When I started teaching high school, I was full of energy and believed that education could empower young people to create a better society. Twenty years in, my idealism had been replaced by cynicism. Living paycheck to paycheck and pining for weekends, I began to envision an early retirement. Then one afternoon, after the building had emptied, I heard voices coming from the auditorium. A fellow teacher, Blake, was rehearsing a Sam Shepard play with a group of kids who were known for their disruptive classroom behavior. I was curious whether the stage might help them change course.
Knowing I was a playwright, Blake invited me to join their production. One of the students even remarked to his friend that I was “cool.” Who knew? Despite the wavering commitment of some and the chronic lateness of others, the production succeeded. The students’ emotionally honest performances were the key. In playing someone else, these young people were able to find themselves.
The following year I met Richard, a student who was living with bipolar disorder. He asked me to read a short story he had written about a one-armed man who kills an intruder and hires a service to dispose of the body. It was a crazy tale full of sardonic humor, and I encouraged him to turn it into a play. After ten months of handing drafts back and forth, we declared it finished and staged the play at the school. Richard performed the part of Mr. Lime, the founder and CEO of the disposal company, and the audience was enthralled. The entire company, actors and stagehands alike, went on to perform at two drama festivals and received a favorable review in a local magazine.
These small triumphs were life altering for the students and for me. The admiration and praise that the young people received helped them see themselves no longer as outsiders but as contributors to a community, and the joyful energy I felt working on the plays carried over to the classroom. The idealism of my early years as a teacher was reborn.
Vancouver, British Columbia
My mom was a television actress in the early 1960s and appeared on shows like Hazel and Bewitched. By the time I was born, she had retired and was raising me on her own. I learned early on that there were two sides to my mom: On good days she was the life of the party. On bad days, which were most days, her temper made me run out of the house and hide in the woods. When angry, she got a look on her face that could crack a marble countertop: her eyes narrowed, and her mouth grew hard. She died when I was seventeen, but she said things to me in those moments that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
One day, thirty years after her death, I typed her name into Google and discovered I could stream some of the old TV shows she’d been in. The first one I watched was Dennis the Menace, season 4, episode 6. In it my mom gives another actor the same withering glare she used on me when I forgot to take out the garbage. I hadn’t seen that face in more than three decades, but it had the same effect on me: my heart raced, my fists clenched, and I wanted to run and hide in the woods. It wasn’t until that moment, watching a sitcom made before I was born, that I realized she had always been filled with anger. It had nothing to do with me. It’s been easier for me to reconcile those two sides of my mom since then.
I’m trying hard now not to be ashamed of myself for turning out like her. In my twenties I became a stand-up comedian, and I would cruelly attack hecklers in a way that left audiences reeling. I secretly loved doing it.
I don’t know what happened to my mom to make her so angry, but I know I have to decide every day who I want to be.
I loved everything about high-school theater: the rehearsals, the makeup, the nerves before you go onstage. But the best part was hanging out with the other actors and crew between rehearsals. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, so we pulled our male actors from the local boys’ schools. To avoid distractions, our drama teacher preferred to have only the actors who were in a scene present in the rehearsal space. The rest of us waited downstairs in the cafeteria, where we got to know each other, played silly games, and flirted. That’s how I met Matt.
Cast in the leading male role, Matt possessed a charisma that drew everyone to him. I couldn’t believe it when he took an interest in me. We dated heavily for about six months, and I became known as “Matt’s girl.” As sexist as that was, it thrilled me. In April I asked him to my prom, and he said yes. After the initial excitement wore off, I realized that he hadn’t asked me to his. When I asked why, he said he wasn’t going because his family would be out of town that weekend. Then I overheard some of his friends talking about prom logistics with him. Turns out he was going, just not with me. He explained that his family was forcing him to take his cousin, who was visiting from out of town. I accepted this weak lie, still in denial.
Matt broke up with me two weeks before my prom. I had no other options for a date: the tickets were already purchased, our dinner choices were made, and my dress was hanging in the closet. He offered to still go with me, and like a fool I agreed. It was the worst dance I’d ever been to. We barely spoke, and he refused to look at me while we danced. When our theater friends were around, Matt would put on a big smile, but it vanished when we were alone. We didn’t join the others for after-prom events, and he took me home at 10 PM.
