Looking back on it now, perhaps I should have known that Arlen’s ex would continue to cast a shadow over her second marriage. Harry was a considerate and attentive partner, eminently reasonable and understanding even when Arlen was at her most strident and irrational. But he didn’t have the dash or swagger that her first husband did—the aggressiveness and machismo that Arlen admired in a man. In the end, I believe, Harry came to know that in Arlen’s regard he would never be more than second-best.

­What’s more, he hadn’t been able to finish his Ph.D. with dispatch, as he’d hoped, but was forced to start over when his advisor found some problem in his work. So Arlen went on slogging away at a job she loathed while Harry continued to be supported by his parents. Also, he gained weight—and Arlen had a violent prejudice against “fat” people (as well as “retarded” people—her word—and gays) and used to call him a “fat slob” to his face, once even when his parents were visiting.

Angrily, I wrote:



She is exasperating.

A surrealistic portrait would depict her

with a cube of concrete for a head.

She walks into every experience with a bias—

often outrageous—

to which she is so tenaciously affixed

that experience cannot pry her loose.

She is a slave to her prejudices,

like the hapless owner of a big, brutish dog

that drags its mistress around forever on a calamitous run.

And there was another incompatibility: Arlen wanted a companion to go places with, but Harry was more comfortable living a hermitic life amid his books and his music. He was a night owl, while she was a day person, so they ended up in separate bedrooms. As she became more and more dissatisfied that her life was not working out the way she’d imagined, Harry bore the brunt of her anger with patient stoicism. Eventually he went into therapy with Helen. I’ll always remember him confiding in me how troubled he was by several things she’d said to him, among them, that bad thoughts were as reprehensible as bad deeds—and I’m saddened for him that he took her opinion to heart.

As for my relationship with Arlen, her need for emotional support was constant, and though she might be appreciative of any sympathy or advice I offered, she never seemed able to remember anything I’d said, so that I kept having the same conversations with her over and over again until I wound up feeling utterly depleted from the effort.



Adam and I are reading a picture book. ‘Hunh?’ I say, turning to the previous page. “I don’t get this.”

Adam instructs me.

“What would I do without you to explain these things to me?” I ask him affectionately.

“I don’t know what you would do!” he answers importantly.

I’ve told him I’m going to South America. He keeps thinking it’s Africa because he remembers about the jungle—and keeps telling me plaintively that he wants to go with me.


Over the years my father had done extensive reading related to his medical condition and had become convinced that he didn’t have arthritis after all, but a chemical imbalance that affected his neuroreceptors. He was prescribed the anti-depressant Elavil, which increases serotonin levels in the brain—the same drug I used to take for sleep—and, after seventeen years as a semi-invalid, he made a complete recovery virtually overnight.

When he asked himself what he most wanted to do, he told me, he decided it was to hunt for rare butterflies in the jungles of South America. A couple of years later Doug and I visited him in Tucson, and he showed us slides of his thatched hut on the Amazon River, a short distance from a tiny Indian village, where he spent summers with a parrot, spider monkey, and coatimundi.

He wrote me that a friend of his down there, George Salikas, had a boat service that ferried tourists down-river; because I knew Spanish, he was prepared to hire me as a guide. So I quit my housekeeping/babysitting job, ready to dash off on a grand adventure.



This is a journal entry from the time that I only discovered recently because it never made it into A Patchwork Memoir.

I follow Beth into her office, note the water-spotted, mildewing patch of rug behind my chair, and sit down with a sigh. Beginnings are almost as hard as endings. I’m going to try to say it all—I’m not going to let that old cat abscond with my tongue this time. We have already greeted each other formally in the waiting room, but once seated, I salute her “Hello” again. She answers “Hello” warily, without returning a smile. I try to orient myself, search for an opening. I’m quiet, remembering the drive to San Pablo. I was thinking about the Big Bang. How if they can’t find enough dark matter, the universe may prove be a one-shot deal—which made me ache with wonder at its terrible beauty.

I begin by telling Beth about my own view of therapy. “I can’t bear the kind of uprooting you’re trying to do—I’m not ready,” I say. I tell her I think the work of therapy for me, at this point anyway, is self-disclosure—and that I need to feel safe, need to feel I can trust her before I begin. “Don’t you think you’ve already begun?” she asks. I don’t know how to answer.

