Mom’s friend Arlen was pretty, with a lilting voice and very precise diction (her parents were immigrants, and she didn’t learn to speak English until she was six); she was graceful—even taught ballroom dancing at an Arthur Murray studio at one time—and musical, with a clear soprano voice and sophisticated taste that embraced everything from Gregorian chant to Philip Glass…

For years she’d been a stay-at-home mom, married to a world-class mathematician, though she’d never finished college herself, and they’d entertained the academic elite in their beautiful architect-designed home—that is, until her husband left her for a neighbor woman, who abandoned her children to marry him.

I’ve already written about what an inviting home she turned her run-down little cottage into. In winter she always had a fire burning in the fireplace; in summer her flowering shrubs ran riot in the yard. Eventually their household included two Siamese cats—shrewd, temperamental Liesle and an easy-going male whose name eludes me—as well as Barik, a beautiful samoyed who was eventually run over by a car.

She surrounded herself with plants, including exotic ones I’d never seen before, and always had new cuttings she’d snipped from public and private gardens sprouting roots in jars in the kitchen. She was forever tinkering with recipes, too, or trying to duplicate dishes she’d had in restaurants. She taught me to make an easy oil piecrust and crepes with lemon syrup, explaining that the secret to making anything sweet flavorful was salt.

She dabbled at painting and was always full of ideas for creative projects. She collected postcards and pictures from magazines of anything that caught her eye: fine art—she had a connoisseur’s appreciation—elegant interiors, photographs of nature, animals, children…  

After my return to the Bay Area, Arlen would become—and for many years remain—a mentor, whose opinion I sought about all things artistic, as well as the friend who was most appreciative of my own creative endeavors and singing voice.



Dear Ella,

Sorry for the hasty departure and for burdening you with the trunk! The last couple of days have been a mind-blowing experience. Though I’m sad and bewildered—and anxious to start seeing a good therapist—I’m feeling more “together” than I have for several months. This mind shift started within twenty-four hours of breaking up with Jack. I wondered how I could feel so devastated—but stronger at the same time. Strange, isn’t it? I wish I could talk to you at length the way we’ve always done in our marathons. In case you don’t already know it, you’re a very compassionate listener—a beautiful quality, I think.

I know you’re having a lot of problems now as well. I hope things get better for you. I’m sorry (for my sake!) I’m not going to be there to share in your life. I don’t imagine I’ll ever live in southern California again.

Right now, everything seems so precarious, not knowing what the future will bring—living with my mother for a time, working on my leather project, seeing a therapist, and doing volunteer work to help structure my time—those are the things I’ll be doing in the near future, I guess.

The trip back to Berkeley was as enjoyable as it could be under the circumstances. Arlen and I spent the night in San Luis Obispo in a fleabag hotel that cost $8.50. I was horrified. Didn’t it cost only $4 or $5 when you and I went to Santa Barbara? (At least this hotel didn’t catch on fire!) The next day we drove up Highway 1 and spent several hours in Carmel, window-shopping and having Swiss pastry in a little European-type coffee shop.

I wish you had been there. I think it would have done you good to hear Arlen talk about her love life. Her relationship with Harry (who’s only thirty) is turning into a beautiful one. With all her problems and all his, they are having a relationship that is really nurturing for both of them. With plump, easy-going Harry, Arlen is finally getting over her handsome, debonair ex-husband, who made her miserable during fifteen (?) years of marriage. She finds Harry both “dear” and “fascinating,” and she thinks she wants to marry him. Wow! Does that make me feel better…just knowing that such a thing is possible.

Well, the talk-machine has run down. It’s evening now, and I should make some dinner. It makes me sad to think that from now on I’ll be writing you. Take care and try to demand the best of people and life. It’s your due.



One afternoon shortly after I got back from Tucson, Jack and I went walking on the USC campus, and rather than listening to what I was saying, his head kept swiveling, his eyes following every passing co-ed. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with an awful heaviness, the feeling that my whole body was steeped in misery, even before I could recall the abortion and Jack’s disinterest. As early as I dared the next morning, I called my mother to ask her if I could come home. Arlen flew down while I packed up my few belongings, and by the end of the next day, we were on our way back to the Bay Area together in the “Bomb.”


