Tag Archives: Book

New Book Launch Announcement!

LEARNING TO SEE IN THREE DIMENSIONS, BOOK LAUNCH INFO: JUNE 2. ARTWALK FRIDAY evening in Brattleboro Vermont. 6-7pm at the Hooker Dunham Theatre and Gallery. Or call the gallery for a privately arranged tour. Or contact pam for further information and a tour of the gallery. Any group of disabled individuals or those who cannot make it to the gallery for the show (it is not not not “accessible”) _ i will provide a reading/ talk and books for sale to any group who can get me there  to speak to them, providing  transportation to make it possible for me to meet with them. All entirely free of charge. 

 

First Poem in my New Book (unpublished so far)

TO THE READER

Zaftig Reader, engross in her poetry book
Zaftig Reader, engrossed in her poetry book

 

Last line inspired by Helen Vendler

 

who may be sitting as I am

in a green recliner with a cup of tea

staring out through the porch

to a darkened streetlamp outside the diner,

with a book in her lap, mine, I hope

the only one I feel I should have to mention

if I mention a book in a poem I write;

to the reader, the nitpicker, the one

who may be wondering why

on p. 47 there are two ands, one

right after another, and whose fault that is;

and to the reader, who may be tired

after a long ride home on the bus

after dark and a meal not worth mentioning

who picks up my book but finds his eyes

closing before he has opened the cover,

I say: Forgive me

I am only a writer sitting in a green recliner

with a cup of tea, I can’t explain

those two ands or the mysterious

streetlamp or warm the feet of a tired

reader in his bed. I can only put music on

and tell him stories to make movies

turn in his head, to let him wake

with the sudden understanding that poetry

may be all it takes to make a life—

well, my life at any rate, and maybe his,

and maybe the nitpicker’s and yours, too,

staring through the porch to the streetlamp

where what happens so mysteriously is poetry—

and the whole night is wrapped

in the words spoken by two strangers

meeting there, or not spoken, which is poetry too,

and all of us who listen are waiting

for the music of what is to happen.

 

NaNoWriMo – I finished it, and I’m a WINNER! But now what???

I did it! 50T words in a month...Now to actually finish the thing!
I did it! 50T words in a month…Now to actually finish the thing!

I want to finish writing the novel now that I have started it, and perhaps using the same agency I used for DIVIDED MINDS, if they want it, find a publisher. But we will see. I may have 50T words, and more, but who knows if it will be marketable at 100T words, and whether or not anyone will publish it. I may post another chapter here or not…I dunno. Doesn’t seem like it gets many readers (from my reading of the blog stats.) Anyhow, I don’t use the stats much because so far as I can tell much of blog land is a popularity contest of Like me and I will Like you back. And who knows who actually reads anything? So if I have a few loyal readers, that is all I care about. YOU, I  mean, who is there actually reading what I write. Thank you!

 

NaNoWriMo – Additional Installment #4 November Novel

A piece from the middle of WE ARE HOPE’S FAMILY

In 2011, late October, Prem at 45, walked the hallways of his building, still only the manager, still earning a monthly salary from his father with whom he rarely spoke, and then only to discuss matters concerning the building’s upkeep.  He could not afford to go on vacation, or to buy a new car. He had never bought a new car in fact, but kept his used Honda on the road well past the time when others of his former socioeconomic bracket — that is, the friends he had grown up with — were trading in and up. He never thought in those terms, socioeconomic brackets meant nothing to him. He was just Prem Mukherjee, and he had more in common with the people he worked with, and for, than those who bought new cars every other year and cared about that sort of thing. But in point of fact, he had very little money to put in the bank or to support a family, had he had one. But Prem never married, never even found a woman he could fall in love with. Somehow none ever measured up to whatever standards his mind seemed to set, if he set any. He wasn’t sure he set standards, only that he was so busy and he just never socialized, never seemed to be looking for a partner and no one appeared before him to dazzle him. Perhaps he was meant to be alone. He never minded much, but the prospect of growing old alone, when he couldn’t work and might be ill didn’t feel right to him either. Nevertheless, whom could he meet and fall in love with and how was that ever going to happen?

If he thought about it, there had been a few women who had appealed to him over the years, but they had always been so unattainable for one reason or another that he had scarcely tried. Thinking them either too-career oriented or too wealthy to look at a (poor as a church mouse) Building Manager like Prem, he shied away from making his interest in them known. What would he do with a rich woman, anyway? He could not keep her happy, not if it meant dinners out at restaurants or the theatre or other expensive entertainments. His own idea of entertainment was a walk in the park or dinner by the fire in his apartment and reading a book aloud to one another, or just talking about each other for hours…

Yes, it was possible there was someone who would like things like that, but he hadn’t met her yet. On the other hand, he hadn’t met many women at all, so how could he know whether or not there was someone out there for him. Ever since the rupture with his father years before, he had thrown himself into the work of Building 22, and all the complexities inherent in dealing with Eleven disabled or elderly individuals. He had learned much along the way about Social Security and federally subsidized rent, not to mention the troubles and headaches of maintaining a 100-year-old structure in a world where most such buildings were torn down and replaced with new ones. How could he have found the time to meet someone, the right Miss Someone, when he had had so much to do that was so vitally important to twelve lives all that time?

Eleven lives? Well, it was more than eleven, in fact, in all those years, since people had come and gone in the 24 years since he had taken on the responsibility for the building and its upkeep. There had been deaths, and there had been moves too.  And the weird thing was that for the most part the moves-out had been almost as sad as the deaths. Building 22 was a little community, and while people might keep to themselves, for some were loners by nature, nevertheless the tenants knew one another at least by name and no one to his knowledge was ever ostracized or openly disliked, except once, not so very long ago. That tenant, Martin, was an irascible young man, with discernable emotional instability, a self-described “skin-head.”

The police were summoned on several occasions. Once it was to break up what had threatened to become a fist-fight between on the one hand Martin, spindly, shaved-head twenty-something with a pigeon breast and arms that were too long for his body, and Darryl Strakesley, the Building 22 resident who was, of all the residents, the most fully employed – he worked 30 hours as an usher at the Cinema Deluxe – and the least independent at one and the same time. Darryl, who had Down syndrome, was squat as a fire hydrant and nearly as immoveable. He was also almost always unflappable and this was a good thing, given his congenital heart condition, so when Prem heard that summer that Darryl had been begging Martin, the skinhead, for a fight, he knew something was wrong. Something had to give or worse would happen.

Prem wasn‘t there the day of the Darryl-Martin Brawl, as it came to be called. That day, city hydrants had been shut off in certain locations, lest children using them for sprinklers waste too much water when the region was in the grip of a simultaneous drought and heat wave. Building 22’s water pressure suddenly failed and none of the upper floors had running water. This would have been a disaster in the making at any time of year, but during the summer, in a heat wave, nothing could have been worse.  So Prem spent all afternoon fighting with the water company and the electric utilities in order to get their plumbing functioning again. It was only when he returned to Building 22 early that evening, to check on residents and make sure that the water pressure situation had been resolved, that he learned what had happened.

“Darryl took a swing at Martin,” old Beatrice Bean peremptorily informed Prem the moment he stepped into the lobby. Beanie, dressed in a lightweight housecoat, was seated in an inexpensive folding camp chair, the kind with a pocket for soft drinks, near the elevator.  She did not get up when he came towards her as her gnarled feet were blue-veiny and swollen from the heat, but she did reach out to shake his hand. “It wasn’t Darryl’s fault. How could it be? Darryl wouldn’t hurt a cockroach. Martin does these things to people. He makes you want to clock him.”

Beanie wasn’t alone. Seated with her, in a similar camp chair holding a cold beer, was her friend Ernestine Baker, who had been Beanie’s best friend for as long as Prem had known them. Superficially, they looked like sisters, both being tall and having masses of extraordinary white hair that would have made them stand out anywhere. But of course there were differences too, and it only took a second glance to see that Ernestine was both thicker and a little younger. Ernie’s voice was also higher and sharper than Beanie’s, who had once been a smoker and even now occasionally enjoyed a butt or two when she was offered one.

At 75, Ernie was not, for all that, the healthier of the two. Prem knew that she had had diabetes most of her life, and now suffered from complications that would set most people back but which Ernie took in stride, largely he thought from having anticipated them as possible if not absolute likelihoods in her future. Ernie lived on the first floor, apartment C. (Beanie, on the other hand, lived next door to Hope on the second floor in A). When she stepped on a thumbtack, and her toe became infected, for a while it seemed that nothing could go right. She lost the toe and then her entire left foot and was in rehab for three months before they released her, wheelchair-bound. But being Ernie, she refused to stay seated, and was up on crutches and mobile before the end of the year.

“Halloo, Premjit Mukherjee,” hailed Ernestine, half-rising, to air-kiss the manager. “You missed a ringside seat a few hours ago.”

“I hope no one was hurt,” said Prem, his brow once so smooth now deeply furrowed as if with permanent worry. “With his heart condition, Darryl should not be fighting anyone. You all know that. And with Martin of all people.” He remonstrated gently, but the look on his face was nevertheless puzzled and full of sorrow.

“Oh, Prem, never you mind,” answered Beanie. “No one would let Darryl fight Martin. At least we wouldn’t let him if we could stop him. But the operative word here is could.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for one thing, Darryl is a grown man, and while we try to keep an eye on him for Morelline, we can’t watch him every minute of the day. Besides, he never needed that before. It’s just this Martin person. He’s a nasty, spiteful snake if ever I saw one.”

“Martin’s a problem, I grant you that,” Prem said to Beanie. “But he has a disability, and you have to learn to live with him, or at least get out of his way so he doesn’t bother you. He has a right to live here just like everyone else.”

At this, Baker and Beanie glanced pointedly at each other with raised eyebrows. Then they turned back to Prem and exaggerated their attention. Sensing their intent, he lowered his chin into his chest, looking at them from under a knitted brow. “Wait a minute. That’s not fair. I know he’s not been very nice. He’s—he’s –“

“Premjit, Martin boasts openly that he’s a skinhead,” said Beanie. “He hates anybody who isn’t white and whatever else neo-Nazis are supposed to be. I know a lot of haters want you to be ultra-Christian, but in this case I think Martin hates even Christians …” Beanie sounded weary, as if tired of trying to explain Building 22’s animosity towards Martin, as if tired of explaining why skinhead philosophy was actually not as decent and reasonable a way of thinking as any other.

Prem made a wry face and nodded. Shrugged. Then seemed to apologize for shrugging. “I’m sorry. I know. I know. I don’t like Martin’s talk anymore than you do, really, Beans. But it isn’t right for me to take sides against a legal tenant. You know how I feel; you know me. Do you think I would approve of the things he says, the things he does? But…”

“But what?” asked Beanie. “But let Martin badger Darryl into fighting, and then stop Darryl from fighting, both at the same time. Just keep the peace so you don’t have any headaches? Is that it?”

Prem looked at the old lady with her swollen feet thrust into rubber flipflops of the cheapest kind. He could all but see the lightning flash from her eyes. He smiled. “Yeah, that’s about it. I don’t like headaches, you know. I like a nice cushy job, no troubles, no probs. Don’t get involved in anyone’s life, just do your job, collect your pay check and go home, watch Geraldo on TV…”  He struck a pose as if opening a beer and letting it slosh down his throat. “Ah, good!”  He made a gargling noise.

Beanie visibly relaxed. “Okay, okay, ” she said. “You get it. I should have known better.”

“So tell me what happened here today, Beans, Baker. Martin got Darryl riled, that much I gather. And I can see how that would happen, what with his racist talk and manipulating.” Baker cracked open another cold one from her cooler, distracting him. After a long sweltering day, Prem was tired and thirsty. He wished she would offer him one, but of course no one would think of offering the building manager anything like alcohol, not even an icy cold beer on a hot day. Resigned, he finished his sentence. “But how did it go so far, and how on earth did it end peaceably?” Ernie Baker snorted. “Peaceably, my foot. Oh, excuse me — I don’t have a foot. Well, my ankle, then. The police had to practically pull them apart. It was only because Darryl weighs so much more than Martin, and is so much bigger that Martin didn’t get away with saying the things that he said. I think he expected he could blab whatever filth he wanted to just because Darryl has Down syndrome and it wouldn’t matter. Did he think Darryl was also deaf? Next time he’ll think again.”

“What happened after the police stopped Darryl from hitting Martin?”

“Well, they were going to take him downtown, especially when that little shit wanted to press charges. But Morelline, Darryl’s mother, you know. Well, you know how she is, she persuaded Martin that she just ‘might-could’ look into a few things he was involved in, and she would, you know, if he went ahead.” Beanie stopped to glance at her friend Baker, who took a swig of beer and shook her head.

“Morelline once worked in government. She knows how to get information and Martin knows it,” Ernestine added.

Beanie continued, “Anyhow, by the time she was through the police were able to leave without taking Darryl, and that skunk Marti slank off somewhere with his tail dragging. It was a sight to see. I tell you, the rest of us tenants had a party on the rooftop afterwards. All that was missing were the fourth of July fireworks, which was just as well since I didn’t think we needed any more explosions for rest of the day!”

As Beanie finished her sentence, the elevator down the hallway thumped into service. There was a hum and a light went on signaling that someone on Floor 3 had summoned the car.  With a rapid whoosh it descended and when the door opened, a short squat man with a solemn face and the characteristic features of Down syndrome exited the elevator, Darryl Strakesley.  His mother, a tiny dark-skinned woman wearing a yellow dress followed him, her black hair neatly cropped against her head, gold hoop earrings completing the ensemble. Morelline Strakesley at 55 always looked exquisitely well put-together, and few suspected that she bought everything  she wore at Goodwill or thrift stores, her carefree days on a government salary having been many years before.

“Darryl. Mrs Strakesley. How are you?” Prem greeted them, the only two residents who shared a unit in the building. It must have been tight quarters for a single man and his mother to live together in one apartment, but they managed without discernable trouble. Each time he had seen their premises the place was neat and clean without being inordinately immaculate. The nice thing was that there was always a place for Darryl’s projects – he had learned in school to make potholders and to weave simple placemats, of which he made sets and sold them on the side. His small looms were set up in the living room, even though that was where his mother Morelline slept each night on a pull-out sofa bed. Morelline, who had once, so it was rumored, worked for government intelligence – whatever that meant to whomever it was told –was now too ill to do more than care for Darryl and spend her spare time reading and keeping up with the news, which fascinated her.  She had few people with whom she could converse about such things, but she read voraciously and widely, and she was on a never ending quest to find a cure for Darryl’s heart disease before it was too late.

As for her own problem, although it was clear she could no longer work, she would not see a doctor, convinced that it had been doctors who had caused Darryl’s Down syndrome. So while she wheezed and had trouble catching her breath, could scarcely walk sometimes due to swollen ankles and legs, she would only use her relatives’ extra inhalers for her asthma or ones they didn’t need. Or that other people gave her from their own supplies. Somehow she managed to get them when she felt she needed them. And somehow she kept on going, though the wheezing was never much relieved, it felt just a little better, and she felt better because she wasn’t paying doctors just to make her worse. Unfortunately, moving at all was often the triumph of matter over mind for Morelline, when Morelline’s body was the matter at hand, refusing to knuckle under and give in to her demands. It was clear that she detested asking for help at any time, but she especially hated it when she herself was in need, unable to breathe and wheezing like a broken bellows.

This evening, however, she must have been better, because she smiled and said that they were going out. Darryl didn’t have to work and it was unpleasantly warm indoors and so nice outside that she and her son were taking a stroll in the park, where crowds and summer lights kept it safe late into the night. Surprisingly, she said nothing about the incident earlier in the day. Even Darryl seemed no worse for the wear, sporting a coat and tie and a pair of old fashioned seersucker trousers. Together they looked like an adorable mother- son pair, going out on the town together on an ordinary summer night. No one could have known that the son had nearly been arrested that afternoon for assault, or that the mother had once worked, so it was rumored, for the CIA, and thought nothing of using the fact of her past employment to threaten someone, albeit someone menacing her son, into silence.

Prem and the others watched as Mrs Strakesley led Darryl through the double doors of Building 22’s lobby into the darkness of the street outside.  On the one hand, he didn’t know whether to be proud of the woman or afraid of her. On the other hand, he knew she was fiercely and defiantly protective of her son, and that she would die before letting anything bad happen to him. Darryl may have been unfortunate in certain circumstances of his birth, but he was also blessed with a mother who was determined to make a life for him as best she possibly could, given all that she had to handle. Whether or not this was good for him, Prem thought, it was impossible to say. But no one could deny the single- minded force with which she forged ahead toward her goal. Prem worried though. He worried about Darryl if anything should happen to Morelline, and he worried about Morelline because she seemed sicker than even she was aware. He didn’t know a great deal about asthma, about COPD, one of the seemingly popular and common diagnoses of the modern age, but he clearly remembered from his pre-med days the symptoms of chronic congestive heart failure: shortness of breath, easy fatigue, edema. Not to mention potential kidney failure that could add to the catastrophic nature of the illness. He was careful, however, even privately, to remind himself he was not a doctor and that Mrs Strakesley stringently avoided seeing doctors, so that even if he was right, and even if she knew what was wrong, she would likely refuse treatment.

