We were in the back of a cab in Munich when she told me her favorite books, The Goldfinch and A Little Life. She read a lot so I trusted her taste and said I’d read them both. They were hard heavy books about self-harm and drug abuse. Beautifully written, but hard. I was a writer too and handed her my phone: she winced and said it feels like I’m reading your diary and then handed it back to me like it was a dirty sock.
We arrived in London on a Sunday morning having left Seattle that Saturday night. The plan was to stay up all day so we could get in the new time zone for a week of meetings starting in the UK, a night in Germany, ending in Holland. There was no reason for me to be there really, I think my client just wanted to feel more confident surrounded by her vendors which explained why Kristin and I were there with the cameraman from Dublin. We filmed the meetings and everybody getting ready for the meetings, and then how everybody thought the meetings had gone. In social media they call that amplification. And that’s why I hated marketing, you could turn something small into something bigger than itself just with words.
It was on that trip that Dawn had to admit Lily to a psychiatric ward for kids needing acute care. She told me on the phone when we were about to leave Heathrow. Looking back, I should have gotten on a plane for Seattle instead. But like Dawn, I was in a state of shock and didn’t know what to do. It was Tuesday night in Europe and by Friday I’d be home. A meeting in Munich followed by two nights in Amsterdam. Lily was under expert care. And that gave me some time to prepare myself.
I got A Little Life first, on a romantic weekend getaway with Dawn. Right away you realize what you’re in for, the character a victim of childhood sexual abuse and chronic cutter. My writer friend in London called it voyeuristic, something I’d never thought about before with books. Why we’re drawn to the horrors others endure. And she’d saved Lily’s life years before in Italy after we’d driven several hours and begun our stay at the swimming pool with a Heineken, and taken our eyes off Lily just long enough for her to get in over her head. Miriam dove in and rescued her.
Not long after getting out of the hospital Lily found my copy of A Little Life and read it in a weekend. She had just turned 14. And she had seen films like It and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre already, and would later dabble in drugs I hadn’t experienced until college.
I started going to therapy myself and recommended that book to my therapist but then regretted it for fear she’d think me strange. The open horrors of the book fascinated and repulsed me, and I longed for redemption but it came in slivers at best. Then I picked up The Goldfinch at an airport bookstore on the way to Dawn’s brother’s wake in December. It starts with an explosion in an art museum where the protagonist’s mother dies and that sets off hundreds of pages of torment and self-abuse culminating in an Amsterdam hotel at Christmastime where he tries to off himself but fails. It took me back to that last night in the city myself, and I could see the same scenes looking out the window over the canals. On the rooftop of that old building with Kristin and the cameraman after last call, contemplating the flight home, what our lives would be like now for me and Dawn.
I guess books remind us that one person’s experience could speak for thousands and we could share some intimacy with strangers, make the world a smaller place. To lessen the pain by revealing our own and gain some common healing in the process. Maybe feel less alone, like our lives could mean more than they seem to on the surface. If there are three kinds of conflict in literature I’m set on “man vs. self.” It can feel confessional but that’s where the stories lie. You have to decide first what you’re willing to confront yourself but then remember, no one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them.