Running Up That Hill

My mother named me after Nadia Comaneci, the gifted and damned Romanian gymnast who scored the first Perfect Ten in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Which is a hell of a namesake, but it was never about the perfect. My mother, a dancer, picks champions for their God-given grace, not human-given 10.0s. She named me Nadia because it means hope; because she was 40, and worried.

My chromosomes were in tact, but I came out broken in other ways. Too emotional. Too sensitive. Deeply anxious. Chronically depressed. Absolutist. Self-punishing. And since I was a baby refusing to walk until I knew I wouldn’t fall, aching for a perfect I know I’ll never reach. Because perfect can’t fail, right? Even though my namesake supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach in 1977 – perfect doesn’t die.

A Disclaimer: Writing about tennis, David Foster Wallace once observed, “For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.” Indeed, many of the tennis writers who have tried to follow in his footsteps have kept a sterile distance from anything so vulnerable as love, preferring to argue, as William Skidelsky once put it, that “it’s about the tennis, stupid.” I, however, am not a tennis writer, and this is not one of those war-coded essays. There are no statistics, no attempts to describe how a yellow ball has made it over a net. I make no attempt at impartiality. I write stories about suffering, and that’s what this is.

Content Warning: Suicidal ideation.

The Hunger

There’s a thunder in our hearts, baby.

When you cheer for a team, you cheer in a community: in uniform, at a local bar, clinking glasses with strangers turned comrades. When you cheer for an individual, the two of you are alone in the dark, raging against the dying of the light. Team sports value martial coordination, each player part of a giant Megazord. In individual sports, you are your own Megazord: your head, your body, your blood, your heart. Your team can outlive you, but you and your champion will die. You live to the drumbeat of another heart. Heartbreak is concentrated in one person’s tears. Their suffering is your suffering; their glory is yours, too. Michigan and Ohio State fans may think they know hate, but American tennis players will tell you that the hatred that divides fans of men’s tennis’ current “Big Four” is shockingly personal, apocalyptic, apoplectic. Fans of team sports are in a nation, perhaps an army – fans of individual sports are in a cult, or a crusade.

That’s because geography designates your team, but you pick your champion. It’s a choice you must own, embody, and defend. Your champion is your totem, your sigil, your Patronus charm, your warrior in a massive trial by combat. It is in your psychological interest to pick a “winner,” but your heart knows what it wants. My mother picked John McEnroe because he was fiery; she picked Andre Agassi because he was flashy. And she picked Roger Federer – her “Baryshnikov of tennis” – because he made her dancer’s blood sing. She’d breathlessly point him out to me in the early 2000s, gliding around obscure European courts in a ponytail and cockleshell necklace. My first impression was Ugh, looks like a brat, though his style of play was undeniably sexy – all dramatic acceleration, unexpected angles, graceful aggression, and a terrifying combination of weightlessness and control. I had never seen anything like it. I had never seen my mother so enraptured. “What about Andre?” I would insist. She still liked Andre; of course she still liked Andre. Then her voice would lilt. “But Roger is just so beautiful.”

Roger Federer

U.S. Open 2015: a tournament that did not end as hoped.

The fact that Roger went on to win many Grand Slams doesn’t undermine the aesthetic purity of my mother’s love. I stayed with Andre, even when it was like caring for a dying pet; gauzy, hazy, full of cortisone shots. When he retired in 2006, it was almost a relief, an end to our collective suffering. If I was more of a rebel, I’d have replaced him with mercurial heartthrob Marat Safin, but I joined Team Federer (Team Special McPerfect Blahblahfuckingblah) because I loved my mother. Because we’d already split ways on two dueling Russian figure skaters, and I hated it. Because all I ever wanted, since my four-year-old self saw her sitting in the dark watching two men hit a ball from across a net, was to be on her team. I was glad Special McPerfect won a lot, because it made my mother happy, and eventually, I was won over by Roger’s kinetic mastery – not on the court but in the locker room, where he had to jump over a wayward drink cart at the 2008 Australian Open. He was perfect; peRFect, as his sponsors put it. Everything I wanted – needed – to be. “I love Federer,” I told my mother. “I’m glad you appreciate him,” she preened. After I graduated college, I made the two of us a secret promise: I was going to take my mother to see him at the U.S. Open someday. I didn’t have any money yet, and I didn’t have faith in much, but I had faith that Roger would wait for us.

The “quest for perfection” comes in a couple different forms. There’s the “inherited” version you find in athletes whipped into shape by an overbearing parent-coach (Jose Menendez was among many things a domineering tennis dad). Then there are those who through ego and mania decide on their own that “one should just be able to play a perfect game,” as Roger said at 15. His ambition had already outpaced his gentle parents; his therapist-coach, Peter Carter, was urging him to not waste energy punishing himself for normal errors. Self-driven perfectionism is fueled by what Emily de la Bruyere calls “an inner drive so powerful that it risks turning on itself”: what I call the hunger. The hunger manifests like Roger’s darkest catchphrase: If you’re great at only one thing, make it everything. Since you can’t blame our parents, blame it on our star sign – Leos are always flying too close to the sun. At its worst, the hunger’s absolutism is abusive, cares more about some vague concept of “winning” than the prize or the pursuit. For example: the longer you get straight A’s, the more existentially terrifying an A- becomes (Roger used to call this very specific fear of imperfect results “the monster”). Or: if you’ll eat coffee for lunch and get high on sleep deprivation to avoid failure, your bosses will take advantage. But at its best, the hunger can also keep you alive. Because at least you chose it. At least it’s yours. That’s why I kept a quote from Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” taped to my desk in college: “His fate belongs to him. His rock is [his] thing.”

My mother, like Peter Carter, laid constant grinding assault to the “unrealistic expectations of perfection” that she correctly thought were destroying my life. “I just worry that you are driving yourself too hard,” she’d say, but I was trapped by a compulsion I couldn’t control. “In many ways it is good to be driven to be as good as you can be,” she wrote to me while I was making myself sick in anticipation of getting a grade lower than an A, “but ‘perfection’ should never be an expectation or a goal.” And although the narrative around Roger swirled around peRFect – perfect play, perfect on-court conduct, perfect press conference, perfect hair, perfect marriage, perfect sets of perfect twins – my mother never expected him to never net a forehand or shank a backhand. While I berated Roger for unforced errors the way I berated myself, the way Roger silently berated himself too – “Roger is totally fucking shit up!” – my mother just wanted him to play with passion, errors be damned. “Going to have to get himself more ferocious,” she’d say after a loss. Did she know about the hunger, despite being a hippie who’d long rejected competitiveness? Maybe living with my father and I had taught her about temperamental Leos, pacing and howling in discontent, because she was convinced that “ferocity” would help get me through the ups and downs. You have to be tough, she’d say. Because the world is tough, you know.

La Manie

You don’t want to hurt me, but see how deep the bullet lies. 

We fall in love with champions who speak to parts of ourselves seen and unseen, so I would have never loved Roger the Baryshnikov as fundamentally as my mother did; it was Roger the Emotionally Vulnerable that did it for me. I was too preoccupied with my senior thesis to watch the 3:00 AM final of the 2009 Australian Open, but I was there for the horrific aftermath. Broken by the Beast: Federer reduced to tears as tough-guy Nadal defies the odds in another epic battle. After several years of dominance, Roger was going through a rough patch – a “bad year” that Andy Murray wryly noted did still include one Grand Slam won – he’d been demolished by Rafael Nadal at the 2008 French Open, then lost what many consider to be “the greatest match in Grand Slam history” to Nadal at Wimbledon, and now another five-set thriller to Nadal in Melbourne. So Roger had a breakdown on the podium, sobbing in front of 15,000 spectators, including his pregnant girlfriend, and a global television audience of millions more. One of tennis’s many cruelties is the ritual of forcing the loser of a final to not only endure a bombastic trophy ceremony but say some honorable-in-defeat bullshit to the crowd. When the microphone was thrust in his face this time, Roger could only warble, “God, it’s killing me.”

