(First published in Grey Border's Magazine, September 2017.)
We had temporarily escaped my father for what would be the first of many times, planting fresh roots in another new space yet untainted by his explosive rage.
Mom and I moved into an apartment on Laurel Street just down the road from Pioneer Park, perched on a bluff overlooking the St. Croix River and historic downtown Stillwater. The pale yellow four-plex shed its outer skin as the flaking paint exposed the many different layers beneath, reminding us that we were just one of many families to have shared their histories with these walls. There were aging hardwood floors throughout, and Mom used brightly colored throw rugs made from tied rags to cover the most damaged spots to try to make it feel more cheerful. Music floated through our windows in the summertime from the bandshell in the park, occasionally filling our hearts with melodies of hope.
Meanwhile, the yellow-haired woman my father had been seeing packed a suitcase and left her house in the middle of the night to catch a bus to New York city. I couldn’t help but wonder what their relationship had been like—if he was as abusive to her as he was to Mom—if she had run for her life, too, fleeing halfway across the country, scared to death that it wouldn’t be far enough, that he would find her and kill her no matter how far she went.
Father shifted his predatory focus back to us, always showing up at the most unexpected times, triggering Mom’s anxiety something terrible. She began pulling her hair out, starting with her eyelashes, which she plucked, one by one, until they disappeared completely. Her eyebrows were next, and once those were gone, she drew them on with a pencil each morning, one shockingly higher than the other so that she always seemed to be looking at me suspiciously. As the months wore on, brightly colored bandanas replaced her beautiful mane to cover the bald spots she’d created by pulling each long red hair out by the root.
“I don’t want that bastard coming near us,” she’d tell me, “but I just don’t know what to do to keep him away.” Still, she had neither filed for divorce nor obtained a restraining order, so Father came and went as he pleased, drunk, high, manic, angry—the seismic drumbeats of pressure built beneath his skin until he was no longer human when it erupted from the depths of his dark heart. He seemed disconnected from himself during those times, plugged into an inner demon that took control of his mind and body, fists flailing, lips snarling like a vicious animal. Dangerous. Predatory. Lethal.
And Mom did her best to free us, in her own way.
I’d never seen Father cry before. Mom held his head in her lap as the intensity of his sobs increased. They almost looked tender and in love… almost. I stood in the doorway, transfixed, as the hair prickled the back of my neck, knowing full well that I should turn and run, that something bad was brewing, but my feet stayed planted solidly to the floor, as if encased in cement.
“Lee, this isn’t going to work anymore,” Mom said, and Father flew up from her lap with lightning speed, head-butting her under the chin. He grabbed a pillow from the bed with one hand and Mom’s neck with the other before her teeth even had time to stop clattering together and flung her against the window. Amazingly, the glass didn’t break, but something in Mom did when she hit the frame. A breathless sounding “Umph” escaped her lips as the wood cracked against the back of her head. He used the pillow to smother her face as he tried to shove her out of the second story window.
“Mommy! Mommy!” I screamed, while she struggled to free herself from the monster that was my father.
She managed to wedge her foot against the wall beneath the window and blindly bring her other knee up, connecting hard with his groin, sending him plunging to the ground. She grabbed my hand and we ran like thieves, out of the bedroom, out of the apartment, down the stairs, and into the daylight.
Neither of us were wearing shoes. A dusting of snow covered the thin layer of ice on the sidewalk, but except for the numbness in my toes, I barely noticed the bitter wind that blew against our faces and made my eyes tear up and my lashes freeze together. Sheer terror warmed our blood as we ran for our lives up Fourth Avenue, desperate to make it to safety before Father could catch up with us and finish what he’d started.
Uncle Mark and Aunt Cheryl’s back door was always unlocked. We flung ourselves inside, screaming for help, warning the house that a monster was coming. But the horror on our faces said more than enough. Aunt Cheryl immediately locked the door behind us as Uncle Mark ran to the window to look outside. Father’s car came to a screeching halt behind the giant lilac bush near the edge of the house, which were gnarled bare bones in the dead of winter.
“That motherfucker doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” Aunt Cheryl said.
She rolled up her sleeves and waited behind the front door, a tiny lady, making up in forcefulness what she lacked in stature. You either felt very safe or very afraid in her presence, and at that particular moment, I felt a little bit of both. Safe in that my aunt was about to run the show, but very afraid of what my father would do next.
Loud pounding shook the door. Aunt Cheryl threw it open and stood in the open space with her arms crossed, blocking the entrance, glaring up at him.
“Where’s Neve? I want to see my boy,” Father said.
He tried squeezing past her, but she held the door firmly with her left foot.
“You’re not seeing anyone. You think you can go around terrorizing women? You think that makes you a strong man? You’re not a man, you’re a pussy.”
She swung her hand up at his face, clawing into his flesh. He reeled backwards, clearly not expecting the attack, and almost fell down the steps. He pressed his hand to the side of his cheek and without saying another word, leapt down the stairs and jumped into his car, peeling out as he took off down the street.
He really was a pussy.
I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hug Aunt Cheryl, so I did all three at once. I’d never seen anyone stand up to him like that before. He seemed smaller to me, somehow.
“You need to grow a pair and leave that son of a bitch,” Aunt Cheryl said to Mom.
I was still shaking, as I always did when Mom and my father fought. My whole world shook during those times, my feet never finding stable enough ground to trust our next steps.
“Think of what this is doing to Matthew,” Uncle Mark added, looking softheartedly at me.
Mom perched on a dining room chair with her knees tucked into her chest and her arms wrapped tightly around herself. I don’t even know if she heard them.
It took a while for everyone to calm down, but once we did, we had a warm supper together before Mom and I both fell prey to exhaustion and a fitful bout of sleep.
Uncle Mark drove us back down the street the next morning, and, not seeing my father’s car anywhere, dropped us at our apartment. The elderly woman who lived below us stopped us as we walked into the entryway of the building.
“Well, hello, you two! Don’t you look cute today, little Matthew?” Margaret said.
She had a kind face and a mess of gray hair. She always left the door to her apartment wide open so she could visit with folks as they came and went. Sometimes, she’d bang her cane against the wall, which always startled Mom, who would go running down the stairs thinking she’d had an accident, expecting to see Margaret toppled from her wheelchair sprawled out on the hardwood floor, only to find that she simply wanted her blinds drawn and probably a little company.
“Neve, come in and have a cup of coffee. Please.”
“Oh, I don’t think so right now, Margaret, we’re just getting home from spending the night at my brother’s house,” Mom said.
“I heard,” Margaret pursed her lips as she exchanged a knowing look with Mom. “Can I talk to you for a just moment?”
“Sure,” Mom sighed.
Mom took the mug of coffee she hadn’t wanted, and I sat at the dining room table with a glass of milk and a warm chocolate chip cookie while they retired to the living room chairs near the window and talked in the hushed voices that adults used when they thought children couldn’t hear them.
“I’m really worried about the both of you.”
“Don’t be,” Mom said.
“I can hear y’all fighting up there…” She let the sentence linger as she surveyed Mom’s face. Mom turned to look out the window as her gaze softened.
“Please don’t ever call the police. It will only make things worse,” Mom said.
“I’m going to be moving soon, honey,” Margaret added. “I can’t get by on my own here any longer. But I do worry about you and the boy.”
“Thank you,” Mom said. “You sure will be missed.”
“You will be, too, if you don’t get some help,” she said.
Then they both trained their worried faces on me.
Mom finished her coffee and led me out of the apartment, up the stairs, and into our own. Margaret moved within the month. We never did have any visits from the police, even though that’s exactly what we’d needed.
Winter dragged on, gripping us in its gray, chilly clutches. Mom fixed up my room, turning it into a brightly-colored space to play during the day. She painted the walls periwinkle blue, bought a gently used yellow bedspread from the Goodwill, and hung garage sale shelving filled with books and stuffed animals; but no matter how comfortable she tried to make it, when evening fell, I was rocked with night terrors.
I saw large, dark figures in my room, and sometimes, when I’d yank the covers over my head and count to ten, then slowly pull them back down below my eyes, the things would no longer be there; other times, the shadow figures refused to leave.
One night, I was so terrified by the gigantic shape hovering near the end of my bed that I threw up on myself trying to find the light switch in the dark. I ran to Mom’s room, but I couldn’t bring myself tell her what happened. I was too afraid that talking about it would make it real. I climbed into her bed after she cleaned me up and prayed she’d keep the restless spirits at bay.
