Wednesday, December 8, 2010

no time to write more

On July 11, 1970, my mother sat down to write a journal entry:

"It seems I only sit down at the typewriter when I know I have to stop soon; so that I can say, darn, just as I was getting going, I have to stop, and thus am saved the embarrassment of not being able to spew forth the mighty ideas I fancy I have in my head."
And I sit down today at my laptop when I know I have no time to write. I repeat her lament 40 years later. 

I realize that the date of this entry, July 11, is the same on which my mother died, 37 years later.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, May 14, 1970

This date is almost exactly a year before my birth. This bit from my mother's journal (I'm offering about a half of the entire entry for the day), has a local Columbia University event, the bombing of the Alma Mater, and a reaction to the news of the day, including Nixon, Cambodia and Hugh Hefner. I think her reaction to the Columbia symbol is quite sane. 

A bit of 1970 in New York City:

Thursday, May 14, 1970

Journal time. Start the day well with journal time. In the middle of the night we were all – M., S. [a close friend and her son, who were staying with my parents], G. [my dad] and I – awakened by a monstrous explosion. Wondered when our building would cave in. We craned out the front window, but could see nothing. I could see smoke rising from the campus, but G. and M. insisted it was only a nightish mist. Learned this morning from S. H., who called at 10 a.m., that the Alma Mater in front of Low Library had been blown up. (Like the IRA blowing up Nelson’s column.) Probably Weathermen. I haven’t seen it yet and don’t know what reaction there will be. I am beginning to think nothing upsets or enrages me. So the Alma Mater, just a statue, is blown up. Ho hum. And in fact, yesterday afternoon, as G. and I watched the construction people opposite raise a mobile crane that was higher that the umpteen-storeyed building in the throes of construction, right outside our window, we decided that if the crane toppled over and top of our apartment building and smashed us to smithereens, tant pis. We are ready to die, I guess. At least, it will be no great thing if we do.

But it’s not true about not getting enraged. Just reading Newsweek yesterday, for the first time in a year or so (M.’s subscription is bringing it to us faithfully every week), I got furious just to read the succession of idiocies committed by Nixon et al. during the past week: Kent State killings by the National Guard; the stupidity of the Nixon admin’s handling of the war and the extension into Cambodia; Hugh Hefner’s internal memo calling for a monumental all-out Playboy article against women’s lib; Peter Arnett of AP’s story about GI looting in Cambodia that was killed by the AP New York bureau – Wes Gallagher said that in view of the touchy political situation last week he judged it better not to inflame the situation with “inflammatory stories”. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

1968, Brussels (Part II)

I've decided to post most of the rest of this journal entry because it is cute--ah, to be 20-something and living in Brussels. This was the first entry, a typed entry, in what was to be her journal. But I have no more entries in my hands until May 1970. My mother praises the weekend (ah, life pre-children) and goes from deciding to be a poet to dreaming of running a radio talk show:  

"Anyway, I started off this morning very happy because it was Saturday. A marvellous day, the most marvellous day, of the week. Strangely enough, the sun always seems to be out, even in Brussels, at least in the morning and the middle of the day. To spend the first few hours mildly tidying up and sweeping the apartment is almost bearable, since it gives me time to work out all the things I shall do, today and in the future. Everything seems possible. Today I decided I would be a poet, writing lively and funny epic verse that would soon be in demand the world over. The BBC chattering in the background helps me along. Some silly word game at one o’clock called something like “Just One Minute” is extremely pleasant. The four participants, all articulate, vaguely humorous, have to speak for a minute on some topic like “smoking”, “cockroaches“, or “the first day at school”, etc., etc. They can’t hesitate or repeat their nouns. A silly game, but the voices are soothing and just listening to the words pattering out pleases me. All those BBC word games please me immensely, like My Word, My Music, and Verbal Tennis. As I potter around I decide that I really would be absolutely happy if I spent the rest of my life, or at least six months, devising such games. Then came the Midlands “Trolley Service”, or something like that, a sentimental hospital request session. The English are as addicted to the same old sentimental tunes as we Australians, and I feel as if I am hearing an exact replay of the ABC’s listeners’ choice. The Nuns’ Chorus, Bless this House, There’s No Place like Home all pour out with predictable regularity, and I like it. Bless this house today made me get a lump in my throat because it used to thrill my grandmother back in Sydney. The chap running the show today said that it was from Aunty Flo or someone for Ethel and that he hoped Ethel would be up and about again soon. Then came the Saturday play, about hippies, which I didn’t listen to. But the words and the voice were pleasant, and all I remember is that one chap, presumably the hippie hero, had a soliloquy that must have lasted ten minutes. It has to be a good play to have just one person talking that long. [I think she means to suggest this was not a good play.] Then the collection of Women’s Hour interviews and talks run by Josephine someone always interests me, trivial as it is. I see myself as becoming so well known as to be in demand for little talks on such sessions—or else I see myself running and organizing such a programme and having a tremendous time.

Sunday is the day for papers and sheer laziness. I feel terribly put out when the English fog prevents the delivery of the Observer and the Sunday Times, which happens once or twice a month. The papers are yet another source of inspiration. In fact, now that I look at it, I see Saturdays and Sundays are my recharge days, and often the inspiration has enough impetus to see my through the week. At least today I have found enough energy to sit down at this machine and start a long intended journal—as Paul Gallico says in his “Secrets of a Storyteller’s Mind”[Confessions of a Storyteller?], there’s nothing like applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the typing chair to get a writer on his way. Not that I’m a fan of Gallico.