 

(TBC)

NaNoWriMo – 3rd Installment, November Novel: We Are Hope’s Family

Feder spoke into the darkness of Hope Ouestelle’s apartment. No one answered. “Hope?” Again there was no answer. He peered through the dimness of black and gray shapes that he hoped were just her papier mache people and creatures. “HOPE! Where are you? “ He stepped inside and moved forward, fumbling blindly for something to guide his way. Just then, his hand fell upon a lamp and he was about to pull the cord, when Hope yelled out from the bathroom.

“Don’t try to turn on the lights! I am doing something here and any light will ruin it! Just wait a goldarned minute, okay?”

Happy to hear her voice, Feder felt for a chair, slid into it and rested. At least Hope had lights, which meant that she had not lost her utilities the way some of the buildings tenants had, not yet at any rate. Not the way he had. Feder was ashamed of himself and was half afraid to admit it to Hope that he had spent too much money this month.  On  important things, yes, but also things that experience told him most people would not understand, like repeatedly paying to go through the turnstile at the Parkland, just to feel the rolling thump of the bars against his body. Why did he like this and why did he do this? He didn’t know what it was about that admission turnstile but there was a moment, right inside it, when the bars felt like they locked and might not release him, and he felt such anxiety it was almost pleasure, and then they did, they let go and that was so  — what? It was so mysterious a pleasure that he had to do it again. Yes, he knew that there had been a rate increase in the electricity bill this month, that he had to pay $30 more, but somehow entering the turnstile had used up that $30 and he hadn’t been able to pay his bill and now his apartment had neither lights nor heat.

What was Hope going to say when he told her? He wasn’t going to ask her for money. She wouldn’t have any extra in any event. He just hoped that she would let him eat with her in the evenings, and cook his supper in her apartment with her the way she had the last time this happened. She might even, maybe, perhaps, let him sleep in a chair in her artroom/living room if it got really cold in his apartment. That’s what she had done the last time and he could only hope she would do it again.

But he remembered what she had said to him the last time he slept there the previous spring, before he left for his apartment, after the weather turned warm again and daylight savings time returned. ”Feder, I cannot keep rescuing you from yourself. What am I doing? Am I helping you or hurting you by letting you stay here? I honestly do not know.”

Feder hadn’t known what to answer. How could she hurt him by letting him cook his food in a lighted kitchen or sleep where it was warm? How could it hurt him to help him? But Hope had her own ways of thinking and he had to keep that in mind. She did not understand the draw of the turnstile, and he knew she would think it strange to the point of bizarre. Everyone did. Everything he did looked strange to people. He was bad. Bizarre was bad, bizarre could get you taken away. But Hope should understand that. She was regularly taken away herself for what others thought was bizarre behavior: sitting in her artroom, talking to herself or to her papier mache people, or listening to voices of people no one else could hear, and doing what they told her to do, harmful things to herself, things like putting out cigarettes on her skin or cutting off pieces of herself with the sharpest of scissors. Talk about bizarre.

Feder at least had never been taken away. Not since he was a kid. But he would not think about those days. To think about those terrible days in the screaming room was to invite trouble, the many hours tied down to a bed because he wouldn’t – couldn’t – stop spinning. The times the teacher pinched his arm to stop him from reciting names after names of things she did not have the same need to know and hear…His need to tell her the dates of everything that ever happened to him and her need not to hear him, to silence him. How she had so much power to do so. No! Mustn’t think about those bad times, black times, screaming times…Mustn’t think. Mustn’t think. He had to think about something else. Think about the turnstile, the turnstile. How the heavy rollers came across to stop a person from crossing, then how they caught him and held him ever so briefly—that strange mechanism he was never sure he saw properly – and then how they always gently released him safely to the other side. He would think about the turnstile if he had to, until Hope came out of the bathroom.

But then thinking about the turnstile reminded him of the fact that he had not paid, could not pay, his electricity bill and how there was neither heat nor lights in his apartment. He did not want to admit this to Hope…The need to recite took hold, as it always did when anxiety got the best of him and he seized the information that was closest at hand: His name was Feder Prisma  and he was 31, born Jan 5, 1979, a Friday. Hope Outestelle, his best friend was age 57, born Sept 16, 1954, which was a Thursday, the 259th day of the year. Premjit Mukherjee, was their friend, and the building manager, aged 47, born on April 1, 1964, a Wednesday, the 92nd day of the year. Stashu Weissman, was from Poland, aged 79, b orn in 1931, Dec 25, a Friday 359th day of the year. Giorgio Ciabatta, the auto mechanic, at age 43 born, in Italy, Feb 19, 1968 on a Monday. Beatrice Bean age 84, was born on Sunday May 1, 1927, the 121st day of the year. Their Landlord Mr. Mukherjee, was age 71. He was born on Sunday, April 27, 1941, the 117th day of the year. On the fourth floor, Bryony Leurile aged 44 was born on the 82nd day of the year, Sunday, 1967, March 23rd. Then there was Kashinda Whitmore, age 27, who was born on the 305th day of the year, in 1984, on Halloween, a Wednesday. Darryl Strakesley aged 31 was born on  a Saturday, the 255th day of the year 1981, Sept 12th. Lupita Villareal, aged 62 was born on Sunday, the156th day of 1949, June 5. There were others, but he did not know their birthdays yet, so he started repeating the dates to himself. Hope  Oestelle, his best friend, was born on Sept 16, 1954, she was 57 now. It was on a Thursday–

“So, what do you think of this?” asked Hope, appearing suddenly in the equally sudden explosion of lights that came on all together when she flipped the apartment’s main circuit breaker.

Feder started.

He hated it when people wanted him to notice something. It was always a test he failed at. He guessed. “Your hair?”

Now that he said it, he looked to see if it was true that her hair was different. She had cut her hair as short as a man’s, yes. Not only that but it seemed that she had dyed it as well, a persimmon red.

“No, not my hair. That was just an experiment. Look.” She held out her hands, dangling papers for him to look at more closely.

It looked that she had been developing photographs, but these were very strange ones. So dark as to be nearly black, with purple streaks and outlines of leaves and circles.

“Kirlian photographs.”

“Yes! You know! Well, sort of. I am doing electro-photography, and developing the Polaroids myself. I wanted to see if I could make this camera out of things I bought at GoodWill, and it turns out I could, mostly. But Feder, I’m really disappointed. The photos are awful. I was expecting something different. These are ugly. I think auras should be beautiful…” She retracted the photos instead of handing them to Feder, and tossed them aside with a shrug. “You win some, you lose some. At least I didn’t spring for a real Kirlian camera. Those cost $500. I only wasted maybe fifty bucks, making mine. At least I can say that I built a working aura photography device, for all the good it did me.”

Just at that moment, Feder’s stomach took the opportunity to announce its hunger with a rumble. Hope heard. She looked at her watch with a frown.

“Haven’t you eaten, Feder? Do you want to have supper with me? I’m sure we can scrounge up something.”

Feder made a rueful face but nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty hungry. Maybe you have some cereal I could put milk on? Captain Crunch?”

“Nah, I never eat cereal, Fayd, you know that. I could make you some oatmeal, but you hate my oatmeal. How about a peanut butter and banana sandwich and diet ginger-ale? I have some really good bread and about three bananas.”

Feder’s eyes lit up at the mention of his favorite sandwiches and he smiled for the first time that evening.

“Good. I’ll make the sandwiches if you peel the bananas and pour ginger-ale into glasses for us. Okay?”

Feder followed Hope’s carroty buzz-cut into the tiny kitchen and between the two of them they made short work of preparing their meal, then carried their plates out to where Hope’s art work occupied most of the living room. Hope pushed aside the Kirlian photographs and made room for Feder on the sofa, then flipped on the 12”  television propped on a stool on a milk crate in front of them. Eating intently, they hunched forward as the PBS show Nova’s logo blazed across the little screen.

“Oh, good, I was afraid we’d missed it, but we’re just in time,” Hope murmured between bites of sandwich. Feder never spoke while a television played; even when the programming failed to absorb his interest, the interchange of light and shadow on the screen never did. Television had calmed him from an early age, and his mother always placed his crib in front of a late night movie when he couldn’t sleep. Knowing she couldn’t talk with him now, Hope turned her attention to the program, hoping it would be about something interesting, something that would give her ideas for art.

People sometimes thought it strange that Hope, who was passionately an artist when she wasn’t ill, but who found it difficult to read or even concentrate listening to books on tape, nevertheless devoured television shows and documentaries on science. From natural history to physics, from geology to chaos theory and beyond, everything scientific intrigued and fascinated her, and she used what she learned in her art, in a multiplicity of ways. “What else is art for if not to express what science teaches?” She had said this to Prem one day when he asked her why she used cell motifs when painting her sculptures. “It makes no sense to separate them. If art does not serve science, what good does it do? Art can’t serve art. That would be silly, like a translator translating from one language into the same language. A waste of time. No, maybe art has other purposes too, but one of them I am certain is to interpret science, to express it for those who do not understand it any other way.”

When she had finished she looked up at Prem, as if surprised by her own words.. Not by the thought, but by the passion with which she had shared them, and the fact that she had spoken at length about such things to anyone, and even more so, to Prem, the landlord’s son. She remembered she had backed away, eyeing him warily. What did he care why she made art or what it meant to her? He wouldn’t give a damn. Why didn’t she just learn to keep her mouth shut and leave people alone? Now she would pay, that much she knew. He’d soon be spreading gossip about the know-it-all in Building 22, second floor apartment B, the one who makes the crappy art and couldn’t even read a book to save her life. It was true, her art was crap, pure crapola, and she knew it. If she was any good, well, she would be better at selling it, now wouldn’t she? And it was painfully true that she didn’t read, hadn’t read a book in years, simply could not. If she so much as opened a book she fell asleep. The rare times she didn’t, the words – indeed the letters themselves—soon swam and danced before her eyes impenetrably confusing, impossible to put them together in any sensible way and make them into single words, let alone string into sentences and paragraphs that made sense. She wanted to read books, but the books escaped her. The refused her eyes. They fled from her, as if defying her and mocking her. Nyah, nyah, they scolded. Eat your heart out, but you can’t have us! It was such a struggle, and Hope could do nothing, say nothing. She could not even complain or feel sorry for herself. Why? Why? Because…because…She didn’t know why. It was all her fault, all her fault. Everything was her fault and deserved punishment. No wonder the voices had for years told her to burn herself with cigarettes and intermittently wanted her to set herself on fire or cut off pieces of herself. No wonder. She was the scum of the scummiest. She was the scum of the earth. She was the devil incarnate. Hope pounded her fist on the arm of the sofa, forgetting that Feder was sprawled next to her. Luckily, he had fallen nearly asleep after the program ended. He raised his head at the sound.

“It’s nothing, Feder” Hope said, standing up and pulling a throw over him. “I dropped something. Stretch out now, and go back to sleep. I’m going to bed too,”

As he lay down, Feder called out to Hope, “Hey, Hope! What are you going to do with the electro-camera?”

“I dunno. I was going to take it apart. Why? Do you want it?”

Feder, half-asleep but serious, responded, “Yah, I have some ideas…Let me use it. I’ll pay you back if they work out.”

Hope, heading towards her bedroom, beating her head with her fists in a private frustration Feder failed to notice, replied as calmly as she could, “No problem, you can keep it for as long as you want it.” Then she closed the door between them.

“Thanks,” Feder mumbled to himself, tumbling into sleep.

“Jackass, you asshole…” Hope derided herself in angry mutters, still occasionally giving herself stiff thumps across the head. “You evil son of a bitch. Who do you think you are? You are the devil, the killer of the world.” She paused, stared blankly at something unapparent to anyone who might have been watching the scene, and mumbled a word or two. Nodded. Stared. Nodded again. Then she looked around, as if searching for something she had misplaced. She got up and padded across the bedroom to her dresser where she extracted a half-open pack of cigarettes. Approaching the bed, she stopped again as if listening to something. Again she nodded, twice. “Yes, I promise, I promise,” she muttered, then added, cryptically. “I will, if you will.”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Hope pulled off her jeans. She extracted three cigarettes and lit them. Without hesitating she drew deeply on all three then immediately applied them firmly to the skin of her upper thigh, holding them in such a way that they burned but didn’t quite go out until she finally crushed the heads against her. Quickly, she repeated the maneuver, and again a third time. Finally, she pulled her jeans back on, drew her T-shirt down and hastily hid the remains of the extinguished cigarettes underneath the papers in the bottom of her wastebasket.

Calmer, but a bit dazed and still not ready to sleep, the cigarette lighter and pack in full view on her bed, Hope sat on the edge of the bed quietly, her head bowed, her hands in her lap. Her face, usually so mobile, was still and blank. But it was not a serene blankness. Rather, it was a blankness of confusion, as if she were not quite sure what had just happened. After about a half hour, she lifted her head, took a deep breath, frowned, and stood to clear away the debris of her recent actions. No point leaving any evidence around for Feder or anyone else to see. She could take care of her own wounds, and anyway, three times three wasn’t so terrible. She had done much worse before. No one ever died from nine cigarette burns, she just had to shut them up for a while…

It was well after midnight before Hope finally lay down under the covers and turned off her lights to sleep. And when she did sleep it was fitfully and to a book of troubled dreams. But sleep finally came and she didn’t wake until after Feder had left for the morning. She didn’t wake until the knocking at her door became outright banging.

NaNoWriMo – WE ARE HOPE’S FAMILY 2nd Installment of November Novel

Chapter one (cont’d)

[Building 22 had been built in 1900 and its first elevator was installed in 1925 then reinstalled in 1955 with a (zibbit*) . In 19_5 when the Landlord first acquired the building as a young man new in the country, he installed a (zibbit*) elevator upgrades at great personal expense. But when the inspectors saw this elevator in January,1989 they didn’t like it at all. In fact, they condemned his entire operation at once and ordered a complete upgrade.  They insisted he install what amounted to a brand new elevator.]

The Landlord balked. He didn’t tell the Inspectors this. Instead he decided to petition the City and get a waiver to redesignate Building 22 as strictly for a non-disabled population.

The petition claimed that he was unable to afford the construction of new elevator without increasing the rent on his tenants and unless he  tripled their present rents, he could not afford them. But non-disabled tenants not only could afford the higher rents he needed, they would not need an elevator! Voila, the problem would now be solved via the stroke of a city official’s pen.

It might have happened that way, even in America, in 1989. The City is not a terribly corrupt place, but money has its perks and certainly it has a voice in places of power, as it does everywhere on earth. So had the Landlord decided to use his considerable power and money to back his petition, either somewhat legally or in a less than legal fashion, it is possible that he might have had his way. We have no way of knowing what might have happened. We only know what did happen. Which was that Silent Stashu Weissmann, Building 22, apartment3A, got wind of this plot and in his outrage shed his silence like a cloud releasing a torrent. He informed Bryony, the fourth floor tenant with cerebral palsy who had been immured in her apartment for weeks, dependent as she was upon an electric wheel chair and thus on the elevator to get her downstairs. Bryony was one of the few tenants who despite her disability had a regular job outside the building and needed to get to work on a regular basis. If she lost more than a month’s worth of time due to the lack of an elevator, she was threatened with the loss of her job, a job she cherished, even if at 20 she had held it for only a couple of years.

Worse, there was the possibility that without the income from her job, she might not be able to pay her rent and could be evicted, This, she observed to Stashu, was the height of twisted. Especially since it was the Landlord’s fault entirely that she was unable to get to her job.

“Ve do something about that,” promised Stashu. “If you cannot go vork, ve get vork come to you.”

“Yeah sure, that’s really likely.” Bryony shook her head.

Stashu agreed that since the War – nothing could be compared to Poland in WWII—but he hadn’t faced a worse situation since then, that this one beggared belief. Twisted was putting it mildly. The Landlord’s behavior was an abomination. And that meant a lot, coming from him.

Bryony nodded in appreciation.

“Ve write a letter, but not just any letter. A Letter to the Editor of the newspaper. They print, and people read and come to assist us. A new elevator, it will be grant us and they build it just for you. Trust me.”

Bryony had no reason to believe any of this, but she liked the idea of being asked only to trust this not unattractive older man with a Polish accent who said he wanted to write a letter to the newspaper in order to get her an elevator.

