Below is a link to an interview I gave a few days ago with the wonderful Gay Maxwell, continuing education manager at the Brattleboro Retreat–a premier mental-health and addiction treatment center in southern Vermont.
The interview is tied to the upcoming Brattleboro Literary Festival (October 12-15). I will be reading from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE at 11 a.m.Saturday, October 14, at the Centre Church in Brattleboro.
In Chapter 3, “Regulars” (pp. 34-35) of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I write about a gallant intervention against a schoolyard bully that my late son Kevin made in the sixth grade, while we were living in Middlebury, Vermont. The passage is below:
A quality in Kevin that I admired perhaps even more than I admired his musical gifts can be summed up in a story I heard about him at his memorial service.
The story was told to me by a classmate of his, a beautiful young woman with long, thick, curly dark tresses and dark eyes. In sixth grade she had experienced one of those rare kidhood growth-spurts that almost overnight set her apart from everybody else. She topped out at six feet. Her height and beauty, neither of which she could understand, much less control, put her in the cross-hairs of certain boys in the class. She never invited this: her family was poor, her mother single, and she came to school in faded jeans and flannel shirts, or T-shirts with “cool” slogans. Just a kid in grade school.
One boy in particular seemed to take her innocently stunning appearance as some kind of personal reflection on him, or challenge. The boy was built thick and tough; he was on a track to star as a college ice-hockey player. His method for dealing with her daring to be tall was to swagger up to her on the school grounds before classes or at lunch hour, and punch her. Repeatedly. Hard. On her shoulders. On her chest. Sometimes in her face. She bruised, and she bled, but she didn’t know what to do. She stood there and took it. Sometimes the pain and humiliation made her cry silently. Other kids watched from a distance. No kid made an effort to intervene. No teacher, apparently, was aware what was happening. And the girl never told anyone.
This all stopped when Kevin walked up to the two of them one day while the punching was going on and said: “Patrick, you’re being a dick,” and walked away. Patrick did not go after him. It was as if he said to himself, “Yeah—I guess I’m a dick.” He grew up to be a pretty good guy. And a college hockey star.
It’s not for me to say, but I think the tall girl loved Kevin. Who didn’t?
Last week, the Tall Girl came back home to Vermont.
Her name is Leah. She has been living in Ireland for the last several years. She’d graduated the University of Vermont with a degree in gender and women’s studies, studies, married a boyfriend, and followed him to Cork, the graceful small city on the coastal southwest, bisected by the River Lee.
Another child; then divorce.
Leah found a community of young musicians (coincidence? Maybe!), did some radio announcing, and took up a career as a songwriter. She has never stopped thinking about my son.
I drove up from Castleton to Middlebury to meet her—she makes an annual trip home to visit her mother—and we had lunch on the deck of a riverside restaurant on a balmy midsummer afternoon. Leah is in her early 30s now, but she has not changed dramatically from her year in sixth grade, 1996. Nor from her appearance at the memorial service for Kevin in July of 2005. She had long since replaced the faded jeans and flannel shirts; she was wearing a chic summer dress and heels. She was no longer a gangly skinny kid, but the essential Leah was still fully present. She wore her lustrous black hair long and in curls, as she had through her difficult childhood. She spoke easily and warmly (I heard traces of an Irish accent); but her expressive dark eyes tended to drift, as if she were halfway inside a world known only to her.
I learned some new things from Leah as we talked.
I learned that it had been not one boy but two who assaulted her daily on the playground until Kevin walked up. The boys had beaten her arms and her face, often drawing blood. They had jumped up and down on her feet. They had spat in her face.
I learned that it was not true that teachers were unaware of what was happening. They were aware, all right. They just didn’t do anything about it.
I learned that the school playground was not the only place where Leah had suffered. She’d been tormented inside and outside the school. Once, the first bully grabbed Leah’s thick hair in both hands and dragged her out of her classroom seat by it. Another time, the two attacked her in front of the principal’s office.
In fact, Leah suffered more or less continually as a child. She led a life of quiet desperation. Her impoverished household was a version of Hell. Her mother had done her best to keep things together, but she was disabled and emotionally fragile and often needed tending from Leah. The father, a hard and scowling man, brooded over the family until Leah’s mother worked up the will to leave him. He died year ago.
I learned that Kevin was her savior, and not only on the day he confronted Patrick.
“The only reason I kept going to school was Kevin,” she told me as she studied the river. “He was the only good thing in my life. My mother would rant and rage as she drove me to school. But as soon as I got out of the car, there was Kevin, and we would start laughing right away. He could always make me laugh. He was so funny!”
Leah told of Kevin’s talent for mimicking other people—teachers, classmates. It was a gift that we’d noticed around the house, as well. Often, we noticed it while wincing.
She stuck around him. He seemed happy to have her company. Yet they never so much as held hands. Kevin may not have been aware of her adoration. Or he didn’t know what to do with it. He was just a kid. So was Leah.
They remained friends for three more years, through middle school. Kevin’s guitar talents were earning him a reputation by then.
In the fall of 1997, when Kevin was freshly 14, we entered him in his first competition, simply to get him some experience in that pressurized world. The competition was the formidable Down Beat Magazine’s annual student music awards. Kevin sat in our living room, one foot propped on the arch of the other, his ball cap on backwards; and, using retail mics and soundboard, recorded three tunes in each of two genres, jazz and rock. His choices were challenging and sophisticated. In the jazz category, he tackled “Blue Monk” by Thelonius Monk, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” by Fats Waller, and “Satin Doll” by Billy Strayhorn. In blues, he submitted “Stormy Monday” by T-Bone Walker, “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King, and “Tore Down” by Sonny Thompson. The submissions were multi-track dubs, in which Kevin performed lead, rhythm, and, on some of the tunes, harmony and a bass line off his electric guitar.