But even in the warmth of Mom’s bed, I could hear my father’s footsteps shuffling about the house. He banged around in the kitchen, knocking into the table and chairs, rummaging through drawers. My heart raced as I sucked in my breath hoping that somehow he would forget we were there, trying to become as small as possible, trying to disappear completely.
Mom’s voice woke me the next morning as she pounded on my bedroom door.
“Lee! Wake up, Lee, I know you’re in there.”
Mom kept shoving her shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. One of Father’s many tricks was to wedge a butter knife up high between the door and the frame, trapping himself inside like a werewolf afraid of turning, then he’d sleep until early afternoon. Usually, I was trapped in there with him, and I couldn’t decide which was worse: my restless father or the restless spirits.
We bundled up to trudge through the snow to the small market half a mile away. We’d walk there when we needed to pick up supplies in between the times that Uncle Mark or Aunt Cheryl would bring us to the larger grocery store in town. The windchill was well below zero that day, so Mom reluctantly accepted Father’s offer to drive us the short distance. We hopped in the car and he sped through the streets and avenues aimlessly.
“Lee, where are you going?” Mom asked.
He drove fast—too fast for the city streets—running stop signs and stepping on the gas at the top of Chestnut Hill before launching the car in the air and then crashing the front end into the pavement as we careened down the street toward the river.
“If I can’t have you, no one will,” he said.
His empty voice didn’t sound very much like him at all, but I couldn’t see his face in the rearview mirror. I pictured his eyes empty, black as coal, blacker than the creatures haunting my dreams.
“Lee! Stop it! Pull over! Let us out! Please let us out,” Mom screamed.
I screamed, too, as the icy river loomed before us.
“I’m gonna kill us all,” Father said.
I closed my eyes and my mind filled with a terrifying emptiness.
We reached the river in no time as we sped down the hill and came to a screeching halt at the edge of the bank. The water appeared frozen, but I feared the current that loomed beneath.
He revved the engine and jerked out the clutch, just enough to make the car lurch forward, then caught it with the brakes, over and over again until I thought my heart would explode.
I wanted to scream, but I had no voice. I wanted to run, but my legs were paralyzed. I wanted to take Father’s keys from the ignition and scrape them across his face, making a bloody red X, erasing him from existence. But he was a giant—he would snap me in half and eat me alive, then spit me back out again. My broken body would slide across the ice until it rested there, lifeless, while Mom sunk to the bottom of the river’s depths, disappearing into it forever.
All of a sudden, I am no longer here.
I am no longer in my body.
I am no longer in the car.
The taste of bug spray fills my mouth. A distinct chemical smell coupled with a feeling of safety. I’m walking down the worn path at Pop and Nana’s lake home while dead leaves crunch beneath my feet. It’s fall, and the smell of bug spray is replaced by the smell of dead things, the way leaves and dirt and grass smell right before it snows for the first time.
The lake is choppy, rippling the sun’s reflection like cascading glass. The weathered red dock beckons, filling me with excitement. I’m wearing a bright orange life vest and carrying a fishing pole twice my size as the hook and worm swing recklessly above the ground while I bound toward the lake.
Pop carries a string of panfish as he walks toward me up the path, and his thick white hair bounces in stride. He shuffles back and forth as he walks, not slowly, like someone in pain, but rather swishing the contents of his large belly from side to side to help him keep his balance and stay grounded to the earth so as not to float away like a giant balloon trailing a spool of fishing line.
I fling myself into his arms and my little hands try desperately to reach around his belly to his back. His pants are pulled up way too high from his suspenders, so I curl my fingers through his belt loops and rest in his arms. My fishing pole lies discarded in the grass, the line now tangled into a mass of knots.
“There, there, everything is going to be okay,” and Pop’s deep voice makes me feel safe once again.
Father didn’t drive us into the frozen river that day, but he did drive Mom to make a decision—she would figure out a way to get away from him for good, or die trying.
As Mom and my father fought in the upstairs apartment, I hid behind the orange recliner in Grandma Hazel’s living room, imagining over and over again what he’d do when he saw what I’d done. I pictured his face grotesque and his arms held out at his sides like sledgehammers.
I tried to get the image out of my mind by staring intently at the gold carpet, which had once been soft and vibrant, but was now faded and matted down into unnatural patterns. If I squinted just right, strange shapes came into focus, faces looking up at me with disapproval, angry carpet faces that mimicked the way my father’s face might look when he found me.
The chair was suddenly shoved aside, but it was Mom who stood tall above me. I felt exposed and vulnerable, and continued to stare at the carpet as if at any moment, one of those faces would offer to do the explaining for me.
“Matthew Evans,” she said, and I knew she meant business.
I could look away no longer, but when my eyes eventually met hers, I saw a smile threatening to crack open along the edges of her mouth. We walked together in front of Grandma Hazel’s house, down the street, following the same path the car had taken earlier as it had rolled silently backwards, a streak of green disappearing into the distance.
Father’s Nissan hatchback.
Deep tire impressions remained in the snow. The car rested mere feet from the bay window of the neighbor’s old-fashioned farm house. He wouldn’t be able to get into the car to drive it back up to his house, but Mom didn’t know that yet. After putting the car in neutral, I had left the keys dangling in the ignition, then locked the door and scrambled to shut it before watching the car pick up speed as it rolled swiftly down the hill.
We stood side by side for the next few minutes as a series of emotions flooded Mom’s face. I wasn’t sure which one was winning: amusement, shock, pride, or terror. It didn’t matter, anyway, because at that moment, with Mom standing beside me and that awful car which had threatened our lives now buried deep in the snow, I couldn’t help but feel like we had won the tiniest triumph in an impossible battle of survival.
We snuck away in the middle of the night, staying off the main roads, cutting through yards and alleys until we reached the safe house. Mom had hastily packed a few changes of clothes for us in preparation, careful to be sure that Father wouldn’t find out. Uncle Mark was waiting for us, ready to whisk us away to the first of many women’s shelters we would flee to over the next few years as we’d continue to trade one unpredictable home for another.
We had our own room on the second floor of an aging, historic brownstone, a private space to escape to when things felt unfamiliar and scary. The shelter spilled over with battered and broken and terrified families. Mamma bears bristled with trauma as they tried their best to protect their cubs.
Time did not exist in this space; neither hours nor days nor weeks nor months passed with any recognition at all, and before I knew it, we were heading back out into the world to survive on our own once again, the same way we’d left it.
We set up camp on the top floor of a rundown yellow two-story house on the outskirts of Stillwater near the old prison. Steep, paper-tarred steps led up the back to a makeshift patio, which was also gummed black and led to an entry door into the kitchen. The sun softened the gunk in the summertime, and the smell would reach into the pit of my stomach with noxious claws.
Mom got a job making bowling shoes, earning just enough money to squeak by, but it wasn’t long before my father came back along to sabotage the progress she’d made. I didn’t understand why she would let him back into our lives, but I didn’t think she really understood, either. Mom kept her job for the first few months, but after a while, there were days when she just wasn’t able to show up for her shifts, when her face was so beat up that she couldn’t find the strength to show herself in public, embarrassed and ashamed of what people would think.
What if they thought she deserved it?
Did she think she deserved it?
“You fucking idiot.”
Father jabbed his finger in Mom’s face until it repeatedly poked the bridge of her nose.
“Stop it, Lee, you’re hurting me,” Mom said.
“You realize they’re right out there, don’t you?” he asked.
She backed away from him.
“You fucking called them, you bitch. You called them!”
“Who’s out there, Lee?” Mom asked.
She opened the back door and peered outside. “Nobody’s there.”
Father shoved her and her head bounced against the wood as the door slammed shut. He grabbed a handful of her hair and dragged her into the living room like a rag doll, then dropped her onto her back and sat on her chest, pinning her arms down with his legs as she screamed.
He went to town on her face with his fists, over and over again until blood was everywhere and Mom was silent—until there was no noise left in the room at all except my father’s heavy breathing.
I hid under the kitchen table and bit down hard on my knuckle to choke back the tears, thinking Mom was surely dead this time, afraid he’d do the same to me if he found me. Instead, he crept out of the room without giving me a second glance, as if I didn’t exist at all.
I tiptoed through the kitchen. Mom looked like a corpse. Her face had been pounded into goulash, chunks of flesh mashed into bone. I wondered if she was alive. I leaned in close and tilted my head to listen for her breathing.
A few minutes passed like this. They felt like an eternity.
