Shana Mahaffey lives in San Francisco in an Edwardian compound that she shares with an informal cooperative of family, friends and five cats. She’s a survivor of Catechism and cat scratch fever, and is a member of the Sanchez Grotto Annex, a writers’ community. Her work has been published in SoMa Literary Review and Sunset Magazine. She welcomes all visitors to her website www.shanamahaffey.com, and is happy to meet with book groups in-person or in cyberspace (phone/webcam/the works).
Her latest book is Sounds Like Crazy.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Shana. Can you tell us what your latest book, Sounds Like Crazy, is all about?
Sounds Like Crazy Sounds Like Crazy is as a darkly comic and ultimately healing story about Holly Miller, an Emmy Award winning cartoon voiceover performer who has actual voices in her head, multiple personalities who make her career a huge success, and shield her from a terrible secret in her past.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
Holly Miller, the main character of the novel, has suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, for almost thirty years. She has five people—the Committee—living inside her head:
The Boy in the red converse sneakers—she can’t see his face, only his shoes.
The ancient man who spends all his time in meditation. She calls him the Silent One because he’s spoken to her once only since she met him, which, according to her, makes him the perfect manager of her spiritual life.
Sarge who keeps her safe.
Ruffles, a whale-sized woman who sits on a purple pillow eating Ruffles potato chips all day. Her bulk and position is what makes Holly’s head always tilt slightly to the left.
Betty Jane, a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara who makes Holly’s life hell on a good day.
The Committee makes it possible for Holly to slip through life as an observer. She can’t even be bothered to name her cats and her biggest passion is smoking.
There is also Sarah, Holly’s oldest sister and biggest supporter. Milton, Holly’s shrink (yes, you have to expect a shrink in a book about Dissociative Identity Disorder) who makes some unorthodox treatment choices in an effort to get Holly to understand why she has her Committee. And, of course there is the boyfriend, Peter who is the guy only Holly’s mother would love—i.e., not the guy you want to bring home to most mothers.
I think it would be impossible for my characters not to be influenced from people I know, because aren’t we all influenced in some way small or large by the people we know? Even if it feels like I am making up a character from scratch, the foundation for this character absolutely comes from those who I know. So, it is safe to say my characters are based on a combination of real people and my imagination, which is influenced by real people.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
Before I begin writing a novel, I figure out what I want to explore on a thematic level. For example, in Sounds Like Crazy, I wanted to explore the act of forgiveness—both self and others. Once I determine the theme of my book, I figure out who are the main characters I will explore this theme through (my novels are very character driven). At this point, the actual story itself, including plot, arc, etc. will take very loose shape. In Sounds Like Crazy my I settled on Holly, her Committee, and Milton. Once I had a woman with five characters inside her head and a shrink along for the ride, it was a pretty easy jump from forgiveness to DID. After I know who my main characters are, I write the end of the story. The rest of the book may evolve and change, characters often assert themselves in unpredictable ways, subplots attach themselves to the story line, and so forth, but the end remains constant, shining like a beacon at the finish line. I keep my writing eyes fixed on that end and let my main characters take me on a circuitous route to it.
Q: Your book is set in New York City. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
This is one of those instances where real is a huge influence. I lived in New York City for six+ years and loved every single second of it. Even though I have a fantastic life in San Francisco, one of the biggest regrets of my life was leaving New York. By setting the story in New York, I got use the advantage of the page to spend another couple of years there while at the same time giving Holly the distance she needed from her home and family.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
To quote Holly, “New York is as far away as I can get from my mother without leaving the continental United States.” So, it is safe to say, yes, New York is integral to the development of the story. It provides the much sought after physical distance and the blanket of anonymity that comes with a big city. We see almost immediately, though, that even hiding amongst the crowds in a big city doesn’t shield Holly from the bigger issues that she ultimately has to face.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
Holly is in the middle of an argument with her older sister, and biggest supporter, Sarah. You see Holly has just been offered an opportunity to be the lead voice in an animated television show. Holly’s most dominant personality, Betty Jane, maneuvered her into this. Then instead of shutting this down, Holly’s analyst, Milton made a deal with Betty Jane. Sarah is shocked Milton would do such a thing and is insisting Holly say no to the job and move back to California.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
I sat in my darkened room, lit a cigarette and watched the orange tip glow as it burned.
