Archive for April, 2011

April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



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April 17, 2011

the deep bottom drawer: an interview with lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

I’m just beginning to realize the flickering presence Lois Duncan’s books still play in my imagination, decades after discovering them.

Most of my reading life, age nine to twelve especially, seemed to be in search of books that somehow conveyed for me, as movies did, a world as dark and tangled and mysterious as the one I glimpsed in my fevered girl head. These were books of shadows, books where the every day—banging school lockers, fights with siblings, sprawling out on the carpet and watching TV—could, at any moment, give way to darkness, beauty, terror, a Grimm’s fairy tale of precipice-peering and descent. The same things I found, and clung to, in true crime and noir.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered her non-fiction recounting of her daughter’s (still officially unsolved) murder and its aftermath, Who Killed My Daughter?, which is wrenching, unforgettable book. It’s hard to talk about such a personal book, written by a grieving mother, in objective terms, but, to try, it’s also a fascinating book as Duncan undertakes her own investigations, both traditional and untraditional, including working with a psychic.

Now, with the reissuing and updating of ten of Duncan’s YA books, including my favorites, I was fortunate enough to interview the author herself last week. On a personal level, there’s something deeply satisfying and more than a little uncanny about it because, as with so many interviews, I came to feel I was revealing (or at least realizing) as much about myself (maybe more) as the author herself was. Most of all, though, I came away feeling deeply inspired by her path as a female author with such a long career in a famously punishing business. The author of 50 books, she has endured countless “revolutions” in publishing and never let any of it stop her from creating, from experimenting, from, well, telling the stories she wanted to tell.

Speaking via a series of emails, we began by talking about the new editions. She told me how exciting it was for her to update the new editions, adding, “I’ve been astonished to realize how well the characters and plots have transcended the years. All I really had to do was tweak the stories in order to change hair styles and dress and give my protagonists access to the technical toys of today—cell phones, computers, digital cameras, etc. That gave me a sense of power. It was like rebirthing my children and being able to provide them with wings.”

The interview followed:

Megan: I am a tremendous fan, and have been since I first found your books in the early 1980s, as a young girl in suburban Michigan. It’s a big thrill to see these reissues and to get to revisit these wonderful books and also, somehow, the 10-year-old me who so savored them.

One of the things that strike me now, re-reading them, is how they managed to mingle the everyday (family chores, pesky siblings) and identifiable with the strange, the paranormal, darkness itself. I think it can speak to young girls’ sense that they want to be invited into a book (e.g., a heroine they feel is like them), but they also want to visit murky places. Explore, uncover the unknown. Was that “mix” one of your aims when you wrote them? How could you be sure the darker themes would be speak to readers?

Lois Duncan: I wasn’t sure. And, at first, my editors weren’t either. A Gift of Magic (my first novel that involved ESP) was rejected seven times before Little, Brown daringly published it. The other publishers were certain that young readers would not be interested. I get great satisfaction from the fact that the book, originally published in 1971, has never gone out of print and becomes more and more popular.

As far as my style goes—I think the fact that the books involve “normal” kids in “normal” life situations creates a realistic format that the average reader easily relates to. As paranormal events begin to occur, the viewpoint character finds them just as bewildering as the reader. Then, as that character begins to accept them, the reader does so also, because he or she is following the same thought process.

Megan: That makes so much sense, and explains the uncanny quality—everything feels so familiar except something is off, something is just slightly askew, and the heroine must push further, pursue. Her pursuit mirrors ours.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how powerful “doubling” appears in your books, especially Summer of Fear and Stranger With My Face. Reading them now it feels like the double almost serves as this valve or outlet for the heroine. She does some of the things the heroine would be afraid to do (and feels things—like anger—that the heroines may not feel comfortable expressing). These doubles get what they want, or nearly do. In Stranger, Laurie, ironically, starts to make positive changes in her life (dumping her spoiled boyfriend and his mean clique) after the dangerous double enters her life—as if the double empowers her in some strange way.

Do you think teen readers (or teen girl readers) might especially respond to this idea of a double, someone like us but not quite?

LD: This reminds me of when I was in my 40s and teaching magazine writing for the Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. I was hired on a fluke. The professor who was scheduled to teach the course became ill, so the chair of the department, my personal friend Tony Hillerman, asked me to fill in for a semester. Tony knew I’d never been to college and didn’t care; he just knew I’d written successfully for magazines for years. The original professor never returned, and someone else replaced Tony as Chair and automatically kept me on. I discovered I loved teaching writing and started to get worried that my deep dark secret, (no college!) might be discovered, so I began taking courses under my married name, Lois Arquette, hoping I could get a degree before someone “outed” me. In the course of that endeavor, I took a juvenile literature class where they were studying “Lois Duncan books.” My fellow students were excitedly writing A-plus papers about how many of my books were based on Greek myths. I had never even read those myths!

Often the reader finds in a book what that reader is looking for, which may not be at all what the author meant to put there. The author-reader relationship is a two-way street. The receiver who interprets the story is as important as the person who created it.

Megan: I think you’re so right about the reader-writer relationship. I think one of the gifts of your books is the way readers keep finding the things they need in them. And that your books deal with so many primal, eternal themes—especially ones that speak to young people, like identify confusion. And I also think that’s why the reissues make so much sense. Your books don’t seem “trapped in amber” at all. As you say, it was mostly the “accessories” that needed updating. I wonder if some books from the 70s and even the 80s might require more “corrections” in terms of the strength of the female characters. You really give so many of your female characters a great deal of power, to take action, to drive action. To save themselves, in many cases, even if part of that means finding the right person to join their efforts. Was that important to you, as a woman? A mother? Or did it just come naturally?

LD: It came naturally. I came from a family of strong women.

Megan: What did you enjoy reading as a young woman? And did that influence you and/or your writing?

