“Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into it.” ― Plato
It was the second week of October, 1992 and REM’s Automatic for The People had just gone on sale. Tom was on my floor, his red hair sticking straight up and his fingers frenetic against the carpet. He was lying on his back with the CD pamphlet resting open over his face.
“It’s no different than a novel,” he said before pushing play. “We should consume it beginning to end.”
I nodded while offering up an, “Uh huh,” as if we were naturally, totally, obviously on the same page.
Tom was obsessed with being smart. He’d spent his recent summers studying literature at Oxford and never missed the chance to bring it up in casual conversation. He loved Joyce and Shakespeare and talking about his SAT scores. It was no secret that he prized intellect over charm. A backwards elitist, he taunted those who were too good-looking or well-adjusted, treating them as if their status was something they should be ashamed of. It was because of this that I was never sure whether to be flattered or offended that he’d taken an interest in me.
I remember hanging with him that day and trying not to stare at his socks, loose around his ankles and greyed around his toes — how weird it felt to see him with his shoes off. Not only that, but the guy was almost always talking. Once “Everybody Hurts” came on, Tom went still and his silence was unnerving.
I was sprawled out on the princess bed that my parents had purchased a year earlier for our new home. It was the focal point of my massive, otherwise empty bedroom. I was fifteen years old. Probably I was smoking a Parliament Light or maybe a Newport. I was always smoking something, which thankfully never bothered Tom. “Shit on the floors for all I care,” he once told me, “it’s your house.”
When the song was over, he sat up and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “This album is going to save lives,” he said.
I wasn’t sure whose life he was talking about. It seemed in that small mountain town, at that particular point in time, there were plenty of us who needed saving. At school, he’d initiated something called, “Nerd Hollow.” It was a hangout for kids who identified as outsiders, the place for people who wanted to play chess during lunch or talk about Dungeons and Dragons. It was an alternative to playing Frisbee golf in the quad or socializing with the ski team and their groupies in the student lounge.
I never hung out in there. Instead, I spent my free periods with people twice my age in the parking lot at the bottom of the ski mountain getting stoned and drinking coffee. Tom was also twice my age, but since he taught tenth grade English, he never left school before 3pm. And even if he had, judging by the O’Douls he’d stashed in my fridge, he wasn’t interested in getting blitzed.
* * *
The previous fall, when I’d been in his class, we’d read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and Tom had thrown a spattering of gestural chalk markings on the board that were meant to represent prisoners chained behind a carefully tended camp fire. He told us that the prisoners had been forced to spend their lives interpreting shadows cast upon the cave’s inner most wall. The class had laughed at his pathetic stick figures and Tom laughed along with us, throwing the chalk over his shoulder with a schtick-like swagger and slapping the yellow dust that covered his hands onto the sides of his khakis. “What they’re looking at isn’t real,” he’d told us. “But because it’s all they’ve ever seen, they cannot accept that there is something truer out there — some reality that is more complex. The thought that there is anything beyond the cave, that the shadows they see are merely symbols, is unthinkable — they reject this idea with great fervor.”
* * *
Until he brought me Automatic for The People, I wasn’t an REM fan. I preferred Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins — Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth, but I’d also never seen a person so moved by a piece of pop music. It made me feel connected to the album and also to Tom, which I think he understood was important because of everything else that was going on.
Five months earlier, my mother had left me in our new home near Sun Valley, Idaho, and returned to Los Angeles where my father, deep in the eye of a mid-life crisis, was convalescing with his girlfriend. Tom had been hired to take care of me. Or maybe it was that he’d volunteered. This is one of many details that I’m not entirely clear about. Even now, thirty years later, or maybe because it’s thirty years later, I am still unsure whether my perception of what took place has grown sharper or more obscured.
* * *
Unbeknownst to us, my father’s breakdown had started almost a decade before the move to Idaho, driven by an inherent dissatisfaction that had, until then, lay dormant in his cells; a hidden virus, storing up its energy until one day it emerged, so hungry, that it devoured him from the inside out.
