A WARSAW CHRONICLE, a Novel
Carol Hebald's novel, A WARSAW CHRONICLE, depicts the moving portrait of Karolina Heybald, an American exchange professor at Warsaw University during the 1981 advent of martial law Underlying the conflict between the Communist regime and Solidarity's struggle against it looms the threat of a Soviet invasion. In the midst of food scarcity and turbulent political upheaval, Karolina's attempts to locate a missing first cousin entangle her in the fate of her brilliantly gifted student, Marek, the son of a duplicitous Communist official. Torn by conflicting loyalties—a poet in service to his conscience, a soldier under orders to the state—Marek's only hope lies in Karolina's valiant efforts to secure his fellowship at her home university.
DELUSION OF GRANDEUR
A book-length poem
A dialogue between a young woman and the father whom she lost as a young child.
MEMORY OF THE SLOW CHILD
“Which would you rather dream:
a circus or a spanking?”
nudged the pudgy incubus.
Each night she chose chose chose
a spanking a lovepat because
in her house downtown you got lickings;
only uptown they gave out spankings—
uptown, where nice people lived.
One night Pudgyman
swayed in her a reverie
of Papa’s hand pinking her bottom
with a puff of lust,
her infant breasts bluewhite—at attention.
But Pudgyman’s watch had gone on the fat gold blink:
Papa’d been dead twelve years.
And she was “little chayalah”* again,
cheek cupped in his hand,
slim as an antelope, a lamb,
and he called, “Little chayalah, little chayalah.”
She remembers silence,
shame on the wind,
her cage in carnival land:
grinding to her birth,
her mind a spectral machine,
death, the ghost in the machine,
spinning her through a trapeze
smack into the lion’s den
where, cockahoop upon the sand,
sat squint-eyed Sam from Seventh Avenue
sipping Metrecal on Yom Kippur;
old lardy-faced Lem,
titandtailtickler from Katonah,
gamey and brimful of pluck;
raunchy Bruce Rippingham,
mighthavebeen Shakespearean actor
currently relieving millions
on television’s Ex Lax commercial.
And why not, pray?
Shall we die of darkness and tedium?
*A Hebrew word of endearment meaning small animal.
I feel your absence
more than I miss your presence.
Where you went I never knew.
The key my memory left with you
is underneath the snow
I turn my spade to find;
the grass among the weeds
a many-nippled river spinning down to sea
through wave, cove, and hollow—
Oh my father, I call your name
but cannot speak your name.
Birds plugged by,
turtles climbed the sky
when I beside you long ago
struck by the sunlight
tipping the trees,
the darkness under the limbs,
took the vow of never-tell.
Heart grew bitter, heart grew still;
no bird ruddered to my window sill.
Clouds winged low, no one knew
who pleasured me time out of mind
and left me wailing to the wind.
CATATONIA IN THE VESTIBULE
I saw the Lamb
in the streets
of the City
so I ran away.
I cannot listen,
I cannot speak.
I am in Heaven
with the angels.
I am trying to sing
but I have forgotten
behind the melody.
I am in Heaven
with the angels
but they are
too busy in their loveliness
to notice me.
sits upon a jeweled throne
in an opal.
He glances my way.
I feel terrified—
I cannot speak—
I enter the Waking Death.
I am in a milkglass bottle:
I see out, they see in—
angels, goatherds, and men.
They tremble for me
but they do not like me.
How can they?
They probably think
I choose to choose this
from pain or something
so they must find it
in their hearts for me.
I hate a kindness
that condescends to feel.
I hate it.
I choose this death from spite—
in a whirlwind of fear.
And You just stand there
limp with mercy.
I wish You’d go away.
SPINSTER BY THE SEA
Heard the blare at lunar tide
and rose in a spangling mist,
rose disheveled with jewels
and in the veil mistook
the hunter’s horn upon the hill
for the neck of a silver cock
waving its colors from afar
like a seabloom in a star.
Gulled by ghosts
he sprawls his frame upon the land.
Lavishlimbed in long red air
how he blossoms, how he bears—
a face exquisitely small,
black bud upon a blueblack shoot—
the flung stones at his throat.
Liar crammed in closets,
I played, a ruined child,
to bright, phantom eyes:
If this sleeve were Papa’s hand,
that dress of silk my mama’s breast,
this coat of fur my papa’s chest. . .
Her quiet breast, his hand.
Saturdays at Loews Delancey
bidding their Milky Ways
along the Children’s Section
always found me
sitting a little apart;
the candy was for later:
“Let’s be pals, mister, ‘kay?”
“Cross your leg over mine.”
Senses flicking like lizards
a wild sob rose to my throat:
Stay a little while longer—
Bastard, be my friend.
If in darkness I must want
then from darkness would I get:
To act: I had to act,
to wish by order--to behave.
Who lives in me beside myself
can grieve beyond the grave
and in that grief rejoice
at hearts I choose to break.