LD: I read (and wrote) a lot of poetry. I loved books about magic—The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. Animal stories like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. And the family-oriented series books that were so popular back then—the Louisa May Alcott books, the Little Colonel series, etc. Actually, I read everything I could get my hands on.

But, remember, I didn’t have much choice about what I read. That was an era before YA literature existed and readers leapt directly from children’s books to adult novels.

When I started writing teenage novels I followed that
same pattern. My first book, Debutante Hill, was published in 1957 and the editor made me revise it because I had a young man of 19 (the “bad boy” in the story) drink a beer. I continued writing gentle, sticky-sweet romances until I got sick of them and decided to try writing the kind of books I wished I’d had access to when I was in junior high and high school— books that were exciting, suspenseful, and kept readers on the edges of their chairs.

My break-through book was Ransom, (Doubleday, 1966). It was about five teenagers who were kidnapped by their school bus driver, and one of them actually got shot. That book is still in print and selling well today!

Megan: Ah, so you wrote the books you wished you had been able to read, and we’re all the luckier for it!

In terms of that pre-YA era, do you think that the publishers (or parents) at that time simply didn’t want to believe interests of young readers might be more complex, reflect more curiosity about the unknown? Or was it merely a lack of awareness of the market?

Given how dark and mysterious even fairy tales beloved by children are I often marvel at the notion that young adults might want only want sweet romances or adventure tales.

LD: I have no idea. I understand the craft of writing, because it’s who and what I am. The commercial world of publishing, both in the past and today, is an ongoing mystery to me. Fads are constantly changing.

When I wrote my YA ghost story, Down a Dark Hall, in 1974, it was returned to me for revisions because the victims were female and the ghosts were male, and my publisher thought feminists would object to that. When I changed the ghost of poet Alan Seeger to Emily Bronte, all was well.

Killing Mr. Griffin has been banned in certain places because of complaints from parents who (not having read the book, just going by the title) thought it would cause children to kill their teachers. Yet those are often the same parents who encourage their children to read the Bible without the slightest concern that the story of Cain and Abel might encourage them to kill their siblings.

I’ve had rejected manuscripts, yellowing in the bottom drawer of my desk for years, which I’ve then brought out, resubmitted to the very same publishers, and had snatched up, because they fell into a currently popular niche in the market that hadn’t existed when I previously submitted them.

Megan: It’s that instinctual quality that so comes through in the books, which feel organic rather than targeted, “packaged.” I actually read very few YA books as a young girl. So many seemed only interested in issues like popularity, cliques, a particular view of young love. But yours were so different—-mysterious, haunting, murky, exciting, so much more my experience of adolescence.

And they also seemed to present female relationships that were so much more complex than the usual rivalries-over-boys, homecoming queen tales.

My favorite was Daughters of Eve, which I read so many times it became dog-eared. I’d never read anything like it. The charismatic teacher and her protégées. (I now think it’s probably played a role in the book I’m finishing now, all these years later, which is about a cheerleading coach and her squad!).

What inspired you to write that book?

LD: I was inspired to write it because I wanted to write something different from anything I’d done before. The idea I got was that I would have a fanatical, charismatic adult exerting influence upon vulnerable kids who looked up to and respected that adult. I wanted it to be in a setting where other adults such as parents wouldn’t be aware of what was happening. My first idea was to have it a church youth group with the adult a charismatic male Sunday school teacher. I actually wrote five chapters and then it struck me that if Killing Mr. Griffin was being challenged by parents who thought it would make their kids violent, those same parents would claim this new book’s purpose was to keep their children from going to church. So I started over and used the same theme but steered clear of religion.

Ironically, when it was released in 1979 it was challenged by feminists who thought it was anti-feminist and by anti-feminists who thought it was feminist. I was trying to walk a nice gray line but people who feel strongly about a subject don’t want a gray line. They want it to be all black or all white.

Megan: It seems like so much of your career you’ve had to defend your writerly choices, both within publishing and without. Or perhaps “defend” is not the right word. It seems as though you had to confront many doubts that what you were writing would speak to readers, despite all evidence of the contrary. Something in your work unsettles, provokes, stirs—and I think it’s that power that also speaks to readers across generations.

I wonder if, given some of these obstacles you had to overcome in terms of publishing the books you wanted to write, if you faced any such resistance when you wrote Who Killed My Daughter?, your book about your search for the truth about your daughter’s murder. It is such a moving, powerful, painful book.

LD: My books are not nearly as controversial as many, and you can’t please everybody. A writer has to develop a hide like a rhino. If we allow ourselves to get upset every time a book is challenged we’d all be basket cases.

Mostly I’ve just written books that I wanted to write, and if publishers wanted them, great, and if they didn’t, the manuscripts went into that “deep bottom drawer,” to be pulled out, perhaps re-polished, and resubmitted at another date.

Who Killed My Daughter? was accepted by Delacorte within four days. My (then) agent was stunned, because she’d told me the book would never sell because it had no ending. I knew differently—that book was destined to be published. I also knew that I hadn’t written it myself; what I did was channeling. I sat down at the computer, placed my fingers on the keys, and “took dictation” from some ethereal source that wanted Kait’s story to be told. It’s the one book I’ve ever written in which I never altered a word. Even my editors couldn’t find a thing they wanted changed. It fell onto the pages exactly as it was supposed to.

Megan: I think that rhino’s hide is part of what I’m talking about—it feels like it comes from your internal sense that what you were interested in, the stories and characters that engaged you, would engage others.

That feeling is so strong in Who Killed My Daughter? It makes sense to me that it was a “channeling” for you, because one of its powers (its urgency, its intensity) is the feeling the reader has that it came from some deep internal (unconscious?) feeling or instinct that there was no other way to tell the story. It had to be like this.

I read on your website that you are writing a sequel now. If so, is the process different? How so?