Three years after he’d lashed out at my mother for attempting to throw him a fortieth birthday party, “why celebrate when half your life is already over?” they decided to buy a two-acre stretch on the river just south of Ketchum and build his dream home. This, my father mused, might make his descent down the other side of the mountain less painful.
In the late 80s, the population in Ketchum was still under 3000, there was one stop light in the town, and the Bigwood River ran through so much of the valley that half the residents could fly-fish in their backyards. My father saw a life for himself there that was free of the stress he was buckling under in Los Angeles.
I was raised right on the border between Santa Monica and Brentwood in a fancy corner of West LA. I attended a private girls’ school and the first of my two older siblings was getting ready to start her freshman year at Skidmore College in upstate New York. Sick of struggling to keep up with the Joneses, my dad talked a lot about wanting to escape Los Angeles, to live the rest of his life at a slower, more enjoyable pace. He wanted to be able to fish in his own backyard.
We began to tell people we were leaving. I remember it as happening all of a sudden– Pack your bags! We’re going to Idaho! but the truth is, it took two years to finalize the move, at the end of which, nothing had turned out as expected.
America was still in the throws of a catastrophic recession. My father’s business, previously a successful high end antique office furnishing wholesaler was transitioning in order to cater to a more contemporary, “cubicle and ergonomic desk chair” market. What was left was a weird amalgam of roll top desks and modular office walls — nobody who had had the money to spend on antique office interior cubicles still had the money to spend on antique office interior cubicles and my father couldn’t compete with bigger suppliers who consistently underbid him. My understanding of things, as a twelve year old eavesdropper, was that the business was losing money and could not support the move. In order to pay for the house in Sun Valley, we had to put our current home on the market.
The six bedroom traditional on a tree-lined street that I’d grown up in, sold for over a million dollars, a sum of money that was, at the time, truly earth shattering. Whatever nerves I felt about the abruptness of my father’s campaign to abandon our life in Los Angeles were quieted by the sudden awareness of something I’d never noticed before. We were rich. We had a million dollars! My parents bought a small transitional home in the San Fernando Valley and plans to build the ten thousand square foot cure for my father’s crippling depression officially began.
During the time it took to build the house, my parents’ lives fell apart. My sister left for college, my brother, declaring that he would not under any circumstances be relocating to IDAHO for his final year of high school, instead moved into the maids’ quarters beneath my grandparents’ house, and my father — just barely coming to the realization that a million dollars would only go so far — was chest deep in construction costs and an increasingly unprofitable business.
In June of 1991, my mother and I moved to Ketchum so that I would be ready to start my sophomore year at my new school. We went with the understanding that my father would commute between Sun Valley and Los Angeles until he sold the business or figured out a financial solution that would enable him to join us permanently (there was talk of starting a new business in Idaho but it never went anywhere). Even though my parents were still married and both of my siblings were under nineteen, I went from being the youngest in a family of five, to the only child of a single mother within the span of sixteen hours, which was how long it took to drive from LA to Ketchum when you stopped on the way in Vegas for two hours of gambling and then again for gas — once in Elko and once in Ely.
We made this drive so many times over the years that I no longer remember any specifics about the trip that officially ended our lives as California residents. All of the drives have become one drive — the cats crying in their carriers, the car working hard to stay cool while idling in a blazing parking lot outside The Tropicana. That’s the thing about memory — its utter lack of logic; significant moments like these that should have been burned into the forefront instead remain undefined and blurry, pushed to the edges by mundane moments of nothingness — fidgeting fingers on a virgin grey carpet — that play like a song on repeat, blasted at full volume.
