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caroline leavitt

Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear You Who Now Hates Me

October 15, 2020
daughter

By Caroline Leavitt

Today, after two years of silence, an email arrives from you and my hands are shaking when I read it. I despise you. You are dead to me. I want nothing to do with you. I hope you have a miserable life and you know the same brutal suffering you have caused me because you are evil. You are pathetic and unlovable.

As always, you put your words in all angry bold caps, each one carrying an embedded sting, meant to hurt. You think I have done something unforgivable, something horrific to you. But I’m not certain what it is and why I am the target of your ire. All I know is that your personality has totally changed and I don’t know how to be with you any longer.

It wasn’t always this way, was it? You and I grew up together  as sisters, you three and a half years older than me, but we were more than that, more than friends. We both were big readers and we both wanted to be writers, and we walked all the way to the Star Market and back to buy big block pads that we would write in together and illustrate, novels, we called them, always about a girl who had adventures at camp, or at boarding school or on a schooner. We worked on our stories all the time because hey, we planned to be famous, cool authors. As we grew, so did all the adventures we had together, going to movies and sneaking into double features, walking to Belmont to go to Filene’s and shop. You were the one who taught me how to iron my curly hair, and dress cool in lace-up the leg sandals of yours I got to borrow.  And you were the one who protected me from my father’s brutal moods, his screaming, who kept me from my mother’s endless rages about how I was too fresh, too independent, too messy and ugly and of course I didn’t get in the school play because who would put someone who looked like me on a stage? I never knew why, but our parents left you alone, so I stayed closer to you, so maybe they would leave me alone, too. And they did.

***

As teenagers, we were so joined at the hip, that you invited me on your dates with your boyfriends, introducing me to clubs and fancy restaurants, letting me wear all of your clothes, which were much hipper and cooler than anything I had in my closet. You made me feel special and a part of your world. When men stopped you on the street because you were so beautiful, you ignored them, focusing on me.

But then things changed dramatically, and I couldn’t figure out how or why. They say a personality change can start at adulthood and maybe that’s true, maybe that’s what happened to you. You, who could have had any guy you wanted, dropped out of college one credit shy of a degree, and married at 19, a dull, critical boy who was so wrong for you that I wept,  “Don’t do this,” at your wedding right before you stepped onto the alter and bonded your heart to his. And then boom, boom, boom, you moved to a stomach cramp of a town away from Boston and boom, boom, boom, you got pregnant, with a son and then a daughter. And when I came to visit, beaming, happy to see you, the air felt charged. You were different, overwhelmed by motherhood. The spark was gone and worse, you wouldn’t speak to me. You snapped and asked me when I was going home. You yelled when I picked things up in your apartment to look at them. “Put that the fuck down,” you said. Later, you said, “I’m just unhappy.” You told me you never should have married, that the kids overwhelmed you. “You can leave,” I told you. “You can live with me or live with our mom.” You shook your head. “No,” you said. “I can’t.

Okay, let’s be honest here. I didn’t really realize the depth of your unhappiness back then. No, I was busying being young and selfish and wild at college, sleeping my way through the alphabet at Brandeis because I was so astonished that here were men who not only liked me, but wanted to share my body. You didn’t approve and said I should be more stable, but you didn’t approve when I moved to New York City, either, which you said was dirty and dangerous. You didn’t like it when I experimented with drugs and you and your husband both yelled at me. “I’m disappointed in you,” you said. “You never used to be like that.” Your disapproval stung.

I stayed away from you after that, still young and selfish, I admit, until your daughter went into third grade and suddenly there was a story she had written in my mail box, about a lonely little girl who goes to see her “crazy aunt in New York City,” and who is rescued by a mouse. “Is this me?” I asked you, wondering what you had told her about me, why you used the words crazy. “Of course not,” you said, “the mouse is the hero, not you,” but still I wondered. I called your daughter to tell her how I loved the story. Her voice was soft and shy, and I heard you yelling at her not to tie up the phone. Poor little sweetie, I thought. Maybe I should get to know her.