In college my passion for writing overtook my interest in acting. There are times I miss the theater crowd, but I don’t miss guys like Matt.
El Sobrante, California
My elementary-school teachers thought I had a knack for dramatics, so my mother enrolled me in Mrs. Prepondera’s School of Dramatic Arts and Elocution. My dad, a retired Army master sergeant, said, “Mark my word: if the boy starts hanging around that theater crowd, he’ll end up wearing a dress.” My mother replied that I could be the next Burt Lancaster, and he never wore women’s clothes. Regardless, my dad never went to any of my plays.
Then, in 1950, when I was seven, I got a bit part in a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, and my father told my mother he would drive me to set.
In one scene I was supposed to wobble my bike down a sidewalk and almost hit Barbara Stanwyck, who would yell at me as I ran off crying. In the run-through I actually did bang into her leg, and she started howling about “goddamned kid actors.” I ran off the set crying for real and bumped into a beautiful blond actress who had second billing. She knelt down to comfort me and pulled my head into her fragrant décolletage. I kept sobbing for as long as I could. When she finally released me and stood up, I saw my dad grinning from behind the rope line, no longer embarrassed for his son to be hanging around with the theater crowd—and Marilyn Monroe.
San Diego, California
It was Tuesday, October 17, 1989, about 5 PM Pacific Time, and I was making myself comfortable in front of the TV, getting ready to watch a live broadcast of the third game of the World Series in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. The rival Bay Area teams—the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics—were the contenders: a match made in baseball heaven. Suddenly I heard an ominous rumbling, and the TV went black.
Though I had been living in California for about twenty years, I still wasn’t entirely used to the earthquakes. Most were small and rarely caused much damage, but the scenes I saw on TV later that day made me seriously uneasy.
What frightened me the most was the damage in the Marina District, the section of San Francisco just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The land there was made of artificial fill: soil, mud, rocks, and debris—the kind of material that becomes liquefied during earthquakes. Sure enough, that part of town had been decimated: fires; crushed automobiles; uplifted sidewalks; and houses ripped open, the remnants of living rooms and bedrooms in plain sight.
It so happened that three days after the earthquake I was scheduled to review a play at the Magic Theatre in the Marina District. I was certain the opening would be rescheduled or canceled entirely, but when I called, I was informed that the theater was intact and safe; the show would indeed open on Friday. Which meant I was obliged to attend. With my trepidation in check, I asked the manager to kindly reserve me a seat as close to the main exit as possible.
My theater companion, a San Francisco native, smiled paternalistically at my concerns. Having experienced earthquakes his whole life, he assured me that everything would be under control by Friday. Still, we made a plan: We would park as close to the building as possible. We would not take the elevator but would walk up the three flights of stairs to the theater. We would not stand in the lobby and chat with the other reviewers but would go directly to our reserved seats. And we would not go to the party afterward. We would just get back in the car and, if the Golden Gate Bridge was still there, head directly home.
And so that Friday evening I drove right into the ravaged Marina District. At the Magic, opening night was in full swing, and it was a full house. The play was Jon Baitz’s The Film Society, a serious drama concerning a South African private school during the sunset of apartheid. The characters were complicated, the dialogue forceful and salient. I was totally involved when, toward the end of the first act, a strong aftershock rocked the theater. I grabbed my purse and started for the exit until my companion reached out and grabbed my arm. Hard. He wasn’t moving. I looked around expecting to see chaos—rows emptying, people jumping over each other—but everyone was sitting still. Bewildered, I turned to the stage, where the actors were frozen in place, one holding a cup of coffee halfway to his mouth, another sitting at a school desk, hand raised, as if about to answer a question. I did the only thing I could do: I sat back down.
The play received a standing ovation and several curtain calls. I wrote a glowing review. Everyone had performed superbly—except for me.
Forest Knolls, California
Mum dressed me in my uniform—a polyester brown dress with white knee-high socks—and set the brown felt beret on top of my head. Our destination: my first Brownie troop meeting. I felt special, as if I had been chosen. I looked forward to the activities, games, outings, and contests. If I was a good girl and helped my mum at home and performed tasks with doglike obedience, I would be rewarded with a pin or an embroidered patch to stitch on my brown dress. I was already hooked. Then came the thrilling opportunity to perform in a play. We would act out Snow White, my favorite fairy tale.
