Stray Bullet


Stray Bullet

An inmate attempts to come to terms with his own actions, and turn his life around in prison.

By Gary Rivlin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 25

Gary Rivlin, an investigative reporting fellow at the Nation Institute, is a former New York Times reporter and the author of five books, including most recently Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business. His work has appeared in The New York Times MagazineMother JonesGQ, and Wired, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Research and Production: Nadia Wilson, Nicole Pasulka, Rachel Richardson
Fact Checker: Spencer Woodman
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Audio of Tony Davis’s Confession and Phone Call Home: Oakland Police Department
Audio of Tony Davis and Gary Rivlin: Courtesy Gary Rivlin

Published in January 2013. Design updated in 2021.


The room was the one you’ve seen on television, but dingier and more claustrophobic. It was as small as a prison cell, maybe nine feet by twelve feet—roomy enough for a large metal table, a few battered steel chairs, and little else. The table was scratched with graffiti, and the walls, made of acoustic tiling, were heavily gouged. The metal door looked as if it had been beaten with a sledgehammer. The sweat room, the detectives working the Oakland homicide unit called it.

Brian Thiem looked at the suspect in front of him, an oversize kid with round cheeks and a thick double chin. Tony Davis wore his hair in a scruffy high-top and had gaps notched in his eyebrows. That morning he had been sitting in his ’72 Chevy Impala, letting the old thing warm up, when Detective Thiem had come to arrest him. Thiem had brought four extra cops to help apprehend Tony, but he immediately felt ridiculous for going to the trouble. He could’ve walked up and said, “Tony, I’m the police. You’re under arrest,” and Tony would have gone along.

Now that he had Tony at the station house downtown, Thiem couldn’t believe this 18-year-old was the murderer he’d been looking for. He seemed docile and scared. Thiem had been working homicide for a couple of years—long enough to appreciate that most of the guilty who sat across from him in the sweat room weren’t born killers, just people who’d taken a life in a murderous moment. Even so, he’d later say that Tony might have been the least likely killer he’d ever arrested.

At first, Tony denied everything. Denied knowing about any drive-by shooting, denied owning a gun. But there had been two other kids in the car with him that night in July 1990, nine months earlier, and both had fingered Tony as the shooter. When Thiem confronted him with their stories, Tony changed his, insisting that the shooter had been another kid named Steve.

Thiem left Tony to sweat for a couple of hours, then returned, confronting him with the inconsistencies in his version. “He began crying,” Thiem later wrote in his police log, “asking what was going to happen to him. He then said he would tell [us] the truth.”

Thiem started his tape recorder.


The phone rings, and the familiar 707 area code flashes on the display. Invariably, it’s dinnertime when Tony calls, or it’s a day when I’m looking at a tight deadline. But when your friend is calling collect from inside a state penitentiary—when he once told you that a highlight of his two decades behind bars was busting his ankle, because surgery meant a night spent in a real bed at an outside hospital—you pick up the phone. It’s not like I can call him back when it might be more convenient.

The call starts as it always does, with a mechanized voice that says, “This call and your telephone number will be recorded and monitored.” The voice then warns me that the person on the other end of the line is calling from inside a California state prison. Then, precisely every three minutes, our conversation is interrupted by a grating, automated message: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California correctional facility.” It has been nearly 20 years since I first heard that message, and I’ve heard it many hundreds of times since, and I still curse under my breath each time. But Tony, accustomed to worse intrusions, never seems to mind. After 15 minutes—the time limit programmed into all the cellblock phones—the call abruptly ends.

Long ago, with Tony’s blessing, I got in the habit of recording our calls; I reasoned that if the California Department of Corrections was taping our conversations, I would, too. The recordings are painful to listen to in more than an I-hate-to-hear-my-own-voice kind of way. To choose one example: It’s January 2008, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are vying for the Democratic nomination, and Tony mentions that he’s been watching the debates. I ask him where—in the common area of the cellblock, with other inmates, or in his cell on the 13-inch TV he owns? Except instead of saying “cell,” I ask if he watches alone in his “room.” I immediately laugh at myself, but Tony finds the slip-up too significant to let slide. “Hell no,” he says. “I will never get comfortable to the point I call my cell my room.”

On the tape, my voice sounds amped up, like it always does when I’m on the phone with Tony. Maybe it’s knowing that the clock is ticking, that we have just 15 minutes until the call cuts off. But a lot of it, I’m sure, is the jarring sense of being momentarily transported from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Cellblock 12 at California State Prison, Solano. Just to get to the part of the common room where the phones are located, Tony must navigate the prison’s invisible territorial boundaries, passing through an area staked out by norteños—Latino inmates from Northern California—and another claimed by whites and the sureños from Southern California. Sometimes he will go months without phoning, because his facility is on lockdown yet again after a stabbing or a melee between rival gangs. Once, it was because a black inmate used a shower long ago claimed by the “others”—the inmates’ catch-all racial category for anyone who isn’t black, white, or Latino—prompting a minor riot.

The taped conversations are full of awkward moments in which I over- or underestimate the degree to which Tony’s world intersects with mine. “You know what email is, right?” I ask him at one point, prompting a sharp laugh on the other end of the line. He watches CNN, he reminds me. It’s 2008; he knows what email is. When he mentions borrowing recent copies of USA Today, I ask if he’s ever come across copies of The New York Times, where I worked at the time. Tony tells me that not only has he never seen the paper, he isn’t sure he could picture it. I mention that I’m about to go to Las Vegas on a work trip. “Before all is said and done,” he tells me, “I want to go to New York. I want to go to Chicago. And I want to go to Las Vegas.” That proves to be another conversation stopper.

Eventually, the phone calls always circle around to the most familiar and obvious of subjects: Tony’s plight, his fate, the mistakes he’s made that landed him in a prison cell serving an 18-to-life sentence. “I’ll be 37 in August,” he told me in 2008. “I can’t dwell on what happened, how I got here, or how long I’ve been here. I can’t be mad, because being mad ain’t going to help.”

Tony and I first met in the early 1990s, when I was a young reporter for a local alternative weekly writing about youth violence. I was looking to talk with a teenager who had killed another teenager. Tony had done exactly that. When we first started corresponding, he was two years into an indefinite sentence for a murder he had committed when he was 18, the killing of a 13-year-old boy named Kevin Reed. Reed’s murder and its principals became the focus of my 1995 book, Drive-By.

A decade passed, then another. Somewhere along the way, Tony, now past 40, ceased to be my subject and became my friend. It has been nearly 20 years since we last saw one another face-to-face. For the longest time, Tony discouraged me from visiting; I got the impression he didn’t want me to see him yet because he had not yet grown into the person he knew he could become. By the time he felt ready, I had moved east, and since then lockdowns have thwarted my efforts to visit him. Over the years, however, we have exchanged probably a couple hundred letters. Whatever the exact number, it’s a safe bet that I’ve written to him more often than to anyone else in my life. Tony is black, and from time to time his fellow inmates have asked him about the white man whose picture is on the wall in his cell. “He’s like the only real best friend that I’ve had in years,” Tony tells them.

Then there are the phone calls, more than I’ve had with all but a few of my closest friends. In between the mechanical voice’s interruptions, we talk about sports, politics, our lives. I update him on the kids—the 3-year-old’s mastery of a scooter, the baby who for two months has seemed on the cusp of crawling—and he asks me to give them a kiss from their Uncle Tony. The one constant topic of conversation, of course, is prison itself: his life locked behind bars, the strategies he has adopted for survival, and, especially over the past several years, his quest to win his freedom.

In early 2010, Tony started talking about his next parole hearing, scheduled for 2012. For someone serving a sentence of 18 years to life, as he is, the parole board represents the only path to freedom. Under California law, he first became eligible for parole in 2003, after serving 12 years of his term. But the “to life” at the end of his sentence—the “life tail,” as it is known to those who have one—meant that there was no cap on the length of time he might serve. If he could persuade the parole board that he was a new man, he’d be free, assuming the governor of California didn’t choose to reverse the decision.

But until he convinced the commissioners presiding over a parole-suitability hearing that he was worth a second chance, he would never get one. He had botched his first parole hearing a decade earlier when he grew flustered and tongue-tied. He had assured me that he had performed better in subsequent appearances, and sometimes he spoke with great anticipation about his upcoming hearing. Other times, though, it was with trepidation, if not outright dread. What if words again failed him just when they counted most? Two years in advance, he was already rehearsing in his mind what he might say.

The argument for keeping Tony locked up can be made in a sentence: He took the life of an innocent 13-year-old boy. He pulled the trigger of a .45 five times, firing from the back of a moving car. He was stoned at the time of the shooting and might also have been drunk. He would claim that he meant only to scare the group of kids he was shooting at, but it was Kevin Reed’s misfortune that the bullet that killed him was a ricochet off the pavement. The bullet perforated Kevin’s groin, causing him to bleed to death while waiting for an ambulance, which took more than 10 minutes to arrive. Tony’s shooting sent two other children, both 14-year-olds, to the hospital with gunshot wounds.

But that was Tony at 18. Now it was 2012, more than two decades later, and the 40-year-old Tony Davis who would face a parole hearing in March was a different man. “Davis has worked exceptionally hard to improve himself,” one of his GED instructors wrote of Tony a few years back. “His true desire and willingness to go the extra mile to reach his goal is commendable.” His work habits and good behavior had won him a transfer to a medium-security facility, where he seemed to have enrolled in every self-help and support-group program offered, from Narcotics Anonymous to a victim-offender reconciliation group. He volunteered with a program that helps younger inmates adjust to prison life. He was one of three inmates assisting a professional counselor in a course designed to get prisoners thinking about their crimes from the victim’s point of view. (“I’ve seen hardened dudes come to this and break down and cry,” he told me.) He had also experienced a religious awakening, which would help with the parole board, as would the credits he had earned toward an associate’s degree. He had even managed to meet a woman who lived on the outside and marry her.

All of this counted substantially in Tony’s favor. As Tony told it to me, the commissioners hearing his case in 2010 had given him every reason to feel hopeful about his chances the next time around; they had recommended that he come back in two years rather than three, as previous boards had done.

But above all it simply felt like time. Tony and his crime were both anachronisms from an era that had long since receded. He was a black teen from the ’hood in the first half of the 1990s, which stands as the most murderous five-year period in modern American history. He had been swept up in the crack trade that had flooded U.S. cities. He had committed one of the most iconic crimes of the era, a drive-by shooting—a video-game approach to settling scores celebrated in the West Coast hip-hop on the radio at the time. Even the cavalierly draconian nature of his punishment—a prison term longer than the number of years he had spent on earth at the time—was an artifact of its time and place.

For comparison, consider the case of Tony’s grandfather, O. D. Clay. In 1957, drunk after a card game, Clay shot and killed a man he suspected of fooling around with his wife. The charge was second-degree murder, the same as Tony’s. But although he was a grown man when he committed his crime, Tony’s grandfather would serve less than five years in prison before a parole board gave him his freedom.

By 1991, however, voters and politicians in California had all but given up on rehabilitation in favor of a hard-nosed law-and-order philosophy. The tough-on-crime movement peaked three years later, when the state’s voters approved a notorious three-strikes law that gave a judge no choice but to impose a life sentence on any defendant with two prior serious felony convictions, even if he was charged with shoplifting a dress shirt for a job interview or stealing a stack of wooden pallets as part of a prank (both real-life examples from the California docket). Even as a decades-long state budget crisis set in, California’s prison funding remained sacrosanct. Lawmakers cut deeply into spending on parks, public schools, and California’s vaunted university system, but the Department of Corrections continued to grow. At the start of the 1980s, the state was spending just under 3 percent of its general funds on corrections. By 2010, that figure had more than tripled, to over 10 percent.

But the pendulum has begun swinging back ever so slightly toward rehabilitation in California and elsewhere, for financial reasons, if nothing else. The United States now spends $200 billion or so on criminal justice each year, even as the causes of the boom in spending have largely receded. Crack use has fallen precipitously—in no small part because the drug so quickly devours its heaviest users—and the terror of drive-by shootings, if not completely gone, is greatly diminished. The national youth homicide rate is now half what it was in the early 1990s. In November, Californians voted to modify the state’s three-strikes law, giving judges the power to release offenders deemed to pose no threat to public safety. In 2005, the state quietly renamed the Department of Corrections. It’s now the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Yet, Tony sits moldering in a prison cell, trapped in a kind of purgatory where the year is permanently 1991. If his 2012 parole hearing was an opportunity to consider the fate of a single inmate, it was also in a small way a referendum on policies that the state’s voters tacitly admitted were no longer tenable.

At the end of Drive-By, I offered my own prescription for Tony. He should be locked away through his twenties, I wrote, and released sometime in his early to mid-thirties. That struck me as about right for a second chance. Incarceration into his forties seemed excessive for a mistake—even a fatal one—made when he was 18.

By the time he appeared before the parole board in March 2012, Tony would have served nearly as long a sentence as that handed down to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist who killed 77 people—most of them teenagers—in 2011. When I spoke with him last spring, even Brian Thiem, the arresting officer, thought enough was enough. Tony’s crime was “an unfortunate accident based on the impulses and action of kids,” said Thiem, who has since retired from police work. “Twenty years for what he did? God, I say let him out.”

Even politics, for once, were working in Tony’s favor. In the spring of 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that overcrowding inside the California prison system was so bad that it violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. To mitigate “needless suffering,” the Court, by a 5–4 majority, ordered California to release over 30,000 inmates by 2014—about one-fifth of its prison population. Tony, it appeared, had finally caught a break. He seemed precisely the kind of inmate the authorities should release, especially with the state billions of dollars in debt, yet spending $47,000 per inmate each year. For the first time since his incarceration, I felt excited about Tony’s prospects. It looked like 2012 could finally be his year.


In 1916, the Chevrolet Motor Company built a factory in East Oakland, at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and 73rd Avenue. It was the first major auto-manufacturing outpost on the West Coast, and it seemed to point the way to the city’s future as a prosperous industrial port. By 1971, when Tony was born in East Oakland, the neighborhood had become a solid enclave of the striving working class that grew up around the manufacturing industry. General Motors, Ford, Mack, Caterpillar, International Harvester, Del Monte, Carnation, and Gerber all had factories there. And then the factories left.

It was a West Coast variation of the story that played out across the Rust Belt in the 1970s and ’80s. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs, home prices started to plummet; those who could leave did, and those who couldn’t were left to deal with rising crime and deteriorating schools. The city was hollowing out: the banks fled on the heels of the factories, followed by chain stores and, ultimately, many small businesses. By the time Tony was a teenager, East Oakland felt like a community under siege. The final straw was the arrival of crack cocaine at the end of 1983.

Crack was a cheap high. For a “dove”—20 dollars—the novice crack user could buy enough rock to stay happy for a couple of hours. But it wasn’t the price so much as the way it was sold that made the crack trade so deadly. The sale of heroin, the city’s previous hard drug of choice, was dominated by a few kingpins, like Felix Mitchell, a legendary dealer who parlayed his East Oakland corners into a multimillion-dollar criminal empire in the 1970s and early ’80s. But crack was too new for organized crime. It was sold by bands of freelancing teenagers claiming corners scattered throughout East and West Oakland. “[It’s] like one day they just popped up through the cement,” said Sergeant Mike Beal, at the time the head of the Oakland Police Department’s drug task force. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Beal recalled, his officers would shut down one corner crew only to see another start selling a block or two away.

The crack trade’s competitive and disorganized nature brought predictable results. Between 1986 and 1989, the national homicide rate among black kids age 14 to 17 doubled and kept rising into the early 1990s. There was a similar spike in the number of minors going away for murder. In some inner-city neighborhoods, in Oakland and elsewhere, it could properly have been called an epidemic.

In the popular culture, the West Coast’s wave of youth violence was associated with Los Angeles; it was Straight Outta Compton and Boyz N the Hood. But Oakland, not L.A., had the higher murder rate at the time—a statistic made all the more surreal by the fact that only a bridge separated Oakland from San Francisco, which, along with Silicon Valley, was on the verge of a tech-driven economic renaissance. The boom that remade large stretches of the Bay Area largely passed Oakland by, dashing the dreams of city leaders, who for years had spent most of the city’s antipoverty dollars trying to revitalize Oakland’s central business district. Instead of becoming a slightly less expensive version of its shimmering neighbor across the bay, Oakland was saddled with the highest murder rate of any city west of the Mississippi. And a stunning number of the perpetrators—and the victims—were teenagers.

I wanted to write a book that would put a face on these grim facts, and I set out to find a single case to document, one that involved both a shooter and a victim who were 18 or younger. I started looking at all the homicides in Oakland between 1990 and 1992 that met these criteria. When my initial search elicited an overwhelming 75-plus cases, I narrowed my parameters to those 16 or under. That still meant working through two dozen files and talking with a dozen or so cops, defense attorneys, and other players in the criminal justice system before I finally settled on the murder of Kevin Reed.

Reed’s case was ideal for a number of reasons. Everyone involved, from the Reeds to the arresting officer to the perpetrators and their families, was willing to talk with me. The murder had taken place in a part of East Oakland that cops and locals alike dubbed the “killing zone.” I wanted readers to wonder how they would fare raising their kids in a place like this, where the schools were terrible, crack and guns were ubiquitous, and children were dying in the street.

There was also the senselessness of the crime itself. In the shorthand of the media, Kevin Reed was a kid murdered over a bike. Alternatively, it could be said that the 13-year-old died tragically in a double case of mistaken identity.

The deadly chain of events began on Sunday, July 8, 1990, when Reed’s brother Shannon and his friend London Willard, both 14, saw a 16-year-old boy named John “Junebug” Jones pedal up to a convenience store on a borrowed bicycle. A tall kid with broomstick-thin arms and delicate features, Junebug exuded a moody vulnerability. Mistaking Junebug for a boy in the neighborhood who had threatened to beat them up earlier that week, Shannon and London jumped him on his way out of the store. Shannon punched Junebug in the face; London swung for his head with a steel pipe, hitting him on the forearm. For good measure they stole the bike, riding off and leaving Junebug to nurse his injured body and wounded pride.

On the corner, the other teens teased Junebug mercilessly—here was a supposedly tough street kid punked by a pair of 14-year-olds. Junebug would just as soon have shrugged the whole thing off; it wasn’t even his bike. But the damage to his reputation would’ve been irreparable—and on the corner, your reputation was everything.

Later the next night, Junebug and his friend Aaron Estill set out across the neighborhood in a boat-sized 1967 Chrysler Newport—which Aaron, all of 15 years old, had bought for $200 a few weeks earlier—looking for the bicycle thieves. They had been driving around only a few minutes when Junebug spotted London and a boy that Junebug took to be Shannon—in fact, it was Kevin Reed—standing below a streetlight a few doors from the Reed home, talking with some other kids. It was a little after 9 p.m. As the Newport idled down the street, Aaron asked, “What if they got a gun?”

That was when the boys went to go find Junebug’s friend Tony.


Tony was two days old when the first person in his life gave up on him. It was his mother, Carol Davis, a 17-year-old heroin addict, who handed her newborn baby off to her mother, Vera, then disappeared.

Carol would resurface 11 years later to demand custody of Tony and his 8-year-old sister, Angela. She moved them into an apartment in San Antonio Village, at that time Oakland’s most notorious housing project. (Vera believed it was a scheme to qualify for welfare.) Angela didn’t last a month there before moving back into Vera’s apartment. Her mother, she later told me, was constantly high. For Tony, it wasn’t the drug paraphernalia lying around or the empty refrigerator or the lack of clean clothes in his drawer. It was the sound of his mother pleading for mercy as her boyfriend beat her. Eventually, the stories she was hearing proved too much for Vera, who filed the papers she needed to take legal custody of Carol’s kids.

I met Vera before I met Tony. In 1993, two years after the police had hauled her grandson away, she was living in the same small public-housing building where she had raised Tony. The apartment was only a 15-minute drive from the two-bedroom A-frame in the Oakland hills that I called home, but we might as well have lived in different cities. Dealers sold outside the family’s first-floor three-bedroom apartment. Chunks of plaster were missing from the ceiling, cracks were visible in the walls, and the floors were covered with linoleum that wouldn’t come clean no matter how hard anyone scrubbed it.

The day I visited, the place was chaotic. A television blared in the background, though no one was watching it. The phone rang constantly, and in the two hours I was there, so many people walked in and out that I couldn’t keep their names straight. There was no doubt that Vera, a stout woman whose face sagged into a permanent frown, ruled the roost. She had only to yell for a fresh pack of cigarettes and it would show up. Several generations called the apartment home; Tony was just one of many children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who had passed through over the decades.

“What was Tony like as a boy?” I asked.

“He was heavy,” Vera said.

I smiled. “No, I mean, what kind of child was he? Tell me about his personality.”

“I guess he just played, like other kids. I don’t know.” I asked about the impact on Tony of his mother’s and father’s absence. “He never said anything to me about it,” she said.

Vera was 21 and pregnant with her fourth child when her husband went away for murder. Even after he was out, he didn’t amount to much of a father. He and Vera would have another four kids before he walked away from the family. To make ends meet, Vera, who had dropped out of school at 15, worked a series of cleaning jobs—as a domestic in the homes of well-off white people, mopping up after-hours at a bar—before going to work as a custodian at a local nursing home. It was the last job she would ever have. By the time she was laid off in 1968, her blood pressure was so high that she qualified for a monthly disability check. The next year, she moved the family into the public-housing unit. She was not yet 40 years old.

When Carol gave birth to a third child, Vera thought about handing the kids over to the county. She went as far as setting up a home visit. But Vera’s youngest daughter, Paula, who was seven years older than Tony, threw a fit. After the caseworker left the apartment, Paula vowed to feed and bathe the kids and make sure they went to school, and Vera relented. Paula was still in high school, but more than once she took a call from a teacher looking to talk with Tony’s mother.

When he was in fifth grade, Tony was placed in a class for slow learners. He was barely 10 years old and the school system already seemed to be writing him off. Tony responded in kind. He was 13 when a woman next door set him and another kid up in the crack business. She supplied the rock, and they split the profits on whatever was sold. Paula caught wind of the scheme and shut it down a few weeks later, but she was not in a position to judge: She, too, had tried her hand at dealing, if only briefly. At least two of her brothers—Tony’s uncles, though they were more like siblings, since they shared a room and were only six and nine years older than he was—sold crack on the street, too. It had become the family business. By 16, Tony was Fat Tone, a corner boss running his own crew. Junebug was among its members.

The two boys had grown up in the same building, but they were near opposites. Where Tony struggled in the classroom, Junebug had always been a natural student. His mother, who worked nights on the clean-up crew at the local post office, had finagled a place for him at a top-tier middle school miles from his home, using a cousin’s address to enroll him. It seemed like the best way to keep him out of trouble. When they were caught in this scheme—it was Junebug, in fact, who confessed to it—Junebug was sent back to Castlemont High, a school with a dropout rate of about 50 percent.

Junebug had never gotten over his abandonment by the father he had been close to, and his obvious intelligence made him a target for the other boys. Tony—the embodiment of the bad influences Junebug’s mother wanted to shield her son from—had recruited Junebug into his crew and served as his protector and street guide. Junebug wasn’t nearly as tough or hard-shelled as his neighbor. “My little cousin”—that was the diminutive that Tony would use to describe him, though the boys weren’t related.

A few months before that night in July, however, Tony had betrayed Junebug. After the boys’ crew had roughed up an older man whose girlfriend caused them trouble, Tony told the police that Junebug had punched the man in the face—though in fact it was Tony who hit him. A cop played Junebug a tape of Tony’s statement, which would cost Junebug a month in juvenile hall.

The two were still on the outs when Junebug and Aaron came asking for Tony’s help. Tony had been drinking and smoking pot all day and was in no condition to help anyone. But he was eager to make amends. He put on his dark sunglasses—his “murder ones,” as they were known in the neighborhood—grabbed the .45 he kept under his bed, and slipped into the backseat of Aaron’s Newport.

Aaron and Junebug thought the gun was insurance in case the other kids were packing. Tony, however, was under the impression that he was supposed to fire off a few rounds and give the boys a scare. Aaron later swore that when he heard the gunshots, his first thought was that the kids on the corner were firing at them.

Kevin Reed and his friends were still hanging out under the streetlight where Aaron and Junebug had seen them. As Aaron drove past, Tony stuck the .45 out the window and squeezed off five shots. One of them bounced off the pavement and struck Kevin in the groin.

“I ain’t fit to kill nobody,” Tony remembers saying a couple blocks before they reached their destination. Maybe he wasn’t. But now he had.

Nine months passed before the police caught them. By that point, the three teenagers had driven themselves crazy with paranoia and recrimination. Tony was furious at Aaron for refusing to ditch the car. Aaron and Junebug couldn’t believe that Tony had been so clueless as to hide the gun rather than dumping it in the Oakland Estuary, a few miles from where they lived.

Tony was a wreck in the days after the murder, and his Aunt Paula had no trouble figuring out what he had done. Go to the police, she counseled him. Clear your conscience. “They’ll go easier on you,” she said. Instead, Tony promised God that if he got away with it, he’d never do another bad thing in his life.

Junebug, meanwhile, kept an article about Kevin’s murder in his dresser drawer. He had been devastated ever since he saw the photo on the front page of the Oakland Tribune, showing a boy who wasn’t even the kid they’d set out to scare, let alone intended to kill. He would be at a Bible study class the first time Brian Thiem came looking for him.

The cops tracked down Aaron because of the car. Aaron fingered Tony as the gunman and put Junebug in the car with him that night. Junebug corroborated Aaron’s story, and Tony ended up confessing. When he was allowed his one phone call, he called Vera’s house. For all his experience on the street, he was apparently unaware that the call was recorded and that Thiem was listening to everything he was saying.


Twenty years later, I still remember the excitement of those first few months after I made contact with Tony and Junebug. My first wife and I couldn’t have children, and at the time I was throwing my paternal energies into serving as a kind of super-uncle to the children of my siblings and close friends. I didn’t need a shrink to tell me that I was regarding Tony and Junebug—both effectively fatherless—as surrogate kids. “The boys,” we sometimes called them, my wife and I. Each day, I found myself eagerly checking the mail.

There weren’t even surface similarities between my life and Tony’s and Junebug’s. I had grown up comfortably middle class on Long Island, in an intact and stable family. Diversity in my school district was the occasional Irish or Greek kid thrown in among the Jews and Italians. The worst trouble I got into as a teenager was getting busted outside the Nassau Coliseum for scalping Elton John tickets. And yet it was easy for me to put myself in the corner boys’ shoes—to see how, in similar circumstances, I might easily have made similarly disastrous choices.

In his 1995 memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun, the educator Geoffrey Canada makes the point that the preponderance of guns in inner-city neighborhoods transforms the dumb things that all teenage boys do into life-altering tragedies. Looking at the mundane series of decisions that had led to Kevin Reed’s murder, it was painfully clear to me how true this was—how their actions differed from those of countless more privileged teenagers only in their terrible stakes. I grew up in a striving suburb, not an inner-city community. My older brother and a friend took bets on pro football games in high school, and that friend’s younger brother, Vinnie, and I got into the business as well. The thousands of dollars we made each football season was nice, but the real payoff was walking the halls at school and feeling like someone. What if the cooler, older kids in my neighborhood had been selling crack instead?

If someone had told me at the time that I’d have a close relationship with a character I had written about in Drive-By, I would have assumed it would be Junebug. He was the reason I chose the case I did—him and his mother. I saw something of my younger self in Junebug: the sensitive kid, easily bruised, who hungered for nothing so much as to fit in. In his letters, Junebug revealed a real talent for words, and I made sure to let him know that he was a far better writer than I was at that age.

There was an intimacy to our correspondence, and his letters revealed a sharp and probing mind. “I feel compelled … to contribute to your work,” he wrote in the first of them, “for moral reasons and also for my sense of ‘guilt.’” He saw his story both as part of a tragedy that reached far beyond him and as a cautionary tale. “I have realized that no power on earth can bring that young man back,” he wrote, “but at least I can provide assistance for others to somehow curb what’s happening nationwide.” Sometimes his letters would run over a dozen pages, full of agonizing reflection.