LD: Very different. The first book was written with my heart, the sequel with my brain. The sequel will be a step by step account of our family’s personal search for Kait’s killers after the police washed their hands of the case.

Megan: I imagine you are still hearing from those affected by the original book.

LD: Constantly. In fact, we’ve heard from so many other families in similar situations that my husband and I created and maintain the Real Crimes website to help keep those other cases from becoming buried. I interview the victims’ families and help them word their stories, and Don links the documentation, (crime scene photos, autopsy reports, excerpts from police reports, etc.) That page has become a valued resource for investigative reporters and true crime shows. We do this pro bono as a way to give Kait’s short life meaning.

Megan: The responses I’ve seen to your book and to the website from families in similar situations, must feel so gratifying—though I’m sure unbearably frustrating too, to see other families suffering the same way and trying to keep investigations going.

LD: It’s heartbreaking. But don’t get me started on a diatribe about the flaws in the Great American Justice System.

Megan: Yes, it’s true. The response to your book shows the power of writing, to be sure.

So, last question, and the one writers sometimes hate to answer. Among your novels, which is your favorite and why?

 LD: Over the years I’ve written 50 books, which include among other things adult fiction and non-fiction, poetry, text for pre-school picture books, humorous books for elementary age children (Hotel for Dogs, News for Dogs and Movie for Dogs in particular), lyrics for a book/CD of original lullabies, and a couple of biographies. Choosing my favorites among so many “apples and onions” would be impossible.

But if we limit it to YA suspense novels, I think it would probably be Stranger With My Face. I find the subject of astral projection fascinating, and I think that novel is also one of my best written.


Megan: Well, I just want to say you’ve fulfilled a big girlhood dream of mine, this opportunity to speak with you. Your books meant so much to me, and revisiting them has been a gift. I can’t thank you enough.

LD: Thank you, Megan. This interview has been fun for me. You’ve asked some in-depth questions that caused me to really have to think.

Visit Lois Duncan’s website or follow her on Twitter.

Excerpts from “A Visit with Lois Duncan,” a 35 minute DVD, created specifically for classroom use, can be viewed here

Click here for The Shadow Knows: An Appreciation of Lois Duncan.

 



April 15, 2011

Coming up next: YA week, with Lois Duncan!

by Sara Gran

Hey kids! Next week is going to be YOUNG ADULT week here at the Abbott Gran House of Fun! We have special guests coming, special posts by Megan and I, special book give-aways and even more specialness than that! There will be even be Megan’s interview with one of her favorite girlhood authors, YA pioneeress Lois Duncan! Plus, we hope to hear your (yes, we’re talking to YOU!) vintage YA favorites!

So stay tuned and listen to Megan and I rant about teen hookers, child psychics, the politics of YA fiction, and much more!

April 14, 2011

On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author

by stonafitch

Author’s Note 10/22/18: To the relative who asked me to remove this inherently incomplete and admittedly harsh essay, a polite no. If I start unpublishing everything I write that offends someone, there won’t be anything left. I think my brilliant, contrarian uncle would be okay with that.

I’ve been thinking lately about a writer I can pretty much guarantee none of you have ever heard of – William Harrington. He wrote or ghostwrote twenty-five novels, including many of the Washington thrillers of presidential spawn Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, novelizations of the “Columbo” series, several Harold Robbins novels, and his own thrillers. In the New York Times, Anatoyle Broyard praised his clean writing and research.

Like a lot of dead writers, Bill Harrington is pretty much forgotten. But he was my uncle and the only writer I knew when I was growing up, so he holds a special place in my pantheon. His story proves that writers make terrible relatives and worse role models. You’ll see why soon enough.


I remember Uncle Bill as a demi-god of 1970s New York City, a manly man who flew his own plane into Teterboro for long lunches at La Grenouille with his agent and Terry Southern. Velvety suits with wide lapels, plates of duck a l’orange and flaming crepes for dessert. Plenty of Chablis all around. Bordeaux from the fine 1970 vintage. Nights with Peter Falk at the Playboy Club on East 59th.

I’m making most of this up, of course. But that’s probably the life he had in mind – like Hef, Harold Robbins, Burt Reynolds, and Esquire men.

The real Uncle Bill was often charming and occasionally mean but it was excusable because he was a writer, and so, insecure and deeply flawed. He looked like a pocket-sized Norman Mailer, without as much genius or popularity but with an extra dose of street smarts. Bill inspired a kind of fearful awe in our family because he was pretty much always half-drunk and prone to conversational bullying.

Bill took great delight in turning any family occasion into a debacle, which I appreciated, kind of:

Florida, 1968–Family vacation. We climb a tower at a scenic overlook. When everyone else is climbing down, Bill grabs me by the ankles and hangs my scrawny, seven-year-old ass, Pip-like, above the Everglades. When I scream and squirm like a psychotic shrimp, he tells me now you know what if feels like to be scared.

Cincinnati, 1974–Thanksgiving Dinner. Uncle Bill waves me forward from across the table. But instead of asking me to pass the sweet potatoes, he says Have you tasted your own sperm yet? He gives a wan smile as if a special treat awaits me. Then snorts into his Scotch.

Columbus, 1977–Some college bar. The place is empty and no one else in our family is drinking since it’s about noon. But Uncle Bill is marinating in Scotch. To shock us, he’s going on about homosexuality. He says he might suck a cock but definitely wouldn’t let someone fuck him up the ass. As if. By then he looked like Larry Flynt, with a big muff of smokebush hair waving over his gray eyes and a potbelly that begged for luggage wheels.

Each Christmas, like a pulp fiction Unibomber, Uncle Bill would sign his latest hardcover and mailed it to my straight-arrow father, who hid Bill’s books in the Siberian reaches of the knotty-pine bookshelves of our den. Unbeautiful and chunky, Bill’s books were hyper-commercial and smelled of cheap paper and ink, like gun catalogs. Mister Target. An English Lady (his hit). The Search for Elizabeth Brandt (not sure what that one’s about). Virus (a computer thriller before anyone owned a computer). Trial (an early legal thriller).

