Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

There are few American authors of her time who write about divorce as much as Edith Wharton. I guess she wrote about it so much because she had one; also, it was a major subject of debate in the conversations about women’s rights. So of course I’ve been thinking about mine. It was the most emotionally difficult part of my life, particularly with all of the people assuming I wouldn’t care. It’s a complicated thing, being a gay man who loves his wife, because love is even more complex than sexuality. One more reason for me to have run off to the Middle East.

The stories in this volume are arranged according to length rather than publishing date or theme or any other logical system. All were originally published between 1900 and 1914.

ETHAN FROME

Like me, Ethan Frome is a man who got married in a hurry and ran into trouble because of it. He got a little bit of education and dreamed of living in a city, but then his father got sick and he had to come take care of the family farm, and then after his father died his mother got sick too. His family arranged for a distant cousin Zenobia to come take care of his mother and the house. When you see a woman named Zenobia in a book written in the nineteenth century or the first couple of decades of the twentieth, she’s probably dangerous. It’s like how we don’t trust Victorian Lydias. Zeena cared for Ethan’s mother through her final illness, and then he had this weird emotional spasm where he couldn’t lose anyone else, so he married her.

Fast forward six or seven years. Zeena has become a hypochondriac invalid, and Ethan has realized that he’s never moving to a city while he’s stuck with her. Besides, at thirty-five she’s starting to age badly (rural Massachusetts winters are rough), and he’s still twenty-eight and in his youth and vigor. Zeena has taken on Mattie Silver, another distant cousin with no place to go. Mattie’s young and exciting, and draws Ethan into the life of the town because she enjoys being with people and he has to escort her. Ethan and Mattie are in love, but at a distance in the same house. When he feels affectionate, he shortens her name further to just Matt, so I derived a lot of enjoyment from picturing Matt as a man.

Zeena’s concocted a plot to get rid of Matt, even though she literally has no one to take her in. Her only hope is to get a job in a shop somewhere and earn her own living, which isn’t easy for a twenty-one-year-old girl in Massachusetts in the 18-somethings. Ethan goes through an intense time – he wants to run off with Matt and go live out West somewhere, but he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. As with me, poverty keeps him from divorcing when and how he wants. He doesn’t have anything worth selling, in the middle of winter, not even his house or farm. No one would buy them.

As Ethan is taking Matt to the train station for the last time, they talk about how they never went sledding in town like they had wanted to (‘coasting’ in the vernacular of the time), so they stop for a bit of a sled. There’s a large elm tree that they have to dodge, but Ethan’s good at steering so they miss it. But what if they didn’t? They can get up to speed, charge straight into the tree, and dying together they would foil Zenobia’s plan and solve all their problems. But they don’t, die, they just get severely injured. Being forced into a sedentary life, Mattie becomes every bit as querulous as Zeena, and being forced to take care of someone again cures Zeena’s imaginary ailments. The three of them get along miserably for what seems the rest of their lives.

In many ways I am a lucky person, though I’ve been told that it has more to do with making good decisions than with luck. My decisions have worked out better than I deserve, I think. If I had to marry a woman, then The Ex was the right one; she wouldn’t put up with an Ethan Frome situation. I told her I was gay and she moved out. There was a short time that I wanted her back, but she held firm. She feels shame very acutely, and in her mind there’s less shame in divorcing a gay husband than in living with one. Of course, my being gay means that she had a good excuse, and that she can blame me into perpetuity without ever having to confront her own issues. I’m not saying that she will; I’m just saying that she still hates and distrusts me.

THE TOUCHSTONE

This was the most suspenseful of the stories, so I enjoyed it the most. Glennard is poor and in love, so he needs to find some way to get the money to marry. Years earlier, a famous novelist had fallen in love with him and wrote him some passionate letters from Paris; she died before the story begins, but he still has the letters. He sells them to a publisher to get the money to invest in a good company and make the money requisite to marry his great love.

But those letters were so very personal that his wife would see it as a violation of the soul to have made them public, so he has to try to keep the secret, even after the volume of letters becomes a bestseller. He goes full-on Raskolnikov about it.

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was just taking his leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard, and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the Aubyn Letters.

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out tonight – you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two, but I knew you wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven.”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me . . .”

THE LAST ASSET

Mrs Newell is a resourceful sort of woman. She works her way up in society by dating rich men, having lost sight of her husband long ago. Now that she’s arranged a marriage between her daughter and a French count, she has to produce the husband to prove that she’s not divorced. She hires a reporter to find him, and he turns out to be one of those familiar strangers, people you talk to in a restaurant when you’re both the only Americans but never bother to learn their names. Notice I said ‘you’ – I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, no matter how many times we ate breakfast in the same place, no matter how much his accent would remind me of home. No, the only place I enter into conversation with strangers is in an establishment dedicated to serving alcohol to homosexual men.

As with Ethan Frome, there’s a lot of sadness in this story, even though it’s about reunion.

XINGU

This one was just funny. There’s a snobby literary society up in New England somewhere, and they’ve invited a successful author to come join them. They want to impress her, but she’s not that interested in politics, design, or food, or any of the other subjects they bring up in order to awe her into confirming their sense of their own worth. Then, a member they’ve all been planning to vote out, suddenly asks her about Xingu, and everyone is convinced it’s a new philosophy that they haven’t heard of but are willing to pretend to know in order to put this author in her place. The author goes off with the savior of the group, and then everyone else looks it up – it’s a river in Brazil. She was speaking in double entendres the entire time, and they laugh and are embarrassed by their ignorance.

THE OTHER TWO

This one is frequently anthologized, so I’ve taught it a few times. It’s not as useful as “Roman Fever,” which I have more to say about so I wish academic publishers would use it instead. This story presents divorce not in its spiritual or political aspect but in its social – the awkwardness is more significant than the sin or the women’s rights. Mr Waythorn is Alice’s third husband; because of a child, he runs into the first, and because of his business he runs into the second. Divorce doesn’t necessarily remove the offending partner from one’s life completely, after all. He starts to get used to the ex-husbands, until eventually through one of those coincidental tricks of fate all three of them are in a room together, with her serving them tea.

What I find fascinating about this collection is the perspective Wharton chooses to tell the stories from. Except for “Xingu,” with its entirely female cast, Wharton always chooses the perspective of the man, not the woman. She employs the female perspective in The House of Mirth to great success, so I’m not certain why. I mean, these stories are just as emotionally complex for the women as they are for the men. I guess it gives her a chance to explore the idea that women are mysterious to men while men are completely transparent to women. Or maybe straight men like to imagine the world this way. I have a friend who described his wife as mysterious because he was always finding out new things to love about her (after more than ten years), but I always found her remarkably open, honest, and straightforward. Maybe some men need the exotic, something they don’t understand, so they project that quality onto the women they love. Love itself is often the only mystery – does she love me, and why?