But I was still busy being wild, and I didn’t want to come to your small boring town. I wanted you to all come visit me in Manhattan, but suddenly, you who had been so brave, so adventurous, were afraid of everything. You wouldn’t fly or drive or travel. You wouldn’t even pick up the phone for food to be delivered. You who had once been a stellar teacher now couldn’t hold down jobs and were fired for what you said were mysterious reasons, but you wouldn’t say what those reasons were. One by one by one, your friends fell away. “They betrayed me,” you said, but you couldn’t tell me how. You began to snipe harder at me, your casual cruelty about my looks, my writing.

I tried to help, to make you happy, to try and fix things, but none of it went over well. When I sent you books I loved, imagining you pouring over them, lost in their worlds, you told me they all stunk. When I sent you clothing, you tore up silk shirts and linen pants with scissors and then mailed them back to me with notes that said: you like this, I don’t. I had a necklace designed and made for you, and you tied it into knots and threw it in an envelope to me. One day on FB, you attacked all my friends over a discussion about how much we all loved thrift stores. You called them stupid middle-aged bitches who should get jobs. When people protested or tried to explain, you used all caps to tell them to all go fuck themselves because you would not be silenced. But you were, because I blocked you then, and that made you furious, too. “Why are you so angry at me?” I cried.

We didn’t speak for months after that time. Not until my fiancé died, and I fell apart and called the one person who had always been my anchor when I was so young: you.  I begged you to come and be with me, you said you couldn’t, that your daughter had a slight cold. It wasn’t until our mother, still alive then, got on the phone, her voice sharpening, that you did come, but you stayed for just half an hour, and then, while I was crying for you to stay, please stay, because I needed you, you got your coat and took a plane back home. You didn’t come to the funeral or call me or even talk to me for a whole year while I drowned in grief, and in the end, because I missed you, I still loved you, I still wanted a relationship with you, I called you. You listened on the phone, but you never apologized. Instead you blamed me because you said I  hadn’t been appreciative enough that you had come at all. You said only, “I’ll try to do better.” I loved you, so of course I believed you.

You didn’t do better for me. But surprisingly, inadvertently, your daughter did. When she was fifteen, she called asking if she could visit me and my new husband Jeff. “My mom says it’s okay,” she said, which surprised me. When she arrived, her face tense and miserable, her hands thrust into an old army jacket that I recognized as mine. Of course we took her in! She was your daughter, wasn’t she? Of course we fed her and let her stay all that long weekend, checking in with you to make sure it was okay, and after a day or two, she got relaxed enough to tell us the part of your story we didn’t know. She told us how unhappy she was, how she was supposed to act as a conduit to you, even when she was little, calling people you were unhappy with. She took the blame for the things you did wrong. You shouted at her constantly and berated her. She couldn’t go anywhere, have any friends, make any decisions.

Why had you let her come here? Did you feel better about me? Did you actually love me? Your daughter shook her head. It was because you wanted time alone. That was when Hillary told me how you talked about me. I was no good, you told her. You actually used that word: evil. I was selfish and cruel to you and Hillary should have nothing to do with me because I was a terrible influence. She told us she wanted to be a writer, but you wouldn’t let her touch your computer because you said it was your thing, and she should find something of her own, but then again, you weren’t writing anymore. You didn’t like the way she looked and you called her loser, idiot, worthless piece of slime. You told her not to be a slut  because she was dating. You told her she was just like me. “But maybe that’s a good thing,” your daughter said quietly, and I hugged her and stroked her hair.

Your daughter went home. I spoke to you on the phone, aghast, but you denied saying any of the things that Hillary had said. You denied that she was unhappy. “She lies,” you insisted. But that sorrow of hers was palpable.

Suddenly, your daughter and I were like two lonely planets thrown out of your orbit, adrift in space, and we began to feel each other’s gravitational pull, to use it as a safety harness. Sometimes it felt like we were the only two who knew what it was like to grow up in your company, where everything was our fault, a world of screaming and sniping and gaslighting—and that was the thing we clung to, the thing that seemed to save us and keep us steady. You’re not crazy, we told each other. It’s going to be okay. Things don’t have to be like this. We began writing each other, getting closer, as if at we recognized something in each other. The way we were both afraid all the time, the way we were desperate to be liked, to know this wasn’t our fault. The way we were always terrified around anger, especially when it was uncontrolled. The more I helped your daughter, the more I was really helping me.