Left alone at home, I would pull over a chair and climb up to retrieve one of Uncle Bill’s reputedly dirty novels, seduced by their inky perfume. When I was about ten, I turned to a scene about a devious pervert who had gathered up a thin gay junkie and a busty young whore – and forced them to wear scuba suits while having sex for his amusement. Then, much to their surprise (and definitely to mine), the devious pervert plugged in a hidden cable connected to electrodes in the scuba suits and ffffssssstttt.

They were electrocuted via their smoke-spewing pudendum!

I closed the book. This was sex, which everyone seemed to want to do? Where was I going to find a scuba suit? And what about those devious perverts and their electric cables?

My worldview was twisted forever.

Lest you think he was just a garden-variety sick pup, Uncle Bill was a technology savant if not a literary giant. He was a successful attorney and avid pilot. He wrote provocative editorials and orchestrated media confrontations. He co-developed the pioneering LEXIS database, which evolved into an information service that lawyers rely on every day.

That said, he was also a very sick pup.

I had dinner with Bill spring of my senior year in college, hoping for advice for a young writer about to venture out into the marketplace. What I got instead was an evening-long, soul-killing rant about his huge book advances, celebrities he knew, and how bad most other writers (Harold Robbins!) were.

Harold Robbins and friends

After dinner, which included drinking most of the red wine in southern Connecticut, my ursine uncle padded off to his study to write. I could barely walk but Uncle Bill was writing, or appeared to be. My last memory of that night? His puffy face and glittering eyes lit green by the screen of his expensive PC, the first I had ever seen.

There goes a pro, I thought at the time, too young to recognize a drinker with a writing problem. After that, I lost touch with Uncle Bill on purpose, trying to avoid contagion from the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.

Then in 2000, Uncle Bill walked out the front door of his Greenwich mini-mansion and blew his brains out with his fancy German pistol. “William G. Harrington, a mystery novelist with a long career as a collaborator with celebrity authors, died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut,” the Times obit duly recorded. “The police said he apparently committed suicide, writing his own obituary before he died. His writing career spanned 37 years.” They didn’t run the obit he wrote, of course.

I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers – of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand.

Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it. Talk to most writers and they’ll tell you about the major film interest that almost happened but didn’t, the deal with Knopf that went south, the novel that never found a publisher, the foreign rights that floundered. Writers collect disappointment like normal people collect lint.

When my father died a few years ago I took his stack of Uncle Bill’s novels to Goodwill in Montgomery, Ohio and dropped them off with the other debris from the basement. It took three or four trips from the Buick. I never even thought about keeping one of his books. They were bad voodoo, tainted by Bill’s Scotch-scented paw. If I had thought about it, I probably would have burned the books just in case. Their dense, heavily foxed pages would have made a nice blaze in the woodstove for an evening.

A jumble of thousands of books lines the walls of our house – writers I revere or not, books that serve as beacons of brilliance or warning lights, novels I don’t particularly like written by friends I do. When it comes to books, we’re non-denominational. So why didn’t I just put Bill’s up in the outer reaches like my father used to, as a top-shelf memorial to the other writer in the family?

Because they were reminders of something few writers (or people, generally) want to know: Most of our big plans for ourselves probably won’t happen.

Still life with bunnies

Even for Uncle Bill. Trolling through louche 1970s New York City, getting hired to write for big money, living in his Cos Cob mini-mansion with a fluffy dog named Easy (for easy lay; the dog was a slut and Bill sexualized everything) – it all never quite added up to what he had in mind. So he wound up dead. And not happy dead, surrounded by loved ones in a hospice or slipping off at 92 in his sleep. He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn, Luger in his hand, as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.

Writers create people out of words. So why shouldn’t we create expectations out of some version of talent, the occasional break, and bits of praise? The trajectory leads ever upward. Except when its doesn’t. How we deal with the inevitable disappointments seems to make all the difference between a writing life and a bitter end.

A couple of weeks ago I made some truly half-assed attempts to track down Uncle Bill’s agent, lawyer, and other remaining cohorts. But when I heard their tired voices on my voicemail I didn’t have the heart to call them back and dredge up what I’m certain would have been mixed memories of the late William Harrington, American novelist.

I could have called my aunt, who plays piano bars down in Florida, or my cousin in Arkansas. But we’ve been out of touch for years and pestering them about their dead husband/father didn’t seem like a particularly kind way to get reacquainted.

So I didn’t make the calls or do the legwork. I cared but not that much. I already know what I need to about Uncle Bill. And now so do you. Bill Harrington was a writer who fooled himself until he couldn’t anymore. He was a good father and a perverse uncle. He lived high and died low. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He wrote and published twenty-five books.

We should all be so lucky. Right?

For an intro to Stona, click here.

April 14, 2011

hand on the button: meet Stona …

by Megan Abbott


Ladies and gents, we welcome Stona Fitch, novelist (his novels, including the dire and wondrous and appalling Senseless and the lush, seductive Give + Take) are not to be missed) and founder of the exciting venture, Concord Free Press, which publishes and distributes (for free!) original novels throughout the world, asking readers make a voluntary donation to a charity or person in need. (BTW, Concord Free Press most recently published Scott Phillips’ dynamite novel, RUT; get your copy while you can.)

These details do not begin to sum up Stona, who is also founder of Gaining Ground, a nonprofit farm, a former reporter and former member of the band Scruffy The Cat (for whom he played mandolin, accordion, organ and electric banjo).

I swear, all these things are true.