I do enjoy Edith Wharton, even though there’s usually not much to make me happy in her stories. Her syntax demands to be taken slowly; it requires attention; as an author, she insists on her leisure. We must take the story at the pace she gives it to us, and there is something appealing about someone who will not be hurried. I suppose there may also be an appeal to reading a story about New England winters when I’m in the middle of a hot Southern summer, adjusting the emotional temperature to find greater comfort. This was an odd little collection of stories; I don’t know why these were chosen and not others, but I do love something strange.

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Looking back over Stevenson’s previous novels, the predominant feeling I get about this one is, What the fuck? Picaresque boys’ adventure stories are done. Instead, we get a philosophical allegory out of nowhere. Maybe his short stories prepared readers for this, but even though I’d read it before, I was completely taken aback. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Prince Otto, and The Black Arrow did not make me think this was coming.

Of course, a lifetime of watching this theme being played out in movies and television shows didn’t really prepare me for the book either. If I think of it, I can name five or six other important characters, but they’re almost completely forgettable, even the narrator. There are no female characters of any consequence, and surprisingly little action. There’s just the mystery, Why does your friend have friends that you don’t like?

First of all, let me say that Dr Jekyll is not the good side.

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

Most stories begin with problems or needs that have to be fixed or fulfilled, and Jekyll’s problem is that he wants to look more pious than anyone else. Note the emphasis on the external – he doesn’t actually want to be a good person, he wants everyone to think he’s a good person. There’s actually a big difference. The typical spiritual disciplines don’t help Jekyll be the man he wants people to think he is, though I don’t think he actually tried fasting and prayer to overcome temptation. He relies on science instead; he devises a medicine that will suppress the parts of his personality he doesn’t approve of. He relies on the drug more and more often, but it has a side effect he wasn’t prepared for: it periodically releases the evil parts of himself that he’s been afraid to reveal. His evil is personified in Mr Hyde, and Mr Hyde starts taking over more often so that Jekyll has to keep overdosing. Eventually he realizes that he can’t control Hyde and commits suicide to save the world from the two of them.

These days Mr Hyde’s portrayal is radically different from what Stevenson imagined. His Hyde is little, being only a small part of Dr Jekyll, and by ‘evil’ Stevenson means physically violent. He hits people, sometimes to the point of killing them. These days there are things that we consider much worse, but Hyde’s evil is only in physical violence, most of it not sexual. Hyde was ugly, and people thought of him as having some kind of birth defect but they were unable to say what it was. This is part of what I find interesting in the story – people lose their ability to speak and describe Hyde. It’s like Stevenson’s time didn’t have vocabulary for the type of evil he imagined, so he couldn’t represent it on the page. But in films, nothing exists if we don’t see it. There are two ways of portraying Hyde. In the first, he’s a monster, generally larger with scoliosis and other malformed joints. He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk. In the second, he’s kind of smooth and sexy, so still taller with a deeper voice. This Hyde isn’t an animal; he’s a more pronounced version of stereotypical masculinity. Evil no longer shrinks and tramples little girls in the street; it seduces, it overshadows, it is strength. Hyde is so successful that some directors give him the nobility and strength of character as well as the muscles. Evil is a more nuanced, complicated, difficult problem than it seems to have been for a Victorian writer of children’s stories.

I feel more connections with Dr Jekyll’s story than are perhaps complimentary. I’ve never wanted to seem better than others, but I like being the best I can be, and when I was a religious person I wanted to be the best religious person possible. I tried really hard, and I was good at it. I became an expert in self-denial because that’s what my deity expected (in this sentence, ‘my deity’ is a set of cultural constructs that is pretty close to an amalgamation of my perceptions of my parents – my dad’s physical distance, my mom’s emotional distance and judgmentalism). Unfortunately, being religious creates this internal divide – like Dr Jekyll, I labeled some parts of myself as evil and crushed or ignored them. But, as in the Langston Hughes poem, parts of the self that are denied don’t just dry up like a raisin in the sun, they explode.

Six or seven years ago, my entire life collapsed. The first part was losing the religion. I was a good and faithful member of that church for more than thirty years; it was the most important part of my cultural identity. I had given everything I had to them, until something in me just broke and I couldn’t do it any more. I was severely depressed and no amount of service was changing that (they tell you to forget about yourself and work for others and you’ll find peace, but it’s a lie). I thought God hated me, and when I tried communing with him he was sort of unfeeling and cruel about the whole thing, which I now take as evidence that the voice in my head was just me. As they say, you know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do. My wife was a big help and support during this time. She had always seen my church as pulling us apart, so when I got rid of it she thought we were growing closer. She had reached a relationship goal, and we started going to churches together, with her settling on Catholicism. I guess she didn’t notice how often I used the baby as an excuse to leave Mass.

A few months later, I told my wife that I’m gay and she left me. She insists that she had no idea it was coming; I insist that she must have been willfully blind. If I had been looking for evidence that I was evil, this was it: not the whole gay thing, the fact that I broke the heart of the only person I felt truly loved me. I suppose I did have some self-hatred for being gay, but the way that the fact I’m gay hurt her is the thing I hated. If I could have taken a pill that would force me to be straight, I would have done it, for her. We had the kind of codependent relationship where each only exists as an extension of the other – I didn’t know who I was in isolation, or whether I existed at all. I had lost my self.

There are those who say suicide is never an option. That’s dumb; suicide is always an option. It’s not a good option, but it’s there. I actively wanted to die for a long time. I had several lengthy, detailed fantasies about killing myself. Most involved cutting, a few were burning, drowning, or hanging. When a friend gave me some sleeping pills, I couldn’t take any because I knew I’d overdose. There were some times the only reason I left the house was to get away from all the kitchen knives. I used to walk around the city at night trying to get up the nerve to jump in front of a truck. Fortunately, I’m also lazy, and the idea that suicide is always an option was really helpful. Because it was always there, there was no rush. I can live through today and try it tomorrow. I’m alive now because I kept procrastinating suicide until I didn’t want to do it any more. Some people say that suicide is selfish and we shouldn’t do it because of the pain it will bring to others; that seems like another dumb thing to say. Living my life for other people is what drove me to suicidal depression, so it wasn’t going to help me get out of it.