There was a loud pounding on the door, and I dove back under the kitchen table, huddled as far back in the corner as I could wedge myself as Father’s footsteps came back up the hallway. He dropped a wet towel on Mom’s chest as he walked past her, then peered out the back window before opening the door.
“Hey,” the man said, tall blue jean legs and cowboy boots.
“Hey man, what’s the happs?” my father asked pleasantly, as if he hadn’t just beaten the living crap out of his wife, who lay there, unmoving, a feet behind him.
“Not much,” Cowboy Boots said. “You ready to roll?”
“Yeah, man, I’ll grab my bag and be right down.”
He tried closing the door, but Cowboy Boots stepped in at the last second.
“Yo, I can wait right here.”
“Nah, that’s alright,” Father said.“You go back down. I’ll be right out.”
Cowboy Boots disappeared, and Father shut the door behind him. He walked back through the kitchen, stopping briefly in the living room to look at Mom, who was sitting up now, holding a bloodied rag to her face.
She was still alive.
In moments like these, I imagined my favorite super hero, Wonder Woman, flying directly above us in her magic jet, invisible to all, but especially to my father—a shimmering of red, white, blue, and gold that only I could see. She always knew when we were in trouble, and she was the only one who could save us. She’d whip her golden lasso high above her head in the brilliant sky, her metallic bracelets reflecting the sun, then send the magic rope expertly below to surround us in a glowing circle of light, warmth, and protection.
This, I knew, was the only way we’d ever make it to the next day safely.
Matt Rydeen is a Minneapolis-based LGBT author and an active member of the Loft Literary Center with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Minnesota. He is working on his first novel, Cherry Lane, based on his short stories, Monsters and Run. Matt is passionate about partnering with organizations fighting to end domestic violence as well as the stigma of mental illness, and works to champion change by shining a spotlight on how easy it is to fall through the cracks, like millions of other abuse sufferers that walk among the shadows. You can learn more about Cherry Lane at mattrydeen.com.
(Previously published in Criminal Class Review, 2013.)
What I remember most is the giant hill covered in black ice and trying to climb it, wearing Doc Martens, supporting myself by grabbing onto side windows of cars on my way up to the liquor store. It was New Year’s Eve in Alaska—going into 1997 and I was at a party. I came with my friend Joni, who I’d been sleeping with, in-between drowning our mutual sorrows in cheap beer. In what was probably the darkest year of my twenties, hanging out with her was a bright spot.
It was this guy Gabe and I, climbing the hill. A year earlier, at a different party, Gabe and I got into it. He tried to beat me up because he thought I was a poser, a pussy, and a full-of-shit writer. I was majoring in journalism but flunking out of college. I had been doing a punk zine for a few years and had recently retired it, feeling burned out and overwhelmed by my life. It took a lot out of me, but I also lived for it. Music and writing were my life—and I was at an impasse. I was despondent that the local music scene— something I’d based my life and identity on for two, three, four years—was dying. I was very happy that Gabe and I were finally hanging out though. I felt vindicated in my quest to become a genuine punk rocker, whatever that means.
We finally reached the liquor store then made our way down the hill, sliding all the way back to Alan’s party house. The nice coat of snow on my motorcycle jacket complimented the pre-existing sweat, dirt, and vomit. I was looking forward to seeing Julia, Alan’s new girl, who was a good friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while. We’d all heard from around that she wasn’t doing so well, that she had relapsed. She was a fixture in the local music scene but had been AWOL for a few months, and no-one knew for sure what had happened to her.
She had moved up to Anchorage from Los Angeles a few years prior, to clean up from years of IV drug use. I was drawn to her, mostly because she I both came from very religious upbringings and had both rebelled in our own ways. I had much admiration for her outsized attitude and her willingness to try and make a better life for herself. Deep down, I knew she was fucked up—maybe beyond repair.
Gabe and I barreled through the door, dropping our bundles of beer onto the carpet. I sat on the couch when Julia came out, wearing a sloppy getup of sweatpants and a blank, dirty t-shirt. Her skin looked yellowed and rubbery, and it aged her ten years. She looked like she was pushing forty, hair plastered back onto her head and pinned with a barrette. She sat down next to me. I wondered where her daughter was.
“Hey, Josh,” she said, putting her arm around me.
“Hey,” I said, afraid. I hunched my shoulders.
“How’s it going?”
“Good,” she said.
“You want a beer?” she asked, reaching down to grab a can from the box.
I had forgotten all about it. “Um, yeah, thanks,” I said, taking the can of Milwaukee’s Best that she offered.
“So, where’s Cheyenne?” I asked, looking around, trying to hide my disgust at her appearance.
“She’s in our bedroom,” Julia said, motioning down the hall.
I felt the sadness and anger rising in me. All of her friends, myself included, had tried for over a year, to keep her off of hard drugs only to have this stranger, this Alan guy, swoop in from Nevada—or wherever it was—and just blow the whole thing to shit. But ultimately, it was her choice in the end. We all knew it—especially me. The sick thing is, even after everything I knew about her drug problems, I still wanted so badly to do heroin with her. I was jealous that she had slid so far down. It would’ve been so easy—just get up, walk back into the room, and boom, relief.
I wanted so desperately to be accepted by Alan, Gabe, Julia, and all of the gutter punks. I wasn’t satisfied with my skunk pompadour, tattoos, leather jacket, radio show, punk zine, or any of it. None of it helped alleviate my feelings of worthlessness. I felt that Gabe was probably right: I wasn’t living the authentic life. I was a college student—unlike these other kids. They drank until they passed out, shot drugs, and they had facial tattoos. In trying to achieve my goal of heading straight down, I became a dabbler. It started with whip-its in high-school, and then I moved on to weed, hash, mushrooms, acid, and eventually meth—all in varying degrees of use. I craved scene cred, but I never found what I imagined was true abandon. Then I finally found something that made me feel better, something that took the edge off of daily life: burning myself with cigarettes. I can’t recall the first time I did it, but I will never forget the rush. Every day when I look at my arms, I remember. The sizzling sound it would make, hitting my skin and the sick joy I felt, knowing I had marked myself permanently in the process. I wanted people to look at me and cringe, knowing what I had done. I would do it when no one was around, to make myself feel better, and I would also do it on a dare because people asked me to.
“Do the smiley trick,” they would say. That’s where you press the hot lighter top to your skin, leaving a burn that, ironically, looks like a smiley face. I had found real release.
I had never been able to shake the feeling that I had failed my parents. When I was eighteen, I told them I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I dropped out of that life. At the time I wished that they had been self-righteous zealots, so I could tell them to fuck off and be done with it. But, religion aside, we had a pretty good relationship. So I was stuck. I didn’t have the guts to sink into the gutter, but I had turned my back on the person I used to be. I was nowhere.
A few months after Alan’s party, I saw Julia was at a Social Distortion show at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage—all the scene kids were there. It was February, 1997, right before my twenty-fourth birthday. I was in a mood and was burning myself again. I sat outside the auditorium, brooding, in my sleeveless t-shirt, which I had written “Sick Boy” on in black marker (and Joni stole from me!) I was talking with my friend Rex, who owned the local punk shop. He was fiddling with his septum ring, and giving me his usual half-cynical, half-uplifting pep talk. As Rex got up to go into the show, he hugged Julia. She came and sat next to me. She had shaved the sides of her head clean again, revealing her “PUNX” tattoo, and her liberty spikes were freshly dyed green, and standing in all their glory. My leather jacket was draped over my legs. My arm was pink and raw. I brought the lighter down again.
“Stop it, Josh,” Julia said, reaching her arm out. “Stop!” I pulled the lighter away from her grasp.
“What,” I said, baiting her. “What?” As if to say, who the hell are you to tell me to stop, doing what you’ve done? I brought it down a second time, looking at her. She turned and walked away in disgust.
My arm really hurt. The second burn was right on top of the first one. It would be the ninth and last one I ever did. At the end of the show, the lining of my jacket stuck to the wound. I winced, slowly pulling it off. I decided to forgo hanging out at, so I walked the two miles from downtown to midtown: up C Street, to the Village Inn to eat alone, have my late-night coffee, and think. I realized that Julia was right—I had gone too far. It was frightening that she was afraid for me. I ordered my coffee, took out my notebook, and, like so many nights before, began to write.
I continued to use various drugs; but seeing Julia, during that winter of 1996, changed my outlook: I tried to stop using them as tools to obliterate myself. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. There were very few times that writing gave me the level of release that was comparable to burning myself or doing drugs. Still, I carried a little notebook with me, inside the secret pocket of my motorcycle jacket—just in case.