And that was when you screamed, “you need to step away from my daughter.” When you called me and slammed down the phone repeatedly. When you told me you had a heart attack and it was my fault, even though our mother later told me it was a panic attack, that was all. You called with dire medical reports that turned out to be nothing, with reports of a head on car crash that had never happened. When you hacked into your daughter’s email and read the messages we sent each other, you demanded they stop because they were all lies, because nothing I said had ever happened. But how could I stop connecting to the person who was saving me who made me feel valuable because I was, in my own way, saving her?

But it wasn’t just your daughter you didn’t want me to see. When your daughter married and then had babies, you wanted me kept away from them as well. Your daughter and I refused to listen and we met up at Ocean City where you called me, furious, screaming into the phone. You acted as if we had committed a crime. Did I think you were a fool that you didn’t know what I was scheming to take your daughter away from you, you screamed? I invited you to come with us, I tried to explain, but you hung up the phone.

I am a Pollyanna. It’s true. I have always been the fixer of the family, the one to make things right when there’s been discord, to try to help. I tried with you. I begged you to see a therapist because I wondered if it was some sort of illness that could be helped with medication, and you said you would.  I offered you writing classes. I would help the people I loved.

That included your daughter, especially when she shyly asked if she could show me some writing. Of course I said okay. Or course I didn’t think much would happen. She had told me only that you hadn’t wanted her to write, that you had insisted she had no talent, that it would be a waste of time and money. “My mother says I’m totally untalented,” she told me. “She says I’ll never amount to anything.”

“You know that’s not true,” I said.

“No, I don’t.”

I read the novel in one swoop, gobsmacked. I could have written it. It was as if we shared the same DNA. When I told her how good it was, she shook her head. “No, No, I’m really awful,” she insisted. So I showed her that she was not, pointing out gorgeous passages, showing her the pages that had made me cry out loud. I took the novel to my agent, who never looked at any one’s work that she didn’t cherry pick herself, who had only once before taken on someone I had suggested. My agent called me within a day. “I want this,” she said. And it’s now out on submission.

“Tell your mom,” I urged her. I imagined how happy you would be, and how happy that would make me. I imagined we’d all get close again, but instead, you shouted. You accused me of writing it, not your daughter. You hung up the phone, your voice curt.

“She doesn’t see you anymore,” my husband told me. “And the person you loved growing up isn’t here anymore. Let go. You cannot make someone love you who doesn’t.”

“Why can’t you?” I said.

***

It’s been two years now, and you have not seen or spoke to me or your daughter or your grandkids. You refuse to answer my calls, my emails. Yes, it’s terrible and tragic and painful every day. When the occasional angry email messages come, less and less these days but always like little electric shocks, I don’t have to explain the pain, the longing to your daughter because she knows and has experienced it all herself, and when your daughter calls me upset from a snipe you made to her, or a nasty blaming email, I get to help her, to empathize, to tell her she’s been conditioned to think it’s true, but it’s not.

So this is it, the end of our story, maybe.

I lost you.

But I found your daughter.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

On Being Human Online Workshops

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Other upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, Self Care

Madame Defarge in the age of Corona

March 29, 2020
knitting

By Caroline Leavitt

Years ago, in 2004, while my husband Jeff and I were sitting watching the election returns, I was stress knitting in terror. That evening, I made twelve (I’m not kidding) fingerless mitts that I, always the writer, embroidered with the words Hope on the left hand, Love on the right.

It didn’t help. Bush won. Crying, I wrapped up all those mitts and sent them to the friends I had made them for with a note: Maybe next time will be better.

Next time isn’t better. The next election, a day before I am due to go out on Book Tour, for a new novel, Cruel Beautiful World,  about how the world drastically changed from the late sixties to the early seventies, my world drastically changes as well. Trump wins. I get on a plane and people are crying. I have two events, ticketed, $70 a pop and five people show up for the first, and only three for the second.