Later I ask her why she finds it necessary to use negative reinforcement—because criticizing me mobilizes so much pain and self-doubt I feel completely demoralized.

“You put me in a bind,” she says. “You try to set up all this space for yourself, but giving anyone else any space threatens your autonomy.” “It’s not like that!” I hear myself cry out. I say I need help, but it feels like no help is forthcoming. She tells me I’d better reconsider my requirements—they’re too stringent. That if I could loosen them, I could get help—from her and elsewhere. I say, “I have considered my requirements—the conscious ones; but the unconscious ones I have no control over. I feel like you’re telling me to come back when I’m well, then you can help me.” In barely more than a whisper, she says, “We have to stop.” She has been speaking more and more quietly and emphatically. I feel the hostility behind her words.


Nevertheless, this effort, however misguided, was necessary for me. I had to try to find words for the pain and anger I’ve been feeling; I had to make a bid for what I longed for—understanding, caring, acceptance. I had thought if I could put some of these feelings into words, I might evoke the desired response. I was wrong. Still, the process of explaining, the effort to get things clear in my own head, has a value, whether I’ve alienated Beth or not. I value these things, even if she doesn’t. If I am such a “heavy” that in time I will alienate every therapist I see, then perhaps I will have to accept that I can work only a limited time with each and may have to go through a few more than I would like to before I reach the end—I can’t simply give up.



Dale was newly married at the time of her encounter with the bear—to another geologist, whose name was Charlie. When I visited their new home some months later, she made me a peanut butter sandwich with her toes, using a special knife with little pegs on the sides. Though I had to help her undress to get in her bathing suit, when we went swimming in a neighbor’s pool, she was able to propel herself through the water using just her legs. She told me she didn’t know how she would have gotten through it all without Charlie, who had had to do everything for her, from wiping her bottom when she went to the bathroom to inserting her tampons when she had her period—at least until she finally got a pair of prostheses—hooks—that she could work reasonably well.

The power of love, indeed.



One day I heard from a friend that Britte was home from France. Remembering how absolutely I’d once believed that we’d be friends for life, there at one or the other’s death bed, I needed answers—or, at least, to take a stab at closure—and made up my mind to call her, not the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

After our conversation I wrote:

“Britte told me her partner was a woman. Throughout our telephone conversation, her voice sounded unnatural. ‘I think of you every once in a while,’ she said, then added with a forced laugh, ‘It makes me nervous.’

“Last night I dreamed that by contracting my abdominal muscles, I was able to expel my uterus. It stood out from my crotch, still attached, like an elongated balloon, like an enormous phallus.

“I also dreamed my mother roused me from sleep and was trying to tell me something. I removed my earplugs and still couldn’t hear her. So I delved deeper into my ears and extracted another set of plugs, then another…and another.

“I woke before dawn this morning, remembering Britte and the past. I cried fitfully, not able to understand or order my riotous feelings. Agitation made me feel that in another moment I would leap out of my skin.

“I wanted to ask Beth, ‘Your partner…is it a man or a woman?’”


It wasn’t until some time later that I finally met Britte face-to-face and heard, with a kind of dazed astonishment, the reason she’d pushed me away eight years before. It was simply that…she’d been so attracted to me, she confessed. Attracted? I thought incredulously. I could hardly wrap my mind around it. It felt like she was telling me the problem had been that I was too much, rather than—as she’d led me to believe at the time—too little. When she added that she’d learned more from me than anyone she’d ever known, I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant but found it painfully ironic, since, with the exception of my parents, I felt she’d hurt me more deeply than anyone I’d ever known.

It had never even crossed my mind that Britte might be a lesbian. During our friendship, she was infatuated with Salvador de la Mora, then Bruce. Besides, it would have seemed too anomalous for someone from such a “perfect” family to be gay. Back then—in psychiatric circles like my mother’s, at least—homosexuality was still thought to be caused by faulty nurturing—by a distant parent of the same sex and a “seductive” parent of the opposite sex. I remembered my mother asking me once, “What does Britte see in you?” A fair question (though it stung me at the time), which is why, perhaps, in the dream my mother is trying to tell me something I can’t hear. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything unusual about the intensity of my friendship with Britte—because I had passionate feelings for her and I wasn’t a lesbian.

