Image Credit: The author and his sister Kori, Halloween 1969
My mother, Dear Sugar, a troll named Gladiator, Mildred Pierce, and Dustin Hoffman all converge at the same time, in that weird, often toxic space that is the comments section. Don’t read the comments is an easy mantra, until they’re from your mom. The text from my sister comes in late at night: Have you see the comments on your Rumpus column? I scan them quickly at first, to get the gist, to make sure I won’t need to do any immediate damage control. Too bad for this poor schmuck . . . a smeared recollection of a dead child . . . with Christ, life is less intellectual and much happier. I’m relieved and terrified at the same time. The comments are more cautious than her usual voicemail and email accusations and are coded in ways that only I would fully understand. Clearly the message was, I can get to you anywhere, I can come after your public self, imagine what else I could say. It’s the first time she’s struck at me so publicly, suggesting a new front in her harassment.
It’s June 2010. I’m 45-years old, have been married since 1985, and have two children in their teens. My summer class at the University of Detroit Mercy is underway and I’m toggling between that and writing film columns for Filmmaker Magazine and The Rumpus all the while dealing with the tragic, slow-burn implosion of my relationship with my parents. The break-up and its wreckage was happening in secret, in the shadows, hidden from our children, our friends, our colleagues. It was happening to my two sisters at the same time, as we all struggled to keep the ship—wrecked by a mental illness my parents would not recognize or acknowledge—from going under. Looking back at it I picture us with enormous ropes, trying to pull the ship to shore before it’s lost. I don’t want to diagnose what ailed my mother, who passed away last year, but the wreckage of family it left in its wake also wrecked her, a woman whose enormous talent with words and language was used, in the end, against the people who loved her most.
What were the comments at The Rumpus, and what had provoked them? They were in response to a column called 10/40/70, an experiment that paused a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, freezing the frame no matter what it happened to reveal. Inspired by Roland Barthes’s Image-Music-Text, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Laura Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second, and Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” I was searching for a way to think about film that didn’t rely as much on traditional critique as it did on rediscovering the surprises that lurk in the images that flit across the screen and that, when frozen, are more like photographs.
But on a deeper level that I couldn’t fully understand at the time, my brain had stopped working the way it had before. In January 2010 the verbal abuse had turned physical and I hadn’t seen my parents in person since. Our pleas to stop the harassing phone messages and e-mails that came randomly day or night went unheeded, as did the warning enclosed with copies of Michigan’s stalking laws we’d sent them. Long-form writing which, for me, crucially had relied on stretches of time unbroken by distraction, became impossible. My head was filled with the voice of my Mom, even when that voice was not literally in my head.
That’s what I turned to, out of necessity. Fragments, because time is strange and I was living in a perpetual present, a permanent kingdom of fear that rearranged time into something vertical rather than horizontal and linear. I replayed again and again things Mom had said, her accusations against me: that I was shallow, that I’d lost it as a writer, that I was an ungrateful son, that I was a pseudo-intellectual, parsing her words out for elements of truth as I engaged in my own self-criticism. I was learning to become a relentless self-critiquer undergoing my own internal struggle sessions. But it wasn’t only the afterburn of Mom’s words that haunted me, for I also imagined her future words: what accusations would she return to tonight on the phone, or tomorrow, and what new ones would she introduce? Past and future had collapsed into an ever present. Everything good that had characterized our relationship for most of my life—unconditional love, support, humor—was curdling into its opposite and the reasons remained murky and at a level of psychology I couldn’t grasp. On top of this the love and empathy for my Mom was so strong and for every instance where she hurt me I imagined her own hurt, her own well of blackness that caused her to lash out at the people who loved her most.
My own work situation, thankfully, allowed me the freedom to experiment with my writing. I was fortunate to have earned tenure and to teach at a university that valued writing that blurred the boundaries between academic and creative writing. The Rumpus, like several other sites at the time, allowed for the most unadministered, freeform writing that, in my case, spoke to the passion for language and experiments with language that had led me to grad school in the first place. I’d published a 10/40/70 in June 2010 on the incoherent, strangely ambiguous film Straight Time (1978) starring Dustin Hoffman. In one of those weird ways that the architecture of the internet allows for disparate voices to be thrown together and rub up against each other, both Sugar of Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed, although not many people knew it back then) and my Mom (as “Campbell,” her grandmother’s last name) commented, although she mistakenly thought she was writing in the comments section to my 10/40/70 of Mildred Pierce, which had appeared the previous week.
