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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 27, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 22

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

Joe Papp had not given up on my show. He brought in another director, who quickly put together a private workshop. Reducing the cast to two teenagers, a girl to sing all the girls’ songs and a boy to sing the boys’, the director eliminated any connective story and simply had the kids lying in their beds and delivering one song after another.

I didn’t much like his approach; I thought it was so stripped down and static that the show seemed slight, a cabaret revue. But Joe liked it. The director said he would mount the official production next year, when he got done directing another workshop of a little thing called “Pirates of Penzance” with Linda Ronstadt. (As it happened, he would be busy a lot longer than a year; he directed “Pirates” on Broadway and then the film version.)

Meanwhile I sensed that my grandfather’s presence had faded. Once he’d delivered the music, his mission was done. But I kept talking to him anyway. I preferred to imagine him there. Misery loves company, even if the company’s not actually there. “Dear Diary” became “Dear Grandpa”; I confided in him and he silently received all my drivel; and I was quite the addled package in 1978, with my show capsized, my heart broken, and my spirit sapped. Again I asked him, Why? What was the point of having me write all that music? I don’t mind being a pawn, but what’s the game?

I had no energy and, for the first time ever, no will to write. Yet I’d signed a contract for my second novel. My first, “Dry Hustle,” had sold well as a paperback (mainly in airport carousels). The idea for the next book had come to me a year before, when I was in a more fertile state.

Ever since my musical collaborations with Grandpa, in the hours of lighter sleep before dawn, I’d become more attentive to my dreams, because sometimes, after the usual wacky cavalcade of dream sequences, there might come some bit of creative help relating to my work.

Whether these helpful suggestions were sent by my unconscious, my grandfather or other heavenly mentors, was moot to me. I remember one time when I was writing a song cycle about (what else) sex, two titles were offered in a dream. The first, which I eventually did use, was “Biology And You.” The second, which made me wake up laughing, was a big front-page news headline: “GIRL, 29, ESCAPES REALITY.”

It was true that I did love to sleep. I was on the lookout for useful stuff. Dreams became a sort of transcendental scavenger hunt, which you won if you could recall your haul when you woke up, the messages and stories you’d picked up along the way. But remembering them was really hard, they erased themselves so fast. Before you awoke you had to remind yourself sternly that you were dreaming, that you had to stop and review and commit to memory what you needed to carry into the daylight. Even harder, you had to remember to remind yourself that you were dreaming, difficult when you were distracted by that giant snake growing out of your ear or the blender that was chasing you.

But once in a while I’d receive an image that glowed in brighter colors, as if highlighted, accompanied by a tacit command: “Remember this.”

The image that became my second book was simply this: a white-washed room, a window with no glass framing the turquoise horizon of the sea, and a tawny young man in silhouette. I was given to understand that the man belonged to me as property. He was my slave.

I wonder now if I was mistaken in taking this image as a suggestion for a book. It might have been a glimpse of a former life. Or a shred of ancestral memory, from when my ancestors were slaveowners.

It was only last year that I came full face to face with my family’s southern history. When clearing out Grandpa’s house for sale, my elder brother and I found two big boxes of the letters and papers of previous generations of Kernochans. We didn’t have time to read them, so we decided to consign the papers to storage (until this coming summer, when I’ll be able to peruse them). Just before sealing the boxes, my brother suggested we pick just one item at random to read. He stuck his hand deep into a box and pulled out a folded document.

It was a land deed dated 1855, written in an elegant scrupulous hand. The multiple pages were yellow and fragile; when we opened them, they clung to each other and threatened to tear along the creases. The contract deeded a sugar plantation near New Orleans to one Eliza Kernochan. The purchase included 54 slaves.

Each name (first name only) was noted in descending order of age, from an 89-year-old down to the babies. Many of the names were French: Christophe, François, etc. Fifty-four souls, who had now become the chattel of our ancestor.

We’d heard that a branch of our family maintained plantations in Louisiana in the 19th century. We assumed they probably had slaves, but it was an embarrassing detail we didn’t like to think about. Not until we read the physical document did we feel the full horror.

If I’d held that contract in my hand back in 1978, I might not have thought the idea for my second novel was the stuff of comedy.

Because “Dry Hustle” was so raunchy, my editor expected me to write another sexy darkly comic romp. I converted the mysterious dream-image of the young man at the window into the story of a woman who’s tired of American men, bored by their emotional cowardice and their “lying down on the job”; so she goes to an Arab country and buys a slave, whom she tries to teach to be the ideal boyfriend.