“Okay, let’s do it. We’ll write a letter. But what do we say? You talk it out loud and I’ll type.”

Stashu formerly and formally known as Stanley Weissmann  had been 15 when Bergen Belsen was liberated after WWII. Though he had lost much of his extended family during the war, he himself had never been a camp resident. A student at boarding school in the late 1930s, he had been lucky enough to be hidden by a family of intellectuals who took him in and, when it was safe enough, fled with him first to France and then to the United States in 1939. Nevertheless, Stashu  had seen plenty of brutality and read obsessively during his years in relative safety. Then the news and newsreels about Bergen Belsen came out. He absorbed everything he could about the camps and the treatment of the prisoners there. He could not learn enough, he felt, and such learning was not just of facts but was in its very nature penitential. He, Stashu, was not among the dead. He should have been. Therefore it behooved him to learn all that he could, all that there was to learn, and to never fail to pass on what he knew so that the world would never forget what happened. He did this so that the millions of people, killed during those years would forgive him, Stashu Weissmann, for surviving.

The western New England City was not a big place, only about 15,000 people from the inner core to the outlying suburbs, and if the truth were told it was insular, even parochial.  Many of the people who lived there were at least third generation Americans and a large percentage traced their roots back to the 1800s. By the 1980s it is at least likely that many could have gone their entire lives without meeting a single WWII survivor from Poland. Most would never have known such survivors resided in their City but for the reporter who wanted to tell Stanley Weissmann’s story. Stashu at first refused, remonstrating that he had no particular story to tell. He had lived in Poland during the war, had managed to escape, and now he studied the Camps so as to expiate his guilt. And so he could tell the world about them, and the world could learn and would never forget. His personal story was nothing; the only story worth telling was that of the camps… So, okay, said the youngish reporter with a little laugh, tell me about the camps then. I want to hear those stories.

And so he had talked, and talked at great length about the concentration camps. He told her about how when American soldiers liberated Bergen Belsen, and found living skeletons wandering the grounds, dazed and barely human, they showered them with Hershey bars to assuage their hunger, knowing nothing about refeeding syndrome. To the soldiers’ horror, within hours many of these survivors lay either dead or writhing in agony near death, killed by the very chocolate that was supposed to save them. He spoke about the Warsaw Ghetto, about the bruising poverty and brutality of everyday life inside, and about the Uprising, the heroism and the ultimate crushing defeat. He talked and talked and when he was through, he thought the reporter would ask him a little about his own life, but instead she only thanked him for his time and left.

When the story came out in the paper, Stashu was horrified to read that the title of the piece made him out to be himself a survivor of Bergen Belsen. Not only that but in every instance, the stories that he told about what others had endured in the camps and ghetto, the reporter simply attributed to his intimate personal experience. He felt like the scum on a pond. What had he said to her that she should have assumed he lived through all that he talked about? Surely he never said anything that would lead her to believe what she wrote!

That newspapers get the story wrong surely happens more often than people know. And paper do not print corrections as often as they ought to. If they did, it seems likely that papers would be often more corrections than news. Whatever is the case, as the story had it, Stashu miraculously survived both the Warsaw Uprising and Bergen Belsen, which made him much more of a heroic survivor than he was. But try as he might, nothing Stanley Weissmann did could get the paper to print a retraction. They insisted that it was the spirit of the piece that was important, not the actual facts. Besides, Stanley was a survivor, was he not? If he did not survive the real Bergen Belsen, well, he spoke eloquently for the few souls who did, and that was a terrific public service, so he should just be quiet about it and leave them alone.

Stashu didn’t see it that way. He saw only that the reporter had told a lie, had made it seem as if Stashu himself had lied about his life, aggrandizing himself in a most improper way. They kept on saying that it didn’t make him bigger, not at all, Before this, nobody even knew who Stashu Weissmann was. So how could they think anything about him at all? He was a nobody. A NOBODY! the man at the paper had actually screamed at him after Stashu explained the truth of the matter and he’d finally – finally—understood that Stanley was not even the “Stanley” their reporter had written about, the apparent saint of the Warsaw ghetto. If Stashu was not that humble amazing human being, a phoenix risen from the ashes living among them in their City, then why not scream at him like a common irritant, a bug, a miscreant that had the temerity to tell the City newspaper-of-note to change what it had written?

“We stand by our reporters!” insisted the nameless man on the other end of the phone at the newspaper, “Furthermore, I am not going to stand here and listen to someone who does not even speak English properly tell me how to run a newspaper. When you have had a proper high school education and go to college and get a graduate degree in English literature, then maybe you can criticize, but not before then. Good day!” Then the phone went dead.

Stashu felt like a fraud, even though he had never intended to deceive the reporter and knew she must have known the truth even as she deliberately distorted the story for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the damage was done and the damage to Stanley was incalculable.

After the story came out, people tried to find out where Stanley lived. The newspaper refused to reveal his whereabouts, saying that the poor man wanted only his privacy, that he had been through too much and would grant no other interviews. But the City was relentless in its drive to cover their not so homegrown hero with accolades and awards. They proposed naming a city park the Stanley Weissmann  Heroic Parkland  and in an effort to teach youngsters about WWII and about concentration camps, they named a program in such studies in their high school curriculum after him as well. Some of this could have softened the terrible sting of the article, having as it did, some “good blow by” as Giorgio, the former auto mechanic disabled with rheumatoid arthritis and ADHD and  OCD in 3A put it.

But to Stashu it was all too little too late. He could barely leave his apartment by this time. Most of the other tenants in Building 22 did not know of the article, had not read the paper and did not know anything about Stashu’s history, either the truth or the fiction. They knew only that the gentleman in Building 22, Third floor, Apartment A had stopped coming out to feed the birds under the spindly maple trees in front of their building. They knew that he was seen rarely and at night, in dark hat and coat, leaving surreptitiously as if in disguise. The nice-looking older man who had once been as free with his bread crumbs as with ascerbic remarks, had now become taciturn. Worse, when spoken to, he responded only in Polish. His neighbors withdrew from him, not understanding. And Stashu retreated into what was left to him: silence.

It was Stashu’s letter to the editor that Premjit saw the morning after in the paper. Sitting with a cup of coffee at the breakfast table alone he read it casually the first time, not quite getting what it was all about. Then he read it again having taken in the signatures. Finally, trembling, he read it a third time, very slowly, registering the weight of each word, his face growing warm. When he was done, he took a pair of scissors and snipped the letter free from the larger sheet of newsprint and slipped the clipping into his pocket. Then he rose, ready to leave. He hesitated. Suddenly he had no wish to do whatever he had planned for the day. The luncheon, the games, the reading or planned events, they all seemed vapid and of little interest. He sat back down.

Taking out the clipping, he read it a fourth time., This time he nodded vigorously like  a man charged with a mission. Indeed, Premjit was charged and changed. From this moment on, Building 22 would become his – his what? Call it a mission if you will. Call it his purpose in life. Call Building 22 whatever it is that gives a life meaning and direction. Whatever you call it, Building 22 and all its twelve tenants from that moment on, with and without an elevator, became the central focus of Premjit’s life.

When he rose again from the breakfast table, Prem had scarcely touched his meal,  but he was filled nevertheless, filled with nourishing things like purpose and determination and a burning drive to help others. He was also filled with rage and bitterness, both of which eat at the soul. This created a stew of emotions that does not serve anyone completely well but in the young is especially problematic. Sometimes rage motivates young people to greatness. Certainly, they feel it does. At least it is true that they are prone to great wraths and to great deeds and who is to say that the latter can be accomplished without the former. It can only be said in Prem’s case that his enormous resentment towards and anger with his father, with regard to his treatment of the Tenants in Building 22, felt to him both motivating and liberating. Before he read Stashu’s and Bryony’s letter, Prem had felt at odds with his life, at odds with any future his father presented him. He hadn’t felt equal to any professional career, not even one that he could have rebelled into, say that of an actor (how his father would have detested that!) or an architect, had he any talent in those directions. But he had felt no strong negative emotions either. Since childhood his inclination had been to follow, well, the inclines and declinations that his life simply rolled into by chance, as if into a groove in the pavement or a runnel down the slope of a hill. His philosophy was that life should find the path of least resistance, for such was its proper path.

Up to the age of 23, until 1989, this “do nothing to resist life” policy had served him well, since he had had a successful school life and was poised on the cusp of adulthood with everything he needed for success there as well. But beneath the smooth exterior, Prem was discontented and in emotional disarray ever since college graduation in the Big City. He had come home to live in his childhood home with his father until he figured out what to do with his life but he was beginning to think the move had been  a terrible mistake. The Landlord was not a bad father. In fact, he had been patient and even forbearing on the subject of Prem’s future, assuring Premjit that he himself had gone through similar struggles upon reaching the shores of this great country, yes even he, who arrived with family money and the burden of a green card and went straight to work acquiring Building 22. Finding life’s direction was easier in the old country, his father said. One’s family often directed where one worked and what one did and whom one married and where one lived. In India your surname could determine your professional status and of course there was the huge question of caste, which was not supposed to affect people these days to the same degree, but you knew it still did. So life was in that sense easier back in India, easier to figure out who you were at any rate, if sometimes harder to adjust to if you found yourself in a bad fit.

Prem knew this was supposed to be of comfort, but none of it reassured him. He could not see himself fitting into a Landlord’s shoes at his age. He shuddered to think of ever fitting them. It was far too much responsibility and worse than that, the daily ins and outs of managing real estate simply bored him. He couldn’t imagine anything more uninteresting! He watched his father poring over the papers and tables that he used to manage his holdings, and felt actual pity for the emptiness of his life. How little there was to hold an intellect in all those papers! Prem wanted something more. But what? What could he do that would stay rich and juicy through a lifetime and yet still yield an income his father would be proud of? What would pay, have professional standing and status and yet remain intellectually satisfying? No matter what he thought about, no matter what career he considered, nothing fit completely, nothing that is that Prem was both capable of, inclined towards, and prepared to do.

Like many educated and intelligent young men rootless and without a clear career goal one year out of university, he convinced himself he wanted to become a doctor. He looked into how to go to medical school, become an anesthesiologist. He had the MCAT applications stashed in his bookbag and summer school curricula for premed courses, too, when Stashu and Bryony’s letter suckered itself to his consciousness like a relentless hagfish and wouldn’t let go.

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*Zibbit is the NanoWriMo word for “place holder” when you cannot do the research or cannot find the words for a concept and just write without them…you can do the proper writing later…

NaNoWriMo – First Installment of November Novel (first draft)

WE ARE HOPE’S FAMILY 

In the beginning we called ourselves Hope’s Family just so we could get into the hospital to see her and to get her out of it too and so we could be seen as legitimate in taking care of her. But then the sound of the name began to ring in our ears like what Stashu calls the clarion bell of freedom, so we kept it and from December 2011 on that is what we have been known as, everyone in Building 22, including Premjit the Landlord’s son. We do not include, however, the Landlord. No. He is not part of Hope’s Family. He doesn’t like Hope one bit. He doesn’t even like Feder.  In fact, the Landlord was the reason we pulled together and became Hope’s Family in the first place. So while we are aligned against him, in a sense we have the Landlord to thank for making us one.

CHAPTER ONE: OCTOBER  2011

Premjit opened the door to Building 22 and noted the smell before he noticed the cracked doorjamb. Burned paraffin. Too much of it. Which could only mean one thing, that the utilities had been turned off again in some of the tenants’ unit and they were burning candles for light. Lord only knew what they were doing to cook their food. Premjit hoped they were using Sterno and not portable gas stoves in the stuffy little apartments all of which lacked adequate ventilation at the best of times. He could only hope against hope. Just last winter they had lost  a young man to carbon monoxide poisoning, and nearly lost the tenant in the apartment directly above him, when he tried to cook his boxed macaroni and cheese dinner on one of those treacherous stoves in his apartment. Not only that but after he passed out, he had nearly burned the building down but for the quick thinking of a neighbor who had smelled charring food, knocked on his door and when she had gotten no answer, quickly called the fire department.

This was an accident waiting to repeat itself. The writing was not just on the wall, it was on the staircase and on the walls and on the windows. You couldn’t cook with sterno. It took nearly an hour just to boil water for a cup of coffee, a single cup. But Sterno was too expensive to cook with even if they could use it. Something had to be done, and done pronto. All of Premjit’s tenants were on social security or disability, which meant a fixed income with little leeway to increase their payments to the Utility Company when there was a rate increase. This had been instituted a month before, for the second year in a row. Worse, the City had not been forthcoming this year with additional energy assistance. Oh, City officials claimed that private businesses and charities would step forward to help instead, that tenants needed only to look for help and they would easily find it elsewhere. But looking and finding help to pay for heat and lighting were too very different things.

Prem knew what the City did not. His tenants – well, they were not his, not really, yet he felt that they were truly in his charge, and were his concern in a way that his father did not – could not negotiate the tortuous ins and outs of getting private energy assistance. They were on disability for a reason after all, weren’t they? And for many of the tenants, disability entailed some measure of mental impairment in addition to a physical problem, if mental illness or intellectual impairment was not in fact the entirety of the problem.

Yes, Prem thought, Beatrice Bean – called Bay-a-tree-chay by those who had known her in New York City, but called Beanie by her real friends – Beanie, the spindly, towering former madam –turned-Cleaning-Coordinator, her thick poofed hair the color of old bones, even at 84 probably could help some of the others. But she was elderly and somewhat frail. She could not be expected to lead the entire Building 22 to private sector energy independence.

Then there was Stashu, Prem’s 70-something tenant. He was a resourceful survivor who would get heat and lights somehow if ever he lost them, which Prem doubted would  happen. Stashu  did not go without the basic necessities, having known deprivation in his youth that was almost literally unspeakable..

Building 22 had twelve Units and Prem estimated that as many as five could now be without utilities. Who knew how many would go “off grid” in the coming months? It was only October now, the first official month of “cold” weather according to City calculations, but temperatures still rose into the 70°s sometimes. What would the tenants do for heat in December when it sank below freezing in the darkest month of the year?

Premjit, though he was of Indian extraction, had never visited his father’s homeland, and had no close acquaintance with that extreme poverty. He had not been “hardened to the banalities of hardship” as his father liked to explain it. Far from it. Instead, as if in opposition to his father’s tough stance, Prem’s feelings had only grown more and more tender towards the tenants that the Landlord so oppressed. Which is why when his father refused to fix things like the doorjamb, which was more than merely cracked, he saw now, but broken clear through and held together only by the several coats of paint that disguised the imperfection, he felt not only impelled to repair things, but he also felt rage at The Way Things Are.

Prem loved his father, and he understood  completely how the Landlord’s upbringing in India had affected him in such a way as to harden him against the very people he ought to have treated with compassion, seeing them as privileged compared to those begging on the streets in his native land. But Premjit was not his father’s son, not in the traditional sense of those words. And the United States for all her flaws, was his home, and the poverty of the tenants was what he was familiar with, and pained by. Whether relative or not, he cared if they went hungry or were cold or had to use candles to see in the dark.

The worst of the worst case scenarios, which hadn’t happened yet in Prem’s memory, but which his father perennially threatened them with, was Eviction for Non-Payment of Rent. Disability status all but guaranteed a government subsidy that made paying rent possible for these tenants. But if ever the subsidy were withdrawn, if the Government in it is infinite wisdom and kindness were ever to renege on its agreement t care minimally for its disabled population (whatever you thought if the policy of disabling so many people, so young) the tenants would be out on the streets.

Homeless. The word struck fear into any tenant’s heart. To a one this was their greatest source of terror and vicariously Premjit’s as well. So far, no one had been evicted since Prem had become aware even vaguely of Building 22 in his consciousness, as a young boy living in a large white-washed stucco house in the suburbs, five miles away. That, despite the Landlord’s threats, so few had ever been evicted was testimony to the stability of the disability payment and to a subsidy systems that all but guaranteed rents were paid and paid on time.

Even Hope and Feder, the most unstable of the disabled in Building 22, paid their rent more or less on time every month. In fact, Hope managed to pay even when she was in the mental hospital. If she had to, she made sure that Feder brought her checkbook to the nurses station and  she wrote out her payment there, handing it to him to deliver to the Landlord well before the 10th of the month. Prem made a mental note to check on Hope and Feder, hoping that their apartments were not among those that had lost their heat and lighting. His two favorite tenants had enough  to struggle with, without having to deal with these additional privations!

Having calculated the cost of fixing the door frame and preparing  an under-the-door notice for all tenants in his head about not using portable gas stoves in Building 22, along with directions to neighborhood soup kitchens and inexpensive area restaurants where tenants who needed to could dine on the cheap until their heat and lighting situation was resolved. Prem made his way along the first floor hallway. Even as he walked, which was not that quickly or that quietly in his hard -soled shoes – he made noise because unlike his silent shoed father, gliding about the building late at night – he wanted Tenants to hear him and come out to join him, talk with him, share their problems, concerns, grievances. Or just to tell him anything they wanted to. He noted all the bulbs that had burned out or were dimming. He would replace them on his next walk-through.