I beckon, entice, kiss, chase away,
I mourn, dance, serve, pray.
Offstage I seldom speak.
I act because I’d rather
do other things.
The heart too long suppressed
cannot come forth,
finds comfort in memories of snow,
in poems that grieve to grow.
Then stir my slow conception,
quiet, oh how quiet,
the tides resume in me,
thrust me back to see
the soul outside my mind,
released from what it longs for
to something it has.
I live in a dreamworld by choice;
I am sorry,
LETTER TO AN ARTIST
SOMEWHERE NEAR STOCKHOLM
You were so different
from your words
and so proud--well, proud!--
The ripe, indolent women adored you.
On the last night you danced
an aging countess tried to comfort me.
It was your grace that hurt.
So innocent you were
of what you gave to me.
Come to the hearth, be seated;
permit me to press your hand.
Our needs are not concerned
with the Ten Commandments.
Tell me who you are,
I often think of you.
Our work should cut,
it shouldn’t bleed.
It’s as necessary to us as breathing.
How passionately we spoke, how well!
We had a moment there
but it was off-camera.
FANTASY IN A FLOATING CAFÉ
SOMEWHERE NEAR SOUTHAMPTON
The sea is breathing now
and a gull, drunk on the wind,
bares a nerve in me.
The sea is breathing now
and my lord is dancing--
severe, proud, clear as the skies.
Still the music of those lips,
that radiant form.
The sea is breathing
and my lord is dancing.
The Austrian countess
was buried at sea.
They say his corpse
slid into the waves
just as the sea monster
drew out her breast
and gave suck to her young.
The Countess drinks
with an aging queen
who praises flowers
for responding blandly
to the onset of frost.
And my lord
skips like a calf
among the evening flowers.
OUR LADY DUSE
To the memory of Uta Hagen
We remember her as from a dream
when, in La Dame Aux Camélias
she, by an imperceptible movement
of the hand, caused her flower to die
of Marguerite’s grief:
Touched by frost, her leaves sighed
for the crying of the wind
that pinched her blossom white
and flung it into the winter night.
Duse loved a poet,
a lesser soul than she,
so enamored of his own
he nourished it on hers,
drained it in a poem and fell asleep
on tour in the frozen Midwest,
let her wait alone
on some windy corner after the show.
She bowed to the silence,
obeyed his absence,
and walked briskly home.
There, healthy grief bore fruit,
taught within her living root
bliss to bless, and cheek to turn
in striking purity that week
Marguerite petal by petal blew
the flower of her lord
delicately down to death.
When the devil stormed in her,
they say she stepped on him.
Excerpt from A WARSAW CHRONICLE, a Novel
On Saturday night, December 12, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, under threat of Soviet invasion, declared martial law in Poland. Polish Solidarity, and with it the hope for democratic reform, were wiped out in one blow. A nation of thirty-six million people was cordoned off from the world.
One: Karolina in Warsaw
December 13, 1981
This morning when I rose, all the clocks had stopped. I dressed quickly and came out into the street.
It was a dark morning. Never, never was there such darkness. Rain poured down continuously, the coldest, gloomiest rain, threatening, and full of animosity. I had on a thin, white raincoat. I wore no boots.
I must have walked over a mile. The shadows of houses oppressed me: Flat, tin-roofed structures rebuilt from the burnt-out ruins of the Second World War. Not one light was burning. It seemed all Warsaw was asleep. I felt stiff and hungry from the cold, and in such utter loneliness, I began mistaking my footsteps for a booted tread behind me. When I stopped, it stopped. I glanced around but saw no one. I kept walking. Then checking behind me again, I glimpsed the hastily averted broadcloth of a gray military coat, whose owner must have reversed course.
Reaching the corner, I turned to watch for traffic and crossed at a spot intersected by a boulevard I had never seen before. I didn’t know where I was. I looked behind me and to both sides. The rain came harder, as though the sea were all around me, and no one would know if I drowned.
Suddenly I stopped. There was Marek in military uniform beside me. My student Marek a soldier? I remembered his father, whom I’d met briefly, wore a uniform, but he? Nor could I dismiss the thought that this gifted, overgrown child, a full head taller than I, had been following me. He opened his mouth to speak. My lightning glare stopped him.
“What is it you want?” I said finally.
He was all wet. I noticed especially his mud-streaked boots.
“You haven’t misplaced the assignment?” I asked.
“Assignment? There isn’t any school! Professor, wait! Where are you going? You can’t cross into the terminal. Nothing is moving. Don’t you understand?”
No, I understood nothing.
“Stay!” he cried. “If you can’t find words for others, why don’t you speak to me? It’s not my fault I love you.”
But I was running away.
An armed officer blocked my path: “Who are you?” he asked in Polish.
“It’s pani Professor Heybald,” answered Marek all out of breath.
“Yes,” I said.
“Passport, please.” I fumbled in my purse, in my satchel.