The new house was massive — so massive that it nearly bankrupt my parents to build. They only had enough money left when it was finished to properly furnish a few of the rooms. The monthly cost of maintenance, including things like landscaping and utilities, was — if I remember correctly — “totally and completely unsustainable.” My father was never there. The thing he’d made with the intention of filling up all of his anguish was just another black hole, ready to swallow him. If there was anything embodying his failure, it was this giant, empty house — the dream he’d built but could not afford to live in — another thing that couldn’t fix him.
By the fall, my mother and I both did something we’d never done before — we learned to live without my father. My mother took two jobs; one at an upscale linen and home goods boutique and one at an eyeglass shop. To my knowledge, she’d never worked retail before, but she’d been president of the elementary school’s parents’ association back in Brentwood and a volunteer docent at the Music Center downtown, so she was used to showing up, being on her feet for hours at a time, and smiling when she had to.
I worked after school and on the weekends wrapping gifts at a small Benetton franchise right across the street from the town’s main market. It was a central hangout spot for all of the local teenagers. In contrast to the loneliness I experienced at home, work was a place of pure joy. Since my mother was no longer available to pick me up from school, I bummed rides from juniors and seniors or rode my bike. Our lives transformed into something that months earlier would have seemed unimaginable. This new existence was both tragic and exciting but I loved the duality. I was empowered by my new found independence — the heroine of my own story. I didn’t sense any seriousness in the looming storm, or if I did, I embraced it as the inevitable climax I would have to pass through in order to reach my happy ending.
* * *
By November, my mother and I were feeling the beginnings of our first real winter. Because the bills were so expensive, we only heated the parts of the house that we spent the most time in, and even then it was always just warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. I walked around with my socks doubled up and a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. When people came over they always commented in awe; venerating the thirty-foot-high rock fireplace in our living room, or the floor to ceiling windows that framed a grove of Aspen trees and Cottonwood in our yard — but then, inevitably, they’d catch their breath, take another look, and ask when my father was coming or why the house still felt so empty. These were questions neither of us had answers to.
My mother and I spoke to each other through a phone intercom system. We lived on separate floors in separate wings. I never saw or spoke to my siblings or my father. My new school was small and progressive. There were less than three hundred students K-12, and only twenty in the 10th grade, six of whom were girls including me. They’d known each other since preschool. They were welcoming but it was a little like being invited to a dinner where all of the seats are already taken.
Three years had past since the movie Beetlejuice was released but I was still devoted to Winona Ryder and her gothic take on the character of Lydia Deetz. My first day at the Community School, I wore a black chiffon baby-doll dress with a white lace-trimmed collar, black and white striped tights, and combat boots. My peers were all wearing Tevas and Rugby shirts. To enter into such an insulated environment and to feel so acutely eclipsed on so many different levels was a unique experience.
The first time I met him, Tom said that I was, “outnumbered,” but he said it with a smirk, like it was a good thing. Before I knew who he was, I’d been moved from regular 10th grade English into his Honors class despite the fact that I’d transferred from my previous school with Cs and Ds. I thought that someone had made a mistake and tried to tell him as much but he waved me off.
“You belong here.”
A few weeks later, he encouraged me to join his Creative Writing class, too, which I did.
It wasn’t until I was finally settling in and finding my place both in and out of school, that my dad arrived for a visit and informed my mother that he’d fallen in love with someone else and had decided against joining us. This meant we’d have to put the house on the market immediately.
As an adult, I can look back at the moment and understand that there was a lot more going on than I realized at the time; years of unresolved conflict and despair all feeding into that decision. But that’s not how you see things as a fifteen-year-old. You see what’s in front of you. You take your parents at face value, and on the face of it, my father had expelled us from our lives and then his own, and in a final act of complete betrayal, abandoned us in as remote a location as possible. The only way I knew how to cope with what was happening was to ignore it.
