June 10, 2012

pink tights and farewells

by Megan Abbott

Why let pain your pleasures spoil, 
For want of our patented Magic Oil?’

This is the living archive of the Abbott-Gran Medicine Show. Please visit early and often and we hope one day to return with new tonics, remedies, elixirs and, just maybe, that miracle cure.

We thank you all.

July 26, 2011

a stranger calls

by Megan Abbott

On book tour of late, I visited Michigan and, for the first time, talked about my novel, The End of Everything, in the world that inspired it—suburban Detroit.  It was a strange feeling, seeing many old friends stretching as far back as elementary school.

After the reading, a trio of these friends—three women, all looking incandescent despite the humid weather and the clambering hands of their downy headed children—came up to say hello and pointed out that I had in fact used the actual names of my high school chemistry teacher and middle school math teacher (both unusual names) in the novel.

I can’t account for the fact that I’d forgotten this entirely, can’t even say I was ever aware I’d done it.  It was an uncanny feeling, like being caught. Like a dream when someone says to you, “I was just on the third floor of your house” when you know you only have two floors.

This episode was followed by an after-party in which several folks, including Eric Peterson, asked if my novel was inspired by the Oakland County missing children cases of the late 1970s. I am, let it be said, a true-crime junkie, which is why I cannot rightly explain the blank face I gave in return. What missing children?

Because my novel is centered around a missing girl, I have spent the last several weeks talking about missing-children cases (with both tragic and happy endings) virtually everywhere I go. One of the reasons I set the novel in the early 1980s was because I remember distinctly the changes in my community in terms of child safety. After the Adam Walsh case (1981),  I remember a distinct feeling of hysteria over “stranger danger” and the way that made me feel as a kid. To me, everything felt like an enticing, half-hidden mystery. But to parents, teachers, everyone else but we kids, it felt quite intensely like a place of peril, especially to children.

So, as I’ve visited bookstores, others have shared similar tales of the Walsh case, and other ones. I know for Sara, the Etan Patz case in New York had a similar impact. And, amid all this, there was both the terrible Brooklyn case and the Caylee Anthony phenomenon (what do you do when the danger is within your own home, which, statistically, is usually the case?).

Amid all these conversations, though, I continually asserted it was the Adam Walsh case that I remember so vividly, in large part because everyone saw the TV movie and the graphic details of Adam’s death scattered through our school with abandon.

But an Oakland County case? I didn’t recall it one bit.

For some backstory, I grew up in Wayne County (Detroit lies at its heart and my town, Grosse Pointe, serves as its upturned chin), the direct neighbor to Oakland, where we might go, when I was a kid, to the movies, or their mall. From what I’ve since learned, over a 13-month period in 1976-1977, four children (ages 10-12) were abducted, held for several days, and murdered. In the grim way of media spectacle, the perpetrator was dubbed the “Baby Sitter” because he kept the children alive for as many as 19 days, feeding them and bathing them before killing them. No one was ever convicted, though there are strong beliefs in the identify of the perpetrator.

I would have been five or six at the time, which is probably why I don’t remember them as they were occurring. But not even in the intervening years?

At the after-party, when discussion of the case came up, I asked my dad if he remembered the case.

“Oh yes,” he said, “of course.”

I’s so interesting because clearly, as a child, I must have felt it—the sense of attenuated fear, anxiety, terror. The dread that must have stretched for years with no suspect found, no justice served. In fact, especially in light of new DNA analysis, there continue to be stories (and stories) about the case, as recently as two weeks ago.

But I have no conscious memory of the case at all. And yet how much it must have impacted all our lives.  Both my brother and I just five years younger than the Oakland County children, abducted in daylight, after buying candy at a pharmacy, coming back from the 7-11.

I am sure my parents shielded me from the specifics, and I do remember all the steps taken in my elementary school to alert parents to “stranger danger.” And I remember afer one such school assembly being particularly frightened to walk the single block home. But as much as I recall countless other missing child cases, I never, ever came upon the one in my own backyard.

It makes me wonder how much I did know about the case, in whatever ways a five or six year old can, but somehow I forgot it, the way we forget things we want to, need to.