Four floors with three units on each floor and a roof garden that Prem had put in a few years after taking over the Tenants care, Building 22 had always had an elevator, indeed it was supposed by law to have an elevator, being a building designated for the elderly and the disabled…Once upon  a time, Premjit’s father had put his foot down on the elevator situation, when the inspectors’ insisted that not only could  his perfectly respectable Schindler not be upgraded it had to be replaced by an Otis.

“Otis Schmotis” groused the Landlord. And he added some other choice words. But since he spoke in Hindi, Prem neither understood them nor could repeat them later on, though he understood the feeling tone behind them and “grokked” – understood instantly in that profound deep way—that the tenants not only would not be getting any state of the art “inferior Otis.” But neither would their beloved Schindler be getting repaired into serviceable employment again. Not if Pere Mukherjee had anything to say about it.

This hardness of his father’s heart shocked him into a new awareness. At the time, in 1989, Prem had been only 23 and not long out of college. He had had notions of applying to graduate school, maybe medical school, and becoming a professional, a doctor. But all those ideas had been as vague as dishes seen under the murky haze of dirty dishwater.

When the elevator situation in Building 22 swam into his consciouness, it was not lazily like a school of darting minnows on a sweet sunny summers day, but like a great white shark whose feeding grounds have been encroached upon: with ferocious gaping maw and sharp teeth, ready to swallow him whole.

He might have shied away, taken one look at Building 22 and the Tenants dire situations and said to himself: “I’m too young for this. It is not my fault. I didn’t ask to be put in the middle of this.” He could have turned his head and turned away, saying, “This isn’t a situation I am responsible for. I want nothing to do with it.” He was, after all, a very young man with a promising and full life ahead of him. He might have become a major player in a major profession. He might have gone far.

Luckily for Building 22 and its tenants Premjit did not see all this, or did not care. He saw only one thing: injustice and the fact that he could do something about it. It drove him to make a decision that day that changed, well, it changed only one small thing. Only a speck in the universe was really altered. But this speck was really the thing itself writ small, but he discovered it was the thing itself writ large too, like a fractal. Fractals! So much of nature as Premjit had read recently followed fractal geometries – sunflowers, nautilus shells, coastlines, mountain ranges, trees. Nature was all about the mathematics of roughness rather than algebra’s smooth perfections. With fractals, you needed only to change one input, one speck, and you changed everything. He was beginning to think this was true about people too.

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That is only part of chapter one. I have many more pp written, but i am off to North Carolina now to visit my brother and write. so I will add more in later days, perhaps from later chapters. We will see.

Shock Treatment/ ECT – Therapy or Torture?

Freud and an angry God, hmm, I mean Doctor, electro-shocking a poor ant. Drawing by Pamela Spiro Wagner, 2012 (all rights reserved)

Although most of this post was written and posted back in 2011, I have both edited it and written an addendum, especially for the students in Holly C’s course, with whom I will be doing a Skype class on Monday. If others do not want to reread the post and wish to skip to the end where I have placed the addendum, feel free.

First though, please be aware that descriptions and names of places and so forth have been changed back to their originals except for the names of some people involved, such as my doctors. Those names are somewhat similar, but still disguised. In Divided Minds, we were forced by the publishers to completely disguise everyone, including their physical descriptions, and to make amalgams in some cases, taking two doctors and blending them into one. In Blacklight, by contrast, I am determined that my descriptions of people, previously altered in order to “protect them,” will be honest and forthright,  rewritten so that while their names may be changed, their descriptions are as aboveboard as memory makes possible. After all, I write nothing but the truth as I remember it. I wrote a fair amount in my journals at the time and I referred back to my notes there in writing this. What is more, I intend no libel  and in fact, I want only to be  fair and to bend over backwards in giving as much credit as possible where it is due.

The Ogre Has ECT: 2004

I am delivered like a piece of mail to the Hospital of St Raphael’s, on a stretcher, bound up in brown wool blankets like a padded envelope. It’s the only way the ambulance will transfer me between Norwalk Hospital and this one. The attendants disgorge me into a single room where de-cocooned, I climb down and sit on the bed. All my bags have been left at the nurses’ station for searching; this is standard procedure but I hope they don’t confiscate too much. An aide follows me in to take my BP and pulse, and bustles out, telling me someone will be back shortly. I sit quietly for a half an hour, listening to the constant complaint of the voices, which never leave me, sometimes entertaining me, most of the time ranting and carping and demanding. A thin, 30-something woman with curly blonde hair, rimless glasses and residual acne scars that give her a kind of “I’ve suffered too” look of understanding, knocks on the door-frame..

“May I come in?” she asks politely.

“I can’t stop you.” My usual. Don’t want to seem too obliging or cooperative at first.

“Well, I do need to take a history, but I can come back when you’re feeling more disposed…”

“Nah, might as well get it over with.” Then, nicer, I explain, “I was just being ornery on principle.”

“What principle is that?”

“If you’re ornery they won’t see you sweat.”

“Aah…”

“And they won’t expect you to be medication-compliant right off the bat.” I shrug my shoulders but grin, I want to think, devilishly.

“I see you have a sense of humor.”

“You should see me…”

“I’m sure we all will. A sense of humor is very healthy. But it worries me that you already plan not to take your meds.”

“I’ll only refuse the antipsychotic. Look at the blimp it’s turned me into.” I haul my extra-large tee-shirt away from my chest to demonstrate. Fatso, Lardass! Someone snipes. She doesn’t know it but you really believe you’re thin. Ha ha, you’re a house! Look at yourself! LOOK at yourself! Ha ha ha ha! The voices are telling the truth: I know the number of pounds I weigh is high, outrageously high for me, having been thin all my life, but I haven’t lost my self-image as a skinny shrimp, so I can’t get used to being what others see. The voices love to remind me how fat I really am. Only the mirror, or better, a photograph, reminds me of the honest to god truth, and I avoid those. I avert my eyes, or search the concrete for fossils, when approaching a glass door. Anything not to be shocked by what I’ve become. Pig! Glutton! It seems they don’t want to stop tonight…

I realize suddenly that I’ve lost track of the conversation.

“I don’t think they’ll allow you to do that for long.”

“Do what?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about? Were your voices distracting you?”

“Just thoughts, you know, plus some added insults.”

“You’ll have to take all your meds eventually.”

“Then they’ll have to switch me to a different pill, even if it’s less effective.”

She sucks the top of her pen and looked down at her clipboard. “So,” she starts the formal intake. “What brings you here to St Raphael’s?”

The voices break in there, again, confusing me. When I can get my bearings I tell her what made me transfer from Norwalk Hospital and why I opted for shock treatments. She takes a closer look at the mark of Cain I’ve burned into my forehead, writes something, then corrects me.

“We like to refer to them as ECT here. ‘Shock treatments’ brings to mind  the terrible procedures of the past. These days you feel nothing, you just go to sleep and wake up gently. I know. I assist at the ECT clinic.

“Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had ECT before. I know what it’s like and it’s a snap. I asked for this transfer because I hope it will help again.”

We talk some more about why I’m here and what I’ve been through and the voices keep to a minimum so there’s not too much interference. She says she’s going to be my primary nurse and that she thinks we’ll work well together. I nod, thinking she’s pretty okay, for a nurse.

I’ve arrived after lunch, which is served at 11:30am so someone brings me a tray and I pick at it in my room. People come in and out of my room but only speak to me a second or two before they leave, a doctor does a cursory physical, someone takes me down the hall to weigh and measure me. I return to my room, too scared to do otherwise, constrained by the Rules of the voices. The first break in the afternoon is medications in the late afternoon, when someone tells me to line up in front of a little window near the nurse’s station. When it’s my turn, I look at the pills in my cup. Ugh, 20mg of Zyprexa, an increase, plus a host of other pills I can’t remember the names of. I hand the pill back to the med nurse. I’m not taking this, it makes me fat, I say. Give me Geodon. at least I don’t put on weight with Geodon.

“Sorry, Dr Kroeder has ordered this one. We can’t just go around changing doctor’s orders. You either take it or you refuse.”

I was in a quandary. I hadn’t even met the doctor and already I was fighting with her? Should I take it and argue with her later? But then I’ll eat my whole dinner tray and more. Better to start off with my principles intact, so she knows what I’ll take and what I won’t take. I hand the pill back. ”Sorry, I won’t take it.”

“If you decompensate further we will have to give you a shot, you know that, don’t you?”

“I’ll be fine.” I do a little dance step.

“Yeah, and look what you’ve done to your face. Come closer.”

Wondering what she wants, I lean in gingerly, fearing her touch, but she only takes a tongue depressor and smears some ointment on the big oozing sore.

“You’re done.Go eat some supper.”

At 4:30? That’s pretty early. I can’t cross the threshold of the dining room, the Rules the voices make forbid it. I cannot enter the milling crowd, suffering little electric shocks every time my body makes contact with another. Instead I retreat to my room. Sitting on the edge of my bed again, I wonder what to do. How can I get supper, or any meal, if the voices won’t let me go into the dining room?

Just then, the thin blonde nurse with the glasses, what’s her name, leans into my room. “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a tray for you waiting outside the dining room.”

“They made a rule I can’t eat with other people, and I can’t get in the dining room…So I can’t eat.” I read her name tag. “Prisca.”

She smiles and glances down at the tag on her chest.  ”Oh, just call me Prissy, everyone else does. I hate it, but what can you do? What are you talking about? There’s no such rule. For now, I guess I’ll let you eat in your room, but that  is against the rules and we’ll have to get you into the dining room eventually, whatever the voices tell you.

She brings in the tray: white bread with two slices of bologna and a slice of cheese tossed on top, a packet of mayonnaise, a small green salad in a separate bowl, with a plastic slip of French dressing, and a packaged Hostess brownie for dessert. I didn’t eat lunch, though they brought it in, so even this impoverished repast looks good to me and I eat everything, despite not having taking the hated Zyprexa. I curse myself for it, of course, and do some  leg lifts and crunches for exercise afterwards. Ever since I’ve been refusing the drug, I have lost weight. Now I am down to 155 lbs from 170 the last time I weighed myself and I intend to get much thinner, since I started at 95 before medications over the years slowly put weight on me.

After supper the voices start in again, louder and louder, telling me how fat I am, how disgusting and terrible I am. I notice the clock hanging on the wall, which ticks audibly punctuating each sentence. The voices were carping, now they are threatening, and demanding…Finally, their all too familiar sequence segues into telling me I’m the most evil thing, and they don’t say person, on the planet. I’m the Ogre that ate Manhattan, I’m Satan, I’m a mass murderer, I killed Kennedy and deserve to die, die, die!

I’m wearing a heavy pair of clogs with wooden soles and almost before I can think about it, I know what to do. I heave one up at the clock, hitting it dead center. It crashes to the floor. Scrambling to grab a shard of the clear plastic cover before the staff comes running in, I lunge towards where I saw the largest piece fall, one with a long jagged point. I have my hand closed around it when someone tackles me from behind. He’s not very big and I can feel him struggling to keep me pinned. I almost succeed in stabbing myself, but he manages to engulf my hand with his two and press them closed against the flat sides of the shard.

Other people  crowd into the room now and they pry the shard from me and grab my arms and legs so I’m completely immobilized. Then at a word murmured by one of the male aides who have materialized out of nowhere, they swing me up onto the bed, like pitching a sand bag onto a levee. I scream but they ignore me and strap my ankles and wrists into leather cuffs which have been rapidly attached to the bed frame: four point restraints.

I continue to scream and scream, but nobody pays attention. A nurse comes at me with a needle,  saying it is Haldol and Ativan and proceeds to inject me. Although I am still crying that I want to die, that I’m Satan, the Ogre that ate Manhattan, that I killed Kennedy, I’m the evil one, the room then empties, except for a heavy-set café-au-lait sitter, who hollers louder than I do that her name is Caledonia. She pulls up a chair in the doorway, pulls out a cosmetics bag and proceeds to do her nails in spite of me.

I am told by Prissy that I scream most of the evening and keep the whole unit awake until given a sleeping pill and another shot. All I remember is restless twilight sleep coming at last, broken when a short sandy-haired woman, dressed in a sweater set and skirt, comes in and takes my pulse. I’m groggy with medication but she speaks to me nonetheless.

“I’m , Dr Kroeder, your doctor. You’ve had a bad night I see. Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll get a chance to talk.”

“Get me out of these things!” I mumble angrily. I can’t sleep like this!”

“”Not yet. You’re not ready. But try your best to sleep now. We’ll re-evaluate things in the morning.”

Then she turns and is gone.

As I get to know her, I will like Dr Kroeder for her kindness, toughness and honesty, but I will hate her too for opposite reasons and it will be a long time before I  know whether the liking or the hating or something else entirely wins out.

The first thing that makes me know ECT is going to be different at St Raphael’s than where I had it before is that we all have to get there on under own steam rather than travel in wheelchairs, the way I’ve known since childhood all hospital patients must travel. We walk there, all of us, down interminable corridors, around several corners, through doors to more of the same. In short by the time we get there I have no idea where we are.  I said it was a snap when I had it before, but now I feel like a prisoner going to the hangman, a “dead man walking.” Something about our going there in a group voluntarily, by choice and yet somehow not totally by choice, makes it feel like punishment, like having to cut your own switch, not a medical procedure at all. This sets my nerves on edge. When we finally get to the rooms clearly marked “ECT Suite,” instead of the doctor being ready for us, no time to anticipate or fear what is ahead, we have to wait and wait and wait. We’re told the outpatients have to be “finished up” first. My apprehension grows. I’m used to getting to the ECT rooms and immediately climbing up on the table and getting it over with. Waiting and having time to think about it brings me close to tears.

Finally four in-patients are to be taken. I think the nurse calling us in senses I am too anxious to wait any longer, for she makes sure I’m with the first group. I clamber up on the table, and see Dr Kroeder looking down at me, smiling. I notice how white her teeth are and the little gap in her shirt across her chest as she bends over me, strapping something over my forehead as Prissy puts a needle into the heplock already in my arm. I feel my arms and legs quickly cuffed down by others in the team, a mask clamps down over my face and I’m told to breathe, breathe in deeply and I breathe and breathe and a chasm in hell opens and the demons reach out and scream as I plummet past into a terrible inky blackness…

I wake up a second later and immediately vomit into a kidney basin hastily held out by a nurse. “Why didn’t you do it?” I cry out, confused. “Why didn’t you do it, why did you made me wait? I can’t go through this again!”

Strangely, Dr Kroeder has disappeared, and so have Prissy and the nurses that had surrounded me just an instant before. Instead a plump, baby-faced older nurse smiles as she takes away the kidney basin and says, kindly, “You’ve been sleeping  soundly for an hour. They did the treatment already and you’re waking up. How about trying to sit up now?” Slowly, I push myself to a sitting position and swing my legs over the edge of the table. No dizziness, no more nausea. I feel okay, except for a slight headache. So I slide off the table and ask where to go. Surely they won’t make me stay a long while this time. The nurse leads me to a wheelchair and asks an aide to take me back to the unit. Ah, a chair at last. At least I’m not expected to walk on my own after that ordeal.

ECT Takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and though I vomit many times upon waking up, that is the least of it. What I dread most is the anesthesia, how I plunge from perfect alertness into the dark pit and feel like I wake a second later, sick and confused. I grow more and more afraid until, at the end of a series of 8 sessions, I refuse to go on to a second series. I thwart this by grabbing something to eat every morning, which is forbidden as you cannot have ECT if you have eaten or drunk anything within 12 hours of hte procedure. Because my symptoms are still severe and Caledonia comes to sit with me one to one more often than not, Dr Kroeder tries to persuade me, but I am adamant. I am not depressed (quite despite what she tries to convince me of). ECT hasn’t helped my obsessive intrusive thoughts/hallucinations this time so no more of it. No more! Then she threatens to have the next series court-ordered  and to add insult to injury, she says she will force me to take Zyprexa as well, the drug I so hate. I explode.

“What! You f—ing can’t do that! I’m a free citizen, I’m not a danger to myself or anyone else.”

“In fact, I can do it, and I am going to do it, whether you like it or not. You need more ECT and unfortunately you refuse the only drug that is effective for you. Pam, look, how can you say you’re not a danger to yourself? Look at your forehead! That’s not the mark of  I  it’s just self-mutilation. Look at where you carved that mark into your hand when we weren’t watching you carefully enough. Isn’t that danger enough?”