And so, I don’t remember being upset about my parents’ divorce. My seasonal job at Benetton had ended and I’d managed to get hired as a barista at a new coffee house in town. There I’d met and connected with a larger group of twenty-somethings who had flocked to Sun Valley to be a part of its winter ski and snowboard scene. This jovial crew of subculture was primarily concerned with having a good time, a premise so wildly appropriate in light of recent developments, that I followed after them in total admiration. With new friends, no parental supervision, access to all sorts of drugs and alcohol, and an empty mansion to play around in, there was little for me to bewail. I could roll a keg up the back stairs and entertain upwards of twenty people without my mother even noticing. Every night was a party and I was always right at the center of it.
A few months later, despite the new girlfriend and the shirking of both his marital and parental responsibilities, my dad’s mid-life crisis upgraded to a full-blown nervous breakdown. He became suicidal and, as soon as she found out, without telling me why, my mom got on a plane and went back to LA. The news had been a game-changer. If he was worse off without her, that meant there was still hope.
The next thing I knew, I was alone. Not the figurative, romantic alone that I’d been since arriving to Idaho, but truly alone. All by myself; Alone, alone. I couldn’t drive. I didn’t have any money and there was no one in my circle sober enough to give a shit — but it was the summer after my sophomore year — I was practically an adult so I was sure it would be okay, besides I was confident she’d be back soon enough.
That summer, I rode my bike back and forth to town; eight, ten, twelve miles a day. I ate all of my meals at work, often slept wherever I could, and partied every second in between. I had lost my virginity to the awe-inspiringly handsome but notoriously aloof twenty-one year old who managed a popular skate and snowboard shop next door to Java on Fourth where I worked. Most nights I was so drunk by the time it was dark out, I would stumble from his house to the Circle K in the middle of town and wait for someone who knew me to drive by and take me home. I’d garnered a reputation and most people didn’t want to get involved but there was almost always someone who showed up and was willing to help. On the edges of my memory are the shadowed faces of numerous strangers who carried me home and put me safely to bed during the darkest of those months.
As if it couldn’t get worse, shortly before my junior year began, my best friend from childhood called to tell me that back in Los Angeles, my mom was sedated on Xanax, barely eating, and attending daily counseling with my father who was still living with his girlfriend.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because she’s living in my pool house and I can hear everything. When she’s not at therapy she sits by the pool, eats Fat Free Fig Newtons and chain smokes Merit Light 100s. You should apply to boarding school,” she said.
I’d never seen my mother sit by a pool or smoke a cigarette in my life. I understood then, that things were dire. It was only a matter of time until a reasonable adult figured out what was going on, and realizing that I had no idea what would happen next absolutely terrified me.
* * *
It was less than a week later, during a back to school camp out at a popular lake north of town, that the “reasonable adult” finally appeared. I was lounging on the beach, secretly sipping a beer, when Tom strolled up. I’d put up a solid front all summer, but now I was shaken. The facade was starting to splinter. Tom took one look at me and saw it all.
He plopped down on the sandy beach beside me and threw a rock at the water. “You want to tell me about it?” he asked. I shook my head and he jostled my shoulder playfully, ignoring the beer that sloshed up out of my canteen. I was fighting to hold back tears but Tom just smiled. “I’ll wait,” he said. “Take your time.”
* * *
Lately, I’ve been thinking about invention — how we invent ourselves, each other, and the circumstances that explain us — the stories we tell about our lives ultimately define who we are. Is truth internal then — individual? Do each of us have a personal truth that is unique and valid? Or is truth an external manifestation — some undeniable and objective monolith? If, as Plato inferred, ignorance is a world full of dark symbolic shadows, but truth is bright and sharp and full of angles, then that must mean that depending on where we stand, each of us sees something different, even when what we are looking at is fundamentally the same.
* * *
I liked Tom a lot. I felt like we were alike, that he “got me.” After Plato, we’d read Gulliver’s Travels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Camus’ The Plague. I’d come away from that class believing that there was value in being an individual, in taking responsibility for your own circumstance. Tom had taught me that. He talked to me like I was a whole human and he made me feel like my worth was above average, that I was special.
