There is an old movie of my mother holding my toddler fingers as I sort of walk at the classic toddler angle. She smiles for the camera and doesn’t notice that I’ve fallen and she’s dragging me across the grass. For me now that picture represents what my life would become.
Only through the writing of these essays, performing exploratory surgery on myself without anesthesia, do I have the nearly full picture of her lifelong treatment of me. I finally have names of diagnoses for her underlying condition and explosive episodes. Did I believe growing up that she was a different kind of mother? Yes, but that did nothing to help me trapped in the world her mind created, nor as a grown woman who never understood her hatred or that she had made a coldblooded choice between her two children.
Early in these essays I wrote in #4 Straddling The Bumper, about being dumped by my mother in a hospital far away in Seattle. One late July morning she drove me to Seattle. When the ferry arrived at the city she pulled my father’s Buick off the ferry, drove around the line of cars waiting to board in the other direction and made her way through traffic traveling east to an old towering brick building with huge rod iron fences around it. She took me inside where it smelled of antiseptics. Sounds ricocheted around the cinderblock walls and linoleum floors. We were taken to a hospital room with three beds where I was put into a gown. I had the room to myself. And my mother left. She went to have lunch with a friend and caught the ferry in time to drive the rest of the way home to be with my brother that night.
Early the next morning, still and silent and alone, I was wheeled into surgery, and I can remember the smell of ether as the rubber mask was lowered onto my face. I woke after surgery alone. And I was alone in that hospital for nearly two weeks. I had no books, no dolls, and no family. I was nine.
That is not the worst story about choices my mother made. But it was and is the most defining memory of how I had already learned to cope and play the role she had created for me. I overheard nurses standing outside my door pitying me and talking about what must be wrong with a mother who would leave me there. Hearing them only made my spine straighter. I had already learned to take care of myself by necessity. While at the same time protecting an illusion about our family as if we were normal. I was not about to show fear or pain, vulnerability or an ache inside. I was all right. I would always appear all right. And from that instant on, without knowing it, I inevitably protected my lying mother. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me; I was helpless to do anything but protect her lies. I was never to speak of that surgery or hospital stay. She had told some of her friends I was away at camp.
In that early essay I also described an immune illness that halted any forward motion of my adult life when I turned forty. Nothing would ever be okay again. In an effort to do anything I could to outsmart the illness, I foolishly reached out in a letter to my mother for answers about why she made that decision so long ago. In my determination to get healthy I needed to rid myself of the freight I was carrying. The hatred that came back in a letter from her, telling me that I deserved to be sick, ended all communication with her. I could not take her venom one more millisecond. The estrangement was no solution but it stopped the direct abuse. A friend who contacted her during that period to get my address was told that my mother didn’t know where I was and that I was “missing.” She actually pretended to be worried so the friend wondered if she was doing anything to find me. But it was just another of her lies.
After seventeen years, that cloak of estrangement would experience a rip in my protection. My nephew and his wife organized a dinner with my mother, my bother and his wife because they had never experienced a family dinner with all of us. He was just over a year old when his parents separated. He deserved to have his family together just once. No matter how much chaos it caused my digestion just imagining seeing my mother, I would not deny him that. For several years when she either came east for a visit or more frequently when I made a duty bound visit home, I’d get a severe case of bronchitis. Once I understood the source it stopped, but that’s how miserable the thought of being in her presence was.
But seventeen years later I’d made a commitment. I keep commitments. Travel plans began. I had remained 3,000 miles away from her all my adult life. If I thought it would have lessened the pain to go farther I’d have moved to Switzerland.
Since my mother would be at the dinner, was it possible that she had reflected, had regrets, and even mellowed toward me after nearly two decades? Maybe, just maybe she would apologize at last for making the choice between her children. By then I was in my fifties. Friends were overly hopeful for me because they didn’t know the stories. I went west for my nephew.
There was never any way to tell him stories of my mother’s bizarre treatment of me. Except for tolerating her anxiety and constant need for attention, he has a relatively decent relationship with his grandmother.
The last time I had been in a room with my mother, she had her husband hit me with his cane. I was thirty-eight years old. I would never stay under the same roof with her ever again, or be in her presence without a witness for protection. So a friend here in Pennsylvania went west with me. She had never been to Washington State. She had never vacationed without her husband who loaned her to me for the trip.
Most of the journey was delightful with great weather and the sparkling beauty of Seattle. I visited a friend. Then it was time to rent a car and drive to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. My friend understood something about stress with mothers, so she promised not to leave me alone for a minute with mine. If you think that’s ridiculous, think again.
The day of the family dinner, we were out west at the beach and the rain forest with my nephew and his wife as our tour guides. But the dinner ahead was crowding into my head. My only preparation was to be aware that I didn’t want to let my mother draw me into conflict. For me this dinner was entirely about my nephew and family he never had. He had never been told stories about my father, his grandfather who would have adored him.
Dressing for the event, I was determined to appear calm and casual. No one could comprehend the dread I felt about having to see that face that had contorted so many times in anger at me all my life. I didn’t know then what I do now about her. I only knew that she had forever been my opponent, never a caring mother.
We were a couple of minutes late arriving. The others were already seated. I adopted my usual outward upbeat manner and straight spine. My brother hadn’t stood to greet me since, well ever. So it was no surprise when he didn’t rise to greet me then. I put my hand on his shoulder to say hello. I spoke to his wife, not one of my favorite people. And I walked to where my mother was seated. I leaned in to not exactly hug, I’m no hypocrite, but lightly greeted her with a brush to the side of her head with mine. I was stunned when she said as if surprised, “You’re so beautiful.” The entire time I was growing up she made it quite clear that I was ugly and no man would ever want me. This was a first. I kept that to myself and introduced my friend to everyone and we were seated, I across from my brother’s wife, my friend across from the brother who had loathed me all my life: the brother who only gained by my absence.
Not a word had yet been uttered by anyone. I had barely taken my seat when my little mother, eighty-something, and looking sixty at most, nearly climbed across the table at me. She spit out what she had brilliantly planned. She threw her first dominating punch saying, “It wasn’t my idea to lose touch with you.”
There it was. In front of everyone she established that she had nothing to do with my absence. She was the victim and she accomplished what she had been desperate to do for seventeen years. Her maneuvering began and she knew I was no match with my impeccable manners. I had never been a worthy opponent for her, which now looking back must always have annoyed her. Once she told me that I was “too nice.”
I would not be dragged in with my nephew there. I didn’t have argument in me and certainly not there. For me, the dinner wasn’t about us. She had guaranteed that her lie held. As always, if she lied and no one disputed her, it became the truth. Was I going to straighten everyone out, sounding like a frustrated teenager at that dinner? No. Her ambush was a success. The one-woman stampede had begun and no one else knew what was crackling in that room. They didn’t know that I had already been accosted. On the inside I was bloodied and mangled, carrying the burden of someone else’s lie. I smiled and talked with my nephew’s wife.
To this day I relive that moment. I imagine a calm and perfectly poised response in a lilting voice. I’d say something like, “If you want to discuss that with me, we can do it another time. I came 3,000 miles so that my nephew could have a dinner with his family for the first time in his life. I’m here to tell him stories about Dad, and our childhood. This dinner isn’t about us.” In my imagination, that startles and silences her. I also imagine that we go on to tell lively and fun stories and laugh and are a family, but only in my mind.
When she blurted out, “It wasn’t my idea to lose touch with you,” I wanted to scream, “You monster.”
Since it was clear that I wasn’t going to fight back, she threw another punch by asking a question to which she knew the answer. She asked if I knew that some old family friends had been out to visit. I told her that I had not been in touch with them in more than seventeen years, which she also knew. I wanted to ask her a question. Did she know that their son had broken my ribs decades earlier? But I didn’t. To avoid more scary confrontation back then I protected him too.
At the dinner to keep from fighting, I was again protecting her. You may think that by protecting the abuser you protect yourself. It doesn’t work that way.