When the day came for us to be cast in our parts, excitement built in every part of my body. Clearly I was going to be Snow White. I had memorized all the lines. I could sing the song. And acting came easy for me. We all gathered together as our troop leader announced the cast. When my name was read, though, she didn’t say, “Snow White.” She said, “Donkey.” It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Donkey? Was I really expected to play that role? Nothing in me understood how this injustice could have happened.
I was grumpy and rude and refused to play the part assigned to me. During rehearsals I gave the child chosen to portray Snow White a good measure of side-eye spice, of which I had an abundance. My mother was embarrassed and disappointed in me, and after the public performance of the play, I refused to return to Brownies.
No one ever explained to me why I was cast as a donkey instead of the princess. Now, though, it seems obvious: The year was 1970. No one then would have allowed a brown girl to play Snow White. I was dreaming of the future.
Port Townsend, Washington
“Stop being so needy,” my crush said to me over the phone. “We’re fuck buddies. Nothing more.” After he hung up, I looked at my face in the bathroom mirror and felt sure I knew the reason he had rejected me: I was ugly, unlovable. I wanted to cut myself with a razor. Instead I looked at my prescription bottles. Which drug would I be able to overdose on? Prozac? Lamictal? Klonopin? Yes, Klonopin. I poured the whole bottle into my hand and swallowed the pills. Then I bought some beer at the deli and drank it. A year of sobriety down the drain. High on Klonopin and alcohol, I suddenly realized that I might actually die. I wanted to end the pain of rejection and self-hatred, not my life.
I called Mary, a young newcomer at the addiction-support meetings I attended. When she arrived and saw me drinking and giggling to myself, her face fell. In my inebriated state I then committed a cardinal sin of recovery: I offered her a drink. She declined and escorted me to the emergency room.
A few days later Mary visited me at the psych ward—my third stay in two years. “That was uncool,” she said as we drank decaf in the ward’s kitchen. “Don’t pull that drama-rama ever again.” Drama-rama? I thought. I tried to kill myself. You should feel sorry for me, not call me a drama queen!
When I got out of the hospital, Mary snubbed me at meetings. I found out her sponsor had advised her to stay away. Over time I realized that Mary had been right: my behavior had been an attention-seeking cry for help. But that didn’t change the fact that I was in excruciating pain and had no coping skills. I really needed the help I had so gracelessly cried out for.
I have no idea where Mary is now, thirty years later, but I am grateful for her no-bullshit attitude. She helped me learn to stop feeling sorry for myself and ask for help appropriately. Taking me to the ER wasn’t the only thing Mary did to save my life.
Brooklyn, New York
In high school I had the chops for tech work—costumes, makeup, set building—but I wanted to act, too. When auditions for the spring play came around, I tried out for a role that was small but juicy: the loud, nosy neighbor who was the fulcrum for most of the onstage drama. The only problem was the part involved swearing. I was nerdy and shy, the daughter of a Catholic mother and a soldier father. Swearing made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to get that part.
On audition day I hid offstage and watched other kids try out for the role I wanted. The director was clearly looking for enthusiasm, humor, quirkiness—all qualities I had. I was ready to shed my skin and slide into this profane character. When my turn came, I confidently took my place, waited for the cue, opened my mouth . . . and squeaked the breathiest, most hesitant damn you ever voiced onstage. I cleared my throat and tried again. Still I sounded like a Sunday-school teacher who’d gotten lost and ended up in a tavern. On the third try I finally produced an audible line, but it was tentative, more question than curse. “Well, then. Thank you,” the director said and jerked her head for me to go. I resigned myself to a role on the costume crew.
Even though I wasn’t cast in the play, my friends kindly tried to teach me to swear. “You just have to practice,” one of them said. So, for two solid months, they drilled me in profanity, starting with the damns and hells and moving up to the scarier, but much more thrilling, shits and fucks. It was not a skill set I could mention on a college application, but it was freeing.
