Last week I was forced by circumstance to cut the story off, so for those who came in late, here’s part one.
For the rest of you who’ve been patiently waiting, part two comes after the break.
“Marianne has what? Bulimia?”
As I said last week, I’d called Mari’s mother looking to patch things up, apologize, seek some kind of absolution; so this came out of left field. Even though I’d seen for myself that something was wrong with Mari only a year previously to this, it was still hard to wrap my head around the idea. In the back of my head there was still a vestige of the high-school goddess aura about Marianne, and this sort of thing didn’t happen to people like that.
“Bulimia, alcohol, drugs, she’s just a mess, Greg. I don’t know what to do. We don’t know anything about this stuff and between you and me I think her doctor’s almost as ignorant as we are.”
Since getting clean and sober myself the previous year, I’d put in a lot of volunteer time downtown at the drug-and-alcohol hotline. As Mari’s mother spoke the embarrassed guilty feeling I’d had when I dialed fell away, as easily as you’d step out of a wet raincoat that a valet held for you. It wasn’t about me and my need for penance any more. This was work. Time to punch in.
It sounded like a big one, as we said down at the hotline office. Reflexively I slipped into my ‘professional’ voice, the soothing don’t-panic one they’d trained us to use. “Well, I’m not a doctor, but I know some stuff and I have some numbers you can call if you want to talk to a genuine expert. But I need to know more than this. Slow down and take a breath, and tell me what’s going on.”
We talked for more than an hour. Mari’s mother told me the whole thing, and as she spoke I began to feel foolish again. How had I not noticed more of these warning signs myself?
Marianne had married badly. Her husband Jim had been an icy, manipulative fellow, and he had soon learned that Mari’s insecurities gave him the whip hand. He had been from the East Coast, an old-money family, and had cut Mari out of the pack to use as arm candy at his various business dinners and junkets. His family regarded Marianne as barely a half-step up from a concubine, even after Mari and Jim were married.
This all seemed insane to me. “Mari could have anyone she wanted,” I spluttered. “How the hell did she end up with this guy?”
“Oh, Jim can be charming when he wants to,” Mari’s mother explained. “And he had rich kid’s toys. I think she just got hypnotized. Then, of course, it was too late.”
Which is to say, Jim playing on Mari’s fears had inflamed them to the point that she was jittering apart. About a year or so after they’d married Mari had gotten pregnant. She’d made it through the pregnancy okay and for a brief while it looked like things might be better. Even the in-laws warmed up a little. (“She’d at least provided Jim with an heir to the throne,” Mari’s mother said venomously.)
But the core insecurity Marianne was carrying around inside her, the place where this sort of thing always starts, had gone active by then. She had tried to make the marriage work for the sake of their son, but it never quite jelled. The plain truth was that Jim was just too much of a cold fish, incapable of providing the basic human warmth that someone like Mari needed.
Unwilling or unable to admit this and move on, though, Marianne grew increasingly desperate. Obsessing about her looks and about fitting in to Jim’s East Coast social circle, Mari had become bulimic, and she’d also been stealing drugs from the hospital where she worked as an ER trauma nurse. Ostensibly to stay awake after being up late with the baby, but then of course she’d found that amphetamines helped with weight loss… and then drinking helped her come down from the amphetamines. And so on.
Finally Jim had enough. He divorced her, and he’d had enough dirt on her that Mari had also lost custody of their young son. “It just gets worse and worse,” Mari’s mother told me. “She goes to a doctor but I don’t think she tells him the truth. The bulimia’s the worst. I think that’ll kill her. She was down to eighty pounds at one point, and she gets ulcers in her throat from the acid.”
Jesus, and I’d thought I’d had a hard time of it. Slowly and carefully I laid out the options for Mari’s mother; rehab, cold turkey, hard intervention, soft intervention, all the different attacks there were for the problem.
However, the catch is always the same for families and loved ones, no matter where you start the approach — you can’t do it for people. You’re still, in the end, just a bystander. The closest you ever get to a win is when you persuade the addict that it’s time to take action on his or her own. Usually, that means playing hardball, and that was the sticking point for Mari’s parents, whose first instinct was always to try and rescue her.