The dinner wasn’t going at all well. No one seemed to have the same assumption as I, which was that we were there to give my nephew and his wife a sense of family. I wonder now how the whole thing started. It may have been my mother who instigated it so she had the opportunity to make her proclamation that everything was my fault. My sister-in-law, the only woman on earth who just might be odder and stronger than my mother, didn’t order any dinner. She just sat across from me frowning. Likely she was wondering if I was in town to try to get into my mother’s will.
We all asked if she was ill. She didn’t even sip the water. My friend is social and found it easy to talk with my brother. She showed pictures of her husband and family. So they were fine at that end of the table. I finally sparked a conversation with my brother’s wife. She’s a teacher and we talked about the impact on media on young minds in the classroom. At least she stopped glaring at me with enemy in her eyes.
My mother kept trying to engage me in a fight, all she’s ever done. I wrote a play with a character based on her performed in the 1990’s. Watching it in rehearsal was the first time I realized that my mother only ever engaged me in anger. At that dinner I tried to talk about my dad to start family stories about him for my nephew. But then my mother brought up how he had beaten me. Not the kind of story I had in mind. I had held back and held back, but went off my plan of restraint. I told her that she had caused that beating by getting him to lose his temper. She was the one who encouraged him to beat his children.
There it was. She got me to bite. The little old lady got me to fight back. The peculiar family reunion/dinner was over. There would be no fun stories of growing up with Dad. Maybe there aren’t any.
When we were outside, my brother and his wife disappeared. No hello. No good-bye. I put my arm around my mother’s shoulder and said to her that if she wanted her daughter back in her life, to let go of the past, for my nephew’s sake if no other reason. That completely surprised her and she asked, “What does he have to do with it?” There it was, her inability to understand the dinner wasn’t about her. And of course the last thing she wanted was me back in her life. That had never been in her plan. It terrified her that I might return, because no doubt I would eventually tell some of the stories.
Later that week, I agreed to have lunch with her, but only because my friend would be present. Alice, my mother who drove her hot little Mustang to the lunch, talked non-stop to my friend for three hours about her cat and mostly about my brother’s divorce of thirty years earlier. She asked not one question about my life.
Then I decided to ask about the hospital incident. In person I wanted to see what she’d have to say with a witness present. She put her head down nearly onto the table and actually said, “I don’t know anything about down there;” meaning female “down there.” My friend kicked me under the table in disbelief. Maybe she was trying to get me to pursue the matter, but I knew the lies would just keep coming.
Unfortunately my witness/friend left the table for the ladies room. Stupidly I didn’t get right up and leave too. Alice had been playing with a folded piece of paper, which she slid across the table at me. It was a letter I had written to her when I first moved to New York at twenty-four. She said she saved it as a “keepsake;” her word, and it was proof that she had been a good mother. It was her evidence. I didn’t look at it, but I knew the letter. It was from a good daughter. And nowhere did it say she was a good mother. I could never have said that. It was difficult enough for decades finding non-committal mothers day cards.
After that trip I tried to keep in touch by sending her a birthday card months later. She wrote back criticizing the card, and that was it for me. She’s been out of my life ever since and has convinced the other half of our town that hadn’t heard it before that I’m a horrible daughter. And at the age of ninety-eight she’s still pretty convincing. If my name is mentioned, she wails, “Do you know what she did to me? Do you know what she did to me?” But she never says what that is.
In my imaginary monologue I would stand at that dinner and tell everyone how she had made a bargain that I never understood. I would have told them that the full throttled hell of my life began just about forty hours after my father dropped dead of a sudden heart attack. That was the morning she woke me and told me, “I’m never going to help you, but that means you’ll never have to take care of me.” Decades later, I see the plan. It was what she had always intended. My father’s death just made it easier. And she never did help me financially, with an education or one bit of moral support. She never met my stepchildren. She knew nothing, cared nothing of my work or health or happiness or despair. Ever. Just how destined I was to live a life of pain took decades to fully sink in.
I would have told them that night what I then understood about her lie about my hospital stay and the lie about the fall as a very little girl causing later surgery. Something had happened to me, and it wasn’t a fall off my father’s car. But I didn’t say that.
I wanted to yell how she beat me and slapped me but never in front of Dad. He never knew. But I didn’t say it.
I wanted to tell them all how she hated me for being successful. She told a friend that I had inherited a lot of money, which was the only way I had such a beautiful house. Another lie. Now I realize again that she was talking about herself. She had inherited a lot of money from her parents: money that has made her wealthy all her life. But I didn’t say it.
And I wanted to tell her that if I had been able to get help as a child, I’d have been removed from that household. At least today I would be. But I didn’t say that either.
When she sent me the ugly letter criticizing the birthday card I later sent, I did write a letter itemizing why I would never have anything to do with her ever again. I doubt if she saved that opus as a keepsake.
It’s been another ten years since that dinner. And I’m glad I didn’t stand up and say those things. It never did any good. I no longer need to say them or to relive those moments. The greatest notion that has stayed with me about changing the past would have been to achieve emancipation from her. But there was no one to turn to and I was still protecting a monster. Time to retire that wish forever.
After all of this writing and digging, tunneling much of the way, I’ve been more aware of my broken start in life than ever. I see reasons, connections, and disconnections. The amount of respect I’ve received or expected for myself from men, friends or colleagues directly correlates with what my mother taught me to expect.
Miraculously these memories provided clues and one by one I’ve put together a puzzle and I’ve understood, not everything, but much about my mother’s insanity. Also by sharing the essays some of her multiple diagnoses have been explained. Her hatred of me was really hatred of herself. Her mother hanged herself for her daughter and grandchildren to find; an ultimate act of narcissism. Yet my mother always described her childhood as idyllic. Everything was a lie. Lies that she may have come to believe.
For decade after decade, it hasn’t been possible for me to read a book or see a movie with a scene showing a parent’s love without wondering what that is like. When I was a girl my family watched Father Knows Best. But when that thirty-minute fiction was over, our normal returned. Today a fictional loving family can still bring me to tears; a fictional kiss or fictional hug for a child just for being alive, something I’ve never known. Today a simple act of kindness or thoughtfulness from someone surprises me. I was not taught to expect kindness. And my self-contained demeanor does not invite thoughtfulness. When you never knew a mother’s loving care, your brain never develops the capability of accepting or seeking loving care. As one very direct person told me years ago, “Elizabeth, look at you. You’re just not a sympathetic person.” I was never truly cherished in any relationship. Now I know I deserved to be. I may be damaged but I am not my mother.
My mother’s relationship with my brother was far from normal too. She bought his loyalty for life with her considerable wealth. I’ll never know which of us was the most damaged. She taught him to hate me. She lied to my father about me. How torn he must have been because he did love me. But with my father gone so young, I’ll never fully know how his personality helped hers. Someone like my mother needs a spouse who in many ways makes the behavior possible.
The harm parents inflict through benign neglect can cause a range of insecurity or confusion. The harm a parent does when they mean to do harm is criminal. My mother set out constantly and continuously to do harm. And that has been the greatest open wound for me during the writing of these memories. I was forced to see the repetition of my bad decisions and relationships; enough to stop a water buffalo in its tracks. My life hadn’t been at all what I thought. When I recognize the patterns and how my parent fulfilled her own self-loathing through me, I still get flattened. There is no rescue from my mother, from my original family really. I’m rescuing myself now one corpuscle at a time.
As a girl she had turned me into her maid, cook and hairdresser. The only material things she ever gave me growing up were nice clothes. I understand now that it was because it was visible to others. She often screeched at me in one of her high pitches, and between slaps threatened to take a new pair of shoes or sweater back. My brother received an education; she paid for his business, his house, and his divorce. I accepted getting nothing.
There are many more essays I’ve started that could be added to My Stupendously Stupid List. But I may have come to the end of my ability to relive them all. I will compile the most important stories into a collection. And I’ve considered adopting one of the essay titles; You’re Sick, You Need Help, And Other Things My Mother Told Me Growing Up. If someone reads them one day and recognizes their childhood, that would be everything.
I’ve read memoirs that have happy endings. The happiest ending I can provide with these memories now is evidence of my emerging toward the other side.
