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– Hallie Ephron –
IT WAS DUSK TWENTY YEARS AGO, AND I WAS DRIVING THE I-93 North through Boston and beyond, looking for the exit marked MYSTIC AVENUE. This seemed prophetic since I was on my way to a meeting of spiritualists. No, I’m not into parapsychology or the occult, and up to that point in my life I’d been secure in the belief that there is no afterlife. You live, you die; end of story. If something in my house goes bump in the night, I set mousetraps. But my struggle to understand what was happening to my friend Laura (not her real name) had drawn me to Medford to mingle with a group who claimed to be able to talk to ghosts.
If it had been anyone but Laura, I’d have written her off as a nutcase. A single mom and successful real estate agent, she was smart, grounded, endowed with a wonderfully wry sense of humor and a healthy distrust of artifice and flimflam. We’d been friends since high school, and I’d never known her to be the slightest bit unhinged. At least not until her brother Josh was murdered.
Laura and Josh had been business partners. They worked together so closely that Laura often felt as if she could communicate telepathically with him across the glass partition that separated their desks. The client who shot Josh arrived at their office first thing that morning, gunning for Laura. He was convinced that she’d cheated him. But Laura got to work late, and by the time she arrived the building was surrounded by police cruisers, its entrance was blocked by crime-scene tape, and an ambulance with its rear doors flung open was backed up to the front door.
Laura was wracked with grief and guilt. Josh had been her best friend as well as her younger brother. The killer had been her client, not Josh’s. She tortured herself with what might have happened if she’d gotten to work on time. Maybe she could have placated the killer. Talked him down. At the very least, she would have been the victim, and Josh would still be alive.
Josh’s killer escaped, and in the weeks after the murder, Laura grew more and more terrified to leave her house. She felt safe in her car, a big old Cadillac she’d inherited from her mother. It had power windows, power door locks, and a car phone. But simple acts like walking out her front door to pick up the newspaper or crossing a parking lot from her car to a supermarket entrance triggered panic attacks. Even at home, where at least she felt safe, she was in constant, unbearable pain. “Like when you hurt yourself,” she told me, “and the hurt is so bad that you have to cry. It’s as if [the killer] blew a hole in my body, too, a gaping wound that everything I see, everything I do, causes it to ache. Only sleep numbs the pain.”
Laura became a virtual recluse, barely able to get to her appointments with her therapist, who diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed medication for anxiety and depression.
My understanding of what happened next comes from long conversations that Laura and I shared over the months that followed. She’d talk. I’d listen and record her words, transcribing them later and sending her a copy with the idea that her experiences might become the basis for a book we’d write together about what it’s like to lose a loved one to homicide.
Here’s how Laura described Josh’s first visit:
Early one morning, I’m lying in bed, fully awake. I’m looking out the window when something makes me look up at the ceiling. Josh is here, floating right above me. I feel as if my body isn’t mine. For a while I just stare up at him, cemented in place, the whole of my being focused on his presence an arm’s length away.
I can’t communicate with him at first. He isn’t talking to me. He’s just here. I want so badly to communicate with him, but it’s hard. In my mind I keep saying, “Tell me how to do this.” No response. I beg for a sign that he can hear me. For what seems like a very long time I lie immobilized, looking at him. Finally I hear “Laura, you always knew what was on my mind. Just do it!” And all of a sudden the floodgates open. I can hear him, and I can talk to him.
What he says is very simple. He says that I can trust Uncle Albert. He also tells me that my Aunt Irene is with him. Aunt Irene has been dead for about five years. All I can do is nod to let him know I hear and understand. It feels as if he’s draining me, drawing off my will and strength.
Then, before I know it, he’s gone. It’s a cool morning, and I’m under the blankets, sweating. All the energy has been sucked out of me to make room for accepting Josh. When I get out of bed my legs are trembling. The physical sensation lasts most of the morning.
