I suppose I keep waiting for the day when I feel clam and safe and whole. I know it is never coming. I am the only one who can dispense with the fear, the dangling shoe waiting to fall and unseat whatever morsel of fearlessness I have cooked up in my kitchen.
Here it is again. The holidays, and I have been searching for work: in the arts, teaching, upstate or in the city, but to no avail. Then twin occurrences rock my core: the incredible NY Times writer who did the piece on me and the opera in September, called to say she was hurt that she had to find out about the “scandal” when readers sent the article from NY Magazine to her, scanned from their collection, aging for 16 years. I was sorry to have hurt her, to have let her feel that I had been less than intimate but there is, or was this fine line between wanting all of “THAT” to go away and believing that all good works, bright deeds and forward motion would allow me to put that giant misstep behind me.
Now I know otherwise. Well, that conversation shook me to my foundation, because I had inflicted pain on a good woman, and became she said, "Didn’t you think that the reason I didn’t call you back, was because I found out? “
"No," I blurted, “I thought it was because you have baby children and an enormous job.”
But now I will think that. I will think that every unreturned phone call, every rejected story idea; every job where I am passed over is always because they found out. And in fact this past week, the eve of Christmas Eve, I got the second phone call from a potential employer, one where they had already offered me the job. A position that was running a small arts organization in disarray, and where I would be paid a fraction of what my experience and education should command. But I was going to take it for a challenge and to bring myself back into more full time working in a tough environment.
Here is this phone call. “Do you have a scandal in your past?”
And so I tell the story. And the phrase the Times’ writer said I should employ,
“There was no indictment, no charges, and it was 16 years ago, so it is a non- story.” And further I worked as a stock broker where the FBI investigates your past giving you a green light or tossing your ass out. But this is the arts and innuendo and gossip are key elements. I answered his questions in as calm a voice as I could muster and then I climbed the stairs in my hallway to call my husband, who was in our bedroom. I called him because I did not want to have my daughter, even as a near grownup at 24, to hear me break down yet again.
I had given her too may sleepless nights, and days of fear. She had recently shared with me that my very high and low personality was tough on her and I vowed then and there to share less and attempt to be more even. So I called from the stairwell near the roof, and cried.
“Do you want me to come to you?”
“No I want it to stay normal down there until the girl leaves for Christmas tomorrow so early, then I can break down, right now I need to hold it together. People are coming for dinner and there is laundry and clean up to do. I will be right in.”
I called two friends, both wise in different ways. One a composer and former porn star, who wants to aggressively pursue the purveyors of gossip and pummel them; the other, a spiritualist from San Francisco, wants me to dissolve the dark cloud through thought and forgiveness and also wants me to promise to never go looking for a job in the arts again. At least not in NYC.
So that’s it. I have sworn off the non-profit art world. And I pledged to find a job where I can offer my skills to a non-profit that attempts to help battered or abused woman. Because in that environment I can be open about my past, the fact that I was so terrified and beaten down, and that I did a terrible thing, can become a pledge to assist other women, who might be more voiceless that I am.
I don’t know if I can continue to come here to this blog thing.
It feels lonely and as if I am trying to do good or prove that I have a modicum of value, when often, of late, I feel empty and valueless. As devalued as this crazy economy.
So I am attaching a chapter, one from my unpublished book, called MID-LIFE MAMBO; the chapter is entitled Stealing Home. What the Time’s writer said is that I need to publish the story as a book, a memoir and then no one can ever again say, “Hey why didn’t you tell me?” cause it will be out there.
So this is a clumsy attempt to have this story out there in some form other than the tabloid tellings. May the truth really set me free, because of late I am festering and in the dark place and during a time when the world is attempting to bring forth great light.
Light and peace to all.
When I was 42 years old, newly separated from the abusive father of my children, terrified, and ensconced in a secret affair with my ex-brother-in-law, I went to the home of a rich friend and stole her jewelry.
I never thought I’d be able to write that. After more than a decade, I never believed I would have the clarity, forgiveness, and inner strength to just say it. Age and time are wonderful healers.
This morning I sat watching a torrent of rain pour into my window boxes, inundating the six small cypress tress I planted to give myself a sense of Christmas cheer. As I meditated, I begged my mind, my higher power, a goddess, the universe, or the watching cats, to give me the vision and gumption to write about stealing and forgiveness.
I had stolen things before. During my final years in high school my mother returned to work after a twenty-year hiatus. Our family was pretty desperate for money. My alcoholic father’s career seemed to be in a tailspin, and my bi-polar mom took it upon herself to save the day. She lacked the clothes to be a modern businesswoman, and for my mother the outfit really made the woman; so as the first child, the hero, I came to the rescue.
