By Lee Price
/ Nonfiction /
My first great performance was also my first audition. I was twelve years old and rife with devastation. The kind of yearning, bookish kid predestined for a stint in community theater. The one in my wasteland of a town was staging a production of my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. My paperback was rumpled by the dozen times I'd read the thing, whole passages of that soft prose stamped in my memory. I'd never wanted anything so bad as I wanted to play the role of six-year-old Scout. The theater adults broke my heart when they pronounced me too grown for that role. As consolation, they let me try for abused, nineteen-year-old Mayella instead.
The night of my audition, I stood at the back of the dusty stage. I'd spent long afternoons stretched out in the Carolina sunshine on my yellow bedspread, studying the script and a part I didn't yet understand. Thinking on Mayella, burning with shame at how her own father touched her. Thinking on how a shadow might shape up inside a person until it fills them and rushes out. Besot with big feelings and a need to be seen. My competition: teens, college students, women in their twenties. I was a skinny-legged kid with so much to prove. One by one the mild women tripped over lines on the lank papers in their shaky hands. When the director called my name, her face was patient. Like she was readying to say something nice to a try-hard little girl. I knew how to show her. I dropped my script and let what was stashed in my chest rush into my face, the words stored in my mind drop beneath my snaking tongue. I became an explosion. All those big feelings crawled up from my guts and flung out. In the audience, jaws dropped. When I finished, people sprang up to their feet. It was the first time I'd let what I felt inside really rip. The first time I wielded my feelings to move people. Onstage, my little body trembled in the thundering applause.
* * *
Decades passed. I was thirty-three and struggling through my life in New York city. The kind of astral, ennui-stricken woman bound to take up a deck of tarot cards. The one I found bore pretty images of animals with glowing rainbow auras, and haunting ones of tangled branches and decay. I was married at the time, and my husband thought the cards suspect. He questioned most things that weren't sports or alcohol or other great American pastimes. He loved Brooks Brothers, his speedboat, and the flag. We were deeply incompatible.
I spent long evenings at his mother's house with the cards stretched out in the Connecticut moonlight that streamed through the guest bedroom's window. Desperate to figure out my life. While my husband and his mother sat in the living room watching Fox News with goblets of red wine, sipping themselves into stupors and speaking of better times with dead relatives.
Soon after I got those cards, I found my way to a tarot reader who directed me to her therapist. "You need help," the reader said. Didn’t I know it. A deep and inflamed wound was burning up to surface. A few weeks later I was in an office with soaring ceilings and a wall of casement windows overlooking the city's glitter, telling a kind woman my troubles. My new therapist handed me a tennis racket, thick gloves, and led me over to a large foam cube. "Bring your rage," she invited. It was all the permission I needed. I brought the racket down on the cube. Then I hit it again, then faster. I let the feelings coiled in my guts rush into my arms while fury scorched my mouth. "FUCK YOU!" I screamed. I kept hitting. "FUCK ALL OF YOU!" I hit and screamed until I was spent, raw-throated, sore-armed. My therapist's soft eyes wet with tears. For the first time in my life, I felt truly held and seen.
On the subway ride home, my body trembled with release.
* * *
Despite my audition, I didn't get the part. The director gushed over my performance but a twelve-year-old girl was never getting permission to play a nineteen-year-old slut. The news enraged me to dramatics, and I shred my audition script to confetti. The director cast my baby sister as Scout. She tossed me a bit part as a towns-child, where I got to move around in the background murmur with the crowd. Then I met Ben, who played Atticus.
An attorney in real life too, he swaggered into rehearsals straight from court. Grey suits with red suspenders, loose ties, shaggy hair. He had a hero's job—Assistant District Attorney. He was easy with my sister, his stage daughter. He brought her donuts with pink frosting from the bakery across the street. He was funny with me—leaning in to whisper some sharp joke about how a person looked or spoke or moved. Then he took a liking to my mother, raining donuts on us all. After rehearsals he always walked us to our car. The theater sat on a side of town my mother called "bad" and she said Ben was so good to worry about our safety. He lingered, they laughed. I cocked my ear towards them and thrilled when I caught the meaning of their jokes. Driving home, my mother was incandescent. When she opened her mouth to sing along to the radio it was the glow of a firefly, throbbing in the summer's dark.
Then the show's run ended, and their years-long love affair began.
