Negotiating the Darkness
I just found out that a long-ago friend, Nan, killed herself earlier this summer. I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for more than 20 years, though I’d tried googling her from time to time – she had a very common name and there were hundreds of her out there; I never located the right Nan. This afternoon someone sent me a link to a blog entry her niece has written about her tortured, bipolar life – but it’s not a life I remember.
Trying to describe a life is a lot like writing a history – the facts you present are the ones you know. Nan’s niece wrote of her manic episodes, her self-abusing behavior, and her shame and regret once these moments had passed, her eventual overdosing to end it all. But I have another part of the story, Nan’s really good years, not a hint of anything “off” about her.
Nan was cute, with “Mia-Farrow” short blonde hair; she drove a red VW bug. I thought she was smart, funny, creative, sophisticated (she’d lived in Paris for a while – I’d only lived in North and South Carolina). We were both part of the emerging independent filmmaking movement in the South. Our boyfriends of that time were a filmmaking team (“Alabama Departure”) for a while – so Nan and I decided to do the Thelma and Louise version, even before Thelma and Louise did it – we drove to Myrtle Beach and shot a film, “Konzertmusik,” about a vintage band organ there.
Nan had a great sense of humor, edged with irony. She questioned authority, quietly but determinedly. She took bold chances, she said, because she learned how to do this from me – and I was thrilled to hear it. For five or six years I considered her my best friend, and we stopped hanging out together only when she married the guy she was involved with – not a good move, I thought then – and her niece, her only biographer to date, seems to agree. Nan’s mental illness began to show itself soon after the marriage – which did not last long. I totally lost track of her after that.
Once someone is gone from your life, it’s a lot like they’re dead, at least to you, but this is radically different from finding out that person is actually dead, to everyone. The characters in my book all experience the death of someone close – Venus loses her mom, Lulu loses Percy, Letha loses her husband and they both lose “Aunt Lulu.” None of it is final, however; I manage to keep everyone alive, in one universe or another, by means of the “many worlds” theories in cosmology, which argues that there are multiple universes, even though we’re only aware of the one we’re in. So someone can “die” – but maybe he/she just relocates to another universe instead.
I think lives on Earth can exist in multiple universes as well. Nan, the sane one, living the same life as Nan, the tortured, bipolar one.
“You have always been able to negotiate the darkness effortlessly, to explain its significance with intelligence and wit, to enter and then gracefully emerge from its shadows,” my character Lulu says of her paramour Dr. P, who was so often able to bend the universe to his own will (but had a nervous breakdown when he could not).
“But I am stalled here,” Lulu says of herself, “unable to progress in any direction, confused beyond belief, and wretched with secrets I want desperately to spill.”
Lulu has fallen into an underground corridor and cannot get out. This was a hallway running diagonally beneath the house where she and Dr. P live. Every day she walks on the floor above this corridor effortlessly, not even thinking about the darkness looming beneath her. When she’s vulnerable, however, she cannot avoid tumbling into the dark corridor, from which she cannot extract herself.
Just like my friend Nan. The darkness in her life was there, even when I knew her – she just understood, for a while, how to negotiate its depths.
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