Public health historian Gerald Markowitz reminds us that the problem of lead poisoning is anything but new.
In his critically-acclaimed first memoir, “Another Bulls*** Night In Suck City,” author Nick Flynn writes about meeting his alcoholic homeless father while working in a homeless shelter. In his follow-up, “The Ticking Is The Bomb” (excerpted below), Flynn deals with his own impending fatherhood, and questions whether he has what it takes to be a dad. This happens as he is about to travel to Turkey to meet some of the detainees photographed at Abu Ghraib prison. We revisit our conversation with Nick Flynn about the book which has just been released in paperback.
a field guide to getting lost
Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.
(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.
The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. . . . Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into his life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.
And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.
(2005) A few days after I land back in New York I go to a ceremony at Lincoln Center. I’d won an award from PEN, the literary and human rights organization, for a book I’d written that circled around homelessness and my father. I sat in the audience and listened as a citation was read for a writer whose work I was unfamiliar with—he’d won the sister award to mine:
. . . Sam Harris analyzes the world with a humanist’s sympathy, but he has no time for those who murder and torture in the name of beliefs based on ancient concepts that are both unbelievable and, more important, unprovable. . . .
Abu Ghraib was still very much in the news at this point, and, like many others, I was still both confused and enraged by it all. At some point that night, Harris and I exchanged a few words. We’re photographed together, shaking hands, smiling. A few months later I read his book, The End of Faith, and find that it is, in part, a treatise advocating the use of torture:
Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary.
As I read those words, and others like them (dust off the strappado, or it’s become ethical to kill people for what they believe), a switch flips on in my brain. Harris, like anyone, is free to write and publish whatever he wishes, but why did a human rights organization choose to endorse it with an award? And why had they photographed me shaking hands with him, smiling like an idiot?
all I have is a photograph
Here is a photograph of my mother, walking away from a white house, carrying an open can of Schlitz, wearing a blond wig and oversized sunglasses, like Anjelica Huston in The Grifters. The man next to her is also carrying an open can of Schlitz—we can only see a sliver of him, but it is enough to recognize him as her brother, my uncle. A toddler is hiding behind this uncle, half his face visible, which is more than enough to recognize him as my brother. My mother’s wig, a sliver of an uncle, half a brother—so this is my family. But then, who else would these people be? After all, I found this photograph in a box of my mother’s things. The sweater my brother wears, a white v-neck with red and blue trim around the collar and sleeves, is the same sweater I had as a child, given to us by our grandfather, who was rich, who had money, who paid for our tennis lessons, though at home we had blocks of government cheese and a silver gallon can with the words peanut butter stenciled on the side. We ate the cheese, but we never opened the can, saving it for the darker days to come.
In the photograph they are walking toward the ocean across my grandfather’s yard on First Cliff, in Scituate, Massachusetts, my hometown. My mother calls his house “the big house” (as a child I didn’t know that “big house” is another way of saying “prison”). A tiny foot, nearly unnoticed, dangles from someone else’s arms, someone outside the picture—this could be my foot, I could be in the other uncle’s arms, or I could be in the arms of my mother’s boyfriend at the time, though I don’t know which boyfriend it would be. My foot is so small it is even possible I’m in my father’s arms, but he is the last one I imagine.
Last night I had a dream: I’m on the phone, but the phone is broken—it is simply an earpiece, a black disc, wires sprouting from it, breaking up in my hands. I have to move it between my ear and my mouth to listen and talk. I am talking to my mother, we are making a plan for me to come to dinner. What can I bring, I ask her—salad? dessert?
Bring food, she says, we need food.
(2005) A photograph of me shaking hands with Sam Harris now exists. Now it will never not exist. After I read his book and discover that he is an advocate of the use of torture (specifically against Muslims), I become, seemingly overnight, a crank. I begin what will become several months of letter writing—to the New York Times, to PEN, to Harris, even to the judges who awarded him the prize, who wrote in their citation that . . . he has no time for those who murder and torture in the name of beliefs based on ancient concepts . . . I ask the judges if, among other things, they feel that Harris is, perhaps, more forward-looking in his protorture stance. The judges do not respond to my questions.
I read the reviews of The End of Faith:
One reviewer feels that the book has “. . . a pointed sense of humor.”
Another writes that “. . . despite its polemic edge, this is a happy book.”
My personal favorite describes it as “. . . a trip down Memory Lane.”
A book that advocates torture is a trip down Memory Lane—perhaps an unintentionally accurate description of the secret history of America.
