Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
In late summer or early Fall 1989 I did this painting of my beloved, cherished friend John Talbot Wallis. He was staying with me at my little basement apartment in St. Paul, trying to kick heroin. It didn’t work out for him, and he went back to NY and relapsed immediately. I desperately hope he is still alive. Last I heard, in the mid-90s, he was very deep in addiction and had apparently lost most of his teeth. The odds aren’t good, but we junkies are tough as cockroaches. I’ve said a prayer for him every night for almost thirty years.
This was one of the earliest portraits I ever painted, though I had drawn quite a few by this point. To get ready for going back to art school full time, I was taking a painting class in downtown St. Paul, an extension class from the Minneapolis College of Design, with a wonderful woman professor.
I started out painting in acrylic, though there is tremendous bias against acrylics in the figurative and especially portrait painting community.
I really appreciated my teacher’s willingness to let me use acrylics. I was afraid I would have problems with my sobriety if I used oil paints, which involve solvents. I had never been an inhalant abuser, but I was less than a year sober and I wasn’t taking any chances!
I liked acrylics and it turned they are perfectly suited for my run-and-gun, punk rock style of painting, so I’ve never looked back. My palette was a lot more Fauvist early on, partly because I didn’t know how to mix colors or how to see color temperature in shadows.
I had never intended to be a painter – I was gonna be a comic penciller, and have colorists to take care of that! So I had paid little attention to my color theory class at Parsons and stubbornly avoided working in color as much as possible. It was really an accident that led me to becoming a painter, that the only class in the extension program that Fall was a painting class, and that I loved my teacher. I also just really love Fauvism, and I still think my early paintings are terrific examples.
This portrait of John, an homage to The Green Stripe aka Portrait of Madame Matisse, is probably one of the top ten likenesses I’ve ever achieved.
This IS John, who I met at Stuyvesant a day or two after my fourteenth birthday and was close friends and sometimes friends with benefits with til I was 23. He was literally the jolliest drunk I have ever met, a vibrant, loving, wildly creative guy without a mean bone in his body. He was a drummer, an artist, a rapper, and a lover who adored pleasing women.
He turned me on to NWA and The Tubes, and we walked thousands of miles together over Manhattan Island in the 80s. We logged thousands of hours hanging out, writing graffiti, drinking beer, roaming the city or watching MTV. We used to do acid and heroin and watch Jaws 3 in 3D with the colors on the television reversed, laughing hysterically. He had a heart the size of Central Park. Merciful Goddess, I hope he is still alive.
Another redhead, fellow MCAD painter Brad Geiken.
I painted this in the fall of 1990, I think, when Brad and I were together. Brad was a terrific, terrific painter and a really nice boyfriend. He looks mean here but that is the fault of me as the painter, not the man. Or he was mad because I was a shitty girlfriend and he deserved better. He had the most beautiful red hair.
I am incredibly grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.
Until today, no record of these paintings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.
Kelsey in mask she made at Drink and Draw Berlin by Suzanne Forbes May 2017
Daria, Marina and I went to the Drink and Draw party.
The theme was “Secret Society”, emphasizing “Eyes Wide Shut” and occult iconography.
The organizers had decided not to hire any professional models or performers, so all the models were volunteers.
The only ones I was really intrigued and moved by were those who’d put some work into their costumes. Like illustrator Kelsey Bass, above and in the top image, who made her amazing goat mask completely out of recycled materials (Amazon boxes!).
And corsetiereEmma Caponi, who designed and made her astonishing deco gown out of exquisite eyelash lace she got on a trip to China. Her pretty boy killed the suspenders-no-shirt look, too.
These lovers posing later in the night were especially pretty, even without any effort at costuming.
You can see my drawings from the previous Drink and Draw Berlin party here and here.
This week the news broke that Maisie Williams has been cast as Rahne Sinclair in Josh Boone’s New Mutants movie.
With an early (perhaps the first) New Mutant cosplayer, NY Creation Con, Thanksgiving 1985
It had been rumored for a long time, and I had been hoping and praying.
I love Maisie infinitely because of her amazing journey as Arya Stark and her completely rad dignity and coolness growing up in the public eye. There is no one I’d rather see play one of the two characters most important in the world to me.
I feel like the story that matters more than any other to me is in safe hands with Josh Boone. After 33 years, the New Mutants will be on the big screen! Who on earth could have imagined this? Certainly not me, seventeen in 1984, when I read my first New Mutants comic.
Why did I read it?
My girlfriend asked me to bring her a comic book at boarding school.
New Mutants 18 cover by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz
She was going to Simon’s Rock, an elite private school that was part of Bard College. I missed her terribly, so I took a bus from Port Authority to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to visit her.
P. had gotten into this comic book series, “The New Mutants”, and she desperately needed me to bring her the next issue.
I lived in Chelsea with my mom; I vaguely knew there was a comic book store up on 23rd st., so I walked up there. In the acrid smell of mouldering paper I asked the big unkempt man where “the new New Mutants” was to be found, and bought it.
As every student of comics knows, New Mutants #18 was one of the issues that broke open the history of comics.
It was part of the revolution in comic art and storytelling that would culminate in 1986’s Dark Knight and Swamp Thing and Moonshadow and Watchmen.
I had seen 1980s comics before, when my boyfriend Paul lived with me and my mom in the West Village when I was fifteen. He brought a duffel bag with Frank Miller Daredevils and the Byrne/Claremont X-Men run. But I didn’t read them, then; just looked at the covers. They were sealed up in slippery poly-bags.
Me and P., NYC 1984
So when I went to Simon’s Rock I packed the New Mutants comic in my suitcase along with my long skirts and my bottles. At Port Authority I was drinking Midori from the bottle, calling P. from a payphone, so excited.
On the bus I took out the comic book. I hadn’t brought anything else to read. I was planning to be a children’s book illustrator or a fashion illustrator back then, career-wise.
I had dropped out of Stuyvesant and was taking adult ed fashion drawing classes at Parsons, waiting to be old enough to be admitted to the BFA program in Illustration. I wasn’t especially excited about becoming a commercial artist; it was just a practical career choice given my drawing ability. Commercial artists had job security.
Most of my energy and ambition in my teens went to finding beautiful boys and seducing them.
P. was my dear friend and sometimes lover, the only girl I’ve ever truly been in love with.
She was brilliant, absurdly smart – we met at Stuyvesant when I was a junior and she was a freshman- and in terrible pain. It was just a few months after her first hospitalisation, that day in 1984 when I headed to Simon’s Rock.
She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, like her father and brother. They were both well into lifetimes of Stelazine treatment and disability, and that was certainly what the medical establishment intended for her.
I loved her profoundly, intimately, with a depth entirely unlike my relationship with my boyfriends and whoever I was cheating on them with. She was shy, furious, poetic, inhibited, intensely loving. We only had sex when I pulled a boy for a threesome or she was really drunk or I’d given her some pills.
But we were always physically close, always touching. She was queer as fuck, but she didn’t have parents who were like, “being gay is totally normal”, the way I did.She lived in Staten Island with her crazily messed up family, so she spent days at a time in the city, at the safe haven of the apartment I shared with my mom. And then she got a scholarship to this fancy prep school program, and I went to visit her.
On the bus I opened the comic book, and I met Danielle and Rahne and Sam and Illyana and Kitty and a red-haired girl named Rachel.
Later, when my friendship with Chris Claremont was known in the comics community, people thought he’d named her after me. But I didn’t meet Chris til 1986.
You probably can’t imagine, in the 21st Century with a million YA novels about disenfranchised traumatized gifted outsider teens out there, in a post-Buffy pop culture world, what it felt like to read The New Mutants in 1984. It was like coming home to a sanctuary I had only seen in dreams.
I was an obsessive science fiction reader, but I connected with the ideas, not the characters. Larry Niven never wrote about anyone who was my age and full of pain. In the New Mutants and X-Men, Chris wrote about how wounded teens could be at a loss for how to navigate the world and find a bearing with their friends.
The story in #18 was disjointed, haunting, full of bad dreams and traumatized teens on the run.
Rachel’s confusion about the timeline felt like my mornings after a blackout. Dani’s night terrors matched my own. The ending was terrifying, dark as hell.
When P. picked me up at the bus stop the first thing she asked was if I had her comic. “What IS this??! What the hell IS this??” I babbled at her. She told me she and her new friend M. had just started reading it recently, but were obsessed. Ah, M.- I would have been so jealous of how P. loved her, if she hadn’t been so fucking cool and easy to love herself. We talked about the New Mutants a lot that weekend, the three of us.