The short stories I have more or less in my head are:
1. John the Hippie. In Kochel, telling the callows about pot, etc., and eventually getting a new market for his dope.
2. Rosie the barmaid, trying to pay off her debts, breaking her knees, etc., and eventually winning through. If that doesn’t fit the short story formula that Scott Meredith is so keen on, I don’t know what will.
3. Then there’s the new jigsaw idea, that could easily be turned into a Scott Meredith special, too.
4. There there’s the second Madeline and Bettina story. But I can’t stand those two for a while, not after Scott Meredith’s attack on the first one. Still, I do think they are saleable, SM or no SM.

Not to mention magnificent novels:
1. The Story of My Life.
2. The one about three married women, conflict and murder in France.
3. And my sweet little children’s adventure story about the kidnapping. [I think she used this story as a story within a story in The Tempest of Clemenza, written almost 30 years after this journal entry.]

Not to mention all those fantastic articles for the big glossies:
1. Language courses abroad.
Can’t think of any others at the moment.

Of all these wild dreams, the only thing I shall probably actually do are my trivial little talks for Radio Australia."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

1968, Brussels (Part I)

I have been reading my mother's journals. She had asked me to burn them, but I love hearing her voice again, and I will not burn them. And I will even share bits of them, though not most of them. She may be cursing me (if there is any kind of afterlife), or she understands.

The earliest entry I have found is from when she was 28 years old. It begins:

"Saturday, March 9, is almost over, and I am disappointed because I didn’t do all the marvelous things that always seem possible on Saturdays. And now my excuse is that my back aches a bit from having bent for hours over that habit-forming jigsaw puzzle, which has been part of the scenery in the apartment for the past five days. Altogether we must have spent twenty hours fathoming out the thing—1500 pieces which together make a “Scene in Enkhuizen” by a Dutch painter called Cornelis Springer, 1817-1891, whom until now I had never heard of. Now I shall never forget him. The blurb on the back of the box says that he was “a Dutch painter, etcher and aquarellist. He painted extensively in Holland, Belgium and Germany, and his work has been used in historical books. This picture hangs in Riksmusium, Amsterdam.” I think now that I know every corner f the picture off by memory. I even dreamt about doing jigsaws the other night. Anyway, we are hooked, and the only thing I can say about getting hooked on jigsaws is that , besides being a monumental waste of time that leaves one with eyestrain, backstrain and frustration, they are an excellent lesson in perspective. The little lady in background literally is walking on the head of the big lady in the foreground. The other thing I can say about jigsaws is that they get you acquainted with whatever you are building. The Berlin puzzle we bought in Munich (simple, only 500 pieces and two hours’ work) got me all familiar with Kurfurstendamm, and when we went to Berlin a few weeks later I felt as if I was walking through a three-dimensional puzzle. (That would be a fun short story—getting to know the world through jigsaws.)"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Games of the Strong, Part IV: Valley

Neila escapes the Complex in Part IV. She becomes more fully herself, which means no more pretending to be loyal to the Complex, but does not mean becoming an active resistor. She goes into herself, becomes overtly alone.

Neila is revealed as a resistor to the Complex, but not because she freed the Island exiles. After the Island trip, guards greet Neila at her office and escort her to the top-floor office of the Complex Leader. She wonders if she faces promotion or censure. She even fantasizes about what she could do to “turn everything around” if she inadvertently became the Leader of the Complex because of their failure to comprehend her real sympathies. Her thoughts as she goes to meet the unknown are “I am not indomitable. I am not a hero. I am not an activist and I do not care for groups and ostentatious political stands. I am also a coward and fearful, although I do appreciate the efforts of the brave.”

She faces the actual Leader, to whom she is polite and proper, though she thinks of how he as “ruined thousands, killed thousands.” He reveals Serena, obnoxious Serena, who survived the lark of a boat ride that ended in disaster. Serena has returned, “thin and sunburned,” determined to destroy Neila.

The juxtaposition of opposites – expecting either promotion and censure, awe for and resistance to the Leader, relief and fear at seeing Serena – is what the whole novel plays with – each thing and its opposite, characters continually changing sides, nothing being as it seems.

Serena pins the disastrous results of the leisurely boat trip on Neila. Serena’s position is one of the few clear ones now; she is a loyal Complexer. Neila’s confessed cowardice and fear are revealed in the telling of the boat ride. As the boat sank, she decided to swim for help; she was the only swimmer on board. But she admits to us that she swam because she was scared. While she did gather help once ashore, the boat was not found.

Serena accuses her of purposefully trying to execute the companions on the boat. (All but Serena are confirmed dead.) Serena fingers Neila as the Chief Resistor. She assigns to Neila what she wishes she could be: Brave. “I was actually thrilled. Chief Resistor. But of course she was wrong. I would like to be Chief Resistor material, but I am not. I will never be.” And Neila sees in Serena the same cowardice she feels – a mirror of herself. She thinks, “You rotten, lying bitch, piously mouthing loyalties. Serena, as is always apparent, saves herself first.”

Neila is imprisoned in what sounds like a lovely room: double doors, a terrace, a garden. Neila is determined to just walk out of her prison. “I intend to flee, and I suppose it won’t be too hard.” And it isn’t. Neila buries her journals and her copy of The Scared Journey under a flagstone in her prison garden, “a little square gave.” The written words are abandoned. She walks, and those who see her assume she is just going for a stroll in the garden. She just keeps walking – on her own sacred journey.

She pretends to be crazy so that workers in the Fields dismiss her, ignore her. She is performing at first, but the performance slips toward reality. She goes a little mad – both removed and unaware while also very paranoid.

After a stop in a Fields town, she escapes the notice of a group of Complex soldiers posting wanted notices, which may or may not picture her. She decides to indeed head back to the Mountain to become a hermit there, and her crazy beggar routine becomes increasingly real.