At some point, in the following months, after the award and the photograph and the book reviews and the judges’ citation, I tell my friend Claudia that I’m feeling a little nuts, as if I’m seeing something that everyone else insists isn’t there.
That’s how black people feel all the time, Claudia says with a shrug.
My mother told me a story, just once, of how as a girl she’d been tied to a chair, the chair teetering at the top of the attic stairs, her captors, her brothers, threatening to send her end over end, tumbling down. I don’t know if they did this more than once, and I don’t know what they wanted—a question answered, a promise made—beyond the usual childhood cruelties, or if they ever got it. Her family had money, so much money that an oil painting of her—in pigtails, standing beside a horse—hung over a mantel. She spent her afternoons in stables, was sent away to private schools, was called a debutante. Her father had grown up with money, her mother had grown up poor—both, alas, to varying degrees, were drunks. From my mother I got the sense that her childhood was one of sporadic chaos followed by long stretches of simple neglect. No one, in spite of—or maybe because of—all that money, was steering the boat.
At seventeen she met my father, got pregnant, jumped ship.
My father—ah yes, my father. A whole book could be written about my father (or so he thinks), and his stories. The two are nearly inseparable by now, the same handful, over and over—his repertoire. A liar always tells his story the same way, except some—most—of my father’s stories have, improbably, turned out to be true. The story of robbing a few banks. The story of the novel he’s spent his whole life writing. The story of his father inventing the life raft—all true. I first heard these stories, or pieces of them, during those five years he lived on the streets. I was working in the shelter where he’d sometimes spend his nights, and we’d sometimes talk, but he was—is—a grandiose drunk, and so I was not inclined to believe much of what he said. In one of his stories he claimed to be a direct descendant of the Romanovs, of the missing czarina—a delusion, in terms of popularity, just behind claiming to be Jesus. Or Satan.
One of my father’s stories, one I found too bizarre to engage with at all, was of being locked up in federal prison for two years, which is true, but while there he claims to have been tortured—experimented on, sleep-deprived, drugged, sexually humiliated—and I don’t know if this is true or not. Understand, it is hard and getting harder to get a straight answer from my father, as his alcoholism slips into its twilight stage. When I ask him about his prison time now, he looks wildly around the room or park or coffee shop and whispers, I can’t talk about that here.
(2007) This morning, in my inbox, I find this note from a friend in Berlin:
I was standing on the Teufelsberg (the Devil’s Mountain) with a friend last night, listening to Patti Smith playing in the stadium below, and I thought of you. The Teufelsberg is made from all the junk of the war, the broken houses and so on. It is a big mountain, and we stood there looking out over my strange and terrible and beautiful city. Where are you?
Teufelsberg. Devil’s Mountain. All the junk of the war.
Here I am, I think, writing about my mother again (samsara). And here I am, writing about my father again, building my own Devil’s Mountain, piling up all the junk of the war. If asked I’ll sometimes say that I’m writing about torture, but I’ve found that if I say the word “torture” many go glassy-eyed, silent, as if I’d just dropped a stone into a deep, deep well. Sometimes I say I’m writing about my unborn daughter, about my impending fatherhood—five months to go, the clock’s ticking—but I don’t want to jinx it. I want this book to be behind me before she arrives. I don’t want my first days with her to be wrapped up in torture, in shadows. I’m lucky, though—when I turn away from the book, Inez is there, radiantly pregnant, seemingly more sure of what’s to come, and this calms me. The baby is, after all, inside her, inside her body—perhaps this makes it more real, for her. But then, Inez has always been this way—certain, or at least seemingly so. It confused me when we first got together, for it seemed that whether I was to stay or go she would be alright, that she would survive. When we were first together I had to face the uncomfortable realization that I wasn’t used to calling love something that didn’t involve disaster.
Some people tell me that once the baby comes I will feel a new love, a love like I have never felt before. Hearing this, I smile and nod, but it always makes me uneasy. What if I don’t feel this love, what if it doesn’t happen to me? I’m sure it doesn’t—can’t—happen to everyone, and that the ones who don’t feel it simply don’t talk about it. What if I turn out to be one of them? What if I feel it one day and then don’t the next day? What if it’s fleeting?
Sometimes, if asked, I’ll say that I’m writing about the way photographs are a type of dream, about how shadows can end up resembling us, and sometimes I’ll say I’m writing a memoir of bewilderment, and just leave it at that, but what I mean is the bewilderment of waking up, my hand on Inez’s belly, as the fine points of waterboarding are debated on public radio. But maybe talking about torture is easier than talking about my impending fatherhood, the idea of which, some days, sends me into a tailspin.
