An Essay by Joshua Weinstein
“It is impossible,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote in the voice of Prufrock, “to say just what I mean.” Prufrock finds many ways to express despair—he also wishes he had been a pair of ragged claws, reflects on being snickered at by the eternal Footman, predicts that mermaids will ignore him—and it was Eliot’s genius to craft a poem of breathtaking beauty from the point of view of a guy feeling sorry for himself. I don’t think Prufrock’s angst at not finding the right words should be taken as a philosophical statement about the human condition. But that apparently was what the philosopher Wittgenstein intended when he wrote, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”
When I ran into Wittgenstein’s dictum in college, I thought it was silly, an example of using academic-speak to make something trivial sound profound. I still do. We can’t talk about what we can’t talk about. Nu? Then there’s the paradox of talking about what we can’t talk about in order to say we can’t talk about it—quite the tangle. Besides, speech and silence hardly exhaust the range of options. What about music? Art? Primal scream? Beethoven’s rage may have been beyond the reach of words, but he found a way to express it.
In Silent Thunder, Katy Payne’s account of elephant behavior and society, she describes how elephants in an arid region of Zimbabwe dig wells to find water that’s within reach of their trunks. In areas where she and her research team saw no evidence of wells having been attempted, they found the water table was deeper than the length of an elephant’s trunk. “Somehow the elephants knew.”
I wonder what humans somehow know that’s beneath or beyond rational explanation. In my own desperate moments I want to say that somehow we know all the wrong things—how to build nuclear bombs, fill the atmosphere with carbon, create categories of Others to fear and hate. But we also create works of vast and aching beauty; we show tenderness and compassion; and that whole maddening human range, the span from love to brutality, itself seems beyond rational explanation.
In one of the early years of my relationship with Laura, before we were married, there was a Sunday morning when we were lying in bed; we had made love and were doing one of our favorite things, cuddling and talking. The conversation came around to Laura’s father. She was telling me about a time when he was up in Boston to visit. They were in her room and her father started poking around Laura’s bureau, managed to stumble onto her diaphragm case, and with faux naivete he asked what it was.
“What an asshole,” I blurted. It was my uncensored reaction, but I also assumed I was reflecting Laura’s own view of her father, the point of her story.
“I prefer to think of him as a victim of his environment,” Laura replied. She said it mildly, not looking for an argument; but she stopped me short. I believed that all of us are shaped by our social environments, and while I didn’t think of middle class white men as victims, I understood why Laura would explain her father’s behavior as a function of his upbringing, culture, the values and social forces that lead men to behave badly. At the same time, I thought and felt that what her father had done was creepy, appalling. And what about individual responsibility? We all retain the capacity to critically assess our circumstances, to be actors and not mere repositories of our socialization, and ultimately we are responsible for our choices and actions.
I lay in bed mulling these things, still snuggled against the warmth and familiar comfort of Laura’s body, and then it came to me: “He’s an asshole and he’s a victim of his environment.” It had never occurred to me that a person can be oppressor and victim at the same time, but in that moment somehow I knew.
At my age it’s not unusual to learn of the death of someone I know or used to know. I have the usual range of responses, from a kind of muted solemnity to full fledged grief.
Yesterday my friend Deborah called to tell me that Emma Peters is dead.
The last time I saw Emma was the summer of 1977. I had recently turned 30. Laura and I were walking along Massachusetts Avenue on the outskirts of Central Square in Cambridge. I was pushing a stroller with our first child, Jennifer. The post office was on our right, City Hall across the street to our left with people scattered across the front lawn. We were chatting with the characteristic ease of our relationship, by that time a marriage. Everything was uneventful. Then, out of nowhere, there was Emma walking toward us, her compact athletic body, her aura of contained suffering, an opaque smile on her beautiful face.
It would have been the most natural thing in the world a few years earlier, running into Emma that way, and part of me was drawn back to the time when we were all friends, as if the intervening years had collapsed and we could step into that less complicated period of our lives. The rest of me was stunned at the sight of her.
The last I knew Emma had been living in Shelburne Falls, about 100 miles west of Boston. What was she doing here? It turned out she was in town visiting her sister, which I might have guessed if I had been in a more coherent state. We stopped and talked politely, the only thing possible. Laura and I showed off our daughter—Jen was fast asleep in the stroller, her head slumped to one side. Emma asked how it was for us, being parents. We asked her about work, about living away from the city. We all gave short, shallow answers.