And yet, honestly, having known Stona about five years now, these details don’t begin to sum him up, or gather his talents. And it is only through knowing Stona that I once met Gore Vidal on the top of the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach. I was too nervous to say more than three words to Mr. Vidal (those three words may well have been: “It’s Gore Vidal”), but I am forever grateful to Stona, all the more so for the chance to read his books.

Upcoming and not-to-be-missed, we have  Stona’s reminiscence of his Writer Uncle, William Harrington.

1. What is your greatest fear?

Accidentally cutting off a finger. One of mine, that is.

2. What is your favorite way of spending time?

Walking around a new city all day and getting lost. Falling in with the locals, gaining their trust through charm and guile, stealing their stories, leaving them scratching their heads.

3. What is your most treasured possession?

My collection of Cuban landsnail shells, genus polymita, from the 1940s. Worthless but beautiful, like most of the things I pick up.

4. When and where were you happiest? Right now, of course. Never look back. Or ahead. And definitely don’t take a close look at your feet and think about birds.

5. What is your greatest indulgence?

Old wine.

6. Where would you like to live?

Edinburgh grafted to New York, with Cuba just off the coast of Brooklyn.

7. What is the quality you are most drawn to a person?

Someone who’s interested in everything, up to a point.

8. How would you like to die?

Accidentally crushed by my forty-seven great-grandchildren’s loving but super-clumsy embrace.

9. What is your secret superstition?

Like Pavlov’s typing dog, I listen to the same music over and over when I write.

10. What was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

I wake up screaming about once a week, just ask the neighbors. Usually it’s about water. I hate water.

11. What song do you most hear in your head?

“Afternoon Delight” shows up way too often, as does “Beat on the Brat” from the Ramones. “When I’m Small” from Phantogram surface when I’m driving. Late at night, Arvo Part chimes in. Mostly I just hear a high-pitched hum, sonic residue from standing in front of a stack of amplifiers for years.

12. What do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.

13. What do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

Narco-yoga.

14. What’s something you never told anyone?

Before she left town forever, my mother said “Goodbye, Steve. Be good.” Don’t call me Steve. Don’t expect me to be good. Never say goodbye.

Follow Stona and Concord Free Press on Twitter.

April 13, 2011

Trauma & Recovery (or lack thereof): a list of books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT

by Sara Gran

One big theme in the Claire DeWitt books, my forthcoming detective series, is trauma and how we recover from it. Although “recover” isn’t the right word. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about trauma, it’s that nothing is “recovered.” Trauma is a destructive process, not a creative one. When bad things or big changes happen, nothing ever “goes back to normal,” and to strive towards that is, in my opinion, to guarantee yourself a big mess. The old “normal” is gone and it’s never coming back. Even if you can rebuild your house, you will no longer be the same person living inside it. Much of Claire DeWitt & the City of the Dead is about how we create that new world, and how we can free ourselves from the stagnation that comes from trying to cling to the past. (But it’s also a page-turning mystery thriller so BUY IT, OK? I promise, it’s not all, like, deep and shit. I hate those books!)

I’ll be posting more about the books that inspired CLAIRE DeWITT as we lead up to the release (June 2–holy shit!). I’ll start with  list of books I’ve found useful, as a writer and a human, about trauma:

When Things Fall Apart; Pema Chodron. You’re probably heard of this book–it’s sold like a million copies, for good reason. Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, gives very good, practical advice on how to get through a crises. I think her most important teaching here is to stop looking for solid ground. When the world is falling apart around you, literally or metaphorically, our first inclination is to MAKE IT STOP. But in the effort to do so, we can cling to some really dumb stuff in our futile search for something to rely on. We glom onto stupid ideas, join cults, or just hang out with idiots. One of the great Buddhist teachings, in my very humble opinion, is that there is nothing to rely on. The nature of life is change. The good news is, if you come to terms with that, you can be happy anyway! Yay life! Yay Buddha! Thanks!

Persephone’s Return: Tanya Wilkinson. This is one of my favorite books of the past, say,  thousand years. I’ve always been oddly obsessed with the myth of Persephone, the Greek Queen of the Dead, which Wilkinson uses to illustrate how trauma changes us. Before Persephone was Persephone, she was a girl named Kore (which basically means “girl,” from what I gather). Then she was kidnapped by her uncle, presumably raped, and made to spend half of every year as the Queen of the Dead. She went on become an important goddess, but she never got to be Kore again. She was Persephone now. After traumatic experiences, I think that people are fundamentally changed. You never get to go back to being Kore. Persephone knew all kinds of things Kore never could have imagined. You can take that knowledge as shameful and try to pretend you don’t know it and keep calling yourself Kore. Or you can be grateful for the knowledge you’ve learned among the dead, and become Persephone. This is just one of many stories Jungian analyst Wilkinson uses to illustrate different ways trauma can change us. But it doesn’t have to change us for the worse. Nothing makes an event like, say, a terrorist attack, “worthwhile,” but given that these experiences are a normal part of our lives, it behooves us to mine them for gold rather than let them beat us down–and I am not putting down anyone who has let life beat them down or up a little or a lot, only trying to point out that for some us, sometimes, a better way can be possible. As Wilkinson says, victims are not responsible for their own betrayal, but they are responsible for their own recovery.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog; Bruce Perry. Terrible title but a great book by a compassionate psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma. Although the author talks a lot about biology, hormones, and all that other shit that frequently drives me up the wall (I don’t agree that humans a basically a big bag of chemicals, although dear reader, believe as you choose), he does so from an interesting and useful place–rather than prove that our emotions are determined by our body’s whims, he argues that our emotional experiences can alter our body chemistry, and that understanding this can be useful in helping severely traumatized children (and all of us!) move forward. For example, in a home for naughty teenaged boys (what we used to call a J.D. hall), he gives some of the boys simple, side-effect free blood pressure medication to help them control their overheated fight-or-flight mechanisms. He isn’t limited to biological effluvia, though–he has a lot of insight into how to help children (and adults) who have lived through the unbelievable. Fascinating and wise. I would like to write an appendix to this book about how yoga and other mindfulness practices can affect these same flight-or-fight hormones, which is why I’m such a big fan of Street Yoga. DR. PERRY I AM AVAILABLE TO WRITE YOUR APPENDIX call me.