I should add, The End of Everything bears no similarity to what happened in  Oakland Country, in facts large or small. I can’t say I even consider it to be a novel about a missing child precisely, but instead about an enchanted family and the power we invest such families with. But it is inspired by that feeling so specific to the late 70s-early 80s. The sense of the world changing, abruptly, even over night, because all the adults were suddenly terrified and that terror painted the entire world of my youth (many of our youth’s) with a powerful menace. The message was: You are not safe, and you never were.

But even adult fear couldn’t stop us. We still needed to discover, to push through to adulthood, to find, on our own, the peril and beauty of the world. We did.

And hat tip to Eric Peterson, who first suggested a connection between my book and the case and who provided great insight into the case that night.

July 26, 2011

Cat Fancy… Unhinged

by karolinawaclawiak

Have you ever heard of Louis Wain? He was a Victorian artist who painted pictures of anthropomorphic cats. Cats playing ball and smoking cigarettes. Cats in Victorian garb, sporting monocles, playing trumpets and dancing wildly in posh party scenes. Comic strip cats, children’s books full of cats and cats running through postcards. You get the idea.

(Photo courtesy of http://www.wonderranchpublishing.com)

He started painting his house cat, Peter, to comfort his dying wife and continued on an artistic journey that would last a lifetime. Wain was quite successful, with double-page spreads in the Illustrated London News, books, awards. He was so well-known for his paintings of cats that he was elected as President of the National Cat Club after writing the book In Animal Land With Louis Wain. However, after World War I people no longer held the same interest in images of frolicking cats, perhaps the chaos of war couldn’t afford room for whimsy anymore.

(Photo courtesy of Fanny G Illustrations)

As popularity of Wain’s cat portraiture waned a new kind of energy started sprouting up in his work. Wain’s cats started betraying more and more anxiety, perhaps in response to the world around him. His cats suddenly had fear in their eyes, near panic, and a new kind of distrust. More than likely, they mirrored the frenetic energy taking over his own mind.

(Photo courtesy of BrixPicks)

Their anxious progression began to show the trajectory of Wain’s own mental illness as a diagnosed schizophrenic. His cats’ large, yellow eyes illustrated a consuming paranoia.

(Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo O.)

I’m continually struck by the eyes of his cats and how much tension, and ultimately terror, he housed in their small frames. Wain would later push himself further, creating such abstract work that the nearly pulsating lines only hinted at a cat underneath. (Photo Courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

Although he had a huge body of work the poor business decisions he made, such as failing to retain the rights of his own work, led him to destitution. Eventually, he was committed as his mental health deteriorated and in 1925 was found in a low-grade mental hospital by H.G. Wells. What did Wells do? Rounded up benefactors, including the Prime Minister, so that Wain could be moved to a better facility to live out his life in safety and comfort. He continued painting his cats through the end of his life. I recently found a Louis Wain quote from the IDLER(1896):

“I used to wander in the parks studying nature, and visited all the docks and museums. I consider that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.”

It makes me think of how writers and artists really have no choice but to convey their own peculiar views, no matter how strange the picture may be.

(Photo courtesy of Sunny Down Snuff)

July 18, 2011

you never know what you will find

by Megan Abbott

A few weeks ago, I contributed guest column to Suzanne Beecher’s Dear Reader, the expansive online book club. Writing it, I ended up on a flight of nostalgia, recalling the library branch that meant the most to me when I was young, and a string of early reading memories. The day the column went out to Suzanne’s readers, my inbox filled all day, and the days following, with messages from hundreds of readers who shared reading memories far richer than my own.

In this era of “the book is dead” (isn’t that every era, since books began?) and at a time when I sometimes feel I’m too much in the “business of books” to enjoy them the same way ever again, I felt sharply humbled by the extent of book-love, library-love, reading-love that came through every email. And the extent to which everyone wanted to share that love: Ninety-year-old readers with Nooks in hand, young mothers trotting their children to the local library, one woman savoring her adolescent daughter’s love of classics like The Black Tulip and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Those who said they came to love reading out of loneliness, those who said they came to read as an escape from the noise of their crowed homes.