Counseling helped. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wasn’t the path for me – it felt like I was Jekyll-and-Hyding again, naming a part of myself as evil and containing it, partitioning my self like a hard drive. The Emotional Freedom Techniques of Henry Grayson were better, but the most useful idea of his was the warm-up, where I say out loud that I love and accept myself even if I still think I’m not that great. I started visualizing myself as having separate people who live inside me, like The Ego Pirate or The Crying Boy. I stopped trying to correct any of these weird partial selves I have and just focused on loving them as they were, loving myself as I was. I started treating myself as I would my kids, with the same patience for my own vulnerability that I have with theirs. The little boy in me cried all he needed to and then stopped, my ego stopped trying to kill off the parts of me that were hurting, and I stopped feeling so fractured. I don’t need the visualizations any more.

I still get depressed sometimes, but it’s not constant. It’s been a long time since I thought about killing myself. With all the high-profile suicides, the thing that people seem not to be talking about is the fact that suicidal ideation isn’t a constant thing. It hits like a thunderstorm; sometimes it lasts for days, but sometimes only for a few minutes. Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes memories are the trigger, and it can take a while for them to surface. For example. When I first came out, my brother called me on the phone, already a drastic step because he only has about a third of his hearing. He yelled at me for twenty minutes and threatened to kill me, and we haven’t spoken since. While that memory hurts, he’s not the one that’s bothering me right now. It’s my mom. When I told her about this, she didn’t react. She still tells me about what’s going on in his life as if nothing happened. No one else in my family responded either, except to agree that he’s an asshole and to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that anyone’s tried.

The Mom thing brings up a couple of important habits of hers that contribute to my depression. The first is her habit of ignoring everything she doesn’t like or approve of. She doesn’t have any photographs of my adolescence because I was weird and awkward-looking. This is where the partitioning began; to get parental approval, I had to lock away the aspects of myself that my mom didn’t like. “Don’t walk like that – you look like a fairy.” The second thing is the way that she blamed me for everything that happened to me. If I had a problem, it was always my fault, and usually my responsibility to get out of it myself. I can understand the desire to teach her kids to be independent and to think critically, but sometimes a kid needs a hug and to hear that everything is going to be okay. We need to feel that our mother is on our side, but I rarely felt like she was biased in my favor. More often, it went the other way. “And what did you do to deserve it?” Why do you assume that I always deserve it? She got a little hurt a few years ago because I never take my problems to her now, but she is the least sympathetic person I know. Why would I take her anything? With these attitudes growing up, of course I ended up feeling like there was an evil inside me that was going to consume the entire earth, and that it was my duty to protect everyone from me. Of course I wanted to commit suicide like Dr Jekyll.

I’m not evil. I’m gay and angry, but I don’t damage or poison people just by being in the same room with them. I’m fairly quiet with people I don’t trust, so most people (including my family) see me as a mirror of themselves – they’re shocked when I suddenly have different opinions than they do, but that’s not my fault, and it’s not proof of hidden evil. The more I embrace the parts of me that my mom doesn’t like or see, the more I like myself, and the more my real friends like me too. Even the worst parts of me can be loved.

So, if Stevenson’s story is about good and evil, what is evil? And what is good? Dr Jekyll’s evil is rejecting himself. His locked-up desires get stronger and stronger and burst out in violent and unexpected ways, but those desires didn’t start out as evil. His vices are initially so mild that other people brag about them. Evil is naming part of yourself evil and hating yourself because of it. And good? Well, like so many stories that people say are about good and evil, this isn’t a story about good. People talk of Hyde as the evil and Jekyll as the good, but he’s only one person, and Jekyll isn’t that great.

This book is short and strange, but not David Lynch strange, it’s what-does-Stevenson-think-he’s-doing strange. He’s writing something different than his usual books, and the result is weird, like he doesn’t know how to write this kind of story. Worth reading, but don’t assume you’re going to know anything useful about the author’s style or habits of storytelling. Obviously it’s helped me articulate things I’m experiencing, but that’s more to do with my response and less with the book itself. He’s tapped into something universal and collective, much more than ever before, but he doesn’t handle it with the skill that he did earlier novels. With all the retellings, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’ve read this before, but it’s still unexpected and weird, every time.

At work, I’m working on creating a dedicated biography collection, which means that for the last several weeks I’ve been reading a few random paragraphs from each of hundreds of biographies, so I suppose it’s inevitable that I would eventually read one all the way through. This is not my normal genre – I even avoid movies that are based on true stories – but I’m glad I read this one. Our experiences and voices are rather different, but I found enough commonality with Alan Cumming that I’d very much like to know him better.

I suppose something that helps is that he doesn’t try to narrate his entire life, from birth to imagined death. That type of story makes life seem predestined, and Cumming’s story is about taking command of his own life instead of letting his history determine his future. I also appreciate the fact that this isn’t a coming-out story. Yes, he is one of our LGBT heroes, but that’s not the story he’s telling. At one point in the book he has a wife, and at another he has a husband, but there are no tales of homophobic violence or family disapproval, no explanation in between. That story has been told a million times, which is probably why I haven’t felt any urgency about writing up my experience of it. There are only so many times we can observe and internalize those messages – Cumming insists on his husband’s unrelenting kindness, but it’s not a story about being gay, or about being rejected for being gay. This is also not a story about ‘making it’ and becoming famous. There’s one brief scene where he’s standing on a stage with Patti Smith, but there is no other name-dropping or celebrity gossip. He refers to his friends, and I’m willing to believe that most of his friends are entertainers like he is (we tend to socialize with the people we work with), but he doesn’t stress their identities because this isn’t a book about them. It’s an intensely personal story about Alan Cumming and his family.

The bulk of this story is about a short time in his life – during the time that he was filming an episode of a television series where they track down the solutions to mysteries in the families of celebrities. His mother’s father never really came back after World War II, so the TV crew takes him through the journey of finding out what happened. He sees war records and talks with men who served with him during the first week, and then he takes some time away to fulfill other commitments. The war stuff is upsetting, as war should be. Cumming’s grandfather was a bike messenger during the war, riding motorcycles across the European countryside. The actor decides the soldier was a daredevil, and there’s a certain disregard for his own life that could be bravery or a drive to suicide. He had the traditional war hero experiences about killing enemies and carrying comrades to safety. The survivor who tells Cumming about this part was kind of creepy, like he enjoyed the war. Some people never feel so alive as they do when killing others. My own grandfather was a hero to me, but not in the traditional war sense. He never killed anyone, so he avoided most of the trauma that soldiers go through. He was a radio guy; he and one other Ally would be the last two in a city, keeping on the radio, inventing troop maneuvers in order to confuse the Germans. I like to think that his role was to stand between two larger belligerents and keep them from fighting by holding each at arm’s length. Instead of fighting valiantly in battle, he stopped battles from happening. It may have been less personal than lifting someone bodily and removing him from a battlefield, but it is literally impossible to calculate how many lives he saved by keeping the Germans away from the Americans. It could have been in the hundreds or thousands – think about how many fewer people would have died at Stalingrad if the Germans didn’t know how important the town was.