Six hours to go. Then it would be over. Six more hours and I, Holly Miller, could mark off another milestone—twelve Christmases spent alone. Well, technically not alone if you counted the Committee. At least that’s what I told Sarah last April when she started asking how and where I planned to spend Christmas. She’d asked me the same question for the last eleven years, each year asking it earlier than the last. Each year I evaded the question until the day came and went with me still sitting in my New York City apartment counting the hours until the birth of Jesus passed and “normal” loomed once more on the horizon.
The first time I said I wouldn’t make it home for the holidays nobody protested. My mother said, “Things are too complicated at the moment to add you to the mix.” Sarah had just gotten married so she was caught up in making memories and didn’t ask any probing questions about what I’d do for the holiday.
I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room on Christmas day thinking this was how cracked glass must feel—not broken enough to be shattered and replaced but disfigured enough that it mars the view of the world. The following year my mother sent my Christmas gifts in October. She lives in Palo Alto, California, where I grew up. Okay, mail deliveries are notoriously slow around the holidays, but you don’t need two and a half months to deliver a package to the East Coast.
When I’d interviewed at New York University, they’d asked me if the distance from home would be a problem. My answer was, “New York is as far away as I can get from my mother without leaving the continental United States.” Unlike with my father whose random appearances in between business trips made it easy to ignore him regardless of proximity, I could avoid my mother’s duplicitous deeds only with physical distance between us. I didn’t realize my mother shared my need for distance until my Christmas gifts arrived early. After that, the tacit agreement between us went like this: as long as I remained in New York City, my family would continue to supply financial aid. In my absence, Mom could spin any tale she wanted to her bridge club. Having me show up on her doorstep would be imperfect reality colliding with perfect fiction. Trust me when I say that comparison would provoke from my mother far more than an end to money flowing from a bank account in Northern California.
I lit another cigarette and listened to people shouting at each other outside on the streets. In the Lower East Side, holidays are not exempt from altercations when you have a bottle of Colt 45 and an attitude to match. I didn’t have either so I sat there muting my own regret tinged anger by chain smoking.
I inhaled and wondered what the people hurling insults were so angry about. What was I angry about? To root out the cause meant I’d have to dig into my past. Avoid the past was another one of my mother’s lessons. Trust me, I’ve mastered the ability to avoid all introspective journeys down memory lane.
When I pulled back the curtains, I didn’t see anything. Never did. I’d rented my place sight unseen because I couldn’t believe “a four room apartment with a view” was offered for such a low rent with no upfront fee. The day I moved in, I understood. My new abode consisted of a hallway (so small you had to step into the bathroom to enter and exit), bathroom, main room, and a closet. That’s four rooms in Manhattan. After eight years, I had yet to find the view. All I saw outside my two windows was a brick wall. But if I angled my body just right, I caught a sliver of sky. Regardless, the small space with only enough room for my bed, armchair, dresser and tiny table with two chairs, suited me just fine; and, the brick vista had grown on me.
My childhood was spent in a large house where we each had our own bedroom. We also had guest bedrooms, a great room, a living room, a family room, library, dining room, kitchen, hallways, pantries, sun porches, and way too many bathrooms. Sometimes hours—and when I got older, days—passed without seeing another family member.