Laura E. Bailey
I often insist on bringing a friend along when I visit my parents. If they are with just me or my brother, my mom is cold and impatient, and my dad is short-tempered and stubborn. But put an outsider in the room with us, and they morph into the generous and jovial parents I yearned for as a kid. My mom smiles and jokes around, and I learn about my dad’s curious side. In those moments I relax and feel an ease that I don’t experience around them otherwise.
When someone outside the family is watching, I think my mom and dad pretend to be the kind of parents they wish they were. Or maybe these are their real selves, and what I saw growing up were the roles they thought they had to play. I may never know which of their personalities is just an act.
We were filming on the hottest day of the summer, in an old Gothic church-turned-coffeehouse. No air-conditioning. I don’t remember being introduced to Heath. He was just there—one of the crew. An hour into trying to light a tricky scene, Heath jumped in, taking charge and taping brooms and extension poles together to make a lighting rig. I admired how confidently he was able to command the crew—and I clocked his attractiveness, even while dripping with sweat.
Over the next two years we moved from acquaintances to drinking buddies to confidants to something not quite romantic but close enough to compel me to shave before I saw him. He and I wrote, directed, and produced a short film that, unbelievably, swept the film festival where we entered it. The celebration that night was magic. We posed for photographs, gushed about each other’s talents in interviews, and periodically threw our arms around one another, drunk with disbelief and pride. Later we swilled cocktails at a bar, and I snapped a photo of him, sharply dressed, tan, and glowing. I was a goner.
It was Heath’s idea to begin writing another project together: a story about a pair of platonic friends, Ben and Anna, who slowly begin to discover they have feelings for each other. The script became a kind of couple’s therapy, and I spent most of the summer trying to keep a straight face, wondering how Heath wasn’t breaking character in this charade of ours. There were so many parallels to our relationship that, if this had been fiction, I would have accused the author of overwriting.
“Why doesn’t Ben just tell Anna how he feels?”
“What’s keeping them from trying?”
“How does everyone else see it when they don’t?”
The questions we asked about the characters were the questions facing us. A friend for whom we did a live read asked, “You do know this is you guys, right?” We didn’t know what to say.
When we weren’t studying films, we wondered aloud why we both couldn’t find someone we wanted to spend the long summer days with—as we spent the long summer days together. One evening while out for beers, Heath told me about a new girl he was dating: “When she sees the photos of us together, she’s skeptical.” I froze. He went on: “My friends are always asking me why we don’t date, but I tell them if we wanted to be together, it would’ve happened.” I didn’t know what to make of this. Was he posing it as a question? Inviting me to challenge it? Or was he discouraging me, in case I had feelings he didn’t reciprocate? I kept waiting for our metaphorical staring contest to end, hoping Heath would blink first. Surely, during one of our late-night writing sessions, he’d lean over and say, Damn, we’re really writing ourselves, aren’t we? Or maybe, as the night grew into morning and our blood turned to booze, I’d summon the courage to call his bluff.
Instead we continued to workshop scenes. Production was due to kick off soon, and we hadn’t yet settled on an ending to our story. Heath wanted Ben and Anna to come together through a grand romantic gesture, while I preferred a quieter understanding that kept the audience guessing through the credits. We did what we always did when we weren’t sure of the next step: we cued up Prince’s “Purple Rain” on the bar’s jukebox, ordered another round of whiskeys, and got into the flow. As the guitar solo faded out, I frantically finished writing Anna’s climactic monologue—an argumentative declaration of love. Of course, they weren’t just Anna’s words; they were mine.
And Heath loved what I’d written. At first. Before the project was over, we fell victim to jealousy, betrayed confidences, and reactionary anger. We decided to end our story with Ben walking out after a fight with Anna. Once the screenplay was finished, so were we. Our lives continued to imitate art.
I was never a believer, but my parents made me attend catechism classes at our Catholic church. One night our teacher told us that she could speak in tongues. She had prayed for the gift, she said, and her request had been granted. My classmates and I had many questions for her: Did she understand what she was saying when she spoke in tongues? No, that would require the gift of receiving tongues, which she didn’t yet have. Had she done it more than once? Yes, she had spoken in tongues many times. Could we see? Maybe someday, but not that night. No matter how much we begged, she wouldn’t show us. The gift was a direct connection to God, she said, not a party trick, and to abuse it would have been blasphemy.