Back in the mid eighties in Pennsylvania, I was invited to sit on a panel as a successful woman in business, speaking to and advising other women in business. I declined at first because it struck me as ironic since the company I owned with two young partners (described in New Venture parts 1 and 2) was barely surviving only because we took no income. Hardly a success story.
A couple of years earlier, in New York, I had also been asked to serve on such a panel, and I remember feeling very much out of place for a different reason. I had no great advice to give because I didn’t understand the question. Since I was in a business that was dominated by men, my only plan was to be smart and work hard, exactly what I had always done. I was unable to contribute much to the panel. There was as much discussion over who brought the refreshments, as there was business. That put me off such gatherings I hoped permanently. My only advice to the women seeking wisdom was to show up every day working harder than anyone else. I wasn’t nominated as the woman with the best advice that day. But I should have been.
So when seated yet again a couple of years later, in front of a room full of women struggling to find a voice in their jobs or in their own companies, I saw little to add. I was in business with two very young men who treated me like I hadn’t a thought in my head. To them I was so very old and dim at thirty-five. But I had not earned the success yet in my own business to be advising that hotel meeting room full of women. Since that day I’ve been wary of all panelists on any subject in any venue based on my being asked to appear as an expert. They must have been desperate to include me, or our effort to appear successful worked.
Then a woman in the back of the room told her frustrating story. She ran a small business from her home. I don’t recall what business it was, but she was losing money because a supplier wasn’t doing their job in a timely way. She wasn’t receiving the supplies she needed to meet deadlines for her customers. It was so bad that she was going to lose her business. She liked the man she was complaining about and didn’t want to get him fired. She was asking the women on the panel for a solution.
I had little to contribute prior to this, but I heard myself say, “I can tell you the problem. You’re too nice. If you’re willing to lose your business rather than complain about that supplier, then you will.” That sparked applause, a livelier discussion and tears from the woman with the problem. She didn’t like what I said but thanked me for telling her something she hadn’t been willing to face.
Moving forward to around 2001, I was approached by a man in this area, an acquaintance who was part of a non-profit organization that ran studies and conferences about the region. It’s referred to here as “regionalism,” meant to bring counties together to solve problems such as light rail, or education or police assets. The “region” matches the size of the broadcast signals. He knew of my background and fervent interest in delivery of local news and information by radio and television. I had been well trained in the spirit of FCC regulations. During my hitch with a local public broadcasting corporation (Clueless Part 1, and Clueless: The End) I witnessed a startling lack of commitment to serving the community.
I was asked to attend a board meeting of the regional group to talk about a conference on broadcasting. They wanted to take a hard look at all broadcast corporations including the one that had clunked me on the head and dropped me at the curb. The last thing I wanted to be accused of though was a form of sour grapes.
At that meeting I was asked to organize a conference. They would give me full support helping to do leg work. I was to choose my own core group to make the plans and provide research and services needed. I wouldn’t be paid but that didn’t bother me. Though I needed to create an income, this was a vital subject to me so I agreed to head the conference without taking time to think about it, because you never know.
The group I asked to comprise the planning committee was mostly men, mostly older than I, and it turned out mostly unaccustomed to performing any task assigned by a woman, or at least assigned by me. We had chosen a date and I had negotiated a hotel for the conference when it became painfully clear that the committee wasn’t even semi-reliable. Delegating was not working so I hired an ex-step-granddaughter as an intern. She was home from school and I knew she’d be dependable. I paid her since I would be reimbursed out of the proceeds from the conference. The research required, mailings, arrangements with printers, the venue, and legal advice were all falling to me. Very close to the conference date the committee member who had volunteered to find a speaker emailed me that he didn’t have time to do that. I emailed back that yes he did. So he found a very good guy from public radio in Maine.
I was working day and night on research and arrangements. A printing company donated work. A lawyer donated his expertise. A friend took my research and created a power point presentation. We showed on pie charts actual local news and information compared to nationally provided material of all radio and television stations. The company I had worked for was the worst offender. Their locally created programming was only one percent of their week. We had to make it two percent so their little sliver of a pie would show up on the chart. The man who had replaced me at that company was attending the conference. The appearance of sour grapes was unavoidable and there was no turning back.
After nine months of my non-stop planning and research, the chairman of the regional organization who had not attended one planning meeting was there to open the conference. He introduced me. But he introduced me as Elaine Hainstock. I had just spent a chunk of my life creating the conference and he hadn’t bothered to learn my first name. I addressed the audience saying that I get that all the time since both names start with an E. I didn’t get that all the time and was trying to be slightly kind without ignoring his rude faux pas. I don’t remember his name now.
After a brief glitch in the power point, the conference went beautifully. A friend from publishing was there to immediately summarize all the notes from all the sessions so that everyone attending had a copy before leaving. I was flabbergasted by her skill.
I put together a summary letter for the board of the organization. The conference had gotten them out of the red and into the black probably for the first time in their existence. I submitted receipts and a bill for half of my expenses, donating the rest. I never heard from anyone about the conference. And I never heard back about my expenses. So I submitted again. Still I heard nothing. I was never reimbursed. I had spent about $2,500. I only wanted half of that back. I received nothing including any thanks, ever.
I saw the man who got me into this and his wife at social gatherings. But I never brought up the bill. It seemed demeaning, downright repulsive. Even though I had no income, I wasn’t willing to ask again.
If I attended a conference for women in business and told that story, I’m pretty sure instead of someone saying, “You’re too nice,” as I had said, they’d spit out, “You’re too stupid.”
But not any more.
Almost a dozen years ago, visiting ex-step-children in upstate New York, we all went for a hike in a beautiful and hilly park. There were dozens of fellow hikers and everyone slowed down considerably when we hit the first hill. That’s about when the adorable four-year-old in our group started shouting to us, to everyone, “You can do it. You can do it.” He was walking backwards orchestrating his repetitive cheer to a crowd of strangers who picked up their pace. Even when his father had to carry him on his shoulders he continued with the melody, “You can do it.” And we did. We all did.
Words shouted in encouragement make a difference. Words, ugly words, shouted in anger and hate make a difference too. Both change a child’s brain chemistry.
Writing about this subject and hauling up the detritus from childhood is getting more and more difficult, and yes, less frequent. I’m not the same person who started this project, precisely because I started this project. That’s the good news.
The repulsive news is that it’s harder and harder to write with the same perspective for these stories. I don’t care to make them palliative, and have little desire left to make these stories funny or entertaining. Most aren’t funny. Drawing a straight line now from what was primarily a mother’s insanity, to my finding my own way; hell no wonder my life is no guide for a perfect path.
I’m going to concentrate in this story on my mother’s favorite screeches. The title is what will likely remain as the title of the full work. And I’m getting there. Her voice was nearly always filled with hate and anger. I didn’t know she was sick, I just believed she hated me. And many times, far too many times, it included a slap or a whack with a wooden object crackling on my face or back. And never when my father was there.
My clue to remembering my age when these sharp nails were shot at me is which house we lived in at the time. I was seven and eight in one house in North Carolina when she started with, “You’re sick, you need help.” Picture a seven-year old girl being screamed that. Did the thirty-seven year old mother expect the seven year old to know what she meant? Was I to walk to a driving school, pretend to be tall, take driving lessons, then climb into the family car, and find help? At seven? Okay, that’s a little funny. What kind of help? Did I have a sick stomach I didn’t know about? Well, no. But that’s what she screamed at me. She screamed that at me through grade school, junior high and high school. I never got used to it. It wasn’t possible to let the meanness just roll off my heart.
When she yelled those daggers at me her face screwed up in an angry wad. But it’s only now, knowing what was wrong with her, and by that I mean her multiple diagnoses, that I understand she was talking about herself. She was probably screaming what her mother, the one who hanged herself, screamed at her, well, before she hanged herself. Yet my mother always claimed a perfect childhood.
My father was never present, ever. My brother was.
“What did I ever do, that was so bad, to deserve you?”
She dragged that one out as she yelled it. Not easy to do in a high pitch of hysteria. “What…..did I ever……do……that was so bad…..to deserve you?” That began when I was in junior high, and continued through high school. She’d yell it up the stairs at me. I can only recall three occasions in twelve years in that house when she actually came up to my room. An example of what I might have done to have that screamed at me was not folding the laundry fast enough. My father never heard those words. My brother did.
