Irene said she could read the future in the way birds fly across the sky, and I believed her. She was like a wild animal, like a little bird herself: something that would flutter in your hand; a creature with a racing heart. She’d once called the Beatles’ manager and, when he wouldn’t let her talk to them, left a message for Ringo: I want to make love to you seven times. She said he would understand. She’d married a man she suspected of being CIA, and they’d spent her inheritance traveling in Europe. Then he’d raped her in Amsterdam and tried to have her committed to an insane asylum and tried to have her wealthy parents murdered. She once sent him a collection of pages torn from a child’s coloring book in which she had colored all the hands yellow. She said he would know what she meant.
Irene had bad taste in men, and she is how I met Wade and how I fell for him at nineteen and how the next three years of my life went to shit. Not that it was her fault. I had bad taste in guys, too. Or maybe it was like my father always said: I went looking for trouble.
Wade was Irene’s ex-boyfriend. He was an “old soul,” she said, and full of “secret knowledge.” You had to watch him closely. You had to look for what was underneath.
Wade had had a hard life, but he didn’t like to talk about it. In fact, he didn’t like to talk about anything. He didn’t want me to talk, either. He said nobody wanted to hear my stories, which should have been a deal breaker but somehow wasn’t. I didn’t mind his guns either: a rifle in the closet, a handgun in his top dresser drawer, another under the driver’s seat of the car, and a third in his pocket. I was intrigued by his silences and his moodiness, by his jealousy and his strange and sometimes overblown ideas, which I now recognize as being the result of limited experience, a narrow worldview, and an overblown sense of self.
Wade liked the idea of secret knowledge. He liked the idea that he’d had past lives in which he’d been someone important. He liked to believe he was special, but I see now that it was just a cover for his fear that he was nobody.
Although he let me read his palm, Wade made me promise never to analyze his horoscope. He was afraid he’d lose his power if he cut his hair. He especially didn’t want a female to cut it. He hated women, was disgusted by our bodies. He once asked if I’d ever noticed that you can’t trust anyone with dark, curly hair. I considered this question before saying no, I hadn’t noticed that. I took him at face value. I did not, at that time, think: White supremacist. Wade liked to make little bombs in our living room. Once, we went out in the country, and he tried to set them off; I stayed in the car. Another time he tried getting a machine gun to sell to the bikers he knew, but that didn’t work out. He wanted to be an outlaw. He worked at a factory under a false name because he liked to imagine there was a reason for him to conceal his identity.
There was also something sweet in him. There was something tender he hated and tried to hide.
A week after we moved in together, he pushed me.
I wasn’t a typical victim of domestic abuse, if there is such a thing. I had hitchhiked around the country. I’d lived on a commune in the Adirondacks, picked peaches in California, and panhandled in San Francisco. My best friend was a lesbian separatist, and I considered myself a feminist. But when my boyfriend pushed me, I blamed myself. “Sometimes I do stupid things,” I wrote in my notebook.
Instead of leaving Wade, I studied yoga and immersed myself in mysticism. I read books about the pyramids of Giza, the astral body, the Secret Doctrine, the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, Annie Besant, Robert Anton Wilson, Kirlian photography, palmistry, astrology, paganism, dream interpretation, initiation, the Great White Goddess, iridology, the tarot, numerology, the kabbalah.
I got a job pumping gas, until the gas station changed hands and the new owner didn’t want any female employees, which is something people could just say in 1974.
I sold PCP and pot.
I delivered automotive parts.
I got a prescription for barbiturates from a doctor the bikers used.
I went to a psychic, who said I’d been a witch in a past life but had escaped being burned at the stake.
Wade and I fought.
I tried to quit smoking cigarettes. I tried to quit barbiturates.
I got a job washing dishes at Susie’s Café but was fired after Wade got in a fight with the waitress’s husband.
I got a job doing telephone solicitation. We worked out of a motel room filled with phones, our bosses shouting, “Smile, smile!” When the boss refused to pay us, Wade showed up at the motel and threatened him until I got my check.
Wade and I went to see a psychic named Vera — a large, Christian farm woman who’d been struck by lightning and afterward could see the future. We sat at a table in a small room, and she looked at my palms. She said I’d do anything for money, and I thought she meant panhandling and said that was true. Vera said during a previous life I’d lived in Egypt and seen the pyramids being built, and I’d lived in Texas, where I’d ridden horses like a man and had an “unnatural relationship” with my father, and, even though I was nineteen, I didn’t understand what that meant. Vera said I had a split personality, which seemed possible. She also said I would have my appendix and gallbladder removed; I still have both. She said I’d be pregnant five times. That was wrong, too. But when she said I’d watched the pyramids being built, that seemed entirely plausible.
She told Wade he had been present during the crucifixion of Jesus, and she gave him the phone number of a hypnotist who could regress him and find out more. The hypnotist had a signed photograph of Jayne Mansfield on his wall and a crystal ball. He hypnotized Wade, but Wade didn’t talk about his past lives. He didn’t think we needed to talk about our current lives, or our childhoods, or our families, or anything we’d ever done or thought or imagined or were thinking now. To Wade, language had no purpose. When his friends visited, he would turn the stereo up full blast, and we’d get stoned and not say a word. Maybe Wade had always been like this. Maybe his silence wasn’t the result of childhood trauma, like I’d thought, because when he was regressed to a previous life, he didn’t want to talk then either. With great effort and patience on the part of the hypnotist, Wade did admit, in his monosyllabic way, to having been a soldier named Will who ran away from battle and hid behind a tree. This must have been disappointing for Wade, who’d always imagined he’d been one of Napoleon’s generals.
After that first session the hypnotist wasn’t interested in trying again.