I felt terrible for Roger, but even more horrified by the way this moment of honesty was obsessively replayed, psycho-analyzed, fetishized, and picked apart. From he couldn’t take it like a man to now everyone on the circuit knows he’s fragile, there was a schadenfreude-laden glee to seeing a player who had been singularly dominant for four years subjected to this humiliation sequence. The fact that Roger had always carelessly violated codes of the masculine order, rendering him vulnerable to every gendered insult possible (pussy, sissy, faggot, ballerina, Swiss metrosexual puppet) only made things worse. And it was a teachable moment, too! “Are you going to cowboy up, or just lay there and bleed to death?” Peter Bodo wanted to know. That was the moment when I aligned myself with Roger Federer in full. Because I had been there. I had been asked that, by rubbernecking passers-by who thought they were being helpful. I was twenty-one and I had, by then, spent half my life wanting to die, or more accurately, not wanting to live. Trampled underfoot by my emotions. Hating myself for it. Generally being a coward. So spare me your motivational posters, your never-say-die toreadors. They mean nothing to me. Give me the weak. Give me the failed. Give me the soft, stabbed underbelly.

RF AO 09

Australian Open 2009: A tournament that did not end as hoped.

When I was younger, I cried in public so much that I got a reputation as a “headcase,” as they say in tennis. I quit school. I threw fits. I was the definition of fragile, ziplining from 0 to 100. Other kids thought I was crazy; their parents thought I was toxic; my best friend, my only friend, was (unsuccessfully) separated from me for her own good. In the moment, though – with your pulse speeding and your heart punching its way out of your chest – your rep is the last thing that matters. You can barely think. You just have to get away from the pain and panic – out of your head, out of the room, out of the world. Vive La Fete calls it la manie. I call it spiraling. My therapist calls me a deeply-depressed volcano, constantly burning on the inside. To this day, my ability to plan my future is limited by my disbelief that I should have to endure the horror of continuing to exist. My eyes scan the sky for the tallest building with rooftop access, constantly looking for something to break me. It’s comforting, the thought that if things get too bad, I can quit. This was my mother’s real war, for which the battle against perfect was only a proxy. She did her best. Put me in therapy. Was endlessly patient, loving, non-judgmental, communicative. Gave me permission I didn’t take to transfer out of my suicide-cluster-prone university. She fussed over me the way she fussed over broken players, wincing through spirals she couldn’t stop and sighing that we weren’t playing like champions.

By all accounts, Roger Federer’s mental health is fine (he has a joie de vivre that I lack), but there is an emotional volatility there that is familiar. I recognize the little boy crying under the umpire’s chair, throwing rackets, screaming at himself because “I have to get my emotion out, I can’t handle it”; I recognize the self-described “emotional kid” beating his head to calm the nerves inside; I recognize the spiral from “I can’t believe how badly you’re playing” to “why are you so stupid and get upset?” to “I would just explode, I would lose it.” I recognize the parents getting so frustrated at their inability to calm their child that the father once shoved his son face-first into a snowbank; I recognize opponents lazily waiting for him to self-destruct; I recognize the eye-rolls from observers: “he’s got the talent, but he’s got no grit.” I see how a little boy struggling with “all over the place” emotions would become a grown man sobbing on a podium, the tears “just something I couldn’t control.”

And I, too, learned that the only way to survive was to nail on an iron shield like a death mask. “If I show too much, it might hurt me,” Roger explained at 21; his mother had long stressed to him that his freak-outs were a kick-me sign for his opponents. People were also starting to mock him for it, and he was afraid of being remembered like Safin, as a “crazy maniac.” Around the same age, I was shutting myself down, closing myself up, retreating into vinyl armor. Ironically, the shield only worsens the pressure to be perfect. A lot of strain goes into keeping that gush of emotion stuffed into the bottom of your sneakers so you can appear quiet and poised on the outside, but my friends don’t believe that I struggle with emotional control until I appear to momentarily go insane. My bosses can’t tell I’m flailing until I have to lock myself in a bathroom and punch the stall door. Roger’s utterly blank “game face,” what Julian Barnes calls a “lack of all that strutting male bullshit,” has fed an absurd narrative that he is so preternaturally talented that he doesn’t sweat, doesn’t need to try, perhaps doesn’t care – that he isn’t human, or as one coworker of mine put it, that he is “an android.” And we don’t want robots, do we? No, we want killers. Roger Federer makes it all look too easy! — until it all falls apart.

Chokers and Champions

Is there so much hate for the ones we love? (Tell me we both matter, don’t we?)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: hard-working youth – high-energy, muscle-bound, a walking Gatorade commercial – puts in long hours in practice and fights his way to a final against the spoiled, arrogant, effeminate uber-talent who’s coasted on his natural gifts and never been challenged. The gladiator plays every point like it’s match point, revving himself up with roars and full-body fist-pumps, and curb-stomps the uber-talent – who suddenly looks flat, deflated, humiliated – 6-1 6-3 6-0 in a Grand Slam final. Total rape is how the gladiator’s fans all-too-gleefully put it. This is the story of Nadal and Federer as told by the world at large, and let me tell you, it’s a strange experience rooting for the villain in an ‘80s kids’ sports movie. You and your champion are on the wrong end of every hot take, because you’re the worst thing you can possibly be: a quitter. A coward. “There’s no quit in Kobe, but there is in Federer,” LZ Granderson wrote. “Sport is about balls and about heart,” Mats Wilander said, “[Roger] might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size.” The same coworker who called Roger an android has also said that “tennis is a moral sport,” with the key moral being “never fucking give up” – a moral that runs in our society like fluoride in water. Talent is nothing if you have no heart! Talent is nothing if you have no guts! Cowards never start! The weak never finish! “My favorite player? Rafael Nadal,” says tennis fan Donald Trump. “Talk about a guy who wants to win, who won’t allow himself to lose. I just think he is a great, great champion.”

I don’t buy this narrative. But it is deeply frustrating to root for a choker. The shame associated with being “mentally weak” is sharper than any other, because “mental weakness” is considered a character flaw. You can’t help a bad knee, but you can help a bad brain – right? A pathetic fifth-set win record (57%) and an infuriating career-long tendency to fail to seize breakpoint chances are indefensible. 6-1 6-3 6-0 is fucking indefensible for someone heralded as the most talented player to ever pick up a racket. What right does Roger have to get “rattled”? To “self-destruct”? What kind of hero says that staying positive is “just too difficult”? What kind of champion consistently loses to his main rival on the biggest courts and longest stretches, wilting under the pressure of feeling like he’s “climbing uphill all the time”? No other words for that kind of attitude than disgusting, pathetic, embarrassing. Witness one of Roger’s legendary meltdowns and even fans will bemoan that he is not a fighter, question whether he is in it to win it, conclude that he is unwilling to push himself. Even my mother, whose love for Roger knows no bounds, will bemoan that he has an apparent off-switch, between “moments of brilliance and then just an apparent lack of drive or energy or will.” Ah yes, that strange, fleeting thing, the cure to all ailments, the indicator of a true champion: the will to win. 

I see a lot of pop-psychologists talking about the will to win, about determination, about guts. It’s the sort of stuff we used to tell the mentally ill – “if you just tried harder…” “this behavior is shameful…” – and even though medically-trained caregivers now remind us to destigmatize mental illness, and we pay lip service whenever someone famous commits suicide, it’s evident in our approach to sport that we have no pity for “mental weakness.” Maybe we don’t think athletes are as breakable as we are. Maybe we get sick of underperforming stock. Maybe we want to believe that all you need to become the next Tom Brady is to pull yourself up by your metaphysical bootstraps, and anyone who can’t do so – especially when they’re talented – deserves every failure, every loss. Mardy Fish penned a heartfelt essay about this phenomenon in “The Weight” after he was forced to end his tennis career after a career high in the rankings led to excess pressure and a set of escalating panic attacks. As Fish was overcome by an “exhausting, confusing dread” that generated a full-on mental collapse at the 2012 U.S. Open, his team had to blame it on a heart condition to save face. “We’re so trained to be ‘mentally tough’,” Fish writes, “To show weakness, we’re told, in so many words, is to deserve shame.”

RF USO 13

U.S. Open 2013: A tournament that did not end as hoped.