There must have been several triggers which, I can imagine, ignited her anger, led by the fact that someone using the name “Sugar” had complimented my analysis: “What a brilliant examination of this film, Nick,” Cheryl Strayed wrote, as Sugar. My mother began her own comment with: “This movie is, in fact, a morality play,” followed by an analysis that read it as an allegory of Christian redemption. But what mattered wasn’t the content of her comments as much as the fact of her intervention. Here I am, her comments announced, watching you. As anyone who has been stalked knows, the effect can be, at the very least, chilling and intimidating, especially when the stalker is your own mother.
But I was two different people back then.
The sober, rational Nick during the day who lived in fear of my parents, and the sometimes intoxicated Nick at night, stripped free of fear and inhibitions, let loose in his own imagination to write my 10/40/70s and send them off to the intrepid Isaac Fitzgerald, then managing editor at The Rumpus, who would send me an e-mail with the simple word “BOOM!” when they went live. I was striking back at something, but what? These 10/40/70 columns were unrestrained. Writing them I imagined what it would feel like riding a saddleless wild stallion, the horse carrying me into parts unknown. I was temporarily free from the prison-house of my own brain, my own thoughts which weren’t mine anymore, but my mother’s. With a bottle of wine by my side, my wife and children asleep, I created in uncensored, fragmentary bursts with no voices in my head to stop me. I held on to the scruff of that wild horse as it carried me into new ideas and bold ways of expressing them.
As if it wasn’t strange enough that my mother and Cheryl Strayed, as Sugar, had accidently crossed paths, someone named “Larry” responded, the next day on June 17, to my mother’s comments, gently telling her she had posted her comments about my Mildred Pierce 10/40/70 in the wrong place, in the comments section for Straight Time. “Campbell,” he wrote, “this is the Straight Time discussion. Mildred Pierce is just down the hall. And not to turn this into an MP chat, but I re-watched that movie and cannot agree that it’s a morality play. But that’s the beauty of MP—it’s sort of everything.” A few hours later Mom replied: “Larry, thanks for the ‘heads up’ . . . it’s not the first time I’ve bolted into the wrong room!! MP is a must see for film buffs just because the interpretation is so open to good discussion.” My mom as “Campbell,” an old family name on my mother’s side, a Scots ancestor known for her severe clannishness and bald truth-telling. It was a signal to me, fraught with meaning, reminding me that my roots on Mom’s side (my father was born in Greece) extended back to the fiercely loyal, Braveheart-like, fixed idea, scorched-earth mentality that was my heritage, a heritage I had betrayed by marrying a woman of German ancestry.
A few weeks later she commented again on my July 2, 2010 column on the Russian film The Return, which happened to be about a fraught relationship between a father and his sons. Here again the comments, although harsher and more pointed than her Mildred Pierce comments, weren’t as disturbing as the fact of her comments. I was aware of course that my parents could read my online work: my wife and I had decided that we would not let the fear of my parents stop us from doing our professional work online.
This time, her comments weren’t about the actual content of what I’d written as much as they were about me and my failings. She referred to a “smeared recollection of a dead child,” an oblique reference (having nothing to do with the film itself) to My sister, Kori, who had died in 1975 at age seven from a brain tumor. She had suffered and passed away in our home when I was ten, and this experience had drawn my parents and I together in such a deep and what I thought was an unbreakable way. The slow weaponization of Kori’s death, used against me in complicated ways, is part of the subtext of my mother’s comments at The Rumpus. And then: “The risk of casting yourself [me] against your own kind [my parents] is that after a time your own kind does not recognize you and will become bored with you and begin a new life without you, so there you are, stuck with a life no one really cares about but you.” And then: “Too bad for this poor schmuck, because with Christ, life is less intellectual and much happier. The most intelligent are mere fools in the eyes of God.” She also wrote: “The solution to any problem? Blame your father. Freedom can be found in becoming a traitor to all you were taught.” She ended her comments with: “I think all who know the history of a family would agree. We cannot blame everything we do on our fathers.”
How could my mother have known (and how could I have suspected) that someone was lurking in the shadows, observing? For during that period, Stephen Elliott (Rumpus founder and editor and author of the then recently published Adderall Diaries) was being harassed by his estranged father, who would show up at readings as a heckler and who would leave scorched-earth reviews of his son’s work under various names, notably “Gladiator,” at Amazon and other places. “Gladiator” responded to my mother’s comment: “You’re my kind of people, Campbell.” What would my mother have thought that she’d drawn praise from a man who may have been a murderer (“My father may have killed a man,” opens The Adderall Diaries) and who, allegedly, had chained his son to a radiator? I let Isaac know that the comment Gladiator had responded to was from my Mom, and was directed at me, not the film The Return, which must have seemed disorienting to Rumpus readers. The comments were deleted, although not until after I printed them.