Or, perhaps the dream image was precognitive, because only six months later I stood in that same white-washed room.

I recognized it immediately. By then I was in the research phase of my book, touring North African and Middle Eastern countries – Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, the Emirates, anywhere I had contacts – to absorb the Arab culture and mentality. My last stop was Tunisia, where I’d rented a house in Hammamet for a week. The open-air bedroom window framed the turquoise Mediterranean. The house came with a male servant. He was the same young man I’d seen in the dream. When I arrived he said in broken English, “I am for you. You say, I do.”

I returned home only to pack up for a longer trip. I’d decided to live in Morocco while writing my book. It seemed like the safest of all the countries I’d visited for an unaccompanied woman to navigate.

It’s all very well to receive an idea from the ether. What you do with the idea, that’s the big test. The songs I wrote, the show, the novel – I was on my own after receiving the inspiration; failure or success was on my head. I would eventually learn that, if my grandfather was indeed my protector, he could not protect me from the consequences of my freely made choices. And I was headed for a bitch of trouble.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 21

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

In the previous post, I wrote about the snake left on my doorstep. I was sure my grandfather-in-spirit had placed it there. I realized that one of the songs he’d “channeled” to me, the fourth song in the cycle about puberty, mentioned snakes:

…We moved to the desert

I don’t like it here

I fear the presence of snakes

I know they’re out there

Got a boyfriend who’s fourteen like me

And his name is John Luke

And if a snake up and bit him on the other arm

He’d lose that one too…

                   Me, Carrie, and Joe

Called “Mister Sloane,” this was the song that Carrie Fisher sang for Joe Papp as her audition for the lead in my musical “Sleeparound Town.” She gave a killer rendition; Joe was very excited to have her in the show.

Unfortunately, as rehearsals progressed, I discovered that Carrie was unfamiliar with the theater work ethic. The prospect of a month of rehearsals must have triggered a fit of overpowering laziness, such that you might feel standing at the base of Everest and looking up.

If I’d had any sense, I would have felt the same, too. But in those days I had a mania for placing myself on the path to possible disaster. I had spent the first 18 years of my life in the sleep of suburbs. I was a writer with no suffering to write about. If failure overtook me, then I could make use of the pain in my writing. If I risked too much and went too far, and actually died, then I would have my posthumous publication to look forward to.

And so it came to pass that I charged ahead to write and direct an Off-Broadway musical with a fiercely ambivalent star.

Soon after the start of rehearsals, Carrie started dating Paul Simon. She was out on the town most nights and, in short order, her focus swung away from the show, she got bronchitis, and missed the first run-through for Joe and the theater staff. We presumed she was home recuperating, but a cast member got word she’d been spotted the night before at a late-night party at the Odeon, in an allegedly altered state.

I had to confront Carrie when she finally showed up for work. She denied everything and hotly protested being spied on; she then complained that it was hard having the show resting on her shoulders. I blew up: “Hard?! I have to rehearse all day, then spend the night rewriting, doing music sheets, and then I don’t have you around to learn the new material. You think you have it hard?”

Carrie shot back, “This is not the suffering sweepstakes.” This is one of those classic one-liners she’s known for, and I had to laugh. (To this day we still use that line around my house.)

The rest of the cast was angry at her for missing the run-through, which hadn’t gone very well. To be fair, Carrie didn’t deserve the blame. The show itself was proving to be shapeless. I didn’t really know how to construct a story to bind all these disparate songs together. I had a vague idea that these five characters, on the verge of adolescence, were collectively dreaming a place called Sleeparound Town, where they would all undergo puberty together. There was no spoken dialogue; the whole thing was sung through. The audience didn’t get what was happening, although they enjoyed the individual songs. I don’t know. It just refused to work.

Joe suggested that I make things clearer by writing dialogue; make it all Carrie’s dream and have her narrate. If the change didn’t work, he would have to cancel the production rather than subject a badly flawed piece to the critics. That meant the fate of the show now rested on my ability to write a lengthy narration pronto and Carrie’s ability to memorize it quickly and sell it.

I set to work in a panic, typing into the night and feeding drafts to my married lover, who was also a writer. He took the risk of staying out late, enlisting friends to validate his cover stories to his wife.