Others who recalled “illicit” reads, such as Max Ehrlich’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, Judy Blume’s Wifey, V.C. Andrews (of course), Lloyd Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession, Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings and quite a bit of Jacqueline Susann.

And so many tales of local libraries as second homes, and of, as one reader put it, struggling to steer her bike home because she had stacked so many books into the bag hanging from her handlebars.

Reading all of these emails stirred even more of my own early reading memories, and made me value doubly the encouragement and exuberance of my parents, many of my teachers and the folks at the Grosse Public Library-Woods Branch. But these emails also reminded me of the many ways readers find book love—through a friend, a grandfather with a home library, through movies or comics or those who grow up in non-reading households that find books utterly on their own.

Here’s a few letters from these readers (reprinted with their permission):

As a child in a Chicago grade school, one of favorite times was our school library.  The librarian put aside the newest Sue Barton book so I would be the first to read it.  She also chose me along with two other girls to attend the 80th birthday celebration for Laura Ingalls Wilder.  This was in connection with the radio program “Hobby Horse Presents” hosted by Hugh Downs, sponsored by Carson Pirie Scott store.  We were in attendance for the radio program which featured actors portraying Laura and Pa as he was taking her to her first teaching assignment.  After the radio show, we were in a large room for breakfast (orange juice and sweet rolls), and sang “Happy Birthday to Laura,” who had sent a taped message to us.

Years later, much later in fact, I found out that the birthday card which we signed that day was hanging in the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in Mansfield, Missouri.  In our moving travels from Chicago to Texas, we stopped there.  I can tell you—this brought tears to my eyes when I saw the framed card hanging in her home!

—    Janet Fricke, Ovalo, TX

My parents were readers and I was an only child. My father was in the Army until shortly before my tenth birthday in a time when television selections were limited. We resided for two years in Marquette, Michigan with the truly great Peter White Library; echoes of the high ceilings, ornate building and wood softened by decades of elbows resting on the rectangular tables.

No children were allowed unaccompanied into the Adult section but the Children’s Library was a haven with the complete Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the more obscure regional favorite DandelionCottage, the Bobbsey Twins, Cherry Ames, Betsy, Tacy and Tibb series, ah the joy of discovery of Nancy Drew and my childhood favorite, Walter Brooks’ Freddie the Pig series.

I won a blue ribbon in 4th grade for writing the most book reports during the school year…. (I, too, read somewhat age inappropriately—TheFountainhead at 13 is one glaring example.)

—Linda Hitchcock, Glasgow, KY 

When I was about 10 or so, my dad worked swing shift a great deal.  My mom’s friend Alda Mae lived between our house & the Safeway store, so we would often stop by there on the way to the store.  Some nights we never did quite make it there, other than Cathy (Alda Mae’s daughter who was my age & a good friend) & I being sent to pick up a couple of boxes of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti & some french bread for us all to share.  I was quite envious because Cathy had all the Nancy Drew books & her older brother Walt had all the Hardy Boys.  Sometimes when we would stop by, Cathy would not be home & I would settle in her room & read Nancy Drew.  But even better, sometimes Cathy & Walt were both gone & I would slip down to Walt’s basement room where no one would bother me to curl up & read his Hardy Boys.

I have so many fond memories of those evening at the Robbins’ home.  Some times, Alda Mae played the piano & we would gather around & sing.

—Liz Stamp

I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvaniaand our library was in a community center. I remember being the top reader every year in the summer reading program. My favorite place to read was behind a tombstone in the cemetery behind our house. So peaceful and quiet. You could really get lost in your book there.

[Today] I work at a library and whenever we have route-ins to do; opening those gray plastic tubs they come in is like opening a treasure chest to me. You never know what you will find.

 —Patricia Corcoran

July 4, 2011

The Medea of Kew Gardens

by djtafoya

If I could raise the money, I’d love to make a documentary about Alice Crimmins. Not many people know who she is now, but her murder trials and appeals in the sixties and seventies were big news at the time. She was accused of murdering her two young children, and because there was no solid evidence of her guilt, the investigation and trials were about what kind of person the investigators, her neighbors, her husband, her lovers and friends thought she was, and the difference between who they thought she was and who they thought she should be.