Maybe I should tell anyone who asks that I’m writing about Proteus, the mythological creature who changes shape as you hold on to him, who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you, as you ask him your question, as you refuse to let go. The question is, often, simply a variation of, How do I get home?
(1999) For two weeks one summer I swam every day in a small lake on top of a mountain in Vermont. The lake’s name is Pleiad, which made me think of the Seven Sisters, the star cluster. I’d wake up early each morning, drive up the mountain, park on the side of the road, and hike fifteen minutes up a narrow trail, all so I could be in the water by seven. No one else was ever there, not at that time, the sun just catching the outcroppings of granite at the far corner, wisps of steam rising off the surface. I was at a writers’ conference, and it seemed that everyone was drinking except me. I’d had my last drink ten years earlier, a couple years after my father had ended up on the streets (maybe because my father had ended up on the streets). Swimming, I’d tell anyone who asked, was my Prozac.
The reason for my anxiety was, in part, that the long-term relationship I was in, with a woman I’ll call Justine, was limping to its painful, perhaps necessary, end. That it was ending badly (I still cannot imagine a way it could have ended well, though I know this isn’t true) drove me to my knees—no, it drove me to swimming pools, to ponds, I threw my body in and swam, hour after hour, I swam for as long as it took, until I had a good thought, just one good thought. Some days, most days, it would take a long time, but finally it was as if I could see it coming across the surface of the water toward me, and as I pulled myself toward it, my body would slowly return—I could feel it again, my body, I could feel myself returning to it, and then, as that one good thought reached me, as I let it wash over me, my body would slowly dissolve. I could feel it—everything—if briefly, and it was enough, it had to be enough. If I didn’t make it to the water, if I missed a day, then I knew I wouldn’t have that one good thought and, I feared, maybe never have another one again. By certain—most—reckoning, I was to blame, though for a long time I actually held on to the desperate belief that I’d been the one most wronged.
To escape the writing conference, some days, I’d go to Pleiad Lake twice, if someone else wanted to go, if we could find another hour in the afternoon. Some of those who went with me wouldn’t even go into the water. They were happy to just hike in and see the lake, which is how I found out that some people don’t like to swim, or, more accurately, that some people are afraid of water. I began to ask about this fear, which is how I found out that even some of those who swam were afraid. One told me that she preferred to swim in pools, where you could always see where the water ended. One said he preferred to swim in the ocean, where the salt kept him afloat. One was afraid of what was submerged beneath the surface, of the hidden branch that might snag her leg. Many seemed to be afraid of some unnamed creature that would reach up, bite them, pull them under. Leeches were a fear, though I met no one who had ever been bitten by one. One seemed to be afraid of himself, afraid he would just give up and sink in the middle of the lake. One was afraid of running out of energy and getting pulled over the tiny waterfall. One was afraid of his heart failing and not being able to make it back to shore. From talking about it I realized that I was also afraid, only not of what was there, but of what wasn’t there—my fear was more a type of horror vacui, the fear of empty space, the fear of the nothing that is. With my goggles on I could see into the darkness rising up from the unseen bottom, and it was as if I were looking into the universe, the way it just seemed to go on and on. Looking into this empty space, all I could hear was my own breathing, as if that was all there was, and it just didn’t seem enough.
the banishment prize
(2001) A year after the relationship with Justine ends, I get a poetry grant, which has one stipulation: in order to get the money I have to leave North America for one year—the Banishment Prize, I call it. I end up based for the next two years in Rome. I find a big cheap apartment near Piazza Vittorio, where I plan to finish up the book on homelessness and my father. I buy a beat-up Vespa, and begin dating an Italian playwright. It’s hard to complain, except that I’d left a support system I’d spent the last ten years building up, a web of friends and routines that seemed to have kept me, mostly, on an even keel. Without knowing it, and without seeking it, once I landed in Rome this support system began to slowly unravel, to break apart, like those photographs of Antarctica’s icecaps falling into the sea. It should also be said that this personal crisis was nearly invisible to those around me, especially since the one who had been closest to me for the past eight years—Justine—was no longer there. But this might be another delusion, the delusion that no one else could see how fucked-up I was, when it is just as likely I came across as an utter mess.