During the week of filming, Cumming is also facing issues with his father. Right before the taping started, his dad calls him up and tells him that there’s another family secret he shouldn’t learn from strangers. He’s the product of an affair, so quite literally Not His Father’s Son. He takes advantage of this part of it to reflect on his childhood and his relationship with his father. Cumming Sr was abusive and terrible to his children, and paraded his affairs openly in front of his wife. They stayed together in order to raise Cumming and his elder brother, but ‘raise’ in this situation means beat, devalue, and humiliate.

Memory is so subjective. We all remember in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.

I really wanted to show that it wasn’t all bad in my family. I tried so hard to think of happy times we all had together, times when we had fun, when we laughed. In the interests of balance, I even wanted to be able to describe some instances of kindness and tenderness involving us all. But I just couldn’t.

I spoke to my brother about this. He drew a blank, too.

We remember happy times with our mum. Safe, quiet times. But as a whole family? Honestly there is not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear or humiliation or pain. And that’s not to say that moments of happiness did not exist, it’s just that cumulatively they have been erased by the dominant feelings that color all of our childhood recollections.

And this is true of my childhood as well. My father has bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t diagnosed and medicated until after his second marriage. He seems so harmless now, sadly affectionate and blaming everyone for his problems but himself. I feel a wave of pity pressing inside my throat when I watch him eating, seeing how he’s losing his fine motor control so that his hands shake when doing something that requires precision, like moving a fork to his mouth. I know that he’s changed, partially through getting good brain drugs and partially through the suffering of being rejected by his own children, so I have a cautious relationship with him. He seldom raises his voice, but when he does, it clutches my heart and I freeze in place. I talked with my big sister a few years ago and she assured me that it really was as bad as I remember, and that I was right to be afraid of him. That helps remove some of the subjectivity from my memories, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. Unlike Cumming, though, I was generally too small to be a target, and I had four older siblings to keep my dad distracted from me.

The biggest difference between me and Cumming here is in our mothers. His seems to have been just fantastic. Mine had overwhelming anger issues, just like my dad. She was relatively safer, though, because instead of yelling and hitting she withdrew most of the time. I can remember being spanked by my mother one time, but that one time was so disturbing to me that I vowed never to do anything to make her hit me again. I’ve been pretty successful, though these days it means that I withdraw from her as much as she withdrew from me.

My parents split up instead of sticking it out ‘for the children’, as if we would have derived any benefit from that, which I think was a good choice. But, as I’ve been thinking of what to talk about as I write this entry, I don’t want to dredge up specific memories of the horrible times – I want to discuss how having been in an emotionally abusive home continues to affect me now. If someone raises their arm close to me, even if it’s just to adjust their hair, I duck a little. If anyone, in any context, gets angry with me, I panic. I can’t live in that moment and hear what they’re saying, no matter how reasonable (I’m human; I can’t keep everyone happy all the time). Fear blanks out my mind and all I can do is either run or grope for some way to reassure them or make them happy. There’s a running narrative voice in my head that constantly justifies my choices and actions to a nonexistent third party who might disagree. I’ve gotten my mom’s voice of disapproval to be quiet, but I’m still responding to it. I still expect my endeavors to fail. I’m grateful for supervisors like the one I have at the library, who train me well and provide the scaffolding that I need to be successful, but when something I do turns out well I’m more surprised than anyone else, even after twenty years away. I remind myself that I’m intelligent and capable, but those words aren’t an instinctive part of my self-image. More than in any other area, I expect myself to fail financially, and am astonished when I have more than ten dollars at the end of a month. My family used to tell me, “In the olden times, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat,” so when I’m underemployed I starve myself in order to live within my income. I’m doing better about asking for help when I need it, and I’m mostly finished with the anorexia, but it’s easier for me to turn to friends than to family. I don’t expect my family to do anything for me that doesn’t directly benefit themselves. I sometimes remind myself that I don’t have to earn every second of continued life, but that work ethic is so ingrained that poverty is something I reproach myself with when I hate myself. I don’t hate myself as much as I used to. When I was a kid, the only real safety was in silence and solitude, and I still have a preference for these. I also developed the habit of remaining very still and staying at the edges of rooms. I like sitting close to walls, and I am very uncomfortable with people walking behind me. I also sit near exits, and keep my eye on points of ingress so I know where people are around me. I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. When I go to a house I’ve never been before, it takes a couple of hours for me to become comfortable with the space. Or, comfortable enough to participate actively in the conversation. I’m uncomfortable meeting new people because I don’t know what will make them angry, and the distinction between what will offend and what won’t is never clear to me. Strangers are often loud, which bothers me. Loud noises bother me, so I hate fireworks and parades. Crowds also bother me because there are too many people to separate the crowd into individual people and assess the threat level each one embodies. I have to know someone before I assume they do not want to harm me. Not having grown up with a sense that the world is safe, I withdraw from it as much as I can.

I’m living in the same space I was six years ago when I first came out and got divorced, so all the anger and depression of that time is coming back, like it was lurking in a corner and waiting for me. I looked back at my blog posts from that time, and I’m surprised at how dishonest I was. I was trying to be truthful about myself and what I was experiencing, but the writing is all about hope that I didn’t actually feel. Hope was an intellectual exercise, a fantasy to keep me from hurting myself. When I look back, I remember driving down the street and imagining car wrecks; everything that happened was an opportunity for me to die. Freud theorized that there are two impulses, one toward life (Eros) and one toward death (Thanatos). When I think back over my childhood and my desire for stillness, and then my adult life and the suicidal ideation, I believe that Thanatos has been the most important driving force in my life. Not as a return to the womb, but as an escape from a life that has never seemed to want me in it. I do pretty well at resisting thoughts of physical self-harm, but not financial. I overspend as a way of hurting myself, sometimes with the same level of compulsion as people who cut tiny little maps in their skin, the streets going this way and that. I can stop myself, but it requires a level of self-control and self-denial that I’m not entirely comfortable with. To be clear, I’m much healthier than I was six years ago, but I’m not perfectly adjusted, and the darkness in me is often more palpable than the light.

There was a defining moment in Cumming’s youth, and I wish I had experienced something similar. At the age that young men discover the joys their own bodies provide, he was spending his alone time out in the woods, and once someone from town saw him.