When I got back to the city I went and bought all the New Mutants comics there were- all 18 of them- and that led me right into the X-Men comics.
Of which there were 184 issues, plus Annuals and a couple of cross-overs. Getting my hands on those was a project. The X-Men led me to the rest of Marvel, and then within a year I found the TItans and they led me to DC.
In the Fall of 1984 I drew cartoon versions of the New Mutants and the Hellions featuring P. and M. guesting as “Scallions”. (I have no idea why the idea of them being onions was funny, but for some reason it was at the time.) Then I started…drawing the New Mutants.
By Christmas I was making up pages with them. And I had decided that Rahne and Dani were definitely going to fall in love, even if the writer didn’t know it yet.
My mom, always completely supportive of my obsessions and ambitions, had gone to comic stores all over Manhattan with a list of X-Men back issues I needed.
There were stacks of comics under the tree along with all the science fiction paperbacks. I gleefully tore open the wrapping on each one, incredulous- “You found #146?? Ma!!!”
I never cared at all about their condition; I just wanted to read them and look at the art.
My older friends came home from college for the holidays and I showed them all my new comic drawings. All I could talk about was comics. All my letters had been about comics.
Someone said, “Hey, you should do this for a living”. “Somebody has to draw them, right?” someone else chimed in.
I actually have a photo of me from that night. I had enough life experience at seventeen to recognize a moment when the forces of the universe gather around you and give you a push.
I was reading a copy of Playboy my friend John gave me because it had Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics in it! That’s John and Donna above, looking at my sketchbook of comic art.
When I turned 18 in January and matriculated at Parsons my entire career and educational plan was laser-focused on becoming a comic book penciller.
Which was not a popular idea in art school, then. I was pretty much treated like a crazy person for wanting such a low-brow career. Mainstream awareness of comics was a year or two in the future, when Dark Knight broke.
The amazing woman who ran the Parsons Illustration Program, I think her name was Debra Diamond, was friends with Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter, and she was cool with the alternative comics in RAW.
But superhero comics were considered unbearably lame. Genre comics were just not something real artists talked about.
It was a job you did as punishment, when you couldn’t find something else in the world of illustration! When you couldn’t find something more remunerative and more dignified and less laborious.
Although my teachers thought i was crazy for wanting to do comics, they loved how hard I worked and how I could draw like hell.
I signed up for every figure drawing class available, with the toughest teachers, and took night classes from comics professionals around town. I found the comic artists I loved and followed their work obsessively; my longboxes were labelled and sorted by penciller, not book. José Luis García-López. Steve Rude. Gil Kane. Alan Davis. Paul Smith. John Romita and JRJR. It was a litany of men, but I was confident i could be as good.
I bought every book my teachers recommended and spent hundreds of hours studying Burne Hogarth and George Bridgman (Andrew Loomis was out of print in those days, and pages from his books photocopied from library books were passed around between comic artists like contraband).
I started out terrible and I got better fast. I studied perspective like a maniac. Even though I wanted to tell stories about superheroes in love, I expected to have to draw a lot of buildings. The Marvel Universe was based in New York, after all.
In 1985 and 1986 I was chipping, doing heroin only on the weekends, and during the week I just went to school and drew.
I threw myself into the work like a demon. I wanted to draw comics more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I think wanting it so badly is a huge part of why I didn’t die in those years. So was the saving grace of the New Mutants, the X-Men and the Teen Titans.
Loving something the way I loved those comics, changes you, I’m convinced. It’s a source of strength.
Having my mom back my dream 100% mattered enormously – soon I had my huge drawing table and lightbox set up in the living room!
I was so lucky to be at Parsons, where traditional drawing skills were still valued and where technical perspective and anatomy were still taught.
In the New Mutants Chris gave Danielle a (flying) horse, and I was like, great!! I can draw horses!
Then he had her attacked by drunk bros and nearly raped.
I was enraged, and I drunkenly sent Marvel a telegram to express my feelings.
I meticulously explained to the telegraph operator over the phone how to address it to the specific letter column group for the New Mutants, “Report Card”.
There were precious few women artists working in mainstream comics in 1985. Maybe even less than now.
Glynis Wein was the colorist on the New Mutants, and Cindy Martin had drawn Star Wars, as had Jan Duursema, who’d also done a variety of superheroes at DC. June Brigman had created Power Pack with Weezie. Mary Wilshire had done Red Sonja. Marie Severin was on Special Projects at Marvel, drawing Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies for Star instead of superheroes. Trina Robbins was working for Marvel’s Star imprint too, drawing Misty, a grown-up Millie the Model. Wendy Pini and Colleen Doran were doing popular and much-loved independent work, but I wasn’t interested in creating my own characters or the tiny reach of the independents. I wanted to be in the big leagues, to work for one of what have always been called “The Big Two”.
In ’85 there were some women on the production and editorial side, Weezie and Ann Nocenti and Bobbie Chase and Jo Duffy and Carol Kalish at Marvel, Jenette Kahn and Karen Berger at DC. Cat Yronwode was editor in chief at Eclipse.
Heidi MacDonald had put Chris on blast in the Comics Journal, and would soon take on Alan Moore. She’s still fighting the good fight. But in 1985, wherever I went in New York, whatever comic store or con I went to, I was the only woman.
In 1986 things started to change for women in comics. Mary Wilshire did several issues of the New Mutants, after Bill left, then got the Firestar mini-series. Colleen Doran was on the Legion, as mainstream superhero as it gets, and had drawn a historic issue that delved into trans identity.
Lynn Varley colored Dark Knight. Ann and Weezie were writing superhero stories. Mindy Newell wrote a Lois Lane mini-series. Cat and Trina’s book, Women and the Comics, got mainstream press. Trina became the first woman to draw Wonder Woman.
And comics as an industry was exploding.
New comic stores were opening all over the country, some of them even clean. The mainstream press was starting to write about the writers and creators who were changing the industry.
Storylines were getting darker, wilder, more mature. No one had done a mainstream comic with queer people in it, but John Byrne had wiggled around Shooter’s prohibition on gay characters with Northstar, and I believed the time was coming when you could show young lesbian mutants in love.
Which I just kept drawing! There was no tumblr, no deviantart, no Ao3; as far as I know I was the only person drawing New Mutants slash art in the 80s.
In February 1986, at a Creation Con at the Roosevelt Hotel, I met Chris Claremont.
I was working at a booth for my friends Chris and Gary who had a comic store in the Meatpacking District. I was walking back to the ballroom in one of my Betsey Johnson bondage dresses.
I recognized the man sitting on the hallway floor writing in a stenographer’s notebook; I had seen his picture in the Comics Journal. It was during a period when his writing was being dragged hard in the comics press (all two of it), both for its excesses and its problematicness.
“Whatcha writing?” I asked him brusquely. “X-Men plot.” “Is it any good?”
He gazed up at me, unruffled. I sat down with him on the carpet. and told him I wanted his job. I was nineteen and like Jim Kirk I feared nothing. I razzed him about the bdsm references in the X-Men. I was pretty problematic myself in those days.
Chris was thirty-four, and we became not quite lovers but passionate friends. He believed in my work. He treated me as a person he believed could work in comics.
“I don’t think of you as a fan, I think of you as a nascent pro”, he said.
His huge apartment in Riverdale was such a refuge, such a heaven for me. He gave me stacks of X-Men and New Mutants scripts, Marvel paper to draw on, walked me around the Marvel offices, which were a short walk from my house. In the summer of 1986, hanging around Marvel in my flowered Fifties dresses, high on heroin, wearing Keds and with huge skateboarding bruises on my knees, I was a unicorn.
One time we sat in the hallway at Marvel with Bill Sienkiewicz and I taught Bill the basics for drawing a horse.
What a time, summer 1986. I had a new boyfriend, a serious artist, who loved comics as much as I did, and he was so supportive and excited for me.
He wasn’t jealous of Chris, or P.. He took the picture of P. and I below, and came in the car when my mom drove me up to Chris’s. Every week Rob and I went to the comic store and got all our new books and sat down to read them together. Swamp Thing was our most special shared passion and my mom would tease us about reading a comic with such a silly name.
Everything was in place, but that’s not how life always works.
With P., summer 1986
I didn’t get to draw the New Mutants for Chris.
That summer I went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time, at Chris’s suggestion, and although Chris looked after me as much as he could, everything fell apart.
At the Marvel 25th Anniversary Ball I sat with Chris and Stan Lee and John Romita, and a young artist from Eclipse got drinks from the open bar for me after I was carded. I had never seen an open bar before; I had three Long Island Ice Teas lined up in front of me at that table.