“Pani is diplomat?” the officer inquired.
“No!” protested Marek excitedly: “She’s half-Polish. Her father was Polish.”
“Your name is Heybald?”
“Come with me.”
I looked to Marek, who stepped aside, unable to meet my eyes.
A room beetle-green in the morning light, so dank with stagnant air, water stood in drops on the walls. I lay on a crude wooden bench. Day was admitted by a window with massive iron bars. The policewoman, Hanka, was searching my satchel. Armed milicjamen surrounded me. A buzzing electric light glared:
“Where was pani going?”
“Why did you come here to teach?”
“What are the names of your Polish ancestors?”
“Are you of Jewish origin?”
A cane struck along the corridor, rapped sharply at the door. Hanka rose and unlocked it with a key.
The Lieutenant limped briskly in. I recognized Marek’s father. His outsized head cocked over me. I breathed the faintly pungent odor of a fox.
“Whom have I the pleasure of remembering?” he asked.
Silence. I received a slap in the face.
“Tell us your ancestors’ name.”
“I don’t know!” I answered. “My father—Heybald—was from Krakow.”
“Given name?” he inquired, reaching for pen and pad.
“Henryk. He died in New York when I was three.”
“And where was pani going this morning?” The Lieutenant was tapping his cane.
“I don’t know.”
Two pencils started scratching.
“What day of the week is it?” he asked.
“And the month?”
“Look it up.”
“Pani!” he cautioned. “Remember where you are.”
“Remember whom you’re addressing, sir!”
At the sound of the strap, I bolted upright. The Lieutenant smiled, a supple, winning smile: “Professor has bad manners,” he chided. “She loses too much her temper.”
He motioned to his colleagues. With stiff, little bows they turned their backs on me.
Hanka spoke: “What is pani thinking?”
But pani wasn’t thinking. A pigeon ruddered to the window sill, eyes frightened and starved. A hound dog bayed in the courtyard. I heard a carefully closed door.
The Lieutenant and his colleagues had left.
“Swallow this,” said Hanka, handing me a small, pink pill.
She rose to slip a needle in my arm.
“How old is pani?” she asked me several moments later. Her voice was soft, gentle.
“Forty,” I answered.
“Forty and still alone?”
“Excuse me?” I felt my tongue grow thick.
“Why pani came to Poland?” she asked, picking up a sweater she was knitting.
To what shall I confess? A need to know my heritage, my birthright as a Jew? To say goodbye to the father I never could forget; to find the house where he was born, some remnant of his early youth, a tree, a yard, a stone.
“Tell Hanka,” she coaxed. “Go on.”
No, I couldn’t tell her; how could I tell her that for him, only for him, I would dress in Polish garments, scrub the makeup from my face? In a sturdy pair of shoes, head erect, glance proud, I’d glide over cobblestones, stop strangers in the street to speak—above all, listen—with this cross around my neck to hear unedited Polish responses to Jews.
Instead, “I came to get away,” I said.
“From what to what?” she asked, her knitting needles clicking.
“My life, my work, were at a crossroads, a standstill. Understand standstill?”
I have to shed this nightmare, begin again at the beginning.
On the day of my welcome last week, a beautiful September afternoon, I was ushered to Warsaw University to pick up my ration coupons for the month. With these, I can buy six pounds of meat, one of butter, two of kasha, sugar, and flour. For my pleasure, a fifth of vodka; for my hygiene, one small cake of soap that must last for two whole months. I also received in zlotys my first month’s salary, far in excess of my needs.
I live on the fourth floor—yes, here—this whale-gray structure. Just around the corner stands the Church of the Holy Cross, the only church in Warsaw untouched by the Nazi invasion. Diagonally across, abutting the English Institute where I’ll be teaching, is the main gate of Warsaw University. To its right, half a block up, is the back entrance of Victory Square. There, in 1979, Pope John Paul addressed his compatriots in an open air Mass that overflowed Ogród Saski, the beautiful Saxon Gardens, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Back at my apartment, I view my spacious rooms. Through the alcove to the left is my bedroom. I sleep on that narrow daybed, and read at the mahogany table spanning the French windows over the kino sign. To the right is my combined study and living room. Here with the curtains half-drawn I’ll spend my hours writing with time and space to breathe new landscapes for new poems. Time is all I want now: a light academic load, three short weekly classes, a handful of students in each.
There’s a knock at the door. “Who is it?” I ask.
“Your Polish tutor!”
“Come in please, you’re welcome!”
“Professor, my name is Pawel,” announces a slight, dimpled young man.
“My name’s Carol. Hello!”
“But Carol means Charles in Polish. Want to be known as Charles?” he asks.
“Then I am happy to meet Karolina.” He bows and kisses my hand. “And you’re visiting us from where?”
“From the University of Kansas, right in the middle of America. I came on the international academic exchange program,” I explain.