“My mother told me I’d be punished one day when I had a child. You’re my punishment.”
Ah such encouraging loving nurturing maternal words. It wasn’t a matter of if that endearment would come out of her mouth, but when. My father was never there. My brother was. He was being trained from my very early years to believe that I was worthless. He was as good a student at learning to see me as insignificant, as I was a student at being beaten down.
“You wouldn’t be so ugly if you smiled.”
That one had an exquisite meanness, because she started it right around the heartbreaking mine field that was puberty, and it went on through high school. It was her version of what other mothers said: “You’re so pretty when you smile.” That statement increased to a weekly routine. Want to imagine what that causes a girl told by her mother, the person she is meant to trust, to see in a mirror? Even now, a lifetime later, when someone tells me I’m well, aw shucks, attractive, I look behind me. Never did she say that when my father was present. Always when my brother was.
“No man will ever want you.”
That started in high school. Again, never when my father was there. And it escalated after he died. There were a variety of reasons that would set her off to scream that at me, but she continued to say it to me long distance, when I ran 3,000 miles away from her. I knew she was just being mean, telephonically. (Someone used that word with me once. I hate it.) By the time I was about twenty-seven and living with a man in New York, that phrase finally stopped. It may be the wrong reason I chose him when I did.
No man ever did truly cherish me. I was never taught how to be cherished. But that wasn’t what she was screaming. It certainly wasn’t what she meant.
“You have a much higher IQ than your brother. Why aren’t you doing better in school?”
Again, yelling. She was informing me that I was very smart, a good thing, but why was she yelling it? She went on to accuse me of having trouble in physics entirely on purpose just to embarrass her. Since my father was a teacher he had a copy of everyone’s IQ. There it was in black and white, and she stabbed at my name on the page on the dining room table with her finger. I had been told, all my young life by her, that I was stupid and how smart she was. Now she was yelling that I was smart. Neither my father nor my brother was there that day. But I remember closing the front door so the neighbors wouldn’t hear her screaming at me.
When I see any family, real or fiction, arrange for a tutor, or do anything they can to help a child study, it’s wonderful but I don’t know how that feels. The fact that I was smart enabled me to pretty much fake it to that point, or breeze by, but only so far.
“DON’T BE RIDICULOUS.”
That may be the phrase where I’ve heard her sharp voice the most. I’ve written my mother as a character in a play and she speaks that line. I almost couldn’t bear it watching any performance. Whenever I did have the courage to ask for something, it was her response. Again, never when my father was present. But inevitably when my brother was there. He was her partner in many ways. She confided in him. And she taught him to loath me.
But the most dramatic time she used the phrase “Don’t be ridiculous,” was on the one and only occasion I asked for help as a young adult and I’ve written about it before. I had the opportunity to follow my dream so much sooner than imaginable, to buy my own radio station with two friends. I was in radio in New York. It took plenty of pacing in my office for me to call her at work 3,000 miles away. All I needed was to borrow, with interest, $10,000. She said, “don’t be ridiculous,” with a sneer as if I was twelve asking for a new pair of shoes I didn’t need. She just said, “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m busy.” And she hung up on me.
No one was present for that.
My brother got a car for high school graduation. I got luggage. When my father wanted me to have a car, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” She should have given me a car. I’d have left sooner.
“You’re So Uncoordinated.”
This was one of her many specious claims, but I believed her for a very long time; as long as she was telling me that. Sure, in the seventh grade one of the guys had to yell when it was time for me to swing at the softball. And I didn’t love gym class. Who did? But I was addicted to golf, that is until my father entered me in tournaments against the best boy golfers my age. Though I was six inches taller than she, I had to play with my mother’s golf clubs that she never used, and had to wear her golf shoes that were too small.
I was an excellent skier and taught skiing when I moved to Seattle and again when I moved east. I was a strong water skier. I played a very decent game of tennis, with plenty of bad habits but I held my own with better players. I’ve become a much better swimmer, and I love to hike. No one but my mother and brother ever accused me of being uncoordinated.
“I risked my life to have you, and this is what I get.”
The other part of that was to display her cesarean scars from both my brother and me. She actually walked around naked to show it off. She said she wasn’t supposed to have more children, and I was the one who might have caused her to die. Again, father never there. Brother was.
As in everything else, when she badgered me repeatedly as stupid, uncoordinated, thoughtless, sick/crazy, ugly, or her life’s punishment, she was talking about herself.
But I couldn’t know that back then.
In late August of 1965 just days after turning eighteen, I was in the backseat of my brother’s car on the way to Washington State University on the far eastern end of the state. It was over an eight-hour trip, far enough to go home only for major holidays.
I was never allowed in the front of my brother’s car. And there weren’t two syllables of conversation on that eight-hour drive. He disappeared when we were on the ferry to Seattle. It would be a couple of years before I learned that he disappeared to smoke. My clean-cut athletic brother, who swore that he would never smoke, smoked all through high school. This was possibly part of the reason I was relegated to the back seat to hide detection. But that was only part of the reason.
He dropped my trunk and me at a motel the night before I was to show up at a dorm where those of us who were going though the formality of rush week were to stay. I had to take a cab in the morning. He was not about to let his fraternity brothers know that he had to drive his little sister. I was used to that.
A cab delivered my belongings and me to a dorm near the center of the huge campus. It would be my home for that week. Since my brother was in a fraternity it was assumed in our household that I would join a sorority. I was half perfect for a sorority, and half completely wrong for one. I had poise, community spirit, made friends easily and excelled in music and English and could make a darned good speech. I also had mediocre grades which did not demonstrate my intelligence.
I knew next to nothing about what the process of rush week would be like. I’m sure it terrified me on some level. We visited my brother’s fraternity a couple of years earlier and that was the only impression I had. I don’t know why my brother didn’t campaign my parents for me to go to another school, which was what I so desperately wanted. He hated me and didn’t want me there but he would never have gone against my father’s wishes.
When I arrived at that dorm, they assigned me to a room where my temporary one-week roommate was already entrenched. We were assigned alphabetically. I’ll call her Mary. Mary was from Colorado and was smart and fun. She had no desire to join a sorority, but her parents expected it. Right away she was the gang leader of our two-person club. She devised a plan that we would go to all the houses together for the coffees and teas and switch identities. No kidding. I have no idea how I was so easily talked into this plan but have absolutely no memory of rejecting it.
We were given our schedules for the next couple of days with all the same destinations. Girls were mingling in the halls of that temporary dorm, all expecting and hoping to join a great sorority for their college career, except us.
Mary was so funny that we just naturally hit it off and laughed. I was no slouch at humor or sarcasm, so this was a screwball comedy from the start. Off we went to the various gatherings sincerely interviewed by nice young woman and housemothers. Only we weren’t sincere at all. I was Mary and Mary was I. We did it with straight faces. Now that I write this I realize if I had been Mary and they checked her records I’d probably have been snatched up immediately. Mary was a straight A science student. But her selection would be based on my impressive record of achievements but anemic GPA.
I had never done anything like this in my life then or since. We just went through the week curious about what would happen. We not only told each other’s story, we started making things up as we went along. Mary’s father was in the military too so it wasn’t such a stretch if anyone asked about moving a lot growing up. I remember being in those lovely houses, sitting on lovely chintz covered couches, sipping tea from lovely china as we politely and graciously told our lies.
Back at our temporary dorm there was no pressure. This was purely a social week and we smirked at the system. Apparently I had given up any expectation of joining a sorority, something that might have saved my college career. It represented snobbery to me. My mother’s sole identity was through the Daughters of The American Revolution, which she used in order to feel better than anyone else through this accident of birth. She still does. Somehow I had come to associate the sorority system with the D.A.R.
Partway into the week we each received invitations to keep doing the rounds. We were not barraged with invitations, but there were enough to keep going. This we did not expect. Even though we were not telling our own stories, we made perfectly pleasant impressions.
I had done little if any research on which would be a good house for me. I don’t think back then I believed I belonged anywhere. And it’s confusing now what we would have done about telling the truth. Would we have shown up at a house that chose us and confess what we had done, or go through four years with the other identity?