Since leaving the Miller mansion, I’ve preferred snug spaces. After all, there’s just me and two cats I’ve never bothered to name. I refer to as them Cat 1 and Cat 2. For the Committee, whose house inside my head mirrors mine, the cramped quarters creat a strain. The deal is that the Committee lives at my level of means. I live in a studio apartment. They live in a studio apartment inside my head. When we moved to New York, I gave up my car, so Sarge had to leave his ‘57 Chevy behind. I didn’t have a car so he couldn’t have a car. You get the picture. All to say, the Committee’s snug space has to accommodate Ruffles on her pillow and Betty Jane’s California King. This doesn’t leave much room for the other three. Sarge installed a triple bunk bed with the Boy on top, him in the middle, and on the bottom, the Silent One so he doesn’t have to climb over anyone to get to bed after nighttime prayers. At least they didn’t have pets. Not yet anyway.
I let the curtain drop and took another drag on my cigarette. I shouldn’t be smoking. But I liked to smoke. Cat 1 ran into the room, let out his siren sound, a warning that the vomiting was about to begin. I looked at the cigarette. Do I keep smoking and wait for him to barf up his Christmas surprise, or do I get up and chase him around with the newspapers? I’d always thought Cat 1 was bulimic. Cat 2? He’s just fat. Me? I have five people living inside my head. What do you think?
Being my mother’s daughter, I do manage to appear passably normal even though I don’t do cute outfits with matching shoes. I wash my pale Irish skin, brush my dark brown hair, and iron my black and blue clothing. The dark colors down to my footwear help me blend in. Even my workout clothes follow this color scheme. The only variation is the white beacon of Nike hope on my feet for the forty-five minutes a day I run, although my hope remained fixed on a smaller ass, not a brighter wardrobe. As for the rest of it, lipstick equaled trauma in my world because I have had to look at Betty Jane’s ruby red lips issuing one searing indictment after another for the last twelve years. So I don’t use it and rarely wear makeup of any kind. I walked through life looking like a permanent bruise on a bleached background, half the time so focused on what is going on in my head I don’t hear people talking to me. I’d probably go completely unnoticed if Ruffles hadn’t parked her pillow in the upper left corner of my skull. At over three hundred pounds, her bulk always causes my head to lean to the left. The first time I met someone, they felt the need to mimic my left lean as if to let me know my head wasn’t on straight.
Appearances aside, most days the Committee’s chaos kept me discombobulated, but it rarely made me lonely. Holidays were an exception and required extra everything to keep the pressure of it all from closing in. Thankfully, without me asking, the Committee found something to do that didn’t involve conversation or sound of any kind.
Christmas evening, when I lit up, I was hoping I could sit, smoke, and enjoy the quiet while I waited for everything to turn normal again. The shouts on the street helped. Watching the cat puke was an unexpected bonus.
I stubbed out my cigarette and started to light another one when the phone rang.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hey, it’s me,” said Sarah.
“Please tell me you’re not calling to find out what I am doing next Christmas.”
“No, I want to know what you’re doing for your birthday. I thought I’d fly out.”
I was born on New Year’s Eve. You might think it’s great that the whole world has a party every year on my birthday, but I’ve never been big on celebrations. I usually spent the anniversary of my birth avoiding the ghosts of the past. This year I was turning thirty. Entering a new decade would bring a multitude of ghosts and their friends. Having Sarah cross the country to see me safely over that threshold quashed any worries I had about yesteryear clamoring for attention.
Sarah was the only family member who’d ever visited me during the twelve years I’d lived on the East Coast. My parents would have come for my graduation but getting them there together was complicated and getting me on the stage was more complicated. I told them I’d decided to skip it. Then I made sure to charge my cap and gown on the emergency credit card my mother gave me when I started at NYU. I did so with the faint hope that someone might see the bill and show up. At least take me out to dinner.
Turns out my mother didn’t bother to look at the credit card statement until a couple of months after I graduated. Sarah wouldn’t fill me in on the particulars of the conversation they had. She didn’t need to. The expletives Sarah uttered after I told her I had marched in the graduation ceremony said it all. After that, Sarah started reviewing my statements on her weekly visits to our mother’s house. She noticed everything.