I had one of the most odd and, strangely enough, transcendent experiences of my life on that New Year’s Eve, in Julia’s front yard. I remember standing with Julia, Gabe, Joni and a couple other people, smiling, watching the downtown fireworks show. Everyone just seemed so happy to be alive, looking at the bright explosions in the sky. I cut out early and quietly, an Irish goodbye as they say, and began scrambling back up the hill, filled with purpose again. I felt happy and newly innocent, and a feeling came over me: maybe things would get better eventually, if I just kept putting pen to paper—if I just kept going.
Josh Medsker is a New Jersey writer, originally from Alaska. His work has appeared in many publications, including: Contemporary American Voices, Brooklyn Rail, and The Legendary. For more info on Medsker, please visit his website at www.joshmedsker.com
(Previously published by Southern Pacific Review.)
I was three hours late, violently hung over from two bottles of cheap wine the night before, and driving thirty miles over the speed limit through the heart of downtown, en route to the “We Stand With Standing Rock” protest—or whatever name they chose this time. I won’t bore you with the details of where, when or with who this protest took place, as I can safely assume that this particular gathering was in no way, shape or form any different from any other impotent attempt by my esteemed generation to “shake up the establishment” (also at the advice of my lawyer).
Distracted by a song on the radio that I was trying to decide whether I hated or not, I slammed into the left headlight of a silver ’96 Corolla filled with horrified local college girls while blindly merging into the turn lane. There was a moment of silent eye contact as we all registered the situation, and then, tentatively, the blonde with the tits rolled down the driver’s window—to say something? But before a dialogue could begin, I threw off my sunglasses (strategically worn to combat the effects of my pernicious hang over) and screamed through my open window, “You bitch! I have a riot to report on; out of my way!” I then sped off down Main Street, fairly confident that I had escaped before my license plate was made legible.
Now, let me take a minute to explain the “riot” comment: As this is the first piece of journalism your faithful author has written for this publication, I decided it needed to not just come in with a bang, but slide into the wall in a cloud of dust, coughing and vomiting and screaming in frightful tongues—for the pleasure of you, the readers; no time for tame bullshit in this competitive world I’ve plunged into, Goddamnit! So anyway, I decided that instead of your run of the mill, drunken rant or editorial, I would step out into the world and report on the exciting goings on of our culture. And as of recent, a rash of mass protests have been erupting throughout the city and the country like herpes, often resulting in violent arrests and hospitalizations, and I wanted in on the action. With this string of recent events, I mistakenly thought this event would be no different, my fatal mistake being that I missed out on the good riots—the Trump riots; the angry riots overfilled with spewing feminists, opportunistic anarchists, 150 lbs. liberals and government-armed fascists dressed in police uniforms. And here I was, half-drunkenly speeding to a Native American protest at three in in the afternoon. I should have known: all the best riots happen under moonlight; that’s when the wolves come out.
I skidded into a loading zone down the block from the heart of the demonstration and tripped on the curb, adjusting my sunglasses and situating the hood over my baseball cap: this was my “incognito reporter” costume, the idea being that it would make me able to slide between friendly and enemy ranks alike. Upon second thought, I probably looked more like a booze-addled troublemaker, but this crowd would have been lucky to experience any trouble, anyway.
I made my way into the center of the crowd—made up of about fifty peaceful protesters holding up signs and lit joints—and began the process of blending in with the people. A man dressed from head to toe in traditional Native American garb was yelling about equality and the purity of the Earth, as a decrepit, elderly woman banged rhythmically on an animal-skin drum. People were holding hands in a wide circle, chanting some variation of “We Will Overcome”.
There were no police in sight and everything seemed to be going smoothly. This was disappointing. Where was the clashing of the common people with their armed controllers? Where was the tear gas and masked, self-proclaimed revolutionaries breaking the glass windows of the banks and local businesses? As I said before, I was three hours late, and certainly by now I assumed some kind of clash would have taken place here.
I stood around for a while, watching the man in Native American garb shout about the power of the people and the progress made in North Dakota thanks to the people like us—well, them. I certainly agree with the cause, but can’t lie and say I’ve done anything for it other than crashing a small demonstration smelling like five-dollar pinot noir, and yelling at my computer screen while watching alternative news. People next to me held up signs reading things like “Water is for the People, not the corporations!” and “You don’t own the Earth!”
At this point, I began getting some inquisitive looks from the poncho-wearers and dread-heads, and so buried my nose into my notebook to appear as though I was truly reporting on the event. This is what I wrote:
man not making any sense. blah blah blah. don’t forget to pretend to be interested.
Soon after, some protesters near me noticed that I must be a journalist in some capacity, and approached to make their comments. The following is the conversation that took place between myself and a young man in a torn army jacket and red-dyed dreads:
Hippie: You writing for the cause?
Me: …Yes. Yes I am.
Hippie: You need to let the people know.
Me: What should they know?
Hippie: That we’re here, and those fuckers on Capitol Hill can’t control us anymore.
Me: So who’s starting the fight with the cops?
Hippie: No one…this is a peaceful protest.
Me: Do you think you’re accomplishing anything here today?
Hippie: We’re changing the global consciousness. We’re letting our voices be heard, man.
Me: So when does the riot start?
Hippie: Who did you say you write for?
I excused myself and bought a pot cookie off a toothless man in a Grateful Dead t-shirt walking through the crowd with a sign on his back that read “Trump President. World Ending. So Get High. $5”
With that, I decided that I had gotten what I needed out of the gathering, and left the heart of the crowd as a woman in her mid-twenties began chanting a string of guttural noises into a megaphone. Upon returning to my car, no ticket sat on the windshield. I chalked the day up to a success and drove out of downtown, to the nearest bar.
I compiled other quotes and other experiences that day that perhaps were noteworthy enough to include in this piece, but I’ve been drinking and by now, the whole thing is boring me. We live in a time and generation of apathy and the Lemming Syndrome; all that matters is what side you were born into, thus determining what it is you’re going to be apathetic towards and what you’ll be following; it’s all laid out for us. No one crosses the picket fence anymore. Our beliefs are developed in factories and sold to us through technology that fits in the pocket of our ripped, skinny jeans. Those that believe they are going against the grain, those that believe they are being an individual, were cut out of the same shapes used six decades ago, but are simply wrapped in brighter packaging. Irony will be the death of this generation. Do I think we make a difference? I can’t know just yet. But do we really care? Is that why we act out like we do? Or are we just obsessed with being special—more concerned with being the people that made the difference than in making the difference itself? Fuck if I know. I suppose I just like being the lemming that didn’t jump off the cliff. That doesn’t make me any different though, does it? Ha, the irony is killing me. Whatever.
Jack Moody is a short story writer, poet and freelance journalist from wherever he happens to be at the time. He has had work published in multiple magazines and journals, including the Saturday Evening Post. He didn't go to college. He likes his privacy. He doesn't have social media. Don't ask him to make one. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The desire to govern a woman-it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together before they shall enter the garden.”
This is a line by George Emerson, the protagonist of E. M. Forster’s novel ‘A Room With a View, published in 1908 in England.
The classic novel is a love story about George, an open-minded and free-spirited man and the woman he has fallen in love with, Lucy Honeychurch. George tries to convince Lucy to break off her engagement with Cecil Vyse, a sophisticated man of high status. His reasoning: Cecil is a controlling man who doesn’t know how to love a woman for who she is.
"Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own," George tells Lucy.
The novel coincides with a feminist movement during early 20th Century England when women were starting to seek out gender equality, independence, and overall control over their lives. A movement that despite being a century apart with the #MeToo movement, shared some common goals, like contesting men's jurisdiction over women and, encouraging women to express their voices.
George's sentiments, then, must've resonated with the movement of his time; as it could with the #MeToo movement. And although the latter started as a campaign against sexual harassment, as the myriad of voices have expressed through interviews, essays, and articles, the core of this movement, has been about rising against abuse of power. One that mainly, but not exclusively, has been brought upon females by males.
Yet, the main questions have lingered unanswered: what could be the reason behind this “desire to govern women”? And, where does this chronic abuse of power that encompasses all countries, cultures, races, organizations, and professions come from? Should we merely point fingers at men?
Many argue that men's biology or 'nature' lead them to be sexually pursuant and dominant. But these 'boys will be boys' or 'testosterone made him do it' arguments, even if true to some extent, are ultimately more of excuses to let go of self-control as well as respect for the other person/s than defensible arguments. A fine line may divide truth from an excuse, but people who advocate such arguments put more emphasis and value on the excuse rather than the truth.