Later, blind drunk, high on pills and coke someone had given me in the bathroom at Dave Sim’s party, I was violently, anally raped in my hotel room by an inker.
That Friday in New York my amazing boyfriend died of an overdose, though I didn’t find out til Sunday night.
I came back to New York out of my mind with fresh PTSD and whatever shot i had at keeping it together long enough to actually work in comics was gone. It wasn’t ever much of a shot, then; I had an appointment with an addict’s bottom and the timeline just got sped up a lot. Chris held me while I cried hysterically during a Christmas party that winter.
“Take a taxi”, he’d say, and I’d take a cab all the way up to his apartment in Riverdale and we’d sit on the floor talking X-Men while the cats paced around us. Things I said showed up in the book, thrilling me. He kept giving me scripts. But I lost touch with him and everyone else once I became a daily heroin user, a year or so later. P. was in trouble too, on disability, heavily medicated, experimenting with cults.
By the time I got sober, in January of 1989, Chris wasn’t writing the New Mutants anymore.
He left the book in 1987, and what it became was…nothing that meant anything to me. I still wanted to work in comics, despite everything, even though the scene was changing fast.
It was a harrowing, exhausting process to break into the industry from St. Paul. I’d gone to treatment there, and stayed on the advice of the halfway house. So I was constantly travelling to the cons and being constantly sexually harassed.
That hadn’t changed at all. It was horrible, and some of the editors were fucking pigs.
The first Marvel editor who gave me a sample script mailed it with a letter on Marvel letterhead. The script opened with a splash page of a dead girl, and the letter commented explicitly on my physical appearance. Another (married!) editor asked me, in front of the San Diego Marriott, if he could masturbate in front of me.
There were so many more women around, though, and women were getting work as the full-time pencillers on monthly books. More comics were being published and sold than anyone had ever thought possible. I met people who helped me, people who backed me.
Rest in power, Kim Yale!!
There were men around who were clearly, obviously committed to helping women get work. Virtual hugs, Rob Simpson! I met a woman writer, Sarah Byam, and we became friends. I met a woman inker named Pam Eklund! I met Jill Thompson, who had Dave the Thune painted on her leather jacket! I never, ever considered giving up.
It took three more years, before an editor gave me a chance. In 1993 a woman editor, Margaret Clark, hired me to draw Star Trek The Next Generation #72.
And then a TNG Annual, and then the prize of prizes for a comic artist: the regular penciller gig on a regular monthly book, Star Trek The Original Series.
I did an issue that was inked by Pam Eklund, at my suggestion; it may still be the only mainstream comic ever pencilled, inked and edited by women.
In 1995 Chris had been doing some work for DC and we sat together at the DC table at the Chicago Comic-Con, signing comics, our faces blown up huge on a wall of monitors. It was good to see him.
And I was a pro, just as he promised, just as I promised P.
Not very many people get to have their life’s ambition come true when they’re only 26.
Even now, less than twenty women have ever been full-time monthly pencillers for an ongoing book at one of the Big Two. I’m proud to be one of them.
Sadly, what safety there is for women is mostly the ability to name and share the names of bad actors in the system and protect themselves pro-actively.
But things have gotten a little better for queer and trans visibility in the stories themselves.
Shan, Karma of the New Mutants, is canonically a lesbian and even crushed on Kitty!* Northstar married his boyfriend in the X-Men! When DC refused to let Batwoman marry her longtime girlfriend, the creative team walked. Wonder Woman and John Constantine are canonically bisexual, at least right now. Iceman is gay! The new Aqualad is gay! And that’s just the beginning.
The comics I imagined, where teenage mutant girls can love happily even if the rest of their world is insane, seem within reach. If creators can just keep fighting the toxic forces around them and their own demons to tell those stories. I couldn’t; I had to leave comics. Today, drawing real people is the best way for me to tell stories. Teaching drawing is the best way to honor my teachers and the work I put in to become a comic artist.
But today, at least I can tell my story, and the story of how much I loved superhero comics. How they saved me.
How much I loved the New Mutants, in the 80s.
* Here‘s a beautiful piece about queer-girl subtext in the X-Men and New Mutants by Sigrid Ellis. In it I learned that in 2002 Chris wrote a series called Mechanix, where Kitty actually comes out as bisexual!
Spectral phantasmagori of my peripheral vision: journal drawing, winter 1981
I’ve always had a problem with the phrase “my rapist”.
My “Angry Unicorn” tag, journal drawing winter 1981
It attaches so much ownership and blame to what is actually an event that happened TO me, without my consent. It’s so much clearer to say “the man who raped me”.
Except I was groomed as a child to become a perfect assault victim, and my teenage alcoholism created a perfect storm of vulnerability, and so multiple men raped me.
Which means it’s not clear at all, to say “The man who raped me.” I can’t even say, “The man who raped me when I was fourteen”, and have it be clear.
So, one of the men who raped me when I was fourteen. The first one. Left a comment on my blog. Yesterday.
With a beloved friend and student, Charlottenburg Fall 2016
Rusty iron in my mouth, cupping my coffee cup for warmth, safe in Berlin, safe and loved, so loved, so strong, and still it sent an electric charge of nauseous danger through me.
He reaches out every few years, contacts me on social media, says he’s glad I’m doing well. That I wasn’t doing so well the last time he saw me. But never, “I’m so sorry”. Just say it. Trust me, it won’t solve the problem. You will still carry guilt and grief and horror at your actions.
But there is a tiny scrap of peace in knowing you have done due diligence at last.
I know how it is not to be able to say it. It took me thirty years to say it in one instance, to clearly and openly admit my guilt at the harm I did. And they say making amends lets you forgive yourself, but maybe sometimes it only lets you open your heart to the depth of the wrong you did or the loss you endure. And you just have to live with the depth of that wrong, just breathe it in and say “I am so sorry”. To the universe, to the family, to the spirit of that blue-eyed boy or girl.
It makes me furious that he always mentions how I wasn’t doing so well the last time he saw me.
Opening my 80s and 90s journals box to write this piece, Berlin 2017.
Well sure I was a mess, I was a fifteen-year-old alcoholic and drug addict whose live-in boyfriend had just tried to kill himself in front of her and been locked up at Bellevue! I am an addict, a person with multiple disabling diseases of the mind and body, and me being that doesn’t make me a lesser person, or excuse the harm you did.
My alcoholism did not make me complicit in the violations that occurred to me.
That is, I continued to see, and had sex once or twice with, Evan, the first man who raped me when I was fourteen. For several months, until on an early Summer day in 1981, I replaced him with a gentle lover, Teo.
I was so incredibly happy that winter of ’81, when I first met Evan. The happiest I had ever been.
On January 8, 1981, my fourteenth birthday, I woke up with a clear decision in my mind.
I would try one more thing before I killed myself: becoming a drug addict.
It seemed totally reasonable; I could not endure my feelings and the pain I was in, but drugs offered a way to manage those feelings until I had more resources.
I was somehow sure that if I made it to adulthood, got away from my father, I would be able to get tools to be happy.
With GIlly and other cherished friends, Abington Square Fall 1981
So I walked into Tony’s coffeeshop next to Stuyvesant High School, and asked where the kids with the drugs were. I found Gilly, and she took me to my people.
I had Found the Others, at only fourteen. Decades later, living in the Bay Area, I met a lot of people who hadn’t Found their People til college, or ’til they moved to San Francisco. As a New Yorker I was incredibly lucky, and it surely saved my life. My people were the last group of Stuyvesant Freaks, who hung out in the east half of Stuyvesant Park, doing drugs and listening to the Dead.
I immediately began taking all the chemicals of every kind I could find, as well as drinking. But my people didn’t drink much; they were Deadheads, and psychonauts, and hippies. So my first serious forays into drug use involved a lot of psychedelics and pot. I was stoned all the time. I smoked pot all day, and I took speed and acid with it.
My new best friend Jenny, who like all my new friends was a junior or senior, was so disappointed that I was still a virgin.
She had lost her virginity at 14, and wanted to be able to talk girl talk about sex with me. Falling in love with her, day by day, it became even more urgent to me to get rid of my hymen. I loved Jenny, I wanted to be lovers with her, but she was straight, and I couldn’t even tell her.
We roamed the park in a mob, only afraid of the Guardian Angels.
The park, shunned at night by everyone but criminals in 1981, was our huge playground. One night, high on acid and jug wine, I broke my ankle falling from the Frisbee Hill rocks. My friend Billy carried me to the huge Upper West Side apartment of one of the sweetest and kindest of the Music and Art kids, an adjunct tribe to our Stuyvesant Freaks.
In the morning I woke up and realized my ankle was broken; my mom took me to the hospital where it was reassembled with a pin.