Anyway at the end of the week, I don’t think there was much of a decision to make. We had made a sham of the process. We were actually accepted, but from the moment we met it was assumed, or there was a pact that we would not pledge.
This was probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done, for if anyone needed a circle of friends and a schedule and goals and camaraderie it was I. Needing even a borrowed family atmosphere that was unlike where I had grown up. Safe was something I had never experienced in our family, and maybe I couldn’t allow myself to find out what that would be like. But both Mary and I were such mavericks we just couldn’t see ourselves following the rules. Perhaps we both rejected them so they couldn’t reject us.
At the end of the week those of us who had not pledged a sorority were sent to a dorm nearly off the campus grid. One or two floors had been reserved and when we arrived Mary and I roomed together. Most everyone on that floor had been rejected or had not pledged. It made for a very interesting group of young women. They were smart, funny, accomplished and had just been through the same process and it was a mystery why they were not chosen. Of course we never told anyone what we had done.
And after all that Mary was a candidate for some fraternity’s princess or queen or whatever it was called then. A couple of my friends on that floor were. They went through all sorts of teas all over again. And I sang in a chorus, which mostly gave romantic background serenades for the frequent pinning ceremonies at our dorm. So just what was it I was avoiding?
Later in my life, a respected colleague described me as a “maverick.” Though I worked in a job in broadcasting where success was the point and quite visible, I didn’t follow the same schedule, plan or method of anyone else. I did my job. I worked hard. And I brought income into the company that set records. But I was a “maverick.”
So I suppose that’s exactly what I was that August of 1965.
As a little girl in Massapequa, Long Island, I wanted to do everything my big brother did. When he needed glasses, I couldn’t wait not only to get glasses but some just like his. When he took tap lessons, I wanted to quit ballet and take tap lessons. There’s a picture of me in his tap shoes, hat and cane resembling a miniature Jimmy Durante. When my father beat him I thought I should be beaten too. Whenever he and his buddies went to the park across the street, I wanted to go along.
So when he signed up for a prize-winning contest of a big race with battery operated toy cars, I wanted to do that, even though I had never operated one of them. It was something every boy got for Christmas that year. The cars were not radio operated. They were run from a control you carried and a cord connected the car. The manufacturer or a local store probably sponsored the contest. My memory pictures them all like colorful sleek little Thunderbirds, but they came out the next year, or the next.
I had no business entering the race. I don’t know if I talked my parents into letting me try or if it was spur of the moment. I do know I had never touched one of those gizmos that every boy in the neighborhood had mastered easily running a slalom course. I was about six in a little dress holding one of the push button controls. Here I was with motor skills that had barely stopped spilling milk at dinner and I was going to make a car go around a track. There was something like traffic cones set out for each car to go through. Everyone started out at the same time as in a marathon. We might have been in a parking lot with a makeshift track. Though somehow it seems even now that it was a real track.
All the boys went out front and had long finished while I was still trying to get a handle on how to get it to go forward instead of right or left; Or to get it to go at all. If I missed a cone I’d painstakingly go back and try again. All of this is very strange because I was so deathly shy. Every child needs attention, but not being noticed was usually my MO. All I could think of was finishing.
I have a sharp memory of me not only coming in dead last, but also being out on the course long after the race was won, tears streaming down my face, but refusing to quit. I was out there alone in agony. Everyone watching was in agony. I don’t know how long it took for me to finally go forward. I think it even started to rain, or maybe that was the tears. They couldn’t announce the winner while I was still racing in reverse, something that I’m sure completely mortified a brother who already couldn’t stand my guts. He now had public proof that I was the idiot sister he had to endure. But after that day my identity split from his forever.
It wouldn’t be the last time I did something I had never tried. Want to write a play? Just do it. Want to start a business? Do it. Want to write a screenplay? Do it. Want to fly a plane? Do it. Usually it was a success, sometimes not. It’s that tenacity I’ve described as my best and worst quality. I still haven’t always quite gotten a handle on the controls. But then who does?
During the years with #56 It Takes Two, our dinner party world, giving and receiving, meant his friends, not mine. I was pretty new to the area so I was thrown in with people who had known one another for thirty years. I’m adaptable so it wasn’t a big sacrifice except that I noticed how seldom people asked me a direct question. I kept adapting or allowing that. They were foodies, something I’ll never be. I was the shopper and chopper. Mr. #56 was the theatrical chef.
I found the women in these couples alarmingly shrewish, quick to tell a spouse to be quiet, or correcting his story or even telling him to stop telling a story. I had met a few of the wives early in my arrival to this region through a women’s organization. But I was not comfortable with most of them. Then one of the wives and I became friends through our couples dinners. We had little in common but there was more of an openness about her and sometimes she’d actually ask me a question.
When #56 and I were renovating a house, she was hired as an interior designer, not to choose materials but to keep an eye on the builder who was justifiably using inferior products. He hated Mr. #56 for reducing his fee days before construction began.
After we moved in she and her husband were occasional guests. She knew some of what I was going though in that relationship. Anyone who had known Mr. #56 long understood. When it was clear that I had to leave him she was supportive, even though they had been friends far longer. She and her husband included me from time to time for a movie. I was not part of her community groups or women’s clubs, but we lunched. Theirs was a marriage that confounded me because she was perpetually angry about his long hours. She really let him have it about once a week. Then they’d go back to their routine and bam, she’d get angry when he didn’t call working late again. He seemed to let it roll off his back.
When I went off to film school in New York I stored my piano at their house because she wanted to learn to play. She never did, but I didn’t have to leave it in a cold storage unit.
The following summer she announced that she was diagnosed with cancer. She had survived a different bout years earlier. I pledged right then to treat it as though it was my own diagnosis and be with her every step of the way. As a friend, I’ve always been pragmatic and try to provide support, errands whatever is needed when someone is in distress.
She had panic attacks in MRIs so I took her, talked to her throughout the test. I’d never had that fear but sympathized. We agreed that I would take her for all her chemo treatments. I was no longer with the magazine. In fact she had come to help me clear out my office. Suddenly my schedule was wide open. Her daughter took her for the first treatment but it made more sense for me to go since I had the time. And it was a privilege. I met women battling years long cancers. They talked to me, and we all laughed whenever possible. One time my friend’s blood work wouldn’t allow a treatment so I took her back a few weeks later. The side effects went through the horrible roller coaster. Even though I’m not much of a cook I’d take an occasional pot of chili or soup to them. I sent her encouraging cards and got her out for an occasional errand or drive.
I was beginning research on a screenplay about a civil rights murder in this state in 1969. It had been much in the news because two murders went to trial after thirty years, the third oldest case to go to trial in American history.
As my friend was recovering from the successful but brutal chemo treatments we talked about getting her involved. She’s a film lover and always wanted to write something. I thought of it as great company because I was about to attempt something requiring a huge amount of research, while trying to get attention in a film world that didn’t know I was alive. Once again I was about to do something I’d never done before, with no prospect of an income. As she got stronger and stronger she wanted to get involved. I knew she didn’t know how to type but just having the company and moral support was important.
I made some calls and set up interviews in the town where the 1969 murder had taken place. I wanted to talk with the detectives who had worked so hard to get the case to trial, the DA who had pushed to go back decades and several of the defense attorneys who had represented the multiple defendants. My friend wanted to go along. She was with me for three of the interviews. I taped them so I could transcribe and be accurate in any dialogue. I asked her to take notes in case I missed something.
A pattern emerged. When we introduced ourselves to the lawyers, her first words were, “My husband is a lawyer.” It was a screech on a blackboard to me as if that made her their equal, but I never said anything. They always looked at her wondering why she mentioned it.
Another pattern developed. She never did give me a transcription of any notes. I loaned her my spare printer for her notes and for the research she had volunteered to do about the murder victim. But neither she or her husband or their daughter for that matter could get it to work with their computer.
