Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

A Lived-In Room

A black cat sits atop a closed laptop on the round glass dining room table. The floor is peppered with cat toys–balls that bounce, balls that jingle, stuffed mice laced with catnip–and hasn’t seen a vacuum in months. A green velvet rolling desk chair replaces the metal-backed dining chairs that should complete the small kitchenette set.  Empty coffee cups and PowerAde bottles litter the floor and table around the laptop; prescription bottles with drugs to wake her up and drugs to put her to sleep half-hidden under piles of junk mail and bills she’d been ignoring.
Cardboard boxes strewn along the walls of the open-floor living/dining room serve as bookcases, harboring tattered copies of Steal This Book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On the Road, Monday or Tuesday. Cheap shoes—Roxy flip-flops, Mossimo boots, 5″ Charlotte Russe heels—scatter around the floor of the apartment; oversized, expensive handbags—Coach signature shoulder bags, Guess satchels, Louis Vuitton Neverfulls—hang from doorknobs and chair backs, each with its matching wallet inside.
Three cats lounge on three chairs nestled under the large dining room window, sunbeams fracturing between strands of black, white, and gray fur. Scraps of paper with scribbled names, maps, and quotes overflow from several small white boxes on the glass table, the couch, the floor, transforming into cat toys in her absences, fragmentary thoughts lost forever to sandpaper tongues

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Truth in Development

There is nothing more poetic to me than watching an image slowly emerge from a spotless white sheet of paper, floating in a shallow tray in the cast of a red light in a darkroom. The image is fuzzy at first, a blur of grey slowly appearing on the solid white background. The shadows come first. The dark before the light. The shadows fill in, illuminating the image in a contrast of black and white; illuminating a world of grey. The vivid spectrum of the greyscale is never more visible than on a floating piece of photography paper, developing before your eyes.

Photographs taken with an actual camera and film, especially black and white film, have an element of truth and virtuosity technology simply can’t recreate. Truth, beauty, and talent must stand on their own. With film maybe you get it, maybe you don’t—it might be blurry, or your finger covered the lens, or you captured a stranger’s crotch or ass when they walked in front of you—but you take one or two and move on, content with the memory it makes, whether it’s perfect or not. And they all went in the photo album, at least my Mom’s photo albums.

But sometimes the shutter closed at the exact right moment, and the lighting was perfect, and everyone wore the perfect expression. A moment otherwise forgotten but forever encapsulated in this photograph. A black and white, 8×10 print I found stuck in an old faded brown album. An injustice to its beauty; it belongs in a frame, mounted on the wall next to reprints of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Adams’ Rose and Driftwood. Six people sitting around a table at a long-closed German tavern; six pints raised, not in posture, posing for a photo, but captured, frozen in a hearty Prost! The joy that emanates in their faces—the smiles, the twinkling eyes—you can almost hear the laughter.

My Grandmother and great-aunt sit across from each other at the far end of a rectangular table pushed up against a door marked, “EXIT.” So young, vibrant, full of life, happiness, love and friendship. A bit tipsy from the lager. The best of friends, always sitting across the table from each other, talking, laughing, drinking, playing cards or dominoes. On the left side of the table, sitting next to my Grandmother, is my mother, wearing the most fabulous glasses. The lenses have to be about 3” wide and 2” tall; they look thick, but they don’t distort her eyes at all. I’m sure she hated them at the time—I hate my glasses when I have to wear them—but she had no idea just how fabulous they looked framed by her shoulder length brown hair. She looks beautiful, and so chic for 1976, and even chicer for 2016. Next to her, my father; he’s slim. I don’t remember him ever being slim. He’s always had a ‘Santa’ belly; he’s not fat overall, but he has a jolly ole belly full o’ oh so much jelly. In the picture he has a mustache but no beard and, I can hardly type the words: mutton chops. On the opposite side of the table, next to my great-aunt, sit the minister, pleasant company in his casual clothes without the collar, and his wife, the only person not wearing glasses that reflect the flare of the flash.

