How Will We Know When She is Dead? (excerpt)
Run-in with the Law
In 1976, at the age of twenty-six, I returned to the States, heart-broken, after living abroad for five years. I'd been working as an immigrant volunteer and later as a teacher on a kibbutz in Israel, earning my keep, but no actual money, so when I left, I had nothing.
Frank still wanted to reconcile, so when he sent me a ticket I left Israel and went to Iran for almost a year, where I followed Frank around the country to his water reclamation projects in the remote villages and desert. Iran was a fascinating country then, when the Shah was still in power, and it seemed the students were organizing to overthrow him in order to establish a democracy. I would not have predicted the surge of Islam, the surprising anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric, the return of the Ayatollah, or the hostage crisis that came so soon after I left.
I had fled the US and gone to Israel in search of a family, a sense of family. I had fallen in love with Israel when, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging to something meaningful and larger than myself. Weeding potatoes with Arab workers, even when they pelted my ass with the potatoes, but teasing, not in a mean-spirited way, or riding the tractor into the cotton fields, felt like a secular spiritual joining of purpose, joined to the land and the idealists determined to make a safe refuge for Jews. I had needed that safe refuge too. I had felt unsafe my whole life. I'd been a loner, an outsider at home, within and without my family. In Israel, I felt joyously a part of something. I didn't mind the scorpions and giant flying cockroaches and the poisonous asp I killed with a hoe when I was in the fields in flip-flops. I had never been happier.
In 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, nearly all the men and women from age 18-55 were mobilized in the reserves. The war was over, but the military was on full alert. Being in Israel during the war was frightening and at the same time exhilarating because I knew that I was living through a major historical event.
We painted out the headlights of cars, blacked out windows, and cleaned out bomb shelters. We rotated being on guard duty at night. The radio was on constantly, and we heard fighter planes screaming above us day and night, and at times soldiers would stop by with news on their way hitchhiking from the front in the North to the front in the South. The explosions in the Golan were thunderous, and at night we saw flashes of the bombings on the horizon.
Israel is so big in our American psyche and on the world stage, that people don't realize that the whole country is the size of metropolitan Chicago. So wherever you are, you are not far from a border, a danger, a threat.
There were few able adults and no one my age, except for my schizophrenic friend Joseph, left behind on the kibbutz to care for the children, the elderly, the crops, the fishponds, and the animals. Food was rationed, and those remaining on the kibbutz worked six and a half days a week.
Five years later I left Israel via Iran as an old maid. I was exhausted and lonely. I was tired of hearing "You're not married?" with the unspoken subtext, "What's wrong with you?" And I did want to be married, to have a family. I wanted to make a better family than the one I'd been born into.
At twenty-six, an unmarried girl in Israel was presumed to be washed up, like detritus on the Mediterranean shore. Several relationships went badly because I was too naïve to know I was being used, not loved. I thought any attention from a man meant love, and so I got thrashed emotionally. I was a slow learner, hopelessly and doggedly falling for the next man who was kind to me, even after being abandoned so quickly and so often.
I tore myself away from Israel, went to Iran, to Frank, the man who still loved me and lured me back when I was most vulnerable. When we broke up, yet again, I decided to come back to the States. Leaving Israel was like tearing myself from my own flesh, leaving great clumps of me behind. The world I returned to felt cold and dreary and without meaning, like moving into an empty meat locker. How would I ever find my place or purpose here when I'd left so much of myself in Israel?
I was in survival mode again, on a quest for a mate, but despairing and disillusioned. In Israel I knew who I was and where I belonged, and I lost myself when I left. It was odd: To Israelis I would always be an American, but to myself I was a Jewish-Israeli idealist. Who was I now, in Chicago? The cultural shock of moving from food rationing to food-wasting was disorienting. The best I could do, I thought, was to marry and return to Israel, or live with one foot in each country, and never feel I belonged anywhere. This is in fact what has happened, I still carry two passports, and feel not quite fully American, and not completely Israeli either. When I travel to Israel now, I go as an Israeli, with my Israeli passport.
So, I came to my mother's place on the near north side of Chicago. I'd avoided returning to live with her since I'd left home at seventeen. But without any money or a way to get to San Francisco where my sister, dad and Melissa lived, where could I have gone? Like a child seeking the comfort and security of home and mother, I came back. It would be the last time I had the delusion that she was a safe place to land.