A week or two later we asked our teacher again, and on that night she must have been in the mood. She had us stand in a circle, hold hands, and say the Lord’s Prayer together. Suddenly she started to sway, her face began to flush, and she broke into a chant using a language none of us had ever heard. We gripped each other’s hands tighter. It was really happening! Our teacher’s energy was drastically different from her usual meek persona. It was almost like she had been set on fire without getting burned. Then, as quickly and intensely as it had begun, it was over.
The lessons we were taught in that class felt more like trivia than anything that might connect us to a higher power. Hearing my teacher’s gift, though, almost made me forget that I didn’t believe in God.
Los Angeles, California
When I was a graduate theater student in Sacramento, California, the drama department invited Takis Mouzenidis, the director of the National Greek Theatre in Athens, Greece, to direct a play. Greek tragedy was not my idea of a good time, but graduate students were required to audition for all productions. I hoped I wouldn’t meet the rigorous requirements. Alas, either because of my extraordinary talent or because the pickings were slim, I was chosen for the chorus.
The play was The Bacchae, an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. Mouzenidis was an engaging man, short and stout with wild white hair and a thick accent. He put us at ease with his obvious fervor. He was also a perfectionist who demanded a lot from his actors. Being late for a rehearsal was grounds for immediate dismissal. He insisted on total and intense concentration onstage. One evening I received a reprimand for brushing aside a lock of hair during a scene. “Marilyn,” Mouzenidis bellowed, “you are not focused! Pay attention!”
I had never experienced a more rigorous rehearsal schedule: six nights a week, five hours a night. The cast went home exhausted every time, but we agreed that the discipline was good for us—until, after two weeks, Mouzenidis announced, “Starting next week, rehearsals will be strenuous.”
Along with seventeen other women, I was part of the chorus of Bacchae. We were continuously onstage, either participating in the action or commenting on it. We conversed with other characters, sang and chanted, performed ritual dances, climbed towers and ropes, prostrated ourselves in adoration of our god, and stood and stood and stood, all with steely concentration. All eighteen of us were to act and feel as one. Because our dialogue was chanted in unison, our pace, rhythm, and inflection had to be in sync. Mouzenidis explained that the key to speaking and moving together is in the breath. As we prepared for a line or a movement, we inhaled as one, listening to our collective breath before we took action.
In the early rehearsals, every time we had performed a movement, Mouzenidis would say, “Approximately. We will practice that two thousand times.” We’d thought he was exaggerating. Sometimes, after working on the same gesture for four nights, we’d look at each other proudly, believing we’d finally gotten it right. Mouzenidis would take a moment to consider, then say, “Approximately.”
The cast worked diligently, and the show was marvelous. The audience was sparse on opening night, but soon word spread, and the remaining nights sold out. I’ll never forget the experience. Even Mouzenidis seemed pleased.
In a high-school acting class I performed a scene from The Odd Couple. People complimented me on it, but I felt full-scale panic every moment I was onstage.
Later I agreed to help a friend create a music video for a Halloween party. Being on camera was tolerable because the director and I were the only ones there. During the entire viewing, though, I sweated and imagined burrowing into the floor. The only copy of that video was lost when his car was stolen. I took this as a sign that my foray into amateur MTV was not meant to be.
Years passed until my next public performance, which involved singing along while a friend played guitar on the beach. Afterward I went back into shutdown mode and refused an offer to perform with him at a local club.
Today I sing into a home karaoke machine and dance alone with incredible enthusiasm in my living room. I don’t fret over not having the wherewithal to do any of this publicly. My private performances are stress-free and fulfilling.
Pembroke Pines, Florida
We met at the biggest theater in a small town. It was his first season there, and we ended up working on the same play. There was an obvious spark between us, but he was in a relationship. On closing night he gave me a ride home from the cast party, and we kissed. He called a few days later to say that he and his fiancée were breaking up and he wanted to be with me. We ended up getting married and worked together at that same theater for fifteen years.