As she walks, she thinks about Lak and questions everything, “I was doubting everything that every happened to me. I was thinking I had manufactured my love for him. My whole past life seemed vague, uncertain. Even The Sacred Journey and its lessons seemed like nothing as I walked, though I could remember my obsession with it. What did I care?”

When Neila takes a serious fall while walking on ice up the Mountain, she loses herself in crying.”What am I doing here?” Complex soldiers riding in a jeep capture her. As a prisoner, tied with rope, she rides down Mountain roads, and the jeep crashes. She is seriously injured and ready to die.

But, seemingly deus ex machina, Lak appears to save her. “’My Neila,” are his first words. Lak reveals some unanswered questions and keeps referring to “the plan.” But we have no idea what “plan” he means. We think maybe he is talking of some Resistor plan. But instead he quickly reveals that he let his own family be arrested and assumed that Neila left that very day because she knew they were to be arrested. He assumes she is the loyal Complexer that he himself is. He has been trying to crush the Resistors by infiltrating groups in the Mountain, and he thinks Neila is there to help him.

Neila recounts no emotions here. She loved him. But he was always this bad guy. Neila simply acts. She sets up a trap so that he will fall to his death. She is not sure if it works, but she doesn’t see him again. The last words of the novel: “I shall do what I have to do, and then start the struggle all over again.”

Memories of my mother’s ways in Part IV:
My mother took great pleasure in her clothes and was always searching for and picturing her ideal clothes (and the ideal shoes and the ideal bags). In a town near the Fields, a ticket vendor gives Neila the shirt off his back, and convinces a restaurant owner to offer her a place to clean up and sleep. And a blue cloth is left for her to use. Neila voices what my mother would have felt: “The ticket vendor’s shirt felt soft and light. It came far down my thighs, almost to my knees…I wrapped the blue cloth around me so that it formed a long skirt and I tucked the long ends of the vendor’s shirt into it. I felt wonderful, renewed.” I can imagine my mother enjoying the clothes in just this way.

My mother could assign feelings to food she ate, such as black and white cookies – she had to take equal, alternating bites of each side, so as not to offend either side. Neila is fed in the Fields restaurant: “I ate it all, trying to use the etiquette of the Fielders, not mixing different kinds of food and taking equally from each dish in turn, so that no dish or type of food would be affronted at being first or last, favored or disfavored.”

My mother used to be so annoyed at the unreality of action movies, when the hero (a la Indiana Jones) would fall, be beaten, get seriously hurt in some way, and yet keep going. In the Mountain, after her fall, Neila expresses just such a thought: “In books and films when people are hurt, they rarely cry. They seem to grit their teeth, and give a small groan, a grimace, and then they carry on. Yet when I fall I find that my body is out of my control and needs to cry to heal itself, to recover from the shock, and to get fit to continue.” My mother wanted to assert what would be the reality of the situation.

I love seeing these bits of her, hearing her voice, used to fill out a fiction.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Games of the Strong, Part III: Island

The last sentence of Part II is “What a lark.” The first of Part III is “Now that I am out of the hospital, I have to sit and write again.” The change in mood is clear.

We don’t yet learn what exactly happened on that frivolous, ill-fated boat ride.

Neila is now the Minister of Information because Wils is dead, we assume in the unexplained boating accident. She has a high-profile, decadent office; it is a corner office with six windows and carpeting and a sofa. (Side note: my mother writes “sofa,” but I thought my use of “couch” was from her. Maybe this was an editor’s hand; I am reading the U.S. edition.) We know where Neila stands, still seeing herself as a resistor, though she plays along without actually supporting the Complex agenda.

In Part II, before the boat ride, Wils warned Neila about writing too much: “’You’re too involved with writing things down. Don’t do it. I’m trying to warn you.’” Was he threatening her or helping her? Was he a loyal Complexer? A resistor? Neila assumed he was threatening her – despite the fact that they had become lovers.

When Neila finally reveals what happened on the boat ride, we are told that neither the boat nor the bodies were found. Did the others all drown? Perhaps it is predictable that someone could have survived. The possibility that Neila will be revealed as a resistor is wide open.

Questions answered:
In this part of the novel, the reality of the Island, to where resistors are exiled, is revealed. What and where is the Island? Who is there? Is it a prison setting? The 10,000 resistors there are in exile with nothing to support them on the previously uninhabited and inhospitable Island where it rains for most of the year. But what Neila finds on her visit to the Island deepens the mystery of Lak, her beloved who disappeared after Part I. He is not there with his family. But his coded letters from Part II of the novel mention sea air. Did he escape capture? Where is he?

In addition, Neila meets an old man who knew her parents, who died in a car crash when she was a baby. She learns unexpected information about them. They were resistors, but they really did die in a car crash; they were not murdered as she suspected. And her mother had an affair with an unnamed Complex official.

Taking action:
Neila is ineffective and misunderstood throughout this part of the novel. Though she has authority in the totalitarian regime, she can’t change it and can’t do anything overt about the injustice of the Island. Her foster family even believes she turned them in as resistors. She defends herself, but no one trusts her, not the resistors, not the Complexers

Not words, not writing, but action is Neila’s turning point.

Neila decides to take 300 exiles, the most that will fit on the ferry, back with her and let them escape, swim through the shallows, before the ferry docks. She gives the ferry to a handful of resistors who remain aboard in order to help the remaining Islanders escape.

But her action is ineffective and awkward. They exiles don’t trust her, and we don’t know if they follow through on the full plan. Neila observes, “I was forcing this rescue on these miserable wretches and risking everything.” Barm, the resistor and writer Neila interviewed in Part II, is now on the Island. Neila appeals to him: “’They won’t let me rescue them.” He replies, “Why should they give you that glory?”