Before I left for Rome, as summer ended, I had a month to swim in a pond in Truro. In the spring, when the pond was swollen with rain, there was no beach, but now, at the end of summer, with the water low, there was a small strip of sand two or three people could crowd onto. For a week or so, every day, I sat next to a woman on this tiny strip of sand, and sometimes we’d talk, and it turned out we knew people in common. On the last day, she invited me to her house for tea, then or whenever I felt like it. I’d like that, I said—I’ll come by after my banishment ends. And I would have, I wanted to but, incomprehensibly, she’d been in the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.
When both towers were still standing I stopped in a parking lot on Great Jones Street with the rest, watching smoke pour from the one we could see. What happened, I asked a stranger, as masses of people streamed past us, all heading north up Lafayette, but he didn’t know. At that point no one knew—we were all mere onlookers at that point, smoke filling the sky. Whatever had happened was still happening. In my mind the people streaming northward were all coming from the burning tower, and I was relieved that everyone had made it out alright—that’s how my mind translated that beautiful blue day punctured by smoke.
A few minutes later the guy I get my coffee from told me that airplanes had crashed into both towers. Both towers? A few minutes after that I stood with another crowd of strangers inside an appliance store on Broadway and watched the first tower fall on a bank of televisions. I could have stood on the sidewalk outside the store and seen it fall, but I thought there might be some words coming from the televisions that would make it all make sense.
Proteus lives at the bottom of a steep cliff, down a treacherous path, at the edge of the sea. From the top of the cliff you can see him, lolling on a flat rock, staring into the endless nothing of the sea, but to reach him is difficult. You’ve been told that he has the answer to your question, and you are a little desperate to have this question answered. As you make your way down you must be careful not to dislodge any loose gravel, careful not to cry out when the thorns pierce your feet. You must approach him as quietly as you can, get right up on him, get your hands on him, around his neck. You’ve been told that you have to hold on while you ask your question, you’ve been told that you can’t let go. You’ve been told that as you hold on Proteus will transform into the shape and form of that which most terrifies you, in order to get you to release your grip. But the promise is that if you can hold on, through your fear, he will return to his real form and answer your question.
welcome to the year
of the monkey
(2004) I hear word of the photographs before I see the photographs, I hear about them on the car radio. The man on the radio says the words abu ghraib, words I’ve never heard before—at this point I don’t know if abu ghraib is one word or two, a building or a city, a place or an idea. The man on the radio has seen the photographs, he talks as if they are there in front of him, as if he is thumbing through them as he speaks—The photographs are from our war, he says, and they are very, very disturbing.
My first semester of teaching in Houston has just ended, and I’m driving north, headed back to New York, where both Anna and Inez live. At this point Anna and I are already involved—Inez and I have yet to meet. I’m driving a 1993 Ford Escort wagon—reliable, unsexy, cheap—a basic a-to-b device, bought in Texas with the idea of taking it north because, unlike in the northeast, a used car from Texas will be unlikely to have rust. You just have to make sure it was never in a flood. Houston, built on a swamp, is known for its floods. Houston, also, is seemingly endless—I hear about the photographs again and again even before I make it to the city limits. What connects the photographs, the man on the radio says, is that each depicts what appears to be torture, and that the people doing the torturing are wearing uniforms, or parts of uniforms, and that the uniforms appear to be ours. The man on the radio describes the photographs—prisoners, guards, dogs. Hallways, cinderblocks, cages. Leashes. Smiles. Many of the prisoners are not wearing clothes, he says. The reason for this, he says, is that there appears to be a sexual element to what’s happening, as I float past a church the size of a shopping mall.
The man on the radio is a reporter. The first time I heard his name was nearly forty years ago, when he broke the story of a massacre in Vietnam—My Lai—the name of a hamlet that came to symbolize all that was wrong with that war. Nearly four hundred unarmed men, women, and children—civilians—rounded up, executed, many of them herded into ditches and shot. Photographs document that day as well, and the photographs made their way to his hands, and eventually to the pages of the New York Times. welcome to the year of the monkey, banners over the streets of Saigon read that spring of 1968.
I finally break out of the vortex that is Houston, and now I’m heading east on I-10, approaching the exit for New Orleans, where I’d planned to stop—I haven’t been there for years—but I decide to push on, to make it to Tuscaloosa before nightfall, where friends have offered shelter. And I never get to see New Orleans again.
Reprinted from Ticking is the Bomb: A Memoir by Nick Flynn Copyright © 2010 by Nick Flynn. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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