“But I’m NOT going to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I just want to be disfigured so no one will want to be around me and they’ll stay safe and uncontaminated.”

Dr Kroeder’s eyes suddenly glitter and she has to blink a couple of times. “Well, I’m not going to let you continue to do what you want. Period.”

She was standing at the foot of my bed, one foot on a lower rung, casually holding a clipboard. But she moves closer to me, standing to one side, the clipboard clasped business-like across her chest. Gazing intently at me, she shakes her head in what appears to be sadness.  I’m not sad, I know what I have to do. I don’t understand why she feels this is so terrible, but I know enough to remain quiet. Finally, she turns and quietly slips out of the room.

This alarms me; it shocks me. I know she means what she says. Worst of all, Dr O’Maloney, my outpatient psychiatrist, has signed off on it well, agreeing  it is the only thing left to do, that already I’ve been in the hospital two months and little has changed, that the situation is desperate. Their only problem is that to get a court order they have to get me a conservator who will agree to it. They want to appoint my twin sister and they discuss with her whether or not she’ll agree to forcing more ECT on me, in addition to Zyprexa. Despite fearing that I’ll hate her, she too is convinced there are no other options.

So Dr Kroeder wins and I endure eight more ECT sessions. Finally I’m discharged a month later, much improved, so everyone says. As a condition of my release, I promise that I’ll continue to take Zyprexa. Forced to, I do promise, even though my history clearly suggests that I will not.  I’m also supposed to return once every two weeks for maintenance ECT treatments and Dr Kroeder threatens me with a police escort if I don’t comply. But this time I thumb my nose at her. So, she’s going to get both the Hartford and the New Haven police involved? She thinks they are going to bother to arrest me just to drive me down to the hospital for ECT, something they themselves probably consider barbaric? J’en doute fort. I doubt that big time! In fact, after a call to the Legal Rights Project, I learn that any conservatorship was dissolved the moment I was discharged from St Raphael’ s and that the doctor has no power over me at all now, zilch. So I write Dr Kroeder a nice apologetic letter — sorry, doc, but no more of your ECT for me. Ever.

Several months later, hearing command hallucinations, I pour lighter fluid over my left leg and set it on fire. So much for the restorative powers of shock torture, excuse me, electro- convulsive therapy.

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Addendum: not part of Blacklight

ECT in 2003 (after DIVIDED MINDS ends)

The first time I had ECT was in 2003 at John Dempsey Hospital, which is connected to the University of Connecticut’s medical school. There, in desperation, because of an “obsession” — and I say that advisedly, because I was not so much obsessed as consumed — with the face  that I saw in the biohazard sign (which we  called the biohazmat man in DIVIDED MINDS) as well as a little red figure I saw running through it, I asked whether something like ECT might help me. The head psychiatrist of the unit wasn’t certain, it wasn’t commonly used for that. But he was willing to try it nonetheless. It took some doing. I was very scared, and the procedure scared me even more, as it turned out that a “heplock” had to be placed in your arm hours beforehand, so a needle could be easily inserted and anesthesia given later during the procedure. But this frightened me and I balked. I also balked at signing various papers. I almost backed out, and rescinded permission at least once. But finally I went through with it.

The actual ECT was near torture, both because of my terror of anestheisa and also because at Dempsey Hospital absolutely no attention was given to the comfort of in-patients, so that we were made to wait until afternoon before our treatments, meaning that we could eat neither breakfast nor lunch on those days. Or at least we could not eat until the treatments were given. Since meals in-hospital loom large in importance, especially when there is little else to do and one’s medications induce hunger, this was a huge problem, particularly when I was already very apprehensive. I never did understand the rationale behind this. It seemed to be particularly bad planning to have any ECT patient have to have treatment so late in the day, given that fasting was essential. But hey, who was I but a mere mental patient? I had no rights, I just had to do what I was told!

Anyhow, I suffered the agonies of hell, but I went through with it, hating each session, until, after I’d undergone five of them, I began to complain that my memory was being affected. I decided to stop, but I noted at the same time, strangely enough, that the biohazmat man had also disappeared from my radar. Weird! It seemed to have worked, ECT had broken the back of what had been consuming me. In point of fact, ECT at that time worked so well that the biohazard sign has never bothered me again in such a fashion. Which is close to a miracle in my book.

In-Patient Psychiatric Abuse Can Be Subtle (and not so)

I will be rewriting this for my new memoir, but wanted to try out the episode here, in part, though I have not yet rewritten it…I have been rereading my many journals that I have retrieved from storage in preparation for really seriously writing this thing, and it was one of the first events recorded that I happened to dip into. It is in a relatively recent journal, but I was reading randomly and I just happened upon it. It very much upset me, as just as I read it, I remembered it very clearly. I had no amnesia, it was only that I have been in so many hospitals in the past 3 decades that I cannot separate out one from another, nor tell what happened where or when.

Subtle abuse? In fact, I don’t know that the episode I relate here is an example of subtle anything. I can only say that at the time I had no idea that it was abusive. I felt that perhaps I deserved it.  I had no idea that it should have been reported, that someone should have defended me, that anyone…Well, you will get the drift upon reading the following brief description of one incident, among the way-too-many that have happened to me over the past 5-10 years in Connecticut hospitals. All I can be sure of is that if hospital staff do these things to me, I am fairly certain that they must do them to others…In which case, that Hartford Courant article in 1998, “Deadly Restraints” which was supposed to have changed everything both in Connecticut and around the country in terms of in-patient treatment of the mentally ill, that article did little to nothing. I would say, in fact, that treatment has gotten markedly worse over the decade. Compared to my treatment in the two decades before this past one, I was never abused as much in the 80s and 90s as I have been since Y2K and 2000.

For once, what I write of here does not involve restraints per se, at least not immediately, but as you will see it involves abuse, physical abuse, just the same. I have transcribed this from my journal from a few years ago. I have edited it, but most of the edits I made were for clarity or to convert partial sentences to full ones, though in a couple of places I had to flesh things out more. But here ’tis, what happened to me at a general hospital I spent a fair amount of time in, in Fairfield County, where my twin lives:

“After a run-in with Karen again, I apologized and we had a decent talk. I took off my coat for once, went to Wendy’s communication group and did okay. Then I was sitting in the alcove talking with Mark about my dread at every anniversary of JFK’s assassination when a hullabaloo started near room 306 at the other end of the hall. It seems a woman was having a heart attack. I immediately felt the floor fall beneath me: I was to blame, my inattentiveness, my raucous, hyena laughter, my evil had killed her!

I knew that I needed to take my 4 o’clock medication for what little it would do, but no one called to announce them or for me to take them. My ears rang, booming! The air was full of blaming and criticizing voices, so maybe I didn’t hear, but I think they just didn’t call me. I rang the intercom buzzer at 6:45 and was told that Jamie, the medication nurse that night, would be back from supper around 7 o’clock. I rang back at 7:05 but he was still gone, so I waited another 15 minutes since no one told me that he had returned.Finally at 7:20 I pushed the intercom button to ask if I was supposed to skip all my 4 o’clock and 6 o’clock medications. They now said Jamie was waiting for me. But why hadn’t he called to let me know he’d gotten back from dinner? Slowly I managed to shuffle up to the medication door again, zipped to the mouth in my coat and balaclava hood, verging on stuckness, only to find there was no Geodon in my cup.

“So I don’t get my 4 PM medications,” I whispered in stunned panic, too afraid to simply ask for it.

“Nope” was Jamie’s only answer.

I was flabbergasted, completely stunned. My second prescribed dose of BID Geodon was what I’d been waiting patiently for ever since the patient in room 306 had her heart attack. After Jamie ignored me, giving me no explanation, I just turned, took my 6pm Ritalin, then dropped the DIxie cup of water and all the other pills on the carpet. In a daze, it took everything in me to start making my way down the hall towards my room again.

Then I heard footsteps pounding up behind me and suddenly Jamie was in front of me, blocking my way. “You’ll go back there and clean up the mess you made right this instant!” he bellowed and pushed me towards the med station. I stared through him, tried to walk away, but he blocked me again and again pushed me backwards until finally I gave in, relaxed and let myself succumb to his pushing. I didn’t walk though, I merely fell backwards to the floor, saved from injury only because he grabbed the front of my coat as I fell, and lowered me to the floor. I curled up in a ball like a porcupine, hoping not to be killed. Well, he was in a rage and forced my hands down, away from my shoulders, and unzipped my coat. Then he ordered me to get up and clean up the mess again — what mess really? A few pills on the floor, and a little water that would dry? I refused. I curled up on my side and closed my eyes, responding to nothing. He threatened me with restraints. At that, I gave up resisting, knowing resistance would give him the excuse he wanted. I let him pull my coat off my limp body. And I remained limp as he carried me to my bedroom where he dumped me coatless on the bed and thundered away. I was triumphant, however. No restraints! I’d figured it out. If you refuse to resist, if you don’t fight back against their power plays, they have no excuse to justify putting you in restraints. They cannot put someone who is completely silent and limp into 4-point restraints. What would be the point?

Nevertheless,  I was cold and felt exposed in only my T-shirt and jeans, and with no coat to protect me, nor others from me. So I got up and grabbed a sweater and started bundling myself into hat and  hooded scarf. Suddenly Jamie barged in again. I backed away and fell onto the bed behind me. In a fury that was unbelievable to me, he leapt onto the bed and pinned me down, knelt so his knees trapped me and I couldn’t move. Then he unbuttoned my sweater and tore it off me, ripped off my hat and scarf, then without a word proceeded to empty the room of any clothing that could possibly cover me, including my shoes.

This was too much to bear. But I said and did nothing in protest. How could I? I had no words, no sense that I had rights of any sort. All I did was huddle against the wall under a blanket and whimper, “I didn’t mean to kill her. I didn’t mean to cause a problem.” Jamie, who had left with all my things, stormed back in and angrily lectured me on how I was guilty of  “just wanting attention!” I wept silently. All I’d wanted that entire afternoon had been my 4:00 pm medication, and to be left alone to deal with repercussions of having killed the  patient in 306. I was too stunned to respond and could only whimper over and over, “didn’t mean to kill her, didn’t mean to cause a problem.” Still furious, but getting nothing from me and spent, Jamie finally left for good.  After a while, I looked around at the nearly empty room, and there on the night table was the pen Lynnie had left behind that afternoon. Jamie had overlooked it in his rampage. I had no energy to get off the floor, and no paper to write on, so I did the only thing I could, and  I began writing on the wall. “I didn’t mean to kill her, didn’t mean to cause a problem,”  I wrote and wrote. I wrote until I physically could not write any longer, I wrote until my hand gave out.

That was not the end of the evening, but it was the end of the interchange with Jamie, RN and it’s all I wanted to go into for tonight as it is getting late, very late and I needs must go to sleep.

Shock Treatment (ECT) in 2004

(Edited in 3/2012 . Note that all names have been changed back to their originals except for names of the people involved. Although in Divided Minds, we were forced by the publishers to disguise everyone, including the hospitals, here descriptions of people once  changed to “protect them” have been undisguised. I write nothing but the truth as I remember it — I wrote a fair amount in my journals at the time and I referred back to my notes there in writing this — and I intend no libel in any event. In fact, I want to be as fair as possible and to bend over backwards in giving as much credit where it is due as possible.

Note, because many may have read this before, I want to

I hope this will be a chapter in BLACKLIGHT, my second memoir and a possible sequel as it were to DIVIDED MINDS.

The Ogre Has ECT: 2004

I am delivered like a piece of mail to the Hospital of St Raphael’s, on a stretcher, bound up in brown wool blankets like a padded envelope. It’s the only way the ambulance will transfer me between Norwalk Hospital and this one. The attendants disgorge me into a single room where de-cocooned, I climb down and sit on the bed. All my bags have been left at the nurses’ station for searching; this is standard procedure but I hope they don’t confiscate too much. An aide follows me in to take my BP and pulse, and bustles out, telling me someone will be back shortly. I sit quietly for a half an hour, listening to the constant complaint of the voices, which never leave me, sometimes entertaining me, most of the time ranting and carping and demanding. A thin, 30-something woman with curly blonde hair, residual acne scars that give her a kind of “I’ve suffered too” look of understanding, and rimless glasses knocks on the door-frame..

“May I come in?” she asks politely.

“I can’t stop you.” My usual. Don’t want to seem too obliging or cooperative at first.

“Well, I do need to take a history, but I can come back when you’re feeling more disposed…”

“Nah, might as well get it over with.” Then, nicer, I explain, “I was just being ornery on principle.”

“What principle is that?”

“If you’re ornery they won’t see you sweat.”

“Aah…”

“And they won’t expect you to be medication-compliant right off the bat.” I shrug my shoulders but grin, I want to think, devilishly.

“I see you have a sense of humor.”

“You should see me…”

“I’m sure we all will. A sense of humor is very healthy. But it worries me that you already plan not to take your meds.”

“I’ll only refuse the antipsychotic. Look at the blimp it’s turned me into.” I haul my extra-large tee-shirt away from my chest to demonstrate. Fatso, Lardass! Someone snipes. She doesn’t know it but you really believe you’re thin. Ha ha, you’re a house! Look at yourself! LOOK at yourself! Ha ha ha ha! The voices are telling the truth: I know the number of pounds I weigh is high, outrageously high for me, having been thin all my life, but I haven’t lost my self-image as a skinny shrimp, so I can’t get used to being what others see. The voices love to remind me how fat I really am. Only the mirror, or better, a photograph, reminds me of the honest to god truth, and I avoid those. I avert my eyes, or search the concrete for fossils, when approaching a glass door. Anything not to be shocked by what I’ve become. Pig! Glutton! It seems they don’t want to stop tonight…

I realize suddenly that I’ve lost track of the conversation.

“I don’t think they’ll allow you to do that for long.”

“Do what?”

“Don’t you remember what we were talking about? Were your voices distracting you?”

“Just thoughts, you know, plus some added insults.”

“You’ll have to take all your meds eventually.”

“Then they’ll have to switch me to a different pill, even if it’s less effective.”

She sucks the top of her pen and looked down at her clipboard. “So,” she starts the formal intake. “What brings you here to St Raphael’s?”

The voices break in there, again, confusing me. When I can get my bearings I tell her what made me transfer from Norwalk Hospital and why I opted for shock treatments. She takes a closer look at the mark of Cain I’ve burned into my forehead, writes something, then corrects me.

“We like to refer to them as ECT here. ‘Shock treatments’ brings to mind  the terrible procedures of the past. These days you feel nothing, you just go to sleep and wake up gently. I know. I assist at the ECT clinic.

“Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had ECT before. I know what it’s like and it’s a snap. I asked for this transfer because I hope it will help again.”

We talk some more about why I’m here and what I’ve been through and the voices keep to a minimum so there’s not too much interference. She says she’s going to be my primary nurse and that she thinks we’ll work well together. I nod, thinking she’s pretty okay, for a nurse.

I’ve arrived after lunch, which is served at 11:30am so someone brings me a tray and I pick at it in my room. People come in and out of my room but only speak to me a second or two before they leave, a doctor does a cursory physical, someone takes me down the hall to weigh and measure me. I return to my room, too scared to do otherwise, constrained by the Rules of the voices. The first break in the afternoon is medications in the late afternoon, when someone tells me to line up in front of a little window near the nurse’s station. When it’s my turn, I look at the pills in my cup. Ugh, 20mg of Zyprexa, an increase, plus a host of other pills I can’t remember the names of. I hand the pill back to the med nurse. I’m not taking this, it makes me fat, I say. Give me Geodon. at least I don’t put on weight with Geodon.

“Sorry, Dr Corner has ordered this one. We can’t just go around changing doctor’s orders. You either take it or you refuse.”

I was in a quandary. I hadn’t even met the doctor and already I was fighting with her? Should I take it and argue with her later? But then I’ll eat my whole dinner tray and more. Better to start off with my principles intact, so she knows what I’ll take and what I won’t take. I hand the pill back. ”Sorry, I won’t take it.”

“If you decompensate further we will have to give you a shot, you know that, don’t you?”

“I’ll be fine.” I do a little dance step.

“Yeah, and look what you’ve done to your face. Come closer.”

Wondering what she wants, I lean in gingerly, fearing her touch, but she only takes a tongue depressor and smears some ointment on the big oozing sore.

“You’re done.Go eat some supper.”

At 4:30? That’s pretty early. I can’t cross the threshold of the dining room, the Rules the voices make forbid it. I cannot enter the milling crowd, suffering little electric shocks every time my body makes contact with another’s. Instead I retreat to my room. Sitting on the edge of my bed again, I wonder what to do. How can I get supper, or any meal, if the voices won’t let me go into the dining room?

Just then, the thin blonde nurse with the glasses, what’s her name, leans into my room. “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a tray for you waiting outside the dining room.”