I lie there for a while in the dusk, then make a decision, little knowing how it will affect every facet of my life and fiber of my being for the rest of my life: I say no to shame. This man was the one in the wrong. He was the voyeur, however accidental.

But I didn’t wish him ill. I would have done the same. I actually even thought my father would be glad to learn that some progress was being made in the faltering journey to my manhood. So I rejected shame.

I started rejecting shame much later, and it’s harder when shame has become an established habit. I suppose it’s also harder when your family responds to you with shame – I have been making my family, especially my mother, ashamed of me for most of my life. At times I embraced that as an identity and shamed them on purpose. Now, I tell myself that this is their problem and gives me no truthful information about myself, but when I was a kid I just accepted it. It’s still hard for me to feel and express anger, because when I was a kid everything was my fault. If I got angry, no one ever validated that emotion – I was always treated as the one being unreasonable because I was too sensitive. If someone got angry at me, then I was again unreasonable for causing it. I can’t remember ever being vindicated by an outside source. My pain was unimportant at best, inconvenient and obnoxious if I made others aware of it. The best I could hope for was being ignored, because all I could expect from my parents was shame, anger, and fear.

Typically I’m attracted to people who occupy a similar world, which is why I date (and once married) people who are so unsuitable. I think I have a good one now, but it’s hard for me to trust that he is different, and I look for reasons to be on my guard.

So, this part of it takes up three-fourths of Cumming’s book. The English teacher in me wants him to change the balance of things – if Part One of four is 75% of your project, you might want to subdivide differently – but for this story, it’s right. Part One ends with the DNA test that tells him whether his father’s story is true, and that’s the end of that part of his life. Part Two is about the rest of his grandfather’s story, when he went to Malaysia as part of the colonial police force after the war. He was loved but still recklessly depressed, and died during a game of Russian roulette. Later, Cumming’s father dies, and he uses his inheritance to take his mother to Malaysia to meet the people who knew her father, to see the park and the street named after him, and to see his grave.

In the end, he breaks free of his father’s negative influence and it really does become his past. These things are still very present for me – I’ve been so starved for affection that I’ll take the diseased version of love that my family offers me, better than nothing. Yet, I don’t go building a new chosen family around me. There are people in my life that I love in less complicated ways, which seems to be what people mean when they talk about family, but I don’t apply that vocabulary to them. The word family to me means something weird and toxic and inescapable, a horror that has become internalized. A monster that speaks to me in my own voice and stares back at me from the mirror. And yet, that I love and condemn as I love and condemn myself. I don’t have Cumming’s defiance.

Read this book. It’s not always easy, but it leads toward hope. People with happy childhoods may have a hard time relating, but I felt very close to the author and identified with his struggles. As I said, he’s very different from me, much more extraverted, less willfully unobserved, but still. If he writes more, I’ll be interested to read it.

Sometimes I wish I were dark and uneducated so that D. H. Lawrence would think I was sexy. But then I remind myself that he’s been dead for eighty-seven years and so I really shouldn’t give his preferences much weight.

lostgirl

I first read this book a few years ago, as part of the D. H. Lawrence Omnibus I bought for my e-reader. But I didn’t remember that when I saw it in the used bookshop and picked it up. I was looking back at some of the old blog entries from that time, but I couldn’t find any thoughts on it. Instead, I saw just how unhappy I was. I saw some handwritten journal entries from the same time a few weeks ago, and I’m amazed that I survived. I was so suicidal then. Things are dramatically better now, but I’m feeling the seasonal depression coming on, and starting to feel some anxiety about going back to the dark, uneven places in my mind. I know that I’ll come through and that spring will give me new life as it always does, but I’m not looking forward to the next two months.

You live and learn and lose.

This book tells the story of Alvina Houghton, and as an American I immediately pronounced it completely wrong in my head. This is a book with several different accents – RP and Midlands, of course, but then there’s RP warped by American, as well as French, Italian, French-Swiss, and German-Swiss – so Lawrence shifts his spellings to match the characters’ pronunciations. Alvina should be pronounced with a long I sound rather than the long E, so that it rhymes with vagina. Houghton does not have the sound of ought; the first syllable rhymes with rough.

But we protest that Alvina is not ordinary. Ordinary people, ordinary fates. But extraordinary people, extraordinary fates. Or else no fate at all. The all-to-one pattern modern system is too much for most extraordinary individuals. It just kills them off or throws them disused aside.

When I read this, my first reaction was to reject it as elitist. In essence, I don’t see anything that far out of the common way in Alvina; she has a good education and lives in a town with few opportunities, and most people in that situation end up leaving their town to build a new life elsewhere. Or at least, most people now. Perhaps in the 1910s it was extraordinary. But I think that Lawrence was likely thinking of himself at this point. The Lost Girl was written while he was trying to find a publisher for Women in Love, which was a complicated task because of its overt sexuality and references to homosexuality (it has always struck me as strange that a book about two men who are almost a gay couple should be titled after the women they fuck). WL’s predecessor, The Rainbow, had trouble getting published too, so Lawrence’s insistence on his specialness is a logical response. He was feeling rejected, so he found ways to comfort himself.

And then, as I’ve been thinking on it, I think that while Alvina is an average woman, she makes different choices than her friends and neighbors make, and people hate and fear what is different. I was talking about this with a friend this week, complaining about the elitism, and he said, What makes people extraordinary is not in the ego. Which makes sense to me – Lawrence may not have fit the mold his coal-mining society offered him, but that fact doesn’t make him better than they are. In terms of human worth, he’s not better, which our current connotation for the word Extraordinary implies. But I find his writing abnormally beautiful; his stories touch me in a way that runs deeper than the constructs I use to interact with the world. The place inside him where his stories come from seems very similar to the place inside me where my stories come from.

I’ve been talking with some friends about joining a shared storytelling experience, but this week when I gave my first attempt it was rejected as being too dark. I’m trying not to take it personally, but it feels like they rejected something essential inside of me, like they don’t want to be exposed to the world as I see it. One even described me as a broken hippie, and while I don’t take offense to that the way some others did, it is who I am. My brokenness comes from feeling rejected by society at large, and it is too close to my identity to be fixed by someone else. There’s an awful lot of anger inside me, stemming from several different events over the last six years (and childhood stuff too), and I haven’t always let myself feel it so that I can release it. When we write stories, the caged-up bits of our lives find their way out. Maybe I need to write some really angry stories to let the rage monster calm down, but if that’s what I need, this group is not the proper setting for it.

God bless you for a good wench. A’ open ‘eart’s worth all your bum-righteousness. It is for me. An’ a sight more.