After she had her first child, Sarah no longer liked to travel. Then she had the second one and she started saying, “I have my male alphabet—Doug, Elliot, and Francis—and the Bay Area offers everything you could ever need. Why would I want to be anywhere else?” One of Sarah’s goals in life was to be a better partner and parent than her role models growing up. Just thinking about doing a better job put her far ahead of my parents. But that wasn’t enough for Sarah. What she accomplished as a wife and mother would put most spouses and parents to shame.
The thing was, Sarah hadn’t turned up on my twentieth birthday and she only had her first letter of the alphabet—D—then. So why my thirtieth? I immediately ignored that thought because if I asked her, Sarah would tell the truth and I didn’t want any honesty to trump the happiness I felt at that moment.
When Sarah finished giving me her flight details, I said, “I’m glad you’re coming. See you next week at six PM. Hanging up now.” I never said goodbye and I hated it when people said it to me because I always felt like goodbye meant I would never see them again.
“Hang on. Holly,” Sarah interrupted, “for the short time that I am there, I’d like to set some limits around that Committee of yours.” What was about to follow bit into my anticipation. “I’d like to request that Betty Jane not be present for the birthday festivities.”
Before I could react, I felt what can only be described as an invisible hook around my waist and caught a glimpse of Betty Jane’s red lips pursed in a resentful line as she executed what Milton and I referred to as a hostile takeover.
“Who do you think you are to banish me?” shot out of my mouth in a sugary southern tone edged with sour.
“Betty Jane,” Sarah’s voice sounded severe, “how dare you. I will not tell you again that you are not to speak to me. You return my sister immediately or I will take steps you will not like.”
Inside my head, the Committee and I exchanged worried glances while we waited for Betty Jane to respond. None of us had any idea what Sarah meant, but her voice made clear that whatever it was, she could make good on it.
“Do you understand me?” said Sarah.
Betty Jane immediately let go, but I felt the sting of her outrage as we transitioned.
“Holly?” said Sarah.
“Yes,” I whispered. Betty Jane had never backed down to anyone and I didn’t know what scared me more, that she did it or Sarah’s threat that made her do it.
“I am serious. No Betty Jane.”
Sarah still didn’t get that I couldn’t exactly banish someone who lived in my head, and for a moment, I considered telling her to forget it. But as funny as it sounds coming from someone living in New York City, I was lonesome and wanted physical interaction that didn’t include pretenses, wasn’t superficial, and/or didn’t have fur and four legs. I wanted my sister, my confidante, my friend, the one person who accepted me rips, tears, cracks, leaks, the Committee and all. It was a tough blow to discover Sarah accepted all but one part of me. That transformed the idea of a fun birthday into a day like any other day in my life with me trying to muddle through while trying to manage Betty Jane. After all these years, I’d only been successful on that front when our desires matched.
I sighed. “Okay.”
“Also, Holly,” said Sarah, “it would be nice to meet your boyfriend.”
I had learned a long time ago that separation of church and state, as it were, was the best way to maintain secrets. My relationships always ended when the sex got boring and the guy wanted to know my middle name. Suffice to say that my boyfriend, Peter, didn’t know about the Committee, that I had a sister, that New Year’s Eve was my birthday, and that I didn’t have a middle name.
I sighed again. “I’m sure he’d like to meet you too.”
My boyfriend, Peter, was an enigma. Half of him was a tall, sexy, urbane devotee of Tim Gunn and Project Runway, mimicking him down to the suit, tie, and slicked back hair. The other half was a serious graduate student in religious studies. I met him the diner where I worked as a waitress one morning when he came in early to try to stave off his post all-night partying hangover with greasy food. He never would have noticed me if not for an off the cuff reference to Kierkegaard I made that piqued his interest. We’d been together for only two months and as the antithesis of all his previous girlfriends in height, weight, intelligence, looks, and so on, I found myself wondering, hourly, if we really were in a relationship. Luckily, we hadn’t yet reached the point where the stardust had worn off and/or I’d lost my ability to charm him with my witty repartee. I’d been there with previous boyfriends enough times to know it meant you have to actually learn more about each other better, or hop off the train. You can guess which choice I always made. But I wasn’t ready to let Peter go yet.