The Unsayable: Annie Rogers. I’ve spoken often about this book by Lacanian analyst Annie Rogers. Jacques Lacan was a follower of Freud who believed, among other things, that, our subconscious lives in our language. Rogers was herself an abuse survivor who found help through analysis. Her previous book, A Shining Affliction, is also a knockout. What interests me so much about Rogers work is how she always looks for, in her words, “the unsayable;” what isn’t said, what isn’t revealed, what we don’t exactly know–and often it’s these very hidden items that are writing the story of our lives. This book deals specifically with how these currents affect certain traumatized girls she’s worked with; sadly, though, the story isn’t confined to young women, and this book would be equally fascinating for all demographics. (By the way, in this very list you can see the conflict/dynamic between Freud and his two number one sons, Jung and Lacan, which was also a big inspiration for the Claire DeWitt books–more about that in another list!)

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: John A. Rich. I’ve talked before, but maybe not here, about this moving and deeply compassionate book on violence among young inner-city men. Rich, an M.D., takes the time to study and prove something many of have suspected: the greatest source of inner-city violence is the trauma caused by inner-city violence. Trauma=hypervigilence=thinking the world is out to get you=more violence=trauma again. Rich has an enormous respect for the young men he spends time with–he listens to young men in the inner city in a way that I’m sorry to say I just haven’t seen before in a mainstream work of nonfiction. Although the political and sociological causes of this violence are of course also important, I don’t think a political analysis can cut quite to the heart of the problem like a psychological analysis can. I think it’s true about inner-city violence, I think it’s true about most human violence, and I think it’s true about most human problems in general: I don’t believe that our problems will solved by a political or sociological or economic solution. I believe that going forward, our problems will be solved by psychological, spiritual, and emotional solutions. And yes, they can be solved, if you want them to. And you choose not to solve them, we will live in the same idiotic shit of fighting, violence, and stupidity forever. It’s all up to you! More good news!

These are the books I’ve found useful. If anyone has other books on trauma they’ve liked or learned from, please let me know in the comments, I’d like to hear it!

 

April 11, 2011

it could be you

by Megan Abbott


Recently, I wrote a piece for the Los Angles Times Magazine about what may be seen as the rise of the dark, complicated female protagonist in crime fiction (and film). Interviewing Gillian Flynn, whose novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are prime examples, we began talking about made-for-TV movies from our youth. Wondering about the impact of these movies on writers around our age, Gillian noted in particular watching way too many “women-in-jeopardy stories: the woman who was stalked or attacked or abused.”

The influence of these movies is something Sara and I have discussed many times–especially powerful for us were the tales of teen hitchhikers and runaways and teen hitchhiker-runaways-turned-hookers (Sara, jump in here if I’m misremembering!). I also became pretty fixated on E!True Hollywood Story equivalent in the early 90s–especially the ones about porn stars (the best:  the truly sad tale of Savannah). In much the ways that Flowers in the Attic seems to have planted some dark seeds within our generation of women, these movies were somehow deeply resonant, perhaps in the way that True Confessions magazine may have been to a prior one.

By and large, these tales–at least the ones that seemed to have loomed large for many of us–speak to the price paid for transgression (disrespect for parents, selfishness, an inability to control their own impulses, or most of all poor taste in men) or, in the more old-fashioned strand, the inevitable price all women must pay, as their birthright (e.g., all women are at constant risk for being duped or hustled by bigamists, wifebeaters, pimps in disguise, married cads, embezzlers, con men–or all of the above).

But, gender issues, aside, one of the elements of these movies that stirred me so deeply was the powerful sense that violence and chaos can, or even will, unfurl in your own home. I was especially fixated on Fatal Vision, the superb 1984 miniseries about Jeffery MacDonald, the Green Beret captain and doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, The Betty Broderick Story, which Gillian also cited, with Meredith Baxter Birney as the socialite accused of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, accused of killing her children, and Adam, about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, which seemed to traumatize a whole generation of children and parents and I Know My First Name Is Steven, another true-crime kidnapping tale, this one from the viewpoint of the kidnapped boy as he grows up with his captor.

There are countless more, but they all presented the suburban, middle-class home as not as the bland domestic space of yore, but as a powder keg. That violence could arise anywhere, at any time. It could find you there. It could even originate there. It could rise up within your own parents. Even you.

April 6, 2011

Wolves & wolfmen; Red Riding Hood, girls, and uncomfortable critics

by Sara Gran
Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated in a 1927 ...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s this town I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s somewhere on the border of England and Germany, right about where France meets Ireland. This town is deep in the woods–almost more of a settlement–where people live in stone houses with kitchen herb  gardens and chickens and goats roam in the town square. In this town it is always between, say 1400 and 1700. Wise old women brew herbal concoctions at the full moon (before they were all burned as witches, of course) and brave young boys and girls explore the woods. Farmers plant in accordance with moon and while there might be a Christian whitewash, this town is definitely pagan. If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed–it’s just the May Queen. In the spring there are maypoles and at yuletide there’s hot stew and divination for the new year with bones and sticks.