The night I finished, he took me out for a drink to calm me down. (Because he was fond of booze, I’d started drinking again, although this time I had it under control.) We were sitting at a table in a darkened bar where he wouldn’t run into anybody he knew. Sipping bad whiskey, I started talking about Grandpa’s vastly superior swill in the liquor collection he’d left behind. Then I found myself unraveling the whole story about my grandfather’s ghost. I’d never told him before, for fear he’d write me off as nuts.

When I ended, there was a bleak pause. I could tell he didn’t believe me. Sure enough, he asked, “Do you think there might be some other, scientific explanation for what happened?”

I sighed. “Probably. Let’s try schizophrenia first.”

Suddenly we heard a loud crack. We looked down at the table. The glass ashtray between us had split down the middle and broken neatly in half.

I said, “There he goes again.”

My lover was rattled, to say the least. But then his rational nature rode to the rescue, and he decided that the ashtray was placed too close to the candle on the table; the heat cracked the glass.

Before he went home, he made me promise to call him with a report after Joe Papp had seen the show with the new changes.

Meanwhile Debbie Reynolds had flown to New York to work with her daughter in private, help her to learn handfuls of pages of speeches, and have Carrie ready for the run-through with Joe. She sat in the audience while Carrie delivered the narration and songs with perfect professionalism. But it was too late. Joe’s idea didn’t work, and I was out of gas. Two weeks before previews, he pulled the plug.

I apologized to a devastated cast. Desperate to cry on my lover’s shoulder, I called him. And called and called. After a week, he finally got back to me. It was a brief conversation. He sounded shell-shocked, as if he was calling from the front. One of his friends had forgotten to cover for him, and his wife found out that he wasn’t where he said he was on the night he was with me. She was waiting for him when he got home. The red phone was in her hand and the nukes were launched.

He told me, “You have no idea what hell it’s been. All we do is drink and yell at each other.”

“Then get out of there. Come be with me.”

“I can’t,” he stammered.

“Even for a few minutes. Please! I have to see you.”

“I can’t. I promised her.”

I got it then.

The night the ashtray broke was the last time I would see him for three years.

(To be continued.)

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 bĂȘte 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.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 19

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

In past blogs I’ve described the many things my grandfather shared with me, across the dotted line between life and the hereafter. Now I’d like to mention his great genetic gift: the Kernochan legs.

They begin in the ordinary place, fitted to the pelvis and proceeding downward. And down. And down. About halfway down a Kernochan leg is where most people’s feet would sprout. But our legs continue their plunge endlessly. They hardly taper at the base of the thighbone, nor bulge as they pass the knee, but instead form a straight and narrow column. Any shapeliness is only achieved through strenuous exercise, which might produce a calf or two. The feet almost come as a rude interruption, with toes as long as fingers.

Not everyone in my family has the legs, but I do, my father did, and his father, too. Going back in time to trace the origin, the legs disappear into the mists of history; I don’t know whom to thank among our ancestors.

There’s a photo around here somewhere of Grandpa revealing his gams on the beach but I just looked for it and it’s missing (he probably hid it). However there is a De Zayas caricature of him, drawn at the time he was hobnobbing with the Stieglitz crowd on the 30’s New York art scene. Even covered by eveningwear, you can see the line of the legs from where they begin, which is just south of his hands:

Here is my father’s whooping-crane version:

I often had to fold mine up to fit into camera frame:

When my daughter was a newborn bundle thrust into my arms at the hospital, the first thing I did was unwrap her blanket to check that she got the legs. She did. When she reached that self-conscious age of 11, she saw them as a problem. Once, when we were shopping for school clothes, I wanted to buy her a pair of velvet jeans with vertical stripes. She wailed, “Mom! They’ll make my legs look too long.”

I grabbed her arm and fixed her with a look of such intensity that she fell silent. I said, “If you don’t understand this now, you will soon. Legs cannot be too long. You will be very glad you have them.”

All the same, I remember feeling the same way as my daughter did. During my high school years, the ideal silhouette was curvy, and skirts were to the knee. I retreated into the shadows with my stick figure. By the time I got to college, the mini-skirt had hit the stores. From then on, girls with hips did a fade and now I owned the place. I hemmed the minis myself to make them even shorter. My legs exploded out of the gate and never came back.

They paused long enough to pose for both my RCA album cover, and the cover of my novel “Dry Hustle” (my editor-in-chief’s idea).

There was another reason to be grateful for the Kernochan legs. They worked. My mother’s didn’t.