My mother’s comment on my reading of The Return was one of the few times she shared her words to and about me in a public sphere. It offered me a chance to see and to feel her accusations from a remove, providing at least a bit of the critical distance impossible to achieve in person. She began her comment with this: “Recently a newscaster admonished Tiger Woods to turn to the faith which embodies redemption. Forgiveness and a new life.” The Woods scandal had begun in November 2009 and by the time she left these comments, in June 2010, the story of his affairs and his apologetics had been in the news for a while.
Her implicit suggestion that I, like Woods, needed to ask for forgiveness for, in my case, refusing to take her and my father’s abuse any longer was not surprising. She had long been fixated with people she accused of having or desiring extra-marital affairs. Her friends, her sister, my sisters, their husbands, my wife, as well as me had all been accused of having affairs. In my case, it was usually with one student or another who had commented or simply “liked” on Facebook a reading that I had done or a review of one of my books.
Next, she wrote: “This film interpreted as its bottom line is still lacking because the connection to art, literature and music is universal. They speak equally to the young and to the old, the good and the evil. One is blind to think that art speaks only to the pure at heart and to the young and educated. Hitler went into battle with Wagner blaring.” This comment must have been in response to this line from my column: “It is the power of art—whether it be music, film, literature, painting, etc.—to remind you that you are not alone.” It never took Mom long to bring in a Nazi or Hitler connection, a reminder that I was married to someone of partial German lineage. I think her point was that evil people—like me and Hitler—appreciated art, too.
As was so often the case there was a really interesting kernel of wisdom in her words about the mystery of how the same piece of art—part of an opera, say, from Wagner—might appeal at the same time to the most gentle-souled, empathetic person as well as to a complete psychopath. These were the fascinating roads not taken with my mother because interactions with her had become, beginning years before she left this comment, crimes of presence:
opportunities for her to seize on anything I said, or failed to say,
the tone of my voice,
the enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm in response to one of her suggestions,
the length of my pauses before my responses (too short a pause indicating I wasn’t really paying attention; too long a pause that I was either distracted, which was disrespectful, or not in agreement with her suggestion, which confirmed to her that she was losing control over me, which in turn made her angrier),
a misplaced sigh,
or where my eyes looked or didn’t look when speaking to her.
My online writing, at The Rumpus and elsewhere, was a reminder of my presence, even when I was absent. For my mother there I was, my words an alive, active, present reminder of whatever it was about me (about her, it turns out, although I didn’t have the insight then to understand this) that aroused such anger. It’s an adage, a cliché by now, that what’s on the internet leaves a permanent record, an archive, an always-present trace that flattens time and exists in a permanent now.
The 10/40/70 project allowed me short reprieves from the intensity of living the version of me that Mom wanted, a version that was as alien to me as it likely was to her, for I’m not sure she herself knew what she wanted me to be. This was the tragic nature, at last, of her illness:
There was no solution to the fact of me.
In child and young adulthood I had existed as a golden boy. The process of transforming into the opposite—the refractory Other of that self—happened so slowly and fitfully that I practically missed it until I couldn’t ignore it anymore and had to answer for it, which I did for ten years, until I didn’t anymore.
The “fragment” projects I had embarked on during this time served as an alternative, frankly, to suicide. They allowed me to create in short, intense bursts late at night, knowing that my parents, who lived an hour away, were asleep, my mind relaxed just enough to allow for the unencumbered thinking I needed to make things, to create. I also started drinking more heavily at this point, too, in an effort to stop replaying over and over Mom’s accusations. (On more than one occasion our daughter would ask me, why are you talking to yourself Dad? as I had a habit of talking back to Mom in my imagination.) Wine breath. She’d say that too, as in You’ve got wine breath dad. This might be at 10:00 am, after one of the phone calls, which came in randomly at any time of day or night. I told myself at the time that I needed to drink not only as a form of relief and self-therapy, but also because the alcohol loosened my restraints and tamped down self-doubt just enough for me to create my stories unfettered by the constant worry and dread of what tomorrow would bring. And it muted, temporarily, the voice of Mom in my head, a voice that echoed long after the calls ended.