Of all of Roger’s chokes, my “favorite” is the one against Lleyton Hewitt in the 2003 Davis Cup. Roger is 22, the new Wimbledon champion, playing in front of a hostile Australian crowd – hostile except for the parents of his Australian therapist-coach Peter Carter, who died the previous year in a freak accident. Carter was meant to be coaching this Swiss Davis Cup team. Instead, Switzerland and Australia are playing for the inaugural Peter Carter memorial trophy, and it’s up to Roger to keep Switzerland’s hopes alive. Roger has been trying to bottle his emotions, but he is drowning in them, insisting, “We must win this for Peter, we must!” He wins Set 1. He wins Set 2. He serves for the match in Set 3… and gets broken. Loses Set 3. If this was a Hollywood movie, the grieving boy would find a way – a will – to win in memory of the coach who tried to teach him how to lift himself out of mental spirals. In the Hollywood version, he digs deep and shows Carter’s spirit – watching from the heavens – that he has internalized those lessons after all. But life is not Hollywood, and Roger loses Sets 4 and 5 to a player that Carter always worried had more grit down the stretch. As Hewitt is winding up the crowd, Roger is fading; playing scared; “playing to lose.” After the match he bolts to the locker room to cry, where the Carters – who barely know him – find him and take him aside. “Roger, just do the best you can, mate,” Mr. Carter says, “Peter always thought the world of you.”

People ask me, sometimes, why I write horror. The truth is I can’t imagine writing anything else. Horror is where things go wrong, and stay wrong. Horror is where people make bad decisions, and pay for them. Horror is screaming and crying and punching and running. Horror is visceral. Horror is felt. Horror is the blood in the cut. Horror doesn’t have that upward swing at the end. Your heart of a champion doesn’t save you, in horror. Your positive attitude means nothing, in horror. “Guts have not been enough,” in horror. Your Gatorade-drenched, muscular will won’t overcome, in horror. Horror’s an unstoppable downward spiral, Uzumaki-style. There’s a reason I named my short story collection She Said Destroy. There’s a reason I write about difficult, fragile, self-destructive people. Because the first character I could relate to was Esther Greenwood, in The Bell Jar, followed by Eleanor Vance, in The Haunting of Hill House. These are not girls with champion’s hearts. They are, one might even say, mentally weak. But I remember how not-alone it made me feel to read them, like finally, someone understood, even if it all ended in tears. And one of my cardinal truths as a writer is to support the free exercise of empathy: the radical notion that everyone has worth, mentally weak or no.

Accepting the side of myself that isn’t strong – accepting that it doesn’t mean I’m disgusting, pathetic, embarrassing – is an ongoing struggle. My shame and my shield have kept me in damaging schools, bad relationships, toxic jobs, circling the drain of self-harm. When “sorrow finds you when you are young,” to paraphrase The National, “all you learn is to suffer,” to paraphrase Justin Vernon. It is literally how your brain learns to wire itself. When I “choke” – when I spiral – it’s got nothing to do with laziness or entitlement or apathy. It’s certainly got jack-shit to do with not wanting it enough; if anything, “choking” is a result of wanting it too much. So yes, I am trying, even if I don’t look like it. If I only could, I’d be running up that hill with no problem. But I am also locked in a Sisyphean struggle against myself. And that now decades-long-war to hold myself together has left me battered and busted up. So the question is whether you believe me. Do you believe Marat Safin when he says “Sorry, I couldn’t (have won more majors)” because “I have this head, and I have to deal with that”? Do you believe Roger, constantly asked why he doesn’t apply his talent and just try harder, that “honestly, I tried everything that I possibly could”? Do you believe that the head can be just as limiting as the body? Do you believe me when I say that mental weakness is not a sin, nor a choice?

Love Is Watching Someone Die

If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and get him to swap our places.

My mother was always the strongest pillar of our little family, and when my father was incapacitated by two massive strokes, she spent two months in the ICU, talking to life support machines. But she never expected this stoicism from me. I only went to the ICU once; “I don’t want you to remember him like that,” my mother said. She was with him when he passed, and when she woke me up to tell me, I hid under the covers so I wouldn’t have to hear what I already felt was coming. And though she tried to teach me toughness, she made her peace with the fact that I would never be as strong as her in any respect. In 2009, I ran out of the house during a U.S. Open final while Roger uncharacteristically ranted at God the umpire – his mental tailspins tend to trigger my own – while my mother stayed with him to the bitter end, telling me when I returned, “I’m sorry, Roger lost.” I didn’t understand how she could endure it. “I know you always leave when Roger loses,” she said. “It’s too hard for me,” I replied, then sheepishly added, “I don’t have enough love of the game,” because there is shame in being that kind of a fan that loves a mortal player more than the eternal game. “Just love of Roger,” my mother quipped. But I knew she loved him too; love was exactly why she stayed.

For the past few years, I’ve had to run from tennis altogether, and in so doing, also did some running from my mother. 2013 felt like a conclusion: I finished graduate school and stayed in my new city instead of coming “home,” my mother edged toward retirement, our cat died, an injured Roger was going down in ever-earlier rounds. Mom and I never considered switching our allegiance – how do you replace the Greatest Of All Time? – but the exuberant emails during Grand Slams, our happy summers, stopped. Every time hope started to grow it got beaten down, followed closely by a sad email from my mother: “Roger lost. Sigh.” I’d write back: “I know.” Calls for retirement grew louder, because who wants to see Special McPerfect struggling? – but really it was because the crowd has only ever wanted one thing from Roger, and that is to be peRFect. There has never been any room for him to be human, and if he was going to insist on failing, then it was time to quit. The message was clear: Better die than not be perfect. Perfect is all you have to give. As seasons crept by, Roger’s insistence that he was still mentally and physically capable of winning an 18th Grand Slam looked just as delusional as my now-suppressed dream of taking my mother to the U.S. Open to see him. But that’s one thing you can count on with a Leo: the stubbornness of our pride. Keeps us running up that hill beyond all reason. Like the prolonged clubbing of a baby seal that just. Won’t. Quite. Die.

It was no coincidence that without Roger’s tether, Mom and I started drifting apart. He had always been the one thing we had in common – after we could no longer talk about political science or writing or boys, my mother could always open a long-distance chat with “Got the tennis on?” But it wasn’t just that; she was also talking in circles, couldn’t follow conversation, suddenly depleted and confused and making strange, erratic decisions – a dizzy shell of the strong single mother she’d been, the woman who’d tried to dismantle the pep club she led, who once decided to live without time for the hell of it. Was it depression? Anxiety? A long-delayed nervous breakdown after years of unresolved grief? I knew it was my fault she never went to therapy, that she carried a hidden world of hurt that I only saw when she cried over an ESPN human interest story or a So You Think You Can Dance routine. But now her fragility was suddenly exposed, overbearing, a bundle of badly wired nerves. She’d get agitated watching Roger play safe second-round matches; suddenly she was the one who had to walk away. “I’m not trying to be negative,” she’d explain, “but we never know what will happen.”

I struggled to be there for her. My high-pressure corporate job – the one paying me enough money to take us to the U.S. Open, if only I still had faith in Roger, or my mother – had put my shield under greater strain than ever before, and I had nothing left to give. And I was scared. Scared of seeing my mother like that; scared of what it might mean. My best friend of eighteen years, the one who never walked away even while I gave her every reason to, called me on it, saying, “You’re acting like a spoiled brat.” I reacted as if we were 12 again and screaming at each other in the linoleum halls of our middle school (“You fucking hate me!” “I have never hated you and never will.”) but she was right: my mother needed me. After everything she had done to keep me alive, I owed it to her. So I’d go “home” and try to sit with her through some metamorphosis I didn’t understand, try to drag her back to the steady, comforting mother I knew. But I always failed; she never seemed to listen. So the still-simmering volcano in me would explode, and we’d fight. Exhausting, horrible fights, the kind we hadn’t had since I was a teen – except now it was hard to tell which of us was less stable. Then, shamed into lowering my voice from a scream to a sob, I’d beg her to get help. Promised her it had helped me, while secretly wondering if it really had. She’d promise that she would. And I just wanted to run, even if I had nowhere to go but the same room whose door I’d been slamming since I was 15.

RF Wimby 16

Wimbledon 2016: A tournament that did not end as hoped.

