The Desperate Place
[De-esperare; de=reverse the action of—hope]
I can’t see a way out of this.
Things will not necessarily get better.
This is my life, but I may not get to do what I want in it.
This is the language that speaks to you in the desperate place.
A place from which you lack the means or power to escape.
A place in which you realize that someone you love does not, and will not ever, love you back.
A place in which you acknowledge your steep falling off in health, or strength, or status. A place in which you must accept that you are losing ground, losing face.
I have been close to people who one day found themselves in the desperate place and didn’t make it out. I remember struggling to write a letter to a young man whose father had just hung himself. The father had been the builder of our house. He was charming and talented and proud of his son. I wrote these things to the son and then came the point in the letter where I was supposed to write something hopeful for the future. All I could think of to convey was no, you’ll never get over it, but the time will come when you will be glad you can’t get over it because the loved one remains alive in your heart as you continue to engage with the who and the why of him.
In my novel Grief Cottage, eleven-year-old Marcus and his elderly companion Lachicotte Hayes are walking together on the beach. “It still feels weird to realize my mom is dead,” says Marcus, “I’m not sure I can explain it, but often it seems like she’s more alive than ever. I think about her more than ever and I keep seeing new sides of her.” Lachicotte replies that Marcus has explained it very well. He says, “After all the human noise and conflicts have stopped, the absent person has more room in your heart to spread out and be herself. My mother’s been gone ten years now and I know her much better now than when we saw each other every day.”
Two people in my family didn’t make it out of their desperate place. My father and my brother.
Though I had seen him only twice when I was a child, I sent my father an invitation to my high school graduation. Mother said not to expect him to show up but he did. He and his new wife and his brother drove from Smithfield, North Carolina to Portsmouth, Virginia, for the ceremony. In the early summer weeks to follow, we wrote letters to each other. He had elegant handwriting and prose to match. He wrote that he would like more than anything to get to know me better. Could I, would it be possible for me to spend a few weeks with them this summer at the beach? I was in my first desperate place at that time and decided to tell him about it–though not all of it. I ended up going to the beach and returning with them to Smithfield and entering Peace Junior College in the fall, paid for by my father.
My father had been doing some personal bookkeeping of his own. At the age of fifty, he had at last achieved a measure of stability. Finally, after thirty years of intemperate living he had managed to stop drinking, had married a new widow in town with a prosperous brother-in-law, and was Manager of Sales at the brother-in-law’s car dealership. For years he had envied his older brother the judge, whose profession gave him status and power and backslapping lunches with lawyers and businessmen, not to mention the stage-like gratification of being the calm character of authority who held sway over messier lives. My father confided to me during the weeks we spent at his brother-in-law’s beach cottage that he regretted not having made more of himself. “You mustn’t let it happen to you,” he said. “Nobody is prepared for how quickly time passes,” he said, “and you don’t want to be one of those people who wakes up in the late afternoon with nothing to show for it.” But later, in a radiant moment while we were lying on the beach working on our tans, he told me that I had come along at just the right time, and if he continued to win his battle against depression and alcohol, and if automobile sales continued like this, well, the future didn’t look so hopeless after all.
As we lay side by side, congratulating ourselves for finding each other, I had no idea that old disappointments were biding their time, stealthily building like waves, which in less than three years would drown him. One winter afternoon when I was a junior at Chapel Hill, he phoned his brother at his office. “Just felt like saying hello, old son,” he said. “Son” was what the brothers called each other. After he hung up, he lay down on the floor of his bedroom in Smithfield and shot himself in the head.
Losing ground. Was that the thing that ultimately killed him? In his twenties, he began losing jobs, losing status, but always got back on his feet. A charming, handsome man, he did not need to keep a steady job as long as his mother was alive. And after her death there would be other admirers waiting in line for whom his looks and charm were enough. By the time he met my mother he was an alcoholic. After that came the mental disorders, given different psychiatric names as the years went by. Once after he had been under treatment, he stopped by to see me at Chapel Hill. He was in a good mood. He had risen again. Smiling, he rummaged in his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper he had torn off a pack of cigarettes. “Here,” he said with a laugh, “This is what they said I am this time. I wrote it down.” He handed it over and I read in his elegant handwriting, “Psychoneurotic, with compulsion to drink.”
When they had been driving back to Smithfield after my high school graduation, he had come down with a raging toothache. They found a dentist along the road who pulled the tooth. But the pain continued and when they got home his dentist told him it had been the wrong tooth. “I should have known,” he would finish this story, laughing. “I should have known when we drove into the parking lot and his shingle read: Doctor Payne.”
