Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Curse of Saturn

Have I raised a viable crop of stories on the barren ground of reality? Well, many of them have been published. At worst, this fact suggests that I’m not the only person who likes what I like.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I promised my current spouse I would never write about her in my fiction. If I were married to a writer, I would probably ask for the same favour.

Yet fiction, however creative, fantastical or overblown, always has roots in reality. How do I fictionalize my life? By writing about relationships based on the attraction of opposite types who come to understand and believe in each other. Sometimes it takes the characters awhile to get to the Happy-Ever-After or Happy-For-Now ending, but after scaling a few mountains, they reach a flower-strewn valley.

In real life, I’m still climbing.

According to my horoscope, I have the planet Saturn in the sign of Libra. Apparently, this means that one-to-one relationships are a challenge for me – or a “learning experience.” (It's hard to imagine a person for whom this would not be true.) Whether or not star-crossed love is my inevitable fate, this seems like a fair description of my relationship history.

Consider the plot of my life. I was born to academic parents when my dad was earning a Master’s degree at Stanford University in the Bay Area of California. After a few false starts in other parts of the U.S., my parents settled in southern Idaho, where Dad had a teaching job at the state college. This is where I lived from age four to the summer I turned sixteen.

I might as well have parachuted into the semi-desert, working-class Mormon environment of Idaho as a green-skinned baby from another planet. The anti-Communist paranoia of the McCarthy Era was at its height in my early childhood. Intellectuals in general were suspected of being part of a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the government by using too many “fancy words.” Everything evil was associated with book-learning.

Growing up there, I learned early that I was the strange child of sinister parents who seemed “foreign” in some sense (un-American as in “House Un-American Activities Committee,” a committee of the federal House of Representatives, whose mission was to sniff out traitors). Everyone I tried to befriend either backed away at some point, asked why I was “so weird,” or tried to “save” me from the influence of my parents. God forbid that I should go to college and become as alien as they were.

I was told that “girls” (females of all ages) with ideas are even worse than men with ideas. Presumably, the only cure was to marry soon after puberty and begin having babies. I was told that if I didn’t marry sooner rather than later, I would be miserable.

Trying to explain myself usually proved fruitless. I thought of myself as weird, and not in a glamorous, nympho-from-outer-space way.

I became more-or-less resigned to an unmarried life. I decided that a friendship-with-benefits would suit me much better than the kind of love affair which leads to marriage. In my last year of high school in Canada, I had an affair with a boy who came to resent me for being “too straight” (conservative). This was his perception, not mine.

In university, I had an affair with a man who seemed at first to be my fellow-leftist. The first time I said no, he raped me. Before he left, he pointed out that I hadn’t really been raped, and that if I made such a claim to anyone, I wouldn’t be believed. This seemed like a sign from some Ultimate Authority that my reality was just not credible for earthlings.

I was nineteen years old. I knew I came from a family line of long-lived women. The prospect of being alone and despised for another seventy years, more or less, was too much. I tried to kill myself. I failed at that too.

The aftermath of these events included a psychiatric diagnosis and a firm belief in my family that I was out of touch with reality. Wanting to escape from my role as the Madwoman in the Attic, I married the first (only) man who seriously proposed to me. I was delighted that he still wanted me after hearing the ugly truth. He was a Nigerian who seemed to think my parents were both wealthy and generous enough to provide for us. After the divorce, I came to realize that he probably saw me as an unmarriageable girl whose parents would be grateful to the man who would take her off their hands.

At the time, I looked forward to the deep bond that Husband and I would develop, based on our mutual understanding in the face of prejudice from a philistine world. Remembering my naivete is a cringe-worthy experience.

Fishing for dates in a different pool (the local gay bar) changed the setting and some of the conventions, but not the usual outcome. My first woman lover was an alcoholic who had dropped out of high school. When I met her in the bar, I thought I saw the gleam of a diamond in the rough, a creative spirit who only needed my emotional support to develop her potential.

Since then, she has developed her larcenous ability to con and steal money and other material things from women, men and organizations. She has a criminal record that would discourage any legal employer from trusting her.

In my dreams and my fiction, trust is mutual and justified. Soul-mates recognize each other across a crowded room or a cultural barrier. In that world, hot sex is not a snare and a delusion, but a sign of intimacy on a level that is deeper than the flesh.

Do I think my “realistic” (non-fantasy, in a generic sense) stories are true to life? No. Not from what I’ve seen. As Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Hell is other people.” (It sounds better in the original French.)

The lizard tattoo on my shoulder is my emblem: a stubborn little animal, descended from dinosaurs, that survives in the desert by dreaming about rain.


  1. Jean - every time I read about your past, I want to save you from it. I know that things aren't perfect now for you, but at least - no, at most - you have someone to share it with who loves you (and I don't blame her about not wanting to be a character in a story)

  2. Thank you, Kathleen. Looking over my post, I'm afraid it looks too whiny (written too fast & not sufficiently reconsidered). But then, if I discussed how my life has improved since my spouse came into it, I would be writing about her! Catch-22. I tend to agree with Oprah that we can all learn things from our life-stories, but the pattern or the message seems to change over time or when looked at from different angles. One source of comfort is that (as someone once said) living well is the best revenge.

  3. What a journey, Jean. Thank you so much for writing about it.

  4. Hi Jean!

    That's quite a barren acre. I'm always amazed at what some of us have survived through.


  5. "The lizard tattoo on my shoulder is my emblem: a stubborn little animal, descended from dinosaurs, that survives in the desert by dreaming about rain."

    This is wonderful, Jean. Keep dreaming (and writing those dreams down for the rest of us).

  6. Sounds like you have a good emblem in your shoulder. Keep dreaming! Hope the dreams come true for you.


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