I know this sounds like a scene out of a movie or TV show—Truly Madly Deeply, Sleepless in Seattle, Ghost, Sherlock, or The Kominsky Method, to name a few. But to Laura, this was real. Josh visited her many more times. Often when she was in her bedroom. Sometimes in her car. Once while she was walking on a beach. The “visitations,” as she called them, were tiring but never as intense and draining as the first time. Soon she was looking forward to them. Only her therapist knew.
A turning point came on a Sunday morning about six months after the murder.
I am reading the Sunday New York Times in my living room. All of a sudden Josh is here with me. Aunt Irene is with him. I try to stand, a skeptic, outside of myself. Wondering. Doubting. Are they really here? Or is this my imagination?
Laura talked to them for a long time. At one point Josh suggested that she write down the things he was telling her. She was afraid to leave the room, afraid that they’d vanish while she was off fetching something to write on. But she went to her office, and when she came back with a yellow legal pad, Aunt Irene and Josh were still there.
A short time later, as Laura was writing what Josh was telling her, she realized that her fifteen-year-old son, Brian, was standing in the doorway. She had no idea how long he’d been there and what he’d heard. He asked her what was going on.
I ask him if he sees anything in the living room out of the ordinary. He looks around and obviously sees nothing. I decide to tell him. I say that Uncle Josh is sitting in the red chair. Aunt Irene is in the rocker. He stares at me for a moment, then sits down next to me on the couch. He stays there for another fifteen or twenty minutes. I’m interpreting Josh and Aunt Irene to Brian because Brian can’t see or hear them.
By the time Josh and Aunt Irene left, floating out the living room window, Laura had been with them for nearly an hour. It was only then that Laura registered the fear and confusion in Brian’s eyes. He’d lost his favorite uncle, the man who had filled the hole left in his life after Laura split up with his father, and now it must have seemed as if his mother were losing her mind.
Listening to Laura, I was shaken, too. Nothing in my own experience prepared me to make sense of hers. She was talking to a ghost yet describing the conversations so matter-of-factly that she might have been talking about conversations with the mailman.
There are no ghosts, I reminded myself. These had to be waking dreams, hallucinations cooked up by grief, abetted, perhaps, by lack of sleep and the medications she was taking. But she was so convinced and so convincing that, for the first time in my life, I was open, if just barely, to the possibility that Josh’s restless soul really was reaching out to her.
I hoped that the spiritualists’ meeting would give me insights, if not answers.
Spiritualism goes back to the mid-1800s, and one of its adherents was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of rationalist detective Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s friend, the great magician Harry Houdini, spent decades debunking psychics and mediums. Those who practice spiritualism today believe that some people can act as channels through which spirits can communicate with the living. The term spiritualism conjures images of musty Victorian houses with darkened rooms, windows shrouded with heavy drapes, candles flickering, people gathered around a table and holding hands as they summon the spirits of the dead. Cue spooky music.
The setting for this spiritualist meeting was a fifth-floor apartment in an undistinguished modern brick building. I parked, rode up in the elevator, and was greeted at the door with a warm hug by the host, Reverend Ida. She was an older woman, generously proportioned, wearing a flowing coppery caftan with amber beads and earrings that seemed to glow. We’d talked on the phone earlier, so I knew that I’d have to wait until the second half of the meeting to learn about mediumship. First there’d be a psychic healing.
Reverend Ida ushered me into the living room, where about a dozen others were already waiting. Folding chairs were set up in a circle around a mirrored coffee table topped with porcelain angels, votive candles, and lava lamps. The air was heavy with incense. I overheard one of the men saying, “Some people. They have rocks in their heads and don’t see the truth of healing, the power of the mind.” He punctuated the thought with a clenched fist. I made my way to the opposite end of the room, afraid that if he were at all prescient, he’d take one look at me and see how much uncertainty and doubt was knocking around inside me.
We all took our seats and introduced ourselves. The people seemed utterly ordinary. There was a librarian. A nurse. An insurance agent. A retired attorney. Most of them came to these monthly meetings regularly.