“I am graduate student in Linguistics here, right in the middle of Europe.”
“Here, let me take your things.” I place his gray, worn cardigan and matching cap carefully over a chair.
“You know some little Polish?” he asks.
“Only very little.”
“Say something, anything. Well?”
“You first,” I plead.
“No; I am the tutor.”
“Then szadem, Pawel!”
He looks askance at me: “You invite yourself to sit?” he asks.
“No, you sit.”
“Let’s both sit,” he suggests. We enter my study laughing. “So: Dzien dobry! Good day! Repeat: Dzien dobry.”
Why do I feel so happy today? Look: some boys are sweeping fallen leaves from the elm across the street. Above, the black, sharp pin of a cathedral is etched across the evening sky. Inside the worshippers are singing. In the yard a couple of trees are growing. And with all this dwell some birds that make a little music for me in the morning.
Among the pigeons that come each day to my windowsill is a great, fat cripple to whom the others pay homage by allowing him first to feed on the crumbs I provide. The great one devours them all as one by one the others fly away. See him flapping his short wing? His Majesty is waiting for more. And he wonders why I draw the curtains. I can’t write when observed, not even by a bird.
A call from the United States Embassy: My books arrived there in error; would I come to pick them up? No sooner did I enter the compound than pani Monika, the Polish receptionist, asked me where I’d been. But surely she knows—she told me!—exchange professors have no embassy privileges. The Rollinses only may shop at the Commissary and receive packages from the States:
“They’re Fulbright scholars; I’m not,” I reminded her.
“But they’ve been trying to reach you!” she whispered, taking me aside. “Do you want to share their maid? For twenty-five dollars a week she’ll queue and clean for you.”
“But they’re paid in dollars, I in zlotys. Sorry, can’t afford it.”
“Well, at least we know where we stand.” She seemed a bit put out. “So, you have your coupons? You know what you can buy?”
“Yes, thanks; I’ve already queued.” In Poland I’ll live as a Pole.
“School starts next week, remember. Oh, Professor!” She catches up with me at the door: “You’re aware of our shortage of textbooks? Please don’t forget to check them out of the library before each class, and to return them immediately after.”
“I won’t forget.”
Heading home through the streets and parks, I am charmed by the smiles of strangers—such genuine warmth and concern. And the little children look like angels; not one whines or cries. Is there no candy for them? There is bread to eat. And Mama and Papa are kind. Still, in every shop window burn candles in memory of the dead.
Walking me home from Practical English class, my students Ewa and Marysia flanked on either side of me, make me feel like a big mother hen. In front of the Church of the Holy Cross:
“If you don’t go to Mass once a week,” warns Marysia, “you’re a bloody Communist.”
“If you go more often,” adds Ewa, “milicja take your name.”
“Ewa, you exaggerate! I saw a milicjaman praying here yesterday,” I say.
“Praying or spying on you?”
“Oh come on, Marysia! Can’t a soldier hate war?”
I want to ask her why, when Ewa interrupts:
“So you are happy, Professor?”
“Ewa, why do you ask me that?”
“Well, I’ve been meditating.”
“Well, you meditate on your essay. It’s already five days late.”
“I know, I know,” she sighs. We round the corner of my house.
What’s that rumpus up the street?
“Crouch down—it’s Marek,” warns Ewa, watching him approach us.
I recognize their classmate, the tall, gawky boy who sits in back.
“Cock-a-doodle-do!” hoots Marysia: “Whistling down Traugutta Street twirling six rolls of toilet paper on a string. Where’d you get them, connections?”
“He’s a Jew,” whispers Ewa in my ear.
“Rat without a tail!” remarks a stranger, eyeing Marek’s contraband.
“Three-eyes,” adds Marysia.
“Toilet paper is so rare,” explains Ewa, “we have to use Communist news.”
“I know,” I admit. “So do I!” Then, “Three eyes?” I echo, bewildered.
Ewa explains: “Sometimes the angle of his glasses makes a third eye on his forehead.”
“I can’t picture that!” I exclaim.
Clk-clk-clk go Marek’s heels on the pavement, approaching us proudly for spite.
“Bravo, Marek, bravo!” jeer the girls.
“Hello, Marek,” I say quietly.
He reddens, bows—passes silently by.
“Look! There’s Pawel ten paces behind,” squeals Marysia. “Ewunia, fix your hair!”
“What? My Polish lesson already?” I glance at my watch.
“Pawel’s your tutor?” cries Ewa, amazed.
“Yes. Didn’t you know?”
There he stands in the sunlight, observing a breeze blow forward Ewa’s dress sash of cherry-colored silk. She starts to speak to him about something in the daily sequence of their relations and sees his eyes dart to mine for a response. He admires her; is she a thing to be admired? She has quick, blue, berry-ripe eyes, a naturally quizzical expression. When she’s embarrassed—oh, look how embarrassed!—she turns aside and nervously inspects her shoes.