Perhaps it's not entirely men's fault. After all, behind every misbehaved man may be a misbehaved woman. One that, as George put it, doesn't listen to, or express her "own voice".
There are many arguments out there in defense of women. Some argue that women don't confront their abusers because they're peacekeepers by nature. And women do, generally and comparatively speaking, put more emphasis and value on preserving relationships and peace than dealing with confrontations and violence. But even what could be considered as ‘good’ natures or intentions can do harm if they’re not reasonable or fair. If they contribute, directly or indirectly, to abuse of power.
Others argue that the reason women don't express their voices is because most environments don't allow or encourage women to speak up. Whether it's due to laws (for example in some countries where women don't have equal rights as men) or culture (where the victim may face disbelief, blame, or shame). This systematic problem is certainly a legitimate argument. However, fortunately throughout the years, laws and cultures have been adjusting for the better. More importantly, awareness and communications regarding these issues have escalated with the recent feminist movements as well as outburst of social media and citizen journalists.
Clearly, women’s issues, like most controversial subjects, can be looked at from many angles and have many valid arguments. So perhaps we should seek help from literature and fictional characters, like George, for suggestions. He seems to have known a simpler and "better way" of loving and treating women.
"But I do love you-surely in a better way than he (Cecil) does," George confesses to Lucy. "Yes--really in a better way. I want you to have your own thoughts even when I hold you in my arms."
This is not a sentimental babble of a naive lover. It’s the point of view of a thoughtful man who respects individuality. A point of view that could help eliminate the "desire to govern women”. Because ultimately, what all these movements have had in common, is a wish for women to be heard and respected as individuals.
Farnaz Calafi was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to California as a teenager. She earned a Master’s degree in Journalism from Syracuse University and worked for the Los Angeles Times for several years. She currently lives in Southern California where she does freelance writing. Her work has been published in The New York Times and USA Today.
My father would never call himself a musician. If I ever asked him what he “was” his response would most likely be something along the lines of, “an old, out of shape man who figured out how to strum a guitar.” Granted, my dad’s definitely no Bob Dylan when it comes to playing music; he would play for fun occasionally when I was a kid and he formed a “man band” a few years ago by the name of Rusty Chicken. On rare occasions, I would swallow my pride and go to see him play with his other “over the age of 45” band members. To be honest, they were always very entertaining – and not the bad kind of entertainment where it’s more sad than funny. My dad, and his rag-tag team of other old father’s who would spend their nights practicing in someone’s basement, sounded really great together. I knew almost none of the songs they would play; I’m not a Grateful Dead fan, and it was always very strange seeing my dad perform, but I still had fun.
I remember leaning against the wall in our town’s local bar one night. The bar was packed; the man who decides the maximum occupancy for a given room would’ve certainly cringed. Nonetheless, most of the adults in that bar were joyous, drunk, or some interesting combination of the two. After everyone had somehow found some standing room in the bar and my dad, and his band mates had done their sound checks the band began to play. I remember the music starting, the crowd getting excited over some song I had never heard of, and then something strange happened. As I watched my dad play his guitar on stage something clicked deep inside my mind; a memory that had always existed but had been cast aside was suddenly remembered; a memory that rested in my mind for ten years, and it suddenly collided directly into my train of thought.
I was probably six or seven years old, sitting on the floor of my sister’s room listening to my father play his guitar. He kept the guitar under my sister’s bed; this was mainly because her room used to be my dad’s old “office”, and according to my mom, there was no other room for a guitar in our semi-cluttered one floor house. My dad would sit on the floor and play the few songs he could remember. This was years before his man-band was formed, and thus, he could only play a select few songs. He used to play me “Pony Boy” by Bruce Springsteen and “American Without Tears” by Elvis Costello; he had always prided himself on doing a halfway decent Elvis Costello impression. I used to sit on the floor, toying with the silver locks that lined his guitar case, and just listen to him play.
There’s something deliciously magical about being a little kid. Everything you see and hear is something new to you. You absorb everything that surrounds with you the most intense interest and thoughtfulness. It must’ve been an incredible feeling, to discover something for the very first time; nowadays we can’t truly experience that as easily as little kids can. As I sat on my sister’s green carpet I would stare up at my father; his eyes closed tightly as he tried to remember every chord and lyric in the song, and for me, this was one of my earlier introductions into music. At the age of six my music taste went from Blues Clues the theme song of Little Bear. So, me listening to my father playing his guitar was one of my first times hearing true music being played, and I remember being captivated. The sounds and melodies were beautiful to me, and I could listen to my dad play the few songs he knew for hours on end. It’s hard to describe hearing music for the first time; it would be hard to describe what listening to music feels like and sounds like, but at this moment I loved music, and everything it could make a person hear and feel and think about.
There was some unspoken, and potentially unknown connection that I shared with my father during these times. I wouldn’t say a word, just listen and absorb everything I could about him and his guitar. I remember the semi-croaky voice he would use when singing as Elvis Costello. I remember being enticed by the sounds his guitar made as he strummed the strings. My dad playing guitar was something special to me. It was something him and me could share, like a secret no one else could know about.
So there I stood, cramped against the wall of a tiny bar with far too many people in it. The sounds of drunken neighbors and family friends, people shouting incoherent statements in an attempt to make verbal contact with someone else in the bar, and my father and his band rocking out to some song called “Junkyard Julie”. The place felt full of life. I watched my father playing his guitar, and while he was playing some song I barely knew, “Pony Boy” kept ringing in my ears.
Eric Glauber bio coming soon.
(Previously published in Persephone's Daughters.)
Looking back on it now, I realize I was set up. I had been hired by a man with a long-term grievance against his colleagues and he used me to satisfy his unfinished business.
In the middle of my postdoctoral internship in Madison, Wisconsin, I had flown to Anaheim, California to an employment fair sponsored by the American Psychological Association. I was a freshly minted Ph.D. and I needed a job. I had set up several interviews with universities, one of which was with representatives from Portland State University in Oregon. I didn’t have much hope of being hired, though, as I was obviously five months pregnant. This was 1973, still in the nascence of the Women’s Movement. Prevailing social sentiment dictated that a woman belonged at home, especially if she had children. We were minorities in nearly every profession, including academic psychology. A pregnant woman in a job interview sent up red flags to many employers. To complicate matters, the morning sickness that had plagued me even before I knew I was pregnant had followed me to Anaheim. Looking both animated and interested was occasionally challenging when I was willing myself not to throw up.
My first meeting on the second day of the conference was with Dr. Walter G. Klopfer, a lively Groucho Marx lookalike and a full professor at Portland State. He looked to be about 50 or so - 20 years older than I was - slightly built with a receding hairline and piercing brown eyes. As he talked, I could hear the humor in his inflections and we hit it off right away. He punctuated his flippant asides with a raucous guffaw, almost daring anyone around not to join in the joke. “I’ve been interviewing people all day and haven’t found anyone with balls – male or female.” I discovered he was an inveterate punster, like me. He told me he had interviewed people in Washington, D.C. the week before and got stuck in traffic on one of the bridges or, as he called it, “the car strangled spanner.”
I was clear with him about my intent to start a private practice as soon as possible wherever I landed and he offered to help if I were to be hired. He told me he, too, was a full-time professor while managing a busy psychotherapy practice. To my delight, he expressed enthusiastic concurrence with my feminist views and had taken the trouble to read my previous writings.
“I want to hire a strong woman for this position. That group of mothballs needs to be shaken up. You just might be the right person to do that. I like your irreverent sense of humor.” Of course, he did. It was like his. He laughed loudly, perhaps seeing the future. I was surprised by his candor, just the kind of iconoclasm I appreciate.
Walt told me he was the only full-time clinical psychologist in the department and, looking back on it, likely looking for an ally. Walt was well known with a worldwide reputation and a serious pedigree. His father had been Dr. Bruno Klopfer, one of the preeminent pioneers in creating and writing the primary textbook for the interpretation of the Rorschach ink blot test. I had studied that text in graduate school, along with every other clinical student over the past thirty years.
Our conversation had gone way beyond its allocated time, much of it trading quips. We were both oblivious to the din around us, others being interviewed with far less conviviality. At the end of the meeting, I felt confident. Though I had interviewed with other more prestigious universities, Portland State immediately became my first choice. The salary and benefits were good and I had enjoyed the playful, spirited repartee with Klopfer. It sounded like it could be fun.
