets of New York?
I felt like an astronaut floating in space whose umbilical cord to the spaceship that would return him to Earth had just been severed.
I was instructed to wait in another room.
“Does your husband beat you?” the kind nurse asked.
“No, never,” I answered with quivering lips.
“How did you get all those bruises?” she asked.
“I bumped into the furniture and fell off my bicycle.”
It was true.
I was riding an old Schwinn from the Pellisades health club to my apartment building in heavy traffic after dark.
(Every alcoholic goes to a health club daily, right? I did; it was my futile attempt to exert some control over my behavior, which I hated, but could not stop.)
When I got married, I left my one shabby room in Manhattan for New Jersey. I hated New Jersey almost as much as I hated my alcoholism. Parts of New Jersey are really beautiful; I just didn’t live in any of them. Living in this congested town by the George Washington Bridge represented unequivocal failure to me. It had all the disadvantages of an overcrowded city, as well as a boring suburb with insufficient parking places. I left Frenchtown (a suburb of Memphis), Tennessee, so that I could end up in Port Lincoln, New Jersey?
Why was I traveling by bicycle? I hadn’t driven a car since I was 17 after having an almost fatal encounter with a tractor-trailer on a major east-west thoroughfare in Memphis. When I went to Thorncliff College and lived in a dorm for four years in Westchester County, I didn’t need a car because I could take the train that runs alongside the scenic Hudson River to Grand Central Station.
Don’t know if she believed me or not, but the nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment–drugs and/or therapy–would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.
He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy… what a cool bus ride they had together.
Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.
He drugged Douglas and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door. After his door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated every room of that hospital.
Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek. Much of the attack is now just a blurry nightmare in my head. I was assigned to a bedroom only three doors away from his.
My skinny roommate, Melanie, sat on her bed with her knees clasped to her chin. She looked like a praying mantis cut in two.
“Why are you here?” the frail, depressed girl asked.
“I can’t stop drinking.”
“I slashed my wrists. See?” Melanie said.
I wasn’t really expecting a coherent conversation. Melanie exhibited her bony, scarred arms. I was really trying to be calm and sympathetic, but I just wanted to escape.
“I’ve been attacked. I want to leave this place now,” I told the nurse on duty who came in to check on us.
“You’re safe now. Don’t worry. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
“Please let me use your phone.” She pointed to a public telephone down the hall.
I made a collect call to my husband, Joseph.
“I hate you. I really hate you. An insane man just tried to kill me. Come and get me. Now. This place is filled with certified lunatics, and that’s no exaggeration.”
Joseph replied in a stern voice, “I’ll come tomorrow morning.”
During the night, he arranged to have me transferred to another hospital, Fair Hope, in Sumac, New Jersey. (What a strange coincidence; I remembered that my parents were married in Fair Hope, Alabama—I would have named their marriage rendezvous location: No Hope. Ever. Ever. Ever.)
The following morning the Walter-Mitty type staff psychiatrist tried to convince my husband and me, as we sat in his dark-brown dreary office with worn-out leather furniture, that I should stay put.
“Out of the question,” said my 53-year-old husband in his most authoritative executive voice.
He immediately drove me to Fair Hope Hospital where I lived for one month.
A member of the cleaning staff stole my navy leather handbag–with the exquisite brass hardware and clasp–from my closet, but other than that, the experience of living with a group of men and women, who had endured far more than their share of life’s cruelties, injustices, and tragedies, was almost an epiphany; I began to believe that a different life was possible.
During the day we had group therapy with counselors who all were recovering alcoholics and/or drug addicts. I was an oddity because I had never used drugs. Not once. Most patients in their 30s had at least experimented with every powder, pill, or injection available.
As Boris Pasternak wrote, “I don’t like people who have never fallen or
stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless, and it isn’t of much value. Life hasn’t revealed its
beauty to them.”
He was right, of course. I wish that we had met; Dr. Zhivago is one of my all-
time favorites. And I’m very fond of late bloomers; he was sixty-eight when he won the
Nobel Prize for Literature.
We ate our tasteless meals in a bland cafeteria. Only decaf coffee was available from a large metal container, so I was really sleepy for the entire 30 days. Most of the patients were men, so my roommate, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde, around my age, and I got lots of attention. We also were among the youngest.
We were the lucky ones, who had been forced into rehab before the devastating effects of alcoholism took their toll: debilitating neuropathy, memory loss, grizzled complexions.
One patient had to have his arm amputated; he was drunk and waved his arm out the car window…a truck roared by, too close.
Every night we went to an A.A. meeting. I met a woman who had watched her brother hacked to death with an ax by a stranger in her backyard; a man who was just released from jail for grand larceny and who ran a prostitution ring from his Irish bar on First Avenue (He begged me to work for him as a call girl after we were discharged from Fair Hope); a good-looking, sanguine, irreverent man in his late twenties who had spent years traveling on luxury cruise ships pretending that he was a Catholic priest and befriending and bedding older women if they bought him enough champagne; another woman stood outside with her mother and sister as her father burned to death trapped in their suburban house; a shy, thirty-two-year-old female, who was the unwanted only child of an abusive alcoholic manic-depressive mother and charming, artistic homosexual father, who found neither the time nor the energy nor psychological fortitude to protect his daughter from his wife’s violent rages and relentless cruelties.
That one was me.
[Tchaikovsky/Concert for Violin in D, op. 35]
October 6, 2000
Port Lincoln, New Jersey
The phone rang. I didn’t answer, but waited for the machine to record the
It began: “This is Janet Emerald. I live next door to your mother. She’s in the Frenchtown jail. She was arrested for drunk driving after she drove her car into a restaurant.
She called us from jail. We’ll post her bond and take her home. Call me. 901-751-3232.”
Immediately, I called her back. Janet sounded totally in control. She explained that my mother drove her Volvo through the side of the Trafalgar Cafeteria around 5:00 PM.
Miraculously, no one was hurt!
After she rammed through one side of the dining room, she backed up and totally demolished a lamp pole. My 81-year-old mother’s face was bruised, but she had no other injuries. Not even her glasses were broken. (Great TV ad for Volvo!)
I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted-living facility.
When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.
The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned.
Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied. The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.
My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her. There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing–even when I was very young.
Not once in her life did she say that she loved me…liked me…that I ever did anything worthwhile…or even deserved to take up space on this planet.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.
My mother and I were master/slave; Hitler/Jew; shark/bloody leg; Mr. Murdstone/David Copperfield; Johan/Henrik in Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband.
Whenever someone asked about my “Mom,” my gut reaction would have been to answer, Mom? I don’t know anyone like that. Nancy, the popinjay, the vituperative termagant, was certainly no Stella Dallas.
To my mother, every aspect of life was categorized as a bargain or overpriced. That included me: poor Return On Investment.
I had no siblings. To visit her after I left home for college, a formal invitation was required. Christmas was the only time that I was permitted to return to my parents’ house.
If she didn’t want to see you, she wouldn’t open the door.
I remember looking down from the upstairs hall window in our saltbox colonial house to see my paternal grandmother standing at the front door and ringing the doorbell. She had driven from Cotton Fields, Arkansas, about a two-hour drive. My mother refused to open the door.
My tired, old grandmother returned to her big Buick in our driveway and left.
To put me to sleep, Nancy gave me a tall glass of bourbon and 7-Up. The glass was painted with a couple dancing, dressed like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
It was the perfect metaphor for our family: To the outside world, we looked perfect.
Inside, was our own hell on earth.
Robert never intervened.
My father was part of William Alexander Percy’s world and during Robert’s lifetime all of the lanterns on the levee were extinguished.