Excerpt from THE HEART TOO LONG SUPPRESSED: A Chronicle of Mental Illness
THE HEART TOO LONG SUPPRESSED
In the summer of 1978, while accompanying my mother and her third husband on a ten-week pleasure cruise to Leningrad, I threw overboard the following medications: the psychotropic tranquilizers Haldol and Thorazine; and the antidepressants, Imipramine Daytime and Tofranil P.M. A psychiatric patient in and out of hospitals for thirty years, I’d been on massive doses of medication for twenty. I was forty-four.
The previous fall I’d begun my job as assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Kansas, at Lawrence. It had become my habit, as a visiting university lecturer, to register upon arriving in town at the nearest medical facility with a note from my former therapist indicating the pills I was taking. It was up to me to find a doctor who’d consent to rewrite my prescriptions and to take me on as a patient. Given my medical history, not everyone would.
The nearest facility to Lawrence is the renowned Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, where I was promptly scheduled for a morning-long battery of psychological tests. One of the reasons I’d accepted the job in Kansas was that at Menninger’s I hoped to find a lasting cure for whatever it was that ailed me.
The administering psychologist, Dr. Sheila Skollar, summoned me from the waiting area at 8:30 a.m. and began with a brief apology for having to ask me, as a mere formality, some rather stupid routine questions. I smiled.
“Who is the President of the United States?” she asked.
I opened my mouth to speak.--Carter’s name escaped my mind. I froze, then laughed or tried to, as I explained that I had just arrived in this blistering August heat from the MacDowell Artists’ Colony in New Hampshire, where I’d been working round the clock on a novel that was beginning finally, finally to take shape... I laughed again... Just one second more and I’d remember... Dr. Skollar suggested we get on with the Rorschach and word-association tests. I answered carefully, thoroughly--too thoroughly perhaps to compensate for my memory lapse because twice she admonished sharply, “Just say what you see!”
By lunchtime we had finished. “I’ll be straight with you,” she said. “You seem extremely disorganized.”
“I think it’s more than that. Look: I don’t think you can give a coherent lecture. I’m recommending your hospitalization.”
“What? For what?” I was shocked. “Dr. Skollar, I’m starting a new job next week! Teaching’s how I support myself. Please! I’ve just been overworking. I can rest at home.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Then, “How am I supposed to pay a hospital bill without the medical insurance the job provides?”
She assured me that something could be worked out.
“You really think I need... ?” A lump in my throat stopped me. “I don’t know what to do first,” I said finally: “to go home and pack, or telephone my chairman immediately.” The tears welled up.
Appeased, she seemed at once kinder. “Look, you have my opinion,” she said sensibly. “I’ll pass it on to Dr. Sampson” (the psychiatrist to whom I’d been assigned). “You’re seeing him tomorrow?” I nodded. “Then just do nothing until tomorrow. If he agrees with me, we’ll take it from there.”
It was lunchtime. Since I didn’t drive, I had to take the Lawrence bus, which didn’t leave for a couple of hours. I asked her where I could get a bite to eat.
“They’re eating downstairs right now,” she said. “I’ll arrange for you to join them, as a visitor.”
I stood in line with the inpatients, pleasant-looking, mostly young--none recognizably ill. But few mental patients at the elite retreats are. It struck me that no one bothered to ask if I was new. There were no locked doors. I was visiting today, that’s all. But in a day or two I’d be “in again”. I felt discouraged and so horribly tired, that were it not for my teaching contract, and the probability of a ruined career which Dr. Skollar dismissed so very lightly (“Your health comes first!”), I’d have taken her advice without question.
Horribly tired, did I say? Then why suddenly on that lunch queue did my heart begin to pound, my muscles to freeze? My arms grew stiff--one began lifting of its own accord--when I turned around, mounted the stairs and ran far, far down the road as fast as I could until I reached the bus stop. I sat down to rest.
Across the street was an empty payphone. I had with me the number of a fellow artist in whom I’d confided at MacDowell. A prominent critic and novelist, she had attended an after-dinner reading I’d given from my novella Asylum, about a mental patient’s struggle for self-possession. When my friend asked its source, I answered, personal experience. She then read the complete novella and claimed to be deeply moved by it. I was honored. We swam together, ate together, and talked intimately.
I told her, because she asked, that aside from a brief year of marriage, I’d lived my adult life alone, and that I was on heavy medication because I was troubled by visions of Jesus. In fact, the previous year, when I taught at the University of Wisconsin, my visions were followed by a searing pain in one eye, and temporary blindness.
But why did I admit this to a stranger? Because I was in desperate need of a friend. And because in such states of desperation, we trust whomever we need. Half expecting to be betrayed, we are sometimes wonderfully surprised. Before the onset of my blindness I had shared my terror of these visions with my former dean at Utica College, a trained psychologist, who advised me wisely not to be afraid, that they might portend something positive. It occurred to me then that it was my fear of insanity, and not the visions themselves, that had caused my blindness and pain.