I went to Bloomingdale’s in the mall, and I shoplifted pantsuits. I then bestowed the suits on my mother. I told her I purchased them with baby-sitting money. I was a champion baby-sitter, but there weren’t enough kids in Poet’s Corner, our suburban neighborhood, to support these extravagant suits. But my mother, chief enabler and household master of denial, was always ready to incorporate any story, no matter how far-fetched, into her lexicon of truth. So she welcomed this wardrobe windfall and traipsed gaily off to her new job.
I continued to snag suits for her for years until she fell ill. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Since my mother placed such a premium on appearances, she decided that her tremors were too awful for anyone to see, let alone trust her to excel in a job. She quit, and the pantsuits languished in her closet. My father retired from NBC, and they moved south to Durham, North Carolina, where he took a job running a small news station. They restarted their lives in a ranch-style house where my mother didn’t have to climb stairs or be seen by folks she knew.
This was pretty much the end of my brilliant career as a thief. I had never thought stealing for myself was an option. Theft was something I could do for others. I didn’t feel guilty about taking the outfits for my mother from Bloomingdale’s. I rationalized that it was a conglomerate store, my mother needed this stuff, and I provided it for her. We all tell tales to justify what we do—from stealing, to sneaking the extra brownie, to having affairs. Life’s choices, opportunities, and even morals seemed to me to be dictated by compromises.
Later, with my grown-up life in turmoil and my children grown to the point where they could stand up for themselves, I finally made the choice to leave their father. I decided that I couldn’t take the abuse, neglect, and mockery. (Let’s call him Dick, since it describes one of his chief characteristics.) After I told Dick I was finished and he had to leave, I began an affair with his brother. My therapist said instead of just moving out of the house, I burned it down metaphorically, so there would be no possibility of ever moving back in with Dick. In a sense, having the torrid affair with Frank, did inoculate me from any future relationship with Dick or his family.
I had been in an abusive relationship for almost fifteen years. I am appalled to write this. I am stupefied that a strong, educated, outspoken woman put up with the kind of physical and emotional abuse I endured. I was so devalued that I came to believe I had no worth. I had fallen in love with Dick, who was handsome, aloof, under employed, a philanderer, and a full-blown narcissist. Dick was what I had learned in my childhood to be model husband material.
Dick never married me. He said he’d be damned if he would give me the opportunity to be “a fuckin’ princess for a day.” And yet we stayed together because a part of me felt I would never find anyone else, anyone better, and I wanted to have babies. So I called him my “husband” and got pregnant with my sweet daughter—a child whose spirit, I believed, was just waiting for me to welcome her into the world. Then three years later, although Dick rarely worked, we had another baby, a boy. My fantasy family was complete; I had what my mother called “The choice of kings, le choi des rois, a boy and a girl. I also had a man who cheated, belittled me, spat at me, shoved me, and tossed me down a flight of stairs while I was pregnant. Dick always said, “I never hit you.” Moral hair splitting. Since I produced theater for a living, I continued spinning illusions with my personal life. I worked endless hours, pretended everything was fine, and yet I was miserable and terrified. I had no idea where to turn. After creating this elaborate fantasy, I couldn’t admit to any of my friends how degraded I was.
Dick and I were in therapy where he disclosed how his father had sexually molested two of his sisters and how this fact illuminated the roots of his emotional withholding. I was convinced I could save him. Since being the rescuer was my childhood role, however, neither of us managed to transcend our broken beginnings. I was always the angry, disappointed mother, and he was an angry, fuck-up of a father. We made a perfect pact of complicit insanity. We stayed locked in this baleful world where I begged for attention, affection, sex, financial assistance, any bone he would toss me; and he gleefully withheld and played the uptown gigolo. It was pathetic.
It was my daughter, then eight-years-old, who came to my rescue. One early morning, as I was picking up clothes, washing dishes, calling my assistant, and getting the kids ready for school while the man of the house slept in the big feather bed, my angel whispered, “Mama, when you are the woman, does it mean that you do all the work, earn all the money, and pick up after everyone, and the man yells at you? And why do the kids have to pick up clothes if papa doesn’t have to do anything?”
The circuit in my badly wired brain flipped; it was as if my internal sanity signal, which had been stuck in the off-position for decades, suddenly switched on. This farce of a relationship would stop; I was done. I began to formulate an exit strategy. Even if I couldn’t take care of myself, I was not going to doom my children to a life where they learned abuse.