Of course, this place doesn’t exist, and it never really did. From what I gather, Ye Olde Europe was never really that cute, and the Druids weren’t necessarily so smart. And while Europe was, surely, pagan, those people burned as witches weren’t necessarily wise women or cunning folk or magicians–they were just the town oddballs, scapegoats, and wackjobs. But despite its lack of actual existence, this little Medieval town looms large in our psyche and our popular culture. Led Zepplin sang about it, Wicker Man took place there, and modern-day witches created a religion (Wicca) after it. This place–and I think most of all, its close proximity to the woods–fills some kind of a hole for us, a fantasy past-future where people lived in harmony with the phases of the moon and understood plants and spoke the language of birds and had yet to be corrupted by citified ways. And for those of us of European ancestry, it’s a way to indulge in these fantasies without any issues of appropriation or cultural theft spoiling the fun, as some of us might indulge in “othering” fantasies about, say, Native Americans. To be clear, though, although it’s an easy thing to make fun of, I think these fantasies are healthy.  I think it’s good for us to imagine a way of life different from this one, and I think it’s useful to envision how others might have done it before. We shape our reality around our daydreams, and this is a particularly charming one. I wouldn’t at all mind if it were real.

Which is why I think the critics, as they so often do, completely missed the point of Red Riding Hood, which I saw a few weeks ago and thought was a swell good-bad film. It certainly wasn’t high art, but I enjoy a bad movie that enjoys its badness and lack of pretention. But the critical reaction had a nasty edge to it that seems reserved for movies that hit a nerve (as the wonderful Ray Banks cracked to me on Twitter the other day, “Hope Peeping Tom doesn’t ruin your career like it did Michael Powell’s.”). For example, lot of critics commented on Red Riding Hood’s “unrealistic” sets. “Unrealistic” of what? Not a realistic representation of your fantasy Europe? There’s no “real” to adhere to here. It’s a fantasy of a myth, and the movie should be forgiven for having some fun with that. Likewise, the comparisons to Twilight (same director) completely missed the mark–sure, a young woman with two love interests does suggest a Twilight reference, but are people really that simplistic (I’m referring both to the characters and the critics here)? The real Twilight comparison, if you can come to terms with the fact that all young women are not interchangeable, is Catherine Hardwicke‘s lovely sense of trees, fog, and water, and her understanding of the agency, intelligence, and curiosity of young women, even in a silly, entertaining, fantasy.

Yes, like Wicker Man, it is a movie that enjoys its camp and fantasy. More interesting to me was the psychosexual relationship between Riding Hood and the wolf, who is in this movie a wolfman–a big distinction, especially for Riding Hood! The wolf doesn’t just want to eat Red, he wants to take her away and live with her–and when this comes out, Red is, as us girls often are, put to shame for the sin of being more attractive than we ought to be. In a haunting scene in this admitted fluff-fest, an iron mask is put on Red’s face, her riding cape–now her “harlot’s robe” –over her shoulders. When the true identity of the wolf is revealed it makes a sad, sick kind of sense, one you wish you didn’t recognize but ladies, you will. And when you see who Red ends up with–again, it makes sense in a way you sort of wish it didn’t. “Bad” movies and books (yes, I will again refer to V.C. Andrews!) often seem to be able to sneak this stuff in under the radar in a way that hits home more than “high art” can. And this seems to make critics squirm in their seats and bring out the scalpel.

People smarter than me have commented lately on the strong young women in recent films. When I was a girl, girls and women in movies and on TV often weren’t exactly people. They were deaf, mute, and blind; they were purely passive, receptors of desire with no agency, no hopes, and no backtalk–perhaps one reason so many of us ladies were drawn to the movies of the thirties and forties. Whenever I think of this topic I think of Three’s Company, a TV show I could write a book about (and will someday!)–it was constantly on in reruns when I was a child and I’m sure I’ve seen every episode a few times. Chrissie on Three’s Company (the highly intelligent Suzanne Sommers, who now writes somewhat technical books on alternative cancer treatments) was a pure incarnation of this type of female–people would make comments about her abundant breasts directly in front of her, to her face, and she seemed neither to hear nor understand them (is there some fancy academic/critical  name for this phenomena of female deaf-muteness?). it was as if her attractiveness was a physical or mental disability. I’m glad girls in movies and tv shows have sentience now, at least as much as anyone in mass media does. Now, maybe the critics could start trying to tell them apart…

April 4, 2011

hitch your wagon

by Megan Abbott

Recently, I experienced a glamorous moviestar sighting at the airport.  After getting off a very long flight (complete with a crying baby whose strangled, strobing caterwauls lasted about six hours), we all entered a long passageway into the airport. Suddenly, at the foot at the gate, a pair of handsome airport officials swooped in to help a tall blonde passenger with her luggage. As they offered no such help to anyone else, you could tell the woman was very special.

And she was. Turning around several times as she waked, chatting amiably with the offiicials and her own two pre-teen, lushly dark-blonde children, she walked along the breezeway with the breezy confidence of someone for whom life appeared only to have kissed and nuzzled.

Uma Thurman. And not as tall as I’d guessed but with a radiance that was impossible to miss. The radiance that comes not just from beauty but from some other place that has to do with the peculiar power of starriness. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Unlike the celebrities you might see on TMZ, she wore no dark shades, head downturned (which is a conspicuous gesture too, of course). On the contrary, face out, Uma Thurman seemed happy to see the whole world.

Growing up in Michigan, the chances of seeing a celebrity were pretty slim. As a result, when I first moved to New York more than 15 years ago, at the height of the indie movie zenith, seeing Harvey Keitel drinking coffee at Bubby’s in Tribeca, or getting elbowed in the face by a vaguely apologetic Parker Posey, was very exciting.

And I’m not ashamed to admit the kick of energy inside me when I see someone I also feel I know, in some way, from the page, the speakers, the screen. A few years ago, a friend of mine sat next to Russell Crowe at a sushi restaurant and said that, while having no particular attraction to him in the movies, she could barely breathe through the whole meal. She had never realized, she said, how powerful, nay dizzying, a presence he was.