I keep writing. I keep hoping. I have a new novel coming out in August and I sold the one after that, too, though on a partial, so I have to write it. And as I hoped, this year is something very different, but not in a good way. Trump terror seeps into everything we hear and see and do. People worry that he might stop the elections, that he might make himself Emperor for life, which given his erratic sociopathic nature, is not implausible or impossible. A second term would be a disaster.

And then in the midst of this, sneaking in on little virus feet, is Corona.

I live in the NYC area, and things are quietly surreal. On the subway, I actually can hear the usually garbled announcement which urges everyone to wash their hands, to cough into their elbows, to not panic. Don’t panic. Don’t Panic. Don’t Panic.

Panic.

Of course we all do. A man coughing in the subway is glared at. More and more people are wearing masks. I try not to touch the poles, to keep my hands away from my face. For the first time in years, I am not biting my nails. Stores are emptying out of goods and people. Things are being cancelled. Concerts and plays we had tickets for. A big event I had for my novel coming out in August. Gone. The Poets & Writers 50th anniversary extravaganza. Gone. Publishing houses are working at home. Even my cognitive therapist tells me we can do sessions by Face Time, since she has just come back from a vacation in Germany.

I’m so anxious I get a refill of Klonopin and my therapist tells me that small motor activity might be a good idea, even if it is just tapping my knees. Is there something I can do, she asks. “I can knit,” I tell her.

I haven’t knit it years, not since my first terrible marriage a million years ago, when I designed a sweater for him with dinosaurs feeding on vegetation, one I scissored up when I found out he was cheating on me. I hadn’t knit since. I was writing all the time, so why would I want to relax by using my fingers again? Didn’t they deserve a rest? But now, everything is bigger and seems more fraught with danger. I tell myself I will just straight knit, just to have something to do, that this is not about actually making anything, but just soothing my nerves.

I make my first sweaters, just two rectangles and two tubes, and when it is done, it has so many mistakes, it makes me wince. But I put it on, like a talisman, like a lucky sweater, and it’s warm, cozy and well, perfect. I did something concrete, I tell myself. That’s something.

I cannot stop knitting. I buy more yarn, more needles. Every night, when my husband Jeff and I sit to watch films, there is the click of knitting. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I tell Jeff and he takes my hand. “I bet you do,” he says. I think about Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. She was like one of the Fates in Greek myth. She never stopped knitting, stitching in the names of the people she wanted killed, creating her own kind of revolution with yarn.

My second sweater, soft, glossy gray, is absurdly perfect and I am going to wear it to a reading, but the reading gets cancelled. All that day, I write my novel, thinking about the evening when I wouldn’t have to think, when I can just knit and turn off the churning in my mind. I think about how knitting, like a novel, has a structure, a spine that has to hold things together, how every stitch can tell a kind of story—that one there that is twisted is when I heard Trump say on the news not to worry. That one where I dropped a stitch is when I was stress eating. When my niece Hillary, who is supposed to come stay with us, along with her husband and two kids, cancels because of the virus, I go online and order more yarn, a deep dark blue, to knit a pullover for her the one way I can be with her.

The day I start that sweater, and WHO announces we have a pandemic. Italy is in lockdown. The first big event for my novel, The Texas Library Association in Houston, is cancelled. The Virginia Festival of the Book is cancelled. The Poets & Writers 50th Anniversary is cancelled. Colleges are holding virtual classes.

I sit with Jeff watching Sorry Wrong Number with a particularly hysterical Barbara Stanwyck, who begins to have an inkling she’s about to be murdered. I am knitting and knitting and knitting through the night, my eyes on the screen. It isn’t until I am done for the evening, that I look down at my work. To my shock, the garment has lost its structure. It isn’t totally blue the way it is supposed to be. I must have picked up the wrong yarn, because the second half of the back of the sweater is now deep green.