I’ve been fascinated with Alice since I first stumbled across her story on the internet years ago (for the crime-obsessed, the internet changed everything). Hers is one of those unsolvable, intractable cases about which opinions become more forceful as less and less is clear.

Alice Crimmins was the mother of two small children, Missy and Eddie, who were taken from her Queens apartment sometime during the night of July 13, 1965. Alice was in the middle of a custody dispute with her estranged husband Edmund. Gerard Peiring, one of the detectives assigned to the case, reportedly took an immediate dislike to Crimmins, calling her a ‘cold bitch.’ Alice was heavily made up and liked to dress in tight clothes that showed off her figure. She had been dating a number of men and liked to go out and have fun. When they found Missy’s body in a vacant lot a few hours later, Alice didn’t cry (though she did faint).

Eddie’s body was found a few days later in another vacant lot, so badly decomposed in the summer heat that it was never possible to determine how he died. Evidence in the case was shoddily collected or inconclusive. Alice’s husband, Edmund Crimmins was an odd man who had wiretapped his wife’s apartment and would listen to her having sex with other men. He may or may not have exposed himself to young girls in Cunningham Park. The detectives focused on Alice.

It was the middle of the 1960′s and the case became about lifestyle. Books written in the 70′s would describe Alice as a ‘swinger.’ Her heavy makeup hid acne scars (she looks, in some photos, strikingly like the actress Julianne Moore). The police followed and wiretapped her for two years after the murders before finally arresting her in September, 1967. The trials and appeals went on until 1975. Alice was convicted in both deaths in separate trials and was in prison until her parole in 1977.

As always, the thing that gets in my brain and won’t let go is the idea of inappropriate behavior as an indicator of guilt. Cases like this (thinking of the Sam Sheppard case, Lizzie Borden, JonBenet Ramsey, and on and on), in the absence of compelling physical evidence, become stories about whether the accused seem like murderers. Do they act guilty? Do they mourn appropriately? Do they act as we want them to act, as we think we’d act?

In Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half a Life, he admits acting out grief for the benefit of two women in the street soon after accidentally killing a young classmate with his car. In reality, he wrote, he was numb. In the most extreme situations we might say or do anything, and in the moment the police show you the dead body of one of your children, what would you say and do?

To be a parent is to imagine how you might act if the worst happens, and that imagined moment isn’t free of all of your fictional or vicarious experiences, either. You’ve seen it in the movies, read about it in books or newspapers a thousand times. And the police are watching, your neighbors are watching, and they’re drawing conclusions about who you are.

Add other ‘inappropriate’ behavior into the mix. Alice was a sexual explorer who had physical relationships with men other than her husband. She was a woman who was seen to enjoy and embrace her sexuality at a historical moment in which that had political, legal and cultural ramifications that her peers probably found terrifying or abhorrent. During her trials, the prosecutor questioned Alice at length about her relationships with other men. The jurors were all male. Some of the jurors did their own investigations, visiting the crime scene without sanction. One of them was overheard saying, “A tramp like that is capable of anything.”

It’s no secret that there’s something about women engaging in criminal behavior that draws special interest and approbation. I just read Go Down Together, Jeff Guinn’s meticulous history of Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s pretty clear that it was the public’s perception of Bonnie that drove the fascination with the pair’s mostly petty crimes (when they died, Clyde’s viewing drew ten thousand mourners; Bonnie more than thirty).

A few photographs of Bonnie mugging with a cigar apparently convinced people she was a hard-bitten gun moll who engineered their criminal exploits and participated in murder. According to Guinn, Texas Ranger Frank Hamer singled Bonnie out for especially vicious treatment during the final ambush. In the years after the pair died, successive retellings of the Bonnie and Clyde story became stories of a thrill-seeking femme fatale driving her simple, previously innocent man to robbery and murder.