Everything changes for Neila after the Island trip, but not because she has helped the resistors. This action seems to go unnoticed, as least for now. It is not this boat ride to the Island that brings change, but the frivolous one from Part II.

More about writing:
I believe my mother includes her own writing process in the narrative. The chapter begins: “It is difficult to start again. I have forgotten the mood, the reasons I am doing this. But if I do it scene by scene, episode by episode, one step at a time, everything will come together.” It is as if she retained what she wrote to keep herself writing the novel as part of Neila’s story.

And, on the Island, Neila and Barm again discuss writing. Neila tells him, “Someone has to write it down,” meaning the truth of the Island. Barm replies, “Then you write it down. You go home and sit down and write it all down. As for me, I’ve grown beyond paper and pens.” In this exchange, there is ambivalence about writing, a questioning about writing.

And, like a writer, Neila admits the possibility of conflicting versions of stories: "I am always interested in versions of the truth," as my mother was. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The New York Times and my mother

A few links to reviews I stumbled upon in The New York Times

The Life You Hide May Be Your Own, by Coral Lansbury, July 30, 1989. 
The review of the reprints of The Hottest Night of the Century and Games of the Strong gave me a new perspective on my mother's writing. But Lynne Sharon Schwartz takes the reviewer to task in her Letter to the Editor: Crushed by Australia?, August 27, 1989.

Unloved in Manly, by John Crowley, September 13, 1992. 
Not so glowing, but an interesting review of Longleg

And this is a fabulous exchange to read:  
1) The bad review of Dancing on Coral (the winner of the Miles Franklin Award): In Short - Fiction - Dancing on Coral, by Roger Freidman, May 24, 1987. 
2) The Letter to the Editor in reply: Dancing on Coral, Glenda Adams, June 28, 1987. My mother takes him down.

1978: last bit

The mother's helper is named here, A. (I'm sticking with initials except for my own name, which I retain since it is mine to share), and I am left with my mother's question at the end, with no personal memory of the story.  I have a question of my own: How did my mother, who did not have money to spare, hire a mother's helper? Maybe this was such a bad experience, she never hired one again.

Keep in mind this is more of a journal -- my mother trying to catch the moment for later use -- with some artistry but also with some things that one might omit from another draft, such as the continued use of "disgruntled."

1978 last bit

“T. and I were students together,“ I said lightly, to include [the mother’s helper], to make her feel like one of the family. “But we didn’t know each other then. It wasn’t till we started to teach that we got to know each other.”

The children had started to hit each other. T. and I got up. A. stayed with her cup of tea. It was her first day, I thought, she must have felt strange, in this exciting city.

T. cooked dinner. I set the table. R. came home. Now there was a head of beautiful curls. Brownish red Welsh curls. But cut wrong.

“He ought to see to it,” T. said, “Beautiful hair like that, massacred, because he won’t pay more than £1.50.”

We ate. T. and I cleared the table. I did the dishes. R. and A. sat drinking their coffee. Not talking to each other. R. probably didn’t know what to say to a young American [student turned] mother’s helper with a new BA in drama. And A. wasn’t interested in anyone. Just disgruntled.

The children were bickering again. I gave mine a bath, then she asked A. to read her a story.

“Sure,” I said.

“Sure,” A. said and read a bit of Charlotte’s Web followed by Paddington Plays Golf.

I went up to give my littley her goodnight hug and kiss. A. stood by. Disgruntled.

“Lovely room,” I said. “We’re lucky to get a place at all in London. A room each. I thought you and Cait would have to share.”

A.’s room was identical to Caity’s. Bed, desk, 6 X12 or so. Shower next door. Toilet. Sweet, really.

A. said nothing.

Uh, oh, I thought again. What the hell’s up with her?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

1978: mother's helper

This next part of the story from the little notebook focuses more on the mother's helper, who is finally named  (though I am again using only the first initial). I feel for the mother's helper -- even though she may have been a royal pain in the butt and not well-suited to her job. 

1978 continued

My mother’s helper [descended into/came downstairs to] the kitchen. Feet first. [Bead] sandals (in my day they were called [Roma] sandals and wound up the leg and tied), grey socks, Diane Keaton trousers, [Laura Ashley/Liberty] blouse, a five-year-old [Giddon’s] of London riding jacket, long straight brown hair, disgruntled face. My eyes took in the disgruntlement, my heart sank, my inner voice said, uh oh, what’s up with her? We’d been in London only two hours, ten minutes in the flat in Hampstead. Here we were, 20 feet from the beautiful heath, with the top floor of Victorian house to ourselves, a view of St. Paul’s dome and the radio tower to one side, trees and heath on the other. And already disgruntlement.

“Ha, ha, well, well,” I said.

“Let’s have tea, “ said T.

The mother’s helper asked where the nearest shops were. Just two minutes to little South End Green with [Rumfold’s] home made bread, delicatessen, patisserie. Everything, and I mean everything, three miles from the center of London.

“And a florist?” My mother’s helper asked.

“And a florist,” T. said.

And the mother’s helper said she’d be back in a moment. And she was, while our tea was still hot, with a bunch of flowers. For me? For T.?

“For my room, “ she announced. “There’s no color in it and I need color.” No color.  [I understood] why she was grumpy. And T. hauled out a vase from the back of a cupboard for the flowers for A.’s room, which, alas, had no color.

“But there are flowers  in the garden," T. said and pointed through the window to where her two and my one were fighting over the swing after only ten minutes. 

Tricky to have a room, I thought.

And when she came down, T. made a fresh pot of tea.

We sat, T., A. and I and drank tea. I asking T. for news, gossip, anything; A. looking disgruntled still even though she now had color in her room.