All of these years later, much about that time has been redefined by other things that have happened since. Almost as if by magic, experiences I have in real time change what took place in the past. What was a heroic attempt to rescue a drowning kitten is now evidence of the crime itself. It has become nearly impossible to make sense of, but this is something I know for certain; the attention Tom gave me that year was a much-needed salve on a life that had, it seemed, suddenly become defined by its abundance of surface wounds.
That day by the lake, I used a stick to scribble my own shadow drawings in the sand while telling Tom that my father wanted to die, my mother was gone, and now I was going to have to go somewhere else and start all over again. I told him what I’d been afraid to admit for most of the summer. I told him that I was scared. He put an arm around my heaving shoulders; leaned against me, and asked what I wanted to do.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore,” I told him.
A few days later he moved in with me.
The logistics of this arrangement are fuzzy for me. I remember that we met with the head of my school and talked about the expectations they had for me. If I were to stay at The Community School, under Tom’s temporary guardianship, I was going to have to significantly clean up my act. That meant getting better grades, showing up to class, and not talking back to my teachers. Tom was mostly quiet during this meeting, but in the end we were all in agreement. If my attitude and my output improved, they’d support me through anything and soon I’d be free of my dysfunctional family and all of the other constraints that conspired to make me miserable. Eighteen was right around the corner. I should be preparing for adulthood. They were there to help me but I had to help myself, first. That was the gist.
Tom practically bounced all the way back to the car. “This is going to be great,” he told me. “We’re going to have a blast.”
Every morning, I woke up to two pots of coffee — one that Tom had brewed for himself and one that he had brewed for me. At night, while I did my homework at the kitchen table, he cooked the only thing he knew how to make: lemon pepper chicken and steamed broccoli. We talked about life and gossiped about my peers. He seemed happy — really happy — like this arrangement, our strange little coupling, was something he had needed as much as me.
He’d been married once and had a son who was several years younger than me. Once or twice, the boy had come over and Tom had delighted in walking him through the house and showing him all of the rooms; the library and the grand piano, the expanse of lawn dotted by Aspen trees that rolled from the back patios all the way into the banks of the river. It was a magical time in my life. I was cared for and thriving, even as my parents’ lives continued to crumble, even as the rest of the town looked on and wondered what in God’s name a thirty-something year old man was doing living with a fifteen-year-old girl.
One time, he’d had another student over for dinner. During dessert, he pointed at me across the table and said, “They all think we’re sleeping together,” while hysterically laughing. And I laughed, too, because it was nauseating to even think about. I didn’t stop to wonder why he’d invited that boy over. I figured it was just another kid like me, someone who needed saving.
* * *
When one of the prisoners is unwillingly freed and dragged into the sunlight, he resists. He does not want to leave the cave. The sunlight blinds him. The transition into this higher, brighter world is painful and disorienting. It takes a long time until the prisoner’s eyes adjust and even then he can only look at the reflections of things in water, not the things themselves. This is not so obscure as the cave wall, but not so blinding as the thing itself. He exists in this half-way point between truth and ignorance for some time, aware but also in denial — content to know without actually examining all that lies before him.
* * *
Before he’d moved in with me, Tom had lived in a converted trailer park south of town. All of the homes on that plot were painted an obnoxious shade of baby blue. The kids at school who Tom belittled made fun of it all the time. They called his unit the big blue bomber. They laughed at how poor he must be to live in such a place, how sad his life was.
Now, Tom had his own room in a house where he could fly fish in the backyard. He drove to school each day in the Toyota Land Cruiser that my parents were saving for my sixteenth birthday. We listened to music and sang and talked, but once we were at school, we went our separate ways. Almost immediately, all of my grades began to lift. Tom had encouraged me to write daily. He gave me a journal, read my short stories, helped me edit them. I told him I was considering becoming a writer. He told me I already was one.