* * *
Like Ben, my husband and I were Assistant District Attorneys. We met on the job. Our work was heightened, dramatic. But we were no heroes—just measly actors embattled in a daily pageantry of justice. One dangerous Friday night after months of flirting, we kissed at a dive bar a few blocks from our office in the South Bronx. I had a nice boyfriend I shared dogs with and planned to marry—a whole life ripe for disruption. But this new mouth was a portal in the murk of Coronas, purple lights, and bachata music. By Sunday I'd broken up with my boyfriend and blown up my life.
As an adult, I'd learned to create dramas. The intensity of chaos kept me from the snarl of knottier things.
I called my mother, weeping and wild. "I kissed someone," I confessed. She drew a breath and warned me. "When I did that I lost myself," she said. The shame that dropped was a door slam, unfeelable. I had to prove her wrong. My betrayal was nothing like hers. This man I just kissed in a bar was nothing like the one she let break our family. This man I just kissed had never been serious with another woman before. I would be the first one to draw a declaration of love from his clenched heart—chosen. Two years later, I married him.
My husband was good. He was kind, and made me laugh harder than I knew I could. But we were addicts. He drank. I preferred weed and pills that melted my anxious thoughts into sleep. We had fast minds and slick mouths, tempers like wildfire. We each bore a willfulness like rushing walls of water. We were both helpless when it came to backing down. Our fights were theatrical. He'd provoke and I'd rage. Then I'd cry until my face swelled shut. He'd set his jaw and look away. We threw things and called each other names. We said such cruel things when we thundered. In the mornings, the after-shame bewildered us both. You can be addicted to anything, I learned. A wound hatched open, and something fearsome clawed out.
* * *
Ben and his wife were our fast family friends. He and my mother were plainly in love, but my father and Ben's wife both ignored that. Life was more fun in a small, Southern town with a bright young couple in the mix. Less church, more parties.
I was fourteen when Ben showed me a poem. He pulled it from the desk in his little home office and we sat cross-legged on the bandaid colored carpet. "I wrote this when I was your age," he said. He told me not to tell his wife. "She doesn't understand this kind of thing," he explained. He moved behind me, and rubbed my shoulders while I read. The poem was bad, likening love to a paint-by-numbers canvas. The push-pull of embarrassment for him while the firework of being the special one who got to keep his secret exploded in my chest all the same. But his hands kneaded and I felt chosen.
I was fifteen when Ben taught me to drive. His red truck with manual transmission, some desolate farmland dirt path. "Sit on top of me, in case we get pulled over," he directed me. He shot his seat back and waited until I was settled on him to explain about the clutch, the gears. My foot hit the gas and my nervous body sparked at the loose coast of the truck bumping along. It had a stiff steering wheel and was tough to maneuver. I stamped at the clutch, useless and scared. I gripped the wheel so tight I barely noticed his hands on either side of my hips. The rub of his thumbs beneath the edge of my shirt.
In college, I read the play How I Learned to Drive, and a pain bloomed so sharply in my head that I vomited until my face swelled with red patches. I spent the rest of the day laying still in bed, fan whirring overhead in the dark.
* * *
I was relentless in therapy. I clobbered the foam cube every week. I'd hit and hit and monologue about my life. Ben, my parents, my husband. How the decades-long performance of being okay had worn me down. After my sessions I'd spring into the night, feeling lighter than ever. It was a full-bodied approach to working out what was wrong.
The vomit started one gray morning, after just a month of sessions. Sour puke erupted from me hourly, ceaseless for a week. The doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong. My husband couldn't stop drinking. I couldn't keep down anything except mushy watermelon cubes or a few spoonfuls of rice. I tossed back knock-out quantities of pills then and prayed they'd stay down long enough to make sleep swarm my buzzy brain. I'd doze off for a few hours and wake up alone, my husband down the block at some dive bar. He'd come home sweating booze, defiant.
"It's psychosomatic," my therapist said of this illness. During our sessions I was too weak to hit, so I cried. "Let it out," she said. "Let this move." I felt out of control and scared. My health improved but then it worsened. My weight dropped. My husband kept drinking and going out, and I'd scrape up enough energy to do combat. He'd say I was a damaged person and that my new therapy was churning up muck. He'd say he felt like a casualty.