Letters from Tony, by contrast, rarely exceeded a page of slanted, hurried handwriting. They were notes, really, and consisted mostly of complaints about his family. In the first one, he told me he’d be happy to help with my project—then hit me up for $40. A letter from Junebug was ripped open before I had reached the top of the driveway. One from Tony might sit for a few hours, if not a day or two, before I actually read it.

My impression of Tony changed when finally I got a chance to speak with him over the phone a couple of months after our correspondence began. He had a man’s voice by then, full but surprisingly gentle. He sounded more thoughtful than I expected. He also proved more forthcoming about his story than he had been in his letters. Like Junebug, he told me he was eager to talk, that maybe others could learn from his mistakes.

Back then it was hard for me to keep an open mind about Tony. I’d also been spending time with Annette Reed, Kevin’s mother, and others in her family. Annette’s marriage fell apart shortly after the murder. Soon she had also lost her job, and with it the family home. In 1993, her second-youngest son, Shannon—the boy who Junebug was looking for on the night Tony took Kevin’s life—died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while playing Russian roulette. There was also Junebug and his family to consider, as well as Aaron and his: Both young men would be locked up for years because of what Tony had done.

But even those who had watched Tony pass through the system on his way to prison had detected something different about him. The perpetrators and victims of drive-by shootings were always brought together by a sadly random logic, but even by those standards, the 250-pound boy with the flat-top seemed out of place. Brian Thiem was struck by his docility at the time of the arrest. Shortly after his confession, Tony met with a county probation officer, who tacked this onto the end of the report she filed with the court: “We want to add that this case seems particularly tragic and that this defendant appears, by hindsight, to truly understand his mistakes and poor judgment.” It was doubtful, she continued, that it would take even 10 years to rehabilitate Tony.

The public defender assigned to Tony’s case, Al Hymer, told a similar tale. Hymer was a 30-year veteran of the department who had handled hundreds of murders by the time Tony’s file crossed his desk. But Tony stood out, Hymer told me, from their very first meeting in the county lockup. He only wanted to talk about the terrible thing he had done and not what Hymer could do to lessen his punishment.

Hymer wanted to challenge the admissibility of the confession based on two things Tony had told him. First, Thiem had ignored his request for a lawyer, which was an obvious violation of his Miranda rights. Second, Thiem had dangled the death penalty over Tony’s head during his initial questioning, which was also forbidden, since the case wouldn’t have qualified for capital punishment. (Thiem denied both claims at the time.) But Tony told Hymer not to bother. There would be no trial. Tony accepted the DA’s offer of 18 to life—15 for the murder and another three for using a gun in the commission of a crime—even though it meant that he might very well spend the rest of his life in jail.

Calipatria State Prison (Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)


Tony was officially received into the California Department of Corrections on June 22, 1992. His first stop was the reception center at San Quentin, where prison officials calculated the placement score that would determine where he would be housed. An inmate scoring between 18 and 27, for instance, is dispatched to a minimum-security prison with open dormitories; a score of 52 or higher lands you in a maximum security, Level IV prison. Scores are based on a variety of factors, including the nature of the crime committed, prior record, age, and history of gang involvement. Tony had no prior record and never belonged to a proper gang—his corner crew didn’t count. But he had pled guilty to second-degree murder. That alone pretty much guaranteed that he’d start serving his sentence in a Level IV facility. Two months after arriving at San Quentin, he was assigned a spot inside Folsom State Prison, a 19th-century stone penitentiary two hours from Oakland made famous years ago by a Johnny Cash song.

California was then in the midst of an unprecedented surge in prison construction. The boom reflected a national trend—the U.S. prison population has increased sevenfold since the 1970s, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts—but in California it took on an extraordinary scale. Starting in the mid-1980s, the state would build more than one new penitentiary a year for 20 years—the only way to keep up with the public appetite for ever harsher sentencing policies. As new prisons came on line, Folsom was downgraded to medium-security status, and Tony, 11 months after arriving there, was transferred, along with hundreds of other inmates, to Calipatria State Prison. The new facility, opened the previous year, seemed the very embodiment of the law-and-order era. It was hailed as the first prison in the United States to employ an electrified fence that kills on contact. Worse for Tony was the location, in the desert between Death Valley and the Mexican border. He was now a nine-hour drive from Oakland, practically guaranteeing that no one in his family would visit him there. The only thing he had to look forward to was the possibility of parole, right after his 30th birthday.

Visiting days were Saturday and Sunday. The visitor’s room at Calipatria opened at 8:45 a.m., but the prison’s public information officer suggested that I arrive much earlier. When I pulled up to the prison gates for the first time, at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in September 1993, I saw what he meant—45 people were already lined up ahead of me. I didn’t see Tony until nearly 11 a.m.; visiting hours ended promptly at 2:45 p.m. I would set the alarm even earlier for Sunday.

Tony had lost something like 50 pounds in the two and a half years since he had been locked up. His eyes looked forlorn behind his government-issue steel-framed glasses, and when he sat, his whole body slumped forward, as if it were caving in. Around us, couples and families ate microwaved meals and sugary treats from the vending machines that lined one wall of the room, but when I offered to buy him something, Tony refused.

Tony was miserable at Calipatria, and it was no wonder. The prison was built to house 2,000 inmates, but within a year of opening it was home to nearly twice that number. At least half of the prisoners were there for murder. Calipatria was new enough that hierarchies among the prisoners were still in flux and turf had yet to be claimed. Gangs warred incessantly, putting the facility into a constant state of lockdown. On a full lockdown, Tony and his cell mate were locked in their cell 24 hours a day. There was no yard time, and meals were served in the cell. An inmate would get a chance to bathe every few days, but he was escorted to and from the showers in handcuffs. And when Calipatria was off lockdown? Yard time was its own kind of hell in a region where daytime temperatures top 110 degrees. There was also the stench of the place. The area’s main industry was livestock, and the air was permanently redolent with the waste of thousands of cows cooking in the sun.

Finally face-to-face with Tony, I tried to be all business. We didn’t have much time, and there was a lot to cover, from his family to his life as a crack dealer to the murder and his life behind bars. But as he talked about prison life, I found myself distracted, imagining the primal fear that I would have—that anyone I knew would have—if I were locked away inside a maximum-security penitentiary thick with psychopaths, sociopaths, and sexual predators. “I’d be eaten alive in here,” I told him.

Tony took it in stride; he told me he feared the guards more than his fellow inmates. He coached me on surviving Calipatria. “See, you’s cool like that guy over there,” he said, cocking his chin toward a white man a few tables over who looked to be about my age and more or less my size. He didn’t run with a gang, Tony explained. He minded his own business. The key was that he didn’t look or act scared. My fast mouth would help me, Tony offered, but when words failed, you needed to be willing to use your fists—and risk a beat down to avoid a worse fate. “You have to carry yourself in a way that you know you’ll get respect and demand respect,” he said. If you don’t forcefully confront a problem right away, he explained, you’ve revealed yourself to be weak.

By way of example, Tony told me about a fight he had gotten into in the showers shortly after he had arrived at Calipatria. Another inmate cut in front of Tony while he was waiting in line. He could have shrugged it off—it wasn’t like he was pressed for time—but he confronted him. “And what’s a broke-ass n***** like you going to do ’bout it?” the man replied.

Tony didn’t hesitate. “I hauled off and hit that dude as hard I could, right in the face,” he told me. He did it even though he knew it would mean time in the hole—the Special Housing Unit, or prison within prison—and would single him out as a potential troublemaker. But after listening to Tony talk about prison all weekend, I didn’t doubt that it was the right thing to do. Tony offered the story as a kind of survival tip for my hypothetical incarceration, but I eventually took it to heart as a lesson for getting by on the outside, too, one that I dubbed the Fat Tone Rule of Life: Better to confront a small bit of unpleasantness before it escalates into something trickier.

Tony and I kept talking after I returned from Calipatria. He’d call collect, I’d turn on the recorder, and he’d tell me about himself and his life. By the end of 1994, we had exchanged a dozen letters and hundreds of dollars’ worth of collect calls, and I had finished researching and writing Drive-By. My official business with Tony was nearly over. But I’ll confess, I wasn’t surprised by the letter I received months before our working relationship came to an end. “Gary,” he had written, “i hope that when you get done writing the Book we can still be friends, thats if you want to.”


Our friendship advanced one phone conversation at a time. Listening back to the early tapes, I hear myself still playing reporter. Tony tells me he’s started a journal. Use your journal to chronicle prison life, I suggest. It’s an idea aimed more at helping me with the prison-related book I was thinking about writing at the time than at helping a young man struggling to process his feelings.

I hadn’t sanitized Tony in Drive-By. He had been a violent thug and betrayed those close to him on more than one occasion, snitching on Junebug to the police for a crime he himself had committed and robbing the older kid who had taught him the ropes of the crack trade. While fact-checking Drive-By prior to publication, I shared with Tony—as I did with the book’s other principals—the parts of the manuscript dealing with his life, so my depiction of him was not a shock when he read the completed book. But I was surprised by how deeply the rest of the story affected him.

For Tony, reading about the impact of the shooting on the Reed family meant taking a fuller responsibility for the murder. He dropped the “yes, but” attitude that allowed him to share blame with others. (Hadn’t Junebug also messed up? Why had the ambulance taken so long to arrive on the scene?) Once, after referring to the “incident” that landed him in jail, Tony immediately corrected himself. “The night I killed that young man,” he said more carefully. “It wasn’t an incident. I killed a boy. I know that. Kevin Reed. I’m not going to try and hide it by calling it an ‘incident,’ because it was a murder, and someone—Kevin—lost his life.”

I didn’t stay on the youth-violence beat long after the publication of Drive-By. When people asked me why, I told them that I had said all that I had to say on the topic. But truth be told, money played a big role as well. It was the dawn of the Internet era, and I was living in the Bay Area. I hadn’t done a stitch of business or technology writing in my life, but I had done some computer programming in college, and I figured that someone with my background should be able to understand what was going on in Silicon Valley. At 36, I could no longer afford to write about subjects simply because I cared deeply about them. And I had to face the fact that I could no longer justify the time spent on the phone with Tony as research. I was doing it for myself.

I was also doing it, I suppose, for Tony. By this point, his connections to the world beyond Calipatria had been winnowed away to little more than our regular phone calls. He had always felt close to his sister Angela, but she was struggling financially, enough that she could no longer afford the $15 or $30 charge that showed up on the phone bill when she received one of his calls. Soon she put a block on her phone, as did other members of his family. Even Paula seemed to fade from his life after she married and moved to Hawaii.

Aside from me, his only visitor at Calipatria was a volunteer tutor who Tony had met in the county lockup while he was awaiting disposition of his case. But within a few years, Tony was complaining to me that she, too, was giving up on him. “I barely hear from her anymore,” he wrote in one letter. “No matter what I go through in this place or my life,” he went on, “no one seems to understand or cares about my pain.” Around this time, he was diagnosed with depression by a prison doctor after complaining about anxiety attacks and insomnia.

There was an element of voyeurism to my side of our relationship. Prison gangs, race relations behind bars, the routine of life inside a Level IV prison: It was endlessly fascinating to me. At the same time, I was well aware of the possibility that I was a patsy being played by the con who knew the right buttons to push. It was true, after all, that I was not the only one who had profited from our relationship. Once, Tony told me he was in a bind because he had borrowed another inmate’s television to watch a basketball game, and his cellmate had stepped on the cord, sending the TV crashing to the ground. I bought a replacement. On another occasion, I bought him a pair of basketball shoes so he could compete in the tournaments they held in his cellblock.

But that was it for big-ticket items. In truth, I was shocked Tony didn’t ask me for more. I got in the habit of sending him an annual care package, and I’d send him the occasional book I thought he’d like, but those were rituals I began without being asked. He would hit me up for $18 here and $40 there—for postage stamps, paper and pens, the latest 2Pac tape —but never more than once or twice a year.

On one occasion, in 1997, he wrote me asking for money to buy a few toiletries. (The authorities issued soap and tooth powder to the inmates but no deodorant or shampoo.) The only thing I resented about writing that check was the 22 percent tax the authorities skimmed off the top for a statewide victims’ fund, which seemed to be more about expanding the prison bureaucracy than helping the families of people like Kevin Reed. Reading Tony’s letter again now, I immediately recognize a plaintive repetition that was common in his correspondence:

Gary I’m almost all out of cosmetics soap, deodorant, toothpast and if you can please can you send me a money order please so I can go to the store and get some more cosmetics Im relly out just enough to last about a week Gary whatever you can send I would be greatful I relly need to get some more cosmetics Please let me know if you can do that for me. Please I’m just trying to get some deodorant, soap and toothpast Gary pleae if you can do that for me. Let me know. Also tell your wife I said Happy New Year.

In 1996, after nearly four years at Calipatria, Tony was transferred to Salinas Valley State Prison—better known as Soledad, after the city on the Monterey Peninsula where it is located. At first it seemed to be a big improvement: He was only two hours from home, and the climate was far less brutal. But his family still didn’t visit, and Soledad was still a maximum-security facility, populated by some of the state’s most violent offenders. It was also another prison in the midst of a turf war between the sureños and the norteños. There’d be a stabbing, the entire facility would go on lockdown, and the other side would retaliate as soon as the lockdown was lifted. The gangs left the noncombatants alone, but the feud meant that the entire inmate population was confined to their cells for months at a stretch. In time, Tony would come to hate Soledad more than Calipatria.

Tony told me that he wasn’t worried about his physical safety, and I believed him. He had always been big, and in prison he had replaced fat with muscle, using free weights until they were banned by the authorities and thereafter maintaining a regimen of push-ups, chin-ups, and the like. What worried me more was the possibility that he might simply give up. He was surrounded by lifers who had abandoned all hope of winning parole in law-and-order California.

Winning parole meant proving to the board that you were working hard and committed to improving yourself. The commissioners want an inmate to have earned his GED and picked up at least a couple of trades. They want to see a work history. But given how rarely the board was granting parole at the time to those with a life tail on their sentences, plenty of Tony’s fellow inmates asked why he bothered. You might as well do nothing with your days, his cellmate—an Oakland man doing 25 to life—would say, because filling them to impress a parole board was futile.

“He was always playing with my head ’bout none of us there on a murder beef ever getting paroled,” Tony complained to me at the time. He requested a switch and moved in with another inmate who was also serving time for murder. His new cellmate worked a job and faithfully attended church services. Less than six months later, the man ended up in a prison infirmary after slitting his wrists.

At times, Tony’s first cellmate seemed to have a point: Why bother? The odds of his actually getting paroled were woefully slim. Of the roughly 6,000 lifers appearing before the parole board in California each year, just 6 percent are granted parole. Since 1988, the state has had the power to overturn the parole board’s decisions, which has shrunk that figure to less than 1 percent; there is no political upside in freeing a convicted murderer. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed about 75 percent of the paroles granted during his two terms. Gray Davis, his predecessor, reversed 99 percent.

The realities of prison, meanwhile, made it all but impossible for Tony to pursue the self-improvements the parole board wanted to see. Between lockdowns and teacher turnover, his GED classes were canceled for eight of the first twelve months he was at Calipatria. Soledad was more of the same: classes suspended due to warring between rival gangs, teachers who would resign and not be replaced for months. “My soul is dead,” Tony wrote to me in 1998, after one long stretch of lockdowns. What was the use of trying, he wanted to know, when no one cared about him anyway? “I been curse since birth … I’m in hell Gary I relly am.”

Still, Tony stuck with his GED classes. He started reading more, asking me to send him a dictionary and a book by Will Durant called The Pleasures of Philosophy. He learned to play chess. Approaching 30, Tony was growing interested in a world beyond his cellblock and his disappointments with his family. He was also sounding like someone gaining some perspective on life. Locked inside a cell, sometimes for weeks at a time, he was having insights that reminded me of the late-night debates my friends and I had in college. He realized, for instance, that even when he was on the streets, he wasn’t really free; he was imprisoned by the low expectations of his family and culture. “My mission in life is to get out of prison,” he wrote to me shortly after his 30th birthday. “I will say this over and over again. This place is not for me.”


In 1999, my first marriage ended. It was the child we couldn’t have, it was money, it was the festering resentments born of our two-career household, it was who knows what. Moving out began a nomadic period in my life. The Internet magazine where I was working went out of business in 2001, and after bouncing around the country for a few months I ended up back on the East Coast. Then it was off to Silicon Valley, followed by New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and finally, in 2006, New York again. It would have been easy to lose touch with Tony while I was pinballing around the country, and at one point I went several months before letting him know where I’d landed. But I missed hearing his voice, I missed our talks. I kept updating him on my new coordinates, and he kept calling.

There wasn’t a single moment when the sad-sack Fat Tone was replaced by the upbeat new Tony, only a series of steps forward and backward. A letter from March 2003 starts with a self-directed pep talk: “Staying positive, keeping hope alive, reading and doing some writing and just trying to keep my mind stress free in a stressful place.” It’s midnight, he tells me; his cellmate is sleeping, and the cellblock is blessedly quiet. “I like it like this,” he writes. “I can relly think about my life.”

But then there were letters like the one he wrote to me two years later, in the summer 2005. “Basicly, I’m just waiting to”—he blotted out the next word and then added, “I relly don’t even look forward to going to the [parole] board.” Tony declared 2005—the year he turned 34—to be the worst of his life, and 2006 wasn’t looking much better. “To relly be honest,” he wrote that April, “I wish at times they would have kill me instead of leting me go through this misery.”

Fate—or at least some midlevel Department of Corrections bureaucrat—intervened in the nick of time. Every year, the California Department of Corrections recalculates an inmate’s classification score to see if he or she can be moved to a lower-security—and therefore less-costly—facility. An inmate’s record of prison rule violations, employment, classroom attendance, and age are among the factors the authorities take into account. One month after Tony penned that last letter, his classification score was recalculated, and the number fell enough that he was qualified to be transferred to Solano, a medium-security prison just outside San Francisco in Vacaville, California.

Solano proved a welcome respite from the gladiator schools that had previously housed him. Yard time lasted most of the day rather than three hours of it, and inmates had to report to their cells for a headcount just once between 7:45 a.m. (when the cellblock was unlocked) and 9 p.m. (when it was locked down again for the night), rather than regularly throughout the day. And the differences extended beyond small freedoms.

At the state’s maximum-security facilities, itchy-fingered guards armed with assault rifles stand on parapets above the prison yard, ready to shoot at the first hint of trouble. It’s amazing to watch, an official at Calipatria once told me during a tour of the facility. “A warning shot is fired and like that, boom, every inmate hits the dirt,” he said. “I mean, 500 inmates one second are standing, and then the next moment every one of them is lying face down on the ground.” (Tony’s greatest fear, he used to tell me, was getting struck by a guard’s errant bullet—a grimly poetic concern given the circumstances of Kevin Reed’s murder.) Correctional officers armed with rifles still stood guard at Solano, but only around the perimeter of the facility. They were there to prevent escapes, not maintain order. Now Tony’s greatest complaint was the gossipy nature of the yard. It was “like one big fish bowl,” he told me, where “everybody knows everybody[’s] business.”

But a prison, of course, is still a prison. A day served inside Solano might be less awful than one spent locked away inside Calipatria or Soledad, but there was still the abyss of time stretching into the future. Friends were still a relative concept, the meals still bad and hurried enough that Tony felt full, he told me, only on the big holidays, when treats were served: roast turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving and Christmas, apple pie on the Fourth of July. And then there were the guards, who Tony always referred to as the police, as if there is no distinction to be drawn between those who busted him on the outside and those watching over him on the inside. “The po-lease here, there’s no other way to put it: they’re bullies,” he told me. “They bully you every day. They treat you like an animal.”

Tony’s new cell measured nine feet by twelve feet—the same as at Soledad and Calipatria. He and his cellmate shared a toilet and small steel sink, though each had his own small steel desk, with a fixed metal stool, and a few cubbyholes to stow their scant belongings. Lockdowns, if not as relentless as they had been at the maximum-security prisons, were still regular occurrences—so much so that they would thwart my last several attempts to see him when I was in the Bay Area.

Still, the move to a medium-security prison was undeniably a step in the right direction. Tony enrolled in an intensive psychotherapy regimen and a 12-step program. He grew more serious about religion and started sharing his epiphanies with me, like the realization that his childhood had been almost completely devoid of positive role models. “All my life, I was patted on the back for doing the wrong thing,” he told me. He finally earned his GED in August 2008, at the age of 36; several years later, he was only a few credits shy of an associate’s degree.

But even in Solano, a facility where most inmates would eventually be released, rehabilitation could seem like a peripheral concern. And if Tony needed a reminder of how precarious the path back to society was, he got one in 2007. He broke the bad news to me that September: Junebug was behind bars again.

Unlike Tony, Junebug didn’t need to impress a parole board to win his freedom. A 16-year-old at the time of his conviction, he was a ward of the California Youth Authority and sure to be released before he turned 25. But he managed to impress just the same. He and I also kept in touch during his eight-year sentence, primarily through letters, and he kept me posted on his progress. A paper he wrote about Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision upholding the doctrine of separate but equal, earned him an A-plus in his English literature course, as did an essay he wrote on the meaning of Hamlet. Always smart, he was now taking his studies seriously. I made sure to call him John when I dropped him a letter and on those rare occasions we spoke, as a way of distinguishing between the immature kid he had once been and the man he was growing into.

After Junebug was released in 1999, Tony periodically passed along updates about how he was doing. At first the news was all good: Junebug enrolled in an aviation repair school, earned his mechanic’s license, and got a job in Seattle in 2005. He was making good money, he had a girlfriend, he was the father of first one son and then another. But then in 2007, Junebug was found guilty of second-degree assault for hitting his girlfriend. Because of his prior murder conviction, and because the domestic assault had taken place in front of a minor, he was hit with a 10-year sentence. A lawyer with the Washington Appellate Project, a Seattle nonprofit representing indigent defendants, would later challenge the sentence as unduly harsh. But as it was, Junebug stood to spend a good chunk of his thirties, and perhaps some of his forties, in a Washington state prison.


Do you talk about your love life when the person on the other end of the phone is trapped indefinitely in prison? Was it cruel even to broach the subject? I knew Tony, in spite of his circumstances, was looking for a girlfriend—he had even enlisted my help once. Two weeks after he was transferred from Calipatria to Soledad, in the summer 1996, he began a letter by noting that it was good to be breathing Northern California air again, and then he got right to the point. He was interested in finding a female pen pal, how would I feel about putting an ad in the paper on his behalf? “I’m a good person and I have a good heart,” he wrote. “I’m sincere and I have a lot of confidence in myself and on top of that I’m lonely.”

Still, the subject came up rarely—I avoided talking about it if Tony didn’t bring it up himself—and I was shocked when he told me in 2011 that he had gotten engaged. “The greatest love story ever told,” he called it, jokingly.

Tony had been at Solano only a couple of years when a fellow inmate named Thomas told him about Candace Mitchell. You’d really like her, said Thomas, who had known Candace since both of them were kids. She had been a real party girl back in the day, he told Tony, but she had found God and settled down, and now lived just a few miles from the prison. Thomas was so convinced that she and Tony would like one another that one day in 2008, when he was on the phone with Candace and Tony happened by, he handed him the receiver.

Candace was three years younger than Tony. She had three daughters and ran a day care center out of her home. The two immediately hit it off. Tony made Candace laugh, but more importantly, she later told me, “I sensed right away that he had a good heart.”

But for Candace, at least, at first their conversations were more about Christian fellowship than courtship. Candace was seeing another inmate at Solano at the time, and another woman named Kim was coming to see Tony regularly in the prison visitor’s room. Still, Candace was always happy to take one of his calls. “I have a passion for the ones locked up,” she told me. “To let them know they’re not forgotten.” But the relationship was hardly one-way, Candace stressed. “He always gave good advice,” she said. “He stayed on my mind.”

One day, Candace told Tony that she had been praying over him the night before and had a vision of him crying in his cell. The comment stopped Tony cold. “He says to me, ‘How did you know?’” Candace recalled. The sense of the bond they shared would help Tony survive the next couple of years, which proved to be difficult ones.

In 2010, a prison guard caught Tony talking on a cell phone inside his cell. “I was brazen,” Tony later told me. “I wasn’t being smart.” There are good and obvious reasons why inmates aren’t allowed to have phones inside prison. But for Tony, the logic for having a phone was just as inexorable. Collect calls from prison—the only allowed means he had of reaching the outside world—ran upwards of $10 for 15 minutes, more than most of his family members were able or willing to pay. The cell phone allowed him access to his family in a way he had not experienced since he was a teenager. It helped him get back in touch with his mother, his Aunt Paula, and even his father, with whom he had not spoken since he was around 15. Tony spoke to him only a few times from prison before he passed away later that year. But in those conversations, his father apologized for not being in his life, and Tony forgave him for everything. As Tony told him, “How can I not forgive you when I want forgiveness myself?”

But Tony had gotten careless, and now he had another serious violation on his record. When he told me about his write-up for the cell phone, my heart sank. I was, in a small way, complicit in this crime. I knew about the phone. It had made our conversations much easier. When he was caught, I had to admit that I had turned off the critical part of my brain that would have asked the obvious question: How in the world was Tony able to pay for a cell phone all those months when he had no money?

The answer was more bad news. Tony, it emerged, was busted not only for the cell phone, but also for drug possession. It was a fact he kept from me at the time; I only discovered that it had happened several years later. He wasn’t using, he insisted, or even selling. He was renting out his cell as a kind of safe house, stashing extra product for a dealer he knew. His punishment was 12 months in the hole. More critically, he would now need to explain two fresh violations—one for involvement in the prison’s drug underground—to the parole board.

In the California prison system, a write-up for a serious rule violation is known as a “115,” after the number of the form used to document infractions. 115s influence an inmate’s placement score more than any other factor—and, of course, the total number of 115s on an inmate’s record looms large when appearing in front of a parole board. Although they are considered universally serious in the eyes of the authorities, practically speaking, 115s span a spectrum from genuinely serious to the prison equivalent of a speeding ticket.

Among the latter was the 115 Tony received less than a year after arriving in prison, when he was caught with a jar of pruno—prison wine made from anything that can be fermented, from apples to bread to canned fruit cocktail—in his cell. It was a clear-cut, if relatively minor, transgression. Other 115s, however, suggested the impossible bind confronting inmates trying to follow both the official prison rules and the unofficial code that determines survival in the brutal gauntlet of a correctional facility.

The 115 that Tony received for punching the inmate in the shower shortly after arriving at Calipatria was a case in point. At first glance, it seemed like a stupid and reckless act, a write-up incurred for no good reason. But Tony knew that if he didn’t respond to the challenge, the next one would be more serious than an argument in the shower line—even if he knew that the parole board would be less than sympathetic to that logic.

Tony had told me about other 115s in his file. The one he said he had received in June of 2000, also for fighting, seemed the most serious. Tony claimed that the day after trying to break up a fight between a friend and several others inmates, he was jumped by three men who blamed him for the incident. One of them ended up in the hospital with a fractured back, earning Tony a write-up for battery. That meant a fresh 115 for a serious crime, only a couple years before his first parole board hearing in October 2002, in anticipation of a possible release in 2003.

That hearing had not gone well. In his own estimation, Tony came off sounding defensive, argumentative, and confused. Waiting 12 years to finally have his say, it seemed, had left him unable to say much of anything at all. Later, he’d downplay the importance of the hearing, saying he never stood a chance the first time anyway.

Tony’s second appearance before the parole board was scheduled for 2005, during the bad stretch near the end of his time at Soledad, when he seemed on the verge of suicide. I later learned that Tony himself chose to delay that hearing until early 2007, and then, according to a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, took what was known as a three-year stipulation: He basically conceded that he wasn’t ready for parole, agreeing that he should spend at least another three years behind bars.