I saw Britte only once after that, when she invited me to dinner to meet her lover, a former student of hers like me. (She couldn’t meet me alone, she’d explained, out of consideration for her partner, who would have been jealous.) I don’t remember much about the evening, probably because I was so nervous. What I do recall is that Britte had bobbed her wavy, honey-colored hair and that her lover seemed to me small, drab, and insecure…but then, I suppose I needed to see her that way.

Actually, I did almost run into Britte another time. She was a ways ahead of me in line at the Co-op Christmas tree sale one morning before dawn, when and where it seemed all of Berkeley had converged to haggle over the cheap trees. “Oh, no! It’s Britte!” I hissed to Ella. “Let’s go to the back of the line.” But the Co-op went bust a long time ago, and every so often it crosses my mind how strange it is that you can go decades in a relatively small city like Berkeley and never see someone who lives only a few miles away. I still dream about Britte, though—complicated, oppressive dreams—and, considering what a pivotal person she was in my life, I guess I always will.


From Ruth, one of Britte’s roommates back in her college days, I learned recently that Britte broke up with that young woman years ago, and I found myself wondering whether her student-lover had been as devastated as I was; given my impression of her, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was. Britte subsequently found a partner her own age, then ended her friendship with Ruth because Ruth made the mistake, after inviting Britte and her partner on an outing, of asking if the partner would like to go even though Britte wasn’t available. I thought of the way Britte had wooed other people whenever we were out socially, how completely insensitive she’d been to my insecurities. And I thought to myself, How often we do to others the very thing we can least tolerate having done to ourselves. We do this, I believe, because our areas of greatest vulnerability are the areas where we are the most defended—by denial, self-righteousness, and self-delusion.



“I’m telling Beth about Adam and wonder at her slight smile. She was thinking, she says, ‘the power of love!’ Strange to say, I’ve apparently domesticated that balking, braying, little crosspatch of a mule. I guess he does love me. But something he did the other day stung me, although I saw how absurd I was being. He absconded with a quarter that fell from my wallet, displaying it with a flourish and announcing he was a magician who could make money appear out of thin air. Thinking about it now, I should have suggested he conjure up some more. Instead I asked for it back, but he persisted in saying it was his. One quarter—a few carrots, a potato, or an orange. I was so poor it mattered. I felt half-aggravated, anticipating a prolonged contest, half-tearful, as I explained that I needed all my quarters. He offered to give it back to me when we got home—and magnanimously proposed to lend me some money from his piggy bank, as well.”



In the years after our sojourn in Spain, Ella flew up from L.A. to visit me de vez en cuando—oops—from time to time (I still sometimes remember the Spanish word or expression before the English), and together we’d drive north to Healdsburg to see Dale. Dale lived in a succession of rustic homes on the Russian River and taught Spanish and drama at the local junior high school. I remember us rock-hounding in the river, reading out loud excerpts from plays she was considering for her drama class, and baking squashes filled with breadcrumbs, cheese, and bacon. Ella recalls winery-hopping, hiking in the redwoods, and sipping kahlua and hot milk around the fireplace (actually, she isn’t sure about the fireplace but says it makes a nice picture).

One 4th of July we all smoked pot out on Dale’s deck (the second and last time I tried it), and I got so stoned after only a few tokes—that was all I could manage because the smoke burned my throat—I didn’t feel up to going to see the fireworks. They left me behind, and, all by myself, I had a very bad trip. I remember everything abrading my senses in a disagreeable way; when I danced, the wooden floor chafed my feet, when I listened to music, it grated on my ears, when I ate leftover cake, it tasted dry and ashy in my mouth. And the effects didn’t wear off after a few hours either, but lasted throughout most of the next day. My head didn’t clear until late afternoon, when, in the midst of Hendy Woods, Ella and Dale lit up another joint and nearly started a forest fire. A bit of ash or a dropped match must have ignited some needles or dry leaves, and, while Ella and Dale remained blissfully oblivious of the first telltale wisps of smoke, I leapt to my feet and stamped out the impending conflagration.