"I'm cast as the bad guy. But this is about your past!" he hissed. It made me feel icky and exposed. Things got bad enough that my mother flew up to New York to help care for me. One sleepless morning I got out of bed before dawn and drew a bath. My husband was hungover on the couch, and my mother lay on the other side of the king-sized bed that took up half our bedroom. I pulled a tarot card while my bathwater ran. Nine of swords—a grotesque carcass, sphered by so many blades. I looked over at my sleeping mother. I'd spent so much of my life inflamed by her betrayal. Now I was a scant hundred pounds. A scooped out little nothing. Helpless as a baby.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow is renowned for his hierarchy of needs theory. Survival at the base, spirituality at the top. Lesser known is his theory of peak experiences—the idea that we can be visited by a sudden oceanic bliss, scales dropping from our eyes as we glimpse the interconnected whole. A brief rapture in the slog of life.
What happened next made no sense at all to me then. It sounds implausible even now— I know that. A lifting sensation. A glow haloed my mother as she breathed, a cord of light that ran from her to me. I felt her vitality—a mass of tiny sparks—that became my gestational lifeforce. My own essence as it must have been when I first flickered alive. All the particles of my mother's body radiated as she slept, and in my mind I saw inside of her body. I saw her womb and the light inside of it. Light-filled cells shifted around inside her. These glowing cells had come together, magnetized, into the shape of me. An orphic knowing came over me. How I had been a part of her. How I was still a part of her and always would be. How love was the essential thing between us. My very being threaded with gratitude. The sensation peaked, lingered, and wore off like a drug. I told no one what I'd been shown. It might have been a hallucination from my extended dehydration and persistent sickness. But I know it wasn’t. It was the most profound moment of my life.
When my strength came back, I resumed exhausting my rage in therapy. On the other side of my illness, my husband and I divorced.
* * *
Eventually my parents separated. Then Ben told his wife the truth about my mother, and they all got divorced. My mother and Ben were an on-and-off couple for a few tortured years. Her heart tossed back and forth between Ben and my father.
Meanwhile, Ben crept towards me. A palm resting on my ankle when my legs stretched towards him on a couch. His hand moved so gradually that by the time I realized it had taken on the rhythm of a caress, my chance to pull away felt forfeited. With my father out of the house, he took me on more late-night drives in the country to show me his old "necking" spots in the woods. He asked if I'd had sex with that older guy like he heard? He bought me alcohol, then gave me weed.
When I had just turned seventeen, my parents left town for the weekend in a bid to rekindle. She insisted I stay at Ben's house. He threw a party that night. Boys from my high school came over with druggy townies. Then one by one the boys left until it was just me, passed out on his couch. I woke to him nestled beside me and acted like I hadn't yet surfaced, hoped he would leave me alone. I wore overalls like a kid so it was easy for his fingers to unhook the denim straps and find my body in ways they never had before. The grazing of parts, the kneading of skin I knew to be sacred. The only time, I will realize later, his touching went so far as to be criminal. I flew out of my body. My eyes stayed closed while I waited for morning. In the bright next day I felt nothing until I felt it all at once. A wet cloak of shame dropped—it would hang on me for decades. I ran to the bathroom and puked.
After that, I resisted Ben. He spidered up to my mother, acted hurt. My mother berated me: the ingrate. Here was a good man desperate to tend to me and the animal of my endless needs. The more I resisted the more vicious she became. They colluded like that. I learned all the ways to numb myself. Alcohol, pills, big fights with my boyfriends.
During those years, I kept doing theater. Performance was a place of permission—to have all of my big feelings and send them crashing out into the world. I craved the purge of emoting and that clean, spent feeling after a show. Like I'd been scraped with a hot spoon. Permission was something sacred, something I wasn't allowed to withhold. So I gorged on it with my acting. I played funny, and sad, and loud roles. I was Kim in Bye Bye Birdie. Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Abigail in The Crucible, my favorite. A witch screaming out the unseen grip taking her body.
* * *
During my marriage, and in the years that followed, I thought about Ben all the time. It was an inflamed, throbbing thing. In therapy I worked it with story, with screams, with my fists when I hit. I talked to friends who loved me. I wrote about it. But I never felt much better and well into my late thirties, it could still hook and ruin me. I lost hours of my life to weeping. I spent entire days in the well of sadness. Replaying how I might have stopped him, rehearsing alternate scenes that might have been. I kept writing, talking, wailing. I started doing therapy with groups. We talked about the power of vulnerability but I kept this tragic part of those containers.