Within four days I had a job at the Playboy Club, which was just around the corner from my mother's building, off Michigan Avenue. I had applied at all the bars in the nearby hotels and restaurants, thinking that I could earn good tips and save enough to return to California. The only offer I got was from Playboy and I took it. My goal was to save $5000 and then leave.
I was the second Jewish bunny at the Club, out of eighty-five working girls. So I was the unfortunate target of anti-Semitic comments from the bartenders and the "Bunny Mother" who was jealous of us because she was too old to be a bunny now, and who checked our manicures and fake eyelashes before letting us go "out on the floor." Even the bathroom attendant refused to rub my Jewish feet during my ten-minute breaks, as she did for the other girls. The shoes could only be purchased at a store on the west side of the city, and we were instructed to buy them two sizes too big, to allow room for swelling. Instead, I'd stick my tired, aching feet in the toilet, and flush it several times, giving myself a bit of a frigid Jacuzzi massage.
Then I'd put on my four-inch high heels, my bunny ears, cuff links, tuxedo collar, bow tie, and fluffy white tail, and my gaudy cinched-in costume with the small high shelves where I propped up my tiny breasts to achieve that voluptuous busty look, and go back to work.
When people find out that I was a bunny, they are amused and curious. The first thing they ask is to see a photo. But I wasn't a Playmate, and there is a distinction, primarily that Playmates take off their clothes, and as uncomfortable and seductive as the costumes are, Bunnies don't. Bunnies are just food and drink servers in miserable, fraudulent outfits and painful shoes. Being a bunny was a way for me to get back to San Francisco, which pulled at me, tugged at me, called me as if it were my home. The abrupt transition from kibbutz to Playboy bunny was my fall down the rabbit hole, a Jewish Alice in Wonderland.
I'd stumble home at 2:30 a.m. with swollen feet and clotted mascara in the corners of my eyes. I'd come into Mom's overheated apartment and find her wandering the rooms, naked and raving. She'd overdosed on her sleeping pills again but still couldn't sleep. Or I'd find her sitting on the kitchen floor, groaning, clutching a butcher knife and the phone she'd ripped out of the wall.
One time I found her hanging from the balcony rail, hanging on the outside of the rail, dangling nineteen stories above the building's swimming pool and threatening to let go. In the dark and quiet of the Chicago "Gold Coast" she was shrieking. Just shrieking. Her shrieks reverberated around the other tall buildings of condos nearby.
"Oh for Chrissake," I muttered. "It's this spectacle again."
I'd seen her do this before and was sure she wouldn't let go, but her stunts always panicked me. I hauled her back up. Yet again. All ninety-two pounds of her powerful anorexic body. She clung to me crying piteously and incoherently. I slipped right back into the comfort-and-save-mom routine.
Sometimes, roaring oaths that could make your hair curl, she'd throw her husband's clothing over the balcony as a prelude to a suicide threat. I silently marveled at her repertoire of ingenious ways to threaten suicide but not actually do it.
Her third husband, Jim, a relatively recent acquisition, who could sleep through anything, snored away in their bedroom, loudly, as if to say, "Go ahead! Do it! See if I care!!"
Sometimes my mother would grip my arm and make me listen to her ravings, about the fictitious son she'd given up for adoption or her imagined affair with Saul Bellow. She told me how Jim didn't stand up for her when his best friend made a pass at her. (The same story she had told about my dad.) She accused Jim of not caring that his friend had raped her in the ten minutes that Jim had stepped out of the apartment. This was so obviously improbable that Jim wouldn't even engage with her about it.
"Don't forget," she'd say in her slurred state, clinging to me so as not to collapse, "Life. Is. Loss."
Sometimes she'd dredge up recriminations from the past, like when I took her to the hospital. She'd accuse me of various breaches of loyalty if she saw that I'd made a phone call to my father. It was impossibly hard to separate reality from fiction with her. She was my Mad Hatter.
Working two shifts a day, sixteen hours, I came home with $100 in tips on a good day. This was on top of my pay, $1.63 per hour. I stashed my money in a bright Bedouin embroidered pouch, and every few weeks I walked to the bank where I deposited the cash into a savings account. $5000 was my escape, my passport out, and I was wasting no time.
As brilliant as she was, my mother couldn't keep a job. She could charm men into hiring her, but before long she'd quit or be terminated. She stirred up trouble, controversy, drama, intrigue wherever she worked, moving from various short-term teaching jobs to working in a clinic as an intake therapist in the last couple of years of her life. Please God, she didn't actually do therapy, did she? She was what we would now call, in a kind of informal diagnosis, a "shit disturber."