At first, I’m pissed. I wanted to control this. Rip it out like errant pages that aren’t working. The way this is supposed to go is not thinking, just knitting. Plus, the thought of ripping out all that work makes me ill. I’m terrible at taking out stitches and picking them back up and I know if I even try, there will be a stunning number of holes.

So I leave it. And the next day, I keep knitting, picking up other colors, making something that I don’t even think about having control over, that I can’t possibly know how it might resolve. As I knit,  I look down every once in a while, surprised, and sometimes pleased. The steady rhythm is so soothing, so hypnotic. I think about my novel, the characters so real I know what color sweaters I could knit for them, and that makes me think a bit about plot. I think about my mom, who died, two years ago, who I wish I could call to make sure she’s all right. I think about the sweater I’d make for her, deep purple, her favorite color, a sweater she’ll never get to wear. I think about my sister, who is estranged from our family and how I’d like to make her a purple sweater, too. I think about our son Max, who is in Brooklyn, who I get to see and hug. I move closer on the couch to Jeff, the click of my needles like a kind of Morse code. I love you. It’s going to be all right.

And so I keep knitting for other people. Pullovers that will hug them because I can’t anymore, at least not without a mask. Despite myself, I am getting better and better. Knit. Knit. Knit. I’ve come to realize that this is how I give up my desperation to control the narrative and the fear I’m feeling. Knitting a sweater isn’t writing a novel, not in any sense. We can’t know how the world is going to go with the virus, we cannot know what is going to happen with Trump and his cronies or with our planet that is falling apart. We breathe in and we breathe out. We wash our hands and cover our coughs and I keep knitting.

I buy more yarn. It doesn’t matter what color, just that I have enough for four more sweaters. Just so I can see the pile of yarn, provisions against terrible times and anxious thoughts. Despite the fierce intensity of my knitting, I’m no Madame Defarge, purling my way to revenge. This is not A Tale of Two Cities as much as it is a tale of one world in crisis. Instead, every night, this is how I knit connections, this is how I knit away the terror, one stitch at a time.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her new book, With or Without You set for release in August and can be ordered here.  Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, The Millions, and The New York Times. Visit her at @leavittnovelist on Twitter, on Facebook, and at Carolineleavitt.com

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Grief, Guest Posts

To Mom with Dementia

October 22, 2017
dementia

By Caroline Leavitt

You are alive but not alive. You, who used to try to know every single detail about me as if it were your own, don’t know who I am anymore. “Who?” you say. I try to get you to remember something, anything we can hang our relationship on. A song about a turkey sitting on a limb that you used to sing to me, but you don’t remember. “What turkey?” you say. “What song?” I ask about your boyfriend Walter. “Who?” you say.

“Tell me something,” I say desperately. You do. You tell me that you are going to take a streetcar and go home, that you have gone to a restaurant and gotten lunch for yourself, chicken and pie, that you are going to see your sister Teddy. I know streetcar is an old term and anyway, you never leave your room. I know that Teddy, your sister, has been dead for years.

You can’t hear me on the phone anymore. “What?” you say. And then, “Who is this?” The last time I came to visit you told me to leave after half an hour because my presence agitated you. I cried in the car and Jeff, my husband, took us out to dinner.

Oh, Mom.

The only way I can tell you what I need to is through writing now, to imagine how you might respond, how we might work our relationship out.

First, I want to talk to you about all the things you did for me because I want you to know, again and again, how I appreciated it, how I knew you did things that some other moms might not have. I want to talk about how when I was in second grade and I failed a test where all the questions were about Jesus and Mary, and you marched up to the principal and demanded they retract the F I received because I was Jewish and who gives a Jewish child a test about Christianity? You demanded an apology, too, which I got from my teacher, though after that, she never quite liked me again. I want to mention how in junior high when I was denied entrance into the National Junior Honor society, because I was Jewish, you went to the school board and fought for me, and even though they refused to give in, I felt your fierce love. We went shopping and then to eat and then to the movies and then for hot fudge sundaes and we laughed. Oh, how we laughed! I want to remember with you, how when my fiance died, you flew up from Boston at three in the morning. You sprawled on the bed with me and held me while I cried. There was the time, too, when I was critically ill, and you came to stay with us for over two months to help us.