And I had a cast and crutches. Plus a vague sense that smoking pot was turning weird for me.
Inside journal cover, Winter 1981.
But I was still deliriously happy, because my friends were amazing. I had briefly run away the previous month, and my divorced parents had agreed my mom would take me away from my father, to a place of our own. She had found a place, on leafy Abington Square in the West Village. We would move in together in May.
A week after the surgery, now pretty mobile on my crutches, I was back at the Music and Art guy’s place for a party. I had promised Billy I wouldn’t drink this time, so my friend John suggested a nice bowl. I smoked with him in one of the rooms of tie-dyed laughing singing teenagers, the huge flat’s endless rooms filled with our people, our beautiful brilliant gifted people. (You never knew where the parents were.)
But the high went wrong, it filled me with terrible paranoia, and suddenly I felt wildly unsafe and terrified.
So John let me drink a bit of wine, to take the edge off. My friends were three and four years older than me, there was no-one my age around, and they were experienced users. I started drinking. Billy, a gentle drug-dealer who genuinely cared about me, yelled at me. I went into the bedroom of the host guy (it grieves me I no longer remember his name, maybe David or something) where I had spent the previous Saturday night struggling to get up and dance while Billy held me and explained that my ankle was hurt. The host’s room was crowded with our people, and small; the kids always got the maid’s rooms in these flats.
I was sitting on the floor, looking across at a boy I knew playing guitar.
His name was Teo, and he would become my first boyfriend. He was wearing a white embroidered cambric shirt from India, open at the chest, and he was playing “Blackbird”; his long dark curls tumbled over his shoulders. I was drinking whatever bottle was passed to me. I was so happy and so full of love for the world I’d stumbled into. I blacked out.
I came out of the blackout kissing someone. I pushed him away to find out who it was.
Age 14 or 15, on Abington Square
It was Evan, a senior who I had bought acid from once or twice. Blue Dolphins, maybe. He was a graffiti writer, and tall and slim and beautiful, with brown eyes and long golden-brown hair in a ponytail. He looked like a hippy version of Shaun Cassidy.
I found him quite acceptable as a kissing partner; he was on my mental list of guys I found hot, “candidates”. He was eighteen, a little old, but that was ok. We were sitting in the window, and it was dark; the room was empty and silent. A lot of time had passed, obviously.
I kissed him some more, and we decided to go to my place. In the lobby we were kissing, me on my crutches, him holding me up I suppose, and he pulled away and said, “Look what you’ve done to me, you goddam little nymphomaniac!”.
I had a vague idea he was a vegetarian or Buddhist or something, and I thought possibly he had committed to celibacy for some spiritual reason.
So I thought perhaps what he meant was that i was seducing him into unwanted carnal feelings. I did not fucking care. It was April, it was Spring, young people had boiling sap for blood and missing out on desire was obvious foolishness.
We caught a cab the long way down the West Side to Chelsea and walked through the dark apartment, past my father’s bedroom and through the living room where my brother slept. We went into my tiny bedroom and got on my single bed, and started making out again. At some point there were less clothes, and I was backed up against the wall at the head of the bed. My head was angled against the wall, I was propped up on my pillow, and suddenly his naked hips and his erect dick were in my face.
He shoved his cock in my mouth, and I bit him. Pretty hard, I think.
I was offended as hell. I was raised by hippies, and the 1950s idea that women should provide oral or manual release service to men to avoid having further intimacy was tacky as hell to me. I wasn’t there to get him off; I was there because I liked boys and I wanted to do sex with boys. He pulled away yelping in pain, rocked back on his heels, and said, “Alright, I’m gonna fuck you then, you bitch.”
I looked him in the eye in my dim bedroom, and I said, “See if I care”. And he pulled me down onto the bed and did it.
It hurt quite a lot. I blacked out again at some point, and of course I was very intoxicated, so luckily I missed some of it.
All my life ever since I have drawn strength from that moment, the moment when my brave-hearted fourteen-year-old self met ugliness with brio and courage. I have always been proud that I stood up to him in a spirit of sarcasm and New Yorker sass.
And I have always grieved that I didn’t wait just two months longer, til the sunny summer day when Teo and I made love in my new West Village bedroom together. But I might not have had the courage to boldly seduce Teo – which I certainly did- if I hadn’t had the confidence of being devirginized. And Teo was a bit of a geek, he would never have made a pass. So it goes.
In the morning Evan was odd and awkward; only now do I realize he might have been a bit of an Aspie. He demonstrated his most impressive physical skill, the lighting of a match from a book with his toes. Probably to light my cigarette; I smoked Marlboro 100s in the gold pack back then.
He got dressed and picked up my white Princess phone and wrote down the number written on the metal place. “That’s not my number”, I said. It was the number of a very bad boy I had loved in 8th grade.
He asked me for my actual number and I gave it to him. I walked him out, past my brother and my father, and locked the door. There was blood on my sheets, not too much, and I was still pretty drunk.
I did not want to discuss the matter with my father, though he gave me an inquiring leer.
The first time a boy had spent the night with me was on March 16. That boy, Gerardo, had not had the resolve or perhaps the ability to wait, and it had ended in his messy ejaculation, though I would certainly have had sex with him. After I walked him out my father had wanted to know if I was finally having sex, and did i need birth control; I had been able to evade him and say no, which at least was a good thing.
I could not wait to get to school and tell Jenny. I had beaten her by a couple months; she was almost fifteen when she lost it.
When my mom drove me to school I told her I needed birth control, and she made an appointment for me with Dr. Wolff on the Upper East Side. The camaraderie with Jenny was glorious; we sat on 15th st. in the Spring sun giggling together.
Evan sorta stuck around for the next couple weeks, in a weird, embarrassing and embarrassed way. He would come out of school and sit with me at lunch ( I had long since stopped actually going into the school building, and went straight to the park with my friends each day.) He would sit near me but not really pay attention to me, and Billy would kiss me hello but Evan never did.
I felt like he was ashamed of me, which made me furious. Then he invited me to dinner.
I was still on crutches, so we took a taxi. I wrote about the evening in my journal (seen below) for my beloved English professor Roger Baronat, who adored my writing and treated it with great respect while never cutting me slack for skipping class, finals and homework.
I have transcribed it here. You can see I was not in any way a normal fourteen-year-old. And also that the Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson I was reading were bad influences on my early writing style.
Well. Evan said he wanted to cook dinner for me, so after school (after his– eighth – school) ( I didn’t go) it was a beautiful sunny day and we stayed, in the park, for a bit – so many people! – mmm – then found a cab (takes a while – going downtown? – they yell over their yellow doors – ) and directed it to Brooklyn. Wide-eyed, enchanted and happy I looked over the bridge – ships! ships! Look, look, see the masts? see the dock? See the sailboats? Oh! Look! This is Brooklyn? How come? Suburbs? My god, you live in the suburbs?
‘Don’t look now’ (where?) ‘but my dad’s right behind us’, said Evan, and I turned with my chin on his shoulder to peer out the back window of the checkercab. Green car. Hee. hee. heeheeheehee…’Don’t wave.’ ‘No?’…Looks like my dad…– beard-brained, ponderous, charming and soulless — trees and crowded houses, quiet streets, wonderful Victorian turrets and formica ranches – driveways and cars and bikes — oh Evan, the air smells good! – the country!! Taxi-cab driver don’t know where he’s going so we walked a sleepy lawny block, down a path — a patio, no less, fancy me going in through a screen door after fourteen years of bolts and locks? Kitchen a tribute to TV commercials and floor wax America over, but Evan’s room is just like every teenage dope fiends’ and cluttered, postered and unmade. Jimi Hendrix Experience poster on the ceiling above his bed – now I couldn’t cope with black orpheus medusa snakes above my head every night, but that’s me. I won’t go near a lay-up either.
Anyhow – we went and sat outside, sun going down, by the garden, huddled close for warmth, and then went back inside so Evan could cook. Well I did the best I could to help, and now and then his dad harassed us, and his mom came home, as sweet and soft-smiling as you could possibly imagine, soft brown pageboy hair falling over her cheeks, tall and still graceful though in a weary way; laid her head on Evan’s shoulder, for a moment aglow with creator’s awe at this tall lovely creature who was yes, her son and was now cooking dinner —
She was a little bit drunk from champagne at her office, (to celebrate an account or somewhat) and as she fixed her scotch-and-water and sat back she told us how they’d had a beastie, a chameleon, named Camile, at the party. I never quite understood why but it was enough that it had been there, crawling among the vino-damp cocktail napkins on the desks pressed into bar service, and that she’d taken pleasure in its glowy, gentle eyes and soft tummy, iridescent tail and little feet.
