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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Monday, February 13, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 20

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

“Books, films, a musical – wow!” exclaimed People magazine about me in 1978. I had become enough of a personage to be a People, with the paperback version of my novel coming out, the film rights sold, a fat advance for my second book, and my musical “Sleeparound Town” to begin rehearsals that summer at the New York Public Theater. The People article ran a photo that showed me playing new material for Joe Papp and Carrie Fisher, a newly anointed star from “Star Wars.” Carrie had just moved to New York and I’d talked her into performing the lead in my musical.

               Me, Carrie, and Joe

I was also in love, and my love was requited. Never mind that we couldn’t show it; my lover was afraid his wife might find out. They’d been married 33 years, almost as long as my parents. Aside from this one pesky complication, all was bliss.

I seemed to be coming into my power, spectacularly.

By the end of the year, all would be rubble.

But before then, summer arrived, and the start of rehearsals. I was commuting to the theater from Connecticut where I still lived next door to my mom and dad. One morning, I opened the door to find a snake on my doorstep.

It was a very long, slim garter snake, forming a loose S.

I screamed. I had a consuming terror of snakes. There were very few places I felt safe from them. This home had been one of those sanctuaries; in all the time since we had moved here when I was 8, I had never seen a snake. In an instant, my security vanished. I would never again be able step out of my studio without a quivering awareness that those whip-quick creatures were now in my safe place, coiling and uncoiling.

I don’t remember not having this phobia; I seemed to have been born with it. My first memory of seeing a snake was on a morning when I was about 4. We lived in a different house then. I was watching my dad at the end of the lawn; he held a stick with something long and ropey draped over it; my two older brothers danced around him excitedly as he headed to the woods, where he tossed the stick away. There was a tension, an urgency in his movements that I’d never seen before. I recall being seized by fear, as if every sure thing in my existence had disappeared.

I felt it again, the draining away of my faith, as I looked down at the dreaded reptile at my feet. I slammed the door shut, hoping the vibration would rouse the snake to slither off. I eased the door open again. It hadn’t moved at all, scrawled like a glyph on the concrete stoop. What was it doing there? Certainly not sunning itself; the entrance was always plunged in shadow. Was it dead?

I slipped out another exit, racing to my parents’ house, where I found Dad and begged him to get the horrible thing off my doorstep. Then I stood at a distance, wringing my hands and hyperventilating while he approached the stoop and peered down. I could tell the snake was still there by the way Daddy stopped and retreated a few steps. Finding a long stick, he went back and prodded the shape.

I saw my father tense up, suddenly trepidatious, and my childhood image returned: he lifted the stick with the struggling snake on it, carrying it to the woods where he flung both stick and cargo into the trees.

Returning, Dad patted my shoulder and went back inside. The bête noir was gone. I was left alone with the question: why had it been put there? What did it mean? What was the message?

Once, when I was 22, I tried to get rid of the phobia. It followed me everywhere there might be snakes – forests, lakes, deserts, mountains – so that I was afraid to travel anywhere except Ireland and Hawaii, or Antarctica. If I came across a picture of a snake in a book I would fling the volume across the room rather than touch even the image.

I went to a hypnotist who had helped a friend stop smoking. I asked the doctor to put me in a trance and inform my unconscious that I was no longer afraid of snakes. Then I could wake up a free woman, calmly roaming about with eyes lifted to the horizon instead of scouring every pile of rocks or patch of long grass for the telltale flicker of scales.

As the hypnotist droned on stereotypically – “you are falling into a deep, deep sleep” – my attention drifted away, bored, already knowing the experiment wouldn’t work. He was receding in his armchair, voice fading, forgotten.

And then I found myself standing on a cliff above a limpid green ocean. I wore a long garment with the bodice open, bare breasts to the breeze. In each hand I held up a serpent, grasping each under its head. And I felt no fear, none at all. I allowed them to twist and flex their long bodies around my wrists and arms like bracelets. Nothing new in it; I was accustomed to handling them.

The doctor called me back from the cliff. I described what I’d experienced. He was puzzled by the vision, but also encouraged that I hadn’t been scared of the snakes. That meant his hypnotic suggestion had worked and the phobia was removed. “I don’t think so,” I said, gathering my things. “If you handed me a snake right now I would scream my head off and jump out the window rather than touch it. And please, don’t tell me it’s about penises.”

Maybe I had seen myself in a former life. Maybe I was a Minoan priestess who wrangled snakes routinely in sacred ceremonies. Maybe they bit me and I died, and the trauma followed me into my present life.

Or not. The question remained: what do they mean?

At a certain point I decided to learn about them. I made myself look at the pictures, read about all the different kinds, their markings, habitats, family life, behavior, their genius (efficient use of unusual structure) and their handicaps (poor vision). After a time I could even enter the snake house at the zoo; I could deal with them if they were in cages. As long as I never had to touch one.

Along the way I researched their mystical meaning. Snakes are such a ubiquitous symbol in so many cultures, where they represent everything from evil all the way, antithetically, to healing.

For myself, I’ve decided that they are power. To handle my power with grace, with ease, without fear, is the challenge.

After the garter snake writ itself on my doorstep that summer of 1978, the challenge was on: I was coming into my power.

That year I tried to pick up my snakes, and couldn’t.

Follow me forward to 2011. My husband, my elder brother and I have bought my parents’ Martha’s Vineyard house after their deaths. One day in July I am using my father’s study to write, and I break off work to go out and water the lawn. Opening the door, I am startled to see a garter snake lying across the rubber mat on the stoop. It forms a languid S shape, and doesn’t move even though I'd swung the door right over its body.

Oh no, I thought. Not this again. I pull the door shut with force, assuming the vibration will scare it off. I wait a beat, then open the door again. It still just lies there. I notice that I'm not particularly scared. I close the door again, putter around the house a bit, then go out the front door to check on the garden. I approach the stoop to see if the snake is still there, in which case it's probably dead. But it has gone.

Thanks for the message. Guess I’m going to have to handle my power again. It never gets any easier. A snake doesn’t frighten me the way it used to. But I still can’t touch one.

(To be continued.)


  1. I've got behind in reading your blog. Just catching up. I'm afraid you won't like Australia. Our country is full of snakes (& many other nasty, bitey things). We get used to them. Although you don't find them much in suburbia anymore. They once had a display of snakes at tgr local library & the handler told us, "snakes are your friends". I told my kids, "She's talking crap. If u see one run."

  2. Well I'm coming to Australia anyway someday. But I'll stick to the cities! I guess I understand the handler saying that. You don't want to stoke a kid's fear when it's better to educate yourself on which are the dangerous ones and which are nonpoisonous. Although I gather there ain't many of the latter in your country. But snakes actually fill a useful function in the balance of nature when they aren't trying to scare the crap out of us. Thanks for reading!