Friday, August 6, 2010

1978: curly hair

I am typing up a small book of notes my mother kept from a summer in 1978 while traveling around Western Europe. The 17 small pages are full of her handwriting, which is pretty but often hard to read. Anything in brackets are dual phrasings she hadn't chosen between or bits she crossed out. I've used only the first initial for the one name included. This is only the first two pages of notes in Lion Brand notepad:

They’re all wearing their hair curly in London. At least they were that particular summer. Quite remarkable. A nation of curly headed women, overnight so to speak.
I had seen T. just [the summer / twelve months] before. Blonde, straight hair, absolutely perfectly cut, swinging around as she yelled at her children, no different from fifteen years before when we were TAs sharing an office, sharing Rothman’s King Size, and giggling at the fact that we were teaching Sanskrit and old Javanese to Sydney undergraduates, who were practically our own age. My hair at the time, as always, was brown and straight, no swing, not even when I yelled at my child.
[This] particular summer, T. had a head of gorgeous little curls. Her children were a year older and things were more peaceful. The little curls wiggled as she smoked and made pots of tea.
“T.,” I shrieked, or maybe I just said it [when I saw her], “Your hair. [Curly.]” I was very impressed.
T. moved her Benson & Hedges around and put on the tea kettle. The little curls wiggled. She told me everyone had switched to [curly hair/permanents]. Soft, not like in our mothers’ day.
I grabbed the arm of my mother’s helper. “Look at that.” I said. “My old friend T., from way back. We were young together. Now she has curly hair.”
The mother’s helper, who seemed to know about these things, inspected the curls. She told T. that she shouldn’t comb it so much. The curls would stay rounder, curlier. T was making them drag out by combing her hair.

(To be continued... The next bit is more about the mother's helper, of whom I have no memory, but I was only 7 years old.)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Games of the Strong, Part II: Peninsula

Part II of the novel, Games of the Strong,  focuses on language and writing. Neila has become official translator and news writer. And she eventually becomes Wils’ speech writer. And we learn the novel itself is Neila’s writing, her journal. She hides under her own bed so no one, especially the detestable Serena, will walk in and see what she is doing, no one will see her light: “I imagine the lights, written by Serena: ‘OFFICIAL COMPLEX SPEECHWRITER FOUND WRITING SUBJECTIVE LITERATURE UNDER HER BED … LITERATURE HAS BEEN BURNED … BED HAS BEEN FUMIGATED … SUBJECT JAILED’”

Neila is feeling unsure and less than capable, yet she receives promotions and additional responsibilities in the Complex that have to do with writing. Wils, her superior, the Minister of Information, former resistor or pretend resistor, current Complexer and “an enemy,” gives her increasing responsibility: “’You are liked here and it is particularly pleasing when a woman shows she can handle the responsibility of a man. It sets a good example. You are wanted to represent us at the conference.” Neila privately notes his avoidance of “active and personal” language as common in the Complex.  And, instead of the Serena in her imagination, Neila is promoted to write the lights: “I have been told I am to do the news lights from now on. What excellent luck for me. The Whole complex will see my writing on the news tower.” (The personal side: my mother wrote the Times Square “zipper” news ticker in the 1960s for a bit.) Then, after intelligence and personality tests and a strange meeting with a psychiatrist, she is promoted again: “I Write position papers and speeches for Wils, and I am on my way up. I have been given a new office and a higher rank…I have a new desk and three windows to myself. ”

She thinks the Complex authorities, including Wils, are fools to trust her because she is actually against the Complex, but she also thinks she is less capable. She also kind of likes her higher rank and her new office. Though Neila does not become indoctrinated by the increased power, she remains passive except for her writing: her answers on the psychological tests, veiled resistor references in a speech and the writing of her journal itself.

Yet she becomes comfortable in Complex life during her Peninsula tour and while speechwriting for Wils. She and the older Wils even become lovers. “It has been fun and I am no longer constantly afraid, which is why I can sit here under the trees and write this in front of our little group.”

Neila’s insecurity comes out even when, or especially when, interviewing to Barm, the ex-resistor (or current resistor) and famous writer, Neila worries, “I was so afraid Barm would think me stupid that I had a list of questions prepared.” But the questions themselves are stilted, stupid, “They were dull and obtuse.” She can see the flaws in her own writing – yet she would feel unprepared for the interview, for speaking, without writing.

Through Neila and her encounter with Barm, my mother offers some thoughts on writing: Neila observes, “His language is straightforward… It gives a strength to his writing that is unique here. Most writers, who have generally come from high Complex families, strive to imitate masters from elsewhere, which gives their already stilted Complex language a peculiar deadness.”

 Barm not a likable or easy fellow. He worries his wife: “I think it is Barm who makes her anxious.” And Neila thinks he is “a difficult person to be with.” But he is interesting, even inspiring: He says, “’There has always been a mysterious voice that keeps coming back and asking me, “What are you and what do you want?” That voice sets my soul in turmoil. And I am still trying to answer it.’” Neila answers, “I have that turbulence.” My mother had it. I have it. Is it a writer’s turmoil?

Neila’s interest in writing comes out in other ways: “I find I am collecting poems and stories written from the point of view of someone dead.” She remembers writing such a story herself when she was 10 years old. The first-person tale was about a boatload of shipwreck survivors whose dinghy sinks. A class “clever boy” dismisses her, “’How could they know it was quiet if they had drowned?’” And Neila is affected: “After that, I was so uncertain that I felt I had to borrow images.”  (I wish I could ask my mother if this is autobiographical – I have a vague memory of her telling me this childhood story.)

In light of Neila’s childhood story, it is probably not coincidental that Part II ends with a boat ride – and a boat sinking, though we don’t learn of the sinking until Part III.