We sent the submissions in, after warning him not to get his hopes up. This was just for experience.
The following June, Down Beat announced its winners. Kevin had won for his age-group in both his categories. He got his picture in the local paper.
Kevin never preened or strutted after these awards. That would not have been Kevin. He was proud; it showed at the corners of his mouth; but he didn’t talk about it. I don’t know what, if anything, passed between him and Leah concerning his new local celebrity. Probably not much, if I know my late son. They continued their friendship.
Life began to pull them apart shortly after that. Kevin found to his delight that he had been accepted into the prestigious Interlochen Academy for the Arts in Traverse City, Michigan. He would take up his studies in the autumn of 1998. I would drive him the eight hundred miles from Middlebury to Montreal, then west along the majestic Trans Canada Highway to Sault Ste. Marie, and then south through pine forests that bordered the highway to the new home that would nurture and gladden him for the next three years.
“I knew that he had to go to Interlochen, and I was happy for him,” Leah told me. Kevin never mentioned the relationship, nor the parting. He was an intensely private young man.
“I was proud of him. Happy for him,” Leah told me.
I had taken out my camera to make some photographs of her, then put it down. It was when the talk turned to Kevin’s departure from Middlebury that Leah’s eyes filled.
My camera remained on the table between us. I’d made a few photos of her at the start of her meal. And now I wanted to lift the camera again and focus on Leah’s teary eyes. It would have been so easy, and her tears would have symbolized the closing of a circle between these beautiful young people.
But I could not do it. I could not bring myself to violate this private moment.
Leah told me as we said good-bye that she had noticed my hands hovering near the camera. She told me that it would have been all right with her.
But it would not be all right with me. Not with Kevin watching. Which I felt he was.
I left the camera lying on the table between us. I will be happy for the remainder of my life that I refrained from intruding on Leah’s private moment of grief.
And I will regret for the remainder of my life that I left my camera lying.
Back in the Friendly Confines (credit to Ernie Banks) of Castleton after completing work on the audiobook version of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. The project was accomplished at a beautiful, hilltop, state-of-the-art recording sound studio, Guilford Sound, in the woodsy Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. http://guilfordsound.com/ The owner is the innovative former rock drummer Dave Snyder.
Far from an easy job (imagine filibustering a bill for four and a half days, or being Chris Matthews), yet worth the throat-tearing effort on a number of levels.
The process put me back in touch with the book in a far more concentrated, analytical way even than the process of writing it, which was strung out over more than two years.
Also, it amounted to a good prep (I hope) for any interviews that might come my way.
Finally—a bit of inside baseball here—no more foolproof method exists for detecting flaws in one’s work than reading it aloud. And yes, dammit, I came across some passages that cried out for further attention–including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Ha-ha! a little writerly humor there!!
The process is highly physical. Reading aloud involves the entire body, even when one is sitting down. (I was often distracted by the vigorous circling motions of my own right hand as I read; and my creaking chair caused an unseemly number of re-takes.) The strain of it makes you aware of certain muscles in the throat that you seldom use to the point of stress. You become aware in part because, late in each day, you find that you cannot count on these flabby muscles to form the sounds you expect them to; they’re tired of it. Your mouth might be forming an “O,” but what comes out is a measly little “eeeee.” So you pause to go back and do it again, hoping to get there before the producer blares in your headphones, for about the eight hundred nineteenth time, “COULD YOU GO BACK AND DO THAT AGAIN?!”
A sip of water helps, but the price of sippage is seepage. Audible seepage. You must sit still for several seconds while the sip makes its way through your digestive system, every drip and gurgle of the journey dutifully recorded by the CIA surveillance-grade mic in front of your face, put there to ensure that no sound gets lost in the telephone-sized booth in which you are being held without bail.
You realize—horrors!—that the process does not stop when the workday ends. When at last you are ensconced in a booth in a local diner, reading the newspaper while spooning up the chili con carne, you come to a Twilight-Zone kind of realization: as you silently read the words on the page, you can hear yourself narrating them through your mind’s ear, in the same annoying singsong voice you have been spewing forth all day, as you involuntarily calibrate which syllables just ahead need theatrical stressing.
And here you thought showbiz was pretty.
What I liked best about the experience was the collaboration: with the very cool young sound engineer Matt Hall across the window in the Vermont studio (see photograph), and with an amazing blithe spirit and gifted producer named Bob Walter, who directed everything through our earphones from his own studio in Los Angeles. Bob immersed himself fully in the nuances of the book, and coaxed me gently into more fitting intonations at several points. The three of us were Very Professional and Serious in the early going, until we (inevitably) stumbled upon the realization that we were all born world-class wiseasses; at which point every “COULD YOU GO BACK AND—” break in the narration was filled by an interlude of wacky voices, improvised shtick, name-dropping and outrageous insults. Our antics kept the inevitable tension at a minimum and made the hard work go easier.
All of this in the service of an audiobook that I hope will convey my full measure of love for my beautiful sons, Dean and the late Kevin, and my passion for illuminating the great human tragedy of schizophrenia, the affliction that took over their lives yet did not manage to extinguish their soaring human spirits.
The audiobook is in post-production as I write. Plans are to integrate excerpts from the boys’ guitar performances as they coincide with elements of the narration.