He would do the same in 2010, when he took a two-year stipulation. From our phone calls—and maybe a little bit of hopeful thinking—I had the distinct impression that each appearance before the parole board represented another step in a steady climb toward release. But the truth was that, technically, Tony hadn’t appeared in front of the parole board in 10 years. “The thing is,” he would eventually tell me, “when I went to the board all those other times, I knew I was doing wrong. I was doing dirty.” The difference in 2012, he said, was that now he had Candace.

Tony and Candace started getting more serious once Tony was released back into the general population after his time in the hole. She saw something good in him, she told me, “but I knew I was going to have to pull it out.” Tony started attending chapel services inside the prison, and, maybe more important to Candace, he cut out people from his life whom she was able to convince him were bad influences. “I told him he had to learn certain people he was with were doing him no good,” she said. “They kept him doing the same patterns.”

They would talk whenever Tony could get to a phone, praying and reading the Bible together. She would start visiting, she told him, only once she felt certain that there’d be no more backsliding. “I asked him, ‘Tony, where are you at with God?’ Because I needed to know. I needed to know he was planted.” There were her three daughters to consider and also her job. Break rules on the inside, she counseled Tony, and it’s easy to get in the habit of breaking them on the outside. There would be no more cell phones, no more hiding drugs, no more small infractions, even, as long as she was in the picture.

Candace started visiting Tony in 2010. Tony’s punishment for the drugs and cell phone included a three-year ban on contact visits, so that meant that while he and Candace could spend a few hours talking, they couldn’t touch each other. They sat on either side of a thick sheet of plexiglass, connected only by a set of phone handsets. Tony was still forbidden from contact visits when the two were married in November 2011—“married behind the glass,” as Candace described it. The couple exchanged vows with the bride and minister standing together talking on one phone and Tony talking on another.

When Candace sent me photos of the two sitting happily together in the visitors’ room shortly after the contact-visit ban was lifted, I realized that it was the first time I’d ever seen Tony smiling in a picture. When I mentioned it to him, he explained, “I don’t want no little kid seeing my picture, my niece or my nephew, and think it’s cool to be in prison.”


Five months after his wedding, Tony was finally ready to face the parole board. His hearing took place on the morning of March 16, 2012, in an administrative building on the prison grounds. The board consisted of two officials chosen from a stable of roving commissioners who bounce from prison to prison across California. The people of Alameda County, which includes Oakland, had their representative, a deputy district attorney named Jill Klinge. Tony had his representative as well, a state-provided defense lawyer. And then there was Tony himself, his head shaved, dressed in his prison blues and wearing his prison-issue steel-framed glasses. This time he didn’t feel that fluttery feeling in his stomach like in the past, he later told me. It had been over a year since his last 115. He was a reformed sinner with a clean conscience.

Though I wasn’t physically present for the hearing, I did make a brief appearance. I had written a letter on Tony’s behalf—the first time I had chosen to do so. For me the letter represented my final transition from journalistic observer to friend. I was no longer just a sympathetic ear for someone who had committed a horrible act and felt deeply repentant about it. I was now telling the California parole board that Tony was a kind and decent man and deserved a second chance.

“I’ve observed him work hard to improve and grow over the years—through books, through the church, through the various courses and programs offered within the penitentiary system, all driven by a strong sense of determination that a single terrible act would not define the remainder of his life,” I wrote. “I’m confident declaring him a good man, wise and kind—a man with a good head on his shoulders who very much would strive to become a productive member of society if ever he were given a second chance.”

There’s a this-is-your-life aspect to a parole hearing. Aside from Tony’s crime and what the presiding commissioner—a former rural county sheriff—called Tony’s “institutional behavior,” much of the early part of the hearing focused on Tony’s childhood. The commissioners asked him about his father and mother. Tony told them the story of his mother, how she was a junkie who would disappear from his life for years at a time when he was young. She was still using, he said. But Tony knew these questions were a test. “I always say that even though I came from the background I came from,” he told the commissioners, “I’m not a victim of all that.”

“No,” the former sheriff, Mike Prizmich, said.

“I’m a victim of just the bad choices that I always made,” Tony went on. “There’s a lot of people that was in worst situations than me that worked and worked hard and got out and did productive things.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So I can’t use that as an excuse.”

“No. And I’m glad you can’t,” Prizmich replied, “Because it’s a flimsy one.”

The interview shifted to Tony’s life behind bars. Prizmich asked what he learned about himself participating in a 26-week psychotherapy program inside Vacaville. Tony’s answer was crisp. “What I gained from that is that my mental map was faulty, that I had self-esteem issues,” he said. “I also took shortcuts in life.” Prizmich’s deputy commissioner, Kenneth Cater, upbraided Tony for his “erratic” involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and said he was disappointed to see so little vocational training on Tony’s record. What about a plumbing course or one in welding?

I knew that neither of these was Tony’s fault. Solano boasts of its substance-abuse program on its website but doesn’t mention that it discontinued its AA and NA programs years ago due to lack of staffing; Tony had enrolled in both, but they shut down two years later. (The sessions have since been partially restored, but Tony’s name still sits on the waiting list.) The same website touts the prison’s wide offering of vocational programs, from carpentry to plumbing to fiber optics, but Tony’s name was on waiting lists for those as well. Tony explained to the commissioners about NA and AA but said nothing about the vocational work.

But what the commissioners really wanted to talk about were the 115s. Tony had racked up 10 of them during his 20 years behind bars. This struck me as a modest number, given the length of his incarceration and the realities of prison life, but I seemed to be the only one who thought so. “Mr. Davis has a noteworthy disciplinary history,” Cater remarked. Even Tony’s defense attorney would say that her client has “struggled during his incarceration period” to avoid “disciplinary infractions.”

“Every 115 that I received,” Tony said, “I earned.” He wouldn’t waste the board’s time making excuses, he said. Then Cater, the deputy commissioner, pressed him about another incident, one that Tony had never mentioned to me: “an institutional offense of distribution of a controlled substance,” Cater called it, which was barely a year old at the time of the hearing. According to the write-up, Tony had been caught holding methamphetamine.

In fact, I later learned, Tony had not. It was his cellmate who had been busted—Tony had had nothing to do with the drugs, but the write-up was improperly placed in Tony’s file. It would later be expunged from his record. All the board knew, however, was that Tony had a “technical” issue with the charge. Rather than tell the board it was all a mistake, Tony remained the good prisoner who embraced responsibility. “I was not a participant in it but I knew about it,” Tony confessed.

Once the entirety of Tony’s record had been scrutinized, Jill Klinge, the district attorney, was invited to give a closing statement. “I commend him for his honesty with the panel today,” Klinge said of Tony. But it was impossible to endorse parole for a man who seemed to have been clean only since 2011, she went on, referring to the cellmate’s meth bust. “He’s going to need a substantial period of time for those gains to be solidified and to make sure that it is really going to settle in,” she said.

Tony’s own prison-appointed lawyer might as well have been a potted plant; over the course of the hearing, her only substantive contribution to his defense had been to correct a single date that one of the commissioners had gotten wrong. She seemed similarly unaware of the extent of the mistake on Tony’s record, noting how “significant” the meth charge was. “There’s no doubt that [Tony] has a very long way to go to dig himself out of the hole he has been in for most of his incarceration,” she told the board.

Finally, Tony was called upon to offer his own closing statement. He opened by apologizing to the families of all those he harmed in the shooting. He apologized to the commissioners for making them listen to him talk about all the mistakes he’s made in his life. “The only thing I can do is be honest,” he said, “and say I’m sorry and just use each day to become a better person.”


The hearing lasted nearly two hours, but a verdict was rendered after only 11 minutes of deliberation. Tony had clearly impressed the commissioners with his closing remarks, and they went out of their way to compliment him. “Your appearance here today was truly a stand-up performance,” Cater, the deputy commissioner, told Tony. “You did show courage today. You took ownership, and there was honesty.”

Then Prizmich, the presiding commissioner, announced the board’s decision: Tony, he said, would not be paroled. He would need to wait seven more years until his next hearing. “You did a good job today,” Prizmich said. “Prove to us that that’s the real you now.”

The news was devastating but, I suppose, not wholly surprising. Even discounting the meth charge, the previous drug violation and cell phone were both relatively recent offenses. Parole boards are in the business of saying no, and by disrespecting their rules, Tony had given them a reason to conclude that he would break the law on the outside.

But seven years? That seemed cruel, a verdict that would discourage rather than encourage someone who had obviously been working hard to make something of his life. The boy who was so repentant after his arrest that a county probation officer thought it wouldn’t take 10 years to rehabilitate him had already spent twice that long behind bars—and now he would be staying in prison at least until 2019, when he would be nearly 50. Tony had fought so hard to ignore those who had urged him to give up, but maybe they were right: Why even bother trying to impress the parole board when it amounted to so little?

“It’s good that he has all these support letters,” Jill Klinge, the district attorney, had said near the end of the hearing, “but all of them state that he’s ready for release. So it makes me question if he has informed them of what’s truly going on.” She was referring, in part, to me, of course, and implying that I had been manipulated by Tony, that he had fed me a sanitized version of his life behind bars. It was true that Tony had not told me about his 2009 drug conviction; I found the revelation jarring when I read it in the parole hearing transcript. But Tony had told me about all of his other transgressions, and it was understandable to me that he had felt ashamed that he messed up so monumentally and chose not to share the news with me. It seemed the equivalent of learning only after a divorce that a good friend—one who did a lot of complaining about relationship woes—had been carrying on a prolonged affair. It was disappointing, of course, but it took nothing away from how impressed I was with the man Tony had become. Given the opportunity, I would write the same letter again without hesitation.

I was far more taken aback by how little the commissioners and the district attorney appeared to know about the system over which they presided. During the hearing, Klinge referred to the 15 years it took Tony to earn a GED as proof that he wasn’t serious about turning his life around—apparently unaware of how difficult the on-again, off-again nature of classes in maximum-security prisons made it to earn one at all. And what about the 2011 meth charge that played so central a role in the hearing’s outcome? The commissioners live a crazy, peripatetic life, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections later told me by way of explanation. They were part of a justice system charged with tracking several hundred thousand inmates and parolees. It was inevitable that the occasional file would fail to catch up to a parole board in time, that the occasional wire would get crossed.

But there is also an appeals process. Shortly after the hearing, Tony enlisted the aid of a fellow convict who had already secured a new parole hearing for one inmate and helped another win his release. (I picked up part of the tab for the services of this jailhouse lawyer in the form of a package of items he had requested. As far as legal bills go, it was a steal: two plastic jars of Folgers coffee, a pound of cashews, one package of Red Vines and another of taffy, a Schick Quattro Titanium razor, and a few other odds and ends.) He has managed to get the 115 for methamphetamine possession expunged from Tony’s record and may have won him a new hearing well before 2019. That, at least, is what he tells Tony when he’s hitting him up for more money. As of this writing, the Department of Corrections does not have a new hearing officially scheduled for him for the next seven years.

But Tony seems determined to remain optimistic. It took a while for us to talk after the hearing —his facility was on extended lockdown, naturally—but when we did, he sounded lighthearted, almost giddy with optimism about life. I seemed more devastated by the news than he was. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Be happy. Be joyous.” Life for Tony seemed finally to be moving in the right direction, parole or no. He had found a woman to love and, maybe more importantly, he had forgiven himself for what he had done. Somehow, in the crucible of the California prison system, he had found redemption. He exuded not self-pity but a determination to fight on. “This is not the end,” he vowed to me. “There’s no way seven years will be seven years.”

I wanted to believe it, and believe that Tony believed it. But I worried about him. In the first letter he wrote to me after getting the bad news, he told me about his plans to fight on. But then his confidence gave way to another familiar tone. “P-L-E-A-S-E don’t give up on me,” he wrote.

In case I missed the point, he repeated the plea in a postscript: “P-L-E-A-S-E don’t give up on me my life is so much more than this.”

Mother, Stranger

Mother, Stranger

My mother told everyone she knew that I was dead. When I found out she was gone, I went looking for the secret to her madness.

By Cris Beam

The Atavist Magazine, No. 11

Cris Beam is a writer and professor in New York City. She is the author of To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, the young adult novel I Am J, and Transparent, a nonfiction book that covers seven years in the lives of four transgender teenagers. She is currently working on a book about philosophies of empathy.

Editor: Alissa Quart
Producer: Matt Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Research and Production: Gray Beltran
Cover Photo: Todd Hido

Published in January 2012. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter 1

Three years ago I got the phone call. I had always wondered about her death, how long it would take to find out about it and who would track her children down to tell them. Now I knew. Fifty-three days, and a lawyer.

I had left my mother’s house when I was 14 years old, and I never saw her again. I was 36 when I found out she was dead. In the early years of my separation from her, I tried not to think about her. For high school I moved into my father’s house, where my mother’s name had always been a bad and angry word. Then I went to college and got jobs and lovers like everyone else I knew. After the rise of the Web, I tried to spy on her from afar, but I never turned up aside from memories that came kicking up at me like startled bats.

Ours was a family of two realities: the one we lived through and the one that had formed in my mother’s mind. She was often convinced that we were going to starve because we didn’t have enough money for food. When I was growing up, she talked endlessly about not being able to cover the mortgage on the house and how we could end up homeless and living in a box. It took me years to realize that these were fantasies. As a child, I tallied the cans in the cupboard and ticked off the days until Daddy’s check would come. But despite what my mother said, there was always enough. Sometimes we ate at the restaurant in the strip mall that smelled more like carpet than like meals or filled the car with greasy bags from Taco Bell. Still, my mother’s whispery laments were like chalk on a window: They didn’t leave a mark, but the sound stayed with me for days.

“We’re going to die in here,” she said, darting her eyes around our living room walls. “We just don’t have enough to make it.”

She always claimed to be working five jobs, though I only counted one, sometimes two. She said she was a prostitute.

When the air would become electric and I knew I should run and hide, my mother told me that her grandfather raped her every night. “Every night,” she seethed, and I was probably 10, the walls seeming to melt away. Her shoulders squared, and her eyes blazed with cruelty. “And you think you’re better than me?”

My ears folded when she said these things. The floor was stairs, and I was falling but also standing. I wouldn’t meet her gaze. My mother was no longer Mom, and I was no longer myself. She would forget these moments of madness by morning, or whenever her shoulders went back to their regular submissive hunch. She would forget partly because she said she had no memory of her childhood or that grandfather; everything between kindergarten and sixth grade for her was one black, impenetrable wall. And she would forget because she really was a different person then, split off from everything she knew.

She died of brain cancer, aggressive glioblastoma multiforme, diagnosed two years prior. Her obituary told other stories about her than the dark ones I remembered. I learned she had a great sense of direction, liked to hike alone in Yosemite, dealt poker at frat houses to pay for college, and had two surviving aunts. I already knew she loved cats and the mountains, had taught high school Spanish and math, and liked to eat hamburgers. I remember all this from my 14 years in her house. I didn’t know she considered herself a “Breck Girl,” and I had no idea what that meant. Also that she “had such a great love for everyone, and never met or knew anyone she could not forgive.” I don’t know if she forgave me.

After I left my mother, I could never explain to myself why I didn’t go back. I knew that I was terrified of her, and yet I was scared of the guilt I felt for leaving her. These opposing terrors seemed to cancel one another out, turning me into a burned-out husk of inaction.

I didn’t have a language for my mother, probably because she didn’t have a cohesive language for herself. She could snap herself into a mom I couldn’t recognize, a mom I wished I could forget. Sometimes I thought my muteness meant that nothing of significance happened, and I would doubt the fear that gripped me through adulthood. I would later learn that a telltale sign of trauma is that it doesn’t have language at all.

After she died, though, the larger memories of her came rushing back, and I wanted to find the vocabulary. I wanted to pull my mother out of the hole that occupied the center of her story and listen for a voice. I wanted to find the reason for her madness. I wanted to see if life with her was bad enough to warrant my disappearance—or hers, depending on the perspective; I wanted to tease our existence apart and see if I had a self, still standing. “If it wasn’t anything,” as William Faulkner once wrote, “what was I?”

But first I’d have to come back from the dead.

When I left my mother’s house at age 14, she quietly killed me off. She took a trip to Kansas with my brother, who was 10. One day my grandfather asked her about me.

“Cris died,” my mother told him. My brother, Andrew, panicked, but she pulled him into another room and told him to play along. I don’t know if she told the aunts and cousins and everybody else this same story. Did I die in a crash or of some disease? I never heard from anyone on her side of the family again.

Andrew followed a path similar to mine. He also moved out of our mother’s house when he was 14 and went to live with our father. Unlike me, when he was still in high school he snuck back into our old home. He wanted to retrieve some of his baby pictures, along with his old teddy bear, Charlie. He found the key to the front door in its usual hiding place; he calmed the dogs and tiptoed into the empty house. My old bedroom, he said, had been transformed into an amateur taxidermy studio for my mother’s boyfriend, with glass eyeballs and animal pelts scattered about. My brother’s bedroom hadn’t been touched. Three years of dust had accumulated on his old action figures and video games; too-small pajamas still lay crumpled in the hamper.

My brother was freaked out by the dead animals and by his former self, preserved behind our closed bedroom doors. He snatched his teddy bear and rushed downstairs, blindly grabbing a handful of photographs that my mother kept in a box in the living room.

He drove a safe distance away and then stopped and looked at the pictures. They were mostly of me: baby snaps and Christmas shots from when I was around 3 years old. There were a few of us together, when he was a baby and at Halloween when we were dressed as clowns, and none of our mom. He was too scared to return unless he knew that Mom had moved away.

The next time he went back, Andrew was in college. He drove across the Bay Bridge to look one last time at the place where we grew up. He parked outside and stared for a while. The house looked different; it had a paint job, and the shrubs were trimmed. Eventually, a woman opened the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked. Andrew told her he lived there as a child and the woman’s face went white. She asked him for his name. Andrew told her and said that he was Candy Beam’s son. The woman took a long breath. She had bought the house from Candy, she explained. “But she said both of her children were dead.”

Chapter 2

My mother and father met in a high school chemistry class in Wichita, Kansas, or this was the story I heard. It was the year the Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” My mom was smart and pretty and had a great figure from teaching swimming all summer long to neighborhood kids. I imagine she was a catch.

My parents both attended the University of Kansas; my mom was in a sorority. They dated all through college and then got married and had me. Fairly standard stuff, except it was the war, and everybody was busy trying to avoid going to Vietnam. My father, luckily, was stationed in Mesa, Arizona.

Many years later, my mother told me stories about these early days. She said I was born on a reservation, in an Army tent. That was a fantasy. She also told me, in one of her stranger moments, that she delivered me after riding on a camel, maybe in Arizona. The truth was this: I was born in a veteran’s hospital, a breach baby, with my father waiting right outside the door.

When the war ended, we moved to Minnesota, where my father got a job as a buyer for a department store and my mother stayed home to take care of me. These were good years, as I remember them; I can go back to the way I saw my world, to my kindergartner’s mind and words.

We lived in a white house with a red roof. In that white house, I watched my mom get fat; she was helping me read, and there was less and less room on her lap. Pushed to the edge of her knees, I was working on chapter books when my mom told me to sit next to her instead. There wasn’t room for me anymore.

She said there was a brother growing in there, like a doll but better, because I would be able to teach him things. My mom cooked dinners with macaroni and meat then. She didn’t have a job, so she vacuumed. When it was raining we went to the Piggly Wiggly for shopping, and she wasn’t tired very often so we also played Old Maid. I liked making Valentines, but that was only once a year, so I made coloring books for the starving children in China when I wouldn’t finish my dinner. My mom made me a Valentine with lace on it the year she got pregnant, but she wrote in cursive, so “I love you” looked like “I love yow,” and I thought a lot about how words could be more than one thing, depending on how you wrote them.

I went to the neighbors’ house on the night my dad drove my mom to the hospital. The lady was named Robin, and the man looked like Jesus, and we watched Benji movies together under a quilt that smelled like dogs. My mom didn’t come home for three days because she was bleeding, but my dad said that was OK because I had a brother who was also at the hospital. Since I didn’t have a mom anymore, my dad gave me a game called Operation: With tiny tweezers, you removed the organs from a fat man. The man looked very alarmed, and his nose buzzed if you made a mistake, but he didn’t bleed.

My mom would later talk about the incredible sacrifice of labor. A little while after my brother was born, she told me she had lost so much blood birthing us that the doctors thought she would die. We almost killed her, she said, but she loved us too much to let go. (My father, who was present at both births, claims today that these stories were patently untrue.)

One day a year or so after his difficult birth, when my brother was a toddler, my dad told me we were moving to California. My mom didn’t cry, not at first.

My brother was walking by then, except he walked with his feet pointing in, not out, so he wore a brace at night, which looked like baby shoes nailed to a metal bar. California was too far to walk to; we would drive in the silver car, and later, Archie the cat would fly in a plane.

I began writing a book about it, adding more every day. I had read about Chinatown, where the money had holes, and also about the Golden Gate Bridge, which was red. I knew about the curvy streets and giant hills. So I wrote chapters about each neighborhood where we might live. I wrote in pencil and traced the letters over in pen. The book was long, the longest thing I had ever made.

I sat on our yellow couch for a surprise revelation one night after dinner, with my book tucked up under my T-shirt. I made my dad sit down on one side of me, my mom on the other. They cuddled in close. I pulled the book out and held it up for them to see the cover. “San Francisco,” it said. “A Book by Cristie Beam.” I turned the page and read.

I started with the 1906 earthquake, because that was exciting. I felt my mom start to get small beside me and my dad sit up straighter. My mom started sobbing and ran from the room.

“Why are you crying?” I asked her. She was sitting on the bed.

“Because you want to go to California like Daddy.”

I knew then that she would make me choose between them.


Chapter 3

My family’s breakdown began when we arrived in California, in the spring of 1979. We had driven from a fading white winter into a sunshine suburb where kids wore flip-flops and terrycloth shorts and girls my age had hair like horses’ manes. The town was called Concord, and it was the last stop on the commuter train from San Francisco, a place of tract houses and scrubby front lawns and the hard racial tensions of the working and middle classes entwined together. About 100,000 people lived there, mostly white and Latino; a few years later, a young black man was lynched at the train station.

We pulled up in front of a tract house painted a dusty sage green. The moving van’s doors yawned open, and our entire Minnesota life poured out. I quietly found my books while my dad bought navy blue loveseats and shiny end tables for the living room. My mom bought a porch swing that reminded her of her childhood in Kansas and swung alone in the backyard.

I started first grade, and I was surprised to discover that my new school didn’t have hallways, because California doesn’t have weather, not like Minnesota. School was easy, and my teacher was boring, but I liked my crossing guard; she remembered my cat’s name and asked me lots of questions. When I got home, my mom was usually ironing and watching her soap operas, and my brother was bouncing around in his baby chair. I would go into my room to put on my play apron and practice being a secretary.

Before California my dad came home for dinner, but once we moved we waited. My brother would eat, but my mom and I watched M*A*S*H while our food slowly dried out in the oven. I tried to snuggle in close to where my mom smelled the best, but she was distracted and didn’t hug back. It was about four months after we’d moved that my mom started her muttering.

“He’s with her,” she’d say, staring hard at the television.

I didn’t know who “she” was. I stared away from my mother, at the white telephone that hung from the wall: I was willing my dad to call.

In my Holly Hobby diary I was a diligent recorder of daily minutiae; every dated page is filled. But in the way of 7-year-olds, I was less careful about my narrative links. I often wrote things like “I made a circus. Mommy hit me.” The line “Mommy hit me” is followed the next day by “I hit Kim.” Poor Kim, a childhood friend, is a running character in the diary, and she unknowingly bore the blunt end of my mother’s instability. There were lines like “Mommy hit me” or “Mommy pulled my hair” or “Mommy diddent love me today” a lot that year, but the funny thing is, I don’t remember any real physical violence. I remember her muttering about my dad and drifting away, deeper into her television and her migraine headaches. The sentences about my father were about absence, especially as the year progressed: “Daddy left for work at five p.m.” or “Daddy diddent come home tonight.”

Some months later, when I was 8 years old, my father moved out.

After that, my mother fragmented. I used to blame my father more, suspecting that his leaving was what snapped the delicate thread between her head and her heart. Later I would come to believe that my father only strummed the string that had really broken long before, launching her back into a madness she had tried so long to block.

Chapter 4

After my father left, men streamed in and out of our house. There was the carpenter, who had a retarded son I was supposed to play with and one day flashed me from his bathrobe. There was the man who fixed toilets and swore. There was that dancing guy, and the man with the gun rack on his truck, and the one who sat on the edge of the chair staring when I played the piano.

Maybe my mom really was a prostitute. She said she was. She claimed to work on Wednesday nights from a bar near the BART station. That was her shift. This she told me calmly when she said she was already working five jobs and couldn’t possibly work any harder, right before she shuffled upstairs with one of her migraines.

The memories of my mother’s prostitution are among my most confusing recollections. They clash wildly with the persona my mother presented most of the time, to most people. Usually my mother was shy, with the voice and demeanor of a nervous young girl. She wore fuzzy sweaters and tennis shoes, her hair clipped back in barrettes, and she got me to pay the men in the gas station or to ask the neighbors for butter. Her eyes easily filled when confronted with strangers, especially in those early years: She was skittish, with an overlay of sweetness.

But then, at night, the men would come, between the regulars. I would hear them clomping up the stairs, and I would hear her, too, in the room across the hall. The sound of sex, the smell, seemed to be everywhere. When she was in her room, she sounded like she was being tortured, and also defiant, like a person I didn’t know. Sometimes I’d see them in the morning: dark-haired, mustachioed, ’70s men, buckling their Sansabelt pants or lacing up their work boots before they shut the door. My mom would shuffle down later in a rose-colored nightie, her breasts low and heavy, making instant coffee in the microwave. She didn’t talk about the men, didn’t introduce us, and mostly they didn’t say anything to my brother or me, either. We just ate our cereal and left for school.

In an unusual moment of protectiveness when I was 9, my mom bought me a deadbolt for my bedroom door and told me to use it.

I was scared of the lock, actually. I was scared there would be a fire and nobody would be able to break down the door and save me. But when I asked my mom why I had to shut the bolt at night, she wouldn’t explain.

And in this way, I was less afraid of the men than I was of my mom. I don’t know if she was exchanging sex for money or just exchanging a lot of sex. What I do know is that talking about the men could make her split into her “bad mom” self, the one she wouldn’t remember. Or maybe it was the other way around: When my mom was normal, she was quiet and shy and good; when she split, she was a whore.

All of my mother’s personality splits revolved around sex—usually violent, screaming outbursts about violent, terrifying encounters. Maybe, with all those men, she was acting out those images, reliving her childhood and the grandfather who, she claimed, had raped her. Maybe these “other jobs” were a way to take back control. Or else she was just lying about being a prostitute. And maybe that would be worse. I was only 9 or 10. The way she talked about it was what scared me most of all.

“Why do you think you’re better than me?” she once shouted, apropos of nothing. When my mother shouted and accused, I knew she had changed; when she was her normal self, guilt was her weapon, not rage. This particular day she was holding a plate; I thought she was going to throw it at me. “You’re not a whore—you’ve never had to be a whore!”

My mother laughed, and this is how she was when she shifted: She stood up straighter, her shoulders went back; she seemed taller, electric, charged. Her grin was tighter, her eyes brighter; even her hair seemed to rise. She wielded the plate in the air. “I have to be a whore to put food in your body! And you think you’re too good for me. You think you’re better than everybody!” She leaned in, the spit from her screaming landing on my cheeks. “How do you think I paid for my college? I was a whore! A whore! I’ve always been a whore!”

Beyond her hulking form I saw my toddler brother hiding behind the couch. I calculated the timing. Could I duck beneath her arm, grab my brother, carry him up the stairs, and lock him in my room with me without her catching us? Impossible. My mom was big, but she could be fast.

She gave me an opportunity to save my brother when she stomped into the kitchen and broke the plate in the sink: I grabbed him and made it to my room. I knew if we waited, this bad mom would go away, and I wished hard on all my stuffed animals for her to go driving, because good mom would come back from those drives, normal and tired and knowing nothing at all about the terrible things she’d said.