So Alvina learns to live and be herself in a society that is inimical to her. The first third, Act I if you will, deals with her parentage and upbringing. This is necessary to a writer as interested in psychoanalysis as Lawrence is, but this quantity of exposition makes the story seem long, and readers who aren’t accustomed to the ponderous, heavy beauty of Lawrence’s prose will likely give up long before anything interesting happens. Alvina is the product of an effeminate father and an invalid mother who happily take up separate bedrooms after the first year of their marriage. He hires a governess to look after the child, and she is mostly raised by Miss Frost. But when she becomes an adult and is ready to face the world, there is no world to face. Her family wants her to keep going as she has done, caught in a perpetual childhood. So she goes off to a different city to get trained as a maternity nurse. It’s exciting to be away from the town she grew up in, surrounded by new friends and young men, but when she gets back home she can’t find much use for her skills, so she goes back to helping her father and Miss Frost. There are a couple of suitors, but she isn’t as attracted to them as she is to the plumber, a married man with a “tight body,” which I assume to mean muscular and lean with an ass worth staring at (which she does, when he checks under the sink). She becomes so desperate for a change that she considers profligacy, but her personality isn’t right for the job.

But it needs a certain natural gift to become a loose woman or a prostitute. If you haven’t got the qualities which attract loose men, what are you to do? Supposing it isn’t in your nature to attract loose and promiscuous men! Why, then you can’t be a prostitute, if you try your head off: nor even a loose woman. Since willing won’t do it. It requires a second party to come to an agreement.

By the time we work our way around to Act II, she’s past thirty and playing the piano for her father’s theatre, a blend of vaudeville and silent pictures. People already prefer the pictures (this is somewhere between 1911 and 1913), so the skilled performers are already in a vanishing profession. Enter the Natcha-Kee-Tawaras, who do a show based on Native American interactions with white Americans on the frontier. To make this as weird as possible, none of them are actually American – they’re all from the Continent. Madame, who runs the show, is French, and her boys mostly speak in French. Max and Louis are a Swiss gay couple who speak their love in French (thus eluding censorship), and sometimes I think that Francesco and Geoffrey are a couple too, but then Cicio falls in love with Alvina and Gigi encourages him, so maybe not. At one point, Cicio tells Gigi that there’s room in the bed for all three of them (again in French), but Geoffrey declines the invitation. I think it’s because he prefers Cicio’s attention to be undivided. Or perhaps I’m projecting. Alvina falls for Cicio too, though she’s never quite sure why. When she gives him her virginity, she spends the next few days being really weird and uncomfortable around all of them. I don’t know if she gets the pun behind her ‘Indian’ nickname, Allaye – Geoffrey and Cicio were talking about her vagina as l’allée, an alley, and Madame overheard and named Alvina after her sex organ. It’s only after Alvina’s second time with Cicio, when she learns to enjoy it, that people start calling her the lost girl of the title. I think that it’s a misnomer, because a woman her age is clearly no longer a girl, and I don’t see the problem with having sex with a handsome, consenting Italian.

There comes a moment when fate sweeps us away. Now Alvina felt herself swept – she knew not whither – but into a dusky region where men had dark faces and translucent yellow eyes, where all speech was foreign, and life was not her life. It was as if she had fallen from her own world on to another, darker star, where meanings were all changed. She was alone, and she did not mind being alone. It was what she wanted. In all the passion of her lover she had found a loneliness, beautiful, cool, like a shadow she wrapped round herself and which gave her a sweetness of perfection. It was a moment of stillness and completeness.

In Act III I start to see the lostness, but that’s because I think of being lost in economic terms. After her father’s death she sells everything to settle his debts, and then Madame finds out how little money she has and things cool off between Alvina and the Natchas, to the point that she moves to Lancaster to become a nurse again. Then World War I breaks out and one of the doctors nearly strong-arms her into marriage, but then Cicio shows up again, the theatrical company having broken up with Geoffrey’s return to France to enlist. Cicio gets the girl (not the boy), they marry, and take a harrowing train trip across France in the middle of the war. They end up back in Cicio’s ancestral village in Italy, though ‘end’ is another misnomer – the book doesn’t have a strong finish, just a drifting off as Italy enters the war and Cicio gets called up, promising Alvina that he’ll return from the war and they can move to the United States, and Alvina asking if he is sure.

I spent a great deal of this book being confused by the central relationship. What do they see in each other, beyond a boy who’s attractive and a girl who’s willing? We seldom see anything through Cicio’s eyes – he’s an enigma right to the end – but when his uncle meets Alvina, there is something in the way she looks at people and things, a slowness, that stirs in him all his ancestral pagan traditions. Alvina makes men feel like men, in an ancient sense, like an aging artist’s model turned farmer has all the qualities that allowed his ancestors to imagine Jove and Apollo. Without seeming weak, she can make them feel strong. Cicio puts her into a confusion, a constant state of being unsettled, which I don’t associate with love but which apparently she does. My goal for love now is to find someone with whom I can relax and be myself, all of myself, without fear of rejection; Alvina is looking for something else, someone exciting who will help her liberate her energies and get away from the mental straitjackets of her childhood home.

I can’t find the passage that I want to right now, but there was a moment toward the end of the book when Alvina talks about Italy as an overwhelmingly beautiful place populated by people she can’t stand, and this seems to sum up my own view of the world lately. That darkness I alluded to up there – after being rejected by several branches of Christianity and living in places where I can be fired from my job, kicked out of my apartment, and even beheaded for being gay, something inside of me has lost its faith in humanity. I’ve been living as a hermit for the last few years, and it’s not just out of natural shyness; it’s that I’ve been rejected so many times and so thoroughly that it’s hard for me to trust people anymore. Yes, there are some friends that I hold very close to my heart, but the mass of people around me, the ones who voted in an incompetent bent on the destruction of our country and the rest of the world as well, I don’t care to know. I’ve been reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen in five or six years, and trusting them is more difficult than I’d like to admit. A couple of people that I really wanted to spend time with when I moved here have started new relationships and don’t have much space for me in their lives. I want to engage with the world more frequently, but my experiences of humanity in general have left me so angry and distrustful that it’s hard for me to meet new people. And I’ve been shoving this anger down and not letting myself feel it, so the rage from being different in a society that values conformity forces its way out as depression and social anxiety.

When I first started with WordPress six years ago, I called my online identity Angry Ricky, but after a few years I felt that the anger had passed and I was ready to let that name go, so I became this, The Occasional Man with a Beard. But I wonder if I didn’t let that first alias go too quickly. Maybe the repressed anger runs deeper than the feelings themselves, to the way that I form feelings. My instinctive response to the world I live in, which is full of injustice and betrayal and rejection and beauty and stillness and love and so many contradictions that I feels as if I’m being ripped apart by feeling too many things at once, as if my heart is pulled and twisted by love and pain and constant tension between the two. I don’t want to be this complex. I don’t want to be Lawrence’s Lost Girl, caught forever in a moment of suspense, in a life that plods on and on with never a sense of resolution.