Vera also said there would be no happiness for me until I turned twenty-two, and that turned out to be true.
I found out firsthand that domestic violence escalates.
I got a job managing an occult bookstore.
I learned that physical violence sometimes includes sexual violence.
On my twentieth birthday I wrote in my notebook that I no longer had a guardian spirit protecting me. I wrote that Krishnamurti says we shouldn’t resist: Resistance only strengthens the thing we want to overcome. I doubt he was referring to domestic violence, though.
In my notebook I wrote that maybe Wade’s problem was revealed in his palm: his long, straight head line and the fact that he had no heart line at all.
I wrote bad poetry.
I tried fasting.
I gave myself a tarot reading almost every day.
I did a ritual cleansing of our bedroom.
I didn’t see any of my friends anymore.
Wade’s best friend was named Lee. Sometimes when Lee visited, he brought his kids, Little Lee and Dee Dee. He called it “babysitting” when he had them. Little Lee liked to draw pictures, but Big Lee thought that was a “girlie” thing to do. Little Lee was seven, and his sister was four. One day Dee Dee pointed to Wade and to her dad and said, “He’s the boss, and he’s the boss.” She pointed to me and to herself. “But you ain’t the boss, and I ain’t the boss.” I said she was wrong, but I was lying.
Lee was a biker, and Dee Dee’s mom was a Jehovah’s Witness, which made them two sides of the same coin: both worldviews were rule-based, hierarchical, driven by fear, and had strict gender roles. Dee Dee’s mom always wanted me to read her tarot cards, even though the Witnesses said fortune-telling was satanic. She’d go around and around with it, but the cards won every time. I’m not sure what she hoped to learn. Maybe it was just nice to hear her life described in a way that made it seem big and possibly unpredictable. I didn’t need the cards to tell her about her life. I didn’t need the cards to give her advice. I gave her the same advice I’d now give my younger self: Leave him. Get away.
One day I tried to help Lee cash a bad check. It was made out to a woman who was married to a doctor, he said, and it had been endorsed, or maybe I’d endorsed it. We used the bank’s drive-through window. We had Little Lee in the backseat because Lee said the presence of a child would make us seem more trustworthy. I didn’t point out that the bank we were using was my own personal bank, and the tellers knew me. In fact, the teller that day was a man I’d talked to often. He took the check and leaned to the side, so he could see past me to Lee. Then he looked back at me. “Alison,” the teller said, “this is not your check.”
If agreeing to Lee’s doomed plan was my attempt to be rescued, it was the most passive cry for help ever.
I told Wade that my friend Sue had said sex with men was multidimensional rape, and he asked me to repeat that to his friends, who did not laugh or argue with this description but seemed to turn it over in their minds.
I had panic attacks.
I told Wade the reason he was so critical of me was that he was critical of himself.
I did mushrooms with Wade, thinking it might help. It didn’t.
After two years of living with him, I said I wanted to leave. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. He picked up a deck of cards and started playing solitaire.
Sometime later I did leave Wade, but then I found him waiting for me outside the bookstore where I worked. I locked up the store and got in his car.
I started college and majored in literature with a minor in the new women’s-studies program. For class we read Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Paule Marshall, and Kate Chopin. I read Russian anarchist Emma Goldman’s autobiography. I studied Middle Eastern history, Islam, Rousseau, the French Revolution, Hegel, the women’s suffrage movement, modernism, women and literature, women and history, women and health, women and religion. At first it was hard for me to talk in class, but it got easier. I went to a conference on feminism. Then I came home, where violence against women was almost normalized. The bikers’ girlfriends took it for granted, although they had a few rules. For example, its more brutal forms should not occur in front of the kids. In women’s-studies class I didn’t mention Wade or the biker women.
I heard about an elderly couple in Nebraska who claimed they could clear the astral body of negative psychic influences. Not only that: they could do this from a distance, using just a letter from me. I wrote to them, and they wrote back and said they’d found “8 possessions 8 earthbound with 20 negative thought forms” attached to my aura. One of my possessions was the etheric body of a seventy-four-year-old woman who had overlaid herself on me, “penetrating” my physical temple. My psychic vulnerability, they said, had begun in the 1800s during my life as a woman on the Rosebud Reservation.
(I have written and deleted and rewritten that last sentence several times. White people claiming past lives in which we were Native American is possibly the most egregious example of cultural appropriation imaginable. Another popular element of new age mysticism at the time was the idea of the “Indian guide,” in which spirits of Native Americans often acted as helpers to people like me, as if that were what a victim of genocide would want to spend the afterlife doing.)
The couple from Nebraska didn’t ask me for money, if that’s what you’re thinking. They sent me multiple letters of encouragement. I had been surrounded by much negativity, they said, but they had removed it. They had located all the disembodied spirits and negative thought forms, cleared them away, and “sealed the temple.”
When Wade found out I’d done this, he shouted, “It’s me they’re trying to get rid of!”
Of course. That’s what I had hoped.
And then that’s what happened. Suddenly I couldn’t understand how I’d ever let Wade be in charge of me; how I’d given up everything to become a miserable person I didn’t recognize. He could say or do whatever he wanted after that; it didn’t matter.
I know now this is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship: right before the woman leaves. It’s when some women get murdered. I was lucky.
I both do and do not believe I escaped Wade because of a psychic clearing. There are other explanations: I might have left because I went to school. I might have left because of Edith Wharton or Emma Goldman or because I began working for the Rape Crisis Center or because I finally understood that nobody was coming to rescue me. I might have left because I stopped smoking pot every day.
Part of me wants one of these explanations to be the answer, but truly it began with the letter from the couple in Nebraska; with casting out demons and magical protection; with drawing a circle around the temple and then sealing it up.