Side note: In my mother’s next novel, Dancing on Coral, the protagonist is Lark Watter. The ominous phrase “What a lark” at the end of Part II as Neila’s Complex group gets on the boat for a leisurely ride reminds me of the next Lark.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Games of the Strong, Part I: Mountain

My mother’s first novel, Games of the Strong, was published in 1982. It is mine, literally, since the dedication is “For Caitlin.” It used to be my favorite of my mother’s books. It isn’t anymore, for a few reasons. It seems young, and I appreciated that when I was a teenager. Neila is a young, unsure, isolated, in-love protagonist; she has no living immediate family; and she lives in an imaginary place that demands she do something dramatic. At the time, I liked fantasy and science fiction, and Games of the Strong is almost science fiction. It has been compared it to George Orwell’s 1984. The novel begins in the Complex, which is a totalitarian regime, and Neila is part of a secret resistor group.

The novel is in the first person and reads like a journal: “Today we set out before the sun rose.” The narrator has a teenage/early 20s tone, and I assume she is 19 years old for some reason.  She is quick to love: “But my new family is good to me, and it is still astonishing to me that I have fallen in love with Lak, who is the eldest son.” The foster family is ostensibly loyal to the Complex. Neila thinks her parents were killed by the regime, though they were reportedly killed in a car accident. She manufactures drama, “I am fed up with resisting, with being lonely, with loving someone I cannot have.” (Have I just become a cynical and older reader with less patience for the angst of the young? )

A text quoted repeatedly within the story, “The Sacred Journey,” is inspired by my mother’s Indonesian studies and is adapted from Lampah-Lampaham R.M.A Poerwa Lelana. The novel’s world itself is inspired by her experience in Indonesia in the early 1960s (of which I know very little – and I didn’t ask my mother enough about it while she was alive). Neila works hard to learn about the Mountain people: “I have spent several years learning the language and manners of the Mountainers, and I have studied the sacred book. It is all extremely difficult for an outsider to comprehend.” Neila’s feelings of wanting to belong with the foreign Mountain people so badly that she tries too hard to fit in – and she never could  – echo my mother’s attempts to become as Indonesian as possible.

Neila wants something else; she wants to escape, and the grass-is-greener trope is woven into Part I of the novel: “I think that my cousins at first will accept me as a close friend and then, after they get to know me, as a member of the family.” Unlike with the Complex and her foster family, where she feels like an outsider. The name Neila is “alien” spelled backward. She is named for the first time when Lak asks, “Neila, why don’t you feel you belong with us?” But, of course, with the Mountainers, she is still an outsider. If she doesn’t understand a joke, “It ruins the illusion of belonging that I am trying to create.” And even after a few days there she laments, “Why is it that I seem to be getting more and more awkward and shy?”

The most powerful bit for me was the odd almost suicidal moment at the volcano toward the end of Part I. Neila visits the sacred site of the volcano in the mountains. She throws in one of her mother’s scarves as an offering (makes me think of my mother’s basket of scarves on top of her dresser). Neila then goes over the edge herself, just a little but “inside the cone,” and becomes mesmerized by shapes she sees in the red molten rock. Her lone companion has to pull her out as she creeps lower. She even fights him, “I didn’t want to lose the shapes. I didn’t want to go back.”

I find elements of autobiography in Games of the Strong: Neila writes publicity releases and becomes an official translator and news writer . My mother studied journalism and worked as a journalist for many years in the late 1960s.

I also recall my mother and things associated with her: “We stopped like tourists in a rickety little roadside shop that sold delicate porcelain, spun silver, and handwoven cloth.” The cloth reminds me of the folded yards of Indonesian textiles I have piled up in my closet that my mother collected in the 1960s. (She didn’t do anything with them, maybe I will.)

And I can hear selections from my mother’s life philosophies: “I find that I am suspicious of good-looking men who are also both talented and successful. And I have never liked men who have large followings of women.”
I can hear echoes of my mother’s stories of left-wing New York society in the 1960s: The men do most of the talking, but talk enlightenment, thinking they are being something new, not traditional and segregated.  And, with exceptions that seem strident rather than enlightened (ah, the curse of outgoing women), the women remain stuck because they think they have to be something specific: “Anny and I, since we did not have anything startling to contribute in the way of high policy or thinking or a glorious past to offer, leaned forward and nodded to show we were involved and meant well.”

The two reviews includes pan the novel ( I do think her later novels, which do not involve the invented world, are stronger. But Games of the Strong is still so well written.  My mother sure knew how to craft her sentences. These reviews do miss the connection to Indonesia – but why would they know about that? 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Natural childbirth: just another shuck"

With the help of the Village Voice senior editor, Tony Ortega, I have tracked down an early essay by my mother: "Natural childbirth: just another shuck," The Village Voice, September 30, 1971.

I knew most of the story of my birth, and how angry my mother remained at her jackass of a doctor. This essay captures her anger clearly, makes some excellent points, and is definitely of its time. And I respect that she doesn't end with how fabulous I was. That wasn't the point, after all, and would have actually undermined her point by saying, "Well, the doctor and birth were horrible, but I got my lovely baby."

I am not surprised she never had another child (though this experience was not her only reason); nor am I surprised that she worried about my "natural" birth choices. (I had much more and better support and preparation both times.)

In its entirety:

Natural childbirth: just another shuck
by Glenda Adams

“We young, modern gynecologists believe that pregnancy and childbirth is a happy, healthy time, no different from any other period in a woman’s life,” my doctor told me when he confirmed I was pregnant. I nodded and smiled along with him, glad that I was the patient of a young, modern expert who seemed to regard me as the intelligent young woman I knew I was. And thus he set the rules of the game.

During the months that followed I heard only of the joys and pleasures of childbirth. I heard of women and their husbands laboring in ecstasy in the hospital, breaking open bottles of champagne in the delivery room, and toasting the baby while a chorus of laughing doctors and nurses joined in.