I didn’t know it then, but there was a diagnosis that was popular at the time that my mother seemed to conform to: multiple personality disorder, mocked and demonized after Hollywood’s Sybil. Thirty years later, the diagnosis would still be controversial, and I would still be embarrassed and afraid to stick my mom with such a label. Like prostitution, the very idea is salacious and sensationalized, rarely capturing the lived experience of those with the condition. It’s now called dissociative identity disorder (DID), and people who suffer from it have disrupted identities and can’t recall significant personal information. Almost always they’ve been deeply traumatized in childhood, often through repeated and prolonged sexual abuse. People with DID have two or more distinct personality states.

But I knew little about mental illness when I was 10.

When I turned 11, the men stopped coming around, and my mom stopped talking about her five jobs. She seemed to get a little better, likely because she had settled with a boyfriend named Ron, who was a firefighter. My mother always wanted a protector.

Chapter 5

It was during a time when she seemed saner that I decided to throw a birthday party for my mother. I was 11, and I wanted to show my mom that I loved her; I thought I had the power to keep the good mom going strong—that, like the moon, I could control her tides. Of course, I was a child; of course, I was wrong.

Birthdays so far had been memorable in a good way. At one Miss America–themed party, I invited several girls over to dress up, pageant style, and walk the runway across our living room floor. My mom took our pictures with the Polaroid, and we made frames out of cardboard, adorning each with phrases like “Number One!” and “Winner!” At another birthday party, my mom created a scavenger hunt, and we ran around looking for sparkly rocks or asking neighbors for a slice of cheese. When I had a sleepover in fifth grade, we all tried to make Shelly wet her sleeping bag after she fell asleep by rubbing ice on the inside of her arm, and my mom prepared scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast for everybody in the morning. She was intensely shy and repeatedly told us that “you shouldn’t stick your head above the crowd, or someone could chop it off.” But on our birthdays she allowed us to be special. For one day, my brother and I could wear the paper crown from Burger King and be the center of attention.

All of these parties required forethought, and kindness, so these memories are the most painful and awkward to revive. They’re like the gels they slide over the lights at a theater, suddenly casting everything in a reddish or greenish tone. If my mom was so achingly normal on my birthday, so generous, so present, what did that say about the ghost who faded away most nights? The spliced-in mom who threw plates and slapped and screamed? Or the mom who was like a baby, crying when my dad came to pick us up and take us away from her?

But it was at the birthday party for my mother that I threw myself that the isolated version of her reemerged, with full force.

I planned the party in cahoots with her boyfriend Ron. He wore polyester pants and zip-up ankle boots and advised me to put rubbing alcohol on a sunburn, which stung like hell. He and my mom drank pink wine from the box that perched on the top shelf of our refrigerator and listened to Barbra Streisand albums while filling in crosswords. My mom could complete the puzzles faster by herself, but she liked to coo in admiration when Ron held the pencil.

I asked Ron to pretend to take my mom to dinner and then to turn the car around 20 minutes later so everybody could jump out and yell “Surprise!” The only sticking point in the fantasy was who “everybody” was. My mother had no friends, so I didn’t know whom to invite. I called my friend Heather’s mom, a lady named Lucile, who had known my mom back when my parents were married. And I called my mom’s job, a place I knew as a boring room by the freeway where she worked with a chain smoker named Elaine doing “the books.” Elaine and Lucile said they’d come, but that made only two guests.

Should I ask some of the men to the party? I didn’t have their phone numbers, so I started inviting the neighbors. I went door to door, explaining that her birthday was coming up and would they please come to a party and hide in our closets and jump out and yell “Surprise!” These people, dragged away from their sitcoms and their Swanson dinners, looked bewildered: They didn’t know her. But wasn’t I the kid who was always trying to force their kids to act in plays I had made up? Yes, yes, I grinned. I told them to come over at seven; there would be cake.

I canvassed several blocks, but in the end maybe six people showed, plus Lucile and Elaine from work. They still wore the same confused expressions as they buzzed the doorbell, and I pushed them into closets or down below the couch. I was shaking with excitement as I turned out the lights and watched at the front window for Ron’s headlights to appear in the driveway; I had to shush someone’s whispered “What the hell are we doing here?” lest he blow the surprise.

Finally the car pulled up. I heard my mother giggling to Ron about his forgetfulness and having to come back home so soon as the door handle turned. I flicked on the lights, and all the strangers, on cue, leaped up and shouted.


She was framed in the doorway and reached backward for Ron’s arm. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish. I had forgotten that the confetti I had made from construction paper was still stuffed in my hand, so I threw it, in a sweaty clump, at her face. She batted it away. Slowly, the neighbors came forward.

“I’m Donna,” a woman said, extending her hand. “Happy birthday.”

My mom looked like she was going to cry, and I realized, like a sudden kick to the throat, what a terrible mistake I had made. This was worse than sticking your head above the crowd. It was assembling a crowd for her beheading.

“Why would you do this to me?” my mom whispered as I pulled out the cake Ron had bought from the grocery store. Everybody sang “Happy Birthday,” but it was awkward when some people didn’t remember her name. A few neighbors had brought presents like stationery or jars of peanuts wrapped in tissue, but it was clear my mom wouldn’t open them, since she kept saying “Thank you for coming!” after her first nibbles at the frosting.

She was swaying strangely in her beige flats. I tried to make grown-up party talk like I’d seen on TV, but nobody was interested in me, and I was distracted by my mom’s voice, which was that of a little girl, with too much breath and fear and pitch. I didn’t want anyone to see her like this; she usually stayed indoors when she was her tiniest self; the voice was a precursor to one of her marathon migraines. I had forgotten about getting anything to drink, so there was only the pink wine, and people drank tap water out of our mugs and the walls were getting too close and almost sweaty and the people seemed to want to leave but I couldn’t go home with them.

In the morning my mother thanked me for the party; she had spent the night getting soothed by Ron, and I had spent it counting and recounting my stuffed animals, touching their noses and tapping their heads in my special code, so I could face my mom again. 

Chapter 6

When I left my mother’s house at 14, I took only four things: a big bag of clothes, her dime-store eyelash curler, a photograph of my crossing guard, and my Holly Hobby diary from 1979. I had only wanted to grab quick and unnoticeable things from the house.

A judge had informed my father that kids could shift custody arrangements on their own as soon as they turned 14. This had always been my plan, to get away. I wanted it, but I also feared it, feared what it would do to my mother. Over Christmas break, at my father’s apartment, I secretly applied to private schools in San Francisco. The timing slipped up beneath me like a sheet of ice. And then I had to tell my mother.

I chose a moment when her back was to me, her arms full of laundry, as she was climbing the stairs.

“Mom?” I said, looking up at her wide back. I held the banister for support. “I applied to some high schools in San Francisco.”

She stopped. She didn’t put the laundry down.

Slowly, my mom climbed the rest of the stairs and disappeared into her room. She emerged a few seconds later, breathing heavily. “It’s your decision,” she said.

I started to climb up to her, but she motioned me to stop. “Your father can give you things I can’t. I knew you’d choose him one day.”

“It’s not about Dad,” I protested. “It’s about the school. There are some really good schools!”

My mom sighed, and her eyes filled with tears. “If you go to live with him, I’ll never see you again.”

I knew this was true. She would never come see me, and she wouldn’t call because I’d be living with my father. After I left, any connection would be up to me.

Because she had always relied on me. It had been my role to retrieve her from her months of sobbing after my father left and to interrupt the hours she’d spend in the tub in the dark. When she’d whisper “It’s just too hard to be here,” I’d rush around like a dog on ice to distract her: “Let’s watch a movie, let’s make popcorn, let’s look at my new dance! I’m making it up right now!”

It had been my role to shield her from the glances at the grocery store when she talked like a 5-year-old, counting the money that didn’t add up. I’d calmly ask the clerk to take out the ice cream and the sugar cereals, and yes, I’d tell the cashier, everything is fine. It had been my role to shake her to go back to the store when she’d drive away without my brother, when he was a toddler left screaming in the parking lot, waiting to be strapped in. It had been my role to keep my mom tethered—to me and to everything else. Somewhere deep and unspeakable inside me, I knew I had to get away.

It was after that that I got sick. My fever spiked to 102, then 103, and the pains in my belly were unbearable. My mom drove me to the hospital, and it was strange because it was called Children’s Hospital, and I hadn’t felt like a child for years. There was a kind nurse who stroked my head and called me poor baby, and then there was a needle in my arm and a doctor and a mask on my face, and I was being sped down a hallway on a gurney.

The doctor thought my appendix had ruptured, which was the reason for the rush. When they cut me open, though, they found nothing wrong at all. Later, the surgical reports from the hospital indicated that the operation lasted four hours, and they removed a perfectly healthy appendix and discovered some light endometriosis around my uterus. (They cut over to my right ovary, which was healthy and fine, and discovered only “streak tissue” where my left ovary should be: a birth defect, apparently, a missing piece.)

I think now that my body was merely marking another kind of pain. When I got better, I packed a suitcase. I layered my clothes and the diary, her eyelash curler, and the photo of the crossing guard. I then waited for the right moment. It arrived when one of my mother’s old boyfriends came by to fix something under the sink. He was a burly, sweaty kind of guy with a truck full of tools. I asked if he could drive me to San Francisco.

We lobbed my heavy bag into the back of his truck with all the hammers and old toilets. I didn’t know then that I would write about this day some 25 years later from a bright apartment in New York City and still be looking for the mom who watched me from the window. I didn’t know then that her premonition, or her curse, would come true.

What I did know, as my mother’s errant boyfriend and I pulled up in front of my dad’s apartment building, country music blaring from the truck’s windows, was that I wanted some kind of ceremony to make sense of leaving her. I knew, somewhere in my stitched-together gut, that I had just made a choice that would haunt me forever—I had chosen to amputate my mom, and without my lifeblood she would be too sick to love me again.

I had severed myself from myself. I had a sudden and strange fantasy of balloons and banners inside my father’s apartment: a welcome-home party. Something to show me the war had been worth it.

Over the next four years, the pains came at night, when the lowing of the foghorns would fold me to sleep. Then I would dream myself back into my old green house. In the dreams, my mother wouldn’t be there. I was alone and terrified. Somebody or something was coming to kill me, and I was afraid I was already dead, because I couldn’t move: My whole sleep self was a phantom limb, locked into the person I had left behind.


Chapter 7

Throughout my twenties, I wrote to my mom every four years or so, just to prove that I could. Every time I wrote, a card or a letter would arrive a few weeks later. “I can tell every word was written with the intention to hurt me,” she wrote more than once. When she replied around the time of my birthday, she sent me a card with a clown and balloons meant for a 3-year-old. Twice she misspelled my name. When I sent her a letter to tell her I had graduated from college, she sent me a note on scrap paper saying only “Congratulations. I wish you the best.” The longest letter she wrote was in response to a query I had sent her, asking her to explain what she thought had happened between us and what had transpired in her life to make us so distant and estranged.

She wrote back about her cats and dogs, and about the ghosts who lived in her house—she told me not to worry, as the ghosts were friendly and her yard was pretty. Aside from the graduation note, she always signed off with a warning: I had chosen to leave her, she said, and there was nothing she could do to change that.

After each letter, I simply shut off the mom switch I had briefly toggled on. I didn’t think about her, didn’t talk about her, forced her image back down each time something—a song on the radio, a certain shade of yellow—would sweep me back to childhood, and my blood would seem to rush in reverse. Aside from the spontaneous letters, I did everything I could to forget.

Madness has no logic, and it has terrible timing. One morning, after I decided at age 30 to have a baby, I cracked. I couldn’t leave the bathroom floor. I clung to the toilet and scraped my fingernails against the floor tiles. I leaned my head against the cool porcelain of the bathtub for relief. I was flooded with the smells from my childhood, of frozen Salisbury steak bubbling in the microwave and cut grass from outside. I was terrified that if I left the bathroom, my California hometown, Concord, would be right out the door. I could smell it that clearly. And yet I knew this was crazy. I was terrified I was going crazy.

I didn’t resist a hospital rescue. I knew I was unraveling.

A doctor gave me medicine right away. And then, after I waited for a while in a small room, a tall woman with blond hair walked in. She sat in a chair in front of me and met my eyes. She took my hands.

“Why?” I asked, and started to sob. The therapist’s grip was steady. “Why?” I cried harder, gasping. “Why did my mother molest me?”

It was the first time I’d said it out loud.

Chapter 8

After my psychic break, I spent a year in Los Angeles in the lower swells of a serious, occasionally suicidal, anxious depression. This yearlong darkness was much more than fallout from articulating a singular abuse. It came from arousing the suspicion of it and wishing my agonies could coalesce around a moment, then finding that they could not.

As a child I was pliant with my mother, skinless for years, and then I left. In my depression, I realized I’d left a still soft self behind, with her. For a long time, I didn’t have language for what had happened in her house.

She had moved away from my childhood home, but her phone number was easy to find. I called her for the second time in a decade.

Mom sounded exactly the same. She was breathy, girlish, distracted. “Where are you?” she said. “Oh, if you were right outside my door, I would give you a hug.”

I told her I was 500 miles away, living in Los Angeles.

“Oh Crissie,” she said, using my childhood name. “I remember what your head smelled like when you were a baby. You smelled so good. So good.”

I knew this was a strange thing to say. I knew it right then.

“I’m 30 now,” I said.

“That’s so hard to believe,” my mom answered, and she laughed. “Because I’m only 25!”

I told my mom I had gone through a depression, sparked by my decision to have a baby, although I hadn’t gone through with it. I asked about the genetic links to depression in our family, but despite her months of sleeping in the daytime, bathing in the dark, and ceaseless tears, she didn’t know of any. You should be happy, she said. What on earth was there to be sad about?

“Well, you,” I told her. “I don’t have a relationship with you.”

My mom was quiet for a minute. “That was your decision,” she said, her voice flat. “You’re the one who wouldn’t have anything to do with me. There was nothing I could do about that.”

My mother made me dead before my time, but it was she who was the ghost. I wanted to confront her with the things she’d done. I wanted to ask questions, and I wanted her to forgive me for leaving when I was young and scared, so I could have the chance to forgive her, too. I wanted her to change that old song on the radio that she insisted was our story—the story that left her jilted by a lover. Because, really, I was her child, and I couldn’t have left her if I tried.

She had checkmated us both. In her eyes, I was still the person who moved to my father’s apartment at 14; she was powerless against my father, and she was powerless against me. I had moved on some, and I couldn’t be that girl again—the girl with no edges, the girl who blotted her mother’s madness and still went to school and smiled and swallowed it down. I also couldn’t be my mother’s monster. I couldn’t be the one without the love inside to come back.

But these thoughts would only come long after I hung up the phone. Right then a familiar guilt had coated my throat, and I was silent. So my mom asked after my brother. Unlike me, he hadn’t contacted her even once after he moved away. I gave her the briefest of reports, and she said she was happy because he sounded happy.

Everything was so “happy,” I wondered if she was on some drug; I had always sort of wished I could attribute her behavior to an external substance. At this point in our phone call, I was starting to feel robotic, so it was surprisingly easy to ask her if she’d ever been addicted to anything. She sounded shocked.

“No!” she squealed. “Not even cigarettes. I haven’t had any problems ever. Knock wood. But you, with trying to have this baby…” She paused.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, the doctors said you’d probably never be able to have children.”

She was referring to the surgery when I was 14, when the doctors found nothing wrong.

“I don’t know how much you remember about that surgery,” my mom continued, “but it was very serious. The doctors had to remove one of your ovaries, and all of your female parts were inflamed and infected. They said you probably wouldn’t be able to have babies from all of the scar tissue.”

And there we were. Her trauma had seeped out again and foisted itself on me. But this time I knew the story wasn’t true. I had a medical report. And this time I could see the lie casting its glance back onto all her other stories—the desert birth, her almost starving, the daughter she claimed had stopped loving her. Nothing about my mother was solid but this: She had created her loss through my image, and I would careen forever if I couldn’t let her go.

I lay on the grass outside my Los Angeles apartment for a long time after that talk and looked at the stars. I wouldn’t call her again.

I did remember her, though.

She was soft. She had that dark hair she pinned back with barrettes, and blue eyes. She had a toothy smile and a full lower lip; she wore gray eye shadow and coral-colored lipstick. She liked sweet perfumes, rose and gardenia, and she dressed in jeans and pink cable-knit sweaters. She was tall to me, about five foot eight, with wide hips and a fleshy stomach and breasts. I loved her hands most of all: they were narrow, with tapered fingers and veins that pulsed thickly beneath the pale skin, and they smelled like Nivea cream and instant coffee.

I didn’t want to remember.


Chapter 9

When I found out that my mother was dead, I was enraged. Not because she was gone—for that I felt a slight uptick of relief. I was angry because nobody had told me earlier. I hadn’t known she was sick, hadn’t known there was a funeral, hadn’t been able to say good-bye. I had never known how to talk to my mother, but I wanted to say good-bye.

A lawyer had found my brother first to broach the news, and my brother had called me. This lawyer wanted us to sign some papers, but I called him directly to ask why no one in her family—in my family—had reached out to us.

The lawyer turned out to be a friend of my mother’s. She had done his bookkeeping for years. He told me that the family didn’t know how to find us, his tone cool and professional. This, I said, was impossible. I am an author and a professor at three universities; a Google search of my name yields plenty of hits. For $1.95, you can see my last seven addresses and get a criminal background check thrown in for free. My brother has a Web site with an address and phone number on it. After all, the lawyer himself tracked us down.

The lawyer then said that my mother had written us letters to tell us she was dying and we didn’t write her back.

“Oh,” I said, stunned. “She wrote to us?”

I didn’t tell him that the few letters she had sent me over the years had been in direct response to mine, that she’d never mustered the courage to make contact on her own.

“The family didn’t think you cared,” the lawyer continued. “You didn’t write back to her letters, so why would you go to her funeral?”

“But I never got a letter,” I protested, sounding every bit the 5-year-old I felt like inside.

The lawyer knew her husband, Clem, and her sister. “Well, honestly, I think Clem and Phyllis thought you had already caused your mother enough grief in her life, why should you be allowed to cause any more?” he said.

In my mother’s will, I discovered, she had left the house for Clem to maintain his “health and standard of living.” After he passes, half the sale of the house will be distributed to her relatives: Mom’s sister and her sister’s two children are to receive a quarter, and my brother and I will collect an eighth apiece. In 20 years, I may get a hundred bucks out of the deal. The only other things she had to give away were two diamond rings. These she bequeathed to my cousin Kathy.

After I got off the phone with the lawyer, I decided to take the risk and track down Clem. I had never met him. I discovered that he lived in a house he had shared with Mom for 18 years in Benica, a town 11 miles from where I grew up. I saw a picture of it on Google Maps: It was a one-story clapboard house, painted blue with white trim. Clem was 72, but when he answered the phone he sounded younger. Your mother, he said, was the nicest person he had ever known. 

Chapter 10

“Your mother loved you,” Clem said. “She cried over you all the time. She never understood why you never came and saw her. Birthdays especially.”

Clem confirmed the letters she supposedly wrote when she was sick, though he never saw them. He said she cried when she didn’t hear back from us. He said he didn’t know how to find us for the funeral. In fact, he said, “I didn’t know if you was even alive.”

There must have been 150 people at the funeral, he told me. Everyone loved her.

I remembered the birthday party I had tried to throw for her when I was a kid, and I remembered her intense fear of strangers. I realized Clem had an entirely different understanding of my mom, one based on the sweet self she also showed me sometimes. Then I asked him if he thought my mother was afraid to contact us and if this was why we didn’t get the letters. This stumped him for a moment, but then he went back to a familiar refrain.

I had done a real bad thing, leaving her like that, he said, but she was never angry—just the rest of the family was, for treating her so bad.

I remembered the way my mother had told her family that I was dead and wondered if they ever believed it. I thought how strange it was to be a ghost: solid enough for everyone’s projections to land and stick but too ephemeral to fight back. I also felt that Clem didn’t like talking to me.

She was the smartest person in town, he said. I sensed he was trying to get off the phone. “You really missed a lot not knowing your mother.”

I asked him if she was afraid of dying.

“No, because she’d already died twice before,” he said. “With you and your brother, giving birth. She died both times, in childbirth, but then she came back.”

Clem told me someone was waiting for him at the store. But I wanted to hear more.

What about our report cards and stories and drawings and photographs from when we were kids, I asked him. I had been an avid journaler as a child, and my brother drew tons of pictures back then. My mother kept all of these things in boxes labeled with dates. When I left her house, I took only the diary and the eyelash curler and the picture of my crossing guard. I didn’t have school photos or birthday pictures. There was nothing to prove our childhoods with our mother, only the scattering of pictures of the visits with our dad that marked us growing up.

“No, no, we threw all of that stuff away,” Clem said. His voice was rushed. “She didn’t want it anymore.”

The depth of this loss stopped me cold. “Um, could I have a picture of her, something of hers?”

“The only pictures I got are the pictures of her and me, and they’re up on the wall.”

“Could I get a copy of that picture, just to see what she looks like?”

“No,” Clem answered, his voice firm. “I don’t got nothing.” He hung up the phone.

A week after I got the news of my mother’s death, I called my aunt Phyllis, her only sister. Clem had told me she had remarried and was living in a retirement community in Texas, just enough information for me to find her phone number. Despite Clem’s promise of the family’s anger, Phyl spoke with me for an hour and a half.

“Your mom loved you kids so much,” Phyl told me. “She loved you more than she loved herself.”

Phyl told me mom tried to reach me many times. My aunt was 73, but she too sounded younger, the Kansas accent flattening her tones. Your mother even went to your dad’s house in San Francisco to try to see you, she said. She said someone who worked for him answered the door (my mother thought it was a butler or a maid) and told my mom to never set foot in the vicinity again. Of course, this was a fantasy: my father lording over a batch of servants. Supposedly my mom called repeatedly. Phyl’s assurance made me doubt myself. Had she ever really called me? Why hadn’t I answered the phone? She went to your high school graduation, Phyl said. “You looked right at her,” she claimed. “But you wouldn’t speak to her, so she left.”

This story, at least, I had heard. When I was set to graduate from high school, I sent an invitation to my mother but didn’t receive a reply. I gave a speech, but there were hundreds in the audience, and the lights were in my eyes. My brother said later that he saw her there, phantom-like, hovering in the back. When I went to look for her, she was already gone.

My aunt said my mom wanted us to have the things my father could provide—private school, those imaginary butlers and maids—that she herself could not. And then she wanted us to make our own decisions about him. She never wanted us to hate our father the way she did.

Phyllis remembered the trip my mom and brother and I made to Kansas more than a year after the divorce. My mom hadn’t told anyone the news for many months, so it wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t spoken about her fantasies of suicide, her fears of starvation, or the way she would crack up at night. Nevertheless, my aunt said my mom was in a state of shock during the visit, withdrawn and barely speaking. I wish someone had known to help her more.

Later, Phyllis sent me a few things from my mother: two tiny paintings my mom had liked and probably picked up from the weekend garage sales she used to troll, as well as a few pictures of her in college, looking surprisingly young and pretty. She didn’t have pictures of me or my brother, save for some silhouettes she rescued from my mom’s attic. I remember these silhouettes: We had them made during a trip to Disneyland, and I find it somehow fitting that this final keepsake is but an outline.

After I got off the phone with Phyllis, I decided to call Kathy, the cousin to whom my mother was closest.

Kathy, too, told me how much my mom loved me, and said she used to have pictures of my brother and me all over the walls in her house. She said my mother told her that she had tried to be in touch with me but that I “wanted nothing to do with her.”

I think about the reasons a mother would need to believe her children betrayed her. The simplest answer is the sympathy such a story garnered, the wall of warm bodies it built around her, soothing her. Maybe she just couldn’t endure the idea that she had caused pain; there simply wasn’t room in her psyche to stand up and be accountable, as she’d been curled up in a little ball, ready for blows, for so long. And perhaps my mother needed a betrayer because she had been betrayed. Maybe the pictures on her walls weren’t really of us but of herself, the little girl she couldn’t remember. Somebody had betrayed that child. She lived through a horror that she couldn’t name because she couldn’t remember it. But she knew that she felt it, so it had to have been real. My brother and I were the people she remembered, and we had loved her and left her behind. We were the requisite beasts.

Kathy wondered out loud whether her brain cancer had been around much earlier than anybody knew, whether maybe cancer kept her from living in reality sometimes and she just learned to hide it.

Kathy described the day of my mother’s diagnosis. My mom had been to her local gym, but after her workout she just sat in a chair staring into space. The gym was closing, and an employee urged her to go home. She didn’t respond. The employee tried again; she seemed catatonic. Finally, my mother got up and walked away.

According to Kathy, Clem found her later, at home and in bed. When he walked into the bedroom, my mother started yelling: “Who are you? Get out of my house!” Clem ran for the neighbors, and she yelled at them, too. They called an ambulance, and at the hospital doctors ran scans and discovered the tumor. She later told Kathy that she didn’t remember a thing; she had no idea how she even drove home from the gym.

This, I told Kathy, sounded exactly like the alternate personality I knew from my childhood. Her spaciness. Her yelling nonsensical, dangerous things and then forgetting that she had screamed at all. My mom could snap into another self, and she did. And whether the tumor caused it or was merely a parallel discovery, nobody will ever know. 

Chapter 11

If I wasn’t going to get confirmation of my mom’s mental illness, from Clem or Phyl or anyone else, I wanted proof of how it might have begun. I wanted the truth about the grandfather. And I got that truth when I spoke with one woman who knew my mom when she was young. This person unfurled her story like a balled-up blanket, and suddenly it was all before me.

My mother had been severely abused.

In 1953, she said, my maternal great-grandfather began molesting my then 5-year-old mother. The assaults went on for years. This person knew because she had grown up around the grandfather and he had raped her, too.

She had never told another soul about her own abuse, this person on the phone, and she sounded relieved to have it out. She made some excuses for James Falkner, said he had once owned a granary in the small town of Bel, and had been one of the richest men in town. But then the Depression hit and he lost it all. Maybe this is why he abused young girls, she reasoned; maybe it was repression, frustration, or rage. And then she asked me not to reveal her identity. James Falkner had long been dead, but she had her own family to protect.

This person was in touch with my mom in the last years of her life, when, she said, my mom finally started to remember.

“Your mother, she carried a lot of pain,” the woman said. “She didn’t remember the abuse until a few years ago, just before she got the brain tumor. But then she started having nightmares.”

She said my mother called her when the nightmares began; she was having night flashes of someone, a man, coming to her at night and assaulting her, but at first she didn’t know who it was.

“I didn’t want her to think it was her father, because it wasn’t,” she said. “The grandfather moved in with the family when your mother was about 5. Your mom thought her mother knew it was happening, and it happened all the time. For years.”

I cried when I got off the phone, with sadness for my mom but mostly with relief. The singular darkness lifted from her and landed on a person I had never known but had heard about in snatches of her madness. My mother’s grandfather stories were sequestered away in the part of her brain that lashed and screamed and called me a whore, the same part of her brain that marched her up the stairs and into my bed on a night I wish I could forget. Language fails to reach the experience, the twinned despondence and terror of molest, but I remember it like I remember her words he raped me every night. And when I learned it was true—that my memory of her blocked memory was solid and valid and real—I felt a thin kind of hope. At the end of her life, it seemed, a light had cracked through the blockage; there was a bridge. The mom everyone said was so nice, the mom who “loved everybody, forgave everybody,” was beginning to remember the unforgivable grandfather. And maybe, at the end of her life, there could have been a bridge to me.

I remembered the story of the grandfather that my mother told me. Even when I was a kid, I felt he was part of the mystery, and sometimes when I was brave I would tiptoe into asking her about him.

“I don’t remember anything about my childhood,” she would say. “From about six through sixth grade, it’s all black. I remember dressing up as someone called Mrs. Jones when I was really little, but maybe that’s because there was a picture.”

“And your grandfather?” I asked her.

“I don’t remember him, either,” she said. “There are the stories about him burying his eyeglasses in the garden, but you already know those.”