“It’s not helping when you do that,” I explained, trying to to sound too didactic about it. “You have to let the bad stuff happen or there’s no incentive to quit. You especially can’t give her money. All you show her then is that there’s still an escape hatch if she is willing to take a lecture along with it. Trust me, a lecture never even slowed me down when I was getting my drunk on. It just gets filed under the cost of doing business.”
“But she’s still our daughter. We have to do something.” She paused. “What worked with you?”
I thought about it. I knew the rote answer, of course…. hitting bottom. But that meant what, exactly? This wasn’t just some stranger on a hotline phone bank. This was one of the few real friends I’d ever had, a woman I’d known since I was thirteen, one of the two or three adults in my life when I was a kid that I actually trusted enough to talk to honestly about my life and my screwed-up family. Now our roles had oddly reversed… she needed the same kind of honesty from me about her life and her screwed-up daughter.
Finally I said, “The pain and embarrassment of trying to somehow keep going got so bad that…I guess that the pain I knew I was looking at if I tried to stop started to look good. At least, stopping finally looked like an option. I knew sobering up would hurt, don’t kid yourself. We know. We know in our hearts what we are, we know we eventually have to stop, we know stopping’s going to suck. Marianne knows it too. That’s not what denial is. Denial is when you tell yourself that you aren’t quite that bad yet, that you can keep going a little while longer. Or maybe when you are telling yourself that it doesn’t matter anyway because nobody cares what you do and you’re not hurting anybody.”
I paused. “Denial is…. it’s trying to keep making it work even when you can feel it going bad for you. Because drinking, dope…. what everyone forgets is that in the beginning, it really works for us, people like Marianne and me. And even when it starts to go bad, it still gets the job done, it’s the one thing that shuts up the voice in your head saying all those shitty things. It’s the consequences that come along with doing it that cause all the trouble.”
“Okay.” Mari’s mother took a deep breath and let it out in a long whoosh. “I can understand that, I guess. We help her and there aren’t any consequences.”
“If you want her to clean up then being loaded has to hurt,” I said. “Intervention is supposed to accelerate that, make getting loaded hurt more. The more unbearable you make it, the faster she looks at cleaning up. Don’t be afraid to be mean, don’t be afraid to embarrass her, we’re deathly afraid of that. Why do you think so much of an addict’s life is about covering up and lying?”
“She’s not fooling anyone, either,” Mari’s mother said tartly.
“Tell her that. Be rude. Drama gets you nowhere but you can move mountains with sarcasm.”
That was in the fall of 1986, when Mari’s mother and I started mapping out the campaign of calculated meanness. (You usually hear it described by chemical-dependency counselors as “tough love” or “soft” intervention.) I never saw Mari during this time, she was living in eastern Washington, but I often spoke to her mother over the phone. Usually I ended up coaching her on things she could say that might puncture Mari’s illusions about drinking and pills and throwing up still working for her. I think it was the first time my talent for snark was ever employed in a genuinely worthy cause.
Mari’s mother, thankfully, did not depend solely on my advice. I directed her towards several different professionals and she embarked on a course of study, the same way she used to do with theology or history or whatever had caught her interest. Largely self-educated, her habit had always been to focus on one particular topic with laser-like precision and learn everything there was to know about it until she was an expert. Now she brought that experience to the topic of addiction and compulsive behavior, and soon found herself getting involved with the larger issue of women in recovery. Today they have many options. Twenty years ago, not so much. Mari’s mother decided that in order for her daughter and women like her to get everything they needed, the bigger picture had to improve, and so, by God, she would make that happen. The volunteer work she was doing to increase treatment options for female addicts gave her an outlet for some kind of positive action, something she desperately needed; and incidentally introduced her to a community where she was able to vent about her frustration with Mari to other people who understood.
Because it was really goddamned frustrating, dealing with Marianne. I soon got a sense of what the people around me had gone through with me and my drinking, and how lucky I was that so many had understood and forgiven me.
