I started this week’s blog, wrote a lot of it, and realized, hell no, that’s not right. I don’t want to say that. So I’m starting again.
Lots of people say they’re suffering from Quarantine Brain. Hard to focus, distractable, depressed. I’ve got a different problem: Memoir Brain. I’m working on a hairy chapter, the time between being kicked out of the University of Michigan in 1959 and getting into Northwestern in 1960. I’ve got sources: memories, letters, transcripts, newspaper clippings and class notebooks, but they don’t all add up to the same reality. From early childhood onward I was a really talented liar; it’s how I survived. Two years into my relationship with Conrad my most elaborate academic Ponzi scheme collapsed in flames, and from those ashes emerged the concept of Truth; grimy, wobbly, but on its feet. I never lied again.
This year and a half of the memoir, though, is like seeing an old 3-D movie without the glasses: the images won’t come together. A prime example is a yellowed transcript from my year of penance at Valparaiso University. That was certainly part of my application packet to Northwestern, and I did get admitted. Looking at enlarged photocopies, I honestly can’t tell if it’s authentic or forged. How can I possibly not know whether I finished those incompletes and got decent grades, or if I repeated the old sick pattern, failed, altered the evidence, and went on living a lie? Talk about an unreliable witness . . .
Abuse plays nasty tricks with memory. Writing this memoir is helping me bring some things back, but I always question whether what I’m remembering is true or not. Little by little, though, enough is coming clear. A butterfly was once a caterpillar, but you have to admit, they’re different critters. I was an impressive straight-A valedictorian Merit Scholar caterpillar, headed for a career in medicine. Eventually I became an actor and composer. 1959-60 was my time in the cocoon, when my imaginal cells broke me down into soup.
My first year at Ann Arbor ended in a nightmare of incompletes that became flunks. My parents didn’t know, because I intercepted and forged the year’s-end grade reports. I got very good at this. In my second year I started to become a performer: theatre, radio, and Gilbert & Sullivan touring, and the fall semester’s grades were a dog’s breakfast. I couldn’t intercept that grade report. The axe fell, and all hell broke loose, I groveled and cried and swore I’d seen the light: I’d go back to being a serious student again. I didn’t. I kept on performing and got the department’s annual award for acting. I should have said I didn’t want to stay with medicine, I wanted the life of theatre that was beginning to give me power. I didn’t have the guts.
I made a deal for 1959-60. I would carry on with my plans for the summer, two lead roles at Interlochen National Music Camp, and I would pay my way by waitressing. Then I would live at home for a year, become a good academic at VU, and hope to get into Northwestern. I still didn’t understand that, yes, my whole life could be in theatre, and it might be a good one; I just focused on one more goddamn college.
I did get into Northwestern, I met Conrad and we became the theatre team we still are. But the thing that’s bending my brain into pretzels is the possibility that Northwestern accepted a fraud, and I still don’t know. I’ve sent for an official transcript; that will sooner or later clear it up. What’s hardest to write about clearly is what it’s like to lie so well that you don’t know what is true.
And that’s why Memoir Brain is extra hard right now. Our entire society is spinning and flailing in a vile stew of lies. It looks as if they’re all having a great time doing it, yanking our chain and putting it over. But I’ve been there, done that, and it wasn’t a great time. I’m just one person. I fell apart and put myself back together, and it didn’t make waves. This time, though, if it ever sorts out, it’s gonna be a tsunami.