But I must have frightened my friend from MacDowell, whose interest in me soon after cooled. I was really a bit heartbroken, but I was used to it. Another deposit for the memory bank, I thought; or as Emerson more aptly put it: “Pearls and rubies to [his] discourse.” Once, I had fallen in love with someone whose best friend told me, confidentially of course, “He doesn’t want anyone that sick.”
My friend picked up the phone with a gracious hello. I got quickly to the point about my recommended hospitalization. “So I’ll probably be writing to you from Topeka, not Lawrence,” I said. “I’m really sorry to lay this on you.”
“You’re not laying anything on me,” she replied, “because there’s nothing I can do.”
It was then I decided to fight.
I knew that the next day my psychiatrist, Dr. Sampson, hearing the customary factual rundown of my life, would be on the lookout for “disorganized thinking.” So with nothing to do that night, I prepared my life history. Never deviating from facts, I would pause at strategic places and toss in a few insights into the probable causes of my illness. I began with the death of my father when I was four, followed by my inability to listen in school, or to read until I was nine.
“Where were you?” asked the doctor next day.
“I can’t say for sure... probably in an unconscious fantasy of heaven. Or at least knocking at the gate. I do remember thinking ‘Our father, who art in Heaven’ was my father in particular.”
“And you were his special child?”
“Well, I liked to think so,” I answered modestly.
Dr. Sampson smiled. I had passed, I assumed splendidly, since he disagreed with Dr. Skollar’s recommendation, and backed my decision to go home and prepare my classes.
I traveled to Topeka weekly to see him, took my medications faithfully, and began teaching at the University of Kansas. At the end of the academic year, I received a note from my chairman: my student evaluations for fall and spring semesters had been outstanding. If I wanted to be considered for early promotion and tenure, he’d be happy to support me.
Dr. Sampson was delighted by my chairman’s encouragement. “We’re doing very well,” he beamed.
All year my feelings of loneliness had been acute. I’d call him--not often but from time to time. “Get a dog,” he told me. “There’s nothing wrong with loving a dog!”
“Can I call you again?” I asked him.
“What do you want me to tell you?” he joked. “Get a cat?”
But what did I expect? I had wanted above all to write. If romantic relationships weren’t possible for me, close friendships were. And if there was no one yet within shouting distance, I’d nourish myself on books and music. I worked beyond endurance. Nothing was happening! I was harping on the same old subjects. Thoughts spun on the wheels of thought. I clutched at possibilities. And the train ground down to a halt. My mind was in a groove.
Shortly before summer recess, when I agreed to join my parents on their cruise, I asked Dr. Sampson if he thought I’d ever be well enough to function without therapy and medication. He answered that I’d probably have to continue the former indefinitely; I’d need the pills for the rest of my life.
I had been ready to give up, to settle. I even took a perverse pride, each time the dosage was increased, in how well I still could function. Despite Thorazine’s annoying side-effects, for me, a parched mouth and sandpaper tongue (students ribbed me about the two diet sodas always on my desk), I was seldom absent from class. My hospitalizations occurred between semesters and at holidays. I was remarkably well-controlled, really something of a wunderkind.
But that year things had changed. “Medications for the rest of my life?” I echoed.
“You’re doing very well,” he insisted.
“For a sick person?” He didn’t respond. “Tell me, do those pills inhibit the imagination?”
“They inhibit delusional thinking,” he replied.
“Which is seated in the imagination, no? Doctor, that’s my stock in trade,” I yelled.
“Just be grateful we have them.” Then, “Are you forgetting the night terrors, the hallucinations?”
“You’re absolutely certain they are hallucinations?”
“There’s no doubt in my mind.”
We ended the session.
Next day I called his secretary to cancel all future appointments. Two weeks later, on the high seas, I tossed my medications overboard. I’ve not taken a pill or seen a therapist since.
My terror and blindness are gone. And my visions, which abated in 1998, shortly before my mother’s death, I have since learned were “benign.” My former dean had hinted as much when she told me not to be frightened. But Dr. Sampson’s reminder of my terror served only to reinforce it. Hallucination is a frightening word. Psychopaths “ordered by God to kill” claim to suffer from them. Did Dr. Sampson have a stake in keeping me dependent? If I thought so, why didn’t I ask him? Because I was certain he’d assume the question symptomatic of my disease.
I was first hospitalized in the late fifties with paranoid schizophrenia, a psychosis characterized by intellectual deterioration, delusions, hallucinations, inattentiveness, and emotional dysfunction. Given that schizophrenia in its various subtypes was the psychiatric diagnosis of choice, with which a great many Americans were then hospitalized, I wondered why the possibility of my misdiagnosis was never raised. In 1978 I still wore the label. Whether I’d ever embodied it I don’t know. I knew only I had to shed it. But how?