I had plans to go to a movie with my friend and her husband and suddenly a man I had met called to see if I wanted to do something. I told him if he could get there in time he could join us for the movie. And he did. It was our first date, so not exactly what we had in mind. The husband asked my date questions making him feel welcome. After the movie they wanted to get a bite to eat. This was awkward because we had hoped to have some time to talk but we all agreed to go to dinner, which was a lot more than a bite. My friend started flirting shamelessly with my date. Once she found out he was a fisherman, she told all her fishing stories. I swear it seemed as though she was on a date with him. I watched in amazement, much the way I watched some of my mother’s behavior. He finally thumped me on the back to signal it was time to go. Not very romantic but clear.
I had gotten boxes of all the transcripts from one of the defense attorneys so I could get the trial scenes right. We both sat on the floor of my office reading through them as I took notes on actual dialogue. I also had many of the police reports. I had one vital transcription of the first witness in the case, the only interview they taped out of 443. It was time for me to begin constructing the story.
I had two table desks in my office. I offered to put them face-to-face for my friend so we could talk about what I was writing and why. Instead she chose to sit on the couch behind me. On the first day of writing she asked if I minded if she did her nails. I said nothing. Then she brought along fashion magazines to flip through. On the days when she came to my office we’d go downstairs to the coffee shop for lunch. So a lot of time got chewed up visiting. I was keeping a journal then so I knew exactly what days she came over and for how long.
Soon her company wasn’t helpful. I was the writer, and she was watching me write. It helped to talk about the transcripts, but she wasn’t making any writing decisions, knew nothing about screenplay format and I was frustrated. I offered her books on screenplays. She declined them. I asked about her notes from the interviews, which she kept promising. The only person I spoke with about all this was the man I was dating. He said I must terminate the arrangement because it would only get worse. I just couldn’t do that. I saw this as an extension of her physical healing.
Years earlier I built a house with a friend and had no written agreement about when it would be time to sell. I lost a fortune just because I didn’t know how to protect myself from a friend. Here I was again unable to confront her on how little she was doing. It wasn’t helpful; it took extra time and effort to explain to her what I was writing. She said, “I want Miramax to make this movie.” As if I’d have anything to say about it. I didn’t know how she could be so naïve. I didn’t know how to tell her she was naïve. I couldn’t know how many drafts it would take for me to feel confident about showing it to anyone. I’d gotten beaten up plenty writing plays and searching for a home for them. I just couldn’t find a way to bring her down to earth. Something in the back of my head nagged at me, but I couldn’t make myself sit her down. She was my friend. I just couldn’t make myself have a business conversation. We didn’t have an arrangement about my helping her when she was sick. When we first talked about the project she told me that helping me was like that. But it wasn’t.
They invited me to join them at the house they took every summer on Nantucket. I’d never been there. We’d all pitch in equally on food. There would be another couple and her mother. We caravanned to Massachusetts and they were on the ferry several cars in front of me. When the ferry was landing, I called him to find out where we would meet on the other side just as the attendants told me to pull forward. I didn’t notice that they had parked the car with the wheels toward the wall. I scraped my wonderful van. One guy said, “That’s was an expensive phone call.” It was at $500. There went my free vacation.
I was put in a musty moldy little room. Oh joy for my sinuses, which never cleared up all week. I learned that I was probably there for the same reason she had traveled out west with me to see my mother. Only she hadn’t told me. The tension with her mother was just awful. Also she was annoyed with her husband the whole time. Again, I never understood that kind of couple’s behavior in front of others. She’d whine about being cold, he’d go up in the attic to get her a blanket and she’d send him back again because he brought the wrong one. If he napped she’d wake him and holler at him for being lazy. It was his vacation. He said he just wanted to read and rest. The other friends were nice and we each took responsibility for meals. We went into town to stroll and sometimes eat there. One day I found a beautiful bowl to get them as a thank you. And he was buying her a special necklace, so I found a bracelet to match that I’d save to give her for Christmas.
One afternoon on the deck I was working on the screenplay at my laptop. My friend sat down with me. I sensed that she wanted to impress her mother so I showed her what I had on the screen and we talked about a scene that took place in a 1969 kitchen. Her entire contribution was what kind or radio to have sitting on the counter. I realized that she saw this as a decorating project. She hadn’t yet read anything I had written. I was doing her a favor in front of her mother, but how stupid could I be? Still no conversation about how we would proceed. Did she understand anything about how hard this was? No. Did I bring it up? Only very passively.
I was kind of missing the man I was dating during that week. So I went on long strolls alone on the beach. Her mother kept taking me aside to complain about her daughter and the way she treated her husband. I tried to ease the tension there, but it was miserable. And no amount of nose spray was helping my sinuses. The beach wasn’t long enough to get away.
After that trip I was preparing a draft of the screenplay for a friend who was putting his foot in the film world. He had attended the same film school in New York. I was on about my fourth draft, which was far enough along for him to read. I was going out to San Diego to help another friend who was having surgery. So that was my deadline. I’d get it done in time so he could read it while I was away.
I was determined that she be there at least to see what it took to go through every word while printing to make sure it was okay. She still hadn’t read one word of one draft. So I taped each page on the walls so she could see how it was laid out. It was futile but if I didn’t have the courage to talk with her, I was still trying to teach her. As I made a change I’d call out a page number so she could look it up on the wall. It meant nothing. It took a few hours to get it done. And she agreed to drop it off the next morning at the law offices of the friend who was going to read it. I had to fly out early for California.
As I was printing at my desk and proofing the last pages, (she never even helped proof) my back was to her on the couch. It was nearly 11PM and I was exhausted. I had been working about twelve hours straight and she joined me late that afternoon. Suddenly she asked, “What credit am I going to get?” I swung my chair around shocked by the question. She had never transcribed notes. She hadn’t even done the research she had volunteered to do and now she was asking for credit? I would have nothing to say about anyone’s credit if and when anyone actually agreed to read the script. As an unknown I might not even get credit if it sold. My brain was traumatized by the eleventh hour question. I was angry and exhausted, so for that draft I just put her name on the title page. I asked if that made her happy and she said that it did. It would mean nothing in the long run. Or so I thought. There would be so many drafts to come. But on the flight west I knew I’d have to get this straightened out when I returned.
California was a draining trip. My friend there didn’t tell me her father the doctor flew out to help. She knew I wouldn’t have come. I drove to Oregon first to interview someone and Washington State to see my nephew when the California friend called to say she had fallen and could I come sooner? So I nearly killed myself speeding to Seattle for an earlier plane. I was shocked when she picked me up at the airport. If she had fallen, she healed mighty fast.
Because her father had the guest room, I had to camp out on a mattress on the floor in her room. One morning I woke to find an army of black ants walking over me in a perfect line all the way from the garage at the other end of the house, over me, and into the closet. I got up and found some spay to end their march.
I was annoyed that I had gone all that way when her father could have been her advocate at the hospital. Once again someone had me as the middleman with a parent. After that I slipped away from that friendship for several years until I heard from her a couple of years ago to learn that she was dying of cancer. She is gone now. I was supportive at the end but we never resolved that event.
I gave a lot of thought to the subject of “credit” on that trip. I knew I had to tell my friend that I could not credit her as a co-author. Only time would tell if she finally contributed more and a mythical producer would agree to give her some sort of credit. We were having lunch the day after my return.
I flew back to Pennsylvania and the next morning I went to the offices of the friend who had read the screenplay. He had represented a book I’d written a couple of years earlier. No matter who it is, there’s anxiety when someone reads a draft of your work. He wasn’t an expert then but he was learning more and more and beginning to act as producer on some local films. He gave me feedback and we had a positive conversation. That is until he told me of the surprise visit from the husband of my friend. She not only didn’t drop off the script as agreed but sent him. Talk about awkward. Now the lawyer husband was quizzing the lawyer friend who had read the script about what our arrangement was. He was correctly told that we had no arrangement. It was just a friend giving feedback. I was stunned that someone just showed up like that to grill him. Why didn’t they just ask me? I still didn’t see the damage done.
It was time to pick her up for lunch the same day. At the restaurant I told her what I had thought about and how it was such a surprise when she asked about credit. I put her name on it out of exhaustion and frustration. I could not name her co-author.
