As I start to write this preface, after having rehearsed its beginning in my head a number of times, already I can feel that it’s going to be lengthy. And difficult. This is the first new scene of Verity since early February of 2017. This episode is a continuation of Ada and Millie sharing their life stories, and its beginning, as well, I have rehearsed in my head a million times, because it was already there almost a year and a half ago. I felt a disinclination to write it at the time, but that disinclination felt nothing like the kind of artistic resistance that I know oh so well and that’s a major theme running through all the self help books directed at those of us who live lives of quiet desperation instead of actually working on something that’s meaningful to us.
When I stepped away from Verity, for nearly a year and a half, it felt right. It didn’t feel like I was running away as I had always done before. I had other things I was working on, and I trusted that if Verity wanted me back some day, it would let me know. And then that day came last week and that’s why any of this is up here at all. But this scene. As I think through actually writing this scene, I can see how I wasn’t ready to write it before. Rehearsing its beginning in my head was a safe enough exercise, but now, now that I intend to actually write it, now I feel a profound anxiety, and I think I understand a little more clearly why, and I think I understand a little more clearly why I needed over a year to get to it.
What I’m going to write next will sound insane, and I feel half insane to even contemplate it, but I think I need to write it in order to explain what all of this is about, what this scene is about, what Verity is about, and what a major part of my own life is about. And it’s you. Maybe not you specifically who’s reading this, but you out there, you plural, the people I’ve known for years or just briefly. People I don’t know, but who are in the news. I don’t even know how to talk about it, and I’m hoping that it just comes to me as I try to put it into words, because trying to think through it in my head doesn’t work.
You’re hurting. I feel it, in the dull buzzing in my stomach. You’ve been hurting for so long, but even more so now, and I can feel it, and I don’t know if I can just go on feeling it without saying something. Nobody wants to be told what they’re feeling, because it would be horrifying if someone else knew that, but I do, I know what you’re feeling. I don’t necessarily know why you’re feeling it, though I can sometimes guess, and I don’t know what you’re thinking, but your feelings are out there, like the proverbial elephant in the room, and I’m sick to fucking death of pretending I don’t see the elephant.
Of course everyone can do this to some extent. We’ve all experienced times, for example, when we knew damn well that someone was angry with us just by their body language. Everyone can do it, but not everyone does it all the time, and not everyone picks up on the subtle things. But many of us do, and it’s goddamned bewildering. Maybe it has to do with so-called mirror neurons, or maybe it’s something else entirely. But it’s there, I swear to God it’s there. And I’m sick of it, because it’s so dangerous to talk about it, so I just keep it inside. Nobody wants a mirror held up to reflect their feelings, because a lot of those feelings are wrapped up in layers and layers of shame, and shame has a dazzling power to keep itself hidden. And my shame is that I know about yours and I don’t know how to deal with it, so I just let it in and pack it down farther and farther into my guts until, until, well, I don’t know until what.
And the pain and suffering, it’s not just people I’ve met. It’s everywhere, its effect clearly visible in the U.S. through the monster in the White House, who is but a symptom. It’s in Europe, too, evidenced by shit-stains like Geert Wilders, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, and I think it was Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria. The entire so-called Republican base, the evangelicals, the authoritarians, they’re all suffering from a culture-wide depressive episode, and it’s making them so angry that they’re lashing out at those they blindly and reflexively assume to be the cause. I’m an angry depressive, too. Or maybe it’s just that I’m an angry person anyhow, and when I’m depressed I no longer have the strength to hide it. Who knows. At any rate many of us liberals have our own depression, which might be what began all of this anyhow, starting some seventy years ago. Our depression is Post-Modernism, or pluralism, which among its many astounding virtues also unfortunately counts the loss of any of the certainty whatsoever which has been available to any previous mind-set since at least Abraham’s monotheism. Luckily for humanity, pluralist depression is not violent like authoritarian depression.
The disease in Verity, I’m pretty sure, is just life. Like, a pretty fucking direct metaphor for life itself, and you’re all suffering from it. I don’t even know if I am or not, because all I can see is you suffering, and I don’t know how to deal with it. Some people are more in tune with their own feelings, while some people are more in tune with the feelings of others. I’m solidly in the latter camp, as I think is true for something like half of the world’s population. There’s nothing weird about it. But the intensity, it’s just so much.
This scene is when Ada is 16 or 17, and possibly ready for yet another developmental transition. It’s written from her mother’s perspective, and I am effectively her mother here, as I was when Ada was 12 as well. The episode is inspired by a number of things I was told in high school or college by young women I’ve known, some of whom I have loved. It’s specific enough and of such a nature that it highlights my difficulty with all of this. It’s about rape.
I don’t have any ability to comprehend the horror of rape. I have never experienced anything like that. However, I have felt the pain that can linger in a young woman’s life as a result of it, but just to say that, the second those words are out, I’ve made it about me, and it’s goddamned not about me. I wasn’t the one hurt, but I still feel your hurt, viscerally. I don’t know how to deal with that, and it’s sure as hell not up to you of all people to help me feel better about it. It’s the basis of my reluctance about this scene, a scene whose beginning I’ve pre-written a million times in my head, but whose ending I’m hoping will come to me as I write it.