You and I and most other people have only one foothold in the world and that is the truth. But to live exclusively in reality is as intolerable as it is incomprehensible. For me it was seldom possible. Why? Was the truth so appalling? It’s one thing to know it and another to tell it. Often I’d lie close to it. For example, my father died when I was four, but for many years I told people I was three. I thought if I exaggerated my early troubles, my amazed listener would think, “Look how well she’s done despite them!” But to make a liar of myself for the sake of one year? Wasn’t there another reason? To admit the facts surrounding my father’s death would force me to relive them. And this I could not do. But with the crusting over of painful memories my illness took root. Who was I? I was the name I was given. I had an age, a sex, a profession. But there was no self to fall back on. Others couldn’t relate to me.
Should I be ashamed to concede that people with worse beginnings than mine have fared better, when the converse is also true? We have different psychic strengths. I went crazy; you may not have. What’s crazy? Not seeing, not caring to see... What? The effects of our early abuses, or the abusers themselves? Those who punished us not for our misdeeds but from their own misery, or those who remained apathetic? But apathy is madness too: When we endure too many insults in silence we become indifferent to everything. And so gradually do we come to this condition we don’t realize the full horror of it.
“Carol, for God’s sake!” chided colleagues, sensing my despair. “They’re starving in India!” And I wondered whether starving together made it any easier.
Clearly I needed help. But from whom? A healthy, competent professional, strong and skillful enough to awaken in me a clear memory of all I had buried. In thirty years of therapy I’d had one. My difficulties shared were lessened by half. By then I was middle-aged. What remained was the painful realization that in my adult life I had been responsible for the cruelest self-neglect because I couldn’t help appeasing those in my early childhood who’d treated me precisely the same way.
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THREE BLIND MICE:Two Short Novels
CLARA KLEINSCHMIDT: A former comedian with the Yiddish Theatre takes the reader on an intimate journey through memories recalled against the backdrop of New York in the 1920's.
Excerpt from my novella CLARA KLEINSCHMIDT
I have endured in my life profound insults and lapsed from them into profound indolence. During dinner with an acquaintance one evening, I confessed that I often felt quite alone. She exclaimed, “But we are all alone--you are not, you know, sui generis.” Though you may not understand me, I felt this a profound insult.
I am an elderly spinster, wrinkled and poor--an ant, a spider, if you like. I occupy a top-floor walk-up on Manhattan’s lower East Side. My name is Clara. Do not expect that I will kill myself at the end of this narrative. I am neither ill, hungry, nor wretched. Indeed I find so much amusement in day-to-day. . .You must excuse me. That is not quite true. May I confess something? I am terrible liar. I lie without even noticing it myself, so that people believe I am telling the truth. I want to appear cleverer than I am in order not to appear more stupid than others. I am not different from others, but more like them than they themselves, in feeling, in intensity. Yet I seem peculiar. In the past I thought I could achieve common grounds with people if I laughed often in their presence and ate heartily in their homes. But I learned later that they only ostracized me for my foolishness and gluttony. As time went on, I became, by my own will, quite alone.
As a Jew, I know neither God the Father, nor God the Spirit, but I have what you might call a heart-knowledge of Christ. I am a retired Latin teacher. I feel afraid suddenly. Please speak. Always I have been afraid.--So large--my fear was very large.
My students expected of me help, advice, I who was so helpless before the exigencies of life. In youth, we are obsessed, are we not, by “pain”--so that it becomes almost fashionable to declare ourselves unhappy. And we are! O yes--unhappy! I had a student, a perfectly ugly boy with a cataract in his left eye. I was somehow very moved by him and went out of my way to be kind. One afternoon, during a conference, he said, “I love you, Miss Kleinschmidt.” At that instant I noticed egg-droppings on his tie; I became physically ill. I,--please, I say what I say to clarify myself (hm!). Understand it but do not refer to it--I ask you not to refer to it.
Excuse me--just now I am unable to control the stream of my thoughts. I am imagining myself a young woman, full-bodied and very beautiful. My husband is entering the front door; I rise from my work to greet him. I have spent the day scouring my home and preparing a tasty chicken-dish for supper. My husband smiles and holds out his arms to embrace me,--he is touching my face, my hair,--and our child sleeps in his play-pen. I am twenty-five years old and in deep love.
At twenty-five I played small roles in the Yiddish theater. In the beginning all went well. I was a gifted comedian and consistently employed for several years. I am not ashamed to say that Thomashefsky pinched my bottom more than once during a performance--and who could blame him? Though not very commercial looking (I come from a long line of Mona Lisas), I was a zaftig morsel and really quite sweet. However, during my career, I was occasionally overcome by a certain despondence that grew acute during performances. At these times I acted mechanically, and sometimes, while playing, planned to kill myself later in the evening. My depression was barely noticed by my colleagues, though Adler sometimes complained that my energy level was low. My despondence grew more frequent and marked. At odd intervals I grew acutely depressed and barely managed the daily necessities. I remember at the time attending funerals to which I was not invited. I peeped cautiously at the faces of the dead. Some were tender and lovely, but as a whole, they were disagreeable. Their smiles--I don’t like them!--why do the dead grow so heavy in their coffins? I left the theater after seven years, and began living on a modest inheritance my father had left me.