Of course, Alice  might have done it. The prejudice, harassment and rush to judgment don’t immunize Alice, even if they make it easy to sympathize with her. Women have killed their children for any number of reasons and Alice was mercurial and unpredictable. Medical Examiner Milton Helpern said the evidence of undigested food in Missy’s stomach disputed Crimmins’ time line. An eccentric neighbor and a former lover testified against her.

In the press she was called ‘The Medea of Kew Gardens,’ and like Medea she is impossible to fix to one consistent narrative. She maintained her innocence throughout the trials and years of appeals and became more strident and less able to control herself in court. Reading about those later appearances is especially affecting – guilty or innocent her situation must have been just about intolerable, and it’s difficult to even imagine being unjustly imprisoned for killing your children.

Mary Higgins Clark’s first novel, Where Are The Children? was based on the Crimmins case. I just read it again and found it kind of antique, even for 1975. Clark’s take was entirely sympathetic: her main character, called Nancy, is innocent, having been manipulated and drugged by the real killer, but Nancy is frustratingly disengaged and vague, spending what feels like half the book in a drug-induced haze and trying to remember something that might help the men around her to find two newly missing children, the product of her remarriage after the loss of her family and years of hiding. Nancy is resilient but still oddly passive, and maybe that’s what Clark thought about Alice herself, though she doesn’t strike me that way.

People aren’t interested in Alice anymore, but headlines and TV news still reflect our fascination with accused female killers, especially those accused of killing their children, like Andrea Yates, Susan Smith, Diane Downs or Casey Anthony. Alice has disappeared, not just from the scene but from the culture (there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for her). She might, in fact, still be alive. There have been some sightings of her in Florida and New York, where she lived after marrying a Long Island contractor. I wonder if she’s thought about telling her story. I think it would be fascinating, but she probably has no interest in being front page news again.

June 29, 2011

black swans

by Megan Abbott

For a time, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the book (and movie) Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, which famously told tale tale of “Sybil,” the psyeudoynm of a young woman treated by Dr. Cornelia Wilbur for what the doctor came to feel was multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) .

At around age ten or eleven, the TV movie must have been re-run because I remember many conversations with girls at school, detailing with giddy horror, the terrible punishments Sybil underwent under her psychotic mother’s care, or so the movie relayed. It’s funny to think of it now–I’m embarrassed the palpable excitement we all seemed to feel in the particularly lurid details of the punishments. But it was the nervous laughter of coming upon something deeply secret, or a taboo, or something maybe like our own darkest Grimms-spun nightmares of abuse at the hands of our parents. (If you read Flowers in the Attic, consider the many titillating scenes of maternal and grandmaternal abuse and you will see this particular childhood fascination in full bloom.)

But I wonder if a key part of my interest in the book, as in many books like it (Three Faces of Eve, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) that focused on women in mental health crises, was the notion that these books conveyed something about womanhood that I may have been uninterested in hearing through plainer vehicles (e.g., a book on a female hero, or even feminism!).

The reason I ask is that I recently read an advance copy of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan, which comes out in October. It is an utterly riveting, troubling and troubled book that traces the intertwined fates of the real Sybil (her identity was finally revealed in the 1990s), Dr. Wilbur and the author of the original Sybil, Flora Schreiber.  And it is a harsh exposé that calls into question nearly every aspect of the original book and certainly every aspect of Dr. Wilbur’s treatment of her patient (which apparently involved daily injections of “truth serum” to such a degree that her patient became a full-blown drug addict).

Without getting into the specific charges raised within, Sybil Exposed also stands as a fascinating study of what is was like to be a woman in the midcentury—in particular women who chose alternative paths, or for whom those paths chose them.  The book description notes:

Exposing Sybil combines fascinating, near mythic drama with serious journalism to reveal what really powered the legend: a trio of women—the willing patient, her devoted shrink, and the ambitious journalist who spun their story into bestseller gold.

That trio of women at the center of the book all suffered mightily under the professional and personal limitations that their era (1940s-60s). Sybil, struggling with mental health issues (mostly, obsessive compulsive disorder, as we might see it now) that were poorly understood in her small town and within her strict Adventist faith, fought the threat of poverty, a sense out outsiderness and strong stigma. Dr. Wilbur faced the challenges of being one of very few women psychiatrists, coming up at a time when female patients much less female doctors faced strong bias and sometimes abuse. And the book’s author Flora Schreiber spent decades trying to make her name in journalism, to move past the women’s magazine gossamer she was repeatedly hired to spin in favor of something meatier, more significant. Something big.  