In 2016, we all crossed another bridge. Roger got to his first. He tore his meniscus, underwent surgery for the first time, and shaken by this memento mori, forced his unhealed body to play Wimbledon, his favorite tournament and “last best chance to win a Major.” The pressure to win an 18th Grand Slam had sucked out all his joie de vivre. “I had the feeling I could only disappoint people,” he said. What everyone remembers about his semifinal against Milos Raonic is the flat-on-his-face fall in the fifth set that “really scared” Roger and ushered in a loss as his already-tentative trust in his balletic body collapsed. But what I remember, and what Roger would remember, is the way he lost the fourth set: two double faults to lose serve, then three wasted break points. In layman’s terms? He choked. I turned off the live score tracker at that point; I knew in my cortisol-filled veins that Roger wasn’t going to be able to correct this nosedive. “Don’t remind me of everything,” he said in his presser. “Very sad about that, and angry at myself.” After he ended his season on medical advice, my mother sent me an anxious email: did you know about Federer? Suddenly she was the fearful child looking for reassurance, desperately searching for reason to hope. And though I knew Roger would need to be dragged into retirement kicking and screaming, I couldn’t lie to my mother, just like she’d never lied to me. “He’s getting quite old to be playing the level of tennis he is at, even though he is so great,” I said flatly. Not acceptance. Hopelessness.

In January 2017, after a sequence of increasingly terrifying events, we finally got my mother’s diagnosis. She is not “mental,” nor a “headcase.” She has a rare form of dementia. There is no cure. What a strange fate that both my parents – intimidatingly intelligent people that I’ve spent my life trying to make proud – will have both been dealt a coup de grâce to the brain. As usual, my mother was right, in her roundabout way: We never know what will happen. The decline, over the next seven years or so, will be unpredictable – less a plateau than a series of drops. I don’t know how many more Grand Slams my mother will be able to watch, nor how many Grand Slams 36-year-old Roger has left in him either. I kicked myself for not taking her to the U.S. Open earlier, even if Roger wasn’t playing perfect. Anger burns every time I hear someone complain about two healthy, living parents. I am heartbroken for her, for her frustration with being unable to focus long enough to read, for the weakness she admits to herself and the weakness she doesn’t. And I am scared for myself. My mother has always been the final force stopping me from jumping off a building – it would kill her, I’d think. I used to resent her for this, for the fact that she was keeping me “hostage” on Planet Earth. But now I worry that once my mother is gone, there won’t be anything holding me here.

L’Aveugle Par Amour

Come on, baby. Come on, come on, darling.

I don’t know why I thought Roger could win the 2017 Australian Open. It was his first tour-level event in six months, and he was ranked 17th. He was 35. He’d have to beat four top ten players, including Nadal, and no one thought Roger could deal with the “mental scar tissue” of losing 6 out of 8 Grand Slam finals to Nadal. He had not won a Slam since 2012. And I had emergency flights home to book, no spare hearts to break. Yet I felt the buzz of that elusive thing I’m named for but never seem to feel: hope. Maybe it was because Roger vowed to leave everything on the court during the final; because he was finally talking honestly about his history of mental weakness against Nadal; because his longtime partner Mirka was praying in the stands in a sweater with a roaring, Leonine tiger on it and the words L’Aveugle Par Amour. Blinded by Love. Maybe I had hope because I’d finally internalized my mother’s lessons; because I had befriended an Andy Murray fan in graduate school and watching someone’s howling compassion for another player had opened my heart. Maybe I had hope because there was nothing left to hope for. “Is what’s-his-name, Federer, still in?” a former Australian official asked me. “Yeah, he’s the one, isn’t he? He’s so good. And he just seems like such a good guy.” It felt like this was building into Team Federer’s long-awaited moment, our victory over the self-doubt that had plagued not only Roger but all who loved him for the past four and a half years. So I had hope. But I still said a little prayer on January 28: dear God, please let Roger Federer win today. Please, for my mother. I don’t know how much time we have left. 

For the first four and a half sets, everything proceeded exactly as precedence would have it. As usual, Roger alternated brilliance with bewilderingly bad errors that were “inexplicable, but nerves do nasty things.” As usual, Nadal was “unrelenting,” “never gives in!” And as usual, Nadal broke Roger’s serve immediately in the final set. Roger had four chances over the next three games to break back and save himself, but as usual, squandered them all. “Come on, Rogi!” a man yelled in the crowd, but now I understood. This was Roger’s on-air death scene. God had brought Roger back from the dead just to destroy him – what the fuck, God? My hope, that is, had been punished. I should have fucking known. “Ah, shit, it’s all happening again,” Roger thought, panic flooding in, legs getting heavy. “Why, again? Why am I losing again to Rafa?” The commentators knew why: he wasn’t trying hard enough. He didn’t really want it. He had no will to win. He didn’t know how to cowboy up. “It’s been easier for Roger, he’s super-talented,” John McEnroe eulogized, “[Nadal] has worked at it, willed himself.” Chris Fowler blithely wondered if Roger was truly as “willing to suffer” as he claimed. I almost threw something at the TV. Not at Roger, but at those dillweeds who thought emotional dysregulation, mental weakness, la manie, whatever, is a character flaw, let alone a choice. And I turned the TV off at 6 A.M., with Roger down 1-3, unable to watch him die.

I tried not to curse God for rejecting my plea. I tried not to see this as a sign that my mother’s illness would progress faster, since in the course of my prayer – in the course of our lives – my sympathetic magic seemed to have linked their fates. I will never follow tennis again, I vowed. Not Roger. Not anybody. My mother and I had given the sport’s greatest player all our love and been crushed, and I was fucking done with losing everyone. For the next two hours I had bad dreams about telling my mother that this was how it had all ended: in my dreams she was trying to find lost things in strange houses, and I was trying to hold her still so I could tell her, as she had so often told me, “Roger lost, I’m sorry.” She’d pull back, face contorted, as if she didn’t know who Roger was. Or who I was. The final word in the final sentence you ever uttered to me was love.

I woke up knotted in psychosomatic pain to the ping of a Facebook message from my friend the Andy Murray fan. I assumed he was paying his condolences, as he did after Wimbledon in 2015, as I have tried to start doing when Murray has lost heartbreakers. I willed myself to allow myself to be consoled. But en route I saw that he had posted a link – Roger kissing the trophy, how could he kiss the trophy if he had lost? – and a note of congratulations – to Roger?! – and my heart — exploded. I stumbled out of bed, my heart racing with that thing rarer than hope, that thing I absolutely never feel: joy. Roger had out-gutted Nadal. He outran him, winning the type of absurd 26-shot baseline rally that is the younger Nadal’s forte. With the freefall fully underway, down 1-3 in the only set that mattered, Roger had made like UA 746 in 1963 and pulled himself out of the mental nosedive to do the last thing anyone asked of him to cement his place in history: beat Nadal in a five-set Grand Slam final. It was rickety – he had to save two break points while serving for the match, and at championship point, nearly double-faulted (sigh) – but then, with a forehand winner, Roger proved everyone wrong.

RF AO 17

Australian Open 2017: A tournament that ended as hoped.

Maybe getting a preview of his own long-delayed death as a tennis player and realizing that “when all is said and done, it will be fine,” unbound him from the external pressure to win #18, as well as the internal pressure of “want[ing] it too much.” For one of the first times in his life, Roger played as if he had nothing to lose. He played the ball. Not Nadal, not time, not the weight of an unfinished legacy. Just the ball. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” to quote Camus. And the shield, really more of a straitjacket, cracked open. After years refusing to look at his player’s box – when you’ve had to rely so much on others to prop you up, you go it alone just to show yourself you can – Roger would clench his fist and look to his team after nearly every point won, where coach Ivan Ljubicic was pounding his fist against his heart (“without heart or balls”) and Mirka was flying out of her seat, urging, “Come on.” In the months to follow, commentators would wonder if they had ever seen him “emote so early,” while a less restrained Roger would admit he had “an easier time sharing these feelings.” Federer looks unhinged, a Djokovic fan said, and when Roger admitted to being riddled with nerves during his second round match at Wimbledon, he was mocked. But Roger saw it differently: “if I’m nervous, that means I care.” Maybe if your horizontal stabilizer is broken, the only way to keep your “pitch” in trim is to let go, to give up your shield.

“Go cry!” my friend the Andy Murray fan told me that morning in January, so I did. We all did. Then I called my mother, half-scared that she didn’t even know the Australian Open was happening. We hadn’t talked about tennis since Roger crashed out of Wimbledon the year before. We talked about pills. About doctors. I hadn’t had that much hope. But she was watching, sounding nervous, sounding exactly like me. For once I could make her a promise that I knew I could keep: this match would have a good ending. For the next three hours, we watched the ESPN replay separately. She called back immediately after the final point was ruled in by HawkEye. I could hear her insistent joy in the ringing of the phone. “Did you see him win? Oh my God. He was crying!” I could tell from her voice that she was, too. “Did you see?”