Afterward, walking away, Laura leaned into me and said in a soft voice, “How awkward.”
As a young man, the whole idea of marriage was alien to me. My reasons were intellectual and political, to do with questioning social conventions, the underpinnings of monogamy which I considered irrational (why does sex with one person reflect on the quality of a relationship with someone else?), and I rejected the notions of possession, ownership, and everything else about marriage that was an expression of patriarchy.
Underneath all this was my parents’ tortured marriage and how it had affected me, a set of issues about which I was remarkably unreflective. I grew up witnessing an endless string of screaming arguments, sniping, blaming, unresolved grievances, and an almost complete absence of affection. My mother chose me as her confidante and would calmly tell me everything that was wrong with my father. The possibility of divorce hung in the air, and I remember being as young as nine or ten and having fantasies about being called into court and asked which parent I wanted to live with. I imagined telling the judge, always a stern middle aged white man in black robes, that I liked my father better but wanted to live with my mother because she took care of me. Internally, as a way of preparing for an event I expected and feared, I was committing an act of resignation.
When I was in high school my mother started telling me that after I graduated she was going to move to Tahiti, where she would get a job as a social worker and spend the rest of her time lying on a beach and get as dark as the natives. One time when the three of us were having dinner in a restaurant—it was the summer before my senior year—I brought this up as if it were an accomplished fact. My father got furious. I was baffled and a little frightened, and I went numb. I thought my father knew all about my mother’s plans for Tahiti. I thought my mother’s plans were real.
During my senior year, my mother started spending a lot of time with a man named Max who was an old friend of both my parents. I knew because she would ask me to drive her to his house in the evening. It occurred to me that they might be having an affair, but I dismissed it. Max’s wife, Margaret, had died when I was in tenth grade, and he was raising two teenage daughters by himself. I persuaded myself that my mother was doing a good deed, helping Max with his girls.
My mother actually was sleeping with Max, and it was more than an affair: they would be lovers for the rest of my mother’s life, another 30 years. It got weirder than that. Years later my father would tell me that in the late ’50s he’d had an affair with Margaret, Max’s wife. My father had many other lovers as well, so many that I would come to think of him as a womanizer. Eventually he also settled into a longterm outside-the-marriage relationship, though he would cheat on his partner with younger women. And through all of this my parents stayed together, snarling, in what I once heard my father describe as a normal marriage.
In 1977, Barbara and John Ehrenreich published “The Professional-Managerial Class” in Radical America. They contended that professionals and managers were something akin to double agents, on the one hand subjected to the power of owners and top executives but on the other hand holding positions of power over the workers, students and clients whose lives they managed and controlled. A stratum of society with contradictory interests and allegiances, they were simultaneously oppressed and oppressors.
One of the interesting things the Ehrenreichs explored was the phenomenon of people reacting against their own class background, which they dubbed “negative class consciousness.” This was particularly relevant to the massive unrest in the ’60s among predominantly white students who had grown up in affluent families and were being groomed as the next generation of professionals and managers—but who identified with struggles for racial and economic justice, opposed the war in Vietnam, and rejected, or talked about rejecting, their class and race privilege. In the mid-’70s, when the protests and upheavals of the previous decade had died down, the Ehrenreichs described as “radicals in the professions” those erstwhile students who were trying to apply radical political beliefs to their working lives.
For me, and I think for many of us who were veterans of the struggles of the ’60s, “The Professional-Managerial Class” was a riveting read because it described and explained our lived experience. I had marched for civil rights, protested the war, participated in campus disturbances, and came to passionately believe in social equality. When I got out of college I had no clear direction for the next phase of my life. I was disenchanted with academia. I wanted to change the world but couldn’t see myself as a full time revolutionary, let alone a violent one. I had vague ideas of becoming a teacher or social worker, but that would mean going to graduate school, which held no appeal. I traveled for a while. I found a hippie farm in New Hampshire—there was no actual working farm, just an old ramshackle house—where I stayed for free, mostly kept to myself and wrote a very bad novel that never got published. By the time I had finished my “book” I was completely broke (I still had to pay for food) and managed to get hired as a research assistant at a Boston hospital that was investigating depression. The study ended after nine months, I had decent references and found a position as a mental health worker in a psychiatric hospital.