Reverend Ida lit the candles, turned on the lava lamps, and lowered the overhead lights. We held hands and sat in silence for a few minutes as she began to chant. The words were about love and the spirit, so simple and repetitive that soon I was able to join in. Then she asked us to form a “healing circle” around Jeanine, a slender, pale woman about my age who was wearing dark jogger pants, a zippered sweatshirt, and a rust-colored turban. She sat slumped in her chair, her eyes rimmed with dark circles, her long fingers with stubby painted nails knitted together in her lap. Jeanine asked us to please be gentle since she was “wired.” She showed us a tube that snaked out from beneath her loose green sweatshirt and explained that this was how she was getting her regular doses of chemo.
Reverend Ida instructed each of us to close our eyes and concentrate on sending healing thoughts and energy to Jeanine. Feeling very self-conscious, I kept my eyes open a slit. Everyone else stood with their eyes closed, their hands hovering over Jeanine’s head or touching her back or shoulders. I reached out and let my hand rest lightly on her arm, trying to smother my inner skeptic.
This went on for about ten minutes, but it seemed much longer. When it was over, spots of pink had appeared on Jeanine’s cheeks, and she was in tears. She thanked us. There were murmurs all around of “God bless you.”
Several people commented on the breeze they’d felt during the healing circle. It was more than a breeze, one woman remarked. More like little tornados and whirlwinds whipping around the room. Reverend Ida said those were spirits. Several spirits, in fact. Others said they’d felt a tingle of electricity in the air. It was so strong, one woman said, that she was nearly swept off her feet.
“If you don’t feel a healing tonight,” Reverend Ida said, “you’re never going to feel one.”
I nodded and smiled, but I’d felt no breeze and not the tiniest tingle of electricity. All I’d felt was sympathy for this poor cancer patient and pressure to say that I sensed something that I did not.
But psychic healing wasn’t what I’d come for, so I was glad when Reverend Ida eased the group into a discussion of the “astral plane,” an intermediate world between heaven and earth where disembodied souls hang out. She explained that the living can travel there in dreams, during deep meditation, or even while conscious. Like Laura, I thought. Tonight, Reverend Ida promised, she’d guide us there.
One woman wanted to know if people like Jeffrey Dahmer would be there, too. No, Reverend Ida assured her, because he was evil. Not even, the woman pressed, if Dahmer’s motives were pure? What if he truly believed what he’d done had been done for a good reason? Not even then was the answer.
Reverend Ida turned off the lights and left only a single votive candle lit. The flame and its reflection in the coffee table’s mirrored top cast an eerie circle of light on the ceiling. “If you open yourself up to it and create a circle of light,” Reverend Ida said, “the spirits will step into it.”
The woman who was worried about Jeffrey Dahmer had another question. What if she opened herself up to the spirits, and someone she didn’t much like when they were alive visited her? A perfectly reasonable question, in my opinion. Reverend Ida dismissed the concern. Another woman said she talked to her dead grandfather all the time in her dreams, and he was a whole lot nicer than he’d been when he was alive.
Dreaming that you talk to your dead grandfather was one thing. I looked around the circle and wondered if any of these people had experienced anything even close to what was happening to Laura.
The room fell silent as Reverend Ida turned the music back on and led us through a guided meditation. It began, “Close your eyes and envision in your hands a flower. Any flower. Feel it. Look into it. Then look up and see a beautiful field. A brook. Deer and antelope frolicking on the other side. Go stand in the brook. Feel all of your cares and anxieties washed away. A beautiful monk comes toward you with a basket of flowers.”
This went on. And on. It was warm in the room, and soon a man across the circle from me was softly snoring. A few minutes later Reverend Ida told us there was ectoplasm and electricity in the air. She said we should open ourselves up. Not be afraid. “We are safe within the circle of light.” Then she summoned spirits to step into the light and announced, “The meeting is yours.”
After a long silence, people on all sides started to talk. They brought images to one another. A silver teapot. A hairbrush. A single pearl. A man with a pick. Sometimes there was a name with the image, sometimes only an initial. There were messages, too, like “P says, do what you have to do.” Or “J wants you to follow your heart.” One woman brought the woman sitting next to her muffins with needles sticking out of them. No message, but she wondered, had someone close to her died who was into cooking and sewing?