Meeting Sarah would definitely accelerate our journey to that fork in the road.
I called Peter immediately after Sarah and I hung up. His big New Year’s plan included Times Square, the most populated place in the country, me, and all of his friends. He’d mentioned it a few weeks earlier and my response had been the same one I had for most things I didn’t want to do—remain noncommittal and pray for a solution. When Sarah called and offered me one, I figured God was having a light day.
“So, my sister is going to be here on New Year’s Eve,” I said.
“Cool, she can come with us to Times Square,” said Peter.
“Well, the thing is,” I hesitated, “she’s arriving at six o’clock in the evening and leaving the following morning. She was kind of hoping we could do a quiet sister thing.”
I heard Peter breathing on the other end of the phone and asked the obvious question, “Are you mad?” He remained silent.
“Are you?” I asked again.
He still didn’t answer.
“I’ll see if I can work it out,” I said, “but if not, you’ll be with your friends.”
“Yeah, that’s why I have a girlfriend.”
“I’ll figure it out,” I said.
The day before New Year’s Eve, Peter still thought Sarah and I were spending the next evening with him and half the world in Times Square and Sarah thought Peter had other plans.
I grew up with a woman who excelled at igniting roaring blazes with one word; and I’d had the pleasure of Betty Jane, who’d lived inside my head for the past twelve years and was equally good at setting fires. I probably had other options, but when desperate, you go with what you know.
I took a seemingly innocuous comment from Peter—“The jeans you wore the other day look better on you”—and doused it with verbal gasoline: “You think I’m fat.”
“Don’t be difficult—”
“Fat and difficult.” I raised my voice several octaves for effect. “What else?”
And with that, I ignited the roaring fight that got me out of introducing my sister and my boyfriend.
Most people would probably think I’m a horrible person for doing this; they’d probably also think one night in Times Square was not a big deal. Maybe I am a horrible person, but I live in a crowd. I didn’t need to extend it by standing in the middle of a much larger one. Not to mention that I’d be with people I didn’t know well enough to dislike, a boyfriend who didn’t have the first clue about me, my sister who’d probably expose me in her attempt to protect me, and Betty Jane who was liable to pull something really awful because she’d been excluded. If you were in my shoes, even if you said you wouldn’t, when the time came, you’d be willing to do anything to avoid that situation. Trust me on this.
When I opened my eyes on the morning of my birthday, Betty Jane raised her glass in a toast. I thought she’d forgiven me for her impending banishment. Then, as I buttoned my work uniform, she said, “I’ve told you many times that style doesn’t flatter your figure, or maybe Peter was right, and you’ve put on weight.”
“He never said that,” I said. She arched one eyebrow. “I said it.” Betty Jane smiled. “Never mind.”
I stood five foot three if I held my head up straight. My waitress uniform with its tie at the waist drew attention to my long torso and short legs, making me appear squat and fat. Betty Jane had an eye for clothing that flattered. I didn’t. But Betty Jane and I had been playing the game of retribution in the form of insults thinly veiled as truth for a long time. Only she played it much better than I did. She knew all my weaknesses and plunked on them like Beethoven on a fortepiano. The notes were soft or hard depending on her anger. Commenting on my weight meant her hands were crashing down on the keys. You couldn’t find an ounce of excess fat on my body if you put me under a microscope.
In other words, I was not forgiven.
She raised her glass again at that thought and I realized that there was more than orange juice in it. I’d never seen Betty Jane drunk before but having witnessed the combination of my father and a bottle of booze on many occasions while growing up, I recognized a mean drunk when I saw one. But I’d chosen to comply with my sister’s wishes, and I left the responsibility of containing Betty Jane to Ruffles.