I laughed. I did. Allez.

All These Things About Me (You Never Can Tell)

Be running up that road, be running up that hill, be running up that building… 

For some reason, this is the sort of story one tells about Roger Federer: full of death and hope and suffering, stories grown in the dark and glittering forest of fear and love. There is Kurt Streeter, who watched Roger play the 2006 French Open in a hospice with his tennis-loving father, only for his father to die as Roger was losing to (who else?) Nadal in the final. There is William Skidelsky, who tried to distract his partner from the pain of a miscarried pregnancy by bringing her to see Roger play in the World Tour Finals. There is Porochista Khakpour, who followed David Foster Wallace’s obsession with Federer out of a suicidal fugue. And of course there is DFW himself, whose final downward spiral came during Roger’s terrible 2008 summer, prompting crazed speculation that he committed suicide because Roger’s failures had proved that God could die. Rooting for Roger is a lobster-trap for emotionally busted-up high-achievers: you’re drawn in by all the peRFect, and by the time all the losing starts, you’re in love, and being forced to bludgeon yourself, to finally admit your peRFect is a lie.

So Roger is never going to be a motivational poster, a Gatorade commercial, a Profile in Courage. He’s a sherpa up the mountain of sorrow and disappointment and self-hate and other dark places that we are taught to run from, especially in sport. In tennis as in life, you can’t have beautiful, aggressive play without embracing the slew of errors that comes with it; and you can’t have Roger without his temperamental heart. Calvin Tomkins “used to be ashamed of my own agonized cries and writhings, alone in front of the TV set,” until he realized that everyone on Team Federer lives on the precipice of heart attack, dreading a shanked return or a netted ball or a double fault, begging our emotionally dysregulated hero to please don’t fuck this up, baby – when we’re not screaming profanities at him, and thus at ourselves. Most of us have tried to draw lines in the sand after some devastating loss forces upon us “emotions you didn’t even know you were capable of feeling,” like, this is it, it’s too much, I can’t take it anymore, only to find ourselves right back there at the next tournament, thinking, maybe this time. In 2017, Roger told us such intensity was okay: “Sport is emotional. When you win and you lose… it’s stronger than you.” In 2017, Roger is nearly smashing his racket in Miami, hitting a ball into the crowd in anger in Montreal, swearing in English and Swiss-German alike. In 2017, Roger admits that “the stress and pressure that I have every single day from playing is a lot.” Dr. Marsha Linehan, who believes in the radical acceptance of emotion, would tell us there is no other way: “The path out of hell is through misery.”

A few weeks after Roger scraped his way through several dogfights to win Miami, I went back to therapy. I had spent most of the tournament with my hands over my eyes, whispering in my empty office, “just keep fucking fighting, Roger,” and I suppose I figured if he could find the will to fight, then maybe so could I. I suppose I wanted to find a way to sit with hope. My new therapist practices Dr. Linehan’s specialty, dialectical behavioral therapy, and she is still trying to figure out what all I’m afflicted with – it feels like every week we add a new potential disorder. But that’s because I’m trying to take the shield down, layer by layer, one iron piece at a time.

And I had the audacity to decide to take my mother to see Roger at the U.S. Open. The stars seemed aligned to make a big now-or-never push. But everything is fragile. My mother is no longer able to be my rock when it comes to Roger. And sometimes I am angry about this; angry that she dragged me into this combustible, painful love-like-a-lobster-trap when I only ever thought Special McPerfect was an all-too-familiar whining, volatile brat, and then left me alone with it beating in my hands like a bloody heart. I visited Mom during the Halle final, but because she was too tired to watch I sat in the dark and watched Roger alone, the way I first stumbled across her watching Sampras and Agassi. Wimbledon didn’t take us back to the wonder-years before she got sick; when she sent me a cheerful, six-word text that Roger had won his second round match I burst into tears on the street, so relieved I was that she was still cognizant enough to watch Wimbledon. Maybe she could hold it together for the U.S. Open. Maybe we could spend just a little longer together in the glittering forest of fear and love. But when Roger tweaked his back two weeks before the U.S. Open, I went into a full-on suicidal panic for a week, terrified that this was it: my mother would never see him play; Roger’s career would end after having been too briefly revived; and then, that thing that I’m really running from would happen and my mother would die. I told my therapist I felt like I was being punished, for daring to have hope that we could have this one thing before the end. “I’m so stupid,” I said, “to think there is anything out there for me except suffering.”

But he didn’t withdraw. Mom and I are going to see him play, us and 22,000 others, on Arthur Ashe Stadium. I don’t know what’s going to happen, except that for sure it won’t be peRFect. In 2017, Roger is constantly reminding himself to accept errors, as if finally – 20 years later – understanding that Peter Carter was right. In 2017, Roger has answered John McEnroe’s rhetorical question asking why, with all his tough losses and mental implosions at what were supposed to be his final chances to win a Major, he hasn’t jumped off the Empire State Building: because he loves tennis more than winning. As Kurt Streeter wrote, tennis “offered a special kind of truth… a feeling of mastery and control and singular competition that he would never get anywhere else… Call it joy.” The struggle itself is enough. In 2017, Roger admitted, “I don’t particularly like this ‘Mr. Perfect’ image. There are lot of things at which I’m not perfect.”  Sure, he’d still rather not do “stupid stuff” on court, isn’t “super happy” when losing. But in 2017, Roger also tells himself “don’t try to do well” and “don’t try too hard.” In other words?

RF IW 17

Roger, for Indian Wells.

Fuck perfect.

***

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Women in Horror Month

Enter, you. You’re a writer. You’re a horror writer. You’re a woman.

***

You go to see a new horror movie. It is filled with young ladies in peril, and then in various states of undress (still in peril), and then in various states of dissection (still in undress). The camera fawns over their destroyed bodies. The one who entered the movie broken gets to live. It’s the reward for her suffering. You come home disappointed. “Well, I could have told you it was going to be like that,” your male roommate says. “If there’s a half-naked girl in the trailer, you know the movie’s going to be rapey.”

***

You are an ambassador of your gender, so you better be good: in your writing, in your attitude, in your openness to overture. Someone generous is taking a chance on you, so don’t disappoint, or you’re the last lady horror writer they will ever try. Don’t scare them off.

***

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Women in Horror month comes around and everybody’s a statistician. Editors lay bare their numbers, and many outlets’ submission data does show that women submit fiction less than men, a fact duly blamed on the female writers for not submitting enough. Not being brave. Of course, you as a woman have never applied for a job for which you feel underqualified, and you have never negotiated a raise. In your current workplace, you don’t engage in as much self-promotion as your male peers. This isn’t just because you’re trying to be nice. You know that a good girl follows the rules and waits her turn and doesn’t push her luck, or herself, onto others. After all, you wouldn’t want to come across as too abrasive. You also notice that some of these outlets only ever seem to publish men, so no wonder you wouldn’t have submitted there. You know when you’re not wanted.

***

You write a story that includes some discussion of gender issues. You worry you’re overdoing it. You worry you’re going to be labeled as a writer with a political agenda, mostly because you are a woman writing about gender. If you were a man, you would be writing a story. But you are a woman and you are writing a polemic. You do it anyway.

***

You are invited to an anthology. You hope it is not just because you are a woman, or because you are young, or because you are (half) a minority. But even if it is, oh well. You believe the editors are trying to do the right thing.

***

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Women in Horror Month is here and it’s a giant popularity contest, even more than writing already is: let’s-name-all-the-female-horror-writers-we-can-possibly-name! You don’t look at the lists, because you know you’re still not on them, and that worm of self-doubt that lives inside your brain doesn’t need any more to chew on (why do you even try?), thank you. Then you feel bad and jealous, and bad because you feel jealous. You re-read the manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club,” and remember that progress for one is progress for all. Besides, you feel shitty about promoting yourself anyway – how dare you, who the fuck are you? Then you feel shitty about not promoting yourself – you’re a dumb ass and you deserve everything you get.