“They made a rule I can’t eat with other people, and I can’t get in the dining room…So I can’t eat.” I read her name tag. “Prisca.”

She smiles and glances down at the tag on her chest.  ”Oh, just call me Prissy, everyone else does. I hate it, but what can you do? What are you talking about? There’s no such rule. For now, I guess I’ll let you eat in your room, but that  is against the rules and we’ll have to get you into the dining room eventually, whatever the voices tell you.

She brings in the tray: white bread with two slices of bologna and a slice of cheese tossed on top, a packet of mayonnaise, a small green salad in a separate bowl, with a plastic slip of French dressing, and a packaged Hostess brownie for dessert. I didn’t eat lunch, though they brought it in, so even this impoverished repast looks good to me and I eat everything, despite not having taking the hated Zyprexa. I curse myself for it, of course, and do some  leg lifts and crunches for exercise afterwards. Ever since I’ve been refusing the drug, I have lost weight. Now I am down to 155 lbs from 170 the last time I weighed myself and I intend to get much thinner, since I started at 95 before medications over the years slowly put weight on me.

After supper the voices start in again, louder and louder, telling me how fat I am, how disgusting and terrible I am. I notice the clock hanging on the wall, which ticks audibly punctuating each sentence. The voices were carping, now they are threatening, and demanding…Finally, their all too familiar sequence segues into telling me I’m the most evil thing, and they don’t say person, on the planet. I’m the Ogre that ate Manhattan, I’m Satan, I’m a mass murderer, I killed Kennedy and deserve to die, die, die!

I’m wearing a heavy pair of clogs with wooden soles and almost before I can think about it, I know what to do. I heave one up at the clock, hitting it dead center. It crashes to the floor. Scrambling to grab a shard of the clear plastic cover before the staff comes running in, I lunge towards where I saw the largest piece fall, one with a long jagged point. I have my hand closed around it when someone tackles me from behind. He’s not very big and I can feel him struggling to keep me pinned. I almost succeed in stabbing myself, but he manages to engulf my hand with his two and press them closed against the flat sides of the shard.

Other people  crowd into the room now and they pry the shard from me and grab my arms and legs so I’m completely immobilized. Then at a word murmured by one of the male aides who have materialized out of nowhere, they swing me up onto the bed, like pitching a sand bag onto a levee. I scream but they ignore me and strap my ankles and wrists into leather cuffs which have been rapidly attached to the bed frame: four point restraints.

I continue to scream and scream, but nobody pays attention. A nurse comes at me with a needle,  saying it is Haldol and Ativan and proceeds to inject me. Although I am still crying that I want to die, that I’m Satan, the Ogre that ate Manhattan, that I killed Kennedy, I’m the evil one, the room then empties, except for a heavy-set café-au-lait sitter, who hollers louder than I do that her name is Caledonia. She pulls up a chair in the doorway, pulls out a cosmetics bag and proceeds to do her nails in spite of me.

I am told by Prissy that I scream most of the evening and keep the whole unit awake until given a sleeping pill and another shot. All I remember is restless twilight sleep coming at last, broken when a short sandy-haired woman, dressed in a sweater set and skirt, comes in and takes my pulse. I’m groggy with medication but she speaks to me nonetheless.

“I’m , Dr Corner, your doctor. You’ve had a bad night I see. Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll get a chance to talk.”

“Get me out of these things!” I mumble angrily. I can’t sleep like this!”

“”Not yet. You’re not ready. But try your best to sleep now. We’ll re-evaluate things in the morning.”

Then she turns and is gone.

As I get to know her, I will like Dr Corner for her kindness, toughness and honesty, but I will hate her too for opposite reasons and it will be a long time before I  know whether the liking or the hating or something else entirely wins out.

The first thing that makes me know ECT is going to be different at St Raphael’s than the to the ECT suite in wheelchairs, the way I’ve known since childhood all hospital patients must travel. We walk there, all of us, down interminable corridors, around several corners, through doors to more of the same. In short by the time we get there I have no idea where we are.  I said it was a snap when I had it before, but now I feel like a prisoner going to the hangman, a “dead man walking.” Something about our going there in a group, under our own steam, makes it feel like punishment, like having to cut your own switch, not a medical procedure at all. This sets my nerves on edge. Then, when we finally get to the rooms clearly marked “ECT Suite,” instead of the doctor being ready for us so there’s no time to anticipate or fear what is ahead, we have to wait and wait and wait: we’re told the outpatients have to be “finished up” first. My apprehension grows. I’m used to getting to the ECT rooms and immediately climbing up on the table and getting it over with. Waiting and having time to think about it brings me close to tears.

Finally four in-patients are to be taken. I think the nurse calling us in senses I am too anxious to wait any longer, for she makes sure I’m with the first group. I clamber up on the table, and see Dr Corner looking down at me, smiling. I notice how white her teeth are and the little gap in her shirt across her chest as she bends over me, strapping something over my forehead as Prissy puts a needle into the heplock already in my arm. I feel my arms and legs quickly cuffed down by others in the team, a mask clamps down over my face and I’m told to breathe, breathe in deeply and I breathe and breathe and a chasm in hell opens and the demons reach out and scream as I plummet past into a terrible inky blackness…

I wake up a second later and immediately vomit into a kidney basin hastily held out by a nurse. “Why didn’t you do it?” I cry out, confused. “Why didn’t you do it, why did you made me wait? I can’t go through this again!”

Strangely, Dr Corner has disappeared, and so have Prissy and the nurses that had surrounded me just an instant before. Instead a plump, baby-faced older nurse smiles as she takes away the kidney basin and says, kindly, “You’ve been sleeping  soundly for an hour. They did the treatment already and you’re waking up. How about trying to sit up now?” Slowly, I push myself to a sitting position and swing my legs over the edge of the table. No dizziness, no more nausea. I feel okay, except for a slight headache. So I slide off the table and ask where to go. Surely they won’t make me stay a long while this time. The nurse leads me to a wheelchair and asks an aide to take me back to the unit. Ah, a chair at last. At least I’m not expected to walk on my own after that ordeal.

ECT Takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and though I vomit many times upon waking up, that is the least of it. What I dread most is the anesthesia, how I plunge from perfect alertness into the dark pit and feel like I wake a second later, sick and confused. I grow more and more afraid until, at the end of a series of 8 sessions, I refuse to go on to a second, even though my symptoms are still severe and Caledonia comes to sit with me one to one more often than not. Dr Corner tries to persuade me, but I am adamant, No more ECT. Then she threatens to have the next series court-ordered  and to add insult to injury, she says she will force me to take Zyprexa as well, the drug I so hate. I explode.

“What! You f—ing can’t do that! I’m a free citizen, I’m not a danger to myself or anyone else.”

“In fact, I can do it, and I am going to do it, whether you like it or not. You need more ECT and unfortunately you refuse the only drug that is effective for you. Pam, look, how can you say you’re not a danger to yourself? Look at your forehead! That’s not the mark of  I  it’s just self-mutilation. Look at where you carved that mark into your hand when we weren’t watching you carefully enough. Isn’t that danger enough?”

“But I’m NOT going to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I just want to be disfigured so no one will want to be around me and they’ll stay safe and uncontaminated.”

Dr Corner’s eyes suddenly glitter and she has to blink a couple of times. “Well, I’m not going to let you continue to do what you want. Period.”

She was standing at the foot of my bed, one foot on a lower rung, casually holding a clipboard. But she moves closer to me, standing to one side, the clipboard clasped business-like across her chest. Gazing intently at me, she shakes her head in what appears to be sadness.  I’m not sad, I know what I have to do. I don’t understand why she feels this is so terrible, but I know enough to remain quiet. Finally, she turns and quietly slips out of the room.

This alarms me; it shocks me. I know she means what she says. Dr Corner never lies. Worst of all, Dr O’Hayley, my outpatient psychiatrist, has signed off on it well, agreeing  it is the only thing left to do, that already I’ve been in the hospital two months and little has changed, that the situation is desperate. The problem is that to get a court order I have to have a conservator who will agree to it. They appoint my twin sister and they discuss with her whether or not she’ll agree to forcing more ECT on me, in addition to Zyprexa. Despite fearing that I’ll hate her, she too is convinced there are no other options.

So Dr Corner wins and I endure eight more ECT sessions. Finally I’m discharged, much improved, so everyone says, a month later, promising, as a condition of my release, that I’ll continue to take Zyprexa. I do promise, even though my history clearly suggests that I will not.  I’m also supposed to return once every two weeks for maintenance ECT treatments and Dr Corner threatens me with a police escort if I don’t comply. But this time I thumb my nose at her. So, she’s going to get both the Hartford and the New Haven police involved? She thinks they are going to bother to arrest me just to drive me down to the hospital for ECT, something they themselves probably consider barbaric? J’en doute fort. I doubt that big time! In fact, after a call to the Legal Rights Project, I learn that any conservatorship was dissolved the moment I was discharged from St Raphaels and that the doctor has no power over me at all now, zilch. So I write Dr Corner a nice apologetic letter, but sorry, doc, no more ECT for me. Ever.

Several months later I pour lighter fluid over my left leg and set it on fire. So much for the restorative powers of electroshock treatments.

From Memoir Sequel — A Little Bit to Entice?

Maybe not my book, but hands holding her favorite book!

You should know that what follows is just a tiny scribble of what I have written, and it might not even make the final cut once I finish writing the book. But I put it here as a little enticement for readers, a tempting snack to “grow the appetite for more” when it comes out. That said, I must warn that in addition to alerting you that the passage below might end up on the cutting floor, if it does not, it still may not start the book. But here I am hemming and hawing and making excuses. Nothing wrong with posting what I have for now, for the nonce, even though I may remove it later on. Comments on subtitle would be greatly appreciated. If you have suggestions for improving it — the subtitle, i mean — so much the better.

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BLACKLIGHT:  a memoir of one woman’s fight to recover from schizophrenia

Blacksoup,  tarstew, coffeecombs – submerged in the darkness of things I cannot face by light, inky, skeletal, reaching-out things that pinch and grasp and touch, I fight to swim away, even though away means into a blinding headache. I am sucked down again and then again, until through pounding surf, someone calls my name, almost too faint to hear. Desperate, I thrash upward, cracking the surface of the day and open my eyes. It’s well after dawn yet all the lamps in the room burn brightly.

“Pam, wake up. Unlock the door. I’m here,” someone shouts. The door thunders on.

What time is it? What day is it? I must have plunged into sleep the night before without awareness, for all I know is that I break into daylight like a common mole nosing into what feels like leaf litter and detritus, the remains of an old picnic. Popcorn is strewn across my lap and chair in a white rash.  Resting on its side halfway off the night table, a cup of coffee, now empty, its contents on the carpet. I hoist myself off the recliner with a groan, trying to shake off my shoulders the gargoyles of nightmare. I sleep in my clothes but I never go barefoot –too liable to be bitten by the inanimate fang of a tack or discarded fork– so it takes me a minute before I can home in on my flip-flops.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Wrenching the deadbolt, I yank the door open. “I didn’t hear you. You’re early today.”

“It’s 8:30. No earlier than usual.” Elissa, her dark hair pulled back from her face, carries her big nursing bag and tablet computer. She wears slim, tight jeans and a ruched tee shirt that make her look thirty-five at most, not the forty-something she rarely admits to. She assesses me quickly before coming in and asking, “How did you sleep? And did you eat last night?”

Almost every morning begins this way, not with the bleep, blurt or blare of an alarm, on which I can mash the snooze button. Not even with the sweet sun-rising tones of my favorites song on iTunes, no, my morning begins with this won’t-take-no-for-an-answer Thor at the door. It’s not Elissa’s fault. Sometimes I leave my door unlocked before I cliff-fall into sleep so she can come in on her own the next morning and gently wake me. But not always, and then what can she do but hammer at the doorway of Oneiros, because nothing else will rouse me.

Elissa has been my primary visiting nurse for more than 10 years and she is the one who checks on me every morning, rain or shine, snow or hailstorm. She can read me by now the way a farmer reads the sky, and just one look or something in the tone of my voice tells her when things are copacetic and when they are not. She has seen me well and she’s seen me precariously ill and she’s the first to recognize when I’m somewhere in-between, headed in the wrong direction. Her main job is to keep track of and make sure I take my medications, but when paranoid, I have yelled at her or been snappy and high strung and irritable. She has never taken it personally. I no doubt have driven her nearly to distraction but she flicks all away as no big deal. I must say though that even though I wouldn’t admit it at the time, she has in more than one instance saved my life.

She keeps returning with a smile nevertheless and now instead of telling her how glad I am to see her, I turn away, mumbling that I had a lousy night. It’s true, but I feel like a lout for saying so. Or at least for saying so first thing.

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Argh, now all I can see are the faults, but I will leave it as is, and not panic or take it down at once. I have learned that there is no terrible tragedy is letting people see rough drafts or the work-in-progress, though it be only that, a rough draft, not the polished version. If nothing else, it proves that I too am  a human being who must write and make mistakes before editing and rewriting my copy. In fact, I rewrite a zillion times before I am happy with what I have written. Each poem takes at least 20 rewrites, at a minimum, and most take at least 50 while some over 100. As for prose, well, I cannot even begin to estimate how often I rewrite or revise each passage. but needless to say it is well over 50-100!

Not only is there no shame in revision, I take great pride in how much rewriting and revision I do. It is a point of honor with me that I take this much time with my writing and do not hurry it — ever.  People who believe that the first words that come out of their pen or mouth or computer are sacrosanct are likely to not be real writers, only dilettantes who play at writing, but never take it seriously. Who want to write, but who never really do so, except for in the pages of a journal or doggerel between friends and family.

Do not get me wrong, I do not disparage this sort of writing. In a sense ALL writing counts as writing. And all writing is good for a person. But not all writing is publishable or suitable for the public consumption, and that is what I mean by writing done by a “real writer.” Someone for whom writing is what life is all about. Someone for whom life would not be worth while if she could not continue to write. Someone who knows the value of editing and revising and rewriting and who knows that a good editor can a writer’s best friend.

Artwork from Hospital

If the window is open, what does the mirror outside see inside the room?

As may be obvious from the brown paper at the sides, this collage is very much unfinished, both as to content and as to medium. What I mean is, this is a kind of painting with paper, so I am so far dissatisfied with, say, the blue curtain with yellow lining, because it still looks rough and is not clearly a curtain blowing in the air coming through the open window. Ditto, the open window, which is not clearly even a window, except by virtue of my titling it such. But when I finish with it, I hope all these mysteries will be clearer, including the surreal placement of a hand mirror outside an upper story window! (I said it was surreal, didn’t I?) But what I cannot help is whether or not the viewer recognizes what it is that is on the bed. Some people simply do not know what restraints look like, and have variously interpreted them as guitars or snakes or what have you. To me, it is obvious. But I guess most people have not been in such a situation, and have no conception of what they might be looking at. Perhaps a more suggestive title would help?

Another important feature of the “painting” is the frosted glass window, with the mysterious something going on behind it, again left up to the interpretation of the viewer. If you understand that this is a restraints bed, and that the window is open…what could be going on outside the seclusion room? And why is the window open? Should the bed be empty? If you could see this very large collage – 5 feet by 5 feet — up close, you would see that the mirror overhangs a very detailed garden, with all the trappings of well designed backyard floribundance, so to speak. There is a little table and benches and other accoutrements, but also a path leading up to — a garden gate, which opens onto a field and freedom.

As I worked on this collage, I was in a state of acute anxiety — with tremors and shaking and palpitations I did not understand. And every night I would weep with bodily but not conscious memories of the recent brutalities I experienced at Manchester and Middlesex Hospitals. At Natchaug they understood how degrading and traumatizing such treatment had been, and indeed how re-traumatizing. Because indeed, I had already been traumatized many times before in the 80s and 90s and early to mid 2000’s by what I thought was SOP use of such measures. Instead, when those recent hospitals used them,  cruelly and inappropriately, at a time when I knew their use was frowned upon and had been severely curtailed, it not only re-awakened the original trauma, but in a very real sense put me in emotional touch with it, the pain, the terror, the horrendous humiliation for the very first time.

I am not by any means over it. As I work on my memoir sequel, BLACKLIGHT, I am also slowly going over my hospital records with Dr Angela, aka Dr C, and it is a gut-wrenching task that leaves me drained and tremulous. But if it succeeds in returning my memories to me, all of them, I shall consider it worthwhile.