He still had the charm but the looks were going.
This is from a June 16 New York Times Opinion piece, “What Kept Me From Killing Myself,” by Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers.
“Throughout that summer and into the fall…just below the surface of my semi-consciousness, was the constant thought: Maybe I won’t wake up this time.”
Powers continues, “I doubt much needs to be said about the kind of despair that would make such an idea a source of comfort, despair that came not from accepting that things were as bad as they were going to get, but, worse, that they might go on like that forever. The next step felt both logical and inevitable.”
Which sounds along the lines of what my 28-year old brother might have been thinking in the hours that led up to his death.
In the last week of his life, Tommy was working on a long poem. He left behind two drafts. He titled one “Why Not Just Leave It Alone?” He titled the other “Why Change the World?” One line is the same in both drafts: “My pride is broken since my lover’s gone.” Both drafts end with the same image of the poet being laid to rest in his wooden home, “With my trooper hat on my chest bone.”
He was my half-brother, but why quibble about the half when he and I kicked and floated, eighteen years apart, in the same watery womb and grew to the rhythms of the same mother’s heart?
It was October 2, 1983. October 1 was our mother’s birthday, which is why I was in North Carolina: she liked all her children to be there for her birthday. I flew down from New York, my half-sister, Franchelle, drove up from Columbia with her family, my half-brother, Rebel, drove across the state from Chapel Hill. I wrote about this in my novel, A Southern Family. Tommy became Theo, a name that would have suited him. Rebel became Rafe. I chose the name Clare for myself because I hoped for more clarity.
There is no younger sister in A Southern Family because—once again, why quibble about the half?—my sister, who is an attorney, told me after the publication of The Odd Woman that she would rather be excused from serving for any characters in my future novels.
What happened, what we know happened, as opposed to all that we can never know, was that on the Sunday afternoon after Mother’s Saturday birthday, Tommy, who had just turned 28, ironed a shirt at his parents’ house, where he had been living with his three-year-old son. He told Mother he was going over to see J., the woman he loved, a nurse, who also had a three-year-old son. They had planned to marry, they had even made out a budget. Then J. suddenly broke it off. Tommy told Mother he was going over to ask J. to reconsider. “I’m going to settle it one way or another before the afternoon is out,” he said, and drove off alone.
COUPLE FOUND SHOT was the headline in the newspaper next morning. Afterward, we would go over and over it. My stepfather would hire a detective. The police report would be taken out of the files again and again and scrutinized: maybe we would see something new that we had missed before. “The real truth” would suddenly reveal itself on some overlooked
line in the official text. “The real truth” being something everybody could bear.
This much we knew. Tommy, J. and J.’s three-year-old son were in J’s car. The child was in the backseat. The car pulled over on a shady residential street. A boy riding his bicycle saw two people arguing inside the car. Shots were fired. A neighbor called the police. When they arrived, the woman lay on the street of the passenger’s side of the car. She was already dead. The man was unconscious and writhing on the ground on the driver’s side. A .25 caliber Belgian semiautomatic lay on the front seat of the car. J’s son was found uninjured in the backseat.
Tommy had his own pistols. He belonged to the National Rifle Association. He won prizes for marksmanship. But this particular pistol belonged to his father, Frank. He and Frank had lent it to J. several weeks before to keep in her glove compartment because she said a man had been stalking her. J. had been in the army and knew how to shoot, too.
The day before, on Mother’s birthday, I knew Tommy was unhappy. But Tommy was always unhappy. He “felt things more than most,” was the family euphemism for his troubled nature. He took most to heart the family’s fractures as well as the world’s. Drawing you in with his shy, closemouthed smile, he would offer his latest tale of woe. But always, always before in his stories, there had been a quality of suspense, of entertainment. He starred in them as the knight errant complete with pratfalls and setbacks, but a knight errant who picked himself up, dusted himself off, and set out on his next mission. Tommy was a modern Samaritan who carried a first-aid kit and a blue flasher in his car in case he came across an accident. He had wanted to become a state trooper, but even the state troopers he hung around with urged him to get a college education first and “then see.” So he went to college and became an accountant. Weeks before his death, he had applied for a job with the IRS. He was sick and tired of helping boring business people keep more of their money, he said; he wanted the high drama of catching the cheaters.