I believed this enchanting fairy-tale version of birth, peddled by the sexist stalwarts of Parents Magazine and Baby Talk and by their enlightened opposites at Ramparts and WBAI. I believed that women trained in the Lamaze method of natural birth popped out their babies the way kids spit out watermelon seeds and were in complete control of the whole event. It took a long and difficult labor for me to perceive that natural childbirth can be just another shuck.

There is nothing wrong in delivering a baby without anesthetics or medication, with your husband by your side. But I discovered that the uncritical championing of natural birth by both the gung-ho American motherhood types and the radical sisters has left unchallenged the total power of doctors over their patients and has deceived women into believing that natural birth somehow liberates them from the traditional female straightjacket.

The 16 hours I spent in labor in the hospital, after 24 hours or labor at home, turned out to be the worst hours of my life. And I realized in the middle of it all that preparation for natural birth gives a woman only the illusion of being in control of the birth and of her baby, while the doctors and nurses carry out their tasks in the traditional way, unchallenged. The woman in labor is manipulated by yet another technique which maintains the status quo.

I wanted to scream and kick and curse the natural childbirth establishment that had taken advantage of me. But I did not give in to any of these spontaneous acts because I was afraid to lose my carefully cultivated self-control. Needless to say, screaming and kicking in labor does not make childbirth painless or easy. But the ability not to scream is symptomatic of our fanatic desire to be always in control.

And so the best candidate for natural birth is the intelligent woman with what is called common sense, who will see that it is in her own interest to obey and not make a fuss about having a baby. In other words, the young, educated, middle-class woman. And because of her ability to keep her head and contain her agony during labor, this is the woman who many also suffer the most in giving birth, especially if the birth is difficult and not of the melon-seed variety.

Like most eager, middle-class educated young women, I had been taught to believe that you have only to acquire knowledge to solve a problem, and you have only to set your mind to it and you can do it, be it getting an A in your finals, making a soufflé, or giving birth to a baby. To show how far we bright, modern women have come from the terror and misery our mothers and grandmothers endured, we even insist that giving birth is fun.

I am sure that the women who have told of their joyous experience in childbirth are telling the truth. They are simply the lucky ones who had an easy time in labor and delivery. They would have had the same uncomplicated experience with or without training in natural birth techniques. But they fail to see that their experience is an accident of nature. In their eagerness to champion the apparent reform, this apparently revolutionary method of childbirth, they fail to understand that they, together with their unfortunate sisters whose labor and delivery are “abnormal” or difficult, have been misled. All are victims of a current fad, propagated by women themselves and by some members of the medical profession, the latter often in bad faith.

                                    *                      *                      *         

“I have a few questions, “I said reasonably to the doctor the day he told me I was pregnant.

He held up his hand to stop me. “Read this book. It will answer all questions.” He handed me a slim hardback titled “Expectant Motherhood,” by Nicholson Eastman.

I read the book. I learned chiefly that my uterus would grow larger and that at the end of approximately 280 days I would have a baby. So I bought another book, a paperback by Alan Guttmacher, “Pregnancy and Birth,” which went into a little more detail and was uncluttered by coyness.

On my next visit the doctor asked if I had done my homework and dismissed with a mild grimace the few questions I had. He asked if I was interested in natural childbirth, expressed his pleasure that I was, and said: “There is nothing worse than seeing a woman in the labor room thrashing around and screaming when there is absolutely no need for it.” He told me his hospital was one of the few in New York that encouraged natural childbirth and insisted that all its nurses be trained in the method. He gave me the name of a midwife who conducted classes and the name of another book, “Six practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth,” by Elisabeth Bing. In my zeal I bought yet another, “Childbirth Without Pain,” by Pierre Vellay.

Nothing in the books and articles my husband and I read, nothing in the natural childbirth classes we followed, and nothing that my doctor said prepared us for our experience. The disciples of natural birth talk only about “normal” labors and deliveries. The emphasis is on positive thinking. “If you call is pain, then of course it’s bound to hurt—it’s mind over matter,” was the prevailing sweep-the-dust-under-the-rug tone. As if by using Pavlovian techniques one can control one’s cervix, uterus, and the baby’s position.

My husband and I bought this wholesale and were looking forward to the event with excitement. In class we, the appointed, the elect of prospective parenthood, were told to expect some pain (or “discomfort,” as it is called in natural birth Newthink). We smiled in a superior, pitying way at the tales told by our midwife-teacher of the unenlightened women who had not prepared themselves for childbirth and who made everything worse for themselves, for the baby, and for the doctor.

That last phrase is the loaded one: “Let’s make it easier for the doctor. “ A subtle appeal that made us identify upwards, with the medical experts, rather than with those poor women in pain, in the same way that a factory foreman forgets his workmates and identifies with the interests of management. By paying $50 for a course of six classes we felt we had somehow bought our way into the private club of the medical experts. Giving birth would demonstrate the wonderful partnership of doctor, nurse, husband, and wife.

I saw my doctor for 10 minutes a month, then 10 minutes every two weeks during the eighth month, and 10 minutes every week for the last four weeks. He called me by my first name (or someone else’s first name, often Nancy or Margaret). But he never spoke to me about the actual labor and delivery and what I should expect. And I never asked, for I had read the books, taken the classes, and I assumed that both he and I knew it would be a jolly experience which I would control.