One can see the crucible stirring. To Nathan, the result was Sybil, Inc., a multi-millionaire dollar business built on a foundation of lies. (Or, at the very least, well-meaning fabrications and half truths.)

Tracing these women’s paths and their crossing—the way their lives interlocked as they became enmeshed (and enmeshed themselves) in something far beyond their dreams or their capacity to control—it is spellbinding. But the response to the original book and movie is perhaps the best part of the story. Thousands of mostly female readers writing letters to all three women for years about how Sybil spoke to them, about how they too felt they were divided into two, three, four or more women. How they too felt split, divided. Lacking a center, a self.

Much like the women in the 1950s, facing that era’s constructions, made Three Faces of Eve a best-seller, the women of the 1970s, living amid a time of dramatic social tumult and changing gender expectations, Sybil struck a nerve. (And while, according to Nathan, the vast majority of those who wrote to Schreber were women, one can see the appeal across many populations, all of whom face constricting social expectations, the pain of feeling you must wear different masks through life.)

Maybe (probably) this is a massive justification for my own dark childhood reading habits, but I wonder now about we school girls tearing through Sybil’s pages behind locker doors. I wonder if it wasn’t just the sharp horror of tales of abuse (though those of you who remember the book have likely never forgotten these scenes, which are rendered vividly and endlessly) that haunted and drew us in. (And perhaps which most of us read the same way we read V.C. Andrews, missing the point entirely.)  I wonder if, somehow, the book was a our preadolescent way of trying to understand the way we, all of us, must prepare to leave childhood behind and take up the various roles we feel are demanded of us, prescribed for us. We must start donning the mask, and then another, and then another. And we want to see how it’s done.


June 27, 2011

the carousel

by Megan Abbott

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens.  In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”

After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.

Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?

*                *                *

It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.

When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.

It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)

courtesy of Grosse Pointe Historical Society

At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.

Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.

Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.

Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.

Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.

Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.

June 20, 2011

a bell in every tooth

by Megan Abbott

“I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”                                —Elizabeth Taylor

I’m reading Furious Love (not to be confused with Furious Love), which recounts the tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Prior to reading it, I had no burning interest in the pair but was drawn to it because it’s co-written by Sam Kashner, author of the vivid, gossipy Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties, one of my favorite tinseltown books.

As I began, I suppose I expected the Liz-and-Dick relationship to be some kind of amalgam of Frank and Ava and Albee’s George and Martha. Both analogies have significant weight, but the depth of their connection to each other is woundingly touching, and the giddy, intense bond they had is kind of a heartbreaker as you see the increasing damage done by mind-numbing drink and other excess, career disappointments, Burton’s depression, family sorrows.

I have always loved Richard Burton and he shimmers in these pages. I think one of my favorite cinematic moments is a fleeting moment from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a night of epic drinking the beleaguered George, watching his wife tantalize another man on the dance floor with some ribald hip shakes, announces wearily—but with distinct admiration, “You have ugly talents, Martha.”

One of the gifts of Furious Love is the rich sense of Burton’s Welsh upbringing, which, to me, feels terrifically exotic and dramatic, with rich descriptions of the life of miners (Burton was the son and brother of miners), Burton’s love of “lava bread,” a Welsh concoction of a “froth of boiled seaweed “plunked down on the plate like a cow pat,” the way his brother’s face was “pocked with little blue marks,” from his years in the mines.

But my favorite part of the book might be the words offered up by Richard Burton himself, both from his various writings, diary entries and from his love letters to Taylor, which she permitted use of for the first time. Many are hopelessly romantic. Some are deliciously dirty, with Burton telling Taylor how he longs for  her “divine little money-box,” the “exquisite softness of the inside of [her] thighs,” and for the “half-hostile” look in her eyes when the pair is “deep in rut.”  That “half-hostile,” to me, is the mark of writerly (and perceptual) brilliance.