A few months before our twentieth wedding anniversary, the pandemic hit, and his fiftieth birthday followed shortly thereafter. I had a stable job, but as a theater professional during COVID, he was out of work indefinitely. He became distant, argumentative, and aloof. He wanted to move back to his home state. I didn’t think I should quit my job, which was keeping our household afloat.
When the vaccines became available, he abruptly said, “I want to move as soon as I’m vaccinated, even if I don’t have a job.” Stunned, I asked if he still loved me and wanted to stay married, and he said yes. A few weeks later he found a short-term gig near his hometown, and we agreed that he should take it. I thought it would help him feel more grounded, and he might even find a job that paid well enough so I could leave mine and join him.
A few days after he left, he became too busy to talk to me. I was confused and heartbroken. We used to say “I love you” to each other every day. When he did create short windows to talk, he sounded like a stranger. I asked again if he wanted to end our marriage, and again he said no. Two months later, though, he took a job at a theater ninety minutes from the family and friends he had supposedly moved to be near. It was an entry-level position at a significant pay cut. It made no sense to me. Finally he admitted that he wanted to end our marriage, saying we were “on different paths.”
Not long after that, he had a catastrophic heart attack. He survived on life support for a week, but his family and friends said it wasn’t a good idea for me to come out. The day after he died, I found out why I wasn’t wanted: he had been having an affair with his married college girlfriend. It had started online during the pandemic, three months before our anniversary. The person I loved and trusted most in this world had spent the last, desperate year of his life lying, cheating, and unraveling.
Our fourth-grade play was performed in the school cafeteria before an audience seated in rows of metal chairs. My grandparents stood in the back, their old black video camera resting on Grandpa’s shoulder. I was the star of the play—the Bad Cowboy who robs without consideration for others until he meets a pretty lady who teaches him grace. To win her love, he becomes a good cowboy. After the play ended, the audience stood and cheered. I bowed onstage with the cast, then ran to the back of the room into my grandmother’s arms. My grandfather filmed her holding me tight.
Twenty-five years later I came out as transgender. Testosterone transformed my body and lowered my voice. My community began referring to me by a new name and different pronouns. But I’ve never felt as validated in my gender identity as I did that day in the cafeteria, when a roomful of adults saw me as a cowboy and celebrated me.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Four years into my career as a trial attorney I found myself representing a couple whose small farm—a birth-to-market hog operation—was in crisis. The farmer had purchased feed from a local cooperative grain elevator, fed it to his pigs, and then witnessed the spontaneous abortion of nearly every litter being carried by his sows.
When we met, the farmer had scientific testing in hand proving the grain had been tainted with mold that produced mycotoxins: naturally occurring poisons. It seemed like a slam-dunk case, but the lawyer he and his wife had previously contacted had declined to file suit. So the couple had searched the phone book and settled on me because, as the farmer put it, “You’re licensed in both Minnesota and Wisconsin: you must be pretty smart.” Truth was, I was a wet-behind-the-ears young litigator whose guts got all jumbled in court. But the family was desperate: the “abortion storm,” as they called it, had wiped out a year of new piglets, placing the farm in financial jeopardy. Against my better judgment, I accepted the case.
After several years of traveling around the Midwest taking depositions, I got a judge to agree to hear the case. I was waiting for a trial date from the county courthouse when a court clerk called me on a Tuesday to announce the case would be tried in front of a jury the following Monday. I had less than a week to arrange for my leading expert in mycotoxins to adjust his schedule, catch a flight to Duluth, rent a car, and drive five hours to Baudette, Minnesota, for the trial. With my clients’ farm near foreclosure, asking for a postponement was not an option. I packed my bags, booked a room in the Walleye Inn (the only motel in town), and left my pregnant wife and young son.
Over the next two weeks I would place my clients’ fate in the hands of a seven-person jury. The first step was jury selection. When the last potential juror was called to be questioned, I knew I was in trouble. He was a state trooper, a farmer, and a member of the cooperative elevator being sued. I tried to elicit bias from him with my questions but was unsuccessful, and I had no peremptory challenges remaining, so I couldn’t strike him from the juror list without a reason. I was stuck with a juror who had a vested interest in the outcome of the case.