Reverend Ida cautioned that the symbols were not to be taken literally. The person receiving the message would give it meaning. And, she said, she’d received a message for me.
The circle fell silent as she asked me if I knew a man who’d been crushed to death. Perhaps someone who’d fallen to his death? Because she saw concrete, slabs of concrete. “He’s here, telling me… the message is…” She strained, listening, then lowered her voice. “I’m feeling pressure from two sides, but I will be able to reconcile them and stand up straight between them, on my own.”
Everyone looked at me expectantly. I knew no one who’d been crushed to death, not literally. But people who’d been conflicted? Pressured in opposite directions? You could say that about Laura’s brother Josh, needing to reach out to Laura but realizing it wasn’t healthy for her to keep taking him in. It could have described me at that moment, feeling as if I should see meaning where I found none. In fact, that description—pressured from two sides—could be forced to fit just about anyone at any time, dead or alive.
Then Reverend Ida brought me a name. Victoria. It meant nothing to me, amazingly, since mine is a generation of Vickys and Susans and Nancys. Almost as an afterthought, she added, “And there’s a message from Mom or Mommy. She says hello.” A murmur of approval swept through the circle.
I almost laughed because it seemed so unlikely. My mother, a Hollywood screenwriter and a confirmed atheist, would have been appalled to have found herself waiting around for years on the astral plane to deliver a line as prosaic as Hello.
Finally, I was the only one in the group who hadn’t brought a symbol or message into the circle. I apologized, saying I was new at this. But I thanked everyone and assured them that I felt light, luminous light. And gratitude for being able to bear witness. I was relieved when that seemed to be enough.
As the meeting broke up, I realized how ebullient they all were, their own spirits genuinely uplifted by the evening’s experiences. Reverend Ida urged me to come back. I thanked her and said I would, though I knew I would not. She told me not to be discouraged, that I’d get the hang of it. And I suspected that was all too true, because how many meetings like this could anyone sit through and keep right on seeing and feeling nothing? I’d have soon found meaning in the messages and symbols people brought me. And maybe, in my dreams, I’d have been pleasantly surprised to discover that my mother had mellowed since she had died.
For these people, talking to dead relatives brought solace, and that was what Josh’s messages brought Laura, too. At first. But after a few months, she realized that his visits weren’t helping her get on with her life. Even worse, they were frightening her son. She couldn’t let Josh keep coming whenever he felt like it. So she asked him to wait for her to call him, and that worked for a few more months until Laura stopped calling. Stopped needing to.
Laura never went back to work as a real estate agent, but a year after the murder she was able to move about in the world almost like a normal person, with only the occasional panic attack. It helped that by then Josh’s killer had been apprehended. One of the last things she promised Josh was that she’d do everything in her power to see that his killer was convicted and went to prison for the rest of his life.
When Laura was getting ready to go to the courthouse to witness a pretrial motion, preparing to look her brother’s killer in the eye for the first time since the murder, she excavated months’ worth of shredded tissues that lined her purse—tissues that she’d stuffed there after the endless crying jags during sessions with her therapist. She sat through every pretrial motion, thirty-eight days of jury selection, the six-week trial, and nine days of jury deliberation. Her brother’s killer was found guilty and sentenced to eighty-five years in prison with the possibility of parole after fifty years.
It’s been twenty-five years since Josh’s death. Laura and I never did write a book together. These days, she doesn’t summon Josh, and he doesn’t come unbidden. And even though my visit with the spiritualists was a bust, I’m reluctant to brush off Josh’s visits as hallucinations or twilight sleep, the product of a vivid imagination fueled by wishful thinking. It’s intoxicating to imagine that there was more to it than that.
I described Laura’s experience to a clinical psychologist, and he used Freudian terms to explain her likely mental state. He said, “It has to do with what we call the self-reflective sense of self—the ability to step back and observe what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. When someone loses that distance, it speaks to a great likelihood of having this kind of vivid imagery. Their ego boundaries are a little permeable at the edges.”