I’ve always remembered, because it seems so telling in hindsight, that Jack—who used to copy things I did—bought several goldfish after I bought a Siamese fighting fish. Whenever I visited his apartment, I’d find them at the surface of their bowl, gasping for air, the water so dirty they couldn’t breathe through their gills, because carefree Jack couldn’t be bothered with changing their water, just as he couldn’t be bothered with using a new condom and left me gasping with pain on a surgical table.



Among the contents of a box of mementos my father showed me during this visit, I found five-by-seven studio photos of my grandmother Marie in a high lace collar, holding a rose; slides of a naked, full-breasted brunette; and my parents’ divorce agreement. This last I read with attention. When I came to a paragraph where my mother agreed never to take my brother and me out of state, it jolted me—despite the fact that I’d known she broke this promise to my father. He was probably the one who first told me this—though I don’t remember when—as an example of my mother’s perfidy. But seeing it in print brought home to me even more forcefully the seriousness and magnitude of this betrayal. I knew my father hadn’t wanted the divorce—at a time before no-fault divorces—and that his agreement was contingent upon this promise.

What struck me then was the cruelty of this breach of trust. At the core of my mother’s sense of selfworth was the notion that she was a highly principled person, and I can remember her telling me more than once over the years that her role model from the time she was a child was Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet despite the lofty moral standard she claimed to hold herself to—and expected Doug and me to adhere to as well, she flagrantly disregarded the most important pledge she ever made to my father, besides her marriage vows—and probably the most consequential one she ever made to anyone.

And while in later age she could admit that things were worse for all of us after the move, she never expressed remorse or any moral compunction about this betrayal. Instead, to justify it, she convinced herself, at the time and forever afterward, that she was so much the better parent—my father being so autocratic and selfish and negligent—that my brother and I were better off without him.

She could never allow that her taking Doug and me to California might have shattered his health. I believe it did; I think it triggered the abandonment feelings he’d experienced as a child when my aunt Julia, the only one who’d loved him, was forced to leave. No doubt there were multiple reasons for his collapse—the loss of control over his life, for one; until then, my father had managed to have everything on his own terms. But I suspect the main reason was losing Doug and me, that there were ways in which my father needed us, perhaps as the companions he’d never had in his boyhood.

Sometimes I think that the shambles my mother and father made of their marriage and parenthood was always going to happen. My mother was always going to choose a man who was emotionally unavailable like her own father, and she was always going to leave him, a decision that would initially feel to her like an assertion of her own power and independence but that would plunge her back into the stress of her childhood dilemma of feeling overburdened with responsibility. And my dad was always going to be an insensitive and autocratic partner who would alienate his spouse, then wind up divorced and feeling abandoned, the way he had been as a child. Alice Miller has said that some of us have a compulsion to repeat, a compulsion I see in my parents’ lives, as well as my own.


As I rework this vignette, it occurs to me for the first time that my mother’s justification for breaking her promise—that is, her superiority as a parent—all but necessitated her denial of her subsequent mistreatment of Doug and me. Though, throughout her life, my mother always prided herself on having a “self-observing ego,” as she called it, there was a moment in my teenage years when I realized how wrong she was about herself.

It happened when we were in the stall of dressing room of a department store, where I was trying on clothes. In a neighboring stall, we heard a mother berating her daughter. The moment we left, Mom exclaimed how appalled she was by the way this mother had treated her daughter—which left me dumbfounded because it was exactly the way she treated me. If she could have seen her own behavior, I realized then, she would have judged herself just as harshly.



The day after my abortion, I boarded a bus to Tucson, where my dad had moved a few years before. I’d tried to reach him at the university to let him know I was coming—he lived out in the desert and didn’t have a phone—but a secretary had told me he only came in to the department a couple of times a week. I arrived early on a Sunday morning and wound up at a police station, asking where the street address I had was located. Instead, one of the cops drove me out into the desert in a patrol car.

Twenty miles beyond the city limits, at the end of a meandering dirt road, we came to a modern ranch-style house surrounded by sand and saguaro cactus. I rapped on the door several times, more loudly with each repetition, but no one answered. So I started circling the house, peering in windows, trying to determine if this really was my dad’s place. When I pressed my nose against a sliding glass door, I saw a study strewn with books and papers—and, to my astonishment, a coyote looking warily back at me. “This is it,” I told the officer. And resumed pounding on the door until I finally raised my father.