May 8, 1981 journal page
Since the journal was for Mr. Baronat, who knew that I was a drug user and graffiti criminal but had perfectly good boundaries about sexuality with his students, I did not mention the sex.
After dinner we went into Evan’s bedroom and he had sex with me again. I told him I had an appointment soon to get birth control, but he didn’t care one way or the other. I looked up at the Jimi Hendrix poster as he pushed into me. “Lie there and think about pizza”, Jenny said, about sex that wasn’t fun.
It hurt again, and I rocked my hips, trying to get comfortable; he hissed, “Up and down, not side to side!” I was mortified; not a good start to my career as a femme fatale. Later his dad drove me home to Manhattan. For one night it seemed like maybe he was going to be my boyfriend. But things went back to the weird not-quite-hanging out at school.
And my mom and I moved in together, to our own place, where I had a nice bedroom and a double bed and was safe from my father.
Evan came over one last time after I had my cast off and my diaphragm (Dr. Wolff, who had delivered me, said I was too young for the pill, too young for tubal ligation and he was terrified of IUDs).
We had sex in my grown-up bed, actually naked, and he actually went down on me and acted like a lover. But it was not thrilling.
There was no intimacy, it was just awkward, and I was really pissed about every single way he was an asshole.
I knew he wasn’t what I wanted, and a week later I was with Teo. And with a half dozen other boys and men by October.
A quote from Gilly, written in my Fall 1981 journal.
Me age 15, with Paul, winter 1982
Evan stopped by six months later, after my live-in boyfriend Paul had slashed his throat with a razor and been hauled off to the Psych ward, after I’d embarked on a course of self-prescribed compassionate leave involving bottles and bottles of Valium obtained with forged prescriptions. Evan yelled at me about not going to school, about my drug use, and gave me a beautiful airbrushed piece of art with my name graffiti-style.
He seemed to be trying to tell me he was sorry without ever saying the words, in the 80s.
In the later half of the 80s I learned he was dating a very vulnerable and fragile sixteen-year-old friend of mine, doing Dead tour selling t-shirts with her. Figures, I said to myself.
In 2008 or so he tracked me down on Facebook. Said he was glad I was doing ok, since I wasn’t in such good shape the last time he saw me. In a sober spirit of full accountability for my own sexual predation, my decades of rage at men and the time I might have had sex with a boy below the New York age of consent at 20, I did not judge him. But I could be pissed that that was the tack he’d choose to take, and I blocked his ass.
“Hi Rachael, your blog is incredible, and very powerful. Glad to see you are doing well.
He left it on this post! About making amends! Where i state quite clearly that:
“The people I knew and who knew me, well, that’s up to them, and they haven’t made much progress to date.”
Jesus! Just say you’re sorry! The statute of limitations has expired!
I did horrible things in the 80s. I cheated like crazy on my sweetest boyfriends. I hit them. I froze them out emotionally when they just wanted to love me. I seduced boy virgins endlessly, thirteen in all, avenging my trauma by giving them the consent and attention and gentleness and passion I didn’t get, a night they would never forget. And then breaking up with them.
In the 80s, if you wanted to be a sexual adventurer, you paid a high price. The ratio of sexual trauma to adventure was very high, a friend my age once told one of our young women friends. Dark magic was all we had. Our desire was dangerous as hell to us.
We swung the cannons of our young bodies, firing broadsides. I suffered great harm, and I did terrible harm. Let there be healing for all who can heal.
Me and Daria at KaDeWe, November 2016. She said today,
“As for the guy, take it as they neither can live free from what they’ve done. They are evil in this story although they caused this evil not just to you but to themselves, if it’s still haunting them.”
I used what may be my last scrap of silver velvet, some old-gold colored wired organza ribbon that I bought with a coupon at Jo-Ann for my first wedding, and gold tulle.
Plus my favorite Black Pearl metallic thread from Rico Design, which is the only good metallic embroidery thread available in the world.
And two citrine Swarovski crystals for her eyes, some brass rhinestuds, a scrap of teeeny gold dollmaking braid trim, and plain dark green cotton thread, doubled, carefully stitched around the border of the design.
Using a fine dark thread to go around the edges of important shapes really helps me control and refine the line, I highly recommend it.
It’s especially great where a regular back-stitched embroidered line butts up against a satin stitch area. The tiny needle you can use for a single strand of floss or regular thread means you can stitch into the satin stitch without disturbing or spreading it, yet stabilize it at the same time.
I also added brass stud stars, both to reference Wonder Woman iconography and because I love studs.
When I was a child, about seven to nine, I had a babysitter I adored. Her name was Melissa, and although she was a hardcore drug addict and a total flake, she was so mellow and gentle with me. Some friends of her and her sister Nadine had a clothing store on 8th Avenue between 20th and 21st, a funky hippie store where everybody hung out. I don’t know if they ever sold anything but drugs.
Sitting on the floor in there under racks of fringed and embroidered and patched rocker clothes impacted my aesthetic so much.
There was a barrel of studs for your jeans or jean jackets, all different shapes and designs, stars and moons and pyramids and other shapes I can’t quite summon. Like, a barrel- they must have bought them by the kilo at some surplus place. I would run my hands through them, gently so the points wouldn’t poke me.
I felt completely safe there. Years later the clothing store friends became famous Deadhead t-shirt silkscreener artists, and I went to a party at their loft on 14th st. I came home drunk at dawn and gleefully told my mom about their huge ball python Clyde who had cuddled me. They were such nice people, and such incredible artists.
Melissa died in a motorcycle accident in Hawaii in the 80s, and I still think of her with love and remember her gentle grace, which bent like a willow in the crappy world of 70s New York.
Everything you do or see or feel goes in the hopper for creative work.
Everything I remember, here in this safe-at-last place, surfaces and turns and shines under the light. I don’t know where the synthesis will take me. Or what the meeting point will be between painting and drawing, the skills I trained a decade for and made a career in, and the making things I’ve always loved.
This is one of those Berlin moments that kind of confused me.
It was a Saturday late fairly late, and this guy was eating a sandwich in a white Tyvek jumpsuit. Was he a homeless guy, with his possessions in his cart? His cart also contained folders of papers and cleaning products, maybe he works in the subway system?
I couldn’t tell. I snuck behind the elevator shaft and drew him through its glass walls. Then I finished it a month or two later with the new greyscale markers one of my beloved Friend-Muse-Patrons gave me for my 50th birthday!
I saw this woman last week on the U-Bahn. Everything about her took me back to the 80s.
It was an older train, she was in the classic straphanger bookworm brace position, she was reading an 80s thriller and wearing the same kind of puffer coat my mom wore in the 80s. Puffer coats came back in style a couple years ago, and I am glad because they are so fun to draw.
This November marks my four-year anniversary of complete remission from severe, long-term Major Depressive Disorder.
Photo by Julia Wolf 2015, licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Despite the US election, despite my fear for my loved ones and my horror and grief at injustice and cruelty, I am deeply happy.
It’s not just that we movedtoBerlinandhave a better life. I felt better for several years before we left.
I entered remission in November 2012, thanks to my partner who got me on new health insurance, my mom who found me doctors when I didn’t have the strength, and a doctor who changed my meds fearlessly.
I can’t even understand how happy I am these days.
I’ve been happy much of the time, and deeply content, and gleeful, and terrified, and traumatized, and overwhelmed with grief, and sick with fear, and bursting, bursting with love, the last four years. I’ve spent many, many hours in the pure flow zone of creative work. I’ve been exhausted, A LOT.
What I haven’t been, for a single day, is depressed. If you have depression, you know the difference.
I haven’t had a single day when I wanted to kill myself.
Not a single day when I thought obsessively about killing myself. Not a single day when killing myself seemed like gravity, like something I was fighting every day not to be pulled into.
I haven’t had a Plan for four years. I actually almost don’t remember what it felt like to want to drink Drano or to check the windows of the car for leaks. In the last four years, there has been only one moment when I looked at the headlights of the oncoming train and felt a dizzying pull. It was two or three seconds, during the most frightening part of our move, when things seemed hopeless and like we’d have to go back to the US.
If you have long-term suicidal depression, you probably can’t imagine this.
I lived in the Bay Area for eighteen years. By the time we left, there wasn’t a single street I hadn’t driven down wanting to kill myself. I had calculated the speed I’d need to go off every embankment, through every safety rail. Every tall building and dark water had called to me. But the last two years and four months we lived there, I was indifferent to them. I had no business with them.
I tried to kill myself for the first time when I was thirteen.