I canceled our family summer vacation—the one where I would pay for everything and Dick would complain and berate me. Instead, I took the kids away to visit friends in the south of France. Before leaving, I sat down with Dick at our kitchen table and told him I was finished. I wrote out my speech on a scrap of paper. I had scribbled it over and over in my journal trying to find the essence of why I could no longer go on. Imagine, I felt compelled to find the right words to express why I was leaving a man who had never supported our family and had been stone cold mean to me for years. Dick told me I was totally negative and there was nothing redeeming about me. I told him I couldn’t listen to those characterizations any more.
Dick didn’t object or even negotiate staying. He moved out ahead of schedule on July fourth, right before I went on vacation with the kids. I was 42 years old and about to have a real independence day. Even after he had agreed to leave, while we formulated his exit strategy, we fell into a bitter fight. Dick ran after me trying to beat me with a set of crutches he was using for a severed Achilles tendon while I threatened to call the police. When he left the house, it was cold and final.
As much as I wanted to believe in magic, I was so broken that I imagined no one would ever love me again. I would be that lone woman in the diner with no partner, no sweetheart. My sexuality had been so degraded by the years of enduring Dick’s affairs and insults, including calling me a fat pig, that I sought to restart my erotic engine by having an affair with his brother Frank.
Frank and I had always been drawn to each other; we shared a raucous sense of humor and very judgmental spouses, who disdained us and castigated us, often in public. The affair was wrong. I know that. Frank had a wife and two little kids. But I knew he had been having affairs for his entire marriage, and I rationalized that I needed him and the rest be damned.
It was the same sensation when I stole the jewels at a friend’s Thanksgiving breakfast. They were there on the bathroom counter, and in a drawer. I put my hand out, filled my purse, and left with my kids. I believed this stolen jewelry could save my children, save me, and even—this is so stupid—save my neighbor across the street who was in the process of attempting to leave her abusive husband. I rationalized that I was Robin Hood.
The universe and my destiny had a different scenario in mind. After the theft, I called a society woman, who I assumed was a friend, and asked her how I could sell some jewelry in order to raise funds to finalize my separation from Dick. She invited me to her Upper East Side home where she had set up a sting operation. The family from whom I had stolen surmised I had done it and evidently contacted people we knew, putting out the word. When I arrived uptown, there was a former prosecutor, and the husband of the woman from whom I had stolen the jewels. I was caught. It was mind-boggling. I kept saying, Please don’t take my kids from me. Please, I am so desperate, please don’t take my kids. I will do anything you ask. That’s all I can remember, except that I felt as if there was no air. And outside it was raining and cold, just like it is today.
I have to stop.
Ten years have passed, and still I can’t escape the sickness in my muscles as I write this: the shame, the terror, the horrible notion that I blew up my life and hurt others. I risked my children’s future all because I believed I had so little value, so little hope, that I had to steal.
My life began to go into free fall. I can see now, in retrospect, that this explosion set me on the course to find my real path, but in the middle of the crash, the dust and debris were daunting. The woman who conducted the sting, Trixie, called my ex; she also called many of the benefactors of my non-profit theater, and she called the press. She did this even though the people from whom I had stolen signed a pact specifying no one involved would talk about this, ever. In return, I agreed to seek professional counseling, and we would all move on with our lives. It was incredibly generous on their part, but Trixie had other plans.
Within weeks of the confrontation, right before Christmas, a tabloid paper ran the story of my thievery, featuring Trixie as the savior. My affair with Frank was there, my separation from Dick, who it turned out had been having affairs with many society women. He was portrayed as a poor beleaguered patsy. I was conjured as some sort of seasoned nefarious thief.
I saw my life evaporate. I panicked. I could not see my way out. Maybe I could be a waitress in a fast food restaurant; I could do that. I would move, start again and build a tiny, clean, untainted life for my little family and myself. The press was calling my house, and then my ex would call to gloat and threaten to take the children away from me forever. He chanted into the phone, “I will destroy you!” Dick had found a way to continue his abuse, and I had handed him the tools.
I took Nyquil every night after I put the kids to bed and cried myself to sleep. I awoke in the morning groggy with sopping wet pillows. I made strong black coffee, forced a smile and got back on the path. I was psychotic every time the children had to visit Dick for a weekend. I was convinced I would never see them again. All the grants for my theater dried up. I considered killing myself, but I couldn’t possibly leave my darling children with Dick.