I didn’t take the job with any clear intention to agitate for radical change, but I brought with me a habitual mistrust of authority, an orientation to looking critically at established institutions. It didn’t take long to find out that the psychiatric establishment was being challenged on many fronts. Radical psychiatrists such as Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing were critiquing the entire concept of mental illness, which Szasz contended was better described and treated as “problems in living.” The American Association for the Abolition of Involuntary Mental Hospitalization had just been founded, opposing the right of psychiatrists to lock people up based on arbitrary diagnoses, with no commission of crime or due process of law. Bruce Ennis and Thomas Litwack, in their California Law Review article “Psychiatry and the Presumption of Expertise: Flipping Coins in the Courtroom,” cited research showing that psychiatric predictions of dangerousness—the basis for committing people to mental institutions—were usually wrong.
A Stanford psychologist, David Rosenham, conducted an experiment in which eight “pseudopatients” briefly feigned a psychiatric symptom in order gain admission to mental hospitals, then once in the hospital told the medical staff that the symptom had subsided and they were feeling fine. All of them were kept in the hospital for significant periods of time, diagnosed with major mental illnesses, and required to take medication. Other patients noticed that there was nothing wrong with them but the doctors never caught on. Rosenham published the study in Science with the title, “On Being Sane in Insane Places.”
Over the first few months of 1975, a bunch of us from work got together once a week to talk about buying land and starting a farm—not a ramshackle hippie commune but a real farm, where we would keep animals and grow crops and forge an egalitarian community. We were mental health workers, a couple of social workers, a nurse, an intern; we called ourselves the Gang of Eight. All of us were in revolt against the way our unit was being run; we shared a desire to create something that would embody our values and beliefs. Back-to-the-land was in the air, we’d heard stories and read books, and for a while we latched onto a kind of utopian vision of a life we could take into our own hands, without bosses or exploitation, built on cooperation and mutual regard, healthy living and connection to the Earth.
We bonded as a group. There was a lot of physical affection. Who you were actually sleeping with didn’t matter much when we were all together; anyone might be affectionate with anyone, or with everyone. It seemed sweet at the time, and in many ways it was.
There was a particular evening when we were hanging out at the house on Mission Hill in Roxbury where Laura and I lived. I wound up sitting next to Emma in front of the fireplace. There were people all around us, the buzz of conversation. Emma and I were quiet, watching the flames, Emma used a stick to poke logs and then she put it down and I took her hand, or she took my hand. It was ordinary behavior in our group, holding hands, but this was the first time Emma and I had touched.
I still don’t have words for what happened next. I have cliches—a magnetic force; electric currents running up my arm. Or I can describe what happened physically: Our fingers twined and untwined, my hand glided up her arm, hers glided up mine, then back down and our fingers met again, we were in constant motion, thumb against thumb, there was an instant harmony as if our bodies had known each other for years, as if this were choreographed but the dancing, the perfect rhythm of our fingers, our hands, our pores and nerve endings that were impossibly alive, all this was spontaneous, an explosion of passion. It went on for ten, fifteen minutes. Our eyes stayed fixed on the fire, at least mine did. We didn’t kiss. We didn’t hug. We didn’t speak. I didn’t brush the back of my hand against her cheek. Technically it would be weeks before we became lovers. But everything that would happen later was contained in those few minutes, the unrestrained movement of skin against skin, the driving forces that had nothing to do with conscious intention.
What I can’t describe is something deeper. I was finding exposed a place or part of myself that went beyond passion or desire or any kind of intimacy I had experienced before, something sur-erotic, if there is such a word. It had to do with pain, wounded places in Emma and in me that were having a desperate conversation without the benefit of words or self-awareness or social context, beyond ordinary reality, and suddenly necessary. Something like that, but in the moment I was simply immersed.
It happened with Laura there in the room. I literally did not do this, fall in love with Emma, behind Laura’s back. Technically I was not violating any understanding between Laura and me. We had always said we weren’t monogamous. We were lovers living together as roommates, in a house we shared with four other people, each with our own rooms, nothing exclusive about it. We had always been clear about this, and the definition of our relationship came from Laura at least as much as from me.
In 1955, at the peak of the warehousing of people considered mentally ill, 560,000 human beings subsisted in state psychiatric institutions. For some it was a life sentence, and many others were locked up for years at a time in deplorable conditions. In the ’60s policies began to shift, and by the early ’70s, when I was working on the psych unit, deinstitutionalization was in full swing across the country.