The courtroom sweltered in the July heat. The judge was tough but humane: he relaxed the rules of decorum and allowed attorneys to remove suit jackets and loosen ties. As I presented scientific evidence and cross-examined defense witnesses, I noticed an elderly juror who continually nodded and smiled at me. At least she’s on our side! I thought. But I still worried about the trooper.
After final arguments the jury retired to the deliberation room. My clients and their children sat in their sedan in the courthouse parking lot, waiting for a verdict. Hours passed by. My stomach growled, and my bowels were aching. In between trips to use the restroom, I stood beside their car, trying to reassure them that a long deliberation meant the jury was probably hashing out the issue of damages.
After six hours had passed, a court clerk announced the jury had reached a verdict. With my clients’ livelihood, future, and home on the line, we returned to the building, and I took my seat at the counsel table. As the jury filed into the room, I was crushed: the state trooper was carrying the special verdict form in his big, meaty hands: he’d been elected jury foreperson. Shit.
The judge read the jury’s decision aloud. They had found the cooperative to be 100 percent at fault. I was stunned. Every question—every single one—was answered in favor of my clients. When the judge got to the damages, they had awarded my clients more than I’d asked for!
A lawyer should always shake the hand of each juror and thank them for doing their civic duty. When I went to shake the older woman’s hand, she refused to make eye contact. I later learned that she’d been the only holdout, the one juror steadfastly against my clients. The state trooper? When I shook his hand, he leaned in and whispered, “Did we give them enough?”
I never considered myself particularly talented, but the summer I was fifteen I took a chance and auditioned for a part in a local musical-theater company’s production of Oliver! I landed a chorus role. Being a part of the production kept me out of the sweltering heat, introduced me to Hilary—who, more than fifty years later, is still my best friend—and led to my first date.
I was overjoyed when Chip, the sophisticated, charming, older director, asked me out, even though he didn’t say where we were going. He picked me up by honking his car horn in front of my house, and I ran out to meet him. Then he drove to the end of a dirt road, told me how beautiful and talented I was, and started kissing me and grabbing at my breasts and crotch. I don’t remember how I extricated myself from the situation, but I did, and I never told anybody what happened.
When the #MeToo movement was trending, I googled Chip and learned that he is still working in theater. I wonder if he remembers how our “date” ended.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
As a young adult I unconsciously sought out people with problems: an alcoholic boyfriend, a best friend ravaged by an eating disorder. My childhood of chaos and trauma had taught me that the world was broken, and it was my job to fix it.
After college I got a master’s degree in social work and found myself struggling to stay afloat in a sea of depression, crisis, and pain. One day, after years of counseling, I sat in a therapist’s office recycling yet another existential crisis. She looked in my eye and said, “What if the point of life is to enjoy being alive?” I laughed out loud. The thought had never occurred to me.
I wish I could say that conversation shifted everything, but it took me years and multiple rounds of cancer to accept her wisdom. I am grateful to have recently celebrated my fiftieth birthday. Shit still happens, but I don’t seek it out like I did in the past.
The Old Creamery Theatre Company in Garrison, Iowa, was having a weeklong summer camp for teenagers. It cost one hundred dollars and included meals for seven days. Even in 1973 this was a bargain, but my parents didn’t have the money.
Barely thirteen, I drafted a letter to “whoever is in charge of this camp” and explained why I should be allowed to attend for free. It was my first experience in selling myself, and I laid it on thick, listing my meager qualifications and saying that the camp would “really be missing out” if they didn’t let me attend. A few days later someone from the theater company called and scheduled an appointment to meet me.
I had to babysit the night before my interview, and when I got home, my sister was already asleep in our shared bed. The weather was unseasonably warm for late May, so I cracked the window. This awakened my sister, who shot up, angry enough to spew fire. She belted me, and I hit her back. After many slaps, scratches, and hair pulls I finally walked out and spent the night with a friend.
The next morning I arrived at my interview with a scratch under my left eye that was both wide and deep. The company’s director asked about the kind of work I had done in theater and the speech contests I’d competed in. After about twenty minutes he told me that I could have a full scholarship to the camp. Later I wondered, Had he awarded me the scholarship because of my potential or because I was obviously a victim of violence at home?