Artwork and a Word about my Self-Portraits

I wanted to write a bit about the artworks that I posted yesterday without any explanation. The first one was the only one I planned in any sense of the word, and even then I cannot say I really knew what I was going to do when I started it. My process in these drawings is to simply start with an image, say, in the first one, I started by drawing an eye, and then to see where my subconscious takes me. Once I have established enough  images  – just a few usually — that are coherently related to one another on the paper (or not) then I look to see what is in the “negative” spaces, which fill up with images too. You can see this most clearly in the middle  and third works.  I know how the pictures were made, since I drew them, but in looking at them objectively now, I can see that an observer might not see anything conspicuously “unintended.” And of course, what does “unintended” mean when it comes to the subconscious?

 

But in the picture I will post below, this “technique” if you will, predominates. (You either like it or you hate it) I hesitate to call it a technique because that sounds like something consciously adopted, where I feel it simply reflects an unconscious change, something that happened co-incidental with Joe’s final days and then took on a life of its own after the trauma of his death. But let me post the picture I am talking about, the one that I started on the very day they took him off the ventilator, and then I will continue.

 

Death comes in brilliant colors -- look more closely to see what is there.

All I can say about this is that a person here is cutting the cord that is connected to a heart and a pot and is not plugged in…and the person with the scissors is a little excited by this in a way that implies pleasure…I am saying no more, except to reiterate that I drew it, or started it the day Joe died or more accurately was killed.

 

After that, I started doing more and more “honest” pictures, pictures where I did not try to please anyone, but was simply drawing and painting what I felt like. The next one after this one was the Beauty SLeeping with Bugs one, which was in the post yesterday. And then the self-portrait series, which began with the earlier Dead Meat one, Goon Squad: First Responders. In that notebook, I endeavor to draw only “self-portraits” though not likenesses. I am not sure what to call them, conceptual self-portraits perhaps? The second one is a very loosely drawn portrait of me as an animal, done in a different sketchy style (I haven’t photographed it or I would post it.) The third is Pam as Ornament, which I will post below, and once again I had nothing in mind when I started it, except the concept. The Santas came out of nowhere, esp the one that is only a head on a tray!

 

I guess I have nothing more to add for now.

 

I have been working on my memoir, which I have tentatively titled “BlackLight: a Memoir of Madness and One Woman’s Struggle for Recovery” — so far after only about 5 days work I have 27 pages done (more, really, just not organized and polished). Would be happy to hear any comments or suggestions for a better title (which I believe is a request I have made previously).

 

Thanks all.

The Painted Woman, Poem for 350.org, plus yada yada

My newest artwork is what I call The Painted Woman, for I think obvious reasons.

The Painted Woman, in all her glory

It is not meant to be a parody or an insult to any sort of woman, just a study of an overly made-up  “older” woman who might drink a bit too much and get loose around the edges when she does. I think it is clear that she has had plastic surgery, though it hasn’t done a lot for her, with  her artificially plumped lips, which do not work at all with her boozy aged face that the exaggerated make-up only serves to enhance in the worst sense of the word. If her botoxed brow doesn’t disguise her real age, neither do her drawn-in eyebrows, which is something women do that I never did understand: Isn’t any sort of eyebrow better than the kind that are just a line drawn or painted on? even Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows!

Frida Kahlo, with her eyebrows, of which she was NOT ashamed...She was proud to paint them and did so without shame or trying to disguise them. In fact, she even painted herself with the mustache...

I love those eyebrows, full of character and strength, and the portraits, which could be seen as brave and wonderfully lacking in vanity,  I prefer to think Kahlo painted because she saw herself simply as beautiful, eyebrows and mustache and all, and painted herself on that account, not at all “in spite of” her flaws…

That said, I do not believe that my painted woman is beautiful, perhaps for much the same reason that I hope Kahlo felt herself to indeed be beautiful: this, my pictured woman, is not only artificial, she is desperate, pathetic and even tragic…I feel sorry for her, who is, after all, my own creation!

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All that aside, the reasons that I have not written are several, including my having to get that poetry book manuscript rewritten and out by the 15th of October (not that I have a chance to win a contest that is judged non-anonymously, but it does no harm to try, so long as it doesn’t tie the book up for the next 6 months…). Then I had that Life Drawing class at the Creative Arts Workshop, which is still difficult for me, partly because I cannot see well, and cannot translate what I see to a large piece of paper on an easel…I don’t have any difficulty with the gestural drawing, the loosening up exercises, actually, I have more difficulty with the longer drawing periods. The trouble is that I do not want to take the time to do a drawing for only 30 minutes that I know I cannot do in that short a “long” period, and also, I find it hard to stand on my feet for that long. The class is 3 hours long in fact, and all of it is standing at easels, while when I do my portraits I mostly just sit in my recliner or at a table with my paints and canvas on a table or at most at a little broken table easel that I bought at the CAW tag sale and fixed myself.

Nevertheless, it has been a good experience, if exhausting.  I drive to New Haven then stay overnight and drive home on Tuesday morning. So the night spent away from home feels like a big deal every week, not just a mere evening away…though I could treat it as such, I suppose.

ALSO, Dr C wants to see me twice a week for the time being — actually for more than just “the time being.” It is a very complicated situation that I cannot go into here, but this 2X a week set-up may not continue, I dunno, I would like to, and I know it kept me out of the hospital in October, but but but…I am simply getting very mixed messages from certain people (decidedly not Dr C) about it, and it is hard to know what to do. I sometimes think that it was easier for people to have me in the hospital twice a year, despite their protestations, than to keep me out if keeping me out entails my seeing Dr C 2X a week. It is certainly less expensive to hospitalize me, since it saves money coming out of their pockets ( I am not a drain on the “system” otherwise, because I do not need public mental health services or ask for anything from those strained agencies, for which fact they ought to be grateful…though not for my hospital stays, of course).

But no more on that subject, which is utterly confusing to me and frightening to boot. I cannot bear the thought of ever being forced into a hospital again, where I am ALWAYS ABUSED and BATTERED by the staff, despite being tortured by myself and my own demons already. Even thinking about it makes me tremble…

Will be returning to Wisdom House in two weeks, for another weekend. I hope to write some more poetry, and perhaps “fix” the ms, by writing up an introduction and putting in some divisions between groups of poems, rather than the vague segues I have now. I thought  they were obvious, but others do not seem to “get” why one poems transitions to another…So I will group them better, and put what feels like artificial divisions between them. That way, readers will feel there is some shape to the book, a clumping, rather than a thread that one must follow…

There is much I would like to say, but it is already 2:45 in the morning, so I needs must cease and desist and get to bed. I will try to write as soon as I can, but if nothing else, I promise to write when I am at Wisdom House on the 19-21 of November.

The following is a poem I wrote last year, and put one version here then, after I went to a vigil for the organization 350.org, a website devoted to the cause of getting our atmospheric CO2 levels down to 350 parts per million, because that is the level at which life continues to be possible…whereas if we continue to let it go up, global warming will continue to such an extent that life on the planet will be impossible.

But that said, here is the poem, for what it is worth. If it sounds familiar, it is, but I have also reworked and changed a lot of it…

 

FRIDAY NIGHT VIGIL

Shivering in the wind, we fight to light our candles
as we gather in the darkness of an approaching storm.
But the icy blow keeps snuffing out each flicker
so we just stand, our signs alone aloft to passing traffic,
standing for the stand we take: for the changing world,
for a last chance at change. We smiling stand for photos,
taken from across the streaming street –
and smile into the night, display our handmade signs.
One car beeps, a driver gives the V-sign in support.
But most drive on without a single word or sign
that they have heard or seen a thing, or even recognized
we’re standing here for something save a hopeless cause.
My hands freeze stiff, release their glass and candle with a crash,
a glint of shards, a splash upon the sidewalk. Someone
with safer gloves stoops to sweep the shards away…
I think, How lovely is the world today, even dying.
Though it’s all we have (and lord knows, it’s more
than we can handle) we stand here in this freezing dark
against the darkness and light one candle.

GREETINGS FROM WISDOM HOUSE! (Plus an unrelated word or two about PARANOIA)

Photo by Sr Jo-Ann Iannotti OP

I hope I am not encroaching on Sr Jo-Ann Iannotti’s copyright, by sharing this photo, but if I am I trust she will let me know. In any event, this is one of hers  and it is everywhere at Wisdom House. I believe it is a beautiful example (if that is the proper word for it) of the spirit of Wisdom House. Of course, the physical labyrinth, is stunning by itself, but somehow this photo captures the experience of walking it  and the process of meditating and “being there” in a way that mere words describing likely could not. Surely, if nothing else,  this photo alone is a wonderful way to “advertise” Wisdom House, if it ever needed such a thing.  If you can, visit http://www.wisdomhouse.org and look at the virtual tour photo gallery. That way, you will get a good idea of what the place looks like, and perhaps get something of the flavor of people’s first impression. I know that even the first time I came here, despite my misery concerning all that silence, I knew it was a special place…

Jo-Ann says she has no idea who the woman in the labyrinth center is, that it was a fortuitous shot and nothing more. Frankly, though, I suspect getting the photo took more than mere luck, even just to have been there to capture it!  It exquisitely represents both the spirituality of this place as well as peace and peacefulness.

Clearly, you can tell where I am: at Wisdom House again, having a good time this time. I only wish I did not have to depart tomorrow.Even though I spend most of my time alone, the mere presence of other people, laughing and talking and obviously having a great time, buoys my own spirits and makes me laugh aloud myself. I think it is great that they are laughing so uproariously, and it is great to see everyone with their doors wide open, people, women my age, sitting on each other’s beds, gabbing like college girls. The lovely thing too, about Wisdom House in general is the absolute faith in people’s basic trustworthiness: NO one has a key to their rooms, and no one seems to feel worried about anyone entering or stealing a thing. I frequently leave my computer and writing equipment right out in the open on the sun porch, without the least qualm, feeling secure in the knowledge that everything will be just as I left it when I return. Indeed, the sense of trust that I know Jo-Ann has in people is infectious, and I somehow know that everyone who comes here is trustworthy at least for as long as they are here, even if they might not be all the time when they are not.

Now, I may be naive, but I too have been known to be overly trusting, and I think that is a better option than not trusting people. At the same time, though, I can be extremely paranoid as you know, and I do mean “at the same time…” I suppose that is difficult to comprehend: I will simultaneously give away whatever I can, if I feel I own too much and yet also feel as if people are secretly stealing from me, taking things I need out from under me, without even asking or telling me, which makes me angry, because I am already generous, and never ask for a single thing in return, but I’m sorry and feel bad to admit it, but somethings I am not ready to simply have things taken from me without my say so! I feel guilty about this, though, as if I am so attached to material things that I cannot part with something that someone else needs more than I do (for why else would someone resort to stealing it???). Why do I need to be so attached to anything, that is, to any mere object? It will never save your life or your soul!

I am drifting though…forgive me.

One great thing about this weekend here is that despite my having slept till noon today (after spending several days before last night with very little sleep, and even last night beginning to fear for my brain and my sanity due to sleeplessness as I was up till 4am involuntarily) I have pretty much gotten the book organized and put together. Now, that means only that I have made the organizational decisions, which is the major part of the problem. But I needs must (!) still go through the actual computer manuscript and change it, to make it conform to these editorial decisions. Not extremely difficult, just time consuming. At the same time, certain poems need editing and some rewriting/fixing. This I enjoy, the perfecting of the lines I don’t feel are quite right yet, but it takes time and energy. (I even have a two relatively new poems to add!) Alas, I will not be able to come up here to take the time for myself to do nothing else. Too bad, as it has been very convenient and much more than that. It has been, well, useful in the sense that I have been productive “to the max,” able to say NO to email and phone calls, not even walking with Diane L or doing laundry or cleaning or shopping, just writing all day. I suppose taking my usual 2 miles walk would be a good thing, but for just a weekend here, I would rather not…And although I brought art supplies just in case, I haven’t even taken out my sketch book, that is how good the writing, and the editing, have been going!

—————————————————————————-

Speaking of the labyrinth at Wisdom House as I did at the top of the post, let me segue into a few words about paranoia: I have not walked the labyrinth, nor even approached it. The closest I have come is to sit at the top of the stairs looking down at it relatively from afar. The very idea of “doing it” makes me feel both rather shy and then scared to do so. I am in fact scare that God might strike me down, should I have such temerity as to try it.  I am also squeamish, not sure I could relax and not feel paranoid, not feel so much on display  that I could not concentrate or let myself be “unaware of being observed” — whether I am in fact under observation or not.

That of course is the essence of paranoia: it matters not a fig whether something is really happening, it matters not another fig if someone’s really after you or really against you: if you feel it, if your amygdala is working overtime to generate that feeling, the intense feeling of fear that it is meant to generate, well, that’s it. That is how you are going to feel. And “the feeling is primary.” That’s what Dr O told me time and time again. You feel the fear first, and primarily, and then the story or reason for feeling it attaches to it. But if the fear  gets entrenched or doesn’t go away, the story,, that is, the brain’s explanation for the feelings of fear only gets more entrenched, because how else can you deal with fear? It is extremely difficult to feel fear unmitigated without somehow understanding it as coming from somewhere, or being stimulated by something, having a cause or reason. The brain always wants to make sense of things, and it does this whether one “wants to” or not.

So even though I am aware of what paranoia is, I have never been able to control my thoughts when it is happening. It is only after the fact that I can, now, sometimes, look back on a difficult situation and with a clearer head understand how I might in fact have been paranoid in my behavior due to my fear- induced understanding of what was going on. It is very very difficult to override such feelings, esp on such  a fundamental level.

I wish I could write more now, but I’d better to get back to my writing before I have to get back to sleep. As it is, it is 1:50 A.M. and we — Ann W drove here with me — the other fellowship person — have to drive home tomorrow around noon. I wish dearly it were not so, but there you have it. For now, I will leave you with a poem that will go into the manuscript of my second book of poems, which I call at least for now (several people have been enthusiastic about the title, except my father), LEARNING TO SEE IN THREE DIMENSIONS. I share it with you now, because while still unpublished, I do not think I will seek publication for it elsewhere, separately…The first one, for my old (and former, but possibly dead now) friend Roland, was previously published, but in a much different version. I apologize if the lines come out with large spaces between them, but the cut and pasting function never seems to allow single spaces… OR stanzas for that matter, as this poem was originally broken up inot five different stanzas but now appears to be in only one long one… The second poem is about Joe, and describes my own encounter with fear of botulism, which has similar symptoms to ALS — so I feared — and my nostalgia for his voice, which I will never hear again, except on his answering machine, and on one or two micro-cassette tapes we made some years ago…

FOR A FRIEND SUCCUMBING TO AIDS, 1980s

For Roland

This could be your whole life,

thumbing a ride to wherever the cars are going,

the casual, tossed out hellos and good-byes

that turn around the axle of your quick life —

that far, just that far, and then you will stay,

forcing a stranger’s town into the shape of home.

Yet you’ve lived a dozen lives — in the Keys

with the one you finally loved, in western Portugal,

Nova Scotia. Last year, already marked, you spent

the winter in your bed,which just fit in a backyard shed

in Vernon, Connecticut. And there was a life

to accommodate each place, its sweetness and pain.

When we met, you taught me the local architecture,

the difference between Georgian and Greek Revival,

and you thanked me for the poems you gave me.

Then you called late one night, drunk enough to over-

dose. Thoughtlessly, I rescued you, a dying man…

You never forgave nor spoke to me again.

Now once in a while a car slows, pondering

your beard, your emaciation, the known and unknown

risks, sees you finally, and explodes away from the shoulder

where you stand, all its doors locked simultaneously

against those Kaposi’s inflorescences that stain

your dying…Roland, Roland, don’t you know

we all die in shame and alone? We die, perhaps,

not far from home, or perhaps, like you, wandering,

waiting for the one car to cross the bridge

whose toll is so high we all pay with our lives.

WORRYWART

Tonight I’m up late worrying

about a badly canned chestnut puree

and botulism, which is useless

since I’ll know soon enough from

what the Merck Manual describes as

“difficulty speaking or swallowing,

drooping eyelids, double vision,

lassitude and weakness progressing

to paralysis” that I have it

or not. Not very likely with only

130 cases in the U.S. in a year,

but as I said, I worry, and worry attaches

to anything: leprosy, asteroids falling

from the sky, dirt on your hands.

Most people worry too much

about things that won’t matter

after six months. My friend doesn’t

have to worry about those. He is

losing his speech to Lou Gehrig’s. In six

months who knows what won’t work

any longer or which will matter

most. His assistive device says

the words he types, but how I miss

the sound of his voice, which I’ve forgotten

except when I call and the old

machine picks up: Joe speaking.

I can’t answer the phone right now

but I’ll call you back as soon as I can.