When I asked Laura what, in retrospect, she thought had really been going on, she spoke of entirely different kinds of fissures. “I was able to perceive Josh’s spirit because I was so fragmented that his energy seeped into the cracks. As I healed, so did the cracks.”
As for me, I still believe that when someone dies, it’s game over. I also believe that whatever Laura’s experience was, it was utterly authentic. I have no trouble holding those two ideas in my head at the same time. Grief is complicated, but it’s not the end.
This Writer’s Life
– Jeffery Deaver –
I WAS A NERD WHEN I WAS GROWING UP.
And a nerd when the word meant something. Not like nowadays, when being a nerd comes with a billion dollars in stock options and a Silicon Valley mansion, thanks to your inventing a social network platform or an algorithm for self-driving drones. I was a true nerd, a pure nerd: pudgy, clumsy, socially inept, ignored by the cheerleaders and pom-pom girls. I owned a slide rule (look it up on Google).
There was a reason that sports team captains in school picked me last for their teams. Even on the field, I would neglect the game and daydream, composing stories about knights and orcs and cowboys and poems that went something like this:
The score is tied; three boys on base.
I see the batter’s happy face
As he grips the bat and looks my way.
All I can do is hope and pray
That he won’t hit that ball to me.
But we all know how it goes;
He swings for me and breaks my nose.
But my status as nerd didn’t really matter. I had something better than sports; I had the Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Public Library. That was where I escaped in the summers and after school, and it was there that I fell in love with books. Such miraculous little things… they could take you away from your daily cares, teach you about things you might otherwise never learn (Wikipedia and YouTube were not then even silicon gleams in an engineer’s eye). Books also brought people together. Perhaps you were a new kid at school and didn’t know a soul. Yet noticing that a fellow student across the schoolyard was holding a copy of Ray Bradbury’s short stories or The Lord of the Rings, books that you, too, loved, you had an instant invitation to friendship.
I knew then that I wanted to make my living as a writer.
How to achieve that goal, though, was a mystery.
Among the various genres I tried my hand at was poetry. I loved the fusion of meaning and the sound of words. I didn’t care much for confessional poetry and modeled my work after the likes of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, who carefully crafted and structured their poems. After much work and many postage stamps, I was able to get some work published in literary journals and, in one case, a radical political publication (though why they wanted a poem about pining lovers I never did understand). Suddenly I was a published poet. I was also, I supposed, a professional poet, since I was paid for some of my work.
I was not, however, a profitable poet.
Many of the journals publishing poems, it turned out, had a grand scheme: yes, contributors made a few pennies per word, but if you wanted more than one copy of the magazine (to, say, impress cheerleaders and pom-pom girls—which doesn’t work, by the way), you had to buy them, and they were quite expensive. One measures one’s success as a poet the same way Internet startups are gauged: not by how much money they make but by how little they lose. In my best fiscal twelve months as a poet, I believe I lost only six dollars. A banner year!
Clearly, poetry was not going to allow me to lead a writer’s life.
The mystery remained unsolved.
I decided to try combining my love of poetry with another passion: music. I would become a singer/songwriter, à la Bob Dylan or Richard Thompson. Just as I’d learned about the business of poetry, I learned several things about the profession of music. First was that the job description includes two requisite components: singer and songwriter. The writing came easily to me, and I churned out scores of lyrics. The singing… well, that was not my strong suit.
Second, and more troubling, was that I was too literary. This was brought home to me one night when I was performing as the opening act ahead of a popular folk/country singer. I was pleased to see him looking over the lead sheets of my songs—pages of the lyrics and chord changes. He pointed to something on a sheet and asked, “What’s that?”
I didn’t understand and asked him what he meant.
He said, “That little thing there.”
I replied, “Oh, a semicolon.”
A pause. “Which is what?”
I explained the punctuation mark’s vital role in the world of sentence structure.
“And you use those things in your songs?” He seemed amused.