Paramedics had to come for my drug overdoses twice before I was twenty-one. Near the end of my years in the Bay, in January of 2012, I was very briefly 5150’d in the ER at the Kaiser Hospital for suicidal impulse. (They were super nice and they put warm blankets around you. Definitely go there if you’re in Oakland and want to harm yourself!)
I’ve been seeing therapists since I was EIGHT YEARS OLD. I have moderate OCD, Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, PTSD and a bunch of other stuff. Oh and I’m a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict sober 27 years.
I’ve been in in-patient treatment for chemical dependency, spent four months in a halfway house, been through the Kaiser Family program co-dependency outpatient program, been through the Kaiser outpatient program for depression, spent five years each with two therapists doing PTSD work and dozens of visits with other therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors.
Most significant of all, I have spent decades in recovery communities and support groups of all kinds, which have been the biggest resource I have to grow and change.
I HATE being mentally ill.
Goats for no reason.
I never wanted to be sick and I have fought all the diseases of the mind I suffer from fucking tooth and nail all my life. I know you have too, if you have them. I know you’re not lazy, not weak and not sorry for yourself. You are incredibly brave.
You are courageous beyond words and stronger than you should ever have had to be.
You are a superhero, in the secret identity of a person who has had to spend thousands of days on the couch with a blanket. I know you don’t want to be on the couch. I know you hate it. I believe you when you say you want to be better and that you have tried everything.
I beg you, get someone to help you try one more thing.
Ponies from last December.
I would never tell you to “fight harder”. I know you’ve been fighting as hard as you possibly can your entire life. What I beg you to do is to beg someone who cares about you to help you with your life and death struggle. I didn’t have the strength, when my crisis hit its peak in summer 2012, to find new doctors.
I was exhausted by the cycle at Kaiser, where they couldn’t offer me one-on-one therapy and wouldn’t take me off the Wellbutrin/Celexa cocktail because I “wasn’t stable enough to risk it”. I was on new insurance, in the summer of 2012, thanks to the company my bf worked for including domestic partners. But I couldn’t go through the nightmare rounds of trying to find a therapist, trying to find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients, navigating the phone trees.
My mom did the phone calls for me, and it saved my life.
I went to a new psychiatrist, who I did not like at all. But he was daring (or close to retirement and just didn’t care); he stopped the Wellbutrin/Celexa cold turkey and switched me to Cymbalta. Which at the time was under patent and cost like $200 bucks a month. Lucky me, I had insurance.
He said it might take longer to kick in than I thought possible. He made me wait, showing up at his office dull-eyed or weeping quietly even though I felt totally creeped out by his old feet in their ugly sandals.
Sometimes he said, wait one more day, then call me if it’s not better. I sustained my sanity during this period by reading the excellent psychiatric medicine website CrazyMeds, where they can help you “Find the Options That Suck Less”. (Sadly, the forums are not currently active as the site owner is very sick and lacks spoons to move the site to a newer host.) Reading about other people’s dogged persistence in finding medicine for their depression helped me hang in. I read about other people who Cymbalta had worked for after longer than they wanted to wait. My mom found me a therapist, and I went back to weekly therapy. For the fourth time? The fifth? Who fucking knows. I hate therapy.
One day the meds kicked in. It was as simple as that.
Drawing on the bus with my students, summer 2016.
I was following the oft-described “Most Effective Treatment for Depression”, combining medication and talk therapy. My therapist was warm but tough, and we did a fair amount of cognitive work.
I have no more information than that. I do know that nowadays I feel like I have a scaffolding of cognitive training that keeps me from destructive thought patterns, but I could never have stopped those patterns long enough to develop new scaffolding without the meds. I’ve been on Cymbalta, same dose, for four years. I”m fine, truly and utterly fine. And being fine is WONDERFUL. I make art, teach drawing, care for my husband and our cats.
Don’t think recovering addicts who take anti-depressants are really sober? Come at me!
I forget to take my meds constantly and always have. I have to put them in a 14-day pill dispenser and keep it on my worktable in front of me. I don’t know about you, but I never forgot to take my drug of choice. And I was a pill-freak, I totally fetishized and obsessed about pills. Here’s a picture of me on some downer pills in 1986*. You can see the difference between me then and me now, right?
The meds are totally neutral to my addictive brain, I’ve never wanted to take more of them or abuse them.
I have never been free of depression symptoms for this long in my entire life. Predictably, once my brain got better, my body fell apart. I had to have surgery for fibroids, I had terrible problems with anemia (even now, even though I’m on the cusp of menopause now), I’ve been through crazy perimenopause symptoms. I hate being hot, and I have had three years of hot flashes.
I got calcium crystals in my ear and developed Benign Positional Disorder, an illness of the inner ear that makes you feel like you have the drunk spins. I had to go on disability from work! I had to have physical therapy for vertigo at the Vertigo Clinic in Oakland! Who even heard of such a thing? Isn’t that fucking ridiculous?
And the whole time, when I would stand up and cups of blood would pour down my legs, when all I could do was lie on the couch and hold on, I was fine. I was grateful, actually, and content. I wasn’t in pain and I was just weak like a Victorian invalid. I could embroider, I could watch Supernatural on Netflix, I could go to my half-time marketing job most of the time. I was making beautiful things like this bead-embroidered corset with every ounce of strength I had. Just not being depressed was such a delicious, rapturous, heavenly feeling, I didn’t care about anything else.
Not being depressed feels exactly like being on heroin when you are depressed.
They told me in treatment in 1989 that I had been self-medicating as best I could for the variety of symptoms I had, since I was thirteen. Now that I’ve been in remission from depression for four years, the longest period since I was seven, I have a glimpse of what life is like for people who don’t have depression.
It doesn’t mean my other symptoms went away. Actually, this summer I had totally insane PTSD symptoms. Nightmares where I kicked my husband awake or kicked myself out of bed fighting off dream attackers. Intrusive flashbacks. Obsessive thoughts. But it didn’t depress me or make me want to die- it just hurt, so I cried.
Life hurts, life is scary, sometimes I cry.
The horrible results of the US election wiped both me and my husband out; we average 14 to 18 hours of sleep in our house. My fatigue problems have cycled back. When I wake up, when I’m strong enough to sit up, I run to the work table or easel and work on art. My head is absolutely full of ideas and visions and creative projects, and I do what I can of them, as I can.
My heart is full of love. I love our life, our home, our city. I cherish my loved ones. I thrill to the cuteness of our cats, to the sound of rain, to the taste of ice cream. I am truly, truly not depressed, and it is amazing. You can get better.
The National Institute of Mental Health. Links to clinical studies, info on ECT– hey, I was desperate enough to try anything, and if you’re reading this, you might be too. Suicide Prevention. Hotlines saved my life so many times. If you don’t like the person you get or they don’t feel safe, hang up and call back to get someone else.
Allie Brosh on depression. Her experience of depression differs from mine, but this powerful and beautiful work of art seems to help many depressives feel understood and to help people understand depression.
* I believe the photographer who took this was named David Selig, a guy who lived in the East Village in the 80s. He took some devastating, beautifully honest photographs of me.
This morning, I suddenly realized I deserved amends from the men and boys who sexually assaulted me.
Age 10, photo by John Garetti, 1977
I decided that if I wanted them to make amends to me, I was going to have to take care of it myself.
So I wrote some letters from some of the strangers who violated me during my childhood.
The people I knew and who knew me, well, that’s up to them, and they haven’t made much progress to date.
Dear blonde girl in the white pants near the Waverly Theater in 1980:
Age 13, photo by J Nebraska Gifford
I’m sorry I called that phone booth you were walking by. When you picked it up I said “I want to rip those tight white pants off you and fuck you” and you hung up and looked frantically around you. You were young, maybe fourteen or fifteen. Young enough to fall for the “prank” of someone calling a phone booth from another one across the street. Actually, maybe you were only thirteen. Tight pants were in fashion, and I made a lot of those phone calls. I’m so sorry for how unsafe and violated I made you feel in that moment, and in so many moments afterwards.
Dear ten-year-old girl in the Elgin Theater in 1977:
When I silently slid into the seat next to you, you were so engrossed in the movie you didn’t notice a thing. What were you doing alone in the theater watching “The 400 Blows” anyway? You were so pretty, with your blonde hair. I carefully edged my hand towards your lap and grabbed your crotch. You jumped up and screamed at me, but there was no-one in the theater to hear. You ran out into the lobby, shouting. “Fucking pervert son-of-a-bitch!” you called me. I watched you run off up 8th Avenue. I wish I had stayed in that program they put me in back in ’72, for people like me.