Jane Crown Poetry Radio

Okay, all you poetry fans of mine, and anyone out there who reads this in general! This is a rather late announcement, but this Sunday at 5pm Eastern time (you will have to make the proper adjustments if you live in other time zones) Jane Crown, at http://www.janecrown.com will be doing a 90 minute interview with me http://www.janecrown.com/archive_radio/Pamela_Sprio_Wagner.mp3 that will be part personal interview and part poetry reading  both from WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS as well as new poems, and she may possibly include some reading and/or discussion about my memoir DIVIDED MINDS: Twin Sisters and their Journey Through Schizophrenia. I hope as many of you as possible will listen, and if you are not interested in poetry will listen out of interest in schizophrenia, as we certainly will speak of that.

By the way, Jane tells me that the show will be archived and “available forever” so if you cannot sit and listen for 90 minutes this Sunday, do not worry as you can do so at any time and for any length of time. Just follow the link or do a search for Jane Crown and radio or poetry and you should find it without trouble.

______________________________________________________________

Now for an update: Well, first of all, let me say that I want to write an update but first I need to start my review of the poems I am going to read on Sunday, and read a little of DIVIDED MINDS, so I can recall what got into the book out of my 400pp original manuscript and what was cut. So forgive me if I put the update and rest of this post off for a few hours and get back to it maybe after 11 pm tonight. Or if not then, as I must get up early tomorrow, then I will write a new post tomorrow. For now, suffice it to say that I feel extraordinarily HAPPY!

Book of the Year Finalist

Hi All,

Apparently We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders (CavanKerry Press, Feb 2009) my book of poems about living with schizophrenia, has been nominated a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s 2009 Book of the Year (in the Poetry category). I dunno what this means, and I doubt highly that it will win, but I am very happy and grateful to have been made a finalist at all. The results will be announced on May 25th  at the BookExpo American, wherever and whatever that is. I’ll keep you posted, or perhaps you can keep me posted…

Here’s the cover of the book just in case you don’t know what it looks like:

Poems by Pamela Spiro Wagner

Here are a few sample poems from my new book WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS, (which, despite what many have been told IS available from Amazon and B & N and upne.com so keep trying if you have been told it is not…I know as I just got some extra copies from amazon). Here is just a teaser to get people interested:

These first two are from the first section, which concerns my childhood and the first intimations of illness. Here are the first indications that touch is difficult, even threatening to me. In the second poem, I describe my twin sister’s wholly different attitude towards her body, how in a more innocent time, wolf whistles by teen age boys were considered harmless, complimentary even, and wearing tight jeans was not an invitation to anything but, as in this poem, pleasure on the part of both young men and the young woman described…

AMBIVALENCE

Touch me. No, no, do not touch.

I mean: be careful —

if I break into a hundred pieces

like a Ming vase falling from the mantle

it will be your fault.

JUNIOR MISS

Cool as Christmas

plump as a wish

and simonpure as cotton

You stroll the avenue

mean in your jeans

and the boys applaud.

You toss off a shrug

like a compliment

with a flicker of disdain

Catching the whistle

in mid-air and

pitching it back again.

“Eating the Earth” is more or less a true story insofar  the little boy in a nearby neighborhood did rub a certain little girl’s face in dirt for telling him where babies came from  and she did dream the dream descrbed. What this all means is up to the reader to decide, however.

EATING THE EARTH

After Tyrone, the little boy next door,

makes her eat a handful of dirt

for telling lies

about where babies come from

her father says it will do her no harm.

You have to eat a peck of dirt

before you die, her father says.

He also says she hadn’t lied:

babies do come that way.

She cries after her father

leaves the room and she sleeps

all night with the lights on.

Her father tells her other things,

that earthworms eat their own weight in dirt

every day and that their do-do

(he says “excrement”)

fertilizes our food.

She makes a face over that

and doesn’t believe him.

Besides, she says, we’re people

not worms.

And we’re so great, huh? he says.

Well, I’d rather be a girl than a worm.

He says nothing.

He is grown up and a doctor,

he doesn’t have to worry about

being a worm.

But she does.

That night she dreams that Tyrone

dumps a jar of worms down her shirt

and that their dreadful undulations

become hers and she begins

eating dirt

and liking it,

the cool coarse grains of sand,

the spicy chips of mica,

the sweet-sour loam become her body

as she lives and breathes,

eating the darkness.


FUSION

It was a frying pan summer.

I was playing croquet by myself,

missing the wickets on purpose,

rummaging my pockets for dime-sized diversions.

It was a summer of solitaire.

I laid the cards out like soldiers.

I was in command.

Then you came out

with a mallet and a stolen voice

that seemed to rise disembodied

from the gorge of your black throat

and you challenged me to a game.

You ate me with your mosquito demands

though I, I didn’t want to play with anyone!

I hid my trembling in my sleeves

refusing to shake your hand.

I thought: this is how the Black Death was

transmitted, palm to palm, hand to hand,

a contagion like money.

You smiled the glassy grimace

practiced for boys all summer in front of a mirror.

If I looked you in the eye I would die.

I knew then all the sharp vowels of fear.

It was late in the afternoon

and I was frightened

when our shadows merged.


OUR MOTHER’S DAUGHTERS

I dreamed my mother cut off

my baby toes, the suturing so perfect

she left no gangrene, no scars, just a fine line

of invisible thread and four toes on each foot

instead of five. The job done, she left me

at the “crutches store” on Whitney Avenue

where I could find no crutches to fit

and so hobbled back toward home

alone and lopsided.

This is true, and she was a good mother

most of the time, which meant

that I never lacked for anything

she could buy, yet still I grew up lame,

disfigured (though not in any

noticeable way) and always with the sense

I had been abandoned before my time.

This has all been said before: our mothers

leave us, then or now, later or sooner,

and we hobble like cripples

toward the women in our lives

who can save us. Or else we limp homeward

knowing we will never make it back

before we wake up. And when we do wake up

we find we, too, are mothers, trying desperately

to save our daughters’ legs

by amputating their smallest least necessary

toes, taking the toes to save the feet

to save the legs they stand on

in a world where we ourselves

are not yet grounded.


PARANOIA

You know something is going on.

It is taking place just beyond the range

of your hearing, inside that house

on the corner needing paint and shutters,

the one with the cluttered yard

you always suspected sheltered friends

in name only. It may be in the cellar

where the radio transmitter is being built

or the satellite. A cabal of intelligence

is involved, CIA, MI-6, Mossad.

It is obvious plans are being made;

didn’t your boss arch his eyebrows

while passing your desk this morning,

grunt hello, rather than his usual

“Howahya?” There are veiled threats

to your life and livelihood. Someone

is always watching you watching

and waiting for whatever is going

to happen to happen.


THE CATATONIC SPEAKS

At first it seemed a good idea not to

move a muscle, to resist without

resistance. I stood still and stiller. Soon

I was the stillest object in that room.

I neither moved nor ate nor spoke.

But I was in there all the time,

I heard every word said,

saw what was done and not done.

Indifferent to making the first move,

I let them arrange my limbs, infuse

IVs, even toilet me like a doll.

Oh, their concern was so touching!

And so unnecessary. As if I needed anything

but the viscosity of air that held me up.

I was sorry when they cured

me, when I had to depart that warm box,

the thick closed-in place of not-caring,

and return to the world. I would

never go back, not now. But

the Butterfly Effect says sometimes

the smallest step leads nowhere,

sometimes to global disaster. I tell you

it is enough to scare a person stiff.

New Book Is Out: Poems on Schizophrenia

Yes, I finally hold it in my hands, We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders, published by CavanKerry Press. Below is the cover illustration (minus the Spiro, which is on the final version) and the press release:

We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders: Poems by Pamela Spiro Wagner
We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders: Poems by Pamela Spiro Wagner

NEWS from CavanKerry Press
6 Horizon Road No. 2901 • Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024 • phone/fax 201.670.9065 • cavankerry@optonline.net

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Florenz Eisman — 201.670.9065

WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS

Poems

Pamela Spiro Wagner
With Introduction and Commentary by Mary B. O’Malley, MD, PhD

Foreword by Baron Wormser

For forty years – longer than her entire adult life – Pamela Spiro Wagner has been affected by paranoid schizophrenia, a plight she eloquently explored in her award-winning book, Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey Through Schizophrenia, co-written with her twin sister, psychiatrist Carolyn S. Spiro, MD. Also an accomplished poet, Wagner has long utilized the language and emotion of poetry to express the individuality of her mental illness, capturing with vivid candor her singular inner world. In WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS, the latest volume from LaurelBooks, CavanKerry’s Literature of Illness imprint, Wagner for the first time collects her poems, presented with commentary by her psychiatrist, Mary B. O’Malley, MD, PhD, that elucidates the clinical roots of the poet’s art.

WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS “is much more than a testimony to a diagnosis or pathology or terminology,” writes Baron Wormser in his foreword. “The poems emanate from the place of the poet’s illness but they are resolutely poems—well-written, sensually alert, quick to turn and notice and startlingly honest. They dwell on both sides of the equation of life and art: testifying to the powerful and tenuous links between the two and demonstrating that art is capable of holding its own regardless of circumstances. Some of those circumstances have been shattering. The sheer tenacity that it can take to write poems makes itself felt here in ways that are both uncomfortable and reassuring.”

Wagner’s often harrowing struggle with life, as reflected in these poems, has been marked by psychological turmoil – periods of total debilitation, as well as intervals of recovery and hope. Her battle with paranoia hovers over the work, such as in “Poem in which Paranoia Strikes at the Grocery Store” where the simple act of shopping becomes a waking nightmare: “Who/gave you permission to enter? No one/wants you here. They are all watching….You are being followed./You are on your own.” Wagner captures the voices in her head with terrifying urgency. In “Offering,” Wagner’s very first poem, written in 1984, she writes of her compulsion to burn herself with cigarettes with a haunting remove:

The tip of the cigarette glows and grins
as I lower it to you,
Unlover,
alien body.

At Dr. O’Malley’s urging, Wagner has also included three poems she wrote during the heights of psychosis, and these are filled with scrambled ideas and garish imagery that are shocking in their raw, unguarded unveiling of the poet’s troubled mind.

Divided into five sections, Wagner’s book covers childhood and the earliest indications of illness, the years of illness, recovery, coping, and new beginnings. As with most poetry grounded in autobiography, there are important familial relationships that seep into the poems – father, mother, sister, friends. Here, these relationships are filtered through the poet’s psychosis, colored by hallucinations and delusions, yet grounded in the emotional truths that any complicated relationship engenders. In her most widely known poem, “The Prayers of the Mathematician,” which won First Place in the BBC World Service international poetry competition judged by Wole Soyinke, Wagner moves beyond the personal with an eloquent poem about John Nash, the schizophrenic Nobel Prize winner who was later immortalized in the movie, A Beautiful Mind.

“These poems are the work of a first-rate writer” says surgeon and best-selling writer Richard Selzer of WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS, “one who has sounded the well of her own suffering to retrieve the wherewithal to transform pain into the most powerful and moving literature.”

~~~

About Pamela Spiro Wagner

Pam coral and green
Photo of the author in May, 2009

A prize-winning writer and poet who suffers from schizophrenia, Pamela Spiro Wagner attended Brown University and went to medical school for one and a half years before being hospitalized for psychiatric care. She won First Place in the international BBC World Service Poetry Competition in 2002, and co-authored, with her twin sister, Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey Through Schizophrenia, which won the national NAMI Outstanding Literature Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Currently she writes at http://WAGblog.wordpress.com. She has lived in the Hartford, Connecticut area for 33 years.

CavanKerry Press would appreciate two tearsheets
of any review or feature you publish about this book.

WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS by Pamela Spiro Wagner
Publication Date: 2009
Price: $16.00; ISBN: 978-1-933880-10-5
Distributed by: University Press of New England (UPNE), 1-800-421-1561 or 603-448-1533, Ext. 255

Author is available for speaking, readings, and workshops.
Contact: pamwagg@cox.net or pamwagg@yahoo.com
Tel: 860-257-9188

New Psychiatrist – 2nd Appointment

Dear Dr C:

 

Today when I left your office, I had to get natural bug spray as I walk at the State Park at least once a week and I usually forget to use it for the mosquitoes and ticks…Well, I went in, made a beeline for where I thought the display would be (having really no idea, I had to traverse the whole store before I found it, unfortunately, given that people there — as I told you — were talking and thinking about me and looking at me and wanting me not to buy or to buy certain things as usual…). ButI found it finally. Luckily there were not too many choices and the choice was made for me when I saw the word “local” and “made in Connecticut” as I knew that would please the “locavores” who were monitoring my purchase — a locavore being someone who eats only from local sources.

 

Despite the fact that it was the most expensive bug spray on the shelf I took the bottle and found the shortest line…No, actually, the line I stood in was the one where the woman before me actually looked at me without a frown, and in so doing gave me permission to stand behind her. I paid with my last ten dollars, though the cashier made everyone wait, impatiently I am sure, because he didn’t believe it cost $9.99 and he “didn’t want to overcharge me.” Hah!

 

Finally, I emerged from the store safely, shouldered my bag, and headed for the car. But as I stepped near the curb, a red Mini- Cooper drove past me and I understood immediately that this was your car, Dr C, and that you recognized me coming from Whole Foods. This seems entirely reasonable to me, since there was not another patient waiting in the waiting room when I left, so it seems likely that you were heading elsewhere after I departed…And suddenly a red Mini-Cooper seemed only rightly and properly “your car.” But somehow this conjunction boded very ill to me and I immediately became apprehensive, or what my sister, Dr O and my friend Josephine all called paranoid.

 

On one level I see what they were saying. But on the most profound level, I KNOW that what I know is truer than their objective observations. I was/am certain beyond the faintest doubtful smudge that you are in with Them, capital T. Who are They? They are the osteopaths of H_____, who have had a conspiracy against me for years.

Lynnie – Carolyn — told me I should talk about this with you, so here you are: this is only one of the big problems I have with you at the moment. Another one, which may be insurmountable in the end, is that I want to know why you sit where you do, I mean, way across the room from me. I do not want you to change. Do not suddenly get up and sit elsewhere. I just wonder why your natural choice is to sit, what is it, 10 feet away? Do I, as I fear, repell you? (If yes, is that because of the Osteopaths and what they have shared with you?) Do you fear me? Fear something? I can barely see you. I feel like you cannot see me, which is more to the point.

I need…I need…Oh, Lynnie tells me to do something different from what I “usually do” – be brave enough to ask questions when I should then sit still and listen to the answers, and ask for clarification if I still haven’t understood. To discuss what I feel rather than letting my paranoia get the best of me, not simply accept it and go with it full speed ahead. But I do not know HOW to fight the absolute certainty that things are going on, nor the special knowledge that I have. Zyprexa helped more than anything, but that is utterly unacceptable. Nothing else has made a dent. Except possibly the 35mg of Abilify, which I went back on tonight, just in case…We’ll see.

Enough is enough. I hope you don’t mind that I wrote this. I didn’t want to leave a message on your phone nor ask to have you call me. In fact, though, I may keep this until the 13th and give it to you then, as I am afraid you might consider it a burden to read a letter “off duty.” 

 

Sincerely,

PW

 

Now, that is what I wrote him, after the incident recounted in the letter, but in fact, I have found and called an APRN therapist, a female, who sounds and “feels” more to my liking, though I have not yet met her. Maybe I simply get on better with women than men? But that is not true, as I have had male docs in the hospital I preferred over the female therapists by far. I think, as I discussed it with Dr O, I found Dr C not so warm nor “safe” in the end, nor responsive to what I said. I had trouble talking with him, because he did not actually talk with me, only listened, which is not what I want in a  psychiatrist. I do not want that sort of “therapy” — I don’t want to delve into my past or my inner feelings. I have a hard enough time dealing each week with what is happening in my life, let alone the deepest darkest secrets that my mind hides from me and in which I have no interest…My goals in therapy are mainly two: to gain some self-esteem and self-confidence, which despite how I may sound here, I have almost none of, and two, to somehow, somehow, if possible, learn how to cope with and not be so chronically paranoid. Of course, those were Dr O’s aims with me all along, I imagine. But perhaps if I myself commit to them and learn how to work at them, more headway can be made. I sort of think, now that I know what paranoia is and how to recognize it, finally, that I need concrete exercises to practice how not to succumb to my tendency toward it. Ditto self-esteem, which tendency is just as strong, if not stronger, since it produces as much paranoia as grandiosity does. I cannot imagine what form such exercises might take, but I can imagine that they exist. I cannot be the first person to need them, after all.

 

WE MAD is at the printers but apparently it takes a month to come out from there, so it won’t be finished until May 28th! Geeze, and I thought it would take a week at most…This is going so slow. I cannot see how they could possibly have gotten the book out in February, even had I not been ill and taken a “month off”. At best they would have gotten the book out in April! I should have known that anything a publisher says with a deadline has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I cannot seem to get that through my thick skull and so I still keep on expecting things to be done on time, and keep meeting deadlines that no one else ever does.