I called Kass, my best girl friend, my heart, and my partner in the little theater I began downtown after leaving LaMama. Kass worked a second job as a concierge in a fancy uptown hotel. This was the first time I had admitted my culpability to anyone other than the prosecutor involved in the sting. To the outside world I attempted to brush this off as gossip initiated by a vengeful ex. Like a child afraid of bad dreams, I felt if I kept denying that any of it was true, it would go away. Kass was on duty at the front desk, and as she checked in Prince, over the phone she simultaneously read me the riot act: “Under no circumstances are you to consider killing yourself. You are not your mother. You are too strong for that. You must never let Dick win. You stole stuff; that’s bad, but there are no charges. You will rebuild your life better than before. Believe me. We will make this work. You have to go through fire now. You were a piece of pottery and the fire is at your heels. You have the opportunity to become porcelain if you make it through without cracking. I have confidence in you and fuck the rest of them. I will call you back.”
Kass hung up the phone, and I sat for hours in the same chair, frozen in place. She called back, and we planned to shut down our theater in the new year and to put one foot in front of the other.
The stories in the newspapers didn’t stop for five years. Every time I got a job, there would be another story, and it would be sent to my boss. I changed careers, moving into the financial services sector where an FBI background check was conducted and prospective stock brokers have to pass rigorous qualifying exams. I passed and was building a business, but still the hounding continued. I began to look for jobs—with my bad press clippings in hand—and I even landed some, but then Trixie or Dick would call and harass the bosses until I was fired. I felt mired in shame and terror.
When I lived with Dick, I felt unsafe because of the battering and assaults, but even with Dick out of my home, he continued to pursue me. Dick sued to take the children away, even though he had no apartment and no job. By the time of the hearing, I was a vice president in a brokerage firm, living in the children’s original home. As Dick’s accusations were not substantiated, the court awarded me full custody. But his abuse did not abate. It was up to me to find my own safety in the midst of the continued onslaught.
I cried, I smashed things, I cooked and cleaned, and I called my friends, who counseled me to believe this crisis was I all part of a plan and promised life would improve. They prescribed forward motion, continued therapy, and forgiveness. The last part has been the most difficult because too often what I wanted was revenge.
I enrolled in a small Buddhist school where I learned meditation and yoga. I was introduced to the teachings of the Dalai Lama, who preaches that we need to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us most and accept their venom back as a neutralizing process. I wrote letters of amends to some I had harmed; I tried to get up every morning, do good work, help people, be kind, and believe in action as a great healer. I had good and very low moments.
I fell in love with a wonderful man named Zachary; I told him everything. After I disgorged the story of my theft, he took me by the hand to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, and in front of the Temple of Dendur, he said with great rectitude: “Look at all this shit, all of it was stolen.” We left, enough said. He loved me, proposed later in the year, and we got married. Zachary adored me and supported me when I was fired and broken. He encouraged me to be a writer, which had always been my heart’s desire. He said, “Baby, you need to know that when the phone rings and someone asks to complain to the boss, you can say, she’s right here.” Rather than fire myself, I needed to forgive.
I struggled, I worked, I volunteered, I mothered, I laughed outrageously as I strove to forgive myself for the abuse I welcomed and for the lack of faith I evinced in my own abilities. I began to admit that I had not lived an exemplary life—I had been mean, less than generous, manipulative—I could do better. I tried to forgive myself for resorting to thievery rather than believing that there was help available. I focused on forgiving myself while I reveled in writing, the work I always wanted. I now regard the past decade with a wide-eyed sense of wonder.
I left a relationship where I was abhorred and worked in jobs that gave me low remuneration and terrible esteem. I rebuilt my life out of the rubble. I fell in love with a man who refused to judge me, who was present and supportive to my every transformation. I have used my transgressions as a teaching tool, a cautionary tale, reminding my kids that there is nothing from which we can’t recover. I have told them everything. I remind them that since I have been honest with them about my big misstep, they should know that there is nothing they can do that will appall me. I will listen; we will learn and do better.
In the rubble of my life I found good building materials for forgiveness. What facilitates forgiveness still stymies me. Perhaps it is the cessation of rushing hormones flanked by the simple passage of time or the realization that holding hate is a great toxin and one I am free to release. I may not have become the precious porcelain my girl friend predicted, but I am on a path. I fell down and broke, but I remembered to take all the pieces; and with love, with friends, and with forgiveness I am piecing it together.
“Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness,” which received its first complete staging on Friday night at La MaMa E.T.C., is based on Wickham Boyle’s “A Mother’s Essays From Ground Zero.”
Rather than trying to portray the unthinkable scale of Sept. 11, “Calling” focuses primarily on one downtown family: a mother (Nicole Tori), a father (Roland Burks) and their daughters: a teenager (Nique Haggerty) and a child (Madison Pappas). The production is spare to an extreme, with no scenery or costumes and few props. Burke Brown’s lighting design is basic but effective; Edisa Weeks’s choreography depicts both panic and aimless confusion...