On my way home from the diner, I made my daily stop at the A&P grocery store. I believed that shopping weekly would force me into choices I might not like. How was I to know on Tuesday what I might want to eat on Saturday?
I stood in front of the cereal boxes debating with Ruffles and Sarge about whether Sarah would want Cheerios or toast for breakfast. Then Betty Jane slurred, “She banished me. Don’t get her anything.”
“I can’t believe you silenced her with a bottle of gin.” I said.
Inside my head, Ruffles held up her hands, “Hey, I did the best I could under the circumstances.” Betty Jane controlled the Committee, so they couldn’t banish her any more than I could. The only other option was to make her unavailable. Getting her drunk accomplished that and then some.
“Can you at least take the bottle away and hide it?” I asked.
I closed my eyes. Sarge reached for it. Betty Jane slapped him as she stumbled towards her bed, upending and draining the bottle on the way.
“Jesus, she’s smashed,” I said. I shook my head. “Quick, before she goes down, cereal or toast?”
Chatting in front of the Cheerios with nobody but myself went unnoticed in a big city. If I let down my guard like this back in Palo Alto, Nancy from my mother’s bridge club would spot me and tell Marjorie and Kate, and the next thing you know all the families would be sitting poolside at some neighborhood barbeque whispering about me instead of their monthly Botox treatments.
Living in New York definitely had its abject moments, but when the woman standing next to me pulling a box of Rice Crispies off the shelf didn’t even glance sidelong as I discussed Betty Jane’s inebriation along with the pros and cons of cereal vs. toast, those moments didn’t seem so bad.
We decided on cereal and toast and I also bought the makings for a salad and pasta. On the way to the checkout, I grabbed a thirty dollar bottle of wine and a coffee cake in a box. We’d need something to stick the candles on later. Then I decided I should start the new year with a new toothbrush, toothpaste and floss and walked over to the dental hygiene section.
I picked up two packages and said, “Do you know the difference between unwaxed and waxed floss?”
“I read that dental tape is better,” said Ruffles.
“Is what?” I turned and saw an A&P clerk standing next to me.
I shook my head and threw both packages in the cart.
By the time I arrived home, Betty Jane lay sprawled on her bed in a drunken stupor inside my head. Her incapacitation made the Committee unable to speak and participate. I knew the rest of the Committee would give me a pass on this one, especially since the solution to the “how to keep Betty Jane out of Sarah’s face” problem came from Ruffles. Hopefully, nasty remarks, and a hangover would be the extent of Betty Jane’s retribution.
The upside of Betty Jane’s drinking was that her hangover should keep her in bed for at least a day after Sarah’s departure, which would give me time to apologize to Peter, grovel if necessary, and then initiate a passionate reunion. Milton had warned me once about the consequences of using this method to restore harmony in a relationship. He said, “Do this and you become more enmeshed in the fantasy, when the reality is that the relationship wouldn’t exist if you ever thought about what made you stay.” This time, I ignored him.
I checked my watch, two o’clock. I had four hours to kill before Sarah arrived.
It was just past ten o’clock. Sarah and I sat under the covers in my bed. We’d had all our conversations like this while growing up—me against my pillow and Sarah with her back against the wall and legs hooked over mine. “Holly,” said Sarah, “Mom asked me to ask you when are you going to get a real job and support yourself like most people your age do? She thinks you wait tables to spite her.”
My working as a waitress bothered my mother almost as much as it did Betty Jane—especially when she compared me to Sarah who went from high school, to college, to marriage, and to a career in accounting, hitting all the success milestones at just the right time. By age thirty, Sarah had embarked on motherhood, and four years and two perfectly timed children later she was now hitting all the right child rearing achievements on schedule. From my mother’s perspective, by now I should have a successful career and a husband trying fervently to impregnate me.
I said to Sarah, “Ask Mom if she’d prefer to tell the bridge club that her NYU honor student can’t seem to find career success outside of the food industry because she has a little problem of five people inhabiting her head.” I smirked.