Dear blonde hippie chick in the see-through skirt in front of the deli at Abington Square in 1982:
Age 15, on Abington Square, 1982
When me and my friends passed you and your little girlfriend at 2 a.m.- she was even younger than you I think, maybe only fourteen- the streetlight shone right through your skirt. I ran the two steps back and grabbed your crotch, hard. Then I ran back after my friends. You came after me, screaming and shouting. You called me a fucking bastard motherfucking son-of-a-bitch. Your friend looked so afraid.
Then you ran into the deli and I heard you telling them to call the police. Lucky for Past Me, they ignored you. Present Me wishes they had at least acknowledged you. I thought of you over and over that night, as we rambled around the Village. What was I thinking? I had a sister your age. I don’t know why I thought what you were wearing gave me the right to assault you. I often wonder, when I see a girl in a see-through skirt like that in some Coachella video, if someone will hurt her, too. I wonder if you remember that night in the Village.
Dear little girl in the kitchen at Thea’s New Year’s Eve party near Westbeth in the ’70s:
We were alone in the kitchen when the Auld Lang Syne music started to play in the living room. You were looking in the cookie jar. I said hello to you, and you responded not very politely. I could hear shouting from the next room- Thea and Bill, your father, had been dealing a little in those days, and everyone was drinking hard as well. “Give me a New Year’s kiss”, I said, and bent down and grabbed your face. I forced my tongue in your mouth and you pulled away. I was fifty-two, and I just walked into the living room and got another glass of wine. Three years later, during an acid trip in New Mexico, your dead-eyed little face swam up in my memories and I realized what I’d done. I am so, so sorry. You were just a little girl.
Dear Rachel (I think your last name was Ketchum?):
When Cliff and Emerick said they knew this girl who lived in Chelsea who had her father’s apartment all to herself on the weekends, I was so down. Since they started at Stuy in September I didn’t see them as much, and I missed them. I was fifteen that Fall, and I wanted to get laid so bad. I knew a guy in Corona who had Quaaludes, and I went and bought five. Emerick said he had weed and Cliff said he had some speed. When we got to your place on Friday night I couldn’t believe you were only thirteen. You looked so much older, in your purple jumpsuit.
You had bought champagne for the party. They just sold it to you, no questions asked. I got wasted really fast, with the hash we were smoking, the booze and everything. I remember we were out in the neighborhood, and we were doing some tagging. You had spraypaint and markers. We were in the Cuban-Chinese restaurant, and you said you had a headache, you wanted to go home to get some aspirin. “Here, take this”, Cliff said, and he dropped a Quaalude in your water glass.
I got stopped by the police in Washington Square, trying to buy some acid, and you talked the cop out of busting us. You told him that I was your cousin from Queens and this was my first time in the city, and you were just trying to give me a classic New York experience. I couldn’t believe the cop fell for it. He kept looking down your front.
We bought tickets for the midnight show of Rocky Horror at the 8th st. Playhouse- you had been, and Cliff, but not me and Emerick. We had an hour to kill so we went to smoke a bowl in a vestibule across the street. Cliff took his dick out, and then Emerick did too, and so I did too. We all started grabbing your hands and trying to make you jerk us off. You were so wasted, you could barely fight us. You said it was time to go if we wanted to get good seats.
Later that night we were at your place. You had made some kind of food, like chicken salad, and we started to make brownies with some of your father’s weed, but then we were too wasted. Cliff put on The Who- Who’s Next, Baba O’Riley. He did the thing with the record player where the song plays over and over. You said you were tired and went into your bedroom. We all got on the bed with you and started groping you. I could hear the music from the next room-
“Don’t cry Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland-”
and you were telling us to stop touching you. Like that was gonna happen. Obviously Cliff and Emerick expected you were going to have sex with us, but you seemed really surprised. You grabbed your white Princess phone and called someone, told him you were in trouble, you were being attacked. I could hear him through the handset. “What do you want me to do about it?” he said; he sounded about our age.
Cliff tore your jumpsuit trying to get it off you. You were fighting now, as the song started again, and you were weirdly strong. I remembered Cliff saying you were some kind of exercise nut. None of us went to gym or anything, and we were really high. You kicked and struggled and bit us. Cliff was so high he started to pass out. Emerick was still trying to get your clothes off, but he was a pretty small guy. Somehow Cliff slid onto the floor and you bundled Emerick after him and shoved them both out the door and told me to get out. You locked the door and we all passed out.
In the morning the song was still playing. The apartment was so trashed. You made us breakfast, I don’t know why, and then you made us leave. We were all still really high. I hung around the lobby of your building, and when you came downstairs a little later I shot at you with my bb gun as you rushed towards the door. You looked really freaked out. You didn’t notice me, but I followed you as you walked back to the Village. I saw you go into the 99 Cents store on 8th st., and come out with a little package. I saw you open the package of razor blades in a vestibule in Soho and cut your wrist. You stayed there for hours, bleeding, even though it turned really cold. i had to go home because my mom was expecting me for Sunday dinner.
I lost touch with those guys after that, and I don’t know what happened to you. Every time I heard Baba O’RIley, I remembered that night. At first it gave me the creeps, but then it became sort of a romantic thing, like this cool wild night from my teens. After a few decades I forgot about it. Then one night I decided to watch this new TV show. It was called CSI New York. The theme song came on, with blurry New York flashing lights. It was Baba O’Riley. I was sitting in my living room in Flushing, and suddenly it hit me. We tried to gang-rape you. You were thirteen years old, and the only reason we didn’t actually rape you was we were too wasted. You tried to kill yourself the next day. Jesus. I don’t know what I can possibly say, at this moment. I’m just so fucking sorry. I wish I’d never gone into the city with those guys that night. I hope you’re ok. I hope you can listen to Baba O’Riley without being sad. I hope you recovered from what we did to you. I hope you can watch CSI, if you like CSI.
Especially now that he’s writing more editorial a lot of the time, I make it a point to read the movie stuff he does do.
La la la, oh I see they’re making a David Foster Wallace movie…
…huh, it’s based on the interviews David Lipsky did…Jesse Eisenberg is playing David Lipsky?!?!
But I haven’t even processed him playing Lex Luthor yet!
Or that Lex Luthor has hair!
*meme humor by The Mary Sue Senior Editor Glen Tickle
Wait, David Lipsky comes off as a total tool in the movie? HA HA HA HA omigod that’s hilarious.
In the Fall of 1980 I was thirteen, about to start high school at Stuyvesant. Of the ten kids in my small private school who’d taken the Stuyvesant test, most my close friends, two of us had gotten in. Me and my friend Oliver. Earlier that summer, at a birthday party at the Village apartment Olly shared with his charismatic mother Bonnie, I’d pulled a bottle of champagne out of the bathtub and tumbled on Bonnie’s bed with one of Olly’s friends.
That summer I had stripped the baby fat that protected me from my father on a three month crash diet of iceberg lettuce and sugar-free yogurt, forty pounds in three months. I felt my rage could protect me now, so I’d let my hair, which I’d cut because my father loved it long, grow again. I was blonde and blue-eyed, 33-23-36, and wearing purple painter’s pants from Reminiscence. When that boy kissed me the power came up in my veins like the speed I got onto later that year. I knew all I wanted was boys, to have them and take them, hurt them and enslave them.
The week before school started my best friend’s father said I should meet the son of a friend of his, who was a sophomore at Stuy. I asked Victoria, who has been my friend for forty years now but only five back then, if he was cute. She said yeah, actually he was fairly cute.
So I talked to David Lipsky on the phone, which was next to my brother’s bunk bed. The white paper under the rotary dial of our phone was covered with ballpoint ink, from my doodling while I talked. It was still hot; summer dies like a snake by mid-September in New York, or did then, but it hadn’t broken yet.
I agreed to meet this boy the first day of school, on the steps.
Maybe Victoria’s father, Mel, thought we’d be friends. I don’t think so. Mel had an invasive voyeuristic fascination with the sexual development of children, much like my own father. When you look at pictures of me and Vicky at eleven and twelve (I was always younger than everyone else) it’s shocking; my moon face and her gaunt one. Anorexia was so new that she wasn’t diagnosed until nearly too late.
I met David on the steps in front of Stuyvesant before the first bell, so I wasn’t alone my first day. Not that I was worried; it was thousands of kids to less than 100 at Elizabeth Irwin and Little Red Schoolhouse, where I’d spent the last five years, but I was fearless and ferocious at thirteen. And Olly was a brother to me, a blond Han Solo; knowing he was somewhere in the building made me feel safe.