During World War II, not long after my two older brothers were born my father was stationed in Fort Leavenworth to complete officers’ training. My mother fell very ill, very suddenly. The medical staff, hardly the best, had no idea what to diagnose. She got worse, until finally an doctor friend of Dad’s took a look at her file and said, “Polio.”

The virus stopped short of her lungs, but she lost the use of her legs, and some of the musculature in her arms and hands. At the time, her father Wayne Chatfield-Taylor was employed in Roosevelt’s cabinet as Under Secretary of Commerce, so Mom didn’t have far to look for a role model. FDR set the standard of courage for a lot of the polio victims of that wartime era. You just got on with it.

While her husband went overseas to fight the jerries, Mom scooped up her children and traveled down to Warm Springs, where she underwent rehab, learning how to use braces and crutches.

Mom in Warm Springs with my elder brother

To us five children growing up, ours was like any other American family. We played baseball in the yard. The pitcher just happened to be in a wheelchair. We got spanked. I have an indelible memory of being hauled onto her lap, slung over a pair of thighs that were almost pure bone, my head pushed against the cold metal spokes and dirty rubber rims of the wheels on her chair; and then came the wallop on my butt, delivered with the formidable upper-arm strength she had developed from cruising on crutches and working her wheels.

Just like our peers, we were delivered to and picked up from lessons, school events and outdoor activities by our mother in a station wagon. She’d learned to drive at Warm Springs. I still have no idea how she operated the stick shift, lifting her foot from the brake to stamp down the clutch. Later, when automatic shifts came in, she invented some system using a thick book wedged under the brake, and crossing her legs to work both brake and gas pedal. She never used a handicapped vehicle. She just got on with it.

The only way we knew we were different was because people always stared at us. I recall my first worried reaction was that they were staring at me; but then that look of pity tinged with curiosity would cross their faces, before they quickly turned away. The look said, “Oh, that poor woman, she’s crippled.” And then we kids would realize, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Mom’s crippled.” Because we usually forgot. That’s what she wanted.

We were used to life slowing down when we walked beside her. We instinctively downshifted from allegro to andante while she looked down, saw the next spot, planted the rubber tips of her crutches, and swung herself forward. Look, plant, swing. Look, plant, swing. Stairs were even slower, but up and down she went. Just give her time, and she would invariably arrive.

Years later, when the four older kids left home for college and careers, she got fitted for a new clear plastic brace, threw away the old metal-and-leather-strapped monstrosities, and parked the wheelchair in the closet. Now she could go faster on her crutches, speeding up the rhythm to a rather beautiful and graceful swinging, undulating stride. She only used the wheelchair provided at airports so she could get special treatment and not have to wait in line, for she had begun to travel a lot, alone, to the corners of the globe, visiting schools for Unesco.

Mom in India with Indira Gandhi

We her children can’t remember her former legs. From photos, we can see that they were like her parents’: not too short, not too long, sturdy and well built for sports: the Chatfield-Taylor legs. In those photos she is most always in action, running, riding, diving, skiing, playing team sports of every kind: relentlessly, manically, ecstatically athletic. She once told me that, had she known she would never run again, she wouldn’t have done anything differently. In fact, it was almost as if she did know it was her last dance, because she could not have used her legs any more vigorously than she did.

People used to joke about the long, long Kernochan legs that, just when you thought they would stop, they kept on going. And Mom’s legs did the same.

(To be continued)

Monday, February 6, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - Part 18

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

1977 summer’s end found me onstage at the New York Public Theater, presenting my new material to Joe Papp, his wife Gail Merrifield, and his creative staff. I’d composed a scene called “Boys’ Bunk between two pubescent boys, one who just wants to sleep and never get up, and the other hopped up on hormones and terrorizing his bunkmate with gross descriptions of his body’s changes. Followed by a ballet.

The director was myself. I’d never staged anything or worked with actors before. I chose to cast a couple of boys in their early 20’s instead of actual 13-year-olds. It worked because both performers had a lot of kid still in them and seemed age-indeterminate. The sleepy boy was played by Gedde Watanabe, later to be unforgettable as the foreign exchange student in “16 Candles.” The hyper boy was played by Tom Hulce, fresh from “Equus” on Broadway and destined to play Mozart in “Amadeus.” They were outrageous fun to work with, and the workshop went over great. Joe immediately decided that I should write and direct a full-length show, to be produced the following summer.