In a book or a movie, you see, the expectation would be that the conversation between Mari’s mother and me was the end of act two, and act three would be the intervention and the story ends with Mari starting on the road to recovery. At first glance you’d think that’s the logical way for me to write it up here, too, but that doesn’t really give you the sense of it. Anyway, that’s not actually the way it happened.
For one thing, you should know that what I can dismiss in a paragraph was actually a process that took years. We spent a long, long time getting from act two to act three.
What hung us up, more than anything else, was Mari’s insistence that these things were all unrelated. For example, if she got the bulimia under control, well then, the drinking wasn’t that big a deal, was it? Well, if she wasn’t popping pills all the time, why should we care what she ate or didn’t eat? And so on. Every time we thought we’d won one battle one of her other self-destruct compulsions would flare up.
Even after she got the eating disorder more or less ironed out, there were lots of things still wrong; mostly from drinking, since she’d lost her nursing license and couldn’t get at the A-list pharmaceuticals any more. Months passed after that before Mari made it into her first rehab, an out-of-the-way place her mother and father found for her in Oregon. But after she got out, a few months later she was drinking and using again. This cycle of start-and-stop recovery dragged on… hopes raised, hopes dashed. Mari would go into a treatment facility, get better, start to put her life together, then something bad would happen and she’d give up and get drunk and the downward spiral would start again. Each time she crashed and burned it took more out of us all, especially Mari herself: the failures reinforced her unspoken conviction that it wasn’t possible for her to get better. Mari’s inner certainty of the futility of it all was our biggest stumbling block and of course it always became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I always tried to visit Mari when she was hospitalized or in a rehab, even if it meant making a long trip out of town. It was important that she see there were people besides her parents invested in her, and maybe even more importantly, letting her know that failure only carried a penalty if she quit trying to recover.
“You have it so together,” she said to me on one of those visits, on the terrace at Riverton Hospital. This was in the spring of 1989. We were out there because Marianne wanted to smoke and that was the only designated area. The nicotine ghetto, we called it. “You have a job, you actually are doing real stuff, it’s like you just picked up where you left off.”
“I lost a lot, too,” I told her mildly. “Thousands in debt. Pissed away a free ride through college….colleges, actually, there was more than one. Burned a lot of bridges. I made a mess it’s going to take years to clean up.”
“But you’re moving forward,” Mari insisted. “You have your talent still. I don’t even know what my talent is.”
I snorted. “Putting together program books for the Miss Kent Pageant and the Police Olympics? That’s production art, it’s not like I have to find my muse to do it.”
“You’re a writer, you have your writing.”
I shrugged. “That was a long time ago.”
Marianne was horrified. “But you have to write! You can’t give it up!”
“Did you even look at the stuff I produced the last time I tried to write something? I’m still ashamed your mother saw it.” I sighed. “It was permeated with drinking. Everyone in that story was drinking or wishing they had a drink or thinking they needed to get drunk or whatever. It was just embarrassing.”
“Well of course,” Marianne said. “That was, you know, before. But now is different. ”
“I don’t know.”
“I know,” Mari said firmly. “You’re the one that’s always talking about not trying being the only bad thing. I love that you come and see me, but you know what I miss more than anything? Your letters. Write me something.”
“Anything. I don’t care.”
She would not be satisfied until I promised. Finally I did.
On the bus ride home from the hospital, I thought about it. The real problem with trying to write, the one I’d been too ashamed to admit to, was simple. I didn’t know if I could do it sober.
There are a bunch of mnemonics and cliches about this in AA. They tell you, “stay away from slippery places,” and “you don’t go to a barbershop unless you’re looking for a haircut.” I had learned in the last three years to stay away from places and people that were reminders of the Bad Old Days. I didn’t hang out in bars any more. I didn’t cultivate drug dealers.
And I’d steered well clear of the local arts community, because they all drank like fish.
Once upon a time that had been my scene, sure; in high school I was a nerd but at college, I had been one of the cool kids. Artistic. Bohemian. Dark and tragic. There were many evenings at the campus bar where we sat and and pontificated over pitchers of beer over how our work was going, What It All Meant… and of course, what was new on the scene and who was publishing where and who was sleeping with who.