You loved me. I know that. Maybe too much, because you didn’t like when I went off on my own. You didn’t approve of my choices. You hated that I moved to New York City. You despised my wild hair and how I dressed. (“You like that?” you’d say, your eyes gliding up and down my body.) You hated my boyfriends, except for my first husband. “If I were fifteen years younger, I’d take him away from you,” you told me, which stung. You were proud that I was a writer, yet you walked into the bookstore for my reading loudly announcing that no one would show up. Once, when I got a bad review, you went into a bookstore with that review in your hand and asked them if they would stock my book despite this terrible, terrible write-up.

It wasn’t until I was an adult with a husband and a son that I really got to know who you were, and I came to understand you, to feel a deep well of compassion. You were one of 8 kids, the runt of the litter. You grew up with a mother who didn’t really like you or try to understand you, who preferred your shining twin brother. You had buckteeth that your parents wouldn’t fix (You, at twenty, found a kind dentist who let you pay a little every month.). Your fiancé ditched you and you carried a torch for him forever, and you married my father on the rebound, a nasty brute who would punish you with silence, sometimes for weeks. It was the 1950s and you couldn’t divorce, not with two little girls. When I was seventeen, when I decided I couldn’t stand another silent vacation with you and my dad, I ran away from our cottage, and before I did, you shouted at my dad that if I didn’t come back, you would divorce him. He found me, hitching at the side of the road, and because he was crying, something I had never seen before, I came back. As soon as I came into the cottage, I saw your face, how you were packing. I saw you were disappointed, that I had ruined your chance at escape.

I wanted you to change. I begged you. But it wasn’t me who changed you. It was my dad dying. Your life opened up. You traveled! You seemed happy. You and my sister were close as sardines, which made you so, so happy, but I had my own life, and I know that hurt you because you told me so. I was so happy when you fell in love at 90! So happy that you had four years of bliss with Walter, and that when he fell and died, you already started dementia and never knew your one true love was gone, that even today, you are sure you still see him.  You made me realize there is always another chance.

Except for us.

I can’t yell at you for being so cruel sometimes and get you to understand. I can’t thank you for being so loving and make you feel good. We can’t come to any understanding about anything.  Not now.

I write about you. You were Bea in my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, the woman whose fiancé jilts her. You were Ava in Is This Tomorrow, the Jewish woman in a Christian neighborhood who fights back. And most wonderfully, you were Iris, in Cruel Beautiful World, the woman who falls in love in old age. You never recognized yourself in any of my novels, even after I told you. “That’s not me!” you said.

I know, at least some part of me knows that even if you didn’t have dementia, you probably would not hear this. You’d tell me what you always did, that I am selfish. That I am too independent for my own good, that we’ve always had this problem with me. That you were a much better mother than I ever was a daughter. And as always, I’d be silenced by you. I would know if I said one thing in my defense, you would shut me down again.

But I watch you vanishing. From me. From my sister. From yourself. I feel the tears and the rage boiling inside of me.  I remember when my dad died, I slept beside you and you woke in the night, holding me, crying, “I want him back!” even though you hated him.

Sometimes I hated you. I can admit that. But mostly I loved you. I really really loved you.

And I want you back.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World, as well as 8 other novels. She hopes there is a cure for dementia because love is fair and dementia is not.

 

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Binders, Guest Posts, Hearing Loss

Owning—And Rocking—An Invisible Disability

September 10, 2016

By Caroline Leavitt
Shortly after I have my son, I am mysteriously ill with a rare blood disease for almost a year. The meds they give me are toxic, some of the treatments are experimental, (a surgeon uses a robotic arm to glue my veins shut, letting me watch it all on a big screen), and when I finally begin to get better, the doctors tell me there might be lasting side effects. I might bloat out and look obese. (I beach-ball out so my comfort fashion is mumuus, but after a year, I can slide on my skinny jeans again.) I might lose my hair. (Chunks roll off my head and onto my baby, but it sprouts back curlier and stronger than before.) My skin might turn gray. (It does so that people on the subway bluntly stare, but it, too, comes back to normal). And I might lose some hearing and that wouldn’t come back. Sigh. That happens.