Among mental health professionals, conventional wisdom holds that it was the advent of antipsychotic medications like Thorazine that led to this sea change in psychiatric care. Pills that could turn down the volume of psychotic symptoms made it possible for patients to live in the community—or so the argument ran. But the full story, inevitably, was more complicated. Thorazine and its successor meds, sometimes described as chemical restraints, were notorious for sedating people into zombie states. Many factors in addition to pharmacology came into play. Books like Ken Kesey’s bestselling One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and sociologist Erving Goffman’s Asylums called public attention to dehumanizing practices in mental hospitals. The social movements of the ’60s, with their focus on the oppression of marginalized groups, created a broader political context for the liberation of mental patients. Policies cascaded from the federal government to the states, as changes in funding streams and the creation of programs such as Medicaid and SSI created incentives to move patients back into the community.
There are also lingering questions about the alternatives to warehousing, the “de” part of deinstitutionalization. Many first-wave patients were moved from state hospitals into nursing homes, going from one institution to another. Others ended up homeless or in prison. And some critics have contended that “community based” settings for the mentally ill really amount to mini-institutions.
The psych unit where I worked was in a private hospital that had never warehoused people in the manner of the state institutions. Still, we were touched by the waves of deinstitutionalization. Some of our patients came to the unit from state hospitals, or went into crisis after being released from those institutions, and our job was to stabilize them and then figure out a plan that gave them a chance to remain out of the hospital once we discharged them. The average length of stay on the unit went steadily down, as the demand for admissions was rising with the influx of mentally ill people into the community.
The doc in charge of our unit was a youngish psychiatrist named Anthony Ruggieri. Strictly speaking, nothing about Dr. Ruggieri was a function of deinstitutionalization. But he captured the larger spirit of the times, the best possibilities of the shifting world of psychiatry. Where the conventional honcho would stay sequestered in his (never her) office, holding power but out of touch with realities on the ground, Tony was on the floor, engaging patients, leading groups, working side by side with the staff, helping with the dirty work, teaching us obvious and exquisitely nuanced lessons about how to treat damaged and disparaged people with dignity. He thought medication had its place but only as one of many options and tools, never a substitute for dealing with the full human being, and he endorsed the right of patients to refuse meds years before legal standards to that effect were put in place. He would say that it’s not crazy for people, no matter how psychotic, to want a sense of control over their lives. He taught us to collaborate with patients, make alliances with their better, healthier selves. He created an atmosphere of collaboration among the staff, the other side of the same coin.
I felt taken under wing by Tony; we all did. I had walked into that job thinking I would do it for a year and then move on to something else. Instead, against all expectations, I found a home.
Laura appeared on the unit about a year after I started, just out of college, never having worked with mentally ill adults. On her second day one of the patients, a big gruff man, was coming on to her, calling her baby, staring at her chest, inviting her to his room. Three of us in the vicinity were prepared to intervene, but we never had to. Laura calmly asked the man if he liked to play Monopoly. Her tone of voice, the way she held her body, her entire demeanor conveyed that she wasn’t frightened or reactive, she had no sexual intentions, she didn’t hold his bad behavior against him. Failing to provoke an expected response, the man didn’t know what to do except answer her question, and he said, as if it were an admission, that yeah, he supposed he liked to play Monopoly. She had disarmed him with her poise, and off they went to the activity room where they were joined by a couple of other patients at a game table. Witnessing the incident, I thought—this one’s a keeper.
Laura was a tall, slightly heavy woman with straight dark hair and expressive eyes, a face that seemed plain at first but got more attractive the better I knew her. We followed what felt like an obvious progression from co-workers to friends to lovers. I thought of her, not as my girlfriend, but as my best friend. If we defined ourselves as nonmonogamous and uncommitted, there was a subtle way in which the lack of commitment was a glue that bound us together: our relationship was freely chosen. We enjoyed each other, there was a lot of affection both ways, we got along incredibly well, we spoke a common language.
The back-to-the-land movement, chronicled by Eleanor Agnew 30 years later in Back from the Land, was an epilogue to the great social movements of the ’60s. Agnew, who moved to backwoods Maine in 1975 with her husband and children and another couple, describes the physical hardships, emotional challenges, and interpersonal conflicts that plagued her own and many similar ventures. She estimates that as many as a million people migrated from cities over the course of the ’70s. The large majority, lacking a wide range of skills needed to successfully live on the land, straggled back to urban living.