A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the department chairman, the call I hoped would come.
“Dr. Munter, we’d like to offer you a position with us. We think you’d make a fine addition to our faculty. You’d begin as an Assistant Professor and you’ll be on the tenure track.”
“Thank you so much. I ‘m very excited. I look forward to meeting you and the others. I accept!”
“Good. Walt hoped you would. I’ll send the paperwork and some information about Portland within a few days.”
“Great. But one question: How do you pronounce Oregon? Is it Oarreegone? Or Orygun?”
Without even a slight twinge of irony, he informed me it was the latter. “But it’s all right if you mispronounce it. Most newcomers do.”
Two weeks after I gave birth to Aaron via Caesarean section, his father and I packed up and moved to a place neither of us had ever seen. But he had made a quick reconnaissance trip a week earlier and found us a rental house in the Portland suburb of Beaverton. It sounded just perfect – a standard tract house with three bedrooms and a big yard, a 15-minute freeway drive to the university.
Driving into Beaverton from the airport with Aaron snuggled in my arms, I felt buttressed by the tall evergreen trees that lined the freeway. The dense dark greenness was like nothing I had ever seen. It was strangely comforting, enveloping. It had just rained and the heady smell of the trees infused my lungs with hope. By the time we took the off ramp on the way to the house, the scenery had changed, becoming less lush and more suburban, but still laden with huge cedars, aspens, oaks and pines. I thought to myself that I could easily have a long career and a happy life here. It felt like home already.
Walt called soon after my arrival welcoming me, asking if I needed any assistance. We connected on the phone as we had in person, warmly and with humor.
I had been assigned three classes to teach, all easily within my areas of expertise and training in clinical psychology. Once hired, I had selected the textbooks, prepared syllabi for each class and worked on lectures. School would begin the following week.
I had taught in universities before. With a Master’s degree in political science, I taught introductory classes at California State University at Northridge for three years during the volatile and violent late 1960s. A week before I watched Robert Kennedy give one of his last speeches just yards from my office, the top floor of my office building had been burned out by an unnamed group. And, while working on the Ph.D. in Nebraska, I had taught a course in personality theory. I wasn’t at all nervous about the teaching part, more curious about my colleagues. Walt had told me I was the only full-time, tenure-tracked female in the entire psychology department. The others were all white men. Though it surprised me, I was used to that. In graduate school, I had been the only full-time female graduate student in the clinical program throughout much of my time in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had a lengthy history of being first and only. I was almost a professional alien.
I drove into Portland over the weekend to take a look at the campus – if you can call it that. It was a series of multi-story grey structures surrounded by the unremitting concrete of downtown Portland. They looked like office buildings more than the landscaped campuses to which I was accustomed. On one side, however, there was a respite from the urban congestion – a long strip of grass and tall deciduous trees confined by noisy surrounding streets. I later learned this was known as the Park Blocks. The main entrances to the classroom buildings were off Broadway, a street that was as busy as its namesake, with a freeway on-ramp less than a congested block away. It was as if this university was carelessly transplanted into this bustling city without much thought to aesthetics.
The following Monday morning, I arrived very early, fueled by anticipatory anxiety. Walt met me at the department office door and showed me down the narrow hall to my furnished office. I was happy to see I didn’t have to share space, as I had at Cal State. There was even a tall bookcase I knew would be quickly filled. He introduced me around to some of the other professors. Other than Walt and one part-time older man, a majority of them specialized in research-based experimental branches of psychology. That meant it was likely we would have little in common. Clinical and experimental specializations can be like oil and water. The people who choose one or the other are very different in the obvious ways, sometimes including personality. Clinicians are more people-oriented, while experimentalists often prefer the detachment and certainty that come from an emphasis on data collection. Other than sharing courses in experimental design and statistics, university training programs are separate from one another. Experimentalists seldom take courses in the application of clinical theory, but clinicians are required to study research methods and conduct experiments. I was required to train my own rat in graduate school, not my finest hour. I remember ferrying it urgently down the hall to the lab, holding it as far away from my body as possible in order to avoid the perpetual flow of the fetid excrement. Seems to me that experimentalists want to study people; clinicians want to fix them. Looking around, I sensed that I would have a very small peer group.
As the chairman approached from across the room, I couldn’t help but notice he had way too much Grecian Formula pasted on his thinning hair and on his blackened, dated moustache. He quickly made a point of introducing me to the only other woman teacher. She was part-time, teaching developmental classes relating to children, the specialty often expected of our gender. I felt a glimpse of recognition because she seemed familiar, a walking ‘50s stereotype and obviously no threat to anyone with an ounce of testosterone. She was tall and thin, soft-spoken and eerily resembled the movie star Loretta Young. As we shook hands, the chairman said, “I thought you’d have something in common.” Yeah. We both had a vagina. She was very pleasant, warm. As I studied her face, we didn’t look as if we belonged to the same sex. I was not likely to be mistaken for a femme fatale; besides, I had just given birth a few weeks earlier after a difficult pregnancy and a complicated Caesarean. I was feeling fat, tired and unattractive.
I wondered if Loretta Young would be the standard against which I would be judged. Such norms were still commonplace in the early 1970s.
Two of my three classes were large – well over 100 students – and held in an amphitheater setting, the seats seemingly rising to the ceiling. I would have to wait another quarter before I was able to exert my own teaching preferences – smaller seminars with upper-division and graduate students. Because serving the university at large was a stated departmental value, I eagerly jumped on the Affirmative Action Committee and took an active role. Affirmative action was a relatively new and controversial concept, which made any decision we rendered all that much more important. I was the first member of the psychology faculty on that committee.
The department chairman had decided I would be a primary academic advisor for the graduate students. PSU had yet to establish a Ph.D. track, but it had a highly competitive Master’s degree program.
I was more than happy to take it all on. I had thrived in an academic environment, enjoying both the camaraderie and the intellectual stimulation. My classes were conveniently scheduled on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I set up office hours on those days. I was often on campus from 7:30 in the morning to 10 at night. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I was working in Beaverton, establishing my private practice. I was both pleased and surprised that this turned out to be a relatively easy task. I had started off renting a small executive suite office but within six months I was able to lease 1000 square feet upstairs with a view of the fountain and courtyard. I had even hired a secretary to handle appointments and billing. If there were meetings at PSU on my private practice days, I was there, rescheduling clients so there would be no conflict.
But there were problems, almost from the start. One of the more articulate experimentalists had visibly rankled when I talked about setting up the practice. I was surprised by the apparent resentment. I had explained it not only to be a community contribution but as another way to bring new and practical information into the classroom. It would demonstrate to the students how to function as a professional clinical psychologist, giving them a tangible goal. Several of the more powerful experimentalists saw it as treasonous. I began to think of them as the Rat Men, named after their favorite research subjects.
Worried and upset by this unexpected development, I met with a person I thought could help: Walt Klopfer. As a respected and renowned psychologist, his opinions should have carried some weight within the department. And, after all, he was doing the same thing and had been doing it for years. I walked into his office, closed the door and sat down opposite him. He dismissed my concerns, leaned back in his chair and laughed it off, saying they were just jealous. He ridiculed the Rat Men because they lacked the training and opportunities to engage in “our” kind of professional activity. He confirmed the insidious and pernicious ethos in the department and told me it was “normal” and that I should just roll with the punches – ignore them. “I’ve been fighting them off for years,” he said, laughing loudly. Walt was a vocal, passionate advocate for clinical psychology and tended to view others who weren’t clinicians as potential adversaries. To him, we were the chosen few, lucky to have “so many tools” at our disposal. I wondered if I’d need one of the sharper ones to defend myself.
By then, I had learned how to endure the dreaded monthly faculty meetings. The only woman in a room full of men, I quickly understood how hard I had to work to hold my own. There was an atmosphere of fake male bonhomie in the room but I sensed a patronizing chill and unspoken judgment coming my way. The department chairman sat at the head of the table and never failed to bring his huge black, plastic Playboy bunny coffee cup to the meeting. He invariably placed the logo directly in my line of sight, no matter where I sat. Did he know how offensive and disrespectful that might be? Some of the others rocked back in their chairs with their feet on the table. If I engaged in the discussions, I would be cut off by one of the Rat Men. Eventually, my contributions became limited to “Have you thought about….” or “Another thing we could do is…” Either my sentence would be finished for me or I would be disregarded as if I had not spoken at all. If I managed to complete a sentence, it was discounted. No one made much eye contact with me except Walt. He gave me knowing looks across the conference table and twitched his moustache as if to say, “See, I told you.” Clearly, I was not a person of value. I had the wrong plumbing.