He had moved to Tucson for his health, he’d written, thinking the climate would help his arthritis—but he wasn’t much better than before, he now admitted. He still had, I was able to make out, the few pieces of handsome modern furniture and the colorful throw rugs my aunt Nat had helped him pick out after the divorce (the new furnishings my mother had so resented), as well as the artifacts he’d brought back from Mexico—onyx bookends of Aztec gods, tin masks, and ceramic animals—though both furniture and objets d’art were all but buried in the general disorder.

An architect had designed the house to his specifications, he said, so its floor-to-ceiling windows faced two mountain ranges. The rocks of the massive fireplace he’d also brought back from Mexico. With his power tools, he’d built a stand for two huge aquariums. In one was a beautiful orange-striped seaworm like a candy ribbon, as well as several baby octopi the size of your thumb. He’d caught their mother, he explained, but she’d died after they hatched. He had an expensive stereo system and a huge record collection, and he played me his favorite pieces, among them a Mozart violin concerto that he said always made him weep. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of music I’d ever heard.

When I arrived he’d been preparing to take another trip to the Gulf of Mexico, where he hired boys to catch marine specimens for him—and he invited me along. But suddenly I came down with a fever. The doctor Dad took me to told me I’d developed an infection, apparently due to unsterile conditions during my abortion. He said I could either check myself into a hospital or monitor my urine output myself; if it dropped below a certain level, I should head for the nearest emergency room. My father was angry at me, then, because I’d spoiled his vacation.

Nevertheless, since he was still mostly bedridden, he let me take his car to go exploring on my own when I’d recovered. I found my way to the desert museum where he’d taken Doug and me when we were kids—and saw, among other creatures, hideous sun spiders like the ones we’d caught during our trip through the Southwest when I was twelve. They brought back a flood of memories: Capturing a couple of them and thoughtlessly putting them together in a glass jar; when we checked them next, they’d completely dismembered each other. Crossing the border into Mexico amid clouds of yellow and gold Mammoth Sulfurs—tropical butterflies we’d never seen before. Driving through a tiny town where the women hung their embroidery out the windows of their poor adobe huts to display them to tourists—I bought a shawl with lavender flowers. Trying to catch tiny crabs on the beach at Mazatlan—when one no bigger than a quarter grabbed my dad’s finger, he let out a howl of pain. Happening upon a white witch, a giant moth with a 12” (!) wing span, on a shaded rock on a trail to a waterfall in Monterrey; my father trapped it in a butterfly net, but when he reached in to grab it, it managed to fight its way free, it was so strong.

Speeding through the desert in my dad’s car, I saw magnificent sunsets, the entire sky a vault of flaming clouds; the moon rising blood-red, doubled in size; storms coming off the mountains, traveling across the desert until they enveloped me, a light show of lightning barbs piercing the sky. And for the space of a few days, I felt a sense of expansiveness—of relief—because I’d finally come to know that, despite my father’s incapacity, he had a full life. He had his books, his music, his love of wildflowers, and he wasn’t so disabled he couldn’t do woodworking, go on excursions in his boat, and more… He’d even had lovers, he assured me.



Jack didn’t bother to use a condom properly, which I was too inexperienced to realize. Not only would he wait until he’d completely lost his erection to remove it, he’d wash it out and use it again, which made what happened next practically a foregone conclusion.

When I discovered I was pregnant, I sank into an even deeper depression. With no way I could see to support a child, I would have to give it up for adoption, but without a support system, carrying it to term felt like more than I could do.

Despite my despondency, I do remember standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom one afternoon and stroking my belly, thinking, “There’s a new life growing inside me,” and feeling, however fleetingly, what a miracle that was. Actually, I regarded myself as such a failure at the time it seemed all the more miraculous that I, of all people, could be carrying a child.

Nevertheless, I scheduled an abortion at the local clinic. Later I would comfort myself with the thought that many pregnancies end in miscarriage and maybe mine would have too, or by telling myself that there was no guarantee that adoptive parents would be good parents and that my child might have wound up suffering as much as I had.

In later years, though, I felt if I were to get pregnant again, I wouldn’t choose to have another abortion, and I’d grieve whenever I thought about the child I might have had.

And here I would like to add that I believe abortion is such a deep, personal issue for a woman that the state has no right to interfere. Besides, the human race has already overrun the planet, driving a mass extinction of all else that lives, despoiling and destroying the natural world on which our own future existence depends. To me, those who call themselves pro-choice, are pro-lifers in the broadest sense.