Quite suddenly at twenty-nine, I developed a passion for my exterminator. He was a middle-aged man, thorough in his work, and extraordinarily kind. How he absorbed me in spite of myself! Always the sound of his footstep had the power of quickening my pulse. Never did he spray my apartment without making in me large results of gratitude. But I never could confess myself. I felt afraid of being insulted.
One afternoon I found the courage to invite him to tea. But out of nervousness I served him without a spoon.
“With what should I stir the tea,” he asked, “with my shmuck?”
I am lying just now in order to fascinate you.
Lately I am afraid to move without giving all my attention to it because if I am doing something else, I might carry out the wrong movement. For instance, in going out that door, if I paid attention to something else, I might stand on my head. I don’t want to move, because if I do, everything changes around me and upsets me horribly, so I remain still to hold onto a sense of permanence. Sometimes I can remember about love.
The human light unshunnable. I must speak of it--I don’t know how. The world outside’s asleep. Dark outside my window--cold. My neighbors, the Swensons and Murphys, have put their families to bed. The boys who play about my stoop have all gone home now. I sit at my desk--pen, paper, and tea--and feel weary. You might say I feel weary without ever having lived. No, not that exactly. I have loved. One man spoke of children, kissed my eyes. My longing for a child was so great it amounted to a physical ache in my breasts.
Being a virgin, I am very unhappy. Ablative absolute construction. Will you marry me? Oh how awkward this is,--you must excuse me. It was necessary for me just then to shock you in order to avoid disaster. Do you see my meaning? Last night I found a worm in my pork chop and forced myself to eat it just in order to avoid this nameless disaster. Oh I know it’s all nonsense, these superstitions, but it costs one so little to give into them. Comparatively, I mean. Well, suppose disaster did come just because I was too reticent or lazy to avoid it?
I meant to speak of love--I had begun to speak of love--
These superstitions are self-punitive, I admit. The fact is I crave punishment everywhere and in everything. I seem never to avoid it. I steal deliberately from supermarkets fully conscious that I wish to be caught and punished. I absolutely want to commit something wicked,--yet it seems, not by my own will, but by someone else’s. I grow depressed after full meals. My dreams have begun to accuse me. Often I am swallowed up by an enormous glittering wave, or shot in the breast by a stranger. I cease even to enjoy my reveries. Always when I feel the least bit content in them, I imagine a rat leaping up to my eyes. Fundamentally, I suppose, I crave punishment evening pleasure--otherwise it is incomplete. Perhaps I’ve a thirst for martyrdom, do you think?
Now then. Suppose you met me one evening at a gathering. I think you would find me of pensionable age, standing approximately five feet four inches tall, slight and tidy of build, and with a healthy crop of brown and silver hair fluffed out in a feather cut. You would judge my face more round than oval, and displaying a set of deep black eyes, and a full and amiable mouth, which upon further acquaintance, would probably tell you that though I have grimaced and wept enough in my time to deserve the frown lines on my forehead, and the grooved furrows about my lips, I have neither laughed enough to deserve the crow’s feet about my eyes, nor suckled those babes who might have justified the withered flutings on what was once a superb bosom.
If, at any rate, at our supposed gathering, we in any way delighted one another, I should probably invite you next day for afternoon tea. And when you had climbed up my five flights of wooden stairs, and puffingly entered my hall, I should urge you to catch your breath in my elegant, mahogany chair table, which consists of a drawer for gloves and mufflers, a seat for resting and slipping on rubbers, and a spacious table top which pulls down over the seat and inside which rest my boxes of maison de blanc handkerchiefs with which I enjoy blowing my nose. As you rose and passed into my living room, you’d be greeted beside its archway by a graceful, hand-forged iron bracket which holds my pottery pot for growing ivy and other drooping vines. And in the far corner opposite the tan studio couch on which I sleep, you would note my richly carved mahogany table, and over to the left, my graceful chair of Sheraton influence upholstered in colorful, crewel embroidery and in which I delight in reading.
You might then glance through those books which line the entire wall above my desk of antique English, a maple reproduction from the Chippindale period (about 1775), and which displays the following: A smiling little pencil man--that is, a man whose anatomy consists of two pencils, a pen, ruler, eraser, paper clips, pen wiper, pen points, and elastics. (He came to me post-paid from Widdicombs in 1934 and has since served me most genially.) Next him you’d spy a cigarette box of especially fine Japanese red lacquer with a genuine carved white inlay; and to its right, a dainty, hand-painted lamp with a red porcelain base. Enough! Let us get better acquainted.