This is not a book for people who are new to D. H. Lawrence, or who seldom read books. It has random phrases in German and Italian, and entire conversations in French. It’s slow and massive and heavy and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and then it stops out of nowhere, a bit like life itself. But for all that, it is one of the books that makes me feel with Lawrence, that makes me wish I had had a chance to meet him, to kiss him, to hold him tightly until not everything, but something feels okay again. I think that if he felt safe in the world, I would too.

misery

This is the last of the books that I was reading for Halloween. Yes, I finished it nearly a week late, but real life got busy for a while. I haven’t read On Writing in a few years, but one of the impressions I got from that book is that Carrie and Misery were two of the most important books of his pre-1999 career. I loved Carrie, so reading Misery was a good next step. I have to admit that I didn’t love it quite as much, probably for a variety of reasons.

This is a retelling of the old Scheherazade myth. The sultan is Annie Wilkes, a serial killer who one day finds her favorite author in a wrecked car on the side of the road. Paul Sheldon is one of those writers who keeps a clear mental division between the books he writes for himself (or his Art) and the books he writes for the public. He’s carrying a manuscript of one of the arty books, Fast Cars, which is full of profanity and grit and the worst of mundane humanity; the popular books are all about Misery Chastain, a vaguely Victorian sensation novel heroine. Imagine that East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret had a grandchild, set in their time but told in late Twentieth Century language. Paul hates Misery so much that he killed her at the end of the last book. Frankly, I was intrigued at the thought of her husband and her lover raising her child together, with no one to rely on but each other in pants-less isolation, but Paul being straight, Ian and Geoffrey do not get any sexy time. So, Annie makes Paul write a new Misery book, resurrecting her favorite character, and his writing keeps him alive from one day to the next.

The thing is, that this American male Scheherazade gives up. It may seem odd to specify gender and nationality here, but to be unpleasantly honest, have you ever met an Arab woman? They are tough and resourceful and they get what they want. Paul Sheldon just loses and loses and loses. The story gives him a reason to live long enough to see how it ends. He tells the story to keep himself from suicide. I was glancing through my journal the other day and saw how close I had come to dying, and I agree in the power of writing and story. For me, it wasn’t fiction writing – it was my own story. Those of you who were reading my Saudi Arabia blog may remember how dark those days were for me; I got through by telling myself a story, the story of my future. Sure, it may never come true the way I imagined it, but my ability to believe in that story saved my life.

What gets to me about Misery’s Return is that Paul Sheldon finally achieves what he thought was impossible: a book that was both artsy enough to satisfy him, but with enough popular Rider Haggard appeal to sell. It always bothers me, the way people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries act like Good and Popular are mutually exclusive categories, as if people can’t tell or don’t like what’s good. Culture is culture, whether any one person calls it high or low, and what’s popular defines the culture we live in. It’s a better thing to embrace reality than to hide from the aspects of culture that a person doesn’t like or agree with. The best music, the best art, the best literature, is what survives; if people are still reading Stephen King horror novels in a hundred years, then that makes him better than the Writers’ Workshop novelists who can’t get a readership.

I like the three-act structure; King knows his storytelling. Act One establishes what is normal in the created world, which is that Paul has a downstairs bedroom in Annie’s house and she manipulates him by controlling his access to painkillers. His legs are splinted, but they’re healing in all sorts of bad ways, but there’s nothing he can do about it because he’s been kidnapped. Annie is a bit bipolar, but that doesn’t account for the murderousness. She has a puritanical streak, and won’t say anything stronger than ‘Cockadoodie brats,’ which I find odd. I’ve never really had much use for euphemism; words are powerful, but only in that they are containers for feelings and ideas. A word like Fuck is only horrible when it holds hatred and rage. As a representation of sexual activity, it’s an innocent sign, labiodental fricative moving to a vowel somewhere in the middle of the chart (if you’re American; Londoners seem to go with a much higher, frontal vowel) and finishing with a plosive at the back of the mouth. There’s something in the mouthfeel of the word that gives me a feeling of satisfaction and comfort. Act One leads to the burning of the manuscript and the agreement to bring Misery back from the grave.

Act Two deals primarily with the writing of the book and Paul’s attempts to escape. He is given a typewriter and paper, and gets back into the challenge of writing a story that his audience, one insane kidnapper/murderer, will accept and enjoy. He describes it as seeing a hole in the paper, which he tips himself into as if he were Alice following a white rabbit. He also finds and reads through Annie’s murder scrapbook; I never understand why criminals need to hold onto mementos of their crimes, as if they somehow become separated from their own pasts and need tangible reminders of what happened, as if without the proof they will forget their own actions. If you killed someone, how could you possibly forget him? And if you did forget that you were a murderer, why would you want to remember? To ensure Paul’s compliance, Annie concludes Act Two by amputating one of his feet. With an axe.

Act Three starts off farther ahead in time, but flashing back to what we missed, recreating the trauma victim’s perception of time as disjointed and fragmentary. Paul’s lost a thumb by now, but he still finishes the book. The way Paul loses things – his legs, his freedom, his manuscript, his will to live, his limbs – reminds me of Captain Ahab, who loses various navigational aids and personal comforts in his pursuit of the white whale that took his leg. When he loses his pipe, I just know he’s going to lose any sense of sanity. Paul pushes through and completes his journey (to the end of Misery’s Return) just as Ahab completes his (to the final confrontation with the whale, and death).

Think about the film Stranger than Fiction for a minute. We spend most of the movie waiting for Karen Eiffel, the writer, to figure out a way to kill Harold Crick, her character. She knows the book will end with his death, but she can’t quite figure out how to do it. Then, at the last minute, she can’t write that he is dead, and finds a way to bring him back. I feel like something similar happened to King in writing this book. Paul knows he’s going to die, and I fully expect it. A passage that I remember from On Writing that I can’t locate at the moment indicates that in his mind, Paul wasn’t going to make it. Annie Wilkes was going to win. He was literally going to be consumed by the character he hated but everyone else loved, in the form of Annie’s pig that she named Misery, and the singular Annie Wilkes edition of Misery’s Return was going to be bound in his own skin, as if this book were his organs, as if the story were himself. The writing led me to believe that this ending was going to happen, but at the last minute King saves Paul. He fights back and lives, though his mind will never really get away from Annie Wilkes, even after she’s dead. Now, why did he do that?