My sister sat silent. A few years ago she had decided it was best to remain neutral on the topic of my employment. She could not see the causal link between the fact that my job required me to interact with so many people and how often I changed employers. The missing piece I never shared was that I waited tables, and subsequently, it was Betty Jane’s behavior that always got me fired within six to eight months. When Sarah suggested I try to stay put, build stability in my life, I asked her to trust me that this was the best I could do. “At least I have a boyfriend.” I said, hoping to direct the conversation to accomplishments my mother did care about.
“Well, yes,” said Sarah, “she was thrilled until I told her your boyfriend is a graduate student on scholarship. She figured out where the excess charges were coming from pretty quickly after that, Holly.”
“Is that why you wanted to meet him?” I asked. “Did she tell you to?”
“She didn’t have to. I see the credit card bill. And—”
“You’re always going to protect me,” I said. Sarah had told me this so many times over the years, I recognized the specific way her mouth shaped right before the words came out.
“I am always going to protect you.” Sarah squeezed my hand and my chest ached. Just once I wanted to be the one who protected her. It wasn’t fair that she seemed to walk through life as my bullet proof vest.
“I expected Mom to take comfort in the fact that my mind was not wasting. This seemed to be her chief complaint,” I said. “I addressed it and still she’s not satisfied.”
“We are now on the avenue called sarcastic,” said Sarah. “Maybe she is right. You do keep working as a waitress to spite her.”
A few years earlier my mother had asked Sarah how someone with an expensive education could have no ambition other than to serve breakfast. It was an appropriate question for most parents and had my mother been like most parents, we would have had a credible, albeit misleading answer prepared. My mother so rarely asked questions about me or my life, and her query had caught Sarah off guard. Her answer came across as vague and neutral and my mother immediately interpreted my behavior as a slight against her. I’d never admit it to Sarah, but I did derive a certain pleasure from imagining my mother trying to explain my career path to her friends.
Betty Jane stirred inside my head. I looked at the view out my bedroom window and whispered, “Not her.”
“What? And why are you whispering?” Sarah raised her voice.
I reached out my hand to cover her mouth while I pressed my forefinger to mine and shushed. “Betty Jane,” I said softly, “I don’t want to wake her.” If Betty Jane was a mean drunk, she’d definitely be meaner the day after with a hangover.
“I’m not going to whisper,” said Sarah.
“Please, Sarah. You asked that she not appear. Please. You’re leaving tomorrow but I’ll still be here with her.”
“Oh, all right.” Sarah made a face but her voice had dropped an octave. “What did you just say?” she whispered.
Waiting tables in a diner meant my means were meager, which was the main source of contention between me and Betty Jane. I wanted to retire as a waitress to keep that one tiny corner of control. She was inclined to charm her way into earning every penny possible waiting tables. Explaining to Sarah that my battle was with Betty Jane and not my mother would take us straight out of the valley of whispers and straight up the mountain of screams.
Sarah sat silent, no doubt struggling over whether to push me or let it lie. I bit my lower lip. Please let it lie. I bit harder and tasted blood. Sarah’s face became pained.
“I can’t keep excusing your working as a waitress,” she said quietly.
I mouthed the words thank you.
“Holly, your inability to exercise any control over your life…” Sarah let the rest of the comment hang suspended in the air. This tired discussion only resulted in me feeling more inadequate, and inadequacy was not exactly a means to motivate me. It was easy to hide under the blanket of anonymity a big city offered, but that just covered my social anxiety and failure to manage many areas of daily life. It didn’t get rid of them.
“I’m doing the best I can,” I said sadly. “Asking me to lead your version of a normal life is like asking a quadriplegic to get up and walk. Of course he is desperate to stand up and run as fast as he can away from that chair. But he can’t and neither can I.”
Sarah frowned and shook her head. “Holly, nobody is asking—”
I stopped her with the palm of my hand. “I know my inability to lead a normal life, with a normal job, a normal relationship, and normal friends after all these years seems excessive and unreasonable, but I’m not you and I never will be.”