It is now a truism that one of qualities of “star power” is the peculiar alchemy of extraordinariness and familiarity. We envision our stars as utterly special, exceptional creatures and yet we also love to believe they are just like us (though not worse than us–a new trend that has more to do with schadenfreude than stars wherein we love to see certain, perhaps less starry stars do pratfalls, fall out of their dresses, spill coffee on their children).

Star studies” is a newish discipline in film theory that examines the complications of these dynamics–social, economic, aesthetic. My favorite is Richard Dyer, who wrote a famous piece on Lana Turner that I love. Unlike the reputation of academics, he writes from a place of genuine fascination and love, rigor and curiosity. To him, stars speak to the ruling contradictions of our lives–even seeming to make those contradictions disappear. He says, with regard to Turner, he speaks of her unique synthesis of seeming opposites: intensely glamorous sexuality paired with soda fountain ordinariness (indicated by her personal dramas of heartache, maternal woe, domestic horrors, bad men).

The question is, when we spot a star, a real STAR, if the moment matters to us (and I’m sure to many it does not), is it because we bring all the sheen and magic ourselves? Or is it something in them, or some of them? Is there something special, potent that certain “stars” just emanate? Something we want to touch, or just watch, for a moment.

The scholar Patrick Phillips writes:

Stars are the ‘magic figures,’ … the shamans capable of bringing about illusory solutions to real-life difficulties. [The star can offer] a fascinating synthesis of things the audience finds very difficult, if not impossible, to bring together in real life.

Watching them, their ease in the world (or so it seems), the way they can stride through the crowded airport terminal with such comfort in their own skin. We wish for such radiance, we want it. We think maybe we can almost touch it.

*                      *                     *

On my return flight, I spotted another famous person, of a different stripe.  Jonathan Franzen, an author about whom I have deeply ambivalent feelings that I won’t bother you with here (okay, maybe a little–just when I start to like the guy again, he does something like this, wherein Franzen says that, because Edith Wharton was not “pretty enough” to be a society girl like her heroines, she had to punish them in her books). But, in the customs line, he seemed very friendly and I admit I was a little giddy to see him in this way, not at a book festival or event but caught unawares, just living.

I also really, really wanted to see what he was reading but could not. (What might it have been? Perhaps another female-authored novel whose high quality is achieved thanks to the unprettiness of its author?).

April 2, 2011

More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze

by Sara Gran

I’m not really interested in exploring gender differences too much–I haven’t found gender to be a useful indicator of anything important about a person, like their honesty, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sense of humor, or the desire to stop the car at yard sales and fruit stands. So I’m going to use as many qualifiers as I’m legally allowed to in the following sentince: I have observed that some men, in many cases, have very different psychological relationships with their parents than some women. Most women I know talk about their parents, especially their mothers, pretty much all the time. We talk and talk and talk about our parents and all the ways they screwed us up and everything they did wrong and everything they did right and how much we love them anyway. Or in some cases, don’t.  And then we get over it and do what we want to do. The men I know almost never talk about their parents, especially their fathers. And when they do, it’s usually in a fairly neutural tone. I can’t think of a time when a straight male friend ever said: “My mother’s scarcity issues have really affected my  ability to manifest,” or “my father praised me for my intelligence but their was always an edge to it,” or “my grandfather beat my mother and so she overcompensated by smothering me.”  There are of course exceptions, but most of my male friends, when they talk about their parents at all, say things like, “My father was a banker,” or “my mother did the best she could,” or “it wasn’t my father’s fault.” I’ve never heard a woman say that.

But these men seem far more haunted by their parents, especially their fathers, than my female friends. Many of my male friends seem to be stuck in a kind of living dialogue with their parents, even long after those parents are gone. It sometimes seems as if their choices in life are determined by a reaction to a specter of these parents, a kind of poltergeist created from the very repression of criticism I’m talking about that knocks around and tells them what to do. And I think this possible-maybe-trend (again, there’s no intent to make a sweeping generalization here) is reflected in Peeping Tom. Mark is haunted by his father’s presence–almost literally, as he lives in his father’s house, has his fathers’ books on the shelves, and watches his father on film. But his father is never quite there. In the filmstrips Mark has of him he’s out of focus (Michael Powell himself played the father, creepily enough) and his voice is given a bit of an echo-y, ghostly, quality.  Helen, Mark’s love interest, lives with her mother (or at least in the room across the hall–I was a little unclear on the specifics) in close quarters: her mother is with her nearly all the time and the two are obviously close. But Helen’s mother doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on her. Mark’s father is long gone, but his influence is, obviously, far more strongly felt. And of course, for either gender, dead parents seem to haunt us more than the living. Maybe it’s harder to talk back to the dead.

Interestingly, Helen’s mother is blind. I don’t think a women would have written it that way. There is a strange way a mother has of looking at a daughter sometimes that can cut to the bone. Many woman friends, in our endless conversations about our parents, have described this to me as a kind of judging stare. It’s when a woman is doing something normal and she looks up and her mother is looking at her with that look and suddenly what she’s doing doesn’t seem normal anymore; it seems like what she’s doing is clumsy and wrong and suddenly she is not real and not solid and empty inside. I’ve only ever seen this mentioned in one book, a strange little Jungian book called Descent to The Goddess, which I still haven’t finished. This is a thing between adult women and their mothers, not children. I’m not a mother and I don’t quite get what this look is all about. I’m not sure it’s as bad as it seems. Maybe it’s more of a projection of daughters than a gaze of mothers. But I don’t think a woman writer or filmmaker would have imagined a blind mother; I think she would have made Helen’s mother sighted, and watching, watching, always watching as Helen and Mark’s courtship progressed. And always, always judging, and never finding Helen just quite exactly right.

By the way, I only watched a few seconds of this TED conference video, but it seems to be a real-life Raising Cain/Peeping Tom. Hasn’t this guy ever watched a DePalma movie?!? (“It wasn’t a box!”)

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