Chapter 12

I’d been afraid, all these years, to diagnose my mother with a mental illness, especially because the disease I thought she had had been so stigmatized. In the nineties, a scandal erupted around recovered memories; experts and laypeople were suddenly claiming that experiences like hers were impossible. The fashion turned, and people suddenly were supposed to never be able to forget serious abuse: The therapists suggested stories and foisted memories on their impressionable patients.

My mother, of course, never went to therapy. In fact, she hated the very idea of psychiatry; I remember her telling me once that there was likely a reason she didn’t remember her childhood, and she didn’t want anybody digging into what she had effectively suppressed.

But if people didn’t believe in the memory blocking, then you can’t have dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities, because it is the repression of memories that causes the self to split. And some people don’t believe DID even exists. This is why, despite my mother hitting all of its hallmark signs, I’d been scared to label her that way.

I decided to call up one of the most respected figures in the joint fields of psychiatry and trauma, Judith Herman, who wrote the groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery. Herman believes DID is real. “DID is controversial among academics who don’t know anything about psychiatry, but within psychiatry it’s a well-established diagnosis. It’s a controversy that lives on quite irrespective of actual clinical experience or research experience,” she told me. She noted that several new books had been published in the past year about treatment of DID, and that seminal research conducted in the eighties by Frank Putnam had been replicated many times. This research showed that about 95 percent of people with multiple personalities experienced significant trauma in childhood and that incest was among the most common forms of that trauma. “DID is almost always related to very severe, early-onset, prolonged, repeated child abuse.”

Then I talked about DID with my partner, Lo Charlap. Lo teaches psychopathology and trauma at New York University, and she thinks the memory debate may be rooted in a problem with language. Basically, the people who study memory and say that repressed memories don’t exist, and the people who study psychology and say they do, may both be right. It’s common, Lo says, for a person to not be able to talk about her abuse for many years after it happened. “If you don’t have words for an experience, you can’t make it a memory,” she says, “because we communicate memory through words.” But that doesn’t mean people like my mother have no recollection at all. “It’s more of an unsymbolized sense or a diffuse knowing. If your mom didn’t have any knowledge of what happened to her at all, she wouldn’t have been living in response to it all the time.”

In other words, a “recovered memory” can be this: After therapy or years of a safe and protected life, a person can suddenly give language to what was once only sensory terror. That’s what happened with my mom.

My mother also, in her way, remembered her abuse all her life; she remembered it enough to know that she couldn’t think about her childhood. Possibly she remembered it in her migraines and her frightened and depressed ways and, alternately, in her prostitution. This, too, is a kind of remembering.

She said her grandfather died when she was in seventh grade, and that’s when her memory came back. And there was most certainly no connection. She loved the phrase “most certainly.” She tried to kill herself shortly after her grandfather died, and she spent some time in a hospital. This she remembered and my aunt verified. Her parents told her that her suicide attempt was because her schoolwork was too hard, and she believed them.

I still don’t know what makes a person crazy. Was it when her grandfather raped her or when she knew her mother was in the bedroom next door pretending not to hear? I don’t know if it makes a person crazy to remember and to forget at the same time.

I don’t know if it makes a person crazy to leave her mother’s house or to never go home again.

Chapter 13

Writing my way through to my mother sometimes feels like a Faulkner story: There’s no linear narrative to keep me steady. Just like his character Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury, my mom didn’t have a voice; she was a gaping hole at the center of her story. William Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury his favorite work but also his biggest failure: He could never get her right.

And then there are the buried memories and the incest: These, too, have felt like Faulkner.

And, in fact, they are.

While I was looking for the mother I had lost, I discovered by accident that the Faulknerian feel of my family was no coincidence: The great Southern novelist Faulkner was my maternal great-uncle several generations back. (I was the first person in my immediate family to discover this.)

My mother’s mother was a Falkner, without the u. I remember her from childhood and our family trips to Kansas: a stern, plain woman who kept tiny ceramic animals in a glass terrarium in her kitchen.

It was easy to work backward along the Falkner line, as I had some stories and the author’s historians and enthusiasts cleared the genealogical path. I easily found that her maternal grandfather, another Falkner, lived with the family until Mom was a young teenager, and this I could verify with address records and death indexes.

In all of Faulkner’s stories, the once grand Southern dame is hobbled; her wig is askew and her slip is showing; she’s haughty and confused toward the blacks who live in cabins on her crumbling property, and her shame has soured her speech. This is partly because the famous Colonel’s son—Faulkner’s grandfather, who features heavily in his fiction—was a rascal and a drunk; he sold his father’s railroads to fund his years of alcoholism. His son, Faulkner’s father, was forever trying to restore the lost fortune and prestige. In Faulkner’s lineage, there was great promise and a fall from grace. In mine there was only the fall. And for William Faulkner, race was a sharp, particular pain embedded in the Southern side: foreign, to be sure, but also familiar, because the Faulkners had black slaves. In my family line, the racism was more intimate and the hate more precise, because the Faulkners had black spouses.

I wonder at the racism that Faulkner himself writes so much about, about swallowing a public rage and shame and then passing it privately on.

My story catches another reflective gleam of Faulkner, as incest, real or fabricated, is a major theme in his work. I don’t know what really happened in Faulkner’s life or how far back along our joint tree the abuse coils and springs, but I do know that the author thought about it a lot. Caddy Compson’s brother only imagines the incest in The Sound and The Fury, but he also shows that even fabrications have the power to drive one to mania.

After all, when I was 9 years old my mother gave me a lock for my bedroom door and told me to use it, forcing me to imagine my way into the demons only she could see. Around the same time, she yelled out the story about her grandfather raping her. Back then I couldn’t confirm the story, and later she forgot she had even told me about it.

I learned then that there wasn’t much distance between a myth and its validation. 

Chapter 14

I hadn’t seen my brother for almost a year before we learned our mother had died. After all, estrangement runs in our family. But after we discovered our mother had passed away, he invited me to his apartment in Brooklyn. Despite my misgivings, I went.

For two years before our mother’s death, I’d been trying to connect with my brother, unsuccessfully. He’d been very angry with me, he said. One of the problems was that he felt I didn’t respect his boundaries. I had mothered him as a child, he said. Now I had to let him grow up. One of the problems was that I talked about our mother to him after my breakdown at 30, when I was looking for validation of my memories, and he didn’t like talking about her. I had invaded his psyche, so he shut down. Still, we agreed then on the big pieces of our history, on the way she acted and the way she cut us out. But he was done with Mom, he said then. He didn’t think about her anymore.

Mom’s death changed things. We decided we’d spend some time together, mourning in our own way. I met my brother on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, two blocks from his apartment. We walked to the river. As we walked, we talked about our work, looked at the Canadian geese pecking at snow behind a wire fence. He’d taken a few days off from his job as a designer at an advertising agency, though he felt strange, like I did, telling people why. The standard gush of compassion felt unwarranted, undeserved: We weren’t like other people with dead mothers, and no, we weren’t leaving town for the funeral.

We went back to his apartment: It was filled with his wooden carvings and paintings and stringed instruments of all types. My brother is an artist and musician. Ever since he was a young child, his imagination was wild and bright; he’s since parlayed that into a successful career. Andrew made tea. His cat, Mothra, was in heat and gurgling on the floor. She tried to hump his dog.

We tried to talk about Mom again as we sat in his place, but we didn’t know how. I played with the rim of my teacup and watched the animals, and my brother posited a theory. “I think Candy had a lot of pain in her life, especially in utero,” he said, and then paused, getting me to meet his eyes. “I think she wasn’t wanted when Gwen”—our grandmother—“got pregnant with her. In fact, she was hated.”

My brother, like me, was looking for answers. He was looking for a singular reason, a starting place for her strangeness, a wounding that preceded and absolved us. I told him how sad I felt that we didn’t say good-bye, that nothing had been resolved.

“It is sad,” he continued. “But I think for Mom it’s all OK now. All of this doesn’t matter anymore.”

I felt suddenly, utterly alone. I picked up the cat, but I didn’t have what she needed either: She clawed her way out of my arms to look for the dog.

While my brother and I agreed on our past, we couldn’t find the same present. Andrew felt a kind of spiritual connection to our mother in her passing, while I couldn’t feel her at all. “I believe Mom still loves Dad,” he said. “And he—he still loves her.”

I flashed to a childhood memory: our father dropping us off after a weekend visit. We would return home to find our mother hiding behind her bed, crying and refusing to come out, until she was sure he had driven several miles away.

There was no love between them, as far as I could remember.

“Are you sure that’s not a wish?” I asked him.

My brother didn’t think so; now he wanted peace, whereas I still wanted answers. He could say good-bye. After our talk, my brother remembered my mom’s fondness for the Mamas and the Papas, so he played a rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” on his ukulele for my mother and recorded it. It’s a very sweet version, high-pitched and twangy. I cried as I listened to it, for the yearning and the gentleness. It’s this softness I love in my brother, and he seemed especially so right then, longing for a mom and dad to love each other.

With her death, my brother could close his chapter on our mom. But not me. I still reread her letters. I can’t help it. It’s as if I’m waiting for her voice to rise from the page. Right now the letters are in a folder in a bag in a cabinet in my therapist’s locked office. I open them, one at a time, with my therapist, so I don’t have to be alone. But I am still so alone when I look at her. It’s the only way to be. And I still look for more clues. Several months ago, I called the hospital where my mother was treated for her final illness and was told that I could access her records, but first I’d have to fill out forms proving my relationship as her daughter. The medical secretary warned me that if we were talking about a brain tumor, this could number in the hundreds of pages, and I would have to pay.

I didn’t write in for the records. Maybe it was because I was afraid to look. But also maybe it was because there was nothing more to find. Even if I discovered the tumor was located in the temporal lobe, which is associated with psychosis, or in the frontal lobe, linked to depression, where would I be? Maybe I could understand more of her medical history, but nothing would clear my psychic inheritance or give me back a good-bye.

I also realized that, in the end, I don’t want the records. I didn’t want her stack of sickness and death to overcome the few small things I have from her life.

As I sat with Andrew, I thought about the six letters I have from my mom and the eyelash curler I stole from her 25 years ago, sitting next to a huge pile of paper chronicling the months of my mother’s dying. I thought about the boxes of photos, report cards, and diaries that Clem threw away. I wished I had taken the photographs of her, and of me as a kid. I wished I had my school reports, the stories I wrote, my drawings, my letters, my baby pictures, my grades: anything to teach me who I am. Could there ever be a proper memorial for such a loss?

Perhaps the memorial is this search, which will probably last, in some form, forever. Still, I think, as I write from my bright apartment with my partner Lo and our dogs and our books scattered about, that the voice I found was my own.

Andrew and I still couldn’t talk to one another very well after our one meeting at his apartment. Even dead, our mother stifled us. We remained estranged.

Two years after her death, my brother and I decided to go to a therapist to help us break the thick silence. We met with a woman who wore weird harem-style pants that she paired with suit vests and cowboy boots. We tried. In a room together, I saw that I still wanted to go back and my brother wanted to move forward. But at least we were talking again. We had left and lost our mother. But we had not entirely lost each other. 



Simon Lewis was a Hollywood producer on the rise before an accident took his wife’s life and nearly his own.

By Chris Colin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 07

Chris Colin is the award-winning author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93, which GQ magazine called “essential reading” and the National Press Club selected for its 2004 author awards. He’s a frequent New York Times contributor and a contributing writer at Afar magazine. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper, and more for The New York Times MagazineWiredSmithsonianMother JonesCondé Nast PortfolioVia, McSweeney’s, and several anthologies. He wrote the long-running On the Job column for the San Francisco Chronicle/, was an early writer/editor at, and is coauthor of The Blue Pages. He lives in San Francisco and works and teaches at the Writers’ Grotto, a writers’ collective.

Photographer: Jonathan Snyder is associate photo editor at A regular contributor to Pop-Up Magazine, he has also shot for San Francisco,, and Wired.

Audio Producer: Pat Walters is a producer for Radiolab.

Sound/Video Editor, Fact Checker: Olivia Koski

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Macbeth Film ClipSimon Lewis

Archival Film Set Photos: 

“LOOK WHO’S TALKING” © 1989 TriStar Pictures, Inc.  All Rights Reserved  

“AGE-OLD FRIENDS” © 1989 Home Box Office  All Rights Reserved  

Simon Lewis’s INK talk can be viewed in full online at or at

Special thanks to: Simon Lewis and the Lewis family

Published in August 2011. Design updated in 2021.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.

Lewis’s path to Hollywood began with plans to become a lawyer. At 19, he’d emigrated with his parents and siblings from Wimbledon, in London, to Southern California, and headed straight to UC Berkeley to earn a law degree. But film and theater were his passions. Even as a boy he’d been a natural producer. He read Macbeth at 12 and liked it, so he sat down, took out some paper, and began adapting it into a screenplay. He wrote for eight months. Then, with Rushmore-ian

panache, he found a camera, corralled his classmates, assigned them parts, and convinced them to spend two years shooting. His mother supplied the catering. There were early-’70s

technical challenges. To add the audio, he projected the footage on a wall at his house and recorded his actors speaking their lines in sync with their moving mouths. A perfectionist, Lewis hadn’t wanted to record the rattle of the projector, so he moved his cast outside, into the yard. They spoke their lines into a boom mic while watching the footage through his living room window. Later he’d finagled a volunteer gig running the lights at the local theater, just to be part of things.

With his degree from Berkeley, he’d maneuvered his way into entertainment law, which led to managing talent, which eventually led to producing. Lewis had thick curls and steady, clear blue eyes. He was that special and simple genre of person who does all that he sets out to do.

The Simon Lewis driving down the road on this early California evening does not make complex or particularly profound movies. He makes small and sometimes cheesy movies. In Slipping Into Darkness, from 1988, three snobby college girls fall into a horror-style revenge plot with some biker dudes. InYou Can’t Hurry Love, from the same year, modern-day dating is skewered: video-dating-service antics, lousy matches, true love at last. The New York Times called it “a very dim comedy.”

The paper had no words at all for 1989’s C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. In it, a science-lab cadaver gets improbably loose early on and a bitchin’ ’80s drum track kicks in. Then a bookish high school student exclaims “Oh,” and his jeans-jacket-wearing buddy exclaims “Shit!” and an insane guitar solo screams. Via lurching plot points, their small town is overtaken by cannibalistic zombie types. Even a tiny poodle becomes a zombie, and the guitar solos keep coming and coming.

It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Lewis was diligent and professional, and people liked him, and he possessed the mysterious Hollywood gene—part drive, part charm, part genius for packaging ideas—that made things happen. Still, it wasn’t until a particularly hokey project fell in his lap in the late ’80s that he hit it big.

The film seemed destined for instant obscurity: a sarcastic baby whose thoughts the audience can somehow hear. It was one of many films then being shot cheaply in Canada in the hopes of bringing in just enough for a small profit. The actors who agreed to star were hardly A-list. John Travolta was a has-been from the ’70s and Kirstie Alley a little-known TV actress. Lewis loved it immediately.

As co-producer he quickly began pushing Look Who’s Talking to be far more ambitious than what the studio had in mind. It was as though a line cook from Burger King had shown up in chef’s whites and proceeded to set each table with the finest silver. Lewis was sweet and politic, but he could play hardball. At one point, about to fly to Canada to begin filming, he simply refused to take a call from executives, sensing that they might cancel the trip—and maybe the project. He got on his plane and made sure the shoot happened.

The real trouble began when filming was finished and TriStar received the final cut. One must mind-warp back to the late ’80s to accept the following truth: The film was too good.

Having planned for a modest release, TriStar suddenly found itself sitting on a potential hit. The studio’s first impulse was skepticism. When Lewis and his fellow producers market-tested an early cut, the assembled viewers responded so enthusiastically that TriStar seemed to think they were plants. The studio decided to conduct its own test at an undisclosed location. The scores were even higher.

Following a last-minute scramble, Look Who’s Talking was released in October 1989 at 1,200 theaters across the country. It was an instant smash, a record breaker. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, When Harry Met Sally, and The Little Mermaid all came out that year, and Look Who’s Talking beat each of them at the box office; it beat Field of Dreams and Born on the Fourth of July combined.

After Look Who’s Talking, Lewis was never busier. He executive produced an Emmy-winning TV movie called Age-Old Friends and some variety specials starring Howie Mandel. He brought Universal Studios an idea for a don’t-mess-with-nature sci-fi/horror film about a biosphere gone awry. Universal liked it and paid Lewis and other writers to develop the script, though ultimately the project foundered. No matter; Lewis had other irons in the fire. He’d been invited to teach film to grad students at USC, and he had a meeting scheduled with a director and producer at Sony Classics regarding a soon-to-be Nick Nolte film.

But that’s tomorrow. On this night, March 2, 1994, Lewis has an entirely different sphere of his life to celebrate.

He met Marcy by chance—a shared drive to a ski cabin on a vacation with mutual friends—less than two years earlier. By the time they reached Fresno, there had been no question; in a year, they were married. She was talkative and vivacious to his pale British bookishness. On a trip to Hawaii, she sunned on the sand while Simon scrunched into the narrow shadow of a palm tree, bent over scripts. Someone had once predicted Marcy would marry a left-handed Englishman. Simon was ambidextrous. Close enough, they decided. They adored each other.

And now Marcy is in the passenger’s seat. Simon has picked her up from work—at 27 she is marketing director at downtown L.A.’s Music Center—and they are back on the road. The two have been married just five months and are celebrating their first major purchase together: a sleek new Infiniti only two days old. In the way that one splurge begets another, they are treating themselves to dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. Had Simon paused to tie a shoe before getting in the car, or had Marcy made one more phone call, everything would have ended differently.


It’s hard now not to see that March night unfolding cinematically—as Lewis himself, at a pitch meeting or on a set, might have described it. Random events are inserted into a timeline, actions imbued with meaning. Hollywood is in the business of making sense of things—a ridiculous sort of sense, often enough, but sense all the same. A two-day-old car bearing a young couple to dinner assumes all the hope and innocence of youth. A white ’78 Chevy van, also bought two days earlier, turns on to a tree-lined residential street, and a horrible plot is set in motion.

Around 7 p.m., Simon and Marcy are heading west on Beverly Boulevard, nearly at the restaurant. Marcy mentions that they are close to her boss’s home, which has recently been renovated, and suggests they make a detour to see it. At that moment the white van screams full-speed through a stop sign at McCadden Place. Maybe the driver is thinking he will miraculously thread the five lanes of traffic. Maybe he is too drunk to think.

The van rams Lewis’s side of the Infiniti at 75 miles per hour, bulldozing it sideways across the remaining lanes until it hits the curb. There is nowhere to go but up. The car flies and spins through the air until its path is interrupted by a maple tree on the corner of Beverly and McCadden. It slams into the tree several feet up the trunk, then comes to rest in a nearby garden.

Neighbors will later say they thought it was an earthquake or a bomb. One couple ducks under the dinner table. When they finally run outside, they come upon a scene of chaos and carnage. The Infiniti is scarcely recognizable as a car. The van looks oddly normal at first, except it is upside down, its wheels still spinning. Witnesses see a young man sprinting up McCadden, presumably to find help.

A screenwriter couple—colleagues of Lewis’s, incredibly—are driving to dinner when they come upon the accident. They park and run over. Lewis’s body has been crushed into the collapsed space between the center console, the driver’s-side door, and the steering column. Standing just two feet away, his colleagues do not recognize him.

Moving to the passenger side, they see that neither occupant can be removed without dismantling the car. The wife hands flares to a meter maid who’d been in the area and waits for help. An off-duty paramedic has already called 911. No survivors, he reports.

It takes over an hour and two Jaws of Life tools for the rescue team to splay the Infiniti open. The car still bears dealer plates, and with no access to Lewis’s wallet, the police scrawl “UNK” on the collision report. The driver of the van is a mystery, too. That fellow sprinting up McCadden was not getting help: He was putting as much distance as possible between himself and the newlyweds whose lives he’d just annihilated.

LAPD detectives will eventually discover that the van has been purchased with cash two days earlier. They’ll find an address for the driver, but he’ll have cleared out by the time they get there. California is the nation’s capital of hit-and-runs, and Los Angeles has the most in the state; half of the 50,000-plus non-highway accidents reported to the LAPD the previous year were hit-and-runs. This night a man in his twenties or thirties joins thousands of other motorists who cause accidents, flee, and then slip undetected back into ordinary life.

The extraction team shears the roof and doors off the Infiniti. Marcy’s face has no blood on it; she looks like she is sleeping. Simon, for his part, is shattered in every way possible. When at last they get to him, rescuers are shocked to discover he has a pulse. They slice through his seatbelt, cut off his clothes, and ease his broken body into an ambulance.

Inside his smashed skull, his brain has begun to swell. Ruptured blood vessels leak, causing more oxygen to be needed, thereby causing the swelling to increase and, with nowhere for it to go, to destroy more and more brain tissue. The paramedics slip on a bag-valve mask and flow meter that feeds oxygen into his lungs, but pressure within his skull is skyrocketing. As the team speeds him to Cedars-Sinai, two miles away, blood begins to trickle from his ears.

Later, a doctor will suggest that being stuck in the wreckage all that time might have kept him alive. Because rescuers couldn’t extract and wrap him in blankets, Lewis’s body temperature fell to hypothermic levels. Death went into slow-motion.


Before the protagonist can be remade, he must lose everything. Before the third act must come the twist. And before a once ordinary man starts saying strange things about a river of time and the slope of consciousness, there must first be just the banal awfulness of a mangled body.

Lewis had been crushed. He was hemorrhaging internally, and blood was filling every available space under his skin. By the time he was admitted at Cedars-Sinai—John Doe #584291, birth date 00-00-0000—his body had swollen to twice its normal size.

His brain was in crisis. Intracranial hematoma—the pooling of blood within the head, caused by a vessel rupture—falls into three main types: epidural (outside the brain and its fibrous covering, the dura), subdural (between the brain and the dura), and intraparenchymal (within the brain tissue itself). Lewis had all three. What’s more, it appeared that a full third of his right hemisphere had been destroyed. There was no time to worry about what that would mean. Blood continued to pump throughout his skull, even into the soft tissue around his eye sockets. His eyes bulged black with periorbital ecchymosis—what doctors call raccoon eyes.

The average human carries about 10 to 12 units of blood—a carton and a half of milk, roughly. Forty-five units of new blood would be pumped into Lewis that night. The transfusions washed right through, but they kept his cells alive. The surgeon pumped surgical gel into the body in an attempt to seal the blood vessels and applied compression around the exterior of the body—a series of tourniquets, essentially.

An emergency craniotomy was authorized next, to remove the hematomas from within Lewis’s skull. But he had sustained a massive stroke and slipped into the deepest level of coma possible, the Glasgow Level 3. His body was shutting down.

In the trunk of the Infiniti, police had found a day planner containing names and numbers. Sometime after eleven on that night, the phone rang at the home of Lewis’s parents, in Sherman Oaks. His mother answered.

“Is this … Mrs. Patricia Lewis?” a voice asked.

“Yes, who are you?”

“Are you alone?”

“No, I’m with my husband. Who is this?” she replied.

A pause.

“May I speak to … Mr. Basil Lewis?”

“Not until you tell me who you are,” she said, British willfulness coming on.

Another pause, and then a new voice.

“This is Detective Pearson, West Traffic Division. Marcy Lewis is dead and your son is critical.”

Lewis’s mother is perhaps the toughest of the family: no nonsense, stiff upper lip, all that. She crumbled. Lewis’s father took the phone and listened to the detective. Then he hung up and took his wife’s hands.

“Our son is still alive, and he needs us to be strong for him,” he said softly. They had no idea what that would mean.


Because we saw too many soap operas as kids, or because its contours are improbable, or because we just can’t bear to believe such a thing is real, there’s something otherworldly about a coma. In reality, of course, comas are simply mundane and awful. Loved ones don’t whisper just the right thing at just the right time, causing the patient magically to revive. More often at this level of injury, all that comes is death or a persistent vegetative state. A few hours at level three and doctors assume permanent damage to the brain, should the patient be lucky enough to wake at all. Lewis’s parents sat by their comatose son for four weeks.

Then one day in April, Lewis’s eyes opened.

He looked around without curiosity. He didn’t feel reborn, as the formulation has it; he had no recollection of even having lived before, no sense of self, no sense of there being anybody or anything dwelling within. Nor did he seem to care. A voice from nowhere asked his name. How could a person just born into this world have a name? More compelling was his new conviction that time was somehow a river, and he was somehow in the midst of it, and it was somehow flowing from the future back toward him.

The voice asked again. What is your name?

“Simon,” his mouth murmured, his first word in a month.

“Do you know where you are?”

Less luck with this question. It seemed … a trick somehow. His eyes closed and sleep came over him. Later, he awoke with a sense of threat. His parents came into the room and he told them, “There are monsters in the mountains, but no one must know.” His mother promised to take care of it.

Later, on the way home, Lewis’s father turned to her.

“I’ve just realized something,” he said. “Simon doesn’t know he was in an accident.”

The next morning, his parents hung a sign on the door to room 7123: “No visitors allowed. Do not refer to patient’s wife.”

The days ran together during those first couple weeks. When awake, Lewis marveled at light and shadow, was staggered by the sparkling of the sun on the blinds. At times he felt a kind of ecstasy. Other times he was immobilized in a physical world he didn’t recognize. He saw an object on a wall and eventually came to remember that it was called a clock. But he didn’t know what it did or how time worked.

At one point a nurse offered to give Lewis a bed bath. His jaw was wired shut so he smiled a yes. He thought she’d offered a bird bath. He wondered why she thought he was a bird, but the idea didn’t seem strange. That spring his mother mentioned the Oscars. “What’s that?” he mumbled. He took to watching shows and movies based on children’s books: The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He was curious about Toad of Toad Hall. He considered Narnia a natural and real place.

Lewis’s grandmother used to complain of loneliness and boredom, of how all she had were the four walls. With the cruel innocence of youth, he would say, he and his brothers joked that she never mentioned the ceiling or floor. But at the hospital he wasn’t bored or lonely. He could achieve neither state of mind any more than a goldfish could.

One night in April, Lewis experienced a strange feeling of deep, ancient memory. It felt familiar, and he found himself recalling, vaguely, a series of visions from his weeks in the coma. They were primal and rudimentary—different from ordinary dreams. The visions returned frequently during his time in the hospital, seemingly born of a mind far wilder than the one he’d known before the accident.

In a moment of thirst I see a hotel in the desert…. The desert … takes me to … a prehistoric settlement in Israel where I’ve lived for many generations.

A town built on the water during Prohibition… I am helping to run whiskey…. At my wormhole between two universes, of the physical and the mind, my boat sails on, now in Southeast Asia.

It’s cold, wintry cold, and I see a zoo with many animals…. I am traveling with a great opera company….

Time becomes a river that I watch, flowing from the boundless horizon of the future to the present.

Weeks out of his coma, he found himself aware of a river again. He was on a boat, rain drumming the cabin roof. A woman stood by his side. He realized she’d been by his side through other memories, too. All at once, sometime before dawn, he remembered Marcy. The feeling was pure joy, a sense of completion.

He couldn’t wait to tell someone the wonderful news. At last a nurse came to turn him.

“I’m married to Marcy!” he whispered through his teeth.

“That’s very nice, Simon,” she replied, then went to phone his parents. The remaining hours of the night were his last with the full happiness of Marcy’s love. He did not question where she was or why she had not been mentioned. In the morning his parents returned.

“I’m married,” he repeated. “To Marcy.”

His mother looked at him and prepared to do the last thing a parent ever wishes to do: She took her son’s happiness away.

“She died, Simon. You were in an accident and Marcy died.”


Lewis was lost in a fog of grief and medical deluge. In addition to his skull, his collarbone, pelvis, jaw, both arms, and all but two ribs had also been crushed. A third of the right hemisphere of his brain had been destroyed. Each catastrophic injury bore its own constellation of crises. One day while Lewis was still at Cedars-Sinai, a doctor-in-training came to conduct a psychological evaluation. Before leaving, he leaned in with some words of wisdom.