The afternoon before his death, on my mother’s birthday, we were in the kitchen and he told me the story of his girlfriend suddenly breaking off with him. But this time something was different. I was not, as usual, deriving the usual listener’s satisfaction from his story. Many years later when remembering that kitchen scene, I realized what had spooked me about it: Not only was there not a trace of the shy, closemouthed smile, there was no knight errant starring in my brother’s story. The tone was new: one of bafflement and resignation. There was no sense of any future missions. There was no tug of suspense. It was like a story that had already happened.
Tommy would be sixty-three now. He was born that same summer that my father drove from Smithfield to Glen Burnie, Maryland, and rescued me from my desperate place. If on that October 2nd afternoon twenty-six years later there had not been a pistol handy in the glove compartment of J’s car, would Tommy have remarried somebody else and raised his son and reconciled himself to a fallen world as long as he had a first aid kit and a job that gave him satisfaction that he was rescuing people from injustices?
But now, I do hear his voice, the old Tommy voice, just as it was in life, chiding me as he defends the position of his beloved National Rifle Association with its singsong refrain: “Gail, guns don’t kill people, people
During the winter following Tommy’s death, I had an awful dream.
I awakened with my heart thudding and it took a minute to remember who I was and a few more minutes for the rage and hopelessness to drain out of me. It was unlike any dream I’d ever had. There was no action in it. There were no visuals. I didn’t see anything or hear anything. I was in the black box of myself and felt only pure, stark emotion. I wanted to die, or kill somebody, OR BOTH, because this person didn’t love me. The person was genderless. I was genderless. It was just the unbearable agony of knowing myself NOT LOVED and wanting to kill/die to avenge myself and put an end to the pain. After I had calmed down, I lay in bed and thought: that would be just like Tommy to find a posthumous way to hand over this dream like a neat, well-wrapped package: “Here you go, Gail. Feel my pain.”
When we left the 25-year-old Iraq veteran Kevin Powers, he had plunked down the last of his army pay on a year’s rent for a small apartment, kept the shades down and the door locked except for his daily trip to the 7/11 store for a case of beer, two packs of cigarettes, and two big bite hot dogs. He spent six months of 2005 drunk. “And yet,” he tells us, “I’m here writing this almost 13 years later, despite the fact that in the semi-darkness of that Richmond apartment, I wanted to not be with an intensity that very few desires in my subsequent life have equaled.”
He got so he couldn’t read. His hand trembled and he kept one eye closed. Then, for some reason, he picked up “The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas,” and opened to the first page in which the poet offers the reader his poems “with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions.” For the first time, Powers recognized himself in another person. (“Nothing came as close to characterizing what my life had become as those three words [crudities, doubts, and confusions] and this simple tether allowed me to slowly pull myself away from one of the most terrifying beliefs common to the kind of ailment I’m describing: that one is utterly alone, uniquely so, and that this condition is permanent.”
Over a significant period of time Kevin Powers read more books, went to college courtesy of the army, and began to write poetry and fiction. In 2012 his novel, “The Yellow Birds,” became a celebrated war novel. Next he took on the horrors of the Civil War: A Shout in the ruins was published in 2018. He also wrote a book of poems, Letter Composed During a Lull in Fighting.
Just as I continue to engage with the who and the why of my father and my brother, I also ask myself what small detail might have made the difference in Kevin Powers’s case? It works both ways. What if he hadn’t happened to pick up that Dylan Thomas collection, or opened to those three words: crudities, doubts and confusions?
During my life, I have found myself in the desperate place four times. But that first time, at age eighteen, was by far the worst.
Summer 1955. We were living in a tract house in Glen Burnie, Maryland. There were a hundred or so identical houses in the development, which ran alongside a busy highway. Inside our house was my pregnant mother, my two-and-a-half-year-old half-sister, my stepfather, who had been transferred from chain stores six times in four years. And myself, who had just graduated as salutatorian from Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia. Because of my stepfather’s many transfers, I had gone to six high schools in four years. Ninth grade at St. Genevieve’s, in Asheville, North Carolina, on a full scholarship to high school, which I had to abandon when we left town at the end of ninth grade. Tenth grade in Anderson, South Carolina, where my little sister was born. Eleventh grade split between Norview High in Norfolk, Virginia, and Woodrow Wilson, across the river in Portsmouth. Twelfth grade divided between a first semester at Woodrow Wilson, three weeks in a high school in Louisville, Kentucky, then the last two months at Glen Burnie High School, and back to Woodrow Wilson for graduation.