Automatic for The People became the anthem of my junior year — an album that would save lives. It was released exactly one month before my sixteenth birthday. One month before my mother, gone by then for half a year, would return — deep into her divorce proceedings and finally ready to move forward with her new life. She sent Tom back to his trailer.
Over the next year, as she worked to resume her role as parent and guardian, I worked to hold onto everything Tom had given me. She didn’t always succeed and neither did I, but we clung to each other, sometimes while crying and sharing a Merit Light 100, and somehow, we survived. Neither of us smoke anymore. The house took another three years to sell. By then, the divorce had been finalized, they had both remarried, and I was a junior in college. I learned to look at my parents from multiple angles, to appreciate their failings and their humanity, and to recognize how integral all of it was in the making of me.
Tom fell out of my life as quickly as he’d fallen into it. There were moments when I felt hurt by our abrupt disconnection but I supposed he was like Mary Poppins; once the wind changed, he was gone. I knew he’d left the Community School the same year I went to college but I had no idea where he’d moved to. When I graduated with a BA in English and a minor in Creative Writing, I dedicated my senior thesis to him; the man who had made me a writer.
The story of Tom was finished — an album played start to finish, but one that I revisited often when I needed to be reminded of my own worth, when I wanted to feel special, or smart, or important.
It wasn’t until 2013 that I discovered Tom had been charged and convicted of grooming, enticing, and sexually abusing a minor. It was a blight of sunlight so blinding that the pain of it is still fresh almost ten years later. The victim of his crimes was a fifteen year old boy who was described in ways that made me want to crawl out of my own body; the displaced child of a dysfunctional family, suspected of drug use and self-abusive tendencies. A teen at a vulnerable time in his life who had welcomed a friendship with his dynamic and engaging English teacher. This boy was not portrayed as someone who was special or smart or worth saving — he was damaged and needy — an easy target. They had an affair that went on for years. Tom, in his own words, had been “in love.”
As the details of the situation became clear to me, I reached out to mutual friends, teachers, and many of Tom’s former students. I searched diligently for any explanation that would turn this whole thing right side up again but of course I couldn’t find one. I still can’t find one. What I did discover were the many others who were just like me. The chosen ones. The once abandoned or neglected children who loved this man — who believed that he had saved them. We circled around each other in texts and on Facebook, chained to our memories like prisoners in a cave, desperate to know what the rest of our cohort could see that we couldn’t — terrified of what might be rising behind us — wary of the few who were silent. What secrets were they keeping? If we were to reevaluate what we’d experienced out in the daylight, would what we knew still be true?
I was fighting a growing certainty — a polygon with endless sides.
I wanted so badly to have compassion for him. I tried to imagine what turn his life must have taken to allow this to happen. How unhappy he must have been, how sick, mentally, to allow himself to behave in a way so contrary to what any decent human knows to be right and true.
But all of that was shadow. Because I knew. All along, I knew who he was. On the periphery, in the space where I put the things I want to hide, I remember what it felt like to see him as a terribly flawed and lonely man. I saw and then I looked the other way. I knew — but I was fighting so hard to see through the dim, hopelessness of my own life, I just could not process anyone else’s darkness. I turned it into light. I erased the things I didn’t want to be there. The things I knew had happened but wished I hadn’t seen.
I welcomed in a man who wanted to help. Who wanted to raise me. Who wanted to be there. I let him tell me I was worth it. I spent the next twenty years of my life defining my very being with the lines that he had drawn around me.
It’s taken another ten for my eyes to adjust to the light, a decade for me to fully realize that it was not Tom who had saved me — it was the story of Tom that I’d created. It was always me — my will to survive at all costs. I told him I was considering becoming a writer. He told me I already was one.
Perhaps the truth is that we can only save ourselves. Whether we do that by walking into the sun or walking away from it, the result, I’ve learned, is equally bewildering.