Eventually Dale earned a degree in geology from Sonoma State and got a job with the U.S. Geological Survey. On one of Ella’s visits, I picked her up at the airport and noticed during the drive home that she seemed oddly constrained. When I asked her if something was wrong, she said she would rather discuss it when we got to my apartment. Immediately I started imagining fatal diagnoses and horrible disasters, but nothing could have prepared me for her news. The next day we went to Stanford Hospital to visit Dale, who told us this story:

She’d flown to Alaska to do field work, and one morning, after being set down—alone—in the wilderness by helicopter, she’d been accosted by a black bear. She’d yelled and made a ruckus with some pots and pans to frighten it off, as she’d been instructed to do, but the she-bear, who had an overgrown cub with her, attacked her instead of fleeing. For what seemed like hours she played dead, while the bear gnawed on one of her arms and dragged her around, until she lost all hope of surviving the encounter. But when it eventually got distracted and wandered a short distance away, she took a desperate gamble. She reached into her pack as discretely as she could with her other arm and radioed the helicopter for help—or tried to; she didn’t know if she’d been heard. Not discretely enough, however, because the bear, apparently deciding she wasn’t dead after all, came back…and promptly started gnawing on her good arm. The helicopter’s arrival finally scared the bear off, but Dale’s deliverance came too late. At the hospital the surgeons told her the bear had done so much damage they would have to amputate both her arms.

One was cut off at the shoulder; the other was only a small stump.

I’d wondered how I’d feel seeing my friend mutilated, how I’d manage the shock, but it felt completely natural to put my arms around her, bandages and all, finding, to my surprise, that she still looked whole to me.



In one of my early sessions with Beth, I said I felt like I was trapped in a vice:

“Beth is asking me, ‘What did you construct the two sides of the vise of?’ Turbulent impressions…I’m remembering stroking my own hair and cheek, as I would a disconsolate child’s, to quiet myself to sleep. I’m thinking, ‘She expects me to know.’ My little brother comes to my mother with sobs and this complaint, ‘I can’t start kindergarten yet! I don’t know how to read.’ How can I know something before I’ve had a chance to learn?

“My answer is a hedge—in more ways than one. She says I’ve done something or other again, and what I hear in her voice is not commendation. Ironic. Despite my efforts not to fail, I’ve failed…somehow.

“I struggle to make out nebulous obstructions. ‘If you’d said…’ She deprecates my suggestion. She chose her words deliberately, she insists. She’s sure of herself. Unfair advantage! Where is there a safe place? Yanking a flower, does it grow stronger or faster?

“One day long ago, I hugged Mrs. Unruh on the piano bench. She met demands, did not make them. She disarmed me with patience—divested me of the weapons I unwittingly use against myself—made it unnecessary for me to beat myself, like a dull or torpid or recalcitrant donkey that won’t go.

“Beth tells me I’ve misunderstood her intent. But how can I know what she intends until she tells me? Too often, I’ve felt like a suspect, muscled into a back room to be grilled, bullied, and intimidated. My mother was one who always demanded I give an accounting of myself. Out of flimsy alibis, I constructed a self-esteem like a house of cards.

“I’m trying to remember something Beth said to me the week before when I told her about John. I said it was like something ‘too big to swallow, that had left me gagging.’ It was ‘I think you set yourself up for disappointment.’

“I had said, ‘I feel every time I reach out for help I get kicked in the teeth.’ To make that statement, I’d had to clear a formidable hurdle of fear. Afterwards I’d flinched as though expecting a blow.

“What is it that I’m not allowed to express—my own craziness? Keep those psychic hobgoblins hidden, those two-headed, twelve-toed tenants of my head—bitterness, paranoia, self-pity. Must I then, always and only, manifest what is sane and sound and good and right?

“So I’m the one who constructed the vise—I’m the one who creates my own disappointments. A sense of culpability, like a powerful undertow, draws me down. I wish she wouldn’t make it all my fault. And to the extent that I am to blame—a child falls out of a tree and, broken and bleeding, is he to be told merely, ‘You did this to yourself. Now you’ll know better than to climb a tree.’ Will an object lesson bind his wounds and make him whole again?”

The other morning in the wee hours, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, sipping a cup of warm milk, hoping to put myself back to sleep, when I flashed on a family photo I’d recently discovered and inserted belatedly into my 9-23-19 blog “Dark Secret.” Below is a cropped version of it.

So Beth wanted me to believe I’d created the vise myself, I thought. Really? (Not only did my father have a tenacious grip on my mind for many years, evidence would eventually come to light that he’d likely sexually abused me too.)