In the audience, aside from Joe & Co., were assorted friends and curiosity seekers, plus my mother. Seated behind my mom and unbeknownst to her was the married man with whom I was having a deep love affair. He was three years younger than my parents. If you had suggested he was a “father-figure” or even “grandfather-figure,” I would have retorted, “So?” If you had deplored May-December romances I would have laughed and said, you got it all wrong; I was born in December and he was born in May.

I knew the odds were poor that he would leave his wife and we would wind up together. But ya never know.

But…what if you could know? That’s why I went to a lot of psychics.

I was by now addicted to clairvoyants. Any time I heard mention of a good one, off I went. Palmists, astrologers both Eastern and Western, mediums, numerologists, channelers; readers of runes, espresso grounds, cards, charts, chop suey (not kidding), wrist pulses, token objects. I encountered two different spirit guides, an ancient Chinese sage who was clearly bogus and a celestial being with an unbearable personality.

I took notes on each session; thus I had a permanent record of their predictions, so that I could review them later in the future to assess the percentage of accuracy. The good ones had a 25-30% rating. The only one with a stellar record was Frank Andrews, but his readings got markedly less accurate after the first three times.

I also developed a case of ESP envy. How did they do it? I wanted those powers, too.

Because Frank Andrews was grateful that I sent him John and Yoko as clients (Yoko eventually put him on retainer as her private on-call psychic), he and I became friends. He began teaching me how to read Tarot cards; I hoped they would awake my own supposedly dormant psychic abilities.

To test all these clairvoyants, I asked them each the same question: Was I going to get the guy or not? It demanded a simple up/down answer, yes or no. Thus, when the day arrived that I knew the answer myself, whether I had won or lost, I would also know which psychics were good, and which ones I could rule out.

The psychics were evenly divided. Many counseled me to get out now, or my heart would get broken. Others told me to hang in there, the married man would be mine one day.

One of them suggested that I wasn’t supposed to know. I considered this a cop-out, but then again it engendered a bigger question: what’s the point of knowing the future? If it can’t be changed, then you’re just sitting around waiting for it to happen, bored and checking your watch, like knowing the ending of a movie within the first five minutes. And if the future can be changed, then how can it be predicted?

The other pitfall was, if you believed a prediction, then it had an influence over your actions. You would look for signs; start nudging things along, rushing toward the goal you assumed was yours. Living with high expectations is both exciting and nerve-racking. And then, what if you find out the prediction was wrong? You stand to feel like a giant idiot.

I came to refer to this heightened anticipation of a known future as Louis Malle Syndrome.

Around 1980 I went to a psychic who predicted with certainty that I would have an affair with a French producer married to a famous American woman. In the end, his marriage would explode in a highly public manner, I would be roundly vilified, but when the wreckage cleared we would be together and happy at last.

I told a friend, even if I'm passionately in love with this French guy, whoever he is, I just don’t know if I have it in me to bust up another marriage.

My agent was trying to sell my second book to the movies. He sent it off to Candice Bergen’s agent, who wanted to read it for her to play the central character.

Not too long after, out of the blue, her French director-producer husband Louis Malle called my agent in person. He liked the book – what did we have in mind for it? My agent, somewhat surprised, said that the script had been sent to Candice. (Apparently it had been put on Malle’s desk by accident.) But it would be great if Malle could direct and his wife star in the production. Malle said he would get back to him.

I called my friend in a fever of excitement and dread: “Oh my God, it’s happening already! It’s Louis Malle! ”

“Oh no,” my friend moaned. “Poor Candice. She’ll be devastated when you run off with him.”

“I can’t help that. He’s handsome, and I worship his early films. I’ve seen 'Murmur of the Heart' three times. I speak French. I could easily live in France.”

It was clear what would happen next: I would take a meeting with him. There would be instant intellectual rapport. As we worked on the script together, try as I might to fight it, our attraction would grow until it could no longer be denied. And then, ka-boom.

What did transpire was: nothing. Louis had his agent call mine to say that he and Candice had long ago decided that they would keep their careers separate and not work together. This project was not tempting enough to change their minds. My agent asked if Louis could see directing the film without his wife. But the door was closed. My agent surmised that Louis was put off that my book was sent to her instead of him.

I never did meet Louis Malle. But I had wasted a lot of emotional capital on expecting I would, my mind running amok in the future instead of staying safely tethered to the present. A state now defined as: Louis Malle Syndrome.