Now summer was beginning and everybody seemed to have a future but me. My mother was expecting her second child in August. My stepfather was starting over at a new W.T. Grant store, in Baltimore, where he had not yet alienated the boss. That morning I had received a letter from Mother Winters at St. Genevieve’s, a wise figure in my past. She congratulated me on being salutatorian, asked about my plans for college, and brought me news of some of my classmates. “Pat has won the four year Angier-Duke scholarship to Duke, Carolyn will be going to Radcliffe, Stuart and Lee to St. Mary’s in Raleigh…”
Here I stopped reading and felt…what? A dry mouth, a pang in the chest, a sense of going down, of losing myself. All I knew to do was mark my position.
My position. At that time I couldn’t hold all of it in my mind. If I had tried, I might have despaired, or lashed out and hurt myself or somebody else. I had so little experience to draw from and there was no escape.
…a distinct sense of loss, a flavor in the mouth of the real abiding danger that lurks in all forms of human existence.
That is Joseph Conrad describing the sensations of the commander of a stranded ship in The Mirror of the Sea. But I had not read Conrad yet, or any of the richly-chronicled descriptions in the literature and religions of the world of what it feels like to be in the desperate place.
It would be years before I came across passages in books or met people who described the place in which I was embedded. It would be years more before I began writing books in which people found themselves in the desperate place.
Since my early teens, I had been building my life on false premises, I was creating a persona to meet the requirements of my family’s frequent moves. This persona was more extroverted than I. She pretended to more confidence and security than I felt. I became a pro at embellishing and editing my history. When I entered a new school, I “went out” for things I was good at that would bring me attention. The school paper, the drama club, painting posters and scenery, entering speech competitions—and of course getting high grades. I dated lots of boys, made it a point to be cagey and hard-to-get until each got fed up and moved on, usually just as I had begun to appreciate him.
That was the outside of things. Inside our various rented domiciles other dramas were playing out. We were not free people. Our embattled breadwinner, who was angry much of the time, sometimes knocked one of us to the floor for challenging him. There was no money for us except what he doled out and no going anywhere he didn’t drive us. As I entered my teens, the breadwinner, who was only twelve years older than me, often spoke of how he “loved” me. At night I would wake to find him kneeling beside me bed, his hand taking liberties.
My mother had shed her former confident self. As a child, I knew a mother who arrived home on the 10 p.m. bus after her wartime job on the newspaper, a woman who taught college and on weekends typed up love stories which earned $100 apiece. This powerless woman seemed more like someone I was visiting in prison. Only I was in prison with her. She suffered because there was no money to send me to college. She made phone calls to a private college in Baltimore to see if I could go as a day student. The registrar said a partial scholarship might be arranged, given my academic record, but where was the rest of the money to come from? There was no “rest of the money,” my stepfather reminded us, as though we were dim-witted. He suggested I take a year off and find a job, “maybe in sales work,” and save up for that college next year. He added magnanimously that I could continue to live under his roof for the time being without paying rent.
That’s the way the ground lay, that 1955 June morning in Glen Burnie, when the girl sat cross-legged on her bed, the letter from her old teacher clutched in her fist. “Pat to Duke, Carolyn to Radcliffe, Stuart and Lee to St. Mary’s…
This is my life, but I may not get to do what I want in it.
I can’t see a way out of this.
Things will not necessarily get better
In my novel Unfinished Desires, about the life of a girls’ school, two old nuns are being driven back to their retirement house from doctors’ visits, and one says to the other, “There was a sentence this morning in that Prayer for Holy Women; ‘In our weakness your power reaches our perfection.’ What do you think it means, Sister Paula?” Sister Paula thinks for a minute and then replies, “I think it means you have to fully admit you can’t save yourself before you’re fully available to God.”
That morning in Glen Burnie, God was undergoing some very slippery changes in my psyche. He had ceased being the attentive heavenly father who was always aware of me, and he had not yet expanded into the mystery beyond my understanding that I am still pursuing today.
All I could be certain of, that long-ago summer morning, was that I could not save myself.
But something else did, something already embedded in the tissue of my particular circumstances: the earthly father who had been the absent father. In a mood of defiant resignation, I decided to send him an invitation to my graduation anyway. Of course he wouldn’t come.
But he did come. And when we were lying beside each other on the beach, he said, “When I opened your invitation, after I got over being pleasantly surprised, I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is one thing I did that came to fruition.’ And then, after we began to write letters to each other, it struck me that I might be the rescuer you needed.”