At first, because I’m so busy getting well, and taking care of a brand new baby, I don’t notice I lost anything. Not until another six months later, when I’m a giving a reading with two other novelists in front of a packed audience, and one of the other writers nudges me. “They asked you a question,” he says, nodding towards the seats. Panicked, I search for a person standing up, head tilted, waiting. I haven’t heard a question at all, and lucky for me, the person repeats it loudly. Still, I feel my cheeks fire with shame. I can’t look at the other writers, and even though they ask me to lunch afterwards, I make up some excuse.

I tell no one about that day. Instead, I begin to be hyperaware of my hearing and I sink into despair. I’m deeply ashamed. I don’t know anyone who has a hearing issue except for my mother-in-law, who is in her 80s. Comics make fun of hearing loss. People think you are being deliberately stupid. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Inspiration, love

My Mother’s Boyfriend and Me.

November 24, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black
By Caroline Leavitt

When my mother turned ninety-two, she fell in love for the first time.

Although my mother and my father had been married for over thirty years, theirs wasn’t even remotely a love story. Before she met him, she had thought she was in love with the son of a butcher. He courted her for a year, and one night, he had even scribbled out their wedding announcement in mustard on a napkin, giving it to her to put in her purse for safekeeping. Then he left for Chicago, promising to come back to her. He kept his word to return, but not until six months later, and then, he was holding the hand of a pretty, very pregnant wife. When his wife excused herself to powder her nose, he cornered my mother in the kitchen, hotly whispering against her neck, “Maybe I made a mistake.”

“No,” she said. “I did.”

As soon as he left, my mother let her heart break. It wasn’t so much that she cared about this young man, whose character was clearly lacking, but, it was more that she saw her future leaving her. A family. A home. All the things she wanted so desperately. She was living with her parents and she lay in bed crying, so long and so hard that her father began to plead. “You have to live,” he urged. He sat by her bed, coaxing food, insisting that she get up, and try and be happy again.

And so, because she loved her father, because she didn’t want to be a disappointment to him, and mostly because she was twenty-eight, which was as close to spinsterhood as she could allow herself to get, she let herself be trundled off to what was then called an adult day camp, where single men and women could spend a month, living in cabins, enjoying swimming, boating and arts and crafts, but really looking for their mates. There, as if she were choosing a cut of meat for dinner, she had her pick of men. She settled on two of the most marriage-minded: a sturdy looking guy who was going to be a teacher and my father, who was quiet, a little brooding, but who already had a steady, money-making career as an accountant. She wasn’t sure how she felt about him, but she believed that love had already passed her by, like a wonderful party she had somehow missed. But even so, she could still have the home, the family, the life she wanted if she were only brave and determined enough to grab it. My father asked her to marry him, and she immediately said yes. But later, she told my sister and me, that when she was walking down the aisle, her wedding dress itchy, and her shoes too tight, she felt a surge of terror. This isn’t right, she thought. But there was her father, beaming encouragingly at her. There was her mother, her sisters and brothers and all her friends, gathered to celebrate this union. Money had been spent on food and flowers and her white, filmy dress. And where else did she have to go? So she kept walking. Continue Reading…

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, Interview, Jen Pastiloff

Best-Selling Author Caroline Leavitt Interviews Jen Pastiloff.

August 27, 2014

By Caroline Leavitt.

This is an excerpt from interview I did on the incredible Caroline Leavitt’s site. I am still giddy about it. Pinch me! Here’s a teaser…

I first heard of Jennifer Pastiloff because everyone on Facebook was talking about her essay on dealing with her hearing loss. It was so brave, so beautifully written, that I wanted to talk to her. Jennifer also is the creator of Manifestation Yoga and Karaoke Yoga (how fun does that sound?) and she runs writing and yoga retreats. I’m so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Jennifer!

CL: What sparked you to write such a brave essay now?

 Continue Reading…