The Gang of Eight, who for a time aspired to become urban migrants, short-circuited this process: we feel apart as a group before managing to leave the city. In hindsight, it may have been just as well.
Emma’s father was an ugly man, a bully. Rich with inherited wealth, arrogant, emotionally distant, he physically disciplined—which is to say abused—his four daughters, spanking and slapping them for infractions du jour. Emma was the youngest and he apparently became more brutal over time. When she was 14 he would still make her pull down her pants or skirt, then her panties, or pull them down himself, and used his hand to beat her naked buttocks. Meanwhile her mother had her own issues, such as keeping a houseful of cats despite Emma being so severely allergic to them that she would sometimes have to be taken to the emergency room.
At 16 she told her parents that she was having sex with her boyfriend. She meant it—the telling, not the sex itself—as a fuck you gesture, a way of asserting that a part of her life was beyond their control. Her parents forbad it, called her promiscuous, and it became a raging power struggle which Emma lost in ways she could not possibly have imagined. There was a psychiatrist in the father’s old boys network who was paid to commit her to a prestigious private mental hospital, where she was locked up for six months and given electroshock “treatments”.
Half a year in a psychiatric institution for being sexually active, and then she’s sent home. Her short term memory is shot. Her thoughts are fuzzy, her feelings muted. She has passed her seventeenth birthday in the hospital. She’s not alert enough to go to school and ends up missing a whole year. Her friends are living in a different world. She stays in the house, not knowing what else to do. She hacks and wheezes from the cats. Her parents won’t talk about the hospital, the damage done.
Gradually her brain regains some of its functions. In the fall she returns to school, finds she can manage. She holds the fear that something in her has been irretrievably harmed; she carries the secret and the shame of having been a mental patient. But she resists, quietly, strategically. She thinks of herself as a political prisoner. High school graduation is the end of her prison term.
The day Emma graduates she leaves home and never looks back. She goes to live with her closest sister, Linda. She enrolls at UMass Boston, refuses to take any money from her parents, waitresses her way through college. She is fierce about her sexual freedom.
After college she works for a year at a treatment center for disturbed children. Then my friend Deborah, who is a friend of Emma’s sister, introduces her to Laura and me at a party. In the course of a long conversation we tell her about the psych unit, where a position for a mental health worker is open.
Near the end of 1974, only a few months after Emma was hired, Tony Ruggieri announced that he was leaving. He had been offered a job at a teaching hospital in New York, a faculty appointment at the NYU School of Medicine—an offer, he said, he could not refuse. No one could begrudge Tony his career move, but those of us who had been thriving in our work, had been shielded by his leadership from the machinations of the hospital’s power structure, were left at the mercy of the unknown men at the next level of power to choose Tony’s replacement. They hired Dr. Thomas Little, an impeccably dressed, humorless man with thinning white hair who before the end of his first week told us that he would spend a month gathering data and then would dictate any changes he felt were necessary. Discussion, he said, was a waste of time. He had been put in charge of the unit for a reason, and the reason was that he knew better than any of us how to provide optimal treatment to mentally ill patients.
Amid all the turmoil that followed, the outrage and angst and inevitably futile efforts at opposition and resistance, there was a truth that we, or at least I, had managed to ignore during the Tony Ruggieri era: an egalitarian enclave within a hierarchical institution is ridiculously fragile. For the better part of four years I believed we were building something robust, exemplary, validated every day by results we were getting with patients and by something deeper, the living reality of psychiatric treatment with a human face. All of it hinged on one key person. There was no systemic change, only a precarious anomaly. The key person steps aside, and in the blink of an eye the anomaly is crushed.
The first crack in the Gang of Eight came when the one doctor in the group, our young intern, told us she was dropping out because she had been accepted for her residency at a hospital in Cincinnati. Another offer that apparently couldn’t be refused. She said she was heartbroken, but if that was really true, why was she choosing the residency over us? Why had she never told us she was applying to the Cincinnati hospital? That at least was how some of us felt, a sharp sense of being blindsided, betrayed.
Some of us felt that way, but not everyone. The two social workers, and the nurse, thought the rest of us were being harsh. Was it so hard to see why after her years in med school, all that investment, not just financial but in the broader personal sense, so much time and effort to build a career, someone might not want to throw it all away? Where was our compassion?