Even worse, I’m using the topic of rape here as a metaphor for all pain, as with the mysterious disease in Verity. It’s bundling up everything about everyone else’s pain into one single topic that I don’t feel I have any right to discuss. I can already hear the recriminations. As a man, I can’t understand. I’m making it about me, as all men do about everything. That’s not untrue, but I’ve allowed the fear of those expected recriminations, or others like them, to keep my mouth sealed shut tight my entire life, and I just can’t anymore. I don’t know what else to do.
Throughout the time I was first working on Verity, I was talking and corresponding with Lauren about the process of writing and about just living as a person who feels compelled to do such a thing. Early on she proposed that when I didn’t know how to proceed, I should just close my eyes and try to picture what the characters were doing, that they would take on a life of their own and all I had to do was write down what I saw. I was primed for that to be effective, because Brené Brown had proposed something not entirely dissimilar in one of her books, and that had for damn sure worked for me. I felt weird about how easy it was, even if afterwards I was sometimes only able to squeeze out a paragraph or two. It was nothing like the crushing frustration I so often felt in so many other creative attempts as I tried to think my way through everything by brute force to a logical and conclusive result.
At first I always saw Millie and sometimes Kimball. Ada mostly stayed away, and I haven’t even met Elizabeth yet. But during my hiatus it was always Ada. I would close my eyes to see if she was doing anything that might indicate it was time to start writing again, but always she just stood there, inches from my face, sometimes nodding encouragement, sometimes making a well-what-do-you-think? face, sometimes indicating that I was doing everything all wrong.
Last week, as it started to feel that Verity might be coming back into my life, I realized that this scene was the transition back to it. It was then that it dawned on me what a challenge it might be, and so I closed my eyes, tried to picture Ada to see if my imagination might provide any clues. And she was there and she told me to write it, to take her story of when she was 16 or 17 and her innocence was shattered. I tried to plead with her not to make me do it, but she just said “take it, I give it to you.” Obviously it’s just my own brain doing this, but if that’s what my brain needs to do in order to push me forward, if I have to personify the things half buried in my mind so that I can “see” them, because the only feelings I can see are other people’s feelings, well, so be it.
“Mom, I’m late.” There was a leaden weight in her voice.
Mrs Noble didn’t register the tone, didn’t turn around to face Ada, but continued making breakfast while replying, “Honey, you’ve got over an hour until school starts. And you have to eat first.”
“No, Mom. I’m late.”
Then it clicked. Mrs Noble spun around, surprised, bewildered, but ready to be supportive, even if her first reaction was to wish that her daughter had been more responsible.
“Oh. I didn’t know you were already…”
“Honey, it’s okay. I just wish you would’ve talked with me before you decided…”
“Mom!” Ada pleaded, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists, her arms going rigid at her side. “I didn’t…” It was a whisper then, “I didn’t want to.”
And then Mrs Noble understood. Later, when thinking back to this moment, she had a parallel thought about something she had once read about the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs. She had read that an obsidian knife was shoved up under the rib cage of the victim, from below the sternum, followed by the priest’s hand, and the heart removed. In retrospect that’s how she imagined her guts felt in that moment, that something deep inside her chest was being pulled sharply and forcefully downward, being ripped out through her abdomen, only it wasn’t being cut out. The guts and connective tissue were being ripped apart instead of neatly sliced. She nearly fainted. She lost sense of time, of being in the world at all.
“Oh, Honey!” she shrieked. She made a move towards Ada, her arms stretching out to take her into a protective hug. But Ada recoiled, and Mrs Noble lowered her arms.
As tears rose to Mrs Noble’s eyes, Ada pleaded, “Mom, no. Mom, don’t cry. I can’t take it. I didn’t tell you to… I can’t take it if you’re upset, too. It’s too much. I just, I just…”
Mrs Noble stood immobile, stupefied, wanting to die for her impotence, for her inability to know what to do, how to make it better, to do anything to help her daughter, or to deal with this horror which she would allow to happen to herself over and over until the end of eternity if it would mean that it didn’t have to happen to Ada.
And an eternity is how long it seemed that they stood facing each other, neither speaking, a holding pattern as any word, any thought, any action waited to present itself as an option. And then Mrs Noble disregarded her daughter’s plea, ran to her, grabbed her fiercely in her arms and sobbed. Heavy, thick sobs, as Ada went limp and muttered, “Mom, mom, mom, …” Slowly, over and over again until her words were nearly inaudible.
Well, that’s rather shorter than I expected, and I’m not sure what to make of it, even after I’ve gone back over it a number of times, waiting for it settle in. But now, if I close my eyes, I can see Ada and Millie, standing together, smiling at me. They’ve never stood together before, so I think that might mean something, though I really don’t know what.
I should also add, now that all of that is out of my system, that it’s not just your pain that I feel, and this was brought home to me yesterday at the Chicago Pride Parade while my wife and I celebrated our brothers-by-choice who were riding on one of the floats. The buzz and excitement in the air as we walked down Broadway from the Wilson Red Line station was intoxicating. I felt high. The crowd’s solidarity in joy and celebration of our differences and our similarities was overpowering, and I swear that I nearly cried. Everyone felt it, I’m sure, but I don’t know how conscious everyone was about that feeling. Maybe I’m overstating my case, maybe everyone sucks up other people’s emotions the way I do and keeps them buried inside, but if so, my God, people, ya gotta start talking about it.