While Kashner and his coauthor Nancy Schoenberger are careful not to push the point, there’s a piece of Burton’s stormy past that seems to whisper in our ear constantly as we understand his connection to Taylor. His mother dead when he was only two, Burton was raised mostly by his sister, Cis, whom he viewed in saintly proportions and about whom he wrote lovingly:

I shone in the reflection of her green-eyed, black- haired, gypsy beauty. She sang at her work in a voice so pure that the local men said she had a bell in every tooth… She was naïve to the point of saintliness and wept a lot at the misery of others. She felt all tragedies except her own. I had read of the Knights of Chivalry and I knew that I had a bounden duty to protect her above all creatures. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when I saw her in another woman that I realized I had been searching for her all my life.

We’re always, in our relationships, looking to repeat, recapture past ones, aren’t we? And it isn’t always (or even mostly) a bad thing. Burton and Taylor saved each other for a while, until they couldn’t any longer. As Taylor wrote to Kashner, when releasing Burton’s letters to the biographer, “We had more time but not enough.”

June 19, 2011

Murder, In Song

by karolinawaclawiak

As much as I crave a good book about murder or a crime scene photo to dissect, nothing compares to a musical ballad about murder and mayhem. One of my old favorites is a rendition of “Knoxville Girl” by the Louvin Brothers off the Tragic Songs of Life album (1956). These country brothers crooned about the violent riverside murder of an unnamed young woman by her suitor. Voices sweet and lamenting, the Louvin brothers obscured the shock of violence with their lullaby composition.

“I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening, out in her home I’d dwell,

We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town,

I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down.”

You can only imagine where it goes from there.  Listen here.

The Louvin Brothers can’t be credited with inventing the murder ballad. In fact, “Knoxville Girl” is based on an old Irish ballad, “The Wexford Girl”, which has a more elaborate warning against murdering your loved one. Murder Ballads can be traced back even further to England and to the broadsheet ballad “The Cruel Miller” and well, it’s anyone’s game from there.

Now, take the traditional murder ballad and mix it with the poetry of a notorious serial killer, with a nod toward Joyce Carol Oates, and you have Jon Derosa’s “Ladies in Love.” Based on a poem of the same name by Charles Schmid, Jr., DeRosa weaves some lines from Schmid’s prison writing into his evocative ballad and gives us a precise window into the macabre mind of The Pied Piper of Tuscon. For those of you who don’t know, Schmid was an odd character who wreaked havoc on  the city of Tucson in the 1960’s and served as the inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, Where are You Going and Where Have You Been?

Photo courtesy of the Tucson Citizen.

He blurred his natural attractive features with cartoonish makeup and clothing, turning himself into a minstrel Elvis Presley – dark tan pancake makeup, white lipstick and the King’s jet black mane. He added his own touches too: a beauty mark on his cheek made from a mixture of putty and axle grease and oversized cowboy boots stuffed with detritus to make him seem taller, attempts at being a more appealing lady magnet to the disaffected youth of Tuscon.

Here, DeRosa has crafted a hauntingly beautiful murder ballad with flutes and woodwinds by Jon Natchez (of Beirut/Yellow Ostrich) and gentle violins and cellos by Claudia Chopek and Julia Kent, respectively.  Schmid’s chilling proclamation that “ladies should never fall in love,” is sung sweetly, like a lullaby by DeRosa. And Schmid’s poetic line about women’s voices “being like small animals waiting to be fed” is seemingly easier to take here, layered and somber. But, his complicated and perverse relationship with his victims isn’t celebrated here; instead, DeRosa’s tale of woe serves as a time capsule of terror that I believe, deserves a place in the history of disquieting murder ballads.

Listen to “Ladies in Love” exclusively on The Abbott Gran Medicine show:

http://soundcloud.com/jonderosa/jon-derosa-ladies-in-love

Jon DeRosa’s Anchored EP can be picked up on Itunes or here.

June 8, 2011

prepare to be amazed!

by Megan Abbott

Recently, I came upon a YouTube clip that felt like uncovering a childhood book at the bottom of an old box. One you don’t remember at all until you see its cracked cover and then every illustration, every odd turn-of-phrase, comes rushing back.