It seemed to me the split wasn’t random. The professionals saw it one way; the “paraprofessionals”—the four of us who were mental health workers—saw it another. Differences in professional status, amounting to a kind of class distinction, were rearing their ugly heads among people who were supposedly committed to equality. I thought this needed to be discussed and resolved, so I said it out loud. In return I was accused of creating an issue where none existed, blaming people for their professional training and stirring up the divisions I was complaining about. Then someone mentioned that I was sleeping with two women. I said it had nothing to do with the issue I had raised. No, I was told, it had everything to do with it. Here we were, supposedly on the verge of going off to Maine where we would have only each other to rely on, and I seriously believed we could build a stable functional community with one man claiming two lovers? What was that if not the height of male privilege? And I was talking about class differences?
The changes ordered by Dr. Little after he collected his data were infuriatingly predictable. Patients lost their right to refuse meds. Professional staff were not to be called by first name. Mental health workers were to stop conducting themselves as “pseudotherapists”.
For a time we thought we could fly under the radar and quietly do what we had always done—treat patients as human beings. But Little assembled a network of informants, and he began disciplining staff who disregarded his edicts. When we would ask him where he was getting his information, his response—he actually said this—was, “I don’t betray my sources.”
It was intolerable, and it didn’t last long. For me the end came one morning when a patient, a spirited young woman, went striding up and down the central hallway screaming a string of epithets, drawing Little out of his office. He sized up the situation (more data collection) and then ordered me and two other workers to take the patient to a seclusion room and put her in four-point restraints, which is hospital-speak for tying her down by the wrists and ankles.
“Tom,” I said, watching him flinch at being addressed as an equal. “I’m not going to do that.”
He glared at me as I explained the back story of this incident. The woman had tried to refuse her morning meds and as a result, per his policy, was forcibly injected. Now she was responding to having been violated, and Tom wanted us to violate her again. She wasn’t hurting anyone, wasn’t threatening anyone, she was only giving voice to her outrage. She was still entitled to respect.
He asked me if I was finished. I said yes. He told me he was going to write me up. I told him not to bother, I was quitting.
The mental health workers in the Gang of Eight—Laura and Emma, a lovely guy named Joel, me—all of us submitted our resignations. None of the professionals did. If we were still a gang up to that point, which is debatable, that was the moment when we disbanded.
The evening of our last day on the unit, we had a party at the house on Mission Hill, a celebration and ritual grieving. We invited friends, housemates, some people from the unit. I drank tequila steadily through the evening. At ten o’clock Emma still wasn’t there. I called her; she said she was coming; but it was past midnight when she showed up. By then only a few people were left. Laura, who’d also had a lot to drink, had gone up to bed.
I was very drunk. I was reeling. I had already been reeling at the start of the evening when I was sober. I saw Emma walk in and all I wanted was to be with her, as if my whole life were compressed into this single moment and the only thing that mattered was to immerse myself in her body, her being. I threw my arms around her. I was incoherent. She gently disengaged, smiled inscrutably, took me by the hand and got me to sit with her on a couch. She said she wasn’t going to stay. I said how was that possible, weren’t we going to make love, right there or up in my room or in her car or she could take me back home with her or anywhere she wanted. She said no. She said it softly, in a kind voice. I couldn’t understand why she had come if she was just going to turn around and leave. She tried to explain and I still didn’t understand. She kissed me, a sweet, generous, open mouthed kiss, I could feel the passion running through both of our bodies and I thought she was changing her mind. Then she left.
I struggled up to Laura’s room. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I had never thought of Emma and Laura as either/or. Only as different, speaking or singing to different parts of me. If I had not been so drunk, able to think just a little more clearly, I might have gone to my room and slept alone that night. But I was very drunk and I went into Laura’s room, I took off my clothes and got into her bed. She stirred and woke up just enough to respond when I kissed her. Then she woke up more and our bodies took over and we were having sex. I didn’t ask if her diaphragm was in. There was no reason why it would be. I knew that and I went ahead anyway, we both did.
When Emma said she was going to stop seeing me, she couldn’t have known Laura was pregnant. We didn’t know, it was only a few days after the party. I asked if she was upset because I’d been so obnoxious when I was drunk. She said that wasn’t it.
She felt responsible for the Gang falling apart, our relationship had created an untenable situation for everyone. I asked what good it would do to break up now, whatever happened with the Gang was done. She said it still weighed on her. She didn’t want the same thing to happen with Laura and me. I didn’t know what she was talking about. She was afraid our relationship would cause Laura and me to break up; she couldn’t do that to Laura. I said Laura and I were fine. She said she didn’t want to be in this position anymore. What position? Being the second woman, she said. I said that wasn’t how I saw her. She said it was how she saw herself.