***

You go to see another new horror movie, a sequel to one of your all-time favorites. You anticipate that it will be terrible, and it is. It has also introduced a brand new rape-and-captivity subplot to explain the origin of all the evil. It’s our punishment for her suffering. The fact that this movie was made is punishment enough. You wonder what it is with blind old recluses and rape these days. The young female lead rests on her side in bed, her breasts lovingly pressed together by her tight white camisole.

***

When you were young, you couldn’t count any women among your favorite writers. You can’t understand any of the female characters you read as humans, let alone as women. The boys in your American Literature class chortle about them, about how their male creators defined them solely by their “easy” sexuality. Your favorite writer in high school admitted that he never writes female characters, because he knows he would be bad at it. He’s kind of right. But you are also bad at it, and you are a girl! Your best friend, another girl, tells you after reading your novel draft, “Either you have a serious problem with women, or do.” And you know it’s you. You were raised on classical British literature and you love big heroic adventure arcs (like paladins, more paladins please) and what’s more, you hate yourself. Then you read The Bell Jar, and that changes everything. Then you read The Haunting of Hill House, and that changes everything again.

***

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Congratulations – you have helped fill an anthology’s diversity quota. Collect $200. You hope your story doesn’t convince somebody never to read another lady horror writer.

***

You and your roommate have seen a lot of horror movies: bad ones, good ones, so-bad-they’re-good ones. You have also noticed that you have never seen male rape depicted in a straight-up genre horror movie. “That would be the worst thing,” your roommate says, shuddering. “As a guy? That would be the most terrifying thing to watch.” You reply, flatly, “Yeah, well, that’s how it is for women, all the time. And we just have to deal. We just have to get used to it.” On-screen, some anonymous woman is crying and afraid.

***

An anthology you are in is accused of reverse discrimination because it is populated solely by female writers. It is accused of having a political agenda (because reinforcing the status quo is never political; only disrupting it): promoting shoddy women over competent men. Other people launch defenses: you have to over-correct to break structural inequality; many anthologies are essentially male-only because no female writers were chosen or submitted to be chosen; it’s important for our society to make sure marginalized voices are heard and the male voice permeates SF/F/H as it is. Meanwhile, you are hit with a soft psychosomatic blow to the stomach. Oh no. What if you are actually shit?

***

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You attend a Superbowl watch party with about 50 other people. When they air the trailer for the next season of Stranger Things, everyone cheers loudly. You are much more subdued. Your coworker leans over and confesses he has yet to watch this show. You say, “Yeah, it’s good. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as most of these guys, because…” “Because you’re a writer,” he guesses. “…Because I didn’t like how it treated its female characters,” you finish. “Like I said,” he says, laughing. “Because you’re a writer.”

 ***

You are lucky. You were supported, by both men and women with more clout and experience and influence and power than you. You try to believe in yourself enough to trust that this support had nothing to do with quotas, nothing to do with anything except your writing. You believe, as good girls always do, that SF/F/H is generally meritocratic – certainly more so than your day job, anyway.

 ***

You have been published since you were 21, and you still feel like an interloper who wouldn’t fit in and wouldn’t have anything intelligent to say. So you are still, mostly, quiet. You find it amazing how confident men are in talking about their work (young men, old men, much-younger-than-you men), how confident they are in talking to older and more established writers, how easy it must be for them to see themselves in their idols. How nice it must be, you think, to feel like the place at the table is already set for you.

 ***

It’s Women in Horror Month, and you read some article asking Where Are All the Women, Are They Just Not Writing?  And you slowly bash your head against the wall.

 ***

Movies Pictured: It Follows; Under The Shadow; The Witch; Darling

Soundtrack: “Sick” – Salem

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Damaged People

Today I want to talk about some differences I have seen between TV shows created by women and TV shows created by men. I’m going to be using the example of Stranger Things and The OA. 

Major Spoilers Follow, for more than just these two shows.

Both of these shows involve a group of boys in a quiet suburb who get involved with a newly-arrived girl/woman with mysterious origins and apparently supernatural capabilities. She is a Stranger From Afar who shakes up their lives and demands incredible suspension of disbelief. She has been abused by an older man who wanted to push her abilities to their full potential, and harness them for himself. Ultimately, she sacrifices herself and in the process returns the boys to their normal lives, albeit forever changed.

There are also major differences: The OA is an “older” show, with a female lead in her late twenties and a teenaged group of boys; Stranger Things is anchored by children. The OA is also much more ambiguous in its supernatural phenomena. Stranger Things has a much more defined and traditional narrative arc than The OA, which I suspect is part of the reason it’s been much better received (I too struggled with that finale).

But this is the difference I want to focus on:

  • Stranger Things was created and directed by two men (the Duffer Brothers). It had one apparent lead executive producer, a man, and eight executive producers in total, seven of whom were men. It also employed two male editors.
  • While The OA was also directed by a man, one of its two creators was a woman (Brit Marling, also the star). It was also produced by two women (two out of two), had six executive producers (three of which were women), and four editors, three of which were men.

All other differences aside, this difference significantly impacted how well I was able to connect with each show, because The OA had the following things:

A Complex, Central Female Lead

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Stranger Things is much less about Eleven than it is about the boys she befriends. They are the heart of the story; the camera views the whole world from the point of view of these 12-year-old boys; rescuing one of their own is at the heart of the story, and it is for his rescue that Eleven ultimately sacrifices herself. Likely because of this vantage point, Eleven is a cipher, pretty much a blank except for her powers. Apparently good-hearted and wanting to adopt oddly old-fashioned, baby-doll symbols of femininity, but that’s about it – that’s all the boys can discern.

The OA is about OA/Prairie/Nina; her saga is the saga. She is altruistic, self-righteous, judgmental, loving, and selfish all at once, like all new religion messiahs. She fucks up on the regular; she is myopic in her pursuit of her father; she shows some real slivers of cold-heartedness, particularly toward her adopted parents. She craves the approval of older men to replace the father she’s lost, only to fall in love with a man her own age who renders her more vulnerable and compassionate but still myopic. She believes in her own grandeur, unabashedly. She also believes that she is doing good in the world, even despite evidence to the contrary, causing her to frequently bulldoze over dissent and to demand blind faith – which ironically makes her rather similar to her captor/archenemy, Hap.

Visible “Invisible” Women

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The most widely-voiced criticism of Stranger Things – which I shared from the get-go – was the show’s treatment of the women that are invisible/non-entities to 12-year-old boys. Ugly duckling teen Barb is unceremoniously killed and mourned by next to no-one while the entire cast of characters is torn apart by the death of 12-year-old Will. This makes more sense when set against the blank mystery of Eleven, Nancy’s depiction as the coveted prize in a social battle between Jonathan and Steve, and Joyce’s sole defining characteristic as a well-meaning but histrionic mother.

More than anything else, this element is what will kill a male-created show for me, partly because it is so easy to overcome, and partly because it is so unhelpful. No one questions that boys in middle school wouldn’t care about someone like Barb – but why does the show’s God (i.e. its creator) take His cue from them? Besides, plenty of men can and do create very convincing and fully-realized “invisible” women – David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Tom Fontana (Oz), Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror).

The OA, meanwhile, actually humanizes its Barb, frumpy teacher Betty Broderick-Allen. It would have been plaintively easy to turn “BBA” into a nagging shrew who tries to sabotage the plot. Instead she is not only an integral part of the boy group but a character with her own struggles who is called upon to save others, sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong, and has twice the pluck and courage of any of the boys. Even more remarkable to me was the bit character Joanne, the angry, disobedient tomboy who Steve takes a liking to. Despite her prickly self-assuredness, Joanne knows she’s invisible, asking Steve after he kisses her if he’s going to dump pig’s blood on her at prom. “Not unless you think it’s hot,” Steve replies, in an interaction that warmed my subaltern-girl heart.

Sexual Violence as a Part of Life

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I have found that a lot of men struggle to write about sexual violence. They either depict a world that is weirdly sanitized from it, even while a huge amount of other violence is taking place, or linger obsessively over the gruesome details in a manner that can only suggest a fetish. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the former, it’s simply not reality – women know that, because women are usually on the receiving end of the threat; because women structure their whole daily lives around protecting themselves from men, whether walking through a dark parking lot or partying with friends. That’s why most shows created by women include sexual violence – not as a theme necessarily, but as a fact of life given the structure of society. Jessica Jones (Melissa Rosenberg), Orange is the New Black (Jenji Kohan), and Top of the Lake (Jane Campion, Gerard Lee) are some notable examples. I love The Fall (Allan Cubitt), but I think Gillian Anderson redeems what is otherwise a bit of a leering depiction of sexual murders; I love Halt and Catch Fire (Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers), but it is shocking that its female leads in a sea of masculinity are seldom even sexually harassed, let alone threatened.