My husband, who originally had decided to stay at home with our infant son, changed his mind and decided he wanted to get his MSW – at Portland State. Ever the good partner, I helped him get admitted. We found child care during most days, but I often brought Aaron with me to the office in Beaverton and left him to play in the library. Once in a while, I brought him with me to PSU when I would have a short day. I was juggling lots of balls in the air.
In spite of the rising threat and my own growing anger at my colleagues, I loved teaching. The students were often older than the typical 17-year-old freshmen and I enjoyed them both in and out of the classroom. In this, the tail end of the hippie era, most of us still wore mini-skirts and hand-made jewelry. So very au courant, I had a bouncy, high-maintenance Mary Tyler Moore shoulder-length flip that required nightly setting with brush rollers that hurt my head. But had I not been standing at the front of the classroom, I might have been indistinguishable from my students, which undoubtedly helped forge our connection.
I spent many hours putting together lectures but ended up delivering many of them from memory. My experience as a show biz junkie and unrepentant ham helped. I walked into the lecture hall, put down my notes and leaped up on the desk, my legs dangling off the edge. “Does anybody have any questions before we start?” Like the opening of the currently popular Carol Burnett show, which I soon realized I was mimicking, there were always questions – sometimes filling most of the hour. The subject of psychology has potentially personal ramifications, especially then. As this was well before the age of pop psychology and easy computer access to information, this was the only exposure most of them had to the subject matter – and to their own psychological selves. Sometimes teaching is not so different from therapy. I stayed away from the personal and the specific, trying to make it informative and to stay out of trouble.
And to be sure they remembered some of the relevant academic concepts, sometimes I did impersonations of famous people articulating the theories or I would sing a jingle I had written as if it were a TV commercial. In an introduction to a discussion of the seminal sexual research by Masters and Johnson, I wasn’t above getting the students’ attention singing an impertinent ditty:
If you can’t get it up
Or you can’t keep it down
You need to come - to our clinic in town!
Not exactly Rodgers and Hart, but it lightened the mood in class and got their attention. One day, in a playful mood with my abnormal psych class, I asked with deadpan gravitas who could define “lycanthropy.” There were probably 60 in the upper division class and not a single hand went up. I couldn’t help myself. I provided the rhyme, in an Eastern European Maria Ouspenskaya accent:
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
As the verse went on, I started to see smiles creeping over the faces. One person called out, “’The Wolfman,’ Lon Chaney!” They laughed at my theatrics but no one likely forgot about lycanthropy, an identifiable diagnosis, if not a common one. I even included it on the test, as a joke.
I have to admit there were times I felt a bit like an academic vaudevillian, sometimes even getting applause for some of my better bits. It amused me that somehow I had developed an extroverted persona, so in opposition with how I usually experienced myself. Admiration and applause can be powerful carrots to expand one’s behavioral repertoire. I loved it and relished seeing the lines forming outside my office during my office hours. Many just wanted to stop and talk for a bit; others sought advice or a connection. Students tended to take all my classes after sampling one of them. They satirically labeled themselves “Munter Majors.” Even so, I was a tough grader, expecting excellence. People needed to read the material and think about it, not just come to class to be entertained. My evaluations were often at the top of the department ratings, but my all-time favorite is still one from my days of teaching political science. Long before the time when printed evaluations were the norm, I handed out my own, asking what about the class had been good, bad, could be improved, etc. One nameless student irresistibly wrote under a request for other comments, “The dress you had on tonight made you look fat.” I never wore it again.
When they weren’t teaching or running experiments, the Rat Men would sink into the cushiony chairs in the office lobby, shooting the bull with each other. These were the days when people routinely smoked so entering the smallish lobby seemed as if I were walking into a malevolent, carcinogenic Hernando’s Hideaway. I never stayed long and, after a while, didn’t engage much at all. I’d smile, nod a greeting, exchange a few words and keep walking. If I stopped to chat, there would likely be a snide remark about my “outside activities.” One kept asking me, “Still out there making money, huh?” Another would accuse me with snark-infused subtext. “Saw you on TV again last night.”
My lack of interest in engaging with them made it easier to discount me, I’m sure. I struggled to relate but only intermittently. It took too much energy and always left me feeling worse than before I began. Small talk had never been my strong suit, especially while sidestepping such a huge elephant in the room. On occasion, as if to provide relief, there would be a quick, joking exchange made about something else as we passed one another in the hall. It was not an unremitting environment of hostility. Many days it just felt that way. Would it have been different had I been more charming, more engaging, more – well, feminine?
During the first few years, I was expected to teach a load of summer school classes. I had more freedom there and had more fun. One summer I put together a seminar to discuss the PBS trailblazing series, “The American Family,” in which the Louds, the Santa Barbara family of seven, implode on camera. It was not only riveting viewing and fertile clinical fodder but held implications for a society in transition. The seminar was quickly filled and had a waiting list. But with no rats and no experiments it didn’t help my credibility with the Rat Men.
My practice wasn’t the only source of contention. The notorious canon of “publish or perish” had a propitious loophole for me. Clinicians could also make that hallowed contribution by speaking to community groups. Within a short time, I was giving 20-30 speeches a year and was visible on local television as a media psychologist. This was seen as vaguely “unprofessional” by my rat colleagues. Perhaps women, like children, should be seen and not heard. I may have ranked at the top when it came to popularity in student polls but I was surely at the bottom with my departmental compatriots.
At the two-year point, my tenure came up for the first time. It would be discussed in a faculty meeting and decided in a closed session - excluding me, of course. Walt agreed to be my advocate, presenting a case that included evidence of excellent teaching performance, high student ratings, contributions to the university and to the community, as well as my service on departmental committees. And I had even published a couple of academic journal articles. I had developed several new courses that had been included in the permanent course catalog - all clinical classes, naturally, which didn’t hold much weight with the Rat Men. Still, I thought I had covered all the bases. Walt did, too.
He reported later it had been an angry, polarized exchange. While there were a few tentative allies, the major articulated complaint was that I wasn’t “there” enough. I wasn’t “hanging out” or accessible to them, which they thought to be essential to my role there. However, to my relief and more than a little surprise, I did get tenured in a close vote, thanks to Walt’s persuasive skills and some behind-the-scenes lobbying on his part.
“They don’t have to like you, you know,” Klopfer chuckled. “You just have to be good. Luckily, that’s no problem.”
The practice was thriving, in large part due to my prolific public appearances. I had lengthy waiting lists, was consulting with agencies, testifying often in court, appearing on TV – busy, busy, busy. But I always made those departmental meetings, my classes and my office hours. I still refused to “hang” with the Rat Men, thinking I was already doing enough to prove my academic worth.
That turned out to be a miscalculation. When it was time to be considered for promotion – from Assistant to Associate Professor – I was voted down. I was summoned into the department chair’s office after the meeting.
“Sit down. You’ve been denied promotion, Pam. Do you know why?”
I felt as if I had been called into the principal’s office and would be rapped on the knuckles or made to sit in the corner. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the bunny cup wasn’t his only bit of Playboy paraphernalia. He had a calendar, too. Papers and books were strewn everywhere, the room in serious disarray. I couldn’t help thinking it was probably like the inside of his head.
“No, not really.” Of course, I knew. I was an independent woman defying their unreasonable expectations. And – gasp! - I had even been teaching a popular Psychology of Women class with a long waiting list, and speaking out on feminist issues in the community. It’s a wonder I wasn’t assassinated in the hall.
“We feel your primary commitment is not here. When we try to find you, you aren’t there.”
I had my counter-argument down by now. “If you’re referring to the private practice, I think it’s valuable role modeling for the students and good for my own growth as a teacher.”
He sat there, saying nothing, staring at me.
“But if there are other issues,” I added, “I’d like to hear them.” Long pause. He looked down at the clutter on his desk or perhaps at his calendar.
“Are you getting paid for all those community speeches?”
Ah, here it comes.
“Sometimes, sure. Some groups offer a small honorarium. But that’s not the reason I give them. It’s part of my responsibility as a teacher here to educate the public, not just the students. I thought it was required.”
“Well, some of them don’t like that.”
“Them?” Was he too timid to include himself in there? Or did he sense my rising anger?