In the pit of one miserable summer something moved. Another otherworldly visitation—the kind of wild thing I can't explain, and wouldn't believe from someone else. On a hot night I sat outside as a sudden terror wrapped my heart. Hard tears gushed from me, like something mean was wringing me out. A black cube rose from my sternum. I watched it grow, and thicken, and hover up into the night. When it was gone, things felt different. My breathing slowed and my pounding heart calmed. Inside of myself I felt cool, open space.
* * *
When I was seventeen, I told my mother about Ben. As best I could, with the language I had. How I woke up to his hands and the snap of my overalls being undone. How I felt too pressed down, by years of so many small allowances, to ignite myself and push back. How he'd touched me and I hadn't stopped him. She gusted out on a gale of rage, made a whole scene at his office, blowing past his secretary to bellow and break things. Then my father moved back in. My mother told him what Ben did to me, but my father never showed me any anger over it. He was so glad to be chosen by my mother.
Ben's ex-wife and my mother compared notes on their wicked man-in-common. That's when I learned he'd bested me all along. He'd spent years pushing a narrative that I was obsessed with him. He'd cast me as overt and sexual, a too-grown child who propositioned a grown man. His ex-wife reported he'd said it was all he could do to fend me off. I was dramatic, aggressive, taken with older boys. It must have been easy enough for the audience of my small town to believe.
Many years later, when I was grown up and back home visiting from New York, my mother attended a party without me. She came home, tipsy and breathless as a girl. Ben was at the party. He'd made for the door when he saw her.
"But I stopped him! I said we can be civil, no reason to leave. I thought you'd be proud of me," she said. When I asked her why, and how, and what the hell was she thinking she crumbled. It wasn't until I was on a plane back to the city that I realized she had never once apologized.
* * *
A month after the black cube vision, I traveled to the New England countryside for a group therapy retreat. Fourteen of us gathered every few months to play out our pain. We'd tell stories, bring awareness to the sensations they frothed up in our bodies, and let loud emotions roll ashore. Our props were oversized foam cubes, cushions, bats. Shoddy set-dressings for ridiculous, deep-feeling adults. I'd known these folks for a few years, but had only recently told the few I was closest with about Ben. That weekend, we were led by an airy flint of an old woman. She seemed half on earth and half in some other world, and I wasn't sure how seriously to take her. She knew nothing about me, but she clocked me right away.
"If you're ready, this will help," she said.
The tiny old woman invited me to lie down, face up, while she ran a pendulum over my body. When it got to my right hip, the one Ben had fondled and spooned that night on that couch, the pendulum swung wildly. She beckoned the group's tallest, biggest man. He kneeled and held a cushion over his torso. We locked eyes.
"Destroy him," she directed. So I did. I kicked him in the cushion and screamed until I was spent. Then I sat up gently, and climbed into a chair. The woman sat beside me and took my hand.
"Now tell us," she invited. So I did. My group sat around me, rapt audience to my show. I told them about Ben. I said all of my stories. I recited every aspect. I watched emotions storm their faces. I saw tears pinken their eyes. When I was done explaining, some of their jaws were set in anger and some had lowered in disgust.
"Now all of us need to show her how this makes us feel," the woman said.
A feral pack of deep-feeling adults. They gnashed teeth and growled. They smashed bats and rackets on big foam cubes.. They made fists and stomped their feet. Some pushed their faces into pillows and wailed into the ground. I closed my eyes and let myself feel the sounds of them bearing witness. My audience took on my pain and embodied it. A bright pink light flooded my eyes and my whole spirit quivered in the thunder of outrage and love.
* * *
Performance lends a sense of control. When we act out what we feel, reality suspends. We command time, space, body, presence, connection between ourselves and our audience. A tricky magic that might gesture to a deeper truth. Embodiment lends form and shape to slippery phenomena. We summon trauma, longing, pain, a felt-sense of porousness between all living matter. Each one a knot of power and vulnerability. Actor and audience, predator and prey. Cords of cellular light and dislodged black cubes. Revelations that keep us more alive.
After the retreat. Weeks went by. Then months. Half a year. One day I realized I couldn't recall the last time I lost myself to old, sad stories. Bad memories still visit, but they don't sear me. I still know my life's hard truths: I was groomed and violated, profoundly betrayed. But I know some deeper truths too: I have a strong and supple heart and my wounds don't run the show. I'm not a home for the bad things that happened to me. My feelings are more than stagecraft. We think of miracles as transgressions that defy laws of nature. Easy, wonderous happenings. But saving yourself is never easy. My greatest performance is the hard work of miracles. Now my day resumes. My week goes on. My life is mine.