[I should point out that some men do a great job depicting sexual violence against men – The Leftovers (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) and Broadchurch (Chris Chibnall) deserve special call-out here – underlining my point that Empathy does wonders.]

There isn’t any rape in The OA but it is clearly a reality that is part of the equation, as when Scott assumes that Hap has been raping OA/Prairie/Nina when he takes her upstairs alone, or the girl at the restaurant talks about how inspiring it is that OA/Prairie/Nina looks so great after having been beaten and raped in captivity. When Hap drags her out of his vehicle and gets on top of her on the side of the road, saying he’ll leave her as he found her – broken and alone – my heart jumped into my throat. Stranger Things has no moments like these, even though there’s plenty of room for them. Eleven is neither sexualized nor ever seen to be in any sexual danger throughout her captivity; Nancy manages to join a rough new popular clique without even being pressured into sex, surely a one-in-a-million success story; Barb is unattractive and so never considered to be in sexual danger from monsters or teen boys; Joyce is the mom and thus devoid of any sexuality. Again, I suspect this is a by-product of adopting a 12-year-old boy’s worldview.

Good Guys That Hurt Women, Too

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The most interesting difference I’ve been able to identify between Stranger Things and The OA is The OA‘s willingness to depict its male heroes clearly hurting women they care about. Stranger Things paints a little too clear of a line between Good Guy Jonathan and Bad Guy Steve. Jonathan is nothing but worshipful of Nancy, and Steve is an utter slut-shaming asshole; the fact that Nancy picks Steve anyway furthers the great delusion that women simply prefer bad boys who treat them badly. None of the boys around Eleven ever does anything to hurt her; the slightest doubt of Eleven’s leadership by Lucas is promptly shut down by his friends and punished by Eleven in a manner that I found not only unrealistic but rather disappointing, as Lucas is the show’s only minority character and clear “token black guy” (but that’s a whole other discussion). Joyce’s ex-husband is an obvious douchebag; police chief Hopper is a tortured, inexplicably gentle alcoholic who never seems to take it out on the crazy woman convinced her dead son is alive.

This is a very tempting fantasy, for men and women alike, especially when confronted with the reality of the sexual violence above. There’s a prevailing preference in the Patriarchy to elevate “good men” who are chivalrous, respectful of women, as the paragons of virtue, to raise little boys to “never hit a woman,” as if there is something particularly breakable about a woman. But just as women transcend the [Attractive & Valuable] / [Ugly & Valueless] dichotomy, men transcend the [Heroic & Chivalrous] / [Villainous & Knavish] dichotomy – precisely because the Patriarchy encourages violence, physicality, sexual aggression, and the devaluation of women. This is of course not to say that hurting anybody should be excused; but a recognition that humans are flawed and subject to poisonous social constructs, and to be authentic in one’s creative choices is to acknowledge this.

And that’s why I love that Steve, the troubled heart-and-soul of the boy group, makes his entrance as a domineering bully who actually physically attacks OA/Prairie/Nina twice: encouraging his dog to literally maul her to death upon meeting her, then stabbing her with a pencil after he has become her friend. There are a lot of reasons for the pencil incident: anger that OA/Prairie/Nina is just using him to rescue the man she actually loves; anger over being abducted by a military boot camp on his parents’ instructions; anger that he has been clearly taught to deflect onto the weak and feminine; self-hate so deep that the only thing he can think of to do is destroy what he loves the most. Once again, Steve is one of the good guys despite all of this, and unquestionably the character that develops the most drastically over the course of the series, transforming from a violent bully to a non-violent leader. Steve is a victim of toxic masculinity, an example of the great truth: Patriarchy Hurts Everybody.

And that’s also why I love that Homer, truly practically angelic in his kindness, patience, and love of OA/Prairie/Nina, nonetheless cheats on her when presented the opportunity to have sex with someone else – and in the process unwillingly helps Hap (the very personification of the Patriarchy) abduct another woman. He’s not perfect; no one is. It doesn’t erase his basic virtue, although it was clearly Hap’s intent to use this to debase Homer as a subhuman “animal,” as Scott says. The sequence where OA/Prairie/Nina tells the boys about this incident is illustrative of the difference between Stranger Things and The OA in this regard. “How can Homer do it? How could he have done that to you?” French demands, full of righteous fury. “I would have never given in. He should have kept trying.” OA/Prairie/Nina responds, “Try to imagine what it’s like to have been a prisoner for all those years. You’re not free just because you can see the ocean. Captivity is a mentality. It’s a thing you carry with you.” Because Patriarchy Hurts Everybody!


Funny you’re the broken one, but I’m the only one who needed saving
‘Cause when you never see the light it’s hard to know which one of us is caving.

– Rihanna ft. Mikky Ekko: “Stay”

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“Wish You Were Here” [the playlist]

There’s not a lot more I have to say about “Wish You Were Here” that I didn’t already tell Christian Coleman in my interview – he even asked about the inevitable playlist. So I’ll just share the full list – a mix of tongue-in-cheek commentary on “third world democracy” and its hustlers from “Paper Planes” and mystical exoticism from “Voodoo in My Blood,” and the genuine emotion that nonetheless underwrites motivations in this story. Ultimately, that’s all I want from horror set in foreign lands: to at least remember that the foreigners are also people, who deserve to be just as well-rounded as the tourists.

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“Wish You Were Here” is part of Nightmare magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror issue, with original fiction edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

“Paper Planes” – M.I.A.: All I wanna do is [bang bang bang] and [ka-ching] and take your money. Third world democracy, yeah I got more records than the KGB, so uh, no funny business.

“The Keepers” – Santigold: I walk by with smoke in my eyes, like we don’t know where we’ve been. That’s it, boy, just state your case, you’re just as wrong as you were then. We’re the keepers – while we sleep in America, our house is burning down.

“Voodoo in My Blood” – Massive Attack: Barely, barely grieving. Keep the front door open. Wipe that cheeky grin and come on down. [Fun fact: Rose is named after Rosamund Pike – partly because of this video! See if you can spot the other celebrities (they played couples in Hollywood movies) among the tourists!]

“Manifest Destiny” – Zola Jesus: You gotta help me out. You gotta make it happen for me. How will we survive? Just let your spirit rise and don’t worry about the rest. [This is the song I obsessively listened to while writing this.]

“Soccer Game” – Johann Johannsson (Sicario OST): [instrumental, but if you remember this ending scene in the movie – the soccer game punctuated by gunfire – you know exactly why I included it here]

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Black Mirror [Season 3]

Despite being a show about “the horrors of technology,” the best thing about Black Mirror has always been its compassion for its characters and its exquisite articulations of psychological pain – things that transcend technology. Season 3 is no exception.

If Seasons 1 and 2 were an indictment of voyeurism, Season 3 is an indictment of both cyber bullying and outrage culture, two manifestations of the same conundrum that boils down to this: in our hyper-connected world where we are all expected to be digitally publically available and active and open, violating social norms can result in hyper-amplified, hyper-vicious reprisals. Technology is the veil that forces us to present entirely artificial, plastic selves and suffer the consequences of non-conformity (“Nosedive,” and to some extent “San Junipero”). This same veil provides an outlet to indulge in sin, and then, suddenly to be punished for it (“Shut Up and Dance”). Most of the time it’s other people doing the hurting, but in “Playtest” it actually is the technology, needling in, finding weak spots, destroying your psyche. And as shown by “Men Against Fire,” this particularly digital problem is really just a culmination of decades of loaded, coded language that can be used to incite action, including violence. This is commonly known as propaganda. Now, we are all our own propagandists.

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Creator Charlie Brooker is clearly most deeply interested in mob mentality and the way technology can enable a mob (real or virtual or even imagined) to bludgeon unfortunate folks who have found themselves on the wrong side of a crowd. Brooker has always gone to extremes to make the victims of the mob unsympathetic – he needs to explain why the crowd would turn on them, after all – but he’s got an “Enemy of the People” view of crowds, that we are monsters when we can get away with it.