“It’s difficult for you to come to terms with this now,” he said, and then brightened. “But you’ll look back one day and see how this experience made you a better, stronger person.”

Lewis was in no shape to confront the suggestion that his wife’s death would improve him. His mother, though, felt perfectly equal to the job. Stepping up to the man, she said, “We hope one day your wife dies this way and someone tells you it’s for the best.”

The days had turned to weeks for Lewis, and the weeks now turned to months. He would move back into his parents’ house that summer, 1994, but that was just the beginning of a seemingly endless medical journey. No sooner would he recuperate from one grueling surgery than he’d be back for another. The months turned to years. His recovery lasted a decade and a half.

He existed in a haze for much of that time—a one-man city of Los Angeles. He slept and he watched the pine trees in his parents’ backyard, sometimes for hours on end; he felt he could see them grow. He slept some more. Occasionally, he went with his mother to appointments, and after a number of years, he began to read and to appreciate movies again. But mostly he just existed, bobbing in and out of consciousness of the world outside his parents’ front door: the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the Unabomber, the rise of email and the Internet, Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, cell phones, Bush/Gore. Even 9/11 was an indistinct catastrophe very far from his small, quiet life down the hall from his parents.

In Washington Irving’s famous story, Rip Van Winkle’s epic nap removes him from his life for 20 years. When he finally awakens and makes his way out of the forest, he discovers a world he doesn’t recognize. His wife and friends have died, the American Revolution has been won, and another man now answers to Rip Van Winkle—his son, it turns out. (He’s a little relieved at his wife’s death, and he’s as idle as ever. It’s sort of a weird story.)

Haunting as it is, there’s something tidy about Irving’s tale—the sudden awakening, Van Winkle’s return to his old ways. Lewis’s awakening, by comparison, happened in fits and starts. The fog lifted only gradually. He moved up and down “a slope of consciousness,” as he put it: Some days he neared the lucid peak, thanks to an intense regimen of cognitive therapy. Other days he found himself slipping to murky depths. At one point he could not seem to grasp the concept of a line. At another his mother had to send one of his brothers to deliver a basic explanation: If one person is taller than another, that second person is shorter.

Incredibly, Lewis’s intellect would appear to fully recover over the years, thanks to his relentless cognitive-therapy routine—and the remarkable elasticity of the human brain. (Today his pleasure reading includes articles on quantum theory.) But if his IQ was ultimately shown to be undiminished, his mind wasn’t untouched altogether. Gradually, a thicket of strange new mental quirks revealed themselves, disruptions that shifted the way he processed the world and moved through it.


Lewis recalls his cognitive therapist once presenting him with half a dozen illustrated cards spread out face up in front of him: a broken glass on the floor next to a table, an intact glass on the table, a surprised look on a man’s face, and so on. She asked Lewis to put them into sequence. He stared at them for over an hour. Even after accepting the dubious idea that some kind of order could be imposed on these images, he considered it just as likely that the glass began broken on the floor, then made its way up to the tabletop. It was as if he had lost a connection to linear events.

As the fog lifted in the years after the crash, he began to notice something different about how he himself moved through time. His thoughts were as rational as ever, his recall decent for a middle-aged man. But chronology was scrambled. Remembering that morning’s breakfast presented no difficulty, nor would remembering a conversation from the previous week. He just couldn’t always say which came first. Lewis described his symptoms to his cognitive therapist several years into his recovery. She replied that “flat time” was a frequent consequence of brain injury.

Flat time was paired with another, even stranger, cognitive quirk. Back home one afternoon not long after the accident, Lewis walked directly into a pine tree in his parents’ backyard. His mother brought him to Alan Brodney, a developmental optometrist on staff at Cedars-Sinai. Brodney frequently treats patients with visual impairment caused by traumatic brain injury, and at first he assumed Lewis had simply lost his left visual field, a common consequence of damage to the right side of the brain. Then he ran a test and discovered something astonishing.

Holding up different pieces of paper in the blind area, Brodney confirmed that indeed Lewis saw nothing. But when asked to name the colors of the paper, Lewis got most right. After a slew of subsequent tests, Brodney diagnosed him with blindsight, an obscure and paradoxical condition that might as well have been invented by a screenwriter. Lewis was partly blind—but he could see through those blind spots, albeit without quite being aware of doing so.

The condition was discovered decades ago, and researchers believe it’s something of a workaround in certain traumatized brains. With ordinary vision, visual information follows a sophisticated route from the eye, through the thalamus, to the visual cortex. When injury shuts this avenue down, blindsight can offer a detour: That visual information takes a more primitive pathway through the brainstem. This pathway is typically associated with reflexive behavior and is more prominent in lower mammals, birds, and reptiles.

“It’s not common,”  Mel Goodale told me. Goodale is director of the Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario and a leading blindsight researcher. “You have to have a brain lesion that’s large enough to cause blindness, but not so large to damage the other pathways.”

In one video of a much-researched patient, a man walks down a hallway strewn with debris. Unlike Lewis’s left-field blindness, this patient couldn’t see at all. But guided by his more primitive visual system, he moves to the left to avoid a garbage can, then to the right to miss a camera tripod, navigating the hall as if he can see. With therapy and training, Lewis became similarly adept. He sidestepped trees, though he wouldn’t necessarily see them—not consciously, anyway. As Brodney put it, an array of visual information was bypassing his conscious mind and going straight into his subconscious.

Driven by his strange new conditions, Simon became increasingly curious about his inner world. Upon his discovery of a stash of notes he’d scribbled in the earlier, hazier days of recovery, a rusty producer’s switch seemed to flip in his head. Doctors continued to work on him, but he insisted that his mother set up a computer in his bedroom. Glacially, painstakingly, he taught himself to write again.


Lewis’s first project would be to piece together the story of his accident and recovery. With help from his mother, he began to get in touch with nearly everyone who’d figured into both, from witnesses to medical practitioners. He became a reporter covering his own life—excavating the intricacies of each medical milepost and insurance absurdity with patience and curiosity. He’d been thorough as a producer, but he now had the mystery of those lost years driving his own kind of production.

Lewis didn’t just want an excuse to recount his own miraculous recovery. An obsessively gentle sensibility took hold after the crash, and any suffering in the world seemed to physically pain him. Maybe his writing could help the other 5 million Americans living with traumatic brain injury. To the surprise of Lewis and his family, a book began to take shape.

In 2010, Rise and Shine was published by a small house called Santa Monica Press. It’s remarkably detailed, a punctilious chronology of Lewis’s medical journey and the recovery of his mental faculties. And though the book is not predominantly about his emotional transformation, an impressive candor occasionally surfaces:

So many moments of our lives are beyond expression, but like everything else, there’s an industry of grief experts armed with terminology that talk about “closure” and cleanly defined “stages of grief.” They repeat the cliché that “time heals.” Many people, I’m sure, find comfort in counselors, but I didn’t feel my grief was something I could define, work through on some kind of schedule, and then move on. I still regard the word “closure” as politically correct fiction, an expectation imposed on people who have suffered by those who have not.

The book didn’t shoot to the top of the bestseller list, but it got things moving in his life—including netting him an invitation to speak at the 2010 INK conference in Lavasa, India, a celebrity-thinker-infused offshoot of California’s TED gatherings. It was Lewis’s first significant return to public life since his accident.

In the talk, he described the strange new perceptions that his brain trauma had delivered, beginning at his long perch on the rim between life and death. “After I returned from the hospital … I felt empty and full, hot and cold, euphoric and depressed,” he said at one point, describing his new reality. “The brain is the world’s first fully functional quantum computer. It can occupy multiple states at the same time. With all the internal regulators of my brain damaged, I felt everything simultaneously.”

Standing on the stage was a man bearing a unique operating system. The talk lasted 18 minutes, and at the end the crowd rose for a standing ovation. To Lewis it was a wonderful success—Deepak Chopra was in attendance and invited him to talk at his event months later. (Just a month after the INK talk went online, it had been viewed more than 240,000 times.) More important, it felt like preparation for something even bigger.

It was around this time that I first encountered Lewis. I’d recently written a story for The New York Times about legally blind visual artists. One of them, a traumatic-brain-injury survivor, said there was someone I should get in touch with.

With a few minutes to spare one morning, I dialed Lewis’s number. I didn’t hang up until an hour later. On the other end was a kindly—almost wholesome—Brit who’d lost everything in ways I didn’t like to fathom. He’d surrendered a decade and a half to a grueling, and frequently horrific, recovery. But none of that was what took me aback. It was that at 53, living in his parents’ house minus a third of his right hemisphere, Simon Lewis wanted to make movies again.

Lewis had no illusions about how absurd this sounded. “I know this industry,” he said. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history. Step out for more than a dozen years and—” he paused. “Well, I don’t even know what you are.”


A few weeks later, I found myself on the same sleepy, near-silent Sherman Oaks street where Lewis had spent almost every hour since 1994. The man who greeted me bore little resemblance to the mangled figure I’d read about in his book. The bones had healed, his patter was quick and witty, and graying hair covered the horseshoe-shaped scar across his skull. At first glance only Lewis’s slight limp suggested anything out of the ordinary. He proudly lifted his left pant leg to show me his NESS L300, an advanced neuroprosthesis designed for people lacking lower-leg control. Lewis has a condition called foot drop, and at precisely the right point in his gait the device sends electrical pulses to his peroneal nerve. The jolted muscles raise the foot, and he is able to walk with just a minor hitch.

Lewis is a talker. He talks about consciousness a lot—the science behind it, common misconceptions, the plight of those living lower on the slope—but these topics bleed seamlessly into macroeconomics, Obama, or media trends. Eventually, I’d see how this tied into flat time: Without a reliably coherent sense of time to provide order, his ideas sprawl. What’s more, they do so unburdened by the normal categorizing most of us do reflexively. A question about which freeway exit to take might lead to ideas about time travel. It doesn’t always make for efficient freeway exiting, I would learn, but as a general route from A to B the entertainment quotient is high.

At some level, Lewis seemed to have realized this. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, the films he’d worked on had mostly been light, even schlocky fare. He does not speak dismissively of them—like many young filmmakers, he was simply someone who said yes to projects, he explained to me, and he had dedicated himself to them. But these kinds of movies no longer appealed to him. What he wanted now was to make an entirely different kind of film: different from walking cadavers, perhaps different from films anyone else had made. But this wasn’t because he’d lost Marcy or because he had a newfound grasp of life’s fleetingness. He wanted to make different movies because he had a different brain inside his skull and a different way of experiencing the world.

“Imagine this in your daily life,” he said to me one afternoon in my rental car. He was attempting to explain what blindsight—essentially, his employment of a reptilian visual system—felt like. “I’m seeing the world, but not consciously. Perceptions are bypassing my conscious mind and traveling straight to my subconscious. As a filmmaker, that’s pretty interesting.”

For most of us, the subconscious is a fleeting state we find ourselves in by accident—that moment behind the wheel, for instance, when we realize we’ve been utterly unaware of the road for the past five miles. As Lewis describes his existence, a small door has essentially propped open that state permanently.

“My entire perception is different: Things that don’t feel … authentic, I suppose, don’t resonate. They almost don’t register,” he told me at one point. He’s come to regard this as a kind of sieve, one that oddly inclines him toward more substantive perceptions and omits the frivolous. The stuff of fluffy ’80s films fell decidedly into the second camp.

As with the blindsight, Lewis’s temporal jumble isn’t so severe as to be crippling. With flat time, time is just flat enough—did he talk to that HBO guy recently, or years ago?—to make things interesting now and then. Perhaps even a narrative asset.

On a certain level, the idea of Lewis returning to filmmaking was as logical as it was baffling. If a storyteller’s job is to make intellectual connections, flat time and a sprawl of ideas sound awfully promising. Meanwhile, if Lewis was walking around with a pipeline from the outer world to his subconscious, that would seem to trump the standard muse. “Picture all the memories from your life as a photo album. Then take out all the photos and shuffle them across a table. That’s my brain,” he told me. “It can be frustrating, but as far as making interesting connections goes, it certainly opens things up in a new way.”

Squint a little, in fact, and you can see signs that Hollywood’s brain is inching toward the trippily meta terrain that intrigues Lewis, betraying a perhaps similar interest in considering consciousness itself. Lewis’s slow reentry into the world of movies coincided with a slew of films—MementoEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindInception—that delve directly and imaginatively into the kinds of consciousness questions that have come to obsess him. That much seemed promising. And Hollywood certainly churns out story lines about outsiders rattling the status quo, or about miraculous transformations emerging from unlikely circumstances. In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford’s ruthless trial lawyer becomes kind and loving after taking a bullet to the brain, for instance. But that doesn’t mean the industry actually believes in those stories.

At 53, Lewis lives with his parents. He drives only sparingly. With his infinitely fragmented mind, I pictured him spending weeks digging up an old contact, only to be told by a 22-year-old assistant that Mr. So-and-So was extremely busy these days. The movie business already brushes away roughly 100 percent of the aspiring filmmakers who come knocking. The odds are even worse when a third of your right hemisphere is missing.


Hollywood never calls to tell you your career is over, Lewis told me once. So he had decided to call them and ask. Before my first visit, he’d informed me that he was going to do his best to set up meetings with some of the industry types he’d worked with in the ’80s and early ’90s. Seeing an earnest and kindly widower politely shot down by slick movie people hadn’t struck me as very fun. I’d half-dreaded this part of my visit. To my surprise, Lewis somehow arranged a series of meetings with significant figures throughout the Hollywood firmament, which is how I found myself at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles on a bright Friday morning. Lewis had come here to meet his former colleague David Irving. 

With his prominent eyebrows and clear blue eyes, Irving has the commanding and professorial bearing of a man playing a president in a TV movie. He was on his way back to New York, where he teaches film at Tisch School of the Arts. The two had been young men back in 1989 on the set of C.H.U.D. II, which Irving directed, but this was the first time they’d met for business since.

They found seats away from the piped-in jazz—Lewis’s brain no longer filters ambient noise from the conversation at hand—and commenced a ranging discussion about times past and Lewis’s future prospects. It was as though the two had once taken a road trip together, and Lewis was curious 20 years later whether cars still employed brakes and gas pedals. Irving was laid-back and warm to Lewis’s hands-in-lap earnestness. His answer: yes and no.

The industry bore little resemblance to its early ’90s self, he warned. C.H.U.D. II was made for less than $3 million. Now it would cost $20 million. When Lewis checked out, movies like Speed and True Lies were top grossers—dutifully fast-paced and slick, to be sure, but rudimentary in hindsight. The first feature-length CGI animation wouldn’t come out for another year, and the slo-mo bullet dodging of The Matrix was still half a decade away, to say nothing of a 3-D fantasy about blue creatures on another planet. Securing top stars became ever more essential to getting these massively expensive films made—a salable name abroad could help guarantee the sale of foreign rights, which meant additional cash up front. The distribution model changed, too, and VHS tapes became DVDs.

That was the bad news. The good news: Irving thought Lewis had the innate and timeless talent to surmount all that. “Only one producer in my work ever knew what he was doing—you,” he told Lewis. “You’ve been gone a long time, but there’s a need in the industry for people of your ilk.”

He added that the principles of production had not changed and that Lewis still had many high-level contacts.

“You have it in spades. I could see you working as an agent, a screenwriter, a producer,” he said.

Lewis grinned—but I could see he had something on his mind. Finally he cleared his throat mildly and raised a finger of clarification.

“It’s not just any film I want to work on now. It’s important to me that I find something that feels … true,” he said. He gave a CliffsNotes summary of what true feels like—rooted in that broader conception of consciousness, playing out on less familiar planes.

Irving thought about this for a moment, nodding slowly. “My advice is, take any pictures you can get on now,” he then said. “You can do a dense and more meaningful film later.”

Over the next few days, I joined Lewis for more meetings—meetings essentially designed to inform him whether or not the movie business had saved his place in line. But Hollywood is a strange realm for a fact-finding mission. How do you look for honest answers when nobody says “no,” and “yes” can mean “fuck you,” and a tuna sandwich is Fantastic, just fabulous?

But putting aside the inevitable bromides about Lewis getting back on his feet in no time, it was hard not to notice real doors cracking open for him. At USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris devoted much of a Monday morning to strategizing with Lewis—ideas for getting back into production, possibilities for teaching again at the university. Chris Barrett, head of the Metropolitan Talent Agency, grew emotional talking about the force that was producer Simon Lewis, and pledged to send scripts. Over the phone, Jeff Sagansky, former production president of TriStar Pictures, recalled Lewis’s Look Who’s Talking coup:

“I had a studio budget for $13 million, and you came in and said I can do it for eight, and pay Travolta what he’s asking—a million, I think. The studio said, ‘It can’t be done.’ But the movie became the most profitable picture in Columbia’s history at that point.”

Sagansky didn’t mince words about the health of the industry today. The award-winning studio films Sagansky himself had made at TriStar—Glory, Steel Magnolias—wouldn’t get made anymore, he said, except maybe as independent films. But he went on to discuss how Lewis could make the transition to 21st-century filmmaking.

In all these meetings, Lewis played it straight—no mentions of blindsight or flat time or the prehistoric settlement in Israel where he’d lived for generations. Whatever was going on inside his head, he’d learned to tamp it down when necessary. Indeed, he’d written a meticulously organized book, had put together a wildly successful stage talk seen by hundreds of thousands of people; he could do what it took to make things happen. Still, I found myself oddly relieved when his more unusual symptoms returned later—the unlikely mental associations, the moments in which his subconscious perhaps had the reins. To spend time in Hollywood—meetings, conversations about meetings, Caesar salads in cafés alongside conversations about meetings—is to come away a little desperate for a mightily new orientation, some fresh set of eyes for which the glass is first broken on the floor, then intact atop the table.

Only one question seemed to remain: How would he begin?


At the end of our last meeting of the day, Lewis and I headed back to my rental car and set out for one more stop. A few blocks up from the coffee shop, we turned left on Beverly Boulevard, a five-lane arterial running east to west through neighborhoods with tidy lawns and large homes. At one of the small residential streets we turned right and pulled to a stop. Set back from the adjacent curb was the maple tree that Simon and Marcy’s Infiniti had slammed into 17 years earlier.

I glanced over at Lewis as I cut the engine. In a movie—in one of his movies—this would be where the hero breaks down. But Lewis had never cried in my presence, and he wasn’t doing so now. His feet were flat on the floor of the car and his hands planted squarely in his lap, as they often were. I looked for subtler signs of a reaction—a setting of the jaw, a second’s delay getting out of the car—but he seemed as matter-of-fact as ever. He opened the door, switched on his L300, and in a few seconds we were standing on the corner where it all happened.

It was the overwhelming physics of it all that finally got Lewis talking.

“How did the driver make it as far as he did, across all those lanes? He must have had his foot flat to the floor…,” he began, then trailed off, lost in a grim calculus of velocity and mass.

Lewis does not remember the impact. Marcy was talking about her boss’s renovation, and then Simon was opening his eyes in a hospital more than a month later. We walked to the curb where the Infiniti first hit, then over to the tree, and then to the adjacent garden where the car ultimately came to rest.

Lewis is almost a dozen and a half years into his grief. But he was absent, in a sense, for much of that time. Marcy was buried in her hometown while he was still in his coma. Do his hazier years count against the clock of healing? He keeps mementos of Marcy near though not prominent; a photo of the two remains in the drawer of his bedside table but not on top. He has only recently been able to watch their wedding tape. He wants Marcy to be close but he does not want to prevent himself from moving forward, or to lose himself in despair. He would like to fall in love again.

The sudden death of a spouse would be heartbreaking for anyone, but somehow there’s something particularly awful about it happening to Lewis. If you told the man his shoelaces were on fire, he would look down only after seeing to your safety first. Perhaps because of this, I had treated him like he was brittle at first—a common and ridiculous inversion inflicted too often on those who’ve been injured. In time it became clear that Lewis requires no coddling. And so, as we paced that intersection, I asked about the driver of the van. Maybe he’d left the country. Maybe he was at the Arby’s down the street. At one point, I’d tracked down the couple who’d sold him the van, two days before the crash, 17 years ago. The woman seemed sad to remember the incident—and to remember nothing of the man. “I guess he was the kind of guy that pays cash for a van,” she said.

Lewis, for his part, doesn’t care. Nor does he feel ill will toward the driver. “I just don’t think I feel anger anymore, about anything,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ve felt angry once in the last 17 years, actually. I get puzzled when someone’s dishonest, and I get distressed. But the normal anger that I was capable of before is just gone.”

With a little pressing he conceded that, if the driver was somehow ever caught, Lewis would testify in court. But he said so dispassionately.

“Perhaps anger is a higher-level thing and it’s not present in the subconscious,” he speculated. “If I’m correct that my subconscious is doing a lot of the daily work of my life, it’s not there.”

He and I stayed at Beverly and McCadden for another 15 minutes, then I drove him home to Sherman Oaks, and for the hundredth time I found myself wanting to see what a Simon Lewis film would look like, and hoping it might resemble his own life somehow.


About four months later, in the spring of 2011, a minor media storm broke out, with everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Oprah telling the same remarkable story: a filmmaker builds a career making silly movies, then in a freak accident sustains a terrible head injury that causes him to rethink everything. With his whole-new head, he gets back into filmmaking with a thoughtful, sensitive, anti-Hollywood feature that earnestly investigates nothing less than the nature of our very existence.

The man’s name was Tom Shadyac.

I was stunned. At first glance, the similarities between Shadyac and Lewis were remarkable. Both were born in 1958, both were successes from an early age: Lewis was just 21 when he passed the California bar, and Shadyac was the youngest joke writer on Bob Hope’s staff. Both made their way to movies—but Shadyac to another level entirely, producing such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty. He flew by private jet and lived in a 17,000-square-foot mansion equipped with a full-time gardener and housekeeper, a pool man, a maintenance man, a man to maintain the tennis court, and a house manager, in addition to his business manager, money manager, and career manager.

One day, while bicycling in Virginia, Shadyac crashed and hit his head. The injury paled in comparison to Lewis’s, but he did sustain a serious concussion whose symptoms lingered: terrible headaches, mood swings, and an agonizing sensitivity to light and sound. For a while he slept in his closet, for its total seclusion and darkness. As with Lewis, some new ideas about life began to filter in. Unlike Lewis, Shadyac rolled up his sleeves immediately. Five months after the accident, he began filming I Ama decidedly serious documentary that asked what’s wrong with the world and what we can do about it. In it he consulted Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.

Reception was mixed. Critics seemed to like the story behind the documentary more than the thing itself. Roger Ebert called the film “as watchable as a really good TV commercial, and just as deep.” Viewing it, he wrote, “involves the ingestion of Woo Woo in industrial bulk.”

He also, though, conceded the filmmaker’s likability. Shadyac has long, curly hair and looks like a less-goofy version of Weird Al. He had a new approach to living, one he’d begun to pursue even before the accident. He sold the mansion and moved into a 1,000-square-foot trailer home—albeit a trailer home in a gated Malibu community, where units can reportedly go for upward of $2 million.

Shadyac didn’t lack for conviction as he promoted his film. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to be touched by truth,” he said in one interview. He spoke of “a power to these ideas that have animated me … the same power I see in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jesus, Martin Luther King, Saint Francis.” His ideas didn’t sprawl. “Facing my own death brought an instant clarity and purpose,” he says in the film.

I very much wanted to meet this man. He appeared articulate and sensitive, and I thought he might shed some light on Lewis’s story. Part of me even fantasized that Shadyac would reach out to Lewis professionally. I sent him a note, then talked to someone at his agency, who put me in touch with someone at his production company, who put me in touch with the guy who handles journalists, Harold Mintz.

After a few attempts, I got Mintz on the phone. I explained again Lewis’s story, assuming the similarities would be so striking, and Lewis’s story so sympathetic, that the new and reflective Shadyac would ring back immediately. Mintz listened and said he’d explain it all to Shadyac. When I followed up again, he emailed back that Shadyac was too busy to meet but would consider a phone call. This didn’t happen either.

I wrote one more note to Mintz asking whether Lewis’s story had at least resonated when he conveyed it to Shadyac. No reply. I gathered that his focus had turned to his next movie, a biopic about the late comedian Sam Kinison.

So I booked a flight to visit Lewis again. Another man was living a version of his life, and I wanted to hear his thoughts on it.


The drive from LAX into central Los Angeles is a tour of urban restlessness—new billboards and buildings and seemingly new neighborhoods since your last visit, a concrete rainforest that grows 10 feet overnight. But upon entering the sleepy suburban streets of Sherman Oaks, time halts. Save for the newer cars, it could’ve been any decade. Lewis opened the front door of his parents’ home with his usual grin.

He showed me to the living room, and we settled into the wraparound sofa. Immediately, Lewis was leading the conversation in 40 enthusiastic directions—a news item that had caught his eye, some emerging research on intelligence. I wasn’t listening.

While Shadyac was positioning himself these past few months as a remade filmmaker, Lewis had decidedly not been. After those encouraging chats with his Hollywood friends, he had not rushed home to begin adapting his book into a screenplay. He hadn’t reached out to screenwriter friends about possible collaborations. He didn’t schedule more calls and meetings and lunches. I learned that Barrett had sent him scripts to review; Lewis only thumbed through them.

Ever since I got to know Lewis, I’d been waiting for a moment of some sort—an inflection point, I suppose, at which Hollywood would signal its welcome or rejection of this prodigal producer. But another possibility began to dawn on me, thanks to Shadyac: Maybe Lewis hadn’t resolved how much he was willing to welcome Hollywood.

From our very first conversation, he had been clear about his deep desire to make films again. But it wasn’t the same desire he’d felt before the accident; no longer was he single-minded about moviemaking. Since January he’d become wholly consumed by the talk Deepak Chopra had invited him to give on consciousness. For now anyway, this seemed to grab him more than shoving his way into the cracked-open Hollywood door.

As for movies, it was another project that had stoked his passions these past few months, and in fact he’d come to oversee the production of his first film in years. As it happens it was Macbeth, the film he himself had directed more than four decades earlier as an adolescent, long before he came to America. After so many years he had the old reels digitized and overlaid with audio. It was hardly Hollywood, and maybe that was part of the pleasure: a reunion with his earliest, purest love of filmmaking.

I still wanted to hear his thoughts on Shadyac. Asking Lewis for his opinions on anyone rarely turns up anything but praise. In his Jain-like way, he’d be unlikely to point out that your house had been overrun by elephants, lest it come across as insensitive. (His friend, the lawyer Eric Weissmann, lovingly referred to him as “pedantically moral.”) Nevertheless, when I mentioned a quote from one of Shadyac’s interviews—a line about the bike accident knocking him from his head into his heart—something sounding almost like a cynical chuckle escaped from Lewis.

“You don’t have to hit your head to find your heart,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not where your heart is, anyway.”

Regret washed over him instantly. He explained that he didn’t mean it dismissively, and I understood. It wasn’t that Shadyac seemed insincere; he appeared genuinely and impressively serious in his new sensibility. But it was hard not to notice that his ideas tripped off his tongue—and onto celluloid, and into the publicity machinery—with relative ease. Instinctively or through hard work, Shadyac knew how to package his drama into Drama, helpfully formed into bite-size nuggets. “We set out to find out what’s wrong with the world, and we ended up finding out what’s right with it,” he said in one interview while promoting I Am. As Lewis himself noted, it seemed so … movie-ish.

I Am might have been Shadyac’s departure from the formulaic comedies he’d made till then, but at a meta level the idea behind the film simply followed another formula: Mega-successful, high-living artist finds he’s gone astray, fate intervenes, clarity shimmers, and ta-da, meaning is found. To Lewis’s vastly more complex and ambiguous story, Shadyac’s offered a tighter arc and more straightforward message. In short, Shadyac was the Hollywood version of Lewis. Even Shadyac appeared to recognize the appealing arc of his story. Months after failing to secure an interview, I finally got a call from his PR man, Mintz. Shadyac was still too busy to talk, he said. He also didn’t want to talk about his accident anymore. The story had taken on a life of its own, Mintz said; it had gotten away from him.