Photos remind us of moments we may have forgotten, relationships, emotions and memories we question, heightened or hardened by time, the good times, and the bad, because even in the happiest picture, we can see the future that awaits the ignorant bliss of the subjects. Pictures can be deceiving. My parents, separated. My aunt has passed on. The minister abandoned his flock in search of selfish gains. But this is the picture before the storm. No foreshadowing to be seen of the pain or deception to come. The joy was there; it isn’t fake or omniscient. It knows not what the future has in store for these 6 people. And it is captured, there for all to see, how much can change in so short a time.

But, can pictures lie? Do they mock the present? We can see the smiles but we can’t know what anyone was thinking. What’s that look on my Mom’s face? She’s smiling, but there’s something missing. The corners of her eyes aren’t turned up and though she’s smiling wide, the corners of her lips go straight, they don’t turn up into the full smile I know. Is it simply time? Age? Or was something already missing? Is this photo actually revealing something, a truth long withheld? I could ask my mom; but I don’t think it’s really necessary, we know how it ended: 2 kids and a divorce.

The bottom left corner is washed out. The edge of another table set with ivory tablecloths and gleaming wine glasses disappears in a burst of highlights. The flare of a flash on porcelain and glass. The light was too hot. I can see the photographer in the darkroom—manipulating the negative, aperture, exposure times, contrast filters, processing times—to balance this hotspot and get the full range of the greyscale to recreate the scene he saw through the lens. Filters used to make the picture look real; not perfect—no Photoshop or Instagram-filtered pretenses here. To crop out or diminish this flare would have diminished the highlights, the life of the subjects. And so it was left, an imperfection in honor of truth. This white-fog is the evidence of an artist who knows that life is art and respects the subject and what was really there at that moment, when the shutter clicked.

There is one place where I don’t need light. I don’t need sight. My hands know what to do. My body turns instinctively, reaching through the dark void. This is the real darkroom. No red bulbs in here. Completely sealed from any light. Blacker than you can imagine a black hole to be. I feed the film onto the reel carefully threading it in a 3-inch spiral round and round 24, 36 frames. Thread another. Placing one atop the other in their cylindrical metal house tightly sealing the lid. Chemicals, time, and some gentle sloshing will turn this film into negatives: the truth that was inscribed when the shutter clicked. The work is done but the creation has yet to begin.

The darkroom is the one place where I do not fear what is unknown. Not knowing what will emerge on the paper is part of the magic and beauty of developing film and processing prints. The walk from the projector to the developing trays is filled with anticipation—and not just for the fumes that waft off the trays. Did I do it? Did I get it? Is it going to be what I saw in my head? If you do all the math right, you might get it on the first try. But the art isn’t in the math, it’s in the journey and the discovery. Working with the negative until the image finds you is the art of photography. Creating a final image is a process, a slow rediscovery of the moment. This first trip to the trays is the first of many to come to find the perfect balance of negative and positive, dark and light. To create the perfect memory. Because in the end, all we are left with are pictures and memories.

Why I Write Nonfiction

They walked me down the hall to the campground’s small infirmary: they have to tell me something—it sounds serious. I could smell the alcohol and peroxide as I sat on the sterilized examination table. Oh Mylanta, who’s dying? Wait… I’m the one sitting on the exam table… is it me?? “We want you to know, this in no way affects how we feel about you…” Oh lordy, I’m not dying, but I must have done something pretty bad—I wonder what it was… My dad saw the terrified look on my face, took a deep breath and let me have it: “Pam’s pregnant: you’re going to have a baby brother or sister.” Before he could finish “baby brother or sister,” I burst into tears; like a torrential downpour from a salty waterfall. Both my dad and stepmom began to try to sooth me but stopped short and stared at each other for a moment as I choked out, “I’m… so… happy!!” in between sobs. Confused, but relieved, they both threw their arms around me as I started rattling off baby names.

I cry about everything. Happy, sad, angry, surprised, it doesn’t matter what emotion I’m feeling, if it’s strong enough, I cry. The day my mom told me I could have a phone in my bedroom: I cried. I could have a TV in my bedroom: I cried. I just got home from the most amazing 6 weeks of freedom a 16-year old girl can imagine: I cried. Got the part I wanted in the school play: cried. Didn’t get the part I wanted in the community play: cried. Emotion overpowers me and the only way I can sort out my feelings is by writing them down, digging into the deep recesses of my brain to understand why I feel the way I do.