At some point it got through to me that she had made up her mind. The reasons didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she wasn’t willing to go on. I was already in crisis from what had happened at work. Now this, loss upon loss. Things were just happening to me, that’s how I felt. I sobbed. Emma held me. She made it infinitely better and infinitely worse, this kindness she was showing me, the knowledge that she was not acting out of anger, that there was nothing I could have done differently to make things be okay, make us be okay, or the only thing would have been never to have touched her.
I thought about asking if we could make love one last time but mustered the wisdom not to, partly afraid she would say no and partly afraid she would say yes. Somehow we came around to playing tennis as a farewell gesture, the physicality of it. You could say it was a surrogate for sex, but I don’t think so.
On the court we had long rallies. I got into a zone that athletes call unconscious. I couldn’t miss. I knew where the ball was coming before it left Emma’s racket. I flowed into it, my feet left the asphalt, I slammed the ball hard and low and deep. No one had ever taught me to jump into the ball, no one ever taught me anything about how to play tennis. My body had taken over, the racket was an extension of my arm, my hand, I was beyond or beneath conscious intention. Emma kept hitting it back and I would do it again, moving with grace and power and precision I had no idea I was capable of. I was being choreographed by something bigger than me. I was inflamed. I was lost. My center, if I had one, was not holding.
Except for a chance encounter on Massachusetts Avenue two years later, that was the last time I saw Emma.
“Do I dare,” asks Prufrock, “disturb the universe?” Fearful, indecisive, self-critical, he dithers, watching his life slip through his fingers.
My generation, or a large slice of it, did all we could to disturb the universe during the ’60s. We helped to stop a war, or at least to put constraints on how our government waged its terrible war. But the underlying system remained intact; we failed to muffle, let alone silence, what Ursula Le Guin calls “the endless sound of the engines of war on all the roads of the world.” Racism, capitalism, patriarchy, inequality, fear and hatred of the Other—they all have marched on, and if there have been changes, mostly they have been for the worse.
In the ’70s I learned from the Women’s Movement that the personal is political. Power is in the room, always, and if we want to change the larger society, we also need to change ourselves. I have tried to conduct myself as an equal with the people who matter in my life. I’ve probably failed more than I’ve succeeded, and in the process I have run into the limits of self-knowledge, the limits of agency. In the end, my question is the other side of Prufrock’s coin: can I make sense of how the universe disturbs me?
By any reasonable standard I have a good, a very good marriage. When I think of my parents, I live in an alternate universe. I can’t imagine a better person than Laura to have raised our children with. I still tell people that I’m married to my best friend.
A good marriage; an incomplete life. When I finally went to graduate school, earning a degree I never used, I had a professor who observed, “Life is a series of tradeoffs.” It sounds right, but what does it really mean? Anything more than a Robert Frost cliché? It’s too easy to say that I traded off the intensity, the depth of my relationship with Emma for the stability and harmony of marriage with Laura, the rewards of parenting—too easy because it’s not true. I wasn’t making choices, I was stumbling around when Emma walked away from me; when Laura told me she was pregnant. Then I managed to stand still, and I watched the next 40 years of my life come to me, and it’s been a life to which my deepest aches and yearnings, the parts of me that erupted for a few months in 1975, have not been invited.
It’s not a question of regrets. Say Laura hadn’t gotten pregnant; say I had left her for Emma. I doubt we’d have lasted six month. Not regrets, but the facing a difficult truth, and I know the responsibility for this truth is not Laura’s, was not Emma’s. There is a continuum from full authenticity to Iago-esque falseness, and I can’t shake the feeling that I shade toward the Iago end. Not in the sense of being evil or conniving, but to do with not being who I am.
Deborah told me that Emma died of an aneurism. The day before she’d seemed fine, and then she was gone. Dead at 68. Closing a door that for me had already been closed for 40 years.
Later Laura will ask me what I’ve been writing. I’ll tell her, an essay about Emma Peters. I’ll ask if she’d like to read it. She’ll say yes. Afterward we’ll talk, and she will have interesting, incisive things to say, things I haven’t thought of, new ways to look at how Emma touched my life, our lives. I’ll marvel at her calm, how willing she is to have me dredge up all this mess. I’ll feel what I always feel for Laura, affection and gratitude and love.