Instead of penning his next Hollywood epic, Lewis had been drawn into one more not-particularly-Hollywood pursuit in recent months. Over the years he’d gone and thanked many of the people who’d been there for him after the crash, but he’d never felt ready to do so with those who’d been there right when it happened. A few days before my arrival, he gathered the nerve to call the L.A. Police Department’s West Traffic Division.

He spoke to Detective Lee Willmon and mentioned the crash. To his surprise, Willmon remembered that it was on Beverly Boulevard, then the white van, then a pause when Lewis mentioned his wife. “Was her name … Marcy?” Lewis was overcome. He told Willmon he wanted to come visit in person. On a hot and brown June morning, I met Lewis in front of the station, on a scrubby section of Venice Boulevard. We headed inside, and someone paged Willmon.

He had a kind face layered with years of bad news. The three of us stood awkwardly in a waiting area, amid half a dozen civilians there for mysterious traffic reasons. The place was bureaucratic and joyless, but Lewis was on a gratitude-and-wonder high. He told Willmon how remarkable it had been that he’d recalled Marcy’s name after so many years, and then he told him how so many kind people had given of themselves in the aftermath of the crash. Willmon nodded politely.

“You must come into people’s lives at very profound times,” Lewis mused.

Willmon looked at him. “We come in at sad times,” he said plainly.

He didn’t say much else. He was either a man of few words or a man of few words when survivors of tragic car accidents come to chat 17 years later. Lewis gave him two copies of his book and Willmon thanked him solemnly. He started toward a goodbye then paused.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. A little advice if you don’t mind,” he said. “Find love again.”

Minutes later Lewis and I were back in my car. I glanced over for a read. As always he stared straight ahead, a peaceful smile on his lips, more gratitude and wonder in his bright eyes.

What kind of film lurks behind those eyes? In all my conversations with Lewis, I never managed to extract a plot, a set of characters or even a rough premise for the sort of movie he’d one day like to make. What I heard was more like the haziness that precedes those things in a fertile mind.

“I see character motivations as multidimensional spectra of light that flow upward through each person’s, and each creature’s, slope of consciousness,” Lewis explained to me once. What this meant for filmgoers was even vaguer; he spoke of wanting audiences to “sense the flat time in their subconscious that I feel, experience the single moment in which through all of history we live our lives. The moment in which the present becomes our past and everything is now.”

At times Lewis’s abstractedness seems semi-deliberate and perhaps semi-joyful, a lifelong pragmatist enjoying a fuzzier approach. Other times the fuzziness feels like all he can muster now. If his artistic transformation was taking him from C.H.U.D. II to, say, Charlie Kaufman, I came to think of this as Kaufman’s blue-skying period. Maybe the Eternal Sunshines of the world begin with impossible abstractions and blurry riffing.

The most specific vision he ever shared was an idea for the first scene of a film. It was to be shot through the eyes of a field mouse. Many years ago, he’d spotted the creature atop Yosemite’s Glacier Point. Now, in his vision for the film, the mouse scurries along the narrowest of cliff ledges more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor looking for food, and the scene is somehow overlaid with an 18th-century haiku of Kobayashi Issa:

          In this world

          we walk on the roof of hell,

          gazing at flowers.

In a way, it seemed absurd to speculate about Hollywood when clearly Lewis existed on another plane. He didn’t just have a new, non-Hollywood set of eyes on the world. He had a new, non-Hollywood sense of priority, too. Gone was the boundless tenacity, the hunger—bordering on desperation—required to get movies made, or for that matter any epic undertaking. Instead he had the old Shakespeare adaptations to put together, talks about consciousness to give, quiet detectives to thank. Compassion, ideas, and a penchant for storytelling are theoretically what send a person into movies, but Lewis had found that these could be deployed off-set as much as on. The accident may have given him singular new filmmaking sensibilities. It also showed him that filmmaking isn’t the only thing.


That would have been a fine ending for this story: the Hollywood figure who decides Hollywood isn’t all that. But, of course, that in itself is too tidily Hollywood for real life. As it happens, Lewis and I have one more appointment after our stop at the police station. There is one final twist in his story.

The meeting is with another old friend of Lewis’s, the prominent entertainment lawyer Eric Weissmann. Weissmann has long been a fixture in Hollywood—one story that gets told is his role in green-lighting All the President’s Men for Warner Bros. He had been extremely kind after the accident, Lewis says, and he also might have a thing or two to say about Lewis’s future in the movies.

The offices of Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman Grodin & Evall look out over Beverly Hills, with Century City in the distance. We are early for our 3 o’clock appointment, and a receptionist shows us to a conference table with a basket of water bottles and modern art at either end. Lewis sits with his back to the window so his focus won’t get spread out over the streets and buildings below.

At exactly 3 p.m., Weissmann enters the conference room and declares, “Universal has agreed to release Biosphere back into turnaround.” He takes a seat and shakes our hands.

It takes me a moment to remember what Biosphere was. Before the accident, Universal had paid Lewis and other writers to develop a script—a sci-fi film about a large-scale experiment gone off the rails. Evolution gets messed with, somehow, and a menagerie of creepy critters starts eating people’s heads. The project had ultimately gone into turnaround—left for dead by the studio, free to be sold elsewhere for a limited period before reverting back to Universal property indefinitely. Then the accident happened.

A few weeks back, Lewis’s mother had found a copy of the old script and put it on his desk. Prodded, Lewis eventually called Weissmann and asked, idly, whether that limited turnaround period might be extended. Now Lewis—and in time another producer, named Michael Levy—could find financing and some big names to attach to the project and they’ll be in business.

Weissmann spends the next little while outlining details of the situation and chatting amiably about the industry. At one point I ask if he’s read Lewis’s script. It hardly sounds like the revolutionary picture Lewis had long been itching to do. “I sell ’em, I don’t smell ’em,” Weissmann replies.

I look over at Lewis, a man sitting in a Beverly Hills law firm who can still recall sailing, within a coma, in a wormhole between two universes. He’s had two lives, and at this moment two people appear to inhabit his body simultaneously. He is visibly thrilled to be in the game again, beaming more than usual. But what will come of his new orientation to the world, and to filmmaking?

In a way it doesn’t make sense, until I suddenly realize that is sort of the point. If Shadyac represented the Hollywood version of Lewis’s story, Lewis himself is, like the rest of us, living the non-movie version of his own life. He’s survived some agonizingly cinematic scenes—his rise, the accident, the monthlong coma, his rebirth—but then the loose ends have not gathered into an orderly plait. All questions didn’t magically resolve in an explosive third act. Is he returning to the old kinds of movies? Is he carving out a whole new type? In lieu of a clear message, there is ambiguity, murkiness. In lieu of a happy, studio-friendly ending, there is something a little more complicated.

Within three weeks, he will have feverishly updated 40 pages of the script, often outside, behind the wheel of his family’s parked car; afterward he’ll sit and watch the trees. He will go inside and pick up the phone and start making more calls about meetings, and he’ll write some more—notes on turning his book into a screenplay.

Right now, as Lewis sits at a conference room table with his back to Beverly Hills, what life has in store for him isn’t clear. But he seems to accept this. At 3:15 his lawyer friend rises to leave, and Lewis and I drive back through the streets of Los Angeles to his parents’ house.

My Mother’s Lover


My Mother’s Lover

A true story of romance, war, and two families’ search for the man who bound them.

By David Dobbs

The Atavist Magazine, No. 05

David Dobbs ( writes features and essays for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, and The Guardian. Several of his stories have been chosen for leading science anthologies; most recently, his much-discussed feature “The Orchid Children,” was included in Ecco/HarperPerennial’s Best American Science Writing 2010. He is now writing his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which explores the genetics of temperament—and the idea that the genes underlying some of our most troublesome traits and behaviors also generate some of our greatest strengths and accomplishments.

Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Photographs: War photos, by Norman Zahrt (when Zahrt pictured)

Photo of author and his mother by Herman Dobbs

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Music: Nicholas Thompson

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Special thanks to: the Zahrt Family, Alice Colwell, Cynthia Jane Dobbs, Allen Dobbs, Ann Dobbs, Herman Dobbs, Sarah Violet Kerrigan, Kathy Hall, Jimmie Holland, Chris McDermott, Maryn McKenna, Adam Rogers, and Steve Silberman

Published in June 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Twenty Questions

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

Allen wouldn’t get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They shished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had traveled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn’t much to return. Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother’s so hard you can roller-skate on her. Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She’d had enough. “A stroke,” she said. “Why can’t I just have a stroke and die?”

Allen, an emergency-room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. “Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don’t seem at risk of.”

“Damn it, Allen, I’m a doctor, too,” she said. “I’m quite aware of that.” Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, “Children, I want to talk about later.”

“OK, Mother,” said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. “What about later?”

“When I’m gone,” she said, “I’d like to be cremated.”

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

“OK,” said Sarah.

“And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?”

“Sure, Mom,” said Allen. “We can do that.” My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

“Mother?” Sarah asked. “May we ask why the Pacific?”

She closed her eyes. “I want to be with Angus.”

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged.

What we knew of Angus was this: Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

“Of course,” said my brother. “We’ll do that for you, Mom.”

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home’s care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do-not-resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail. The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was “blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be.” The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube. Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother’s wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she told me later. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid.” The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, “Oh my God she’s fighting for life!” The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother’s and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

An hour later, my brother, sitting in his car on the side of the highway in New Mexico, called me to tell me she had died.

“So it wasn’t a stroke,” he said after we’d talked a while. “But at least it was fast.”

“Have to admire it,” I said, laughing. “Mom always got pretty much what she wanted.”

Or so a child likes to think.

By the time Allen got her to Hawaii, three months had passed. After the memorial services in Texas, I returned to my home in Vermont, where the coldest winter in a generation had the place in a lock. When I opened Allen’s email describing the ceremony he had fashioned, I sat at a desk overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, frozen three feet deep and topped by three feet of snow. I read my brother’s email, looked at the pictures, looked out my window, read his email again. I wondered how much you could discover about a person 60 years dead when all you knew about him was that his name was Angus, likely a nickname. I’d had three weeks to ask my mother such things before she died—three decades, actually—but had not. Now, with the snow outside and Hawaiian light sparkling in my head, I picked up the phone and called my mother’s cousin Betty Lou.

“What do I know about Angus?” said Betty Lou, repeating my question. Betty Lou has a beautifully soft north Texas accent. She was down in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she and my mother had grown up together, sometimes in the same house, much as sisters.

She took a deep breath. “Well, there’s not a whole lot I knew about Angus. But I knew his real name was Norman, I’m pretty sure it was, and he came from Iowa. He was divorced. They met in San Antonio when he was stationed there awhile. She was out of her head with that man. At one point, when he got stationed to Hawaii, she followed him clear out there for a while. He ended up getting sent way out in the Pacific—Guam, Iwo Jima, somewhere like that—and got killed right near the end of the war.”

“How’d she find out?”

“Somebody in his outfit wrote her. Letter actually got there after the war ended. And that letter, David, just about destroyed your mama. She could not be consoled. Weeks. I’ve never seen anybody grieve like that. Before or since. She did eventually pick herself up and go on, because you knew her, David—your mama was a strong woman. She even scared me sometimes. But I’m not sure she ever got over losing Angus.”

“You remember his last name?”

“Best I recollect, was Z-something. Zert, Zaret, Zart. Something like that.”

“You sure it started with a Z?” I asked. “That could make things a lot simpler.”

“I hope so, David. Because beyond that it gets pretty dang complicated.”

It took me about 20 minutes online to find a copy of the World War II Honor List of the Dead and Missing, State of Iowa. The book was just scanned pages, not digitized, with the names listed alphabetically by county. All I had to do was scroll down to the end of each county’s listings, past the Adamses and Joneses and Moores and Smiths and Thompsons. There were not too many Zs. I found him about halfway through the book, at the end of the listings for Johnson County:


The M meant he was missing.

I started searching genealogy sites for anyone in Iowa named Zahrt. Every time I found someone, I sent an email saying I was seeking information about a Captain Norman E. Zahrt, who was a close friend of my mother—sometimes I phrased it as “a dear friend of my mother”—who according to a letter she received was either killed or went missing in action toward the end of the war. I sent about a dozen of these emails and got a few replies, all negative. After a couple weeks, I opened my email one morning and found a new response:


What a surprise to get an email from you. Yes, my father is Norman Zahrt. My mother is Luella. Norman and Luella had two children: David born Sep 37 and Christy born Jan 40. I have attached a file which I presume you can open. It is Norman’s graduating medical school class. Please let me know whether or not you can identify Norman.

I don’t have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. I’ve come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars. And that the challenge is learning to own your scars, and live them.

You can imagine that this inquiry fills me with questions.

I didn’t have to imagine the questions. He listed 19 of them:

1. What prompted this search?

2. How long has the notion of this search been ‘brewing’?

3. What brings you to the point of finding Norman’s descendants and asking these questions?

4. What is your mother’s name?

5. What was your mother’s occupation?

6. Do you have a picture of her you could share with us?

7. Are you certain that Norman and your mother met in San Antonio?

8. If so what was your mother doing at the time in San Antonio?

9. Was your mother in the military?

10. Was she assigned to Hawaii?

11. Did she travel to Hawaii with the express purpose of seeing Norman?

12. Did your mother affirm that Norman was divorced, or did you receive that information from a secondary source?

13. Who was Norman’s friend who wrote to your mother after the war?

14. Is Norman’s friend still alive?

15. Can we reach Norman’s friend?

16. Is your father still alive?

17. Can you tell us a little bit about your father?

18. Did he know that his wife wanted to be with Norman?

19. What else can you tell us about your mother?

As you can imagine this is, to say the least, an interesting surprise. My sister and I would like to entertain a continuing exchange with you, but this is probably enough to begin with.


I had never seen a note at once so prosecutorial and generous. I dithered for days. Finally, I wrote and answered all 19 of his questions as best I could.

When David, along with his sister, Christy, responded, they did so with an openness that showed they really did want to own their scars. My mother posed as big a mystery to them as their father did to me. We began a long collaborative search—dusty records, strained recollections, tree-shaded graveyards—that ends, for lack of a better marker, with the story I’m about to tell you.

Angus and Evelyn Jane on arrival in Hawaii, 1944

San Antonio

For years my mother wore a gold locket. When I was a boy, I liked to pull it up from inside her blouse on its chain, tugging it up from between her breasts so I could squeeze the curved button that ran along one edge and make the curlicued gold cover, heavily sprung, pop open to reveal a photograph of my mother’s grandparents. On an elegant chair sat her grandmother and namesake, Ivy Evelyn Stone, a formidable-looking woman wearing a full skirt, a fuller blouse, and an immensely confident expression. Next to her chair stood her husband, Gene, a railroad engineer in their hometown of Wichita Falls. Especially in Wichita Falls, a railroad town, this was a high-status position then, like that of an airline pilot 50 years later. He is dressed in suit and tie, hair slicked, with his hand on the back of the chair.

I viewed this portrait as a fair representation of the distant world from which my mother came: a stable, solid existence full of aunts and uncles and her mother and father and grandparents all living toughly but carefully in the high bright sunstruck towns of north Texas. The picture agreed with the steady, accomplished, morally sturdy person I and many others knew my mother to be. But it hid the fact that she came from a world that moved violently beneath her feet.

When my mother was young, her grandmother Ivy Evelyn, the one in the locket, was about the only person in her life that moved steadily, trainlike, along predictable lines. My mother’s own mother, Clara Lee, ran fast and wobbly. In Wichita Falls, she earned a reputation as a rounder, meaning she got around. Soon after finishing high school, Clara Lee moved to Dallas, where she met and married George Hawkins, an 18-year-old busboy who shared her notion of a good time. This notion quickly produced my mother, Evelyn Jane, but it did not produce a steady marriage. They split within a year. Clara Lee took my mother back home to Wichita Falls, and Clara Lee’s mother soon found herself tending young Evelyn Jane, first occasionally, while Clara Lee went out, and then full-time, when Clara Lee fled alone back to Dallas. Ivy had barely finished raising Clara Lee to adulthood. Now she was raising Clara Lee’s 2-year-old.

My mother proved a cheerful, obedient girl—an ardent student popular with her schoolmates and lively and memorable enough to appear in a novel (If Wishes Were Horses, now long out of print and unobtainable) that a childhood friend wrote a couple decades later. She grew up keenly aware of what constituted proper behavior. Dark remarks about her mother stung. Yet, soon after she graduated high school, she got serious with a local man named Carroll Preston, and within a year she married him. She was 19, and he was only a year older. In some ways, this marriage seemed to reject Clara Lee’s errant path for Ivy’s straighter track. The story about my mother’s wedding on the society page of the Wichita Record-News, October 8, 1940, mentions her mother only at the very end. Still, soon after the wedding she became pregnant. Preston tried to make a go of it, working at a restaurant, but there are hints she found him boring, and they soon divorced.

And so at 22, Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston found herself in a position remarkably similar to the one her own mother had occupied two decades prior: She had a high school degree, a young daughter, a divorce, no husband, and few work prospects, and she lived with her parents—who, after an interval of almost 20 years, had remarried each other. This actually made Clara Lee’s sixth marriage and George’s fifth, for they had both married promiscuously since their divorce. This marriage, however, would last almost 25 years, until George died in 1967.

That my mother’s parents steadied only after letting others raise her must have chafed. Yet my mother made the most of it, letting Clara Lee help raise Lynn and, in an elegant Oedipal coup, enjoying some time with her father, whom she adored. A picture from this period shows my mother dancing with her father before a Christmas tree: she trim and pretty in a dark dress, he dapper and nimble in a pin-striped suit. Somewhere off-camera, presumably, Clara Lee tends Lynn.

It was about this time, in 1943 or early 1944, that my mother took a job at one of the cafeterias at Kelly Air Force Base, just outside San Antonio. The war was in full roar, and the base was growing rapidly, with pilots and crews training for the Army Air Forces.

Sometime in 1943, one of those crews brought Norman Eldridge Zahrt to Kelly. Norman had arrived in Texas the year before, bringing his own overstuffed baggage. Born January 5, 1915, he was almost six years older than my mother. He had lived a fairly ordinary boyhood in Marengo, Iowa, where his parents farmed corn. He did his share of farmwork, fished, and shot photographs, publishing at least one, of a tornado spout, while in high school. He was strikingly handsome and known for surprises. He surprised his family, for instance, by becoming the first Zahrt to attend college, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, 30 miles southeast of Marengo.

He surprised them again in the middle of his senior year by eloping with Luella Sprague, who had graduated as valedictorian at Marengo’s only high school and was attending a teachers college in Iowa City. During their Christmas vacation in 1936, Norman and Luella drove 200 miles west to Elk Point, South Dakota, a border town suited to a quick wedding. David, their first child, arrived exactly nine months later. Luella dropped out of teachers college. Norman finished his bachelor’s and then startled everyone further by entering the University of Iowa medical school. Christy, David’s sister, followed the year Norman got his M.D., 1940.

n the fall of 1942, when Norman was starting an obstetrics residency, he was drafted by the U.S. Army Air Forces. He went to Florida for basic training and then, over a 14-month stretch beginning in January 1943, to several Texas air bases. He fetched Luella, David, and Christy from Iowa, and they settled in Houston, where he sometimes worked at Ellington Air Force Base. David and Christy remember the house being on Houston’s western outskirts so Norman could easily travel west to San Antonio. Sometime that year he met my mother.

If Luella felt any foreboding at all this change, it would have been hard to separate from a wariness natural to her experience. Her father died two weeks before she was born. Her mother died when she was 3 years old. When she was 9, her adoptive mother died.

Now, in January or February of 1944, when she and Norman and the kids had been in Texas for just over a year, Norman informed Luella that he was going to Mississippi. There he would train as a flight surgeon for the Air Forces’ Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron, or 4th ERS, a new sort of outfit that would specialize in rescuing pilots shot down over water. It was hazardous duty and would pay accordingly. He would train for three months in Gulfport Mississippi, then head for the Pacific. In March he put Luella and the kids on a train to Iowa and moved east. About that time, he wrote his best friend from college, Don Reese, that he was trying to arrange for his lover, a woman named Evelyn Jane whom he had met in San Antonio, to follow him to Gulfport. When they could not pull that together, they turned their focus to Hawaii. My mother, aided by an acquaintance of her father’s who was in the Army Air Forces, secured a job in Oahu, where the 4th ERS was to move in July. To get the job, she had to sign a contract promising to stay for a year. She left for Hawaii that summer, probably June, by way of Seattle.

She was chasing a man with two small children. And she was leaving her own 3-year-old, my half-sister Lynn, with the very parents who had abandoned her 20 years prior.

A radiant domesticity, October 1944


Of their time in Hawaii no letters survive, nor diaries, and Angus’s military records are skeletal. But there are pictures, and the pictures tell a tale.

Angus had time to take a lot of them. The 4th ERS found themselves mostly idle in Hawaii, waiting for planes coming from the West Coast and then for the Allies to take and secure the bases in Guam, Saipan, and Iwo Jima that were the 4th’s ultimate destination. Angus performed physicals on the men and taught swimming—something, as a fellow medical officer in the unit later said, it seemed it might be useful to know.

Dozens of his photos now occupy an album my mother left in a box full of other things so varied and trivial that my sister almost tossed the whole lot. The leather cover is crumbling, and the thick pages have browned, but the photos, corner-mounted, remain sharp and clear. Amid pictures of buddies in flight suits, of Angus smoking in the bubble of a gunner’s window on an Army plane, of men playing cards, of a tired-looking Angus reclining bare-chested in a plywood easy chair, are pages and pages of Angus and Evelyn Jane.

They look like newlyweds. One photo appears as if it could be a snapshot of the day my mother came off the boat. It bears no date but carries a distinct air of arrival. She and Angus are walking down a sidewalk still patchily wet in the Hawaiian sunshine, as if a shower has just passed over. My mother, who liked to dress up, looks sharp in a tailored trench coat and sunglasses. She carries a newspaper under one arm and smiles cheerfully but with a slight wariness, as if the picture is a bit more than she would like on the record. Close beside her—there isn’t an inch between them—walks Angus. He wears his khaki uniform and leather jacket. He beams.

If my mother looks a bit recalcitrant in that photo, she seems to have lost all such reservations by October, the date on the back of a series of 10 photographs of the couple playing with a half-dozen puppies on the front lawn of a ranch house. Several photos show one or the other of them holding a puppy, and a handful of photos show both of them with the puppies, first standing and playing with one wiggly, short-haired pup, then sitting on the grass playing with the entire litter. A house stands conspicuously behind them. While it’s possible that this was someone else’s house and someone else’s puppies, no one looking at these pictures would think so. They reek of an effort to record a happy domesticity. They are family portaits. Of course, they probably were not living together; it’s hard to see how Angus would have been allowed to live off base. Yet the two of them certainly seem, to use a phrase of delicacy my mother would later favor, familiar with each other.

Other shots show Angus and Evelyn Jane with a merry group of young men and women in bathing suits playing croquet on a wide lawn, with palm trees beyond; posing on a porch, with my mother looking particularly lovely; and in a scandalous, highly posed shot, with the two of them lying on the beach on their sides, propped up on their elbows and facing each other. They gaze out at the sea, but they are all but pressed against one another in the sand: a half-roll and a juicy smooch and they’d be Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster.

They look good, even marvelous in some of these photos. Yet, in others an anxiety seems to pervade. They had to know that their time together would end in war. And they had left kids behind. You can’t find a single photograph here that looks the same when you view it with that in mind.

Around the time these photos were taken, Angus wrote Leulla asking for a divorce.

One later photograph looks very much like the one of her arrival yet utterly different in its subtleties. Again they walk down the street, again a sailor passes behind. This time, though, palm trees rise in the background. Angus wears his summer khakis with no jacket, and a soft garrison cap has replaced the billed crusher he wears in the earlier picture. His tie is tucked into his shirt placket. My mother also wears a khaki suit, skirted. It bears above the left breast an insignia that seems to be wings. She has got herself into something, some auxiliary outfit supporting the USAAF. She’s doing her part.

So what’s different? They look hot and tired, and where before perhaps an inch separated them, now a foot of tense emptiness stands between. Angus, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, walks slightly in front and to one side. He manages a defiant dignity by looking straight at the camera. But my mother turns an ashen face away from both Angus and camera. She looks distinctly as if she wishes she were somewhere else. Was she suddenly feeling ashamed? Had she and Angus been fighting? Had the regrets latent in the earlier photographs broken into the open? Or had the rolled-up papers in Angus’s front pants pocket—awkward to carry but apparently too important to discard—brought bad news?

Bad news found them at least twice in Hawaii. The first time was in late November, when Luella wrote Angus refusing the divorce. Whether Norman told my mother of this setback no one knows. The other ill tidings arrived in December, when the Army Air Forces ordered the 4th ERS to Saipan. Angus would ship out in January. Evelyn Jane, having signed on for a year, would remain in Hawaii—her lover 3,000 miles west, her daughter 3,000 miles east—another six months.

Angus, deployed in Saipan

To War

The Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron sailed from Oahu on January 19, 1945, aboard the USS President Johnson, a transport ship that had been around since 1903. It stopped at Midway, then, dodging Japanese subs on the way, reached Saipan, in the Mariana Islands in the far western Pacific, on February 6. According to a surgical tech’s account, the Johnson arrived with 10 female crew members: “seven WACs, two WAVES, and one Nurse, all pregnant. We just couldn’t avert everything.” The 10 women took the next ship home. The men met their duty.

If Norman craved adventure, the deployment almost surely answered. The Emergency Rescue Squadrons had been formed in the summer of 1943 to consolidate the Army Air Forces’ prior efforts to rescue air crews shot down or forced to ditch. In Europe, the ERS units worked out of the United Kingdom and, later, Italy. In the Pacific, they hopscotched west and then north along the long curve of coral archipelagos—New Guinea, the Philippines, the Marshalls, the Marianas, and finally Iwo Jima—that the Allies took to secure bases in their slow, bloody push toward Japan. Taking these islands required some of the war’s most horrific battles, indeed some of the most savage fighting the world has ever known. Hundreds of thousands died. The battle of Iwo Jima alone killed almost 7,000 American servicemen and some 19,000 Japanese. During this push, the ERS units played a small but critical role. Before their arrival, 80 percent of the Allied pilots shot down in the Pacific theater died or were taken prisoner. Once the Emergency Rescue Squadrons began working out of their far Pacific bases in 1944, they rescued more than half of the downed pilots, saving several thousand men. Angus’s unit alone, in the roughly 200 days it spent at Saipan and then Iwo Jima, flew 862 missions, rescuing 577 airmen.

The ERS crews relied heavily on two planes. One was the B-17, the flying fortress that was the war’s busiest bomber. The B-17 could fly up to 2,000 miles, and pilots and crews loved it because it could keep flying after suffering extraordinary damage. Dozens of these planes flew home with huge holes torn by anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighter planes. One survived having most of its nose torn off. Another famously had its tail section all but severed in a collision with an enemy fighter yet still made it back to base, where the tail collapsed on landing. B-17’s also ditched well, floating up to half an hour, whereas the B-29’s and B-25’s that shared bombing duties in the Pacific usually sank in seconds. The B-17’s used by the rescue squadrons were adapted at the factory to leave the bomb-bay area largely empty. Each carried under its belly a 27-foot lifeboat that could be dropped by parachute to downed airmen.

The rescue squadrons also flew the Catalina PBY— a flying boat. The Cat’s wings and engines sat atop its boat-shaped fuselage, allowing the plane to land and take off in seas with waves as high as six feet. The PBY served well as either patrol plane or light bomber. Several squadrons’ worth, the Black Cats, were painted flat black to hide them from radar and anti-aircraft gunners when dive-bombing Japanese ships at night. Like the B-17, the PBY had enough range to support distant bombing missions. It carried a crew of eight, some of whom manned heavy machine guns in the plane’s nose and sides if the plane encountered fighters.

Rescue could be dangerous, dirty work. In the Pacific, the crews typically flew in support of the endless sorties of heavy bombers and support fighters that were attacking Japan every day. As the warplanes neared their targets and began taking fire, the rescue planes would hang back and circle, monitoring their radios for word of downed planes. If a B-17 found a crew in the water, it would drop its boat, then radio for a ship or submarine to rescue the pilot. A PBY might do the same or attempt a direct rescue.