But back in 1977, I had no clear expectations for my affair with the married man. The psychics had differed widely on what would happen. And so I groped forward into love’s shadows without knowing. As we are meant to.

(Final note: I only see two clairvoyants now. One uses Tarot with astrology and his counsel is always calm and wise. The other is a well-known medium, the most talented psychic I’ve met since Frank Andrews, and I’m pleased to call her my friend. She says I’m going to be a best-selling author. I’m waiting.)

(To be continued)

Candice and Louis

Thursday, February 2, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 17

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

Writing songs about kids and puberty was a departure for me. Up until then my MO was raunch. Sex was a ripe topic. It provided endless material that was funny and fucked-up and bitter and sweet. Located at the root of the tree of humanity, sex said everything about human rapport. Plus it got me plenty of attention.

Back in the 70’s, in spite of the sexual revolution it was still verboten for a recording artist, especially a female, to get down and dirty with the lyrics. For my second album I recorded songs like “Can I Get On Top This Time” and “It’s Alright, It Won’t Bite.” I wanted to call the album “Box Lunch,” and even though those words were not exactly obscene, RCA demanded another title. So I called it “Beat Around the Bush.” After I terminated at the label, I wrote and performed a pornographic song cycle called “Biology and You,” this time making free with the obscenities, as in tunes like “Get Head.”

My obsession with sex actually began in puberty, with a book.

When I was 11, my family embarked on a trip to Europe, starting in Paris. Our 18-year-old babysitter was very uninterested in childcare (she quit mid-trip). What did interest her were racy books banned in the U.S., and Henry Miller's "Sexus" was one of those. She picked up a copy in Paris, intending to read it before she went back home so she wouldn't be caught smuggling it past customs.

We took a boat from Italy to Greece. I shared a cramped cabin with her, in which I occupied the top bunk. I woke to the sound of sniggering. Looking down, I saw my two older brothers perched on either side of the babysitter on her bed, looking over her shoulder as she read some book.

A few months after we returned, I turned 12. I don't know if this is a symptom of pubescence, but around then I started sneaking into other family members' rooms to look in their drawers. I found a "marriage manual" (sex guide) in my parents' drawer. It read like a science book and thus was unmemorable. Still, no one had ever told me anything about sex, so it was a start. I rifled through my brothers' hiding places. I found books about male sexual development given to the boys by Mom and Dad. There were gross cross-section illustrations of the male genitalia and descriptions of erection and ejaculation. Again, highly scientific and scrupulously designed not to arouse anybody.

My older brother was trying out photography, developing his own prints in a guest bathroom upstairs. I found a stack of photos taken of individual book pages. He must have photographed the "dirty" parts of the babysitter's illicit copy of "Sexus." I stole them. My brother could hardly complain that they were missing: he would be admitting to his own crime of possessing them in the first place.

Locking myself in my bathroom, I assembled the pages in order and read. What the hell was this? What was a "cunt"? It wasn't in the big dictionary in the living room. What was a "prick"? It sounded sharp. Why were people always "coming" and never going? And what was "fuck"? (This is 1959.)

I searched my brother’s room more thoroughly and found the original pages torn from “Sexus,” about 30 of them. I folded them carefully, inserting them into a metal Band-Aid box, and buried them in a remote corner of the yard.

Digging up the box from time to time, I pored over the pages incessantly. I managed to put all the pieces together and figure out what each word meant and what these characters were doing, also incessantly.

The writing was blunt and crass, but the text gave me a feeling of arousal that was new and mysterious. Therefore, these pages held power. You could write about sex and people would perk up; they would pay attention. They would even take the trouble to ban it, smuggle it, or bury it in the yard. Power and attention are two big things that children crave.

It was only a couple of years later that I decided to be a writer. Add fourteen more years and I finally got the chance to write explicit prose about sex with my first novel “Dry Hustle”; it featured a five-page five-orgasm scene. By the time it was published I was tuckered out on the subject and practically celibate.

So it was odd that my grandfather’s ghost pointed me back to puberty, with its feelings of powerlessness and social invisibility. And there I found a richer soil in which to dig up the Band-Aid box.

Postscript: Eventually, after the ban was lifted, I read Miller’s “Sexus: The Rose Crucifixion” in its entirety with a more critical eye. The writing meandered and maundered and bragged. I decided Henry Miller was only fitfully a great writer and more consistently an asshole. For erotic description I preferred "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which I stole from my mother’s drawer. 

(To be continued)