My audition for our community’s production of Chicago went well enough that I was invited to callbacks. This was complicated in three ways: One, I’m a pastor, and I wasn’t sure church members who were used to praying with me should see me in fishnets. Two, to make callbacks I needed my district superintendent’s permission to miss a church conference. I couldn’t just lie and say I was sick: I’m a pastor. Three, I was thirty-one and hadn’t had sex until my wedding night, four months prior. I figured I could work out the first complication somehow. The second turned out not to be a problem: the district superintendent is a theater fan. But the third proved tricky. I wanted to play the voluptuous Velma or Roxie, yet I had hardly any idea how to act sexy.
At the audition we’d been instructed to “be seductive with a chair.” I’d wondered, Is this something sexually active people instinctively know how to do? Should I, by the fourth month of marriage, have mastered this? At callbacks, to further demonstrate sexiness, we had to drape ourselves suggestively over a man—or, in my case, a local college boy who looked frighteningly young. Unable to think of anything else, I walked my fingers across his shoulder blades. He giggled and said, “That tickles.” Meanwhile the women auditioning against me were diving between their man’s legs or throwing him down and straddling him. “That’s it; that’s all I’ve got,” I said, dropping my hand. “That’s my whole bag of tricks.”
To my surprise, I was cast as one of the “Cell Block Tango” girls—the one whose boyfriend is a Mormon. My monologue even required me to say a swear word! On opening night my church members cheered me on from the audience, and my husband was unequivocal in his support. “Just show confidence,” he said, “even if you don’t feel it.”
It has since occurred to me that his advice could apply to settings other than the stage.
Durham, North Carolina
I married because I wanted to live a life without drama. My mother had undiagnosed bipolar disorder with mania that led her to start multiple brief careers and one very long affair. Her depression kept her crying in the bathroom, slamming doors, or yelling at all of us, especially my father, who made just enough money as a postman to keep us in a tiny apartment in the Bronx. She blamed him for her poverty and misery. My three brothers all suffered in their own ways: The oldest was so angry he threw chairs and dishes and left home when I was six years old. The second used drugs and ran away repeatedly. Each time, we would assume he was dead until he’d call from California or Mexico, begging for enough money to buy a Greyhound ticket home. My youngest brother was brilliant and solitary; he had a schizophrenic breakdown in college and died by suicide at the age of twenty-five.
At the time of my youngest brother’s death, I was seeing a perennially cheerful medical student, and within a week I decided to marry him. My future husband was unflappable, if a little remote. His parents were scientists with PhDs, stable jobs, and a real house. His sister and brother were both in college and had no visible mental illnesses. We planned to marry and make a home and garden. He would be a doctor, and I, a nurse: jobs that would allow us to be comfortable while raising three kids, who would all be extremely well-adjusted.
What I didn’t know was that I carried drama with me, tucked away like a tiger in a cage. When our children were young, it emerged as anxiety whenever something went wrong: a child’s temper tantrum or poor report card was, to me, a sure sign of impending disaster. My husband’s glib certainty that everything would be OK just made me resent him. I tried my best to be a normal mother and managed to not act crazy until our children were finally grown. Then the tiger got loose.
My pent-up rage came out—anger toward my parents and their dysfunction, my brothers and their sadness, my kids and their poor choices, but mostly toward my husband, whom I could not forgive for being too afraid to comfort me. I hated him for fearing me, which just made him fear me more. I screamed like my mom. I threw things like my oldest brother. I ran away like my middle brother. I even talked about killing myself.
Then one night I had a terrible panic attack. My husband didn’t know what to do. My heart was pounding, and I could barely breathe. I didn’t see a way forward for myself or my marriage. I knew we needed help, but there was no one to turn to. And then it hit me: I told my husband to ask Siri what to do when someone is having a panic attack. He consulted his phone, and then he sat on the edge of the bed, held my hand, and told me that he was there for me. Then we lay down and went to sleep.
The tiger still emerges at times, but we know how to tame it. I am no longer ashamed of the reasons I got married; I see now that my husband was exactly the person I needed. He loves me, too, now that he no longer fears me. Our children have turned out well-adjusted after all, just as he predicted. We have made a comfortable home that is free of drama. And also, miraculously, full of love.