These attempts were always risky, as the PBY was slow, lightly armed, and not terribly sturdy. Even successful rescues could be harrowing. One such rescue, for instance, occurred in March 1945, when a Navy Corsair fighter-bomber was shot down just 300 yards off the island of Koror, a thousand miles east of the Philippines. A Navy PBY piloted by a lieutenant named Fred Hopkins went in for the rescue, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire from shore. As Hopkins descended, a round of flak slammed the bottom of the plane so hard that Hopkins turned and headed offshore, expecting to have to ditch the plane. When his crew found they weren’t holed, he circled back and landed near the downed pilot as artillery shells exploded so close they threw water onto the plane. The crew tossed the swimming pilot a line, but the plane’s tail passed over it and tugged it from his hands. Hopkins spun the plane around for another try, but again the line slipped the pilot’s grasp. Finally, Hopkins drove the plane practically right over the downed pilot. The crew leaned out of the gun blister and hauled the bleeding pilot in by his life jacket, and Hopkins spun the plane into the wind and took off. They got the pilot back to base alive.

By the time the 4th ERS reached Saipan, Angus and his mates had heard such stories and plenty more with sadder endings. The Allied advance had taken enough territory from the Japanese that everyone knew what might await a crew shot down and captured. One PBY crew had been downed, captured, tortured, and then, as a spectacle to raise morale for the Japanese, dragged one at a time before the assembled troops, made to kneel, and beheaded with swords. This is why even pilots who didn’t know how to swim ditched at sea rather than on land.

Angus and his mates lived first in tents, then in plywood huts. The photos Angus mailed to my mother—most of them two-inch-square prints, a few blown up larger—show him and his buddies first building and then living in these large, open barracks. He sent shots of his mates playing cards and posing in combat garb and flight gear—Angus wearing full leathers with a fur collar, a bulky parachute, and a Mae West life vest, a .45 automatic on his hip. He took many shots of long, photogenic B-29’s with hyperfeminized mascots painted near the cockpit: Long Distance, a lounging, gowned brunette talking on a telephone; Heavenly Body, a bikini blonde astride a 500-pound bomb; Battlin Betty III, a Grable likeness curled atop a crescent moon. On the back of a two-by-two-inch print of a B-29, Patches, adorned with an absurdly leggy hillbilly blonde, Angus had written:

28 April 45


“It ain’t necessarily human” —

look at the angle on that – uh – er – –


The angle of which is indeed most improbable.

Angus, perhaps enjoying extra privilege as both a captain and a doctor, received a corner area in the barracks, with room for a plywood writing desk and easy chair. The album holds a notable quartet of photos of Angus sitting in that chair. In one he reads. In another he smiles groggily. In a third he appears to sleep. In the last, he looks as if he’s tiring of either the photos or the photographer or the war or everything. On the wall behind him in these photos, tucked into a strap in his hanging suit bag, is a large print of a brunette in pinup pose. She reclines, apparently on a bed or couch or floor, with her arms up and bent so that they frame her face, her hands gently holding her wrists on the cushion just above her head. Within this tiny two-by-two-inch print, the pinup occupies less than an eighth of an inch square. I had to use a loupe to tell whether the woman was wearing a blouse. I had to use a magnifying glass and a bright flashlight to see that she was my mother. 

It’s not clear how often they wrote. Mail moved slowly—weeks to clear the censors, miles, chaos, and bureaucracy between Saipan and Oahu. Later, when my mom had returned to San Antonio, the letters, three or four weeks old, came every week or two. For six months, though, separated from both lover and daughter, she had only the mail with which to bind what she hoped would be a new family. Apparently, nothing in Angus’s letters made her doubt those hopes. Yet the war promised to stretch on endlessly.


Pushing the Japanese across the Pacific had required enormous savagery and persistence. No amount of firebombing—the USAAF was incinerating thousands, even tens of thousands of civilians a day now—seemed to weaken Japan’s resolve. Almost no one knew about the atomic bombs that would soon fall and speed the war’s end. By June, when my mother sailed back to the States, the Allies’ plans called for five more months of heavy bombing followed by a massive ground invasion. Most people expected the war to run into 1946.

On July 22, Angus wrote my mother asking if she had gotten back to San Antonio yet. He complained of heat, dust, bad food, thirst, of never getting enough water, of waking during a sudden storm to try to catch rainwater with the tent flaps only to have the rain stop as soon as he was outside and wet. He bemoaned “the 2-3 inches backwards you slide in this sand with each step, which makes me very tired.” All that, he wrote, “coupled with an extreme lethargy from the heat, I guess, left me pretty depressed. There’s nothing very good about this letter, I guess. It’s about as lifeless as I feel.”

Three days later, in the first hours of July 25, Angus was with the 4th ERS detachment at Iwo Jima when a call came in for a B-17 search and drop. Amid especially heavy bombing on the 24th, with hundreds of bombers igniting firestorms in multiple cities on the Japanese mainland, a P-51 pilot had been hit and bailed out near Lake Hamana, a coastal bay 150 miles west of Tokyo. The 4th readied a B-17 to find him.

Angus was not on flight duty that night. He was free to stay on base. B-17’s often flew without flight surgeons anyway, since they never picked anyone up. But the commotion either woke him from sleep or rescued him from its pursuit, and he gathered his gear and cameras, donned his flight suit, and joined the crew of nine aboard a B-17 known as Jukebox 21. Since he had no functional role, he was, in technical and bureaucratic terms, a passenger.

The crew aimed to hit the coast near first light, find the pilot, and drop him a lifeboat. A U.S. submarine, the Peto, lurked nearby ready to fetch him. Jukebox 21 cleared the runway at 0245 hours and headed almost dead north toward Lake Hamana, 750 miles away. At 225 miles an hour, it would reach the coast in about three and a half hours. The crew didn’t have to worry about enemy fighters—the Japanese Air Force had by then been decimated—but they surely expected anti-aircraft fire, and given the bombing the area had suffered lately, they could expect the anti-aircraft crews to be inspired. Only a month before, the Allies had firebombed the city of Shizuoka, just east of Lake Hamana, and destroyed more than half the city, killing over 10,000.

But Jukebox was well-maintained: a sturdy plane crewed by experienced men and a pilot who’d flown a full tour in Europe before joining the 4th in Iwo Jima. It was a good night to fly, dark but clear. And it was always a relief to climb from the heat of the islands into cooler air.

They called in right on schedule on their first two hourly radio checks, at 0345 and 0445. But at 0545, Jukebox neither called nor responded.

The 4th ERS waited several hours, then sent 12 planes on a search for them. For two days, in rotating flights out of Iwo Jima, Angus’s squadronmates and other crews searched for them, systematically working grids between Jukebox’s last radio position and Hamana Lake. No one found a thing. Months later the unit’s commander, William Lindsey, wrote the father of Jukebox’s radio operator, Sergeant Charles Hurn, that “the disappearance of this plane has always been a complete mystery.” It was the 4th’s worst loss of the war, and its last. Three weeks after Jukebox went missing, Japan surrendered.

Jukebox 21, with personnel from the Fourth Emergency Rescue Squad on board, goes missing

Personal Effects

My mother had moved back to San Antonio in June, and in the days just after the war ended, as she readjusted to life with her mother and father and daughter and cousin there, two letters reached her from Iwo Jima. The first was Angus’s of July 22, lamenting the heat and sand. “I love you very much,” he reassured her. “I miss you always, but not acutely, for the demands of my environment haven’t given me time to think of it too much.” The second letter, arriving a week or two later, was written by one of Angus’s squadronmates. It informed her that Angus’s plane had disappeared, that a two-day search had turned up nothing, and that the crew were now presumed dead.

With this letter, the last she would ever receive from or about Angus, my mother became a survivor of the unfound. 

Luella’s notice came through more official channels, and it came faster. She was informed in early August that Angus was missing. Later, she may or may not have received the sort of letter that Commander Lindsey had written in October to Charles Hurn’s father, explaining that the crew were presumed dead. She did receive, in October, $500 worth of war bonds that Norman owned, along with his last paycheck, for $209. Luella, who had moved to Iowa City earlier that year, responded with a change of address and a note saying that it was “reasonable, almost a certainty, that my husband had more money than this amount.” She asked Lindsey to please help her find out where it was. Conceivably, she suspected my mother had it. Lindsey wrote back saying no other funds were found or known of.

Then, around Thanksgiving, the Army quartermaster’s office sent something more substantial: Angus’s footlocker, which contained the personal effects he had left in his bunk area. The accompanying inventory listed four pairs of khaki pants, seven khaki shirts, two ties, one pair of boots, and one pair of eyeglasses; one medical-notes zipper case, one medical manual, and one Basic History of the U.S.; one set of dominoes; one record player (broken); one box of camera attachments, the camera having gone missing with Angus; and one “bundle miscellaneous.” Did that miscellany include the pinup photo of my mother? Did it include her letters? It seems reasonable, but far from certain, that Angus’s cabinmates removed all of that before someone packed and sent his things. One hopes so.

When Luella received the footlocker, a year had passed since she had refused Norman’s request for a divorce. She had refused on the advice of a lawyer who essentially told her, “Not now. It’s a war and he’s half a world away. Let the war end. Let another year pass. If he still wants a divorce then, fine. But not now. It’s a war. Everybody’s crazy.” This proved good legal advice. Had they divorced, Luella would have lost substantial death benefits for both her and her children, who went to college on them. And had Angus lived, it might have proved good marital advice. But as it was, even as Angus’s personal effects made it harder for Luella to leave him behind, her refusal to release him earlier allowed Angus to now leave her yet again. Having been abandoned three times by her parents, Luella had now been thrice abandoned by Norman, as well: when he volunteered for the rescue squadrons, when he fell for my mother, and when he fell from the sky.

Luella was not alone, however. She had David and Christy, now 9 and 5, to care for. And soon she had a new love, her husband’s old college friend, Don Reese.

Reese had grown up in Turin, Iowa, and met Norman at the house of a fraternity they both joined at the University of Iowa. Though he did not attend medical school afterward, Don took a pre-med curriculum alongside Angus. It was then that he met Luella through Angus. Meanwhile, he already had a love of his own: a young woman named Nell, whom he’d known since he was a boy. In Don and Angus’s last year at college—the same year Angus married Luella, and perhaps inspired by that union—Nell began to press Don for marriage. Don’s parents objected, and he balked. He and Nell remained at this impasse when Don graduated and took a job in Chicago.

A year later, still at odds, he convinced Nell to move to Chicago for the summer so they could be near each other. She did and found a job at the Bon Air Country Club. Family accounts of that summer are vague. According to one, they spent a lot of time quarreling over Don’s continued fence-sitting. One evening late in August, soon before Nell would have to return to school, Don arranged to pick her up after work. He parked across the street from the Bon Air and waited. After a while, Nell emerged and started across the street. For whatever reason—distraction, tension, emotional confusion, fatigue, the late hour—she failed to notice an oncoming car. As Don watched, the car ran over Nell, killing her instantly.

Three years later, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Don enlisted in the Navy. For four years, he served as a medical corpsman on landing craft in the Pacific, undersupplied and overwhelmed, struggling to patch together Marines torn to bits in the beach landings. When the war ended, he was discharged and returned to Iowa City. There he learned that Norman had died. Returning to old haunts, he ran into Luella right about the time she received Angus’s footlocker. They married the following October.

According to David and Christy, Don and Luella seemed always haunted by the ghosts of their lovers as well as by things never said or done. Back in 1944, for instance, it was Don to whom Angus had written to tell of his hopes of bringing my mother with him to Gulfport. Did Don ever tell Luella that he had known this? Whether shared with Luella or held close, his knowledge of Norman’s affair, and the complicity it created, had to prove an awkward weight, and only one among many. Don and Luella were, says Christy, an affectionate couple, but they carried burdens and resentments that rose not so much from each other as from the losses they had suffered. “We grew up in anger soup,” Christy later recalled. My mother, of course, was a key ingredient.

In their house, says Christy, the name Norman Zahrt was rarely heard. “We learned,” says Christy, “that you just didn’t bring it up.”

Luella was doing the best she could to forget Norman. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, someone else was trying to dig him up.

Angus in flight, in one of dozens of photos he sent Evelyn Jane in Hawaii and then Texas

Until They Come Home

Norman was one of tens of thousands of World War II soldiers, sailors, and airmen missing when the fighting stopped. In the months and years after the war ended, a section of the Army quartermaster’s office called the Graves Registration Services began a relentless effort, which continues even today, to locate them. One of the GRS’s first steps was to send crews to Japan to find crash sites. Using local interviews, archeological excavation, forensic exams, medical and dental records, and Missing Air Crew reports, they sought to find and identify the bodies of those missing.

In the early summer of 1946, a GRS team working near Hamana Lake learned that a B-17 had crashed there on July 25 the previous year. Locals said they had buried ten crewmen nearby. The team searched the area and found only a bit of a propeller and a few random parts—enough to know they’d found a B-17 but not to identify it.

A year later, another GRS team returned and found more wreckage, including three engines. The serial numbers conclusively identified the plane as Jukebox 21. They also found ten badly decomposed bodies buried in shallow graves. The bodies showed no bullet holes, blade marks, or other signs of attack. Many had crushed ribs and shattered bones in their hands, feet, and lower legs—injuries common in violent crashes. Locals in the area confirmed that the plane crashed on July 25, 1945, amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Graves Registration concluded that Jukebox was downed by anti-aircraft fire and that the crash killed all aboard.

But the excruciatingly difficult task of identifying the dead remained. GRS could not simply say that the ten bodies found near Jukebox 21 were those of the ten crewmen listed in the plane’s missing air-crew report. They had to definitively identify each.

By this time, the GRS had established a large cemetery and forensics center in Yokohama. There they examined each of the bodies found near the Jukebox crash site and compared them with medical and other records for the plane’s crew members. They quickly identified six of the ten, but they felt enough doubt about the other four that they left them unidentified; they became Unknown Bodies X-408, X-412, X-415, and X-416. The skeletons of X-408 and X-416 were fairly complete, with a few bones missing from hands, feet, and lower legs. Scavengers or the crash impact had reduced X-412 and X-415 to fragments of skull, jaw, torso, and upper legs.

Graves Registration wrote the families of the six identified airmen and sent their remains home. It did not contact the other four crew members’ families, which included Norman’s. For a year, the four bodies lay buried in Yokohama while the GRS, in triage fashion, worked through more-promising cases.

In autumn 1948, however, the Service reexamined Norman’s file and lit on two pieces of information that the first examiners had either lacked access to or failed to notice. One was a record of distinctive dental work that Norman had received while in Saipan and were thus missing from the dental records made at his military induction. The other was a note in his medical history, probably easy to overlook, that as a boy he had broken his collarbone. With these two bits of information foremost, the GRS reexamined the forensic-exam files of the four unknowns remaining from the Jukebox 21 crash site. The file showed that Unknown X-408’s forensic exam the year before had shown a long-healed break in the left clavicle—and dental work matching that described in Norman’s dental record. A series of double-checks, sign-offs, and bureaucratic confirmations made it official: Unknown X-048 was Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The letter notifying Luella reached her during her third Christmas with Don, in 1948:

Zahrt, Norman E.
SN 01 700 783

20 December 1948

Mrs. Luella Zahrt
617 Rundell
Iowa City, Iowa

Dear Mrs. Zahrt,

We are desirous that you be furnished information concerning the resting place of the remains of your husband, the late Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The official report of burial has been received and discloses that the remains of your husband were originally buried at Yakute, Arai-Machi, Hamana-Gun, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, but were later disinterred by our American Graves Registration Personnel, properly identified, and reinterred in Plot USAF, Row 23, Grave 1129, United States Armed Forces Cemetery Yokohama #1, Japan, located at Yokohama on the island of Honshu, Japan.

The report further indicates that these remains have now been casketed and are being held at the United States Armed Forces Mausoleum, Yokohama #2, Japan, pending disposition instructions from the next of kin, either for return to the United States or for permanent burial in an overseas cemetery.

There are enclosed informational pamphlets…”

James F. Smith
Major, QMC
Memorial Division

Major Smith asked Luella to promptly complete a Request for Disposition of Remains so the quartermaster could send her the body.

Luella, ignoring the many questions raised by this letter, wrote the quartermaster to ask just one: Given that she had remarried, was she still next of kin? The quartermaster replied that she was not: Her remarriage gave Norman’s parents the sole right to designate his final disposition. She would hear no more from the Army.

Angus’s father, who meantime had moved to Long Beach, California, asked that Angus’s body be sent to Golden Gate National Cemetery for burial. The casket arrived in early July. On July 18, 1949, almost four years after Norman was killed, Norman’s parents stood across from a color guard and a chaplain and buried their son. Perhaps understandably, Don and Luella, once Norman’s best friend and wife, did not attend.

“There were any number of reasons not to go,” said Christy, decades later. “It was a long way from Iowa, of course, and you didn’t just pack up four people and fly in those days. It was probably far beyond our means.

“Besides, my mom was still mad at him. I guess she figured she had already buried him.”

Herman Dobbs, Evelyn Jane (center), and Jimmie Holland, a friend


My mother knew nothing of all this. Not being kin, she received nothing from the government, and Norman’s family knew nothing of her identity and likely wouldn’t have told her anything if they had. But she was not sitting around waiting for mail. She was studying medicine.

She had enrolled at San Antonio’s Trinity College in the fall of 1946; she burned through the curriculum in three years and then entered Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in September 1949. She was a 28-year-old single mother with an 8-year-old and no parental support, but she was a far more focused person than she had been five years before. She had become the woman that both her Baylor classmates and everyone who met her later knew: smart, funny, and charming, as always, but also immensely disciplined and not one to cross.

She met my father during her first year at Baylor, where he was one class ahead of her. He came from Hempstead, Texas, a small town west of Houston, and was seven years younger than she. He was tall, handsome, shyly funny, and one of Baylor’s sharpest students. They fell in together a year after she graduated, in 1953, when they were both interning in St. Louis. They married three years later and soon had Allen, the first of five children. For a time they must have seemed a couple blessed—two smart, attractive, agreeable young doctors spawning a passel of bright kids. Yet somewhere my mother’s second shot at happiness went awry. My father, while enormously talented and beloved by many of his patients, lacked any knack for self-promotion or pricing. He stayed busy but was only modestly prosperous compared with his more mercenary peers. My mother, meanwhile, reveled in her rise through Houston’s medical culture. She was elated to make the Who’s Who one year and kept that dark blue volume prominently shelved among her counseling-room reference books. She began to resent my father’s seeming lack of ambition even as he grew uneasy with her own excess of it. Their fights grew more frequent. Over time and with each battle she grew louder and he quieter. Finally, he fell silent: His long work days mashed together so thoroughly that when he moved out, we were so used to not seeing him that my mother actually got away with waiting several days to tell us. They divorced in their 17th year.

My mother tried to take this stoically, but it showed. She often looked tired, and she was more likely to cry if one of us acted stubborn or mean. If I raised my voice, she would either lay into me with trembling jaw or, worse, sit down and wipe her eyes with her fingertips and say in a cracked voice, “Oh, Davey, I don’t see why you insist on being so … so … hateful about things. Why are you so angry at me?” Once, furious at my brother and me for some adolescent idiocy, she hollered us into the car, backed it squealing onto the street, slammed it into gear, and floored it. A few seconds later, we reminded her that she had forgotten something—I don’t remember what, but it was essential to her mission. She hit the brakes so hard, we did a one-eighty. Around us rose the smell of burnt rubber. My brother and I faked smiles of thrilled, cocky pleasure. But we did not speak, lest our voices crack with fear.

Amid all this, there’s a danger of missing how much fun my mother was and how much love she created. She played the piano (moderately well), played bridge (gleefully), punned (ruthlessly), and sang, exuberantly, in the church choir, the kitchen, the shower, the car—at every excuse. She liked to garden. She didn’t do it often, but on those occasions when as a boy I would seek her out and find her standing out front pruning the rose bushes or sitting in the backyard planting monkey grass, she seemed at peace. Some of this was the warm relaxation brought by working outside. But as a father now myself, I suspect that some of the happiness I sensed at these moments was the incomparable pleasure of being sought and found by one’s children. I had first to search the big house, nine rooms on two floors, then yell out the back door. On hearing her distant response, I am running. I let the screen door slam and fly through magnolia shade until the bright sun along the driveway slows me and I find her sitting at the edge of her rose garden. She wears old jeans, a green smock, and pale blue gardening gloves. The pruning shears, laid aside, bend but do not flatten the stiff blades of the Saint Augustine grass. She looks up, and with the back of her sleeve she pushes her black curls from her forehead and gives me a wondrous smile. She delightedly says my name. This smile will embarrass me at other times. But now it completely drives from my head whatever inspired this search only moments before. She smiles that radiant smile, and when she asks me what brings her the pleasure of this visit, I can’t recall what I’ve come to her for. Clearly this.

My mother’s romance with Angus formed a pivot on which her life turned. She credited him with inspiring her to pursue medicine, and with this new focus she moved from a self-destructive course to a life more disciplined, elevated, and rewarding. Her affair with him, even as it indulged her mother’s brand of impropriety, lifted her from the gravity of Clara Lee’s example. But it took an enormous toll. It undermined the lives of Angus’s widow and children for decades. And to my mother, Angus—the one love she lost to bad luck rather than failed effort—remained forever the idealized lost chance. His death took from her not just any happiness she might have found with him but also the ability to find peace with someone as gentle as my father. Angus had opened a door to happiness that, once closed, shut her out forever. The sound of it slamming echoed a long time.

And not just for her. Christy Zahrt once visited me in Vermont, driving all the way from Nevada to do so, and after a long afternoon at my backyard picnic table, excavating our past, she said, “Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around this. Everybody ended up married to somebody they wished was somebody else. Don married Luella but wished he was married to Nell. Luella married Don but wished she was married to Norman. Your mom married your dad but wished she was married to Norman. And your dad was the only one who didn’t know about any of this, and he ended up wishing he’d married someone else anyway.”

When I stopped laughing, Christy said, “We’re obviously not siblings—we can’t be, because Norman died way before you were born. Yet I feel as if somehow we are.”

I said I’d been thinking the same thing.

“Except, of course, if Norman and Jane had stayed together,” she said, “you wouldn’t be here.”

I had thought of that, too.

Given how different my parents were, their marriage would almost certainly have failed even without Angus in my mother’s past. Yet I believe my mother resisted that failure more ferociously and took it more bitterly, and blamed my father all the more, simply because my father was not Angus. My father was kind, smart, funny, strong, generous, and handsome. But he was not restless, daring, or self-absorbed. He did not exude the narcissist’s glow. After he left, my mother hinted at her resentment by telling us the fragment of the Angus story we possessed at her death. Her tale boiled down to this: She’d known real love once, by God, but lost it.

My mother and me

Finding Angus

One afternoon a few weeks ago, when I was scrolling through the photographs for this story, my 9-year-old son, looking over my shoulder at pictures of Evelyn and Angus in their youth, asked me if I thought that telling this story would be OK with my mom. I told him I thought it would. I had once asked David Zahrt how he felt about this story going public. “The past is approved,” he said, “and the future is open”—another way of saying we must own our scars rather than wish them away. And to my mind, my mother had told us twice that she was finally ready to release her past, and thereby own it.

The first tell was her request that we put her in the Pacific. She had to know this amounted to a public declaration. I think that’s why she looked so relieved when she asked us to take her to Angus. It’s work, hiding these things.j

The other tell was the locket—the one holding the picture of her grandparents. About a year before she died, my mother sent the locket to her cousin. Betty Lou found it unsettling. The locket seemed a fitting thing to share, yet the timing made Betty Lou worry that my mother was declining and that this gift represented a good-bye.

That locket had held the same picture for almost a century. Yet when Betty Lou pressed the button and the locket popped open, she did not see the photograph of her grandparents. She saw a photograph of Angus.

Had my mother kept Angus’s picture behind that of her grandparents all those years? We agreed she must have. It’s not as if she would cut out his picture and put it there just to send to Betty Lou.

So it appears she had carried Angus with her all that time. It had been there when as a boy on her lap I tugged it up from between her breasts so I could look at it. Instead of Angus, of course, I had seen my mother’s grandparents. She had put them there because she loved them. But she had also put them there to cover and protect Angus’s memory: one past to cover another, just as she built one life to encase an earlier one.

A decade ago, I began chasing Angus as a way to better know my mother. A year ago, I went to see him. I did this partly as a way of once more visiting my mother, of drawing from her, in my mind at least, the smile she had once given me in the garden. To make sure Angus did not slip away yet again, I carried all the information needed to find him: the name of the cemetery, his grid, row, and plot number. I had built an empty half-day into the end of a Bay Area business trip. When I finished my work, I got out my phone, opened Google Maps, and found the big national cemetery at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be a two-hour walk across the San Francisco hills.

For April it was warm. Sometimes I would reach the top of a hill and see the bridge shimmering in the heat and distance, bigger each time. As I walked, feeling myself growing both excited and tense, I told myself that I was excited to finally meet Angus and tense because I had not yet worked out what I wanted to say.

I found the cemetery down by the water, just as the map showed, along one shore of the lovely old fort called the Presidio, and walked through the stone gates. To my right rose the bridge. Before me opened a broad rolling landscape of precisely laid rows of white headstones. A couple hundred yards up the driveway stood a visitor center. Attached to the building, right next to the door, was a little box that said “Grave Finder.” You turned a ratcheted wheel to the last name you were looking for and it would give you the grave location. I turned it to Z—but found no Zahrt. I checked everything and did it again. No Zahrt. I stood there like an idiot, alone and dumb amid thousands of silent headstones, and tried to figure out what was amiss. Either the Grave Finder had the wrong information or I did. I walked back so I was among the gravestones and again opened Google Maps on my phone. Again I checked my entry for the grave information. And then, knowing what was coming, I Googled “Golden Gate National Cemetery.” And I found that, behold, the Golden Gate National Cemetery is not the national cemetery that lies at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. That cemetery is the San Francisco National Cemetery. The Golden Gate Cemetery is eight miles south, in a place called San Bruno.

I looked at my watch. My plane was leaving in three hours. I would have to visit Angus another time. For now, surrounded by dead strangers, I could only sit in the grass and laugh. My sister Cynthia laughed, too, when I called her later and told her the story.

“That man,” she said, “is simply not to be found.”

A month later, contriving another business trip and taking another long, warm walk, I finally found Angus, on a bright slope in San Bruno. The Golden Gate National Cemetery sits surrounded by strip malls and big-box stores and six-lane suburban boulevards. Yet its gentle rolling expanse and the well-kept severity of its close-mown grass offer dignity and peace. Norman’s stone stands near an oak tree among the graves of others buried in 1949, none of them killed in the war. Many of the stones designated these men as “Son of” or “Husband of.” Some had the names of wives, buried there, too, carved into the reverse side. Norman’s contains no mention of family.

I sat for an hour, thinking of him lying here for 50 years while my mother thought he was still in the Pacific. When we granted her wish and flew her to Hawaii to join him, we instead left him far behind. Now she was slowly dispersing in the Pacific while he lay buried neat and deep in San Bruno; it would take a lot of time and rain to bring them together. If we had saved some ashes, I could have sprinkled some on his grave. But we had not, and I did not want to leave a picture that would just get thrown away. My mother would not have liked that. So I took some photographs and walked past a few thousand headstones and past the big-box stores and back to the train.

Later, at home, I made a two-inch-square print of Angus’s resting place. I found the photograph my brother had emailed me from Maui years before, showing our leis floating over my mother’s ashes, and I made a two-inch-square print of that. Then I opened my mother’s crumbling photo album and slipped the pictures into the two remaining empty sets of corner mounts. I considered pulling those mounts off and pasting the photos closer to one another. But I thought, No: My mom had glued those holders in that way, and I shouldn’t change it. This was as close as I could get them.

My mother’s long-kept photo album