That wasn’t my world any more. Commercial art, production art, was different. That was a job and I could do it and I’d actually gotten pretty good at it since catching that one break in 1986. It wasn’t anything capital-A Artistic, but it was creative and I enjoyed it. I took pride in the books my outfit put out, even if the events they covered were things nobody cared about.
But to really try and be a writer again? Just sit there and stare at a blank page without the drink sitting to the left of the typewriter? Bring something from nothing without a three-beer buzz going?
What if I couldn’t do it any more? What if I wasn’t any good? What if I’d been deluding myself that I was ever any good?
After I got home I sat and thought about it some more for a while, then finally cursed myself for being a big baby.
Just do it. Try. For Christ’s sake, it’s just a letter. What the hell are you scared of? It’s been three years. You should be over the shakes by now.
I pulled out the battered old manual typewriter that had seen me through high school and several abortive attempts at college, an ancient Royal that I’d somehow managed to keep hold of in spite of selling off or losing almost everything else I’d owned at one point or another. I scrolled in a sheet of paper and stared at it for a minute.
Finally, I pecked out, D-e-a-r M-a-r-i, and stopped. What would I write about?
I considered it. Another get-well pep talk, even a written one done with the eloquence Mari remembered, was still just another lecture. She was surrounded by professional counselors. Lectures and helpful suggestions were covered.
What else did Mari and I usually talk about? We talked about books, movies…. I was Mari’s nerd connection, she knew I would always have the inside scoop on anything coming up.
And in the spring of 1989 there was only one upcoming movie that the nerd community cared about.
It was all about the countdown to Tim Burton’s Batman. We had, in fact, talked about it on that afternoon’s visit. Mari had mentioned that she had loved the old Adam West show and thought Michael Keaton was a worthy comedic successor.
Instantly I had been forced — really, it was reflex, an involuntary fan response– to explain that No, no, Batman wasn’t really like that. Not Adam West. Batman is supposed to be scary. I had gone on to describe his origins in tragedy, how his creation in 1939 was clearly from the pulp tradition of Zorro and the Shadow… if you are a comics fan you know the lecture I’m talking about. It was the “This movie better do it right!” lecture. (Almost all the reports out of San Diego last month had some version of it regarding the upcoming Watchmen movie.)
It had been on my mind a lot, ever since I’d seen that first publicity shot printed in Comics Scene.
It looked good, and the interviews with screenwriter Sam Hamm sounded good, but… I was extremely ambivalent about Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne.
I wasn’t real crazy about Jack Nicholson as the Joker, either. He was too old. Too fat. The Joker was young and spindly, with a high-pitched screech of a laugh. Even young Nicholson from Five Easy Pieces was all wrong, he was too menacing, his voice was too low. The Joker needed a kind of dangerously hysterical mania. Somebody like the young Peter O’Toole maybe. Even the My Favorite Year O’Toole would be better than Nicholson.
But really, I was more concerned about the story itself. What should a Batman movie have? What were the elements that had to be there?
Suddenly it came to me. My afternoon conversation with Mari and what I thought a Batman movie should be like and remembering that once upon a time I had hoped to write thrillers… it all collided. All at once. In a rush.
And I knew exactly what I was going to write for Marianne.
The page said, Dear Mari. Below that I hurriedly typed, I hope you enjoy this, maybe it will give you an idea what I’m talking about. Love, G.
Then I scrolled in a new sheet and typed, The sun was setting over Gotham City, painting the streets a dark, bloody red.
And the magic, the magic I remembered, was still there. I didn’t need to be buzzed to do this– doing it was the buzz. It was joyous. I almost laughed out loud from the sheer exuberance of it.
I lost all track of time. It was like being possessed. I didn’t seem to be writing the story so much as channeling it. It was coming through me from some other place, almost.
Three hours later I had about 5000 words and it dawned on me that this wasn’t a letter or even a short story. This was going to be a novel. I was writing a book.
…and once again I find that this column has gone longer than I intended.
So rather than make this another book, I’ll stop here, and see you next week with the wrapup.