Tears help me recognize the presence and strength of my emotions, but they don’t always tell me why they are there. I can tap my temple and think, think, think, but until I work it out in writing, I don’t fully understand what I’m feeling or why. Why was I so happy to hear I was going to have a younger sibling? Was it pure relief that I wasn’t in trouble? Or was it that after 13 years of being picked on by an older brother the idea of having a little brother or sister to pick on was empowering? My older brother was also coming and going, in and out of my life and I was definitely excited to have another sibling to share childhood with. Why did I cry when I was given a phone and TV? Was it simple id satisfaction or pride because my parents were telling me I was growing up and they trusted me to follow the rules unsupervised? Or because I would no longer feel alone at night and wouldn’t have to be afraid of the dark anymore? Why do I cry when my husband plays video games all day? Because I can’t enjoy it with him and that’s how my mother pushed my father away before the divorce (not with video games, mind you, she used the television show M.A.S.H.), and I fear he’s doing the same thing to me. By confronting these questions in writing, I not only discover the answers, but force myself to face reality and accept the truth about the situation and myself. I write to express myself because there is so much I can’t say out loud. I have to put my thoughts in writing in order to make sense of the situation and clearly present my point of view to my intended audience, even if that audience is only me.  Through writing about my experiences and sharing them with others, I am better able to understand my reactions, and hope my own revelations might help someone else understand something more about themselves.

So, why do I write creative nonfiction? Why do I do anything? Because I am passionate. Passionate about truth, human experience, expression, and knowledge. I write when I’m emotional: sad, angry, joyful, confused—any emotion works, but I have to feel something. I like to share and learn, communicate and inform. I write to understand my own thoughts and feelings. I’ve been through hell and came out the other side, but I’m still not sure what I’ve learned from these experiences. By writing about them I hope to find answers, insight, and maybe even some closure.

The Rise and Fall of Judy Garland

“Amphetamines and Barbiturates: The Up(per)s and Down(er)s of a Legend”

“Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking…”
Judy Garland’s heart was indeed broken for most of her regrettably short life; but if anyone knew how to smile through pain, it was little “Baby” Gumm. Already a sensation by the age of two, Frances Ethel Gumm adopted the name Judy Garland in 1935, at the age of 13, and transformed from a small stage vaudeville act into an international superstar (Clarke, 2000). Upon her untimely, but tragically foretold, death in 1969 from long-term drug and alcohol abuse and a prolonged overdose of amphetamines and barbiturates, she left behind a legacy that has already survived longer than her prematurely ended career. An icon of the golden years of Hollywood, Garland spent her time singing and dancing alongside legends such as Gene Kelley, Mickey Rooney, and Fred Astaire; on stage and screen she created vivid worlds of fantasy and happily-ever-after’s, but her personal life was far from a dream come true.
Sunday, June 22, 1969; it’s 10:40am in Chelsea, London: a phone rings, its screech assaulting the peaceful tranquility of the modest mews cottage at 4 Cadogan Lane. Still tired after a rowdy night, Mickey Deans answers the phone to stop the offensive noise; the caller would like to speak to Mickey’s wife. Alas, no one would ever again have the honor of speaking to Mrs. Gladys Deans, more commonly known as Judy Garland. Garland’s fifth husband; to whom she had only been married three months; found her lifeless body locked in the bathroom of their townhome, having finally succumb to the excessive quantities of amphetamines and barbiturates which had been a steady part of her daily routine since pre-pubescence (Clarke, 2000).