My writing may also have helped trigger—in a way that seems counter intuitive—her withering judgments against me regarding Kori. “You don’t want to talk about Kori!” she screamed in 2009, when I still picked up the phone to let her. “You don’t want to talk about Kori Ann! Nicky why don’t you ever mention her name? It’s as if the girl never existed!” In the acknowledgments of my first published books in 2005 and 2009, I and my sisters still hoped and struggled to maintain a relationship, I tried to capture my gratitude, for all to see. In Ramones, published in the 33 1/3 series in 2005, I’d written in the acknowledgements of “my love and thanks to my mother and father, Nicholas and Diane, for a wonderful childhood and home, a place where I was encouraged to create” and that “this book took me back to 1975, and to memories of my sister, Kori.”
And a few years later, in A Cultural of Dictionary of Punk in 2009 I’d dedicated the book “to my Mom and dad, Diane and Nick, who have always encouraged me to ask questions. This book is an answer to some of them. The ever-changing Maumee River shaped me more than you can know. And for Kori: Never forgotten, always loved.” I didn’t know what “splitting” was at the time, a psychological condition where someone struggles to hold opposing thoughts at the same time, resulting in a split where someone is all good or all bad. Black. White. When my parents first read these dedications and the books themselves I was the golden boy, a terrible thing to be because of what waited on the other side, the golden boy’s opposite.
It was all good.
Until it was all bad.
But there were also traps of absence: things that I didn’t say or failed to say, absences that were used against me just as powerfully as things that I did say. It became an absurdist, cruel, Samuel Beckett-like game. If, for instance, I mentioned or talked about Kori, I would be accused of un-Christian self-pity, as Kori was with God now and to openly grieve her was akin to admitting that she really was dead as opposed to being alive in heaven.
In that same e-mail she referenced a short piece that had just been published for Significant Objects, a project by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn whose premise was this: can words about an object—in the form of a very short story—increase the value of that object? I had written about a music box, purchased for 50 cents and which ended up being auctioned for 147.50. “No one had to write about Billy [a distant family cousin who had also died as a child] in the second person because he was and will always be a familiar person to me,” she wrote. The whole narrative voice problem was another of my mother’s mantras: she would lash out if she heard herself referred to via third-person pronoun: “I am notshe, I am your mother,” she would say. The music box story, only a few hundred words, ended like this: “The music is her voice, speaking directly to him, as if she knew he would be here now, as if she knew that he — this nobody neighbor from the other side of the quarry — the boy with the scarred face who mowed her lawn and raked her leaves, would ride his bike furiously back, back, back to her.” That final pronoun was dynamite waiting for one particular reader to explode it and my mother was that person, attaching my sister Kori to the pronoun her.
Is my own fascination, as a writer and a professor, with the intricacies of narrative framing a product of being hyper-alert to my mother’s moods, ways of speaking, phrasings and, in turn, her own reading and interpretation of mymoods, ways of speaking and writing? It doesn’t really matter that she misidentified the narrative point of view in “The Music Box.” My decision about how to narrate the story confirmed, for her, something about me, about my coldness, my remoteness, my distance from real feeling. The remote distance of third person. “You want to hide them,” she wrote, referring to my memories of Kori. In this sense, it wasn’t just that I didn’t talk about Kori, but when I did talk or write about her, it was the wrong way. “No one had to write about Billy in the second person.” It didn’t matter that “The Music Box” wasn’t about Kori at all, or that it wasn’t in the second person: for Mom it was like Schrödinger’s cat: the story was about Kori at the same time that it was not about Kori.
Presence and absence.
Existence and non-existence.
She. Her. Mom.
It was impossible for me to become—it took me 45 years to learn—who she wanted me to be and both what I said and did not say, what I wrote and did not write, confirmed this. Whether “The Music Box” was written in the first, second, or third person was irrelevant to the only person who sent me an e-mail about the story.
It’s been over ten years since the break-up, the stalking, the loss of my voice as a writer. My mother has recently passed and I have reached out to my father and am trying to build a new future with him. I am, slowly, getting my land legs back. I am finding my voice again, a different voice, wounded but stronger, deeper and, I hope, more sensitive to those whose suffering causes us to suffer, too.
Nicholas Rombes is finishing a memoir, Borderline, Ohio. He is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio) and Ramones, from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Oxford American, n+1 online, and other places. He is a professor in Detroit, where he hosts the Creative Writing Collective, and can be found on Twitter.