“You’re spending way too much money, Holly,” said Sarah. “We’re having a hard time explaining the excessive charges to the Father.”
I laughed softly. I had started calling my father “the Father” when I was fourteen and his conversion from alcohol to God had failed. I’d never heard Sarah use the moniker. She usually said it was disrespectful. I wondered what the father did to overcome Sarah’s deference, but I didn’t ask.
“Your life is excessive and unreasonable under the circumstances,” she said.
“Not true. I’m making enough now to cover my rent. Betty Jane is even helping.”
“How?” said Sarah.
“Well,” I paused. I realized that I’d just blurted out something I should have left safely unsaid. This was the downside of Betty Jane passed out drunk. She usually prevented me from blurting out Committee secrets.
“Are you letting her speak?” Sarah sounded ominous.
I nodded my head slightly and looked away. By taking over when I worked, Betty Jane managed to turn waitressing straw into gratuity gold. Ruffles helped me in my fight to maintain control by also working through me in the diner. The resulting competition between them had quadrupled the tips. I knew I was playing a dangerous game, but when you’re trying to hang on, the risks seem smaller and the consequences are always too far ahead to notice.
Sarah said, “Part of the process of integration involves limiting the Committee as much as possible. You know this. Why are you giving them free rein?”
Your process, I thought. Sarah and Milton’s goal was integration of the Committee, which meant one Holly and no Committee. My goal was to avoid the immobilizing anguish I felt at the thought of losing everyone Betty Jane. “People like it. Besides,” I said indignantly, “it’s only Betty Jane. Well, and Ruffles. But only those two.”
“Oh, for God sake, Holly. If you let your Committee, as you call them, do everything for you, you’ll never have any control over your life.”
“It’s only fair that they help.”
“You can’t do this, Holly,” said Sarah, “I forbid it.” Sarah always “used her words” when she wanted to assert control over me. She should have learned that the phrase made no difference when she forbid me to continuing seeing Peter after several charges for expensive restaurants came in on the emergency credit card. She thought he was using me, which was another reason for them not to meet.
I listened to the sound of Sarah’s breathing. “Holly, I’m very concerned,” she said. “Does Milton know about this?”
Yeah right, I thought. Betty Jane is going to let that conversation happen. I shook my head.
“No wonder you’ve made absolutely no progress in the last five years.” Sarah paid the bill Milton sent her every month.
“Making it through the day is progress, Sarah,” I said. “It’s a constant battle, one that requires all my energy to hold the line. You have no idea how exhausting it is to live with her, Sarah. No idea.”
“Maybe not, but you still place me in a very awkward position, Holly. I have to explain to the Father why there’s no end in sight to the therapy bills.”
I sat up straighter. “He pays for my therapy?” My father and I hadn’t spoken since the day I graduated from high school. I thought Sarah’s contact with him was limited to a Christmas card and the annual perfunctory birthday call. I realized that for her to get him to cover these costs, the contact had to be a lot more than rare.
Sarah nodded her head. “Yes, he’s been paying since you started.”
Knowing my father covered the costs of my treatment and Sarah had had a hand in getting him to do it made me happy in a sick sort of way. I thought everyone in our family should make restitution in some form or another for what had happened. Everyone, including me. We were all guilty. Some of us more than others.
After I blew out the candles, Sarah said, “Holly, I really want you to have a good life. I want you to have everything you deserve.” When she said it, a heavy wash of sadness pressed in on my chest. “You have to forgive yourself, Holly. You have to forgive yourself. It’s the only way through it.”
“Have you forgiven yourself, Sarah?” I said.
“A long time ago.” she sighed and squeezed my hand.
I couldn’t tell her that even when you decide you’ve paid in full, if what you’ve paid for has become part of the framework of your life, you can’t let it go that easily. But if Sarah had forgiven herself, maybe it was time for me to try.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Shana. We wish you much success!