English: Wedding photograph of Judy Garland an...
English: Wedding photograph of Judy Garland and Mickey Deans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At the age of 47 the legend, icon, and beautifully tortured soul was dead, killed by what helped make her a star in the first place: unregulated doses of amphetamines and barbiturates, initially used to wake the young star up and put her to sleep as needed. MGM Studios frequently used this addictive and lethal combination of drugs on their talent to keep them performing at their best, and on demand; to the corporate puppet masters, the young stars were merely toys and equipment that could be turned on and off as needed. Amphetamines were also used to help control weight and almost before the ink was dry on her contract, MGM had Garland on a strict regimen to lower her weight.
Before she even turned 14, she was already heavily dependent on a regular schedule of uppers and downers and was persistently being told she needed to lose weight and achieve a more flattering figure. Three decades later, the effects of this early addiction and mental abuse took their toll when they took Judy’s life. Although she never would have received such a diagnosis during her lifetime, Judy Garland suffered from obvious Addiction and an early form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, associated with an unspecified eating disorder, mostly due to her mother’s and her managers’ insistence that she lose weight and take the pills to help maintain her hectic schedule. By the time she was free of the strangling control of her superiors, it was too late, she was already controlled by the tight grip of mental illness and there would be no escape for the tormented starlet.
Shortly before Ms. Garland’s death, although too late to help Judy, the Alcoholic and Narcotic Rehabilitation Amendments of 1968 went into effect, creating facilities specifically designed for the rehabilitation of addicts. Had this treatment been available earlier, perhaps the world would not have lost such a bright young star so early in her life.
Judy Garland, or more accurately Dorothy Gale, has been a personal hero of mine since before I can remember. The magic and fantastic world that she brought to life in The Wizard of Oz encapsulated me and had me standing outside on windy days wishing a tornado would swoop down and carry me off to Oz. I wanted to be her in more ways than one: I dreamt of flying off to Oz and meeting mystical creatures and characters like Dorothy did, but I also dreamt of being a star like Judy Garland and what it must have been like to live her life, with her talents. As a youth, any stories I heard about her addictions or any blame lay on the makers of The Wizard of Oz or MGM for her death were immediately disregarded as rumors and slander in my mind. I wanted to believe in the idealistic image of the doe-eyed Dorothy Gale and refused to accept contrary accounts of her real life.
What I learned when I opened my eyes to the harsh realities of the world was that I had more in common with my hero than I ever imagined. The depression she experienced, the loneliness and need for attention and affection, and her battles with her weight and the subsequent substance abuse that arose from her negative body image. I have lived with each of these conditions for most of my life, and now, rather than deny Judy Garland’s imperfections, I embrace them and keep her life and story close to my heart as a reminder of what could have been had she received proper treatment, as well as what might not be if I follow her down the same path of self-destruction.
Although Judy suffered from anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental and physical problems, she never let the public know just how much she suffered. No matter how sick or how emotionally unbalanced she was, Judy knew- the show must go on, and it (usually) did. An obscure fact most people are unaware of is that Judy often suffered from extreme stage fright, sometimes having to be literally pushed onto the stage before a performance; but once her feet hit that stage floor, everything changed. Judy blossomed under the stage lights and thrived on the applause of her crowds; she was a true performer, always “on” and ready to give the world what they wanted (Clarke, 2000). One of the greatest attributes I learned from her is the ability to smile through pain, fear, and anxiety; pushing personal issues down and only sharing the best of myself with the world. As an adolescent I spent my time in theatres and auditoriums, running lines, playing ridiculous improvisational games, making funny faces to the phrase “May, Me, Ma, Mo, Moo” and trying to capture the attention of my audiences the same way Judy did. While I certainly never accomplished any stage performance that could be placed near the same league as Judy Garland, I did use her technique of “Just Smile” to get myself through the worst days and hardest performances. Many times before a show I could be found hiding in a ball in a corner behind a curtain, trembling and crying, but when the overture began and the lights came up my tears dried, the shaking stopped, a smile replaced the grotesque contortions of my weeping face, and after a final mascara check and makeup touchup I was on the stage riding a high unlike any other- attention and applause were my opiates.
No matter what was happening behind closed doors, Judy would always keep on singing, enchanting her audience with her seemingly perfect life, carefully masking her deepest, darkest secrets behind a smile and a twinkling eye. Sadly that twinkle that captured her fans’ attention and pulled on their heartstrings was not the gleam of excitement and happiness as she wanted the world to believe, but the tears that were so close to spilling over her eyelids. However, she had her fans wrapped around her finger, and they loved her no matter what she did. What her audiences didn’t know was that they also held Judy in the palms of their hands, and held as much power over her as she did over them.