I had heard enough. This was worse than high school or being blackballed out of a Greek house. Swallowing my rage, I politely thanked him for his feedback, left his office, picked up some papers from my desk and took the elevator downstairs to the office of the Dean of Social Sciences. We had served on the Affirmative Action committee together, so I knew I’d get immediate access.
“George, I’ve been denied promotion without cause.”
“I heard that was coming. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not reasonable. Is it possible to appeal to a source outside the department?” I could hear the angry edge as I spit out the words. “Someone impartial who would evaluate my work and contributions without personal invective, sexism or professional jealousy?”
His mouth turned up slightly on one side, the beginnings of a smile or perhaps indigestion. I knew he knew what was going on. “It hardly ever happens, but it’s possible, I suppose. Let me look into it.”
“Let me know what I need to do. I can’t let this pass.”
I filled out some forms, gave him a copy of my curriculum vitae I knew he’d want and left his office, sensing I was in a major league double bind. The Rat Men would not be pleased I had not accepted their verdict, especially if they were overruled. I was sure even my challenge to their authority would not go without adverse consequences.
Within 10 days, the Dean called me during my office hours.
“Pam, do you have a minute? Congratulations. You’re an Associate Professor.”
I was ecstatic and triumphant. I almost galloped into Walt’s office and closed his door behind me.
“You’re not doing to believe this, but I won.”
“Of course you did,” he jumped out of his chair and laughed. “They can’t deny you promotion by making up rules and pretending it’s not personal. Congratulations.”
I left his office buoyant and grinning but afraid to tell anyone else in the department. The news coming directly from this uppity woman would be harder to hear than via some official and impersonal document arriving from the Dean’s office. After this, though, I knew I’d never make full Professor. It no longer mattered. I wasn’t so sure I’d survive much longer as it was. The chronic stress was taking its inevitable toll on my body. My lifelong stomach problems worsened and intrusive headaches became familiar hurdles nearly every day.
Even with that major victory behind me, I would inevitably feel my entire body start to relax whenever I would leave the university, walk across the busy downtown Portland street, get into my car, and head west to my office in Beaverton. It felt like a jail break each time. I couldn’t help but look behind me to make sure it was safe – and for good reason.
Twice over the next year, I found my car damaged while it had been parked in the faculty parking lot. Once it was keyed; another time someone had deliberately sliced a tire with a knife. Could it have been one of those increasingly resentful Rat Men? A disgruntled student? On another occasion, a picture of me appeared in the local paper after speaking to a large public group on women’s issues. The next day, in the interoffice mail delivery service used by the faculty, I opened the envelope addressed to me to find the clipping with my crotch angrily Xed out in ink. This was getting scary, unnerving. I didn’t know who was doing all this. Were these the acts of the same person? I couldn’t comprehend the level of aggression, rage. We were just all doing our jobs, doing our best. Was it because I was a clinician? A woman? Or something more personal? I knew I couldn’t go to the chairman with this. I didn’t even tell Walt.
I had won the essential battles but I was feeling more than a little paranoid and growing tired of the fight. And the contrast between working with clients in Beaverton versus what felt like an armed camp at PSU was more obvious and agonizing each day. Each morning I had classes, I felt like I was dragging myself out of bed. Even with all the covert tension within the faculty, I still relished my teaching experiences. I enjoyed watching students grow and reach their goals and joyfully wrote many a reference letter so they could fulfill their Ph.D. dreams.
The marriage wasn’t faring well, either. After getting his degree, my husband decided to join me in the practice but we had fundamental disagreements about not only the nature of psychotherapy but how to run the business. The marriage would not have lasted more than a few years more under any circumstances, but the acute stress I was feeling at PSU likely hastened my decision to pull the plug on it. I couldn’t handle it all.
After miraculously surviving six years at PSU, I was eligible for a sabbatical, a traditional academic year away intended for writing, productive professional activity or related travel. I had thought of it as a year on parole from the asylum. I had been approached by a publisher about writing a book about law, politics and psychology but hadn’t yet committed to the project. Over drinks and dinner one night, Walt surprised me by asking that I put my sabbatical off for another year. In an odd coincidence, our sabbatical years had coincided.
“I’ve been planning to take the year off to travel and with both of us gone I don’t want to leave the department in enemy hands.” He roared at his pointed characterization but I had long known his description was spot on. I felt I owed him. He had defended me, befriended me, mentored me. He had supported my private practice by sending me referrals, facilitating my contracts with governmental agencies. His positive words about me were, to some extent, responsible for my easy start-up with the practice. More to the point, I liked him. He was funny, acerbic, quirky, probing and complicated. Reluctantly, I agreed to defer the sabbatical and we both left Portland State for the summer. Because of my faculty seniority, I no longer had to teach summer school and could immerse myself in the practice.
Something vaguely ominous began to overtake me in the middle of August, like the deep bass-driven, throbbing soundtrack to a suspenseful Hitchcock film. I had my ideal class schedule for the fall, all the classes I loved to teach. Why wasn’t I looking forward to them? When school was merely weeks away, I started having vivid, wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares. I could feel my anxiety escalating on a daily basis and I was warding off a sense of foreboding and dread nearly every morning. It was as if I were getting ready to go back to a dark and threatening world where I didn’t feel safe.
I called Walt late one August morning.
After some pleasantries, I delivered the news. “I know I agreed to defer the sabbatical but I need I to tell you. I’ve decided to resign.”
“Oh?” There was a pause. I so much wanted him to understand.
“It feels like I’m under siege there. It’s wearing me down, even when I’m not there. You know I’m not being dramatic about this.”
“No, I know you’re not.”
“I want more of what I’m getting in the practice – a sense of contribution and satisfaction.”
“You’re an excellent teacher.”
Is he trying to talk me out of this? Uh oh.
“Thanks. But you know it’s not about the teaching. You’ve done everything you could to help me. I’m very grateful for that. Really. I feel bad about letting you down.” I was struggling to keep my voice even.
He paused. I could almost hear him breathing on the other end of the phone. It seemed like several minutes before he continued. I could feel my own breath getting shallower.
Finally, he spoke. “I know what you’re saying. I sometimes wonder why I stay. Maybe it’s the thrill of the battle.” Again, the loud Klopfer guffaw.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. It’s about my mental health. I can’t live with this hanging over my head. I don’t want to cause you any problems.” I knew what I needed to do for self-preservation but I didn’t want to burn bridges with this man who had become so important in my life.
“Come on, Pam. We’ll always be friends. Who else could go up against the Rat Men and win every time? You’re an inspiration.” Another loud laugh.
Leave it to Walt to make this OK for both of us. As always, I appreciated the generosity of spirit and thanked him. I felt a palpable sense of relief and started to plan my escape.
The summer session had ended so no one was lurking around the faculty area. I was nervous about being caught, wanting to avoid the possibility of confrontations or explanations. I slipped into the department office early one morning carrying empty cardboard boxes and dropped off my resignation letter in the chairman’s mailbox. My breathing was labored; I was trembling. I quickly filled the boxes with the stuff from my office, took an almost furtive last look at the battlefield, placed my office keys in the box and hurried out the door for the last time. Once safely out of the building, I felt free. My head was suddenly swimming with promise and possibility.
No one from the psychology department ever contacted me. Was I surprised? Not really. But as I had hoped, Walt and I remained friends, right up to his sudden death five years later at the age of 62. Only death could end his mysterious and dysfunctional connection with Portland State. It’s easy and obvious to assume the stress he must have experienced over all his years there might have contributed to the premature end to his life. And yet, it seems an inescapable conclusion.
I sat there in the back of the room at his memorial service, surrounded by colleagues I had not seen in years. Why were they there, I wondered. They were not only my adversaries but his. I resented them all over again even while reminding myself the rancor was ancient history and that my life was really good now.
The room was overflowing with other, friendlier faces – his students, clients, friends, family. We had in common a love and attachment to this man, mentor to so many. I flashed back to our first meeting in that big hotel in Anaheim and all the joyful times we had sharing meals and confidences. His friendship and professional guidance had long ago mitigated any resentment I might have felt for being so deliberately placed in the line of fire without adequate warning. He had mentored me in the best ways possible but he also had the great wisdom to know when to let me go. Of all the people who had helped me along the way, Walt had been one of the most endearing and effective, creating a synergy between us that kept me going and often thriving. No one else had so seamlessly merged mentoring with a genuine, long-lasting friendship. My last silent, tearful goodbye at the memorial permanently fused my love and gratitude for him, while reminding me once again that letting go is never easy.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback and others. Her play Life Without opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. She’ll receive her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts in June from the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert.
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