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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Backwards To That Time

Writers read the signs in bone, in ash.  We go back to places in our past no person in their right mind would visit.  We know it is necessary to do so: there is no running away.  The past, present, even the future are a collage layered on the human psyche: we are the sum of every part.

For the first time in many years, I wrote tonight of the rape which happened to me in 1981 and for which I paid by numbing out for twenty years, a violation I pay for even now, a trauma I will likely take to my grave.  Nearly every professional triumph as a writer, a professor, simply as a human being, is my way of surmounting what he tried to make me believe about myself that night.  Simply, women are prey in this world, and so often all of us, men and women alike, do not see the predator approaching until it is too late.

The chapter I'm working on tonight is called "Anne" and is, at least logistically for the book, a way of creating suspense during the timeline of Asha's disappearance, though I hate using such a clinical word for the writing which is becoming a life journey for me and an honoring of lost lives.  I am going to share a little of this scene, which I just wrote last night, though I am leaving off the description of the assault; that is for people who voluntarily will read the book.  This is an excerpt which talks about the particular brand of PTSD I experienced, intrusive memories and dreams, and the day I first heard that my friend Anne Swanke had gone missing.  At the time, I was living in Santa Cruz, hundreds of miles away (deliberately) from my university.  I had no therapy for the rape until 1988, seven years after it happened.

(from Chapter Two of Ravine) (sorry about the formatting; each small section is actually a paragraph).

Memories pierced not only into my waking consciousness, but also my sleep: I dreamed constantly of broken cities and demolished houses. Only one transcendent dream gave me hope in those years: I stood on a remote beach up the coast from Santa Cruz,  in front of a temple like a Russian Orthodox church, the building close to a gentle, lapping tide. Mosaics on the temple's outer walls blazed with color, though I did not recognize the stylized portraits of women with gold haloes and bright robes. A monk in front of the arched wooden door assured me that this place was mine and he would caretake it for me until the time when I would live there.

Bearing children seemed to be an effective way to keep the trapdoor shut, all my children loved and wanted, but the process a shield for me also: the blood, pain, wakeful nights, hard and painful breasts, and the baby who depended on me utterly, proved a deep and abiding bodily distraction. To my relief, no memories splintered through when I had a baby and a preschooler to care for, at least during the day. 

One November afternoon, nearly ten months after my daughter Nicole's birth, I sat on my new couch—the color of oatmeal, the first new piece of furniture my husband and I proudly bought—and watched Michael and Nicole play. Michael loved Nicole and I felt amazed at the lack of sibling rivalry; she sat on her favorite yellow blanket and laughed as he stacked alphabet blocks on the carpet and knocked them down again. I could feel a chilly draft through the old latch windows above the couch and felt glad for the warm house; the weather had turned very cold.

The phone rang and I froze when I heard my mother's voice on the other end of the line, wishing that I could instantly divine her level of intoxication. An alcoholic since my early childhood, she began her cocktail hour around noon every day, and after a few glasses of wine, started making calls to relatives, friends, and her grown children.  I often spent hours attempting to take care of Michael and Nicole with one hand while holding the phone with the other, the extension cord snaking around the kitchen and living room as I tried to calm my mother against her alcohol-induced phantoms. This was in the years before caller ID and voicemail and call-waiting; few people even had answering machines. I always picked up a phone call, never knowing whether it was my husband, Bill, or a friend I'd contacted to babysit Nicole and Michael, or, as now, my mother and her sadly slurred voice.

Today, however, she sounded frantic, not drunk. “Joanie, listen to me. It's all over the news. A woman from your college, from the University of San Diego--she's missing. They found her car, abandoned on a main road. Her purse was still on the front seat, and her car keys.”

“Who?” I said, trying not to sound panicked so as not to upset my children. Nicole crawled over to me and I sat down on the floor to cradle her in my lap. I kissed the top of her head, sweet with apricot-scented baby shampoo.

“Just a minute,” Mom said. I heard the rustle of a newspaper, and then she came back on the line. I heard her inhale on her ever-present cigarette and blow the smoke out slowly against the mouthpiece. Mom, my God, hurry up, I thought, a sentence I would never dare utter aloud in her presence.

“Anne Swanke. Anne Catherine Swanke.” She pronounced it like “swanky.” but I knew the correct pronunciation: “Swan-key,” because Anne and I had been friends at USD, all the way up to my graduation in 1981.

(The rest of the chapter talks about what happened to Anne, who was murdered by a serial killer: another woman who was a music major, a singer, a musician; Anne wanted to be an opera singer and taught herself to play piano, to accompany herself as she sang.  She was the last person I spoke to before I left my university and went back to Los Angeles).

All this women, these singing women, taken from the earth.  Why?