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
I consider myself lucky to be living in an era where these conditions are recognized as, and treated like, the medical diseases they are, and I have been able to receive the support and care I needed to continue to live a productive life. I now strive to help others who suffer from similar conditions. In my everyday life, as well as in my future career as a mental health counselor and dietitian working in the rehabilitation of victims of eating disorders and substance abuse, I hope to use my personal experiences to help others overcome these and other similar life-threatening diseases.
The slow deterioration that eventually led to Judy Garland’s death began on the studio lots of MGM when she was still just a child. Her afflictions only worsened over time, and throughout her adolescence, young adulthood, and adult life her health and mental stability continued to decline. Each stage of her illness has influenced my career path and I have found myself working with all ages in various roles of the health and fitness industry trying to help others avoid the same dangerous path both Judy and I traveled for so long.
For several years I worked in the children’s fitness industry, instructing children, from toddlers to pre-teens, on healthy diet and exercise habits. I taught the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and the dangers of poor eating habits and negative thinking. Currently, I work at a restaurant that only hires attractive females in good physical shape to work as servers and bartenders. These girls are put under an enormous amount of pressure to maintain the “ideal” body size and shape, and are often told by male management that their jobs are on the line if they can’t fit into a smaller uniform. These young, easily influenced girls rapidly develop body image complexes and often resort to extreme methods to lose weight, creating dangerous habits that develop quickly and easily, but are often almost impossible to break.
Although my position at this restaurant is the same as all the other girls, I have taken it upon myself to help these girls understand the dangers of negative thinking and poor eating habits. Many girls, after being told by management to get a bigger uniform or lose a few pounds, come to me, seeking advice on how to lose weight. Even those who are unaware of my studies in nutrition and physical fitness, note my small but healthy frame and come to me seeking help in losing weight. My advice is always the same: a brief rundown on portion control, healthy, natural foods versus fried, greasy, processed foods, and the importance of cardiovascular exercise, followed by a serious conversation on the dangers of excessive dieting. This is when I usually start to lose their attention: they’re young minds have already been influenced by a male superior’s ideal of the feminine form. These demands put upon the girls to fit this image can plant the seed of and feed Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a precursor to dangerous behaviors of eating disorders. I fear for these young girls and try to instill in them the dangers of this particular work environment and the importance of self-confidence along with the requisite ability to let negative comments go in one ear and out the other, without leaving a scar.
Although I am a long way from reaching my ultimate goal, I hope to one day achieve my Master’s degree in order to work in an official capacity to help quell the epidemic of eating disorders and related substance abuse. The physical and mental roller coaster that was Judy Garland’s life as well as the cause of her death, serves as a warning tale for women, and men, everywhere about the dangers of substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and the power superiors have to manipulate their employees.
The world could be a very different place had we not lost such an amazing talent to drugs and mental illness so early in her life; the amazing body of work she produced even with her illnesses shows a fraction of what she could have accomplished had she led a healthy, long life. Her influence on civil rights movements could also have been of great significance. By the 1960’s she had become an icon in the gay community, had she been well enough to fully embrace the power she held to influence the world, perhaps gay rights would have had a strong enough leader to create the equality still denied to many gays and lesbians today.
No matter where you travel in the world, if you say the name “Judy Garland” everyone knows who you are talking about. Her public persona displayed confidence, composure, and above all else, immense talent. Her private persona, on the other hand, was almost the complete opposite: anxiety ridden, shy, brash, and unhinged. Judy spent her life searching for her “over the rainbow,” sadly she never found it. However, her life was not all heartbreak and trauma; Judy Garland truly loved to perform and entertain, and she spent her life doing what she loved, for better or worse. Her legacy is not simply comprised of a songbook and some DVD’s; Judy’s life of talent, triumph, illness and addiction remains an inspiration for millions of people around the world: male, female, gay, and straight alike.

References
Clarke, Gerald. (2000). Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York, NY: Dell Publishing
A division of Random House, Inc.
Farber, D. (1994). The Age of Great Dreams America in the 1960’s. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.
Kaplan, James. (May 2001). Over The Rainbow, And Then Some! Vanity Fair, 07338899,
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