That night proved typical: I gave a croaky, though grammatically correct, performance, while the other fellow blew the audience away with his natural talent and enviable voice.
Clearly, music was not going to help me solve the mystery of how to lead a writer’s life.
What about short stories? I wondered, a form I loved to read. I had heard that one of America’s esteemed literary and scholarly periodicals, Playboy, paid upward of $5,000 per. Out came the typewriter, and I banged out dozens of stories, most of which skewed toward the polemical, echoing Jonathan Swift. I’d hit the reader over the head with the mallet of social conscience. War is bad, corporate greed is bad, forests and whales are good. Blah, blah, blah…
The movie producer Samuel Goldwyn said if you want to send a message, go to Western Union (now he’d say send a tweet or put it on Facebook, I suppose). And I wish I’d heard of his dictum back then. Nobody, I learned the hard way, wants to be ranted at; an obvious corollary is that editors don’t buy stories written by ranters.
I might have honed the craft of short fiction, but time was running out; student loans loomed, and I longed for such luxuries as food and shelter. I had gone to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, so I gave up fiction and landed a job as a magazine writer.
At last, I was making a living as a writer.
The profession and I were not a smooth fit, however. Like my previous forays into writing, journalism found me sailing amid rocky shoals. In this case, the problem was pretty much what I’d anticipated: editors wanted their writers to dig relentlessly for facts, to report the truth. They frowned upon making things up (these were the days before fake news became chic). Where was the room for creativity, for imagination? I felt stifled.
Discouraged, I abandoned my quest for the writer’s life and did what everybody in the 1970s, be they cab driver or brain surgeon, did when confronting the least degree of job dissatisfaction. I went to law school.
I was by no means a terrible lawyer, primarily because I could write well, and law is largely about written communication: court documents, memoranda of law, and correspondence threatening litigation. I soon learned that I didn’t have the steel to become a successful attorney.
I had one case in which my large, heartless multinational client—not to put too fine a point on it—was sued by a young employee who’d been fired. The termination was justified, and he had no complaint there. But he’d left a box of personal items behind in his office, and they’d gone missing. He was suing for their value, a small sum, about $500.
- "A fascinating and unsettling set of essays about what makes writers curious, what makes them investigate."—Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres
- "Some books you read for beauty, some for truth, some for the hell of it -- but Private Investigations is a book that beats all. It proves the old axiom about how truth is stranger than fiction through these bestselling writers' essays about the strangest mysteries in their very own lives, which are much, much stranger, eerier, sadder, more puzzling, and even more shocking than any novel. A sane woman falls in love with a mad imposter. A healthy writer copes with the massive growth removed from her body by imagining the birth of the twin children she never had. Editor Victoria Zackheim has conjured up a brand-new thing with this collection -- so keep it on the bedside table and consult it whenever real life seems a little ho-hum."—Jacquelyn Mitchard, bestselling author of The Deep End of the Ocean
- "Private Investigations is an unassuming gem of a book that took me completely by surprise! It is fascinating, and turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts, gracefully assembled by the unobtrusive hand of Victoria Zackheim. A stellar assortment of familiar mystery writers comes to grips with the efforts of solving the defining mysteries that directed -- and have continued to shape -- their actual lives. The result is startlingly wondrous! This collection is made up of personal essays that read like extraordinarily intimate stories, and the effect of reading them is at once shocking but also deeply moving and, in the end, oddly reassuring. Not one of us is alone facing the sometimes daunting conundrums of our lives."—Robb Forman Dew, National Book Award-winning author of Dale Loves Sophie to Death
- "Every reader wants to read books that beguile them away from their mundane lives. The story craft of these writers at the top of their game does exactly that: They seduce us into their personal live and share private mysteries, like a reaction to a college peeping Tom, an almost fantasy-like medical condition, and one writer's contemplations on suicide at the age of five. And so many more. Lucky for us, the stories are all like the best mysteries: better deepened, never dispelled."—Joe Loya, executive producer of the Bank Robber Diaries podcast and author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell
- On Sale
- Apr 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press