I began to perceive the depth of the fraud only when my labor was well under way. I had called the doctor after three hours of 45- to 50-second contractions and three-minute intervals, just as I had been instructed in class. When I checked into the hospital I was told my cervix was only just beginning to open. The week before the doctor had told me my cervix was still closed, but he did not explain what this might mean about the nature of my labor or how I could deal with it. In the hospital the resident clicked his tongue at me. “You’re going to take a long time,” he said. I felt I had spoiled everyone’s day. It was, after all, a Saturday, when people should be having fun. And here I was panting away like a thirsty pup, just as I had been taught, with my husband counting off the seconds in tens, as he had been taught, and reminding me to relax.

I panted from 3 a.m. at home (when I changed from the initial long, slow breathing I had been taught) until 7 p.m. The only comment I got was from a nurse, sometime during the afternoon, who told me I had started the quick breathing too soon. I felt guilty for over-performing. But nobody explained what I ought to have done and nobody explained what was happening to me, although I knew the activity in my abdomen did not tally with the book. All this in a hospital that encourages natural childbirth.

While I was in labor the screams of other women from adjoining labor rooms comforted me. I did not feel quite so alone, for I was beginning to blame myself for the excruciating pain that persisted and increased, despite my controlled breathing, panting, exercising, and positive mental state.

But I did not scream. During those terrible hours I whimpered a little. But not once did I scream. For wasn’t I intelligent, educated, enlightened? Didn’t I understand the birth process and have control over my body?

In that labor room, I waited for my doctor to congratulate me on the good job I was doing, to tell me how brave I was not to give in to the pain. I waited for him to treat me as his equal, include me as he made his decisions, and explain what was happening. I would have asked him, but I was using all my strength to maintain my control, and he jounced into the room, plunged his fist into my vagina, and jounced out again so quickly I did not have time to gasp out anything. My husband, banished from the room during these lightening appearances, had to spend the rest of his time giving his full concentration to seeing me through the pain and encouraging me to stay with it.

I think my doctor addressed me directly three times during those hours: once to say “Not medically justified,” when I whispered a request for a Caesarean (but he gave no explanation or words of encouragement to me to keep up the good work); once to say, as mid-day, when it was only halfway over, “Just pretend you’re starting labor now”; and once at the very end, to say “I’m going to put you to sleep.”

Just before that he had told my husband, not me, that a forceps delivery would be necessary. No one told us, as I pushed and strained for an hour and a half before being “put to sleep,” that they had known for some time I would not be able to push the baby out by myself. My husband overheard my doctor telling this to the resident. But when the doctor appeared he called to me to “push the baby out.” The cry was taken up by the nurse, and my husband found himself in the shattering position of having to go along with the experts in the deception.

After the birth we learned the extent to which we had not been informed. No one had told us that the baby’s head was facing sideways and would not turn to face the back. No one had told us the head was so big that there was a chance a Caesarean might be necessary. No one had told us that my contractions were being sped up by medication, so that when I found myself having long contractions lasting five minutes with practically no interval between them I was unable to adjust my breathing or expectations, since we had been informed in class of contractions lasting a maximum of a minute. These things the doctor and his staff knew, but they consistently failed to inform me of my husband.

It is now clear to me that a doctor’s power can depend on his keeping the mysteries of his profession to himself. And I saw how much quicker and more efficient it was for him not to have to stop and explain things to a woman in labor, particularly a woman who is not causing any trouble because she has herself under control.

“The trouble with natural childbirth,” my young, modern doctor told my husband after our baby was born, “is that it pretends to give women an amateur course in obstetrics and there’s more to obstetrics than that.”

I now understand what this doctor means when he talks about the undesirability of women making a fuss in labor: if you are a technician intent on doing an efficient job, the body and mind of the woman who owns the uterus you are dealing with tend to get in the way. The patient hampers the doctor in his work in the same way that readers hamper librarians by checking out books all the time.

Some doctors oppose natural childbirth. They say, “Leave medicine to us doctors, the experts.” Others espouse the method, use it to serve their own technical goals, and still retain their traditional power. They enlist the support of their patients by giving them the illusion they are taking part in an exciting new development that will make meaningful inroads into the old-guard established power of the medical world.

None of this is clear to the woman who hardly suffers childbirth, whose birth is “normal” with a need for only a minimum of decision-making for the doctor. It is patently clear to those who have a long, hard labor.

Natural childbirth gives you the privilege of paying the same $1300 in doctor and hospital fees to keep your self-control, possibly suffer more pain than if you had given birth the “old” way, and become the victim of just another shuck.

Monday, February 22, 2010


The last story in the Lies and Stories collection seems completely autobiographical. It begins with the scar that my mother had on her neck, the one left from where a large birthmark was removed when she was young. And the narrator notes that her thumbs are double jointed, just like my mother's and mine. It looks as if they are popping out of their sockets.

The story is broken into body parts: the throat, the voice, the hair, face and teeth, the hands and wrists, the feet. The story is methodical, calm, and even melancholy. But also strong.

The last line is powerful: "And now I often feel free enough not to smile." I respond, in general , "Yes! That's it!" A piece of wisdom for those who feel the need to please, especially for women. Though this story was written at least 30 years before, I remember my mother saying, just six months before she died, "I am supposed to feel sad right now." She was right. What else could she have felt?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


"Kangaroo" is a very short story, barely five pages in the small bound form of Lies and Stories. I don’t know if it appeared anywhere but in this first short story collection.

I’d not read this one before. My uncle, my mother's older brother, told me – in passing, in a letter – that "Kangaroo" is his story. I’m not sure how much my mother fictionalized it. I need to talk to my uncle.

In the story, a young man on a Harley with a sidecar, traveling through the Australian outback, hits a kangaroo, but doesn’t kill it. Certain that he has irrevocably injured it, he tries to kill it, thinking he can use its hide, but even with a gun he fails to kill the animal again.

My mother highlights both the cockiness, insecurity and sensitivity of the young man, and the tension between city folk and outback folk.