Letter to the Boyfriend

FeaturedLetter to the Boyfriend

I found your book from the early ’90’s the other day. It’s the mystery about martial arts, ritual tattooing, sumo wrestling and a murderous Japanese crime syndicate. Mysteries are my favorite genre and I’ve read my share of torture and ritual killings, but no book ever frightened me more than yours.

Remember when you came to see me in Washington on your book tour? You phoned to ask if you could come over to my place. How did you know I wasn’t married? When I said no, you insisted on meeting me in the lobby of your hotel. Why were you staying so close to where I lived?

“Ok, but I’m not going to your room.” I said.

We sat in the hotel bar revealing certain truths of our lives from the past twenty-five years. Neither of us drank. You, of course, insisted I come to your room for a copy of the book. I relented, armed with my pocketed cell phone. You said I broke your heart when we were together one teenage summer. A high school teacher suggested you pour out your dejection on paper, which started your writing career. I was surprised, even flattered, to hear you’d written hundreds of pages about me, including detailed sex scenes some of which you duplicated in your novels.

I remember hiding naked with you in the basement of your parent’s Jersey Shore bungalow, listening to the undulating Atlantic Ocean, giggling at talk of marrying, concocting funny names for our children. Once, on the boardwalk, your mother’s eyes locked me down. “Don’t get pregnant,” she smiled. You returned to Philadelphia for senior year. I stayed, and went to someone else. You drove back to the Shore periodically that year, ambushed me at school and home, and tried to snare me into embracing you. You, the oversexed, body-building wrestler. You, the alpha male cornering me with your power. Did you have any sense of how frightening you were?

In your Washington hotel room I tried to avoid answering your demand, but you insisted over and over asking, “You really did love me, didn’t you?” 

“No. I just wanted the experience to write about.” I said.

“But you didn’t write. I did.” You said.

My head burned so hot I stepped outside of my body to cool off. Unaware, you gave a walking monologue on how successful you were, how physically fit you were and how you were taking female hormones to reduce whatever estrogen was active in your body. 

I scrambled out of there without the book.

A few days later multiple copies were stacked up in my neighborhood book store. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? For your old girlfriends to see your fruit on display? I bought it. In a straight-back chair at my dining room table I made it through a few nightmarish chapters, then hid the book in a cardboard box.

The book, your book, is now headed to a landfill.

Money Money Money Money

Money Money Money Money

The first time I received payment for a piece of writing, I screamed at the check when I pulled it from the envelope. Screamed. The sight of $175 from the Christian Science Monitor payable to “Regan Burke” evoked all the screaming emotions. Jumping-for-joy shock. Amazement. Pride. They all belted out of me at once in three syllables: OhMyGod.

And they stayed with me for days. Weeks.

I sent my writing teacher a note riddled with that forbidden string of exclamation points!!!! She told me I’m officially a published author. I updated my Linked-In profile to “Published Author,” to notify the public that I’d been paid for words I’d written.

I waited for the world to notice that I’m officially a writer. The world. Not my friends, though they ARE important. The world. I expected a big shift in the way perfect strangers treated me. It wasn’t until I finally settled down that I realized a shift more monumental had happened, not in my exterior world but inside myself.

Money has been problematic in every family I’ve been a member of. My parents were grifters who presented themselves outwardly as monied people but had no honest wages. My first marriage was riddled with money arguments so unsettling that I claimed no alimony or child support when we divorced. After the end of a second marriage, I left everything and moved a thousand miles away. When that ex-husband called to ask where to send my portion from the sale of our house, I screamed,Never call me again”, slammed down the phone and forfeited the money.

I once had a high-paying job and a company car. I wore business suits and high heels. Co-workers congratulated me on landing a contract to build a military base in Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Indian Ocean. I congratulated myself. And as soon as a political campaign kicked up dust for a candidate I admired, I quit. I joined the quixotic Gary Hart for President campaign with the promise of a salary. All the money in the campaign fund got sucked into television commercials. I never got paid, used all my savings and maxed out credit cards, a practice that became surprisingly easy in succeeding years. When it was over, I limped into a friend’s office begging for a job in his construction company.

images-2I hated money. When my father insisted I send my twelve-year old son to boarding school in the late seventies, I relented because I was afraid my father would stop paying our rent. My son resented me openly and I resented my father secretly. I’ve spent a lifetime declining requests from friends to join them in a subscription to the ballet or a share in a vacation beach house. Why? Money, that necessary evil that separates me from others.

I fight to maintain balanced books. Fight is the word. I fend off my parents’ goading from the grave to spend more than I have. When those demons win, I ignore my checking account and “insufficient funds” letters show up in the mailbox. This week I donated to the Valerie Plame for Congress campaign after clicking on her badass internet video. I gave no thought to outstanding checks or bills. There’s always a political campaign, or a friend’s charity, or a piece of art—different temptations than my parents’ houses, jewelry, and cars–that appeal to my genetic code to blow the budget. 

Yes, until now I’ve hated the entire money apparatus. A friend recently applauded me for having a second career in writing. A career? I’m sure I never said that. I don’t even think of myself as having a first career. Maybe she’s right though. The first career, managing  political campaigns, construction projects and government offices, has resulted in enough pension income to pay bills and lunch with friends.

Nothing beats this second career though. After all, I’ve been paid for my words.

I am a published author.

_______________________________

Watch: Valerie Plame

Listen: The O’Jays, For The Love of Money

Thank You Alcoholic Writers

After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.

Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.

Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that 51MsewjwbIL._AC_US218_ 2
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”

Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.

I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay.  “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”

We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.