She burst immediately into tears. I couldn’t believe the pitch of emotion. People in the restaurant looked to see if I was beating her. Finally she stopped crying and apologized for her response. I asked why her husband had gone to talk to my friend but she deflected the question. She continued to apologize for crying and we seemed fine by the time I dropped her off at her house.
Fine that is until I got a letter from her lawyer asking me to meet. I could barely catch my breath. My close friend whom I had seen through chemo and other traumas, had a lawyer contacting me. I knew enough not to go see someone else’s lawyer. I was living on the last of my savings and I did not have money for my own, which they knew. I contacted Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. They accepted me as a pro bono case. And I met the most wonderfully efficient man who listened. I showed him my journal with the record of hours. I told him everything and he wrote an eloquent and precise document to her lawyer.
I was just searching for my registration for that screenplay and came across another letter from her lawyer. Ugly language accusing me of trying to purposefully do her out of credit, everything based on my mistake of putting her name on that draft that night. Think this qualifies for the “stupid list?”
A few days later an item I had bought at an auction at her charity arrived dramatically by messenger. Then her daughter contacted me to stop by for something or to drop something off. She was in a terrible position. She knew her mother’s capacity for drama. I got out the bracelet I had bought on Nantucket to send for her mother. But she knew it wouldn’t be accepted. Great. Now I had a gold bracelet I had no use for. I didn’t try to sway her. I knew not to drag her into this. But we hugged, both in tears, said good-bye and that was that.
I was very alone in this. Must be nice to have someone else to fight your battles. Because I had only talked about it with the man I dated for a while, no one knew what I was going through. I never wanted to complain about my friend to others. It’s a small town. I was always taking care of her in the same way I took care of my hysterical mother. And my heart was breaking.
Now I had a project that would forever have the stain of her childishness on it. I’ve done fifteen drafts of that screenplay and anyone who writes in that format knows it’s excruciating. I have no easy path to getting it sold. It isn’t an easy subject. What was important to me was that the story be told.
A couple of years after that someone told me that the former friend was now telling everyone that I, “can’t be trusted.” Even then, I didn’t talk about it. But now I realized why her reaction was so emotional, so strong and so angry. She had been bragging to people about writing a screenplay with me. Even though she is well established in the community, it made her feel good and gave her a different identity. But writing a screenplay isn’t about fun; it’s hard work and rarely works out. She was embarrassed and her reaction was to attack me and call me names. Sometimes I picture a liable suit but that just escalates an already insane situation. She had no idea what that project really meant or how the real world of film works. She was dabbling and had her heart set on a new fantasy status. And, she was going to cry to get it.
In the film Nebraska, when late in his life people think the central character has money and they want some of it claiming it’s owed, they’ve forgotten all he did for them decades earlier. If you don’t get that straight at the time, it doesn’t get fixed, ever.
When I left off in #69 Clueless Part 1, the departing president of the media company where I was publisher of the magazine had just left me in the lurch. Staff members had either kindly or cruelly nominated me for that position. And my new circulation manager who loved the job became irritable and quit. I was exhausted fighting to gain respect for our division. I knew the danger of being at least technically nominated but I decided, no I hoped, that the Philadelphia search firm would at least listen to my ideas. I knew it was unlikely I’d be considered. Mostly I knew what it would mean to an incoming president if I had been considered. A publisher in California warned me and said to go for it 100% or not at all. Unfortunately since the search committee contacted me I was stuck in no man’s land.
There was a fairly new HR director. He was someone to talk to in that lonely company. He’d described his wife’s health and his volleyball team. Sometimes when I needed a stroll outside my office, we’d visit. I didn’t know how dangerous that was.
We were growing with new publications, or supplements. It was the trend in regional magazines. Some large companies did hundreds of these. A reader receives an extra publication with their magazine about a specialized subject. It creates the opportunity to cover different topics with new revenue. It was both exciting and a strain for the staff.
I hired someone from another division to replace the circulation manager who left so abruptly. I had known her prior to working there and knew her positive energy and determination. She also became our marketing manager and planned public events to give us a greater presence in the region. We were really percolating.
I was aware that the financial officer, whom I never trusted, was fighting our growth but couldn’t understand why. If he didn’t believe me, he’d have to trust hugely successful publishers around the country. I arranged calls with a few publishers. Each publisher explained to him the financial advantages of doing supplemental issues. All of those conversations enthusiastically supported me. As soon as I hung up the speakerphone, he said, “So, they don’t think supplements are a good idea.” What? I was sorry I hadn’t recorded the conversations. One day I’d be sorry I didn’t record all conversations in that place. I worked harder.
A few candidates for the president’s position came through. A woman who had run a much smaller public company was pretty quickly chosen. I sent her a packet of materials to familiarize her with the publishing division. When she and her husband moved to the region, I was invited, alone, for dinner. I assumed that all division heads were going to be a guest at some point. Not so. I was being inspected. I don’t drink, but they poured a glass of wine for me at dinner, which I managed to knock over. The husband grilled me about my background and open person that I am I talked, an even bigger spill than the wine.
For a while it seemed that she and I were fine. We met once a week. I still had hanging over my head the fact that my name had been considered, ever so briefly, for her position. She had to know, so I decided to get that out of the way. Yes, I mentioned the unmentionable in the context that I was there to support her. Maybe she didn’t know, because after that the discomfort level escalated. I worked harder.
About six months after the young circulation manager mysteriously left, someone arranged a lunch for us. I was told it was important and I certainly wanted to know why she had been compelled to leave so suddenly. It took her quite a while, but under strict confidence she told me that the chief financial officer had called her into his office one day. He told her that she mustn’t tell anyone that they were having the conversation, especially me. He told her that absolutely under no circumstances was she to let the magazine subscriptions grow. She couldn’t tell me. She couldn’t do the job she loved. She was frightened so she left. Learning this I couldn’t see how I could do anything without dragging her into it.
There was an annual event where a prestigious organization awards prizes for media outlets in the entire Atlantic states region. All media competed. Our publication was the outstanding winner of the night. We won at least a dozen awards. Elated, several of the staff members and I called the president to give her the good news. She was not pleased. The staff was only grudgingly recognized at a company meeting months later. I don’t believe that board members were told.
Soon after the new president’s arrival, the company made plans to introduce her to key people in the region. I think I was the only one to set up lunches and meetings. One was particularly uncomfortable because it was an advertising agency president who couldn’t stand me. It had to do with the man I lived with for eight years. She had known him for thirty years. But I knew she should meet the new president so arranged a lunch, during which I was made to feel like boiled lobster. The guest brought up how she hates attractive women who know they are attractive. I knew she was shooting barbs at me, they both joined in. I was in shock at the absurd conversation. I wanted to say, “Hey, I was raised to believe I am truly ugly and it worked. So now can we get back to talking about this region? Otherwise I have to get back to the office.” But I didn’t say that. I endured it and politely took the guest back to her office, smiled and worked harder.
Because the company had no clear management style, fear was creeping in throughout. Most people didn’t understand the previous president, now they wondered what the new one was going to do. She had a tendency to throw people off in a management meeting. She’d give some report that wasn’t on the agenda, and then keep others from talking. I can’t watch the movie Conspiracy about the actual meeting of Nazis on the “final solution” without thinking of the way she ran meetings. Between the financial officer who would actually move money out of my budget if I were out of the office for a day and the president who couldn’t acknowledge the staff on their work, stress was mounting.
My nephew was getting married and I so wanted to go to out to Washington. But if I left for even a few days, I had no idea what could happen. And my ex, #56 It Takes Two, was suddenly determined to go west to escort me to the wedding. He had refused to go there when we were together. I could handle the stress of having to see my mother at the wedding, but between the fear of what they would do to the magazine, and the pressure my ex was applying, I chose disappointing my nephew.
At the company we were finally holding meetings to create a TV program. There was no original local programming, not even news. We formed a group to create something. But the president was the only one talking. In one of our private meetings I asked if she really wanted anyone’s opinions. In spite of the fear she used I was no hypocrite. She was not happy.
The group met to create a title. We were allowed to go around the table making suggestions. But I could see what was on her legal pad. She had the title all along. She pretended that she just thought of it. I’d have thought more of her if she had just said so in the beginning. So much about her was image or pretense. She made long time employees nervous even about posture or hand gestures during meetings.