When we were kids it was always someone else's fault when she lost her job, generally a fallen "saint," or previously described "future Nobel Prize winner," and now a "Nazi." She never could fully support herself, and for the periods of time when she wasn't with a man, we struggled financially. Any money she had went to supporting her addiction to drugs and fashion, Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and other French designers, whose clothing she had copied by a seamstress or else shoplifted.
For years she had everyone convinced that she was sewing these stunning high-fashion dresses herself. Then Judy and I discovered that she had a secret dressmaker. At some point she stole that dressmaker's credit card and used it to buy more clothes. She got caught; she had an amazing story about how it came to be in her possession, something about trying on a dress at the dressmaker's and grabbing the credit card that happened to be lying around because she didn't have time to go home to get her own. Some of her stories were wildly implausible but she'd throw a coffee pot at you if you didn't believe them.
She was on the prowl for male attention, and never left the house without wearing designer dresses, pantyhose and heels. Judy and I mostly wore hand-me-downs.
One night, at 3:00 AM, I came home from the Playboy Club to find my stepfather waiting for me in the kitchen. The condo was eerily dark and quiet, reeking of cigarette smoke and cat pee. There were signs of the daily battles my mother fought with him and her demons. The scattered pill bottles, the empty wine bottles, the broken kitchen drawer, the debris from the smashed ashtray that no one swept up, the bedroom door that wouldn't close. Jim's eyes were bloodshot and tired, and his look was resigned. Clearly, he'd rather be in bed sleeping through whatever was going on.
"I need your money," he said to me. "You have cash, right? How much do you have? Where is it?"
He had the same loyalty demands from mom that I had, so he avoided talking with my sister or me about her, for fear of Mom's inquisition and subsequent and inevitable violent reaction to the betrayal. I had to drag the story out of him. He needed the money to bail Mom out of jail. It was a Saturday night, and she'd kill him if he didn't bail her out. I didn't doubt the veracity of that statement.
I'd never learned how to say "no." And I turned over my cash.
I can't remember if that was the time she forged checks at Bonwit Teller, stole her dressmaker's credit card, or if it was when she drove drugged up or drunk and had hit the child on his bicycle in a crosswalk and fled the scene. These episodes were fiercely guarded secrets. In this case, I was never able to pry more information out of Jim. If he told me, there'd be hell to pay. So not knowing the truth was how it always was with her. We lived in an altered reality where there was no difference between lies and truth. She was a brilliant liar and her lies almost always sounded true.
Maybe it was just another of her shoplifting incidents, at Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, or Saks Fifth Avenue. It didn't matter. That night, I turned over my money. Next morning, I moved into the Playboy Hotel. As an employee, and with a roommate, I could live and eat there for a fraction of the cost to my sanity of living with Mom. It took me four more months of working double shifts to get to $5000. That day, I took out all the cash, bought an airline ticket, and flew to San Francisco.
My mother devastated so many people and caused pain and damage wherever she was. She left a trail of emotional debris in her wake, which my sister and I have been mopping up for years, like a stain of slime that can't be cleaned up. For years I wished she would die so that I could stop having to deal with her wild tempers and unreasonable demands. Once I admitted this out loud to my therapist, shocking myself, and with a lot of shame, but when I said it, I felt better. I was freed from the collusion, and I began to let go, to disengage, and forgive. I didn't really wish her dead, I wished her different.
Accepting that she'd never be different was a step toward forgiveness, because I stopped expecting her to behave in any way other than the way she did. I am no longer angry at her, even if the words in this memoir sound angry. I can't forget or condone what she did, nor do I miss her, but I recognize that she was a tragic victim of mental illness and addiction, greatly impaired, tortured, and miserable. As much as she victimized those around her, she did worse to herself, with her addictions, eating disorders, paranoia, and rage. It's sad that she never accepted her own illnesses and that she rejected all possible treatment.
Now that I'm no longer trapped by her web of deceptions and rage, I do think she did the best she could, but it wasn't good enough. I'm sorry that she never changed, and that resolution with her was impossible. She could put on a convincing performance of loving me, being dependent on me, or supporting me during difficult times. But it felt like a performance, not authentic. I don't think she ever really loved anyone deeply. I don't think she had the capacity to love deeply. Forgiving her has taken a lot of fearless work because it was so easy to shove the bad memories down into the muck of stuff I don't want to remember. In the end, I just feel so sorry for her, because life is precious, and she utterly wasted it.
To be released soon ...