David was pretty cute. Not amazing, but I liked his dark curly hair, and he was tall enough, wearing those thin cord jeans that boys wore then. We talked a bit, and then I went off to class. I remember almost nothing about the school part of Stuyvesant, even now. I didn’t want to go there; I wanted to go to Music and Art, and I certainly could have gotten in. My father insisted on the math and science school, because it was the most famous. Narcissistic cathection plus lots of weed, ugh.
Later that week David called our apartment in Chelsea and asked me on a date. I did not like my father asking about it, but we did share a laugh about the hilariously outdated concept of “going on a date”. I suspected it might be my first and last date; I didn’t think dating was compatible with the vision I had of stooping like a falcon. But I was thrilled. My adventures as a seductress were beginning. I wore my painters’ pants and a white men’s shirt for my first date.
In the kitchen before leaving I dusted cinnamon behind my ears because I’d read in Glamour magazine that it turned men on.
It left a faint rusty rime on my collar. My father was leering, gleeful, as he watched me leave.
I met David uptown, probably at the Uptown Loews; I know it was a theater with multiple screens.
We argued about what movie to see. He wanted to see a DePalma thriller with Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill.
I wanted to see anything but horror; I had had a very bad experience with Hitchcock Night at riding camp a couple years earlier. I capitulated, with the caveat that we would leave if I got uncomfortable. At some point I did, and then I pulled the first of an infinite number of dick moves I’ve pulled on guys.
I informed him that we were going next door to watch Lady and the Tramp.
Maybe it was during the spaghetti scene that his arm crept around me; I snickered into my cinnamon-scented collar, because I had never, ever expected to have this experience. Afterwards we walked across the park, I think, to his Upper East Side neighborhood. He wanted to hang around Woody Allen’s building and see if Woody came out. I didn’t; I hated Woody Allen every bit as much then as I do now.
He lived around the corner, probably with a divorced mother who Mel had the hots for, and we wound up in his bedroom, on his single bed. Which was the point of the whole endeavor, for me. I told him about the cinnamon; I felt it would make me seem both innocent and charmingly vulnerable. Bonnie’s bedroom had been dark and air-conditioned; David’s room was brightly lit.
He said, “What do you want to do now? I could do my Woody Allen imitations. Or we could make out.”
I looked him in the eye and took my shirt off. I remember our legs tangling, the first time I realized how long boys’ legs are, the feel of it; I knew it was what I wanted. I was both startled and disappointed by the explosion. I felt exactly like Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, (which Victoria and I had seen that summer) when Matt Dillon passes out. I had had plans for that penis. There was awkward cleanup, and now my shirt smelled like cinnamon and come.
I went back downtown; I saw him the following week at school, but it was obvious neither of us could sustain interest. Two weeks later I found the boys with the drugs.
In the 90s Victoria told me David was working as a journalist, and I laughed; that seemed just right, like Olly actually becoming an actor, like he’d always said he would. I was going to be an artist; Olly was going to be an actor; neither of us should have had to go to Stuyvesant just because it was the most famous free school in New York.
In the oughts in Berkeley, living with my second husband, I read Infinite Jest, cherished it, and put it on the bookshelf. It reminded me of The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, which I’d read when I was fifteen. I read the short stories too, but they didn’t do too much for me. I read (probably on Salon!) that David had interviewed David Foster Wallace, had spent four days on a road trip with him. I wondered if he had offered to do his Woody Allen imitation.
When I moved in with my third husband in the teens we both brought forty boxes of books. The three duplicates were Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, and The Phantom Tollbooth.
I haven’t seen David Lipsky in thirty-odd years, and that’s fine with me. Would he remember me? Of course. I was dazzling at thirteen.
Is my life a disappointment, compared to the other kids who stood on those Stuyvesant steps in 1980? I don’t think anyone could possibly say, because my life is really only getting underway, and there’s actually nothing butsecond acts in American lives.
One of my patrons mentioned she’d love to see drawings of the marathon culture in Berlin. I had no idea that there was marathon culture here until recently…
A couple weeks ago I was taking a taxi because I had to rush to get to an interview at a startup.
My cab driver was a friendly guy in his 70s. Like many people do, he asked where I was from- to my great surprise, older Berliners often don’t see much difference between an English accent and an American accent.
I explained that I was from San Francisco recently but that I grew up in NY.
He told me that he had been to New York, once, in 1991. To run the New York marathon! In under four hours.
I was very impressed and asked a lot of questions.
He described the difficulty of the conditions compared to Berlin: almost the entire Berlin Marathon run is flat, while the NY course has several significant hills.
He had obviously studied the route extensively before his run, and still remembered the names of the neighborhoods and the streets he had run down clearly. Then he told me about the hotel he stayed in.
He stayed at the Hotel Salisbury, which is the only hotel in America wholly owned by a church.
It’s owned by the Calvary Baptist Church, which occupies the first five floors, with a sanctuary and a practising choir. “Then the hotel is just stuck on top of him! like brot in a sandwich!”, my cabdriver said delightedly.
He went on to imagine a situation where a fellow might go on a business trip, with his secretary very nice, and have to make his peace with God over his indiscretion on the spot!
To a secular Berliner, the idea of a hotel in a church was just such a good joke he had been enjoying it for 25 years.
Despite living the first 22 years of my life in New York, I had never heard of this hotel, and I’m so incredibly glad I did. I looked up its history and found it absolutely fascinating.
It was built as a 16-story “skyscraper church” in 1931, and has two Steinway Grand pianos, and its own radio station, with over 200 hotel rooms.
Nowadays it has a charming blog, where you can meet Bell Captain Al, who has served at the hotel for 32 years, and Dixie the bedbug-sniffing dog! The blog has some really good tips on things to do in the city, including an excellent list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants!*
New York mag‘s site notes that visitors arriving back at the hotel after 1am must show id at the front desk- so no unregistered guests can join your revels.
It’s across the street from Carnegie Hall, and next to the Russian Tea Room. The hotel is also very close to The Art Students League, the classical atelier where I first started studying drawing at 10 (I used to take the subway there myself, can you imagine) and returned when I dropped out of Stuyvesant with my parents’ consent at 16.
“Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practise!”
It’s near Coliseum Books, a large midtown bookstore. Paperbacks I shoplifted from there as a teenager include all the James Bond novels, one at a time, one per day, and the original 9½ Weeks, which is actually quite a disturbing little book.
As I was typing this and thinking about 57th st., someone walked by outside our ground-floor Berlin apartment playing the harmonica. Playing the harmonica intro to “Piano Man”, in fact. “Was that– ” my husband said. “Yep.”
During most of the 80s, my mom worked for Billy Joel. More precisely, she worked for his manager, Frank, whose trial and FBI investigation she was later deposed for.
Billy, however, was a sweetheart of a boss, who kept a bottle of high-end bourbon in the supply closet for the cleaning lady (“She needs to take a break too!”). And their office was just a block from Coliseum Books and the League; I must have passed the Salisbury Hotel a hundred times.
One time I’d stopped by my mom’s work after class. I was in her office, drinking Grand Marnier out of the bottle at her desk, and Billy stuck his head in looking for her. He saw me and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up.
In the 80s, nobody cared if a sixteen-year-old was day drinking in your corporate HQ.
Although the trip wasn’t in my mom’s wheelhouse I remember a lot of the details of Billy’s historic trip to Russia in 1987, including the food supplies- Christie was terrified of baby Alexa being exposed to irradiated milk, as it was not long after Chernobyl.
“The tour was controversial at the time because Joel was really the first American rock ‘n roll act to play in Russia after the Berlin Wall went up. It is largely credited as bringing rock ‘n roll to the young people of the communist country.
It was also seen as an enormous goodwill gesture. Joel lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the trip, but he thought it was an important thing to do. Joel says that his whole point was to “make friends.” “Have them know what kind of people we are, make some people happy with my music and get something that can be continued more and more, maybe it’ll grow,” says the singer.”
If you’ve never seen any footage of Billy in Russia, it’s worth seeing. The goodwill shown to him had a huge impact on my ability to understand the humanity of the people behind the Wall of Communism. In the 80s, when a crack of thunder would wake me and I’d think for a disoriented minute that it was the first bomb, it was impossible to imagine an end to the Cold War.
I never imagined I’d be typing this just a kilometer from the Berlin Wall Memorial, and my cab driver never imagined he’d travel to New York in 1991. Or that he’d finish in under four hours!
*Sadly, the veggie restaurant I loved best, Arnold’s Turtle in the West VIllage, is long gone, as is Dojo on St. Mark’s where the veggie burger was so good. But macrobiotic Souen where friends of mine worked is still around, and so is Angelica, where hairy, scary hippies used to bully us Stuyvesant students to eat every single bite of our food because, the planet.