It would be fair enough to ask, I suppose, if Paul Sheldon in Misery is me. Certainly parts of him are . . . but I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you. When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn’t) do. Added to these versions of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others (a guy who picks his nose when he thinks no one is looking, for instance). There is also a wonderful third element: pure blue-sky imagination. This is the part which allowed me to be a psychotic nurse for a little while when I was writing Misery. And being Annie was not, by and large, hard at all. In fact, it was sort of fun. I think being Paul was harder. He was sane, I’m sane, no four days at Disneyland there.

Perhaps there’s a certain sense of justice. Annie deserves to die, Paul doesn’t. She herself reminds us that the author is like God and He Only decides who lives or dies, so every time a fictional character dies the author killed her on purpose. And every author is in truth all his characters. The Ex used to read a lot of Diana Gabaldon, and in one passage she tells the story of sitting with some fans who were praising the hero to the skies but trashing the villain, and she thought about how foolish they were not to realize that Black Jack Randall was sitting at the table with them. King had a choice about which part of him to lose, what deserved to die. He chose to keep the writer and dispense with the kidnapping murderer.

There was a distance here between author and reader that I didn’t feel with Carrie – I think it’s related to the drugs. By the middle of the 1980s, he had become a substance abuser, which he was not when he wrote his first novel. And this is the book that helped him turn it around.

I did think, though – as well as I could in my addled state – and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, as far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.

It was the drugs taking away his freedom, his art, his body, himself. Which is why Annie Wilkes could not win at the end of the book – Paul Sheldon may have given up, but Stephen King had not. Because the book ends in a different place than it began, I want him to go back and change some details so that I can accept the ending more easily, but at the same time I get it. When I think about the real life and the real person behind the book, when I read his story between the lines, I can take Misery as it is. King survived because he had people in his life that he loved; Paul doesn’t. All he has is the story, and if you’re a fictional character, the story has to be enough. Or, if you’re a suicidal English teacher in the Middle East and you feel cut off from all the people who love you, the story of your future has to be enough. Sometimes stories are all we have.

 

house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

Well, I got off of my Kundera kick for a while, only to find more Eastern European twentieth-century fiction. This book of short stories was banned in Yugoslavia, and the writer of the introduction acts like that’s strange, since none of the stories take place in Yugoslavia itself. But given the themes relative to Jews and Communists, I’m not surprised. The Jews are heroes, and the Communists are murderers and deceivers. And I imagine that it was considered wise to keep the Russians happy instead of publishing material that is so clearly opposed to their interests.

The thing that really would have got them, though, is the passage at the end of “Dogs and Books” where he explicitly compares the Communists to the Inquisition. The same convert-or-die mentality, the lack of respect for personal property belonging to those who think differently, the same futile attempts to escape what has become the new hegemony.

Before we go to the quotation, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the fact that much of this book is plagiarized. Kis affects a journalistic style, rather like Hemingway in its lack of ornamentation, and as in a news story, there are many short sections and it’s hard to recognize where the exposition ends and the real story begins. One story remained so vague that I got to the end without feeling there was any story there at all. But this style allows Kis to pull whole sections from newspapers and histories without jarring the reader. Part of me rebels against the detractors to say that pastiche is a legitimate art form dating back to at least the eighteenth century, revived as a postmodern sensibility in the twentieth century, and that I myself deeply love Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. But pastiche relies on the audience’s awareness of the previous work, and that that first scene where Ewan MacGregor meets the Bohemians doesn’t make any sense if you don’t know The Sound of Music. Journalism is not a genre where a writer becomes a hero; his individuality as a writer is not valued as it is in fiction or film. News stories rather seem all to have been written by the same person, so that cutting and pasting them can create a seamless whole (unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the two writing styles are so distinct that they don’t blend, making the book really hard to read). Kis’s book becomes unfair to the reader because we can’t recognize the quoted material. It’s a practical joke that starts to seem mean-spirited, and no one laughs.

I was busy reading and writing when a great number of these men burst into my chamber, armed with ignorance blunt as a whip, and hatred sharp as a knife. It wasn’t my silks that brought blood to their eyes, but the books arranged on my shelves; they shoved the silks under their cloaks, but they threw the books on the floor, stamped on them, and ripped them to shreds before my eyes. Those books were bound in leather, marked with numbers, and written by learned men; in them, had they wanted to read them, they could have found thousands of reasons why they should have killed me at once, and in them, had they wanted to read them, they could also have found the balm and cure for their hatred. I told them not to rip them apart, for many books are not dangerous, only one is dangerous; I told them not to tear them apart, for the reading of many books brings wisdom, and the reading of one brings ignorance armed with rage and hatred. But they said that everything was written in the New Testament, that it contains all books of all times, and therefore the rest should be burned; even if they contained something this One did not, they should be burned all the more since they were heretical. They did not need the advice of the learned, they said, and shouted: “Convert, or we’ll knock out of your head the wisdom from all the books you’ve ever read!”

And we pretend that we’re different. It’s the twenty-first century, and we live in the oldest and strongest republic in the world. But it’s not. Enforced conformity is taking hold in Trump’s America as surely as if he were leading the pogroms himself. Texas is considering a transphobic bathroom law similar to the one in North Carolina, and while news reports of police violence against black people is becoming less prominent, I doubt that race relations are actually improving. I may be able to marry another man in any state of the Union, but in most of them I can still be fired from my job or evicted from my apartment for being gay. And let’s not forget that misogynistic sentiment is so high that critics could not stomach a movie where the girls of Saturday Night Live replace the boys of thirty years ago, or that the internet is aghast that a British science fiction series that has been running for more than fifty years is finally getting a female protagonist. I didn’t suffer much bullying after the fourth grade or so, but this supposedly great country is full of children who are being punished constantly for being different from the others. The highest cause of death among teenagers in Utah is suicide.

At times, especially after reading books like Kis’s, it seems right to embrace despair, to give up and move to France. But despite all of the everything, I still have hope that things will improve. I believe that kindness and the better part of human nature will prevail. I believe that good is greater than evil, and that though wars may happen, the world will one day know peace. As the title suggests, Kis is creating a monument for the dead, a memorial to those who died not in war between nations, but the domestic conflict between those who have power and those who have none. Killed for exercising the right to think for themselves. But I think the best way to honor the wrongfully dead is to transform the world so that these deaths will have an end. Kis doesn’t celebrate or even acknowledge hope, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I believe that the world is a good place, and that means believing that the people in it are good. I agree with the old apologists, that faith is ingrained in the human mind like instinct, and having lost my faith in divinity, I place my faith and all the passion it inspires in humanity.