This wasn’t going to get better. I hadn’t chosen publishing as a career. I was writing plays and screenplays when I joined the company. But I earned the respect of other publishers around the country. So I gave myself a goal of nine months to find something. But it’s bloody difficult for me to work with a full heart while planning an escape.
A colleague had hired someone to come in and help organize her office. So I did the same to make the most of the small space. I remember the president saying she hoped I wasn’t putting my own money into it. A big red flag I didn’t want to see.
For one of our upcoming issues we were doing stories of great adventures in the region. I didn’t feel right about sending a writer skydiving, and I had always wanted to do that. A friend was doing the story and I was going to jump and write my own account. It was a thrilling experience. And the photographer and videographer got great footage. One board member who liked to talk with me me invited me for lunch so I showed her a few of the photos.
At a board meeting not long after that, the same person approached me to say hello but the president literally got in the way. She actually kept me away from them or them away from me the entire evening. Now looking back it was like my mother showing up at my high school reunion. Red flag? Yes but apparently not red enough because I was still working hard. Surely she’d see what a great job we were doing.
When she first arrived at the company she began a long careful campaign to build a new building. No one could argue that the re-purposed school had been outgrown long ago, and it had lighting issues, safety issues, space issues, ventilation issues and leaking issues. She started looking at buildings in the region. Then she hired architects for a new building. We were all in meetings about the space needs for our divisions. When we saw plans that showed us the flow of space my office only said publisher. It was the only one without the employee’s name.
The president scheduled a sudden lunch with the HR director and me. I was stuffed into the backseat of his car and not told what this was about. I felt like a rabbit being taken out of nature and put into a cage. Over my salmon salad, I was told that I had to attend a couple of advance courses in management in New York. Now this was what I was trained for long ago in broadcasting. There was only one reason to make me do that. But I sat there probably with a strained smile, thanking them for the “extra training.” I lost my appetite.
I did attend those Cornell courses in Manhattan. The instructors wrote glorious things about me. But even I knew that I was being set up for the end. Did I start calling publishers around the country? I did not. I went back, said I got a lot out of the courses, smiled and worked hard.
In one management meeting the president suddenly went entirely off agenda and stated that there were no readership figures for my column. That was not true. But I was so stunned, I didn’t say what was in my head, which was that the only figures we did not have were the president’s column. And just as abruptly she changed the subject again. This was exactly like my mother making an untrue statement about me in front of others knowing I wouldn’t speak up. The truth was changed. I put out an email correcting the statement but that was pointless.
We were planning a golf supplement for the magazine. The sales department and our marketing manager were finding new advertisers. Editorial found great interviews. It would be a regional guide for golfers to keep. I had to leave for a conference. While I was away I was getting calls that the financial officer was trying to stop the publication in my absence. With a slew of phone calls I managed to keep it on schedule. We had a commitment with our printer and advertisers. And it was making a profit. But this was more of what I had been experiencing without any explanation. He kept undermining us, but why?
We were also planning an important story for an upcoming issue. Every April NPR and PBS asked viewers to turn off their televisions for a week. It’s a whisper but it is announced. We decided to ask three families to keep a diary of that experience. Just think of no computer screen, no electronic games, no TV for an entire week. The diaries we got back were pure gold. One teen hated and despised having to do the project from the first moment to the end. She fought it every day. But in the story she admitted she was actually talking with her mother for the first time in a very long time. We couldn’t have asked for a better story.
The HR director’s assistant called me. That had never happened before. Could I meet in the conference room? I arrived and the president said, “Your services are no longer required.” Something she must have wanted to say for a long time. She told me that there was a generous severance package and that I should go home. I didn’t look in the envelope. I told her that I had a dentist appointment and a meeting with my staff. This was a Wednesday afternoon. I was to be gone by the end of the day Friday. Did I at least defend myself saying that I had been brought in by the previous president to improve the magazine and revenue and that’s exactly what I had done? No. My demeanor was blank.
I did go to the dentist though don’t remember that. Later there was a casual event with the staff. The clearest memory is the weight that lifted off me when I drove home that night. I would never have to meet with that woman again. I think it was the next day when I told the staff that I had been fired. A friend came to help me clear out my office. I didn’t think to save my columns on a disc. On Friday I turned in my keys, my computer and briefly attended the proofing of the next publication. All very sedate.
The president killed the TV free week story. Some thought it was why she fired me. It may have been used as a brief excuse at the end, but it wasn’t the reason.
The severance was not generous. I think I believed that it would be. A large bonus I had already earned was not included. This was such a shock to me as someone who had always been sought out by companies. The so-called reference letter was a Xerox copy, one short paragraph oddly placed at the top of a page and it was unkind. I felt foolish since I had stayed, and not cut bait long ago. Some of the staff gave me a party at one of their homes. But we didn’t talk about what happened. I wasn’t about to make them uncomfortable.
Part of the “case” against me had to do with notes the HR director made. He said I had to consult him many times, back when he chatted about his volleyball team. I wondered what it took to get him to do that. He wasn’t there much longer.
Friends recommended a highly regarded lawyer. But that was just as uncomfortable. He wasn’t about to take on an institution. He treated me as though he was doing me a favor. I had to talk with an attorney friend to get advice on how to talk with the clipped manner of my attorney. All we got was part of my bonus and I composed a new reference letter. I never used it and don’t know where it is. The president stated that if any employer ever called her, she wouldn’t take the call. So why bother? The rest was a waste of time, lawyers talking to lawyers. The one standout point was that the company’s lawyer said that the president had a “scorched earth policy” when it came to me. Her hatred was going to take me down no matter what. That intimidated me plenty. I contacted a former board member to get his advice. He was willing to set up a conversation with a current board member, supportive of the magazine. I didn’t want the job back. The relief of not having to deal with her was exhilarating. I just wanted the magazine protected. But I knew he was in poor health and I didn’t have the courage to meet.
Now looking back, that president’s hatred of me for just being alive had me reliving the horror and deceit of my mother. And I was just as incompetent dealing with it or standing up for myself. There’s a book now titled Office Bad Girl. It posits that some women get to a higher level in business, assuming it’s because they are women. And they get rid of competent women around them.
When I got the lawyer’s bill, he wrote a note that he would have charged much more for someone else. Instead of writing back that he hadn’t really helped me or gotten what I deserved, I thanked him. He’s the neighbor of a friend and I saw him at gatherings from time to time. He’s a decent man. But he never got what I’d been through.
Other stories trickled down to me long after my firing. She went to such lengths to get rid of me I should probably be flattered. She was stopping staff members in the hall and telling them that if they had any complaints about me she was to be informed. But I was never to be told. Imagine how it made those employees feel. The HR guy had taken the entire staff to lunch, telling them that it was a new policy and they were doing the same thing for all divisions. They were to feel free to talk about me. There was no such lunch for any other division. And I never had a clue.
Just a few years later I was attending a big FCC conference in our city. Media coverage and ownership is my biggest social concern. The gathering was held for about eight surrounding states but was a complete hoax. Television stations in the region had gotten people to stand up and boast about them. That wasn’t the purpose of the hearing. There was little time for individuals who had traveled a long distance to speak of their regions. Suddenly in the auditorium a late arrival found a seat right in front of me. It was the woman who had fired me. She spoke to a friend next to me. Then she leaned down to introduce herself. I said, “Yes, Elizabeth Hainstock. We’ve met.” She didn’t stay very long.
Being fired is far worse than firing someone. I’ve only had to do that once and as a complete last resort. I know I’ll never forget his name or his face. And he’ll never forgive me.
A long capital campaign raised enormous amounts of money so the shiny new building went up. I’ve never seen it. Many many people who had worked for decades under difficult circumstances were told that their services were no longer needed so they never got to work there. A couple of years ago a national publishing corporation bought the magazine. That seems to have been the goal all along. I was hired to make it a better magazine, but not really. I believe there’s only one public broadcast owned magazine left in the country now. It’s life. It’s business. But there was no need to trample on dozens of people who had given so much for so many years.