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This little quote is a good summary of what appears to be Brooker’s point:

He likens the population to insects, says we revel in cruelty, that it’s a weakness that should be bred out of us. Recurrent theme is he wants people to face the consequences of what they say and do. Wants to force that on them.

But that’s not a description of Charlie Brooker. That’s a description of one of the show’s antagonists, a mass murderer and terrorist who appears on the incredible final episode, “Hated in the Nation.” “So it’s a moral lesson?” says a cynical cop trying to catch him, one of two refreshingly competent and three-dimensional heroines. “Well, fuck him.”

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Brooker’s turned the mirror back on himself. We may be insectoid and beastly to others, we may have astonishingly little compassion for others or regard for the ramifications of our words or behavior, but everyone – even the beasts and insects – still has the right to live. Nobody should be bred out. This seems like a pretty simple statement, but mass media narratives are so often built around revenge, chosen ones, and the casual destruction of miscellaneous bystanders that it’s actually quite profound.

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So what’s left? What’s left is the love between Yorkie and Kelly in “San Junipero,” or the love Cooper feels for his parents in “Playtest.” Hector’s guilt and Kenny’s shame in “Shut Up and Dance.” Stripe’s moral code in “Men Against Fire.” What’s left is Lacie finally screaming “Fuck you!” in “Nosedive.” What’s left is bodybags, in “Hated in the Nation.”

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It’s a brutal show, made all the more so by Brooker’s incredible ability to elicit empathy or at least sympathy for his characters, the license he gives them to do what they need to do to feel some semblance of comfort in the cruel world he’s given them – even when they make the “cowardly” choice. This is an especially rare accomplishment in horror, where probably the most commonly-voiced criticism is “But why would they stay in the haunted house?” In Black Mirror, the haunted house is the haunted world, and Charlie Brooker can tell you exactly why – despite their better judgment, despite what the self-help manuals would have them do – they stay.

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In Defense of The Price

I miss high-stakes horror movies.

I miss not knowing who’s going to die. I miss not being able to telegraph the end. I miss protagonists that make bad decisions. I miss last-minute twists. What I really miss are lasting consequences. I miss horror movies where every bet is off save for one eternal rule: The Price.

This is the law of The Price. Imagine that in every horror movie, there is a troll under the bridge who collects the fare – The Price – for crossing over from the so-called normal world, or their ordinary existence, into the world of the dead or the damned or whatever else. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to trespass across this boundary – a character decides to use a ouija board to contact a dead relative; a character uses a spell to hex a rival – and sometimes it’s not – a character makes a wrong turn down an unfamiliar road; a character takes in an orphaned child. Sometimes it’s a total freak coincidence – a character gets a phone call from an unknown number; a character sees a neighbor being murdered. However it happens, that character has tasted the forbidden fruit of the abnormal world, and now they have to pay The Price.

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The Price can be paid in a variety of ways, but it’s not a blister that heals with a band-aid. Here are some good options: character death; character loved one death; character damnation; character incapacitation (mental or physical); massive character dislocation. And yes, sometimes it’s terribly unfair: all I did was check-in on my brother! But fair isn’t the point. The point is to recognize that that other world is powerful, palpable, and not to be fucked with. Oh yeah, and that life’s not fair. It’s Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror”:

The black mirror knows no reflection
It knows not pride or vanity
It cares not about your dreams
It cares not for your pyramid schemes
Their names are never spoken
The curse is never broken

I don’t know when I learned about The Price, but I remember the first time I noticed that it was missing: the Anthony Hopkins exorcism movie The Rite, where no one seems to pay any price at all. The Rite really shocked me, because of any horror movie subgenre, the exorcism movie is typically the most brutal, given that it deals with literal pure Evil.

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I initially thought that not paying The Price is symptomatic of a movie being part of a franchise, as in The Conjuring series, where no one seems to ever be of any serious risk of anything other than having the fear of God put into them, presumably to keep Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson headlining a universe of Psychic Superhero movies. But horror franchises have been paying The Price for years, and that in fact The Price has jumpstarted various creative detours compelled by the deaths of primary characters (Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, and Friday the 13th all killed their original final girls.)

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So now I think it’s something else: now I think there is a strange reluctance to make horror movies that are “too dark.” I think maybe we want updated versions of the original don’t-go-into-the-woods morality tale: if you do go into the woods, if you’re a good person you’ll figure out how to defeat evil and walk away unscathed. That’s some bullshit, folks. Not only does it: (a) not reflect the reality of how bad things actually happen, (b) represent a pretty self-defeating morality tale – so it’s okay to go into the woods, eh?, but it (c) sucks all tension out of what is supposed to be a tense experience. Oh gee whiz, wonder if this nice little American family with three little kids is going to survive the haunted house!

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Some bullshit.

Because The Price isn’t really about trespassing unseen boundaries. The Price is about that great price we all must pay for being alive, being human, being part of a cruel civilization – the guilt of knowing you are sitting comfortably in your home while terrible things are done to people no different from you halfway across the world; the fact that tender hearts are the most vulnerable; the knowledge that you are alive and well because your ancestors made cold-blooded choices that victimized other people – or else they were the victims, and did terrible things to survive; the sinking feeling that someone knows what you did that summer. To quote another song, this one “Courage (for Hugh Maclennan)” by The Tragically Hip:

the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
[of actions performed] Under pressure

That’s The Price, my friends, and we all must pay it.

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Horror movies that are all about The Price pictured above: 1) The Ring; 2) The Exorcist; 3) Candyman; 4) Pet Sematary; 5) Retribution [Sakebi].

 

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“There is a Bear in the Woods” [the playlist]

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is named after a Ronald Reagan campaign ad, from 1984. It’s a classic in high-strategy fear-mongering, and I recommend watching it while listening to the soundtrack to The Witch, for full horrific effect.

My story, “There is a Bear in the Woods,” is the first directly political (that is, about politics) story I’ve published that’s been set in the U.S. instead of Indonesia. One other is forthcoming, at this time. “There is a Bear in the Woods” is also the first to be set in the same universe as a series of to-be-written novels that is very close to my heart. Part of the reason I’ve stayed away from American politics is because I didn’t want to publically commit to writing these books. But now I am, so let me say a little about it, because I think it’s as good an explanation as anything else to what drove “There is a Bear in the Woods.”

I wrote the first version of these books – the trilogy now named after Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – from ages twelve through thirteen (1999-2000). They formed books 2 and 3 out of a series of 7 (“just a kid with a pad and a pen and a big imagination”), and they were an absolute mess that demanded suspension bridges for all the disbelief. But when I was in grad school I started toying with the idea of resuscitating and rewriting books 2 and 3. I don’t remember what spurred this decision other than the feeling that I had some thing here, some seedling of an idea, that I thought was worth saving. Many of the details have changed in the intervening years – obviously, I took a buttload of political science classes between points A and B – but at its core, the series is about the following:

An alternate-universe United States is dominated by a politically-corrupt, democratically-elected center-left coalition of parties, called the Alliance. Horrified by the morally-depraved decadence of the Alliance’s long reign, a radical deliverance church and a new conservative opposition join forces to oust the Alliance, and end up installing a tenuous and uniquely American fascist regime. Although the accidental fascists are the antagonists, it’s very important to me that they be kept sympathetic throughout – because otherwise, how would they have been voted in? And yes, because I’m a horror writer, there are a few BOB-like demons involved, but, as reflected in “There is a Bear in the Woods,” the demons came to take advantage of an opening that was entirely manmade.

This story is about a plucky grassroots campaign trying to put one of the would-be fascists, Rick McFarland, into Congress. They, of course, think they’re on a noble cause – literally, saving America. And then they have a fateful campaign stop…

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is in Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis.

“I’d Love To Change the World” – Jetta: I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.

“Aenema” – Tool: Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. Don’t just call me pessimist. Try and read between the lines. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t welcome any change, my friend.

“2+2=5” – Radiohead: Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights? It’s the devil’s way now. There is no way out.

[Note: What a perfect video, eh?]

“Coward” – Hans Zimmer: [Instrumental].

[Note: I rarely include soundtrack-like music here, but the combination of title and sound actually make this match perfectly with the appearance of “The Bear.”]

“Warning” – Incubus: All left standing will make millions writing books on the way it should have been.

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