In this case, it was documentary segment dedicated to a miraculous structure called the Coral Castle. Located about 30 miles south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, it is one of those odd buildings—Mystery Castle in Phoenix and Winchester Mystery House in San José are others—that are the result of one “ordinary” person’s eccentric quest to create something extraordinary.

Coral Castle is the improbable—impossible?—product of one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant who cut, quarried, transported (ten miles), and raised the entire structure, which consists of more than 1,100 tons of coral rock, alone.

While, in that part of Florida, coral can be 4,000 feet thick, Leedskalnin reportedly used only hand-made tools, with no large machinery and no workers assisting him. Among much of the disbelieving press about the Castle—particularly during its early years—much nasty head-shaking was made not just over the fact that one man could build something like this, but that an “illiterate immigrant” could. According to the  Castle’s official website:

When questioned about how he moved the blocks of coral, Ed would only reply that he understood the laws of weight and leverage well. This man with only a fourth grade education even built an AC current generator, the remains of which are on display today. Because there are no records from witnesses his methods continue to baffle engineers and scientists, and Ed’s secrets of construction have often been compared toStonehengeand the great pyramids.

At a certain point during its long construction point, Leedskalnin opened his monument to the public, offering tours for 10 cents. Apparently, he even served up hot dogs for visiting children, the product of a pressure cooker he had invented.

The work of the Castle absorbed him from 1920 until his death in 1951.

The best part of the story, though (for me), is not the triumph of one dedicated (obsessive) man to overcome expectation, engineering, and our conceptions of what’s possible (though that’s pretty good too). It’s the reason why Mr. Leedskalnin built the castle to begin with. I bet you know why.

Like an “everyman” Charles Foster Kane building his Xanadu for his beloved. In this case a woman Leedskalnin referred to as his “Sweet Sixteen,” a young woman with the Dickensian name of Agnes Scuffs. At age 26, Leedskalnin was engaged to Miss Scuffs, ten years his junior, but, legend has it, she broke off the relationship on the eve of their wedding.

A fascinating (and to my mind, quintessentially American) figure, Leedskalnin was not just a sculptor, he was an inventor, a theorist on the properties of magnetism and a writer, the author of five “pamphlets.” Three are dedicated to “Magnetic Current” and one to “Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Life”  The fifth is called A Book in Every Home:  Containing Three Subjects: Ed’s Sweet Sixteen, Domestic and Political Views. In it, Leedskalnin writes about “Sweet Sixteen” as more than a single Agnes Scruffs but a symbol for the kind:

Now, I am going to tell you what I mean when I say, “Ed’s Sweet Sixteen.”  I don’t mean a sixteen year old girl; I mean a brand new one.

Later, he writes:

 …I want a girl the way Mother Nature puts her out.  This means before anybody has had any chance to be around her and before she begins to misrepresent herself.  I want to pick out the girl while she if guided by the instinct alone

And he expand to larger social views:

Everything we do should be for some good purpose but as everybody knows there is nothing good that can come to a girl from a fresh boy. When a girl is sixteen or seventeen years old, she is as good as she ever will be, but when a boy is sixteen years old, he is then fresher than in all his stages of development. He is then not big enough to work but he is too big to be kept in a nursery and then to allow such a fresh thing to soil a girl—it could not work on my girl. Now I will tell you about soiling. Anything that is done, if it is done with the right party it is all right, but when it is done with the wrong party, it is soiling, and concerning those fresh boys with the girls, it is wrong every time.

Indeed, Mr. Leedskalnin. Indeed.

(I do not remember any of these details of the story from when I first became fascinated by the castle—which I’ve yet to see!—at age eight or so. I’m sure, however, that, at that age, I would have taken due note.)

Mr. Leedskalnin never married. While he extended invitations to Agnes Scuffs over the years, she never did see the monument he built for her.

Postscript: I am sure there are folks out there who know much more than I do about Coral Castle (Dennis, help me!), or who have visited it. If so, tell me more!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers