When I entered the Lion’s Head for my first meeting with Dana Foley and Michelle Russell, it was late afternoon and a dozen or so inveterate drinkers hunkered over the bar, chatting in small clusters. Even in the tenebrous late-afternoon light, it was easy to spot them—two attractive young women perched on stools close to the sidewalk-level window on Christopher Street. Dana hopped off her stool to greet me with a firm handshake and a direct gaze. Her blonde hair was braided into pigtails that hung midway down her back. She wore a plaid Pendleton shirt, bald in the elbows, putty-colored workpants, and sneakers. Her uniform. Over the months that followed, I never saw her in a skirt or dress. Michelle, her companion, sat silently at first, but when Dana introduced us she flashed a disarming, gap-toothed smile. She was dark-complexioned, with frizzy hair that seemed on the brink of squiggling, Medusa-like, to life. Her eyes sparkled with febrile energy. In contrast to Dana’s open demeanor and apparent steadfastness, Michelle seemed pent-up, more capricious. She broke into the conversation at unexpected moments, adding quirky comments that seemed part of a private vocabulary she shared with Dana: “blind men never blink,” “tell me about it!” and—I never could figure this one out—“snakes have heart!” Words tumbled forth, as though she had to force them through her own silence. Her manner baffled and charmed me. Only after we’d become better acquainted did I learn that she’d grown up in a chaotic home dominated by an alcoholic, womanizing father; that until she ran away at seventeen, her cache of confusion and anger was concealed beneath a seemingly docile nature.
“Do you know about the Hyde Amendment?” Michelle asked.
It was plain that she was testing me. This was back in 1976, and the Hyde Amendment had been in the news for several weeks. In a sentence or two, I replied that right-to-lifers in the House of Representatives had passed the amendment to severely limit federal funding of abortions, thus undermining Roe v. Wade.
The two women exchanged glances. Apparently, my answer was satisfactory. “We saw your film on No More Nice Girls and pro-choice street theater,” Dana said, “and we think you ought to be interested in this little automobile ride we’re planning.” She began by recounting the event that had inspired them: how in 1915, three women designated by Alice Paul, the tenacious leader of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage, traveled by automobile from San Francisco to Washington, DC to collect signatures for a petition demanding universal suffrage from the Sixty-fourth Congress. At a time when few Americans had ever gone for a Sunday drive, when roads were inadequately marked and poorly maintained, when nothing even remotely resembling an interstate highway system existed, these three suffragists undertook an audacious cross-country automobile trek.
Dana and Michelle wanted to use that historic journey as a template for their campaign to stand up to the backlash against abortion rights. Like their predecessors, they planned to drive across America bearing a petition—in this case demanding that Roe v. Wade be respected as the law of the land and that the Hyde Amendment be nullified. “Hands off our Bodies!” would be their rallying cry.
“It’ll be crazy—crazy good!” is how Michelle put it, and I could only concur. I am cautious by nature—a useful trait for making documentary films, which typically require research, extensive planning, and heedfulness—yet I was so taken by these two young women that in spite of their scant means to execute their project, my interest quickened. We talked for hours as the Lions Head filled up with Village Voice staff and the regular crew of artists and writers. Soon we were forced to yell at one another over the din. And by the time we wormed our way out to Sheridan Square to say good night, I had agreed to film their journey. Crazy good, or so I hoped.
This is not the place to recount the amazing summer that followed. They traveled in a powder blue Studebaker President—a rented 1925 model, provided for their journey by none other than Jane Fonda—with a top speed of fifty miles an hour. The antique vehicle attracted attention wherever they went—and the HANDS OFF OUR BODIES banner, the petition, and the numerous interviews they conducted along the way brought increasing attention to their cause. When Michelle and Dana stepped into president Carter’s office for their allotted seven-minute audience, they presented him with eight and a half million signatures demanding repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Crazy good, just as Michelle had predicted. Two For the Road, their jointly written account of their remarkable adventure, was published the following year—and, I’m happy to say, my film of the same name helped land me a Guggenheim.
Dana was a writer, a rising star. Though I was unaware of this when we first met, it wasn’t long before it came to light. Centering appeared when Dana was just twenty-four. Published by Sun and Moon Press, it attracted far more attention than is common for a small press. Her narrative explores parallel romances of two sisters. Gina, the older and bolder one, falls for Joey Markakis, a handsome, wild boy—the high school troublemaker, who fashions his image after James Dean, but who turns out to be surprisingly shy and sexually inexperienced. Gayle, the younger sister, is attracted to Vicky, her pottery teacher, an introverted woman whose retiring nature stems from a childhood devastated by her sexually abusive father. Gayle and Vicky’s relationship develops inadvertently during Gayle’s ceramic classes. In a scene that points to the novel’s title, Vicky blindfolds her students and invites them to center a lump of clay on their wheel and pull it into a simple bowl. Vicky presses her hands over Gayle’s to steady her, but only briefly. Blindfolded, Gayle must feel the clay as an extension of her self, while at the same time gently coaxing the wobbling mass to rest at the very center of the revolving wheel—a process of physical and mental concentration that only succeeds when the centering process itself becomes intuitive. The scene resonates through Dana’s narrative, suggesting, as it does, that before Gayle can love or be loved, she must discover the deep and inexplicable connection between her senses and her Self.
By contrast, Gina’s romance with Markakis is urgent, impulsive, and comically catastrophic. She practically throws herself at him, begging for a ride on his Harley. They speed off together, her fingers digging into Joey’s biker jacket, thighs throbbing with the humming engine. She closer her eyes and sees herself living in the movie of her imagination. They arrive at a secluded picnic area and begin tearing at one another’s clothes. But things go badly. He smothers her with kisses but slices his lip on her earring. Then he struggles unsuccessfully to unfasten her bra. Their clumsy disrobing leaves the two of them waddling about with pants gathered around their ankles. Joey ejaculates before he can enter Gina and she bursts into tears, chastising herself for being an inept lover. Ashamed by what he sees as his abject failure, Joey invents the excuse that he was probably “all used up” by wild debauchery the night before. Yet their shared humiliation binds them together as a couple. They fall into a masquerade of exaggerated displays of masculine & feminine behavior—a development that Dana portrays with comic insight and underlying sympathy.
Now that the HANDS OFF OUR BODIES project was completed and Two For the Road was in print, I assumed that Dana would return to her own writing.
Following our splendid summer, Dana and Michelle moved to Key West where Dana worked on her novel and Michelle taught at a community college. By the time The Splintered Mirror was published in1980, it had been almost three years since I’d seen them. I read Dana’s new novel immediately. The frayed feelings of a family in Eugene, Oregon were depicted in riveting opening chapters. A father who taught pottery at the university—passive and detached; the mother—a child psychologist, restless and eager for a more fulfilling sexual and emotional life; and three children—twin sisters and an older brother—who we follow from their early teens into their twenties. After reading the first sixty pages, I was certain that Dana had written a worthy successor to Centering—but as I read on, the intricately tangled family alliances and tensions exploded, imploded really, into something dark and violent. The father initiates an affair with a graduate student. He takes her to a friend’s ski lodge, their first weekend alone, where a loose ski hurtles down the slope and crushes his testicles. The mother, desperate for pleasure, seduces a teenaged patient, and when the boy’s parents discover something is amiss, the boy leaps off a highway overpass into the path of an onrushing semi-trailer. With the father and mother’s lives in disarray, their son runs off to Portland where he takes to street hustling and dies of AIDS. In desperation, one of the twin sisters gets pregnant and forces her college boyfriend into a marriage that neither of them is prepared for. The child is born with Down’s syndrome and she smothers it to death. When her husband realizes what she’s done, he steals a friend’s hunting rifle and attempts a murder/suicide—successfully killing himself but reducing her to a vegetative state. Only the second sister survives the carnage and—at this point I sensed where the story was going—she moves to San Francisco where she settles contentedly into a communal lesbian house.
For all the violence set forth in Dana’s narrative, it seemed to me that the most alarming act of immolation was how badly Dana abused her talent. It was if a stranger had written The Splintered Mirror in her stead. The reviews were harsh but not unfair. One critic likened it to “horror porn” and another, comparing it unfavorably to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, described it as gothic narrative run amok. Mercifully, The Splintered Mirror was not widely reviewed. “Nuclear Disaster,” the review in Ms., dismissed it in a single paragraph which closed by observing that “Many readers who were charmed by Foley’s debut novel—her coming-of-age/coming-out narrative, Centering—are likely to be turned off by this vicious, punitive assault on what Foley would like us to see as the destructive folly of heterosexual love.”
Every writer knows what Lord Byron meant when he once remarked to his friend John Murray that “a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author,” yet, in truth, reviews do not kill. Like Prometheus, the ill-fated author is spared so that his torments may be renewed with each passing day. The scathing reviews of The Splintered Mirror took their toll on Dana. She drank heavily and numbed herself with Valium and Quaaludes. She spent days in bed dozing and chain smoking, followed by bursts of club-going when she disappeared for two or three days at a time. Michelle was patient and forgiving, but she was unable to arrest her partner’s tailspin. In April, Dana flew to Oregon to spend two weeks with her married sister and her two nieces. The visit stretched to three weeks, then six and on into the summer. When Dana returned to Key West in September, Michelle had already packed her things and moved to New York. Dana closed up the house and returned to Oregon to reconstitute her life.
All this I heard from Michelle in 1983 when I spotted her at intermission at an overwrought performance piece at The Kitchen. Our chance encounter allowed us to skip the remainder of the anemic show and to go off for a drink together. When our conversation turned to her rupture with Dana, Michelle was plainly uncomfortable. She recounted the awful months following the publication of The Splintered Mirror, but with a taciturnity that derived from what I took to be her wish to protect her former soulmate—as if the very act of relating Dana’s desperate behavior had the power to inflict new damage.
I tried to rescue Michelle from her painful account. “And what are you up to these days?” I asked.
“You’ll laugh,” she said, and her voice lightened at the change of subject. “I’m a graduate student at Columbia.”
“That doesn’t sound funny.”
“Well, not funny ha-ha,” she said. “It’s more funny peculiar. I’m in Women’s and Gender Studies, so it’s kind of like studying myself. I took this one course on Women, Activism, and Politics, and Two For the Road is on the syllabus. They’re using me as a TA, so my tuition is pretty much paid for.”
We were about to part when I asked her if she was seeing anyone. “Well,” she began, “half the lesbians in the program think I’m a rock star.”
“I’m going with the flow.” Then she added, “Paul, everything that I’ve said about how things ended with Dana—it wasn’t just her. When the reviews of The Splintered Mirror appeared, she was inconsolable. She felt she had nothing left to give and she pulled further and further away from me. But the more she withdrew, the more I pressed her for more intimacy—which only drove her deeper into herself. At the time, I believed I was trying to save her, but now I can see that I was acting out of fear that I would have to face life without her. I pushed and pushed until what I dreaded came true. She left me in order to save herself, to save both of us really.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said. “Dana couldn’t handle the failure of The Splintered Mirror. There’s nothing you could have done.”
She took my face in her hands and looked me squarely in the eyes. “I’m sorry, Paul, but it’s more complicated.” Then her voice shifted, as if she was thinking out loud. “You’ve never been with someone, have you? What I mean is, maybe if you’d been in love, really been involved with someone, you’d understand.”
Under pressure, people occasionally misspeak, and I cared for her too deeply to hold her words against her. Still, what she said had a measure of truth. Settling into a lasting relationship has never been the lodestone for me that it is for so many people. The unarticulated expectations and needs that romantic involvement entails often leads people to cede more to their relationship than they realize. For some, partnering up provides ballast; it stabilizes restless spirits, keeping them grounded and secure—and it insulates them from troubling solitude, from having to face themselves in the mirror. Typically, people believe that they are the better for it, but too often the assumed rewards of partnering become restrictive, the source of frustration and even bitterness. So Michelle may have been right—I’ve never made the leap that many others have made—but being alone has never disquieted me. Without the chance to keep company with my own thoughts, I am lost. But there was nothing to be gained by saying all this to Michelle. We hugged and went our separate ways.
It is only by the most unlikely turn of events that this account continues. Five years after my conversation with Michelle, I spent a month in Portland teaching a filmmaking workshop at Reed College. Before returning to New York, I drove out to Casa dos Hernanos, a farm table B & B that had been recommended to me, where I planned to spend the night. My route took me over forested hills that yielded to lush green farms and vineyards. After forty minutes, I spotted the turnoff, a dirt road that ended at a sprawling shingled farmhouse that seemed to have survived unscathed from the 1920s or 30s. A large vegetable garden, perhaps a quarter-acre in size, sat by the east side of the house. Further back, I saw several outbuildings that I guessed housed chickens and other farm animals. It was mid-afternoon when I arrived and there was not a soul in sight. Clematis and wisteria sheathed the veranda’s posts and spandrels so thoroughly that it seemed the fine old building might someday disappear beneath a thicket of flowering vines. I crossed the veranda and stepped into a front hallway lined with oak wainscoting. My eyes were just adjusting to the crepuscular interior when, from somewhere in the recesses of the house, a door slammed and a voice called out, “Coming! Coming!” A woman emerged at the far end of the dimly lit hall. As she approached I saw she wore overalls and was wiping her hands on a red bandana, but I could not make out her features. Then Dana Foley rushed up to hug me.
“The co-owner of Casa dos Hernanos. I saw your name on the reservation list and couldn’t wait to see you!” She darted into another room and returned with a tall glass of homemade iced tea for me. “Come on, Paul, wipe that silly grin off your face and we’ll walk and talk.” She seized my free hand and led me outside. Tan and brimming with life, she exuded the same robust energy that I remembered from the days we had worked together. Her blonde pigtails were white now, but it seemed she had barely aged.
She led me through the vegetable garden and enumerated the individual traits of her chickens. As our tour continued she filled me in on the origin of Casa dos Hernanos. She avoided any mention of Michelle or The Splintered Mirror, beginning her account instead with her return to Oregon that April, when she moved in with her sister’s family in Silverton, in the Upper Willamette Valley. Writing had been out of the question, and it was not in her nature to simply sit around the house, so she found work picking berry crops at a nearby farm. She’d always enjoyed being outdoors, and the grueling labor calmed her. At first, farmers looked at her askance, accustomed as they were to hiring migrant Mexican workers. But Dana minded her own business; she worked hard and efficiently, and her little bit of college Spanish allowed her to engage in simple conversations with her fellow workers.
For several weeks, she followed the harvests up and down the Willamette Valley until early July when she found herself picking Marionberries with Xiomara Paz, a striking twenty-two year old Mexican girl. They worked side by side, silently for the most part, yet slowly a friendship developed. It was uncanny, Dana told me, like living out Gayle and Vicky’s evolving affection in Centering. They took to spending lunch breaks tutoring one another in Spanish & English. Then, when the Marionberry harvest was over, they agreed to travel from job to job together, two friends who’d become increasingly at ease with one another.
In time, their language lessons led to shared confidences. When Dana revealed to Xiomara that she “liked women,” Xiomara told her that she liked women too. Then she leaned forward and kissed Dana full on the lips. In the early morning hours, after their first lovemaking, Dana asked Xiomara when she had first felt attracted to other women. “Yesterday,” she replied.
“But you told me you liked women!”
“You’re a woman, aren’t you?”
“Well, I like you.”
That fall, as they were beginning to envision a life together, a semi-trailer whose driver had drifted asleep at the wheel rammed head on into a pickup truck carrying migrant workers. Among the fatalities was a young couple, distant relations of Xiomara, whose deaths orphaned two infant children. Xiomara took them in to live with her and Dana. As children of illegal aliens, they had no citizenship status, no proof of their existence, but a Portland immigration lawyer, succeeded in proving that the children had been born in Oregon and thus were entitled to full American citizenship, allowing Dana and Xiomara to adopt the two girls. Soon after, Dana borrowed money from her parents and bought a rambling 1920s farmhouse which, over several years, she and Xiomara transformed into their farm table B & B, Casa dos Hernanos.
I was eager to meet Xiomara, but every Easter, Dana explained, Xiomara rented a van to take the children of migrant farmworkers camping at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge 250 miles to the east. I was happy for Dana. For all the changes in her life, she remained very much the person I’d known some thirty years before. We talked for hours about the life she and Xiomara had built in Oregon. We talked about the inn and about their children, now grown and embarked on careers, and we talked about some of my recent films. We talked about many things, but there was no mention of Michelle or The Splintered Mirror. In the late afternoon, Dana cut short our conversation in order to help out in the kitchen, but she promised to continue our conversation that evening.
I’d just finished my meal when Dana came to my table and asked me to join her for another walk. She led me across the yard towards a stand of woods. Night was just settling over the countryside and when we entered the woods I could barely see, but Dana guided me along an invisible trail with complete ease. Ten minutes later, the path opened onto a meadow. It was dark now, but a strip of crescent moon set the meadow grasses shimmering in exquisite silver. “I want to show you something,” Dana said. She took my hand and led me to a gazebo, really just a roofed platform, set on the edge of a small pond. “Xiomara and I built this for Clara and Michelle,” she said. “The Tea House, we named it. The four of us used to camp here when the girls were young.”
“Michelle?” It was the first time Dana had mentioned her name.
“Yes.” Her voice dropped, as if heedful of disturbing the pond’s still surface.
“We renamed the children when we adopted them, and this way I could keep something of her close by.”
I thought of that memorable summer we spent together; the confidence and joy the two women exuded—how people flocked to them, how our lives quickened with the project’s unimagined success. Now, so many years later, on this tranquil, dark night, Michelle, her name mentioned at last, hovered like an apparition suspended between us.
I broke the silence. “I ran into Michelle several years ago and she talked about what happened after The Splintered Mirror was published. But—“ I wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“Paul, just say it!”
“Well, what she told me didn’t add up.”
Dana picked up a stray branch and tossed it into the fire, sending off a shower of sparks. “Those days are long past. You don’t have to mince words, Paul. It’s okay”
“She said you were desperate, out of control.”
“But then she turned around and blamed herself, as if she was responsible for what happened.”
“That’s true, too,” Dana said.
“Well—“ I felt confused and uncomfortable, sorry the topic had even come up—
“Whatever happened, it’s all over.”
“Yes, over.” An instant later, Dana turned her back to me, wriggled out of her jeans, and plunged into the pond. I was too surprised to speak, which perhaps was why she did it. There would be no more talking about the past.
Her dive carried her into shadows where I could barely make out her form. I stood and stretched, relieved that she’d managed to break off our awkward conversation. A short while later, Dana emerged from the pond and patted herself dry with her flannel shirt. She slipped back into her jeans and spread her shirt on a log to dry. She sat on the gazebo platform, and when I joined her she grasped my hand. “Paul,” she began, “years ago when we all worked together you were like our brother. I don’t want you to leave here with the wrong idea.”
“About The Splintered Mirror. You’ve read it, haven’t you?
I felt more uncomfortable than ever. “Yes.”
There was no point in equivocating. “It was disturbing,” I said. “You’re such a talented writer but—I never imagined you’d write something so dark, so cruel.”
Dana released my hand and stepped away. When she spoke again, her bare back was turned to me, as if she meant to address the pond. “Just a few days after we delivered the petition in Washington, Michelle asked me to read the journal she’d kept during our cross-country trip. She’d kept a journal for years, but I’d never read a single word—and now the pages I read just blew me away. I knew right then that her voice belonged in the book I was writing about our journey—that we had to write it together. It was a bolt from the blue, utterly unexpected. I always believed that writing is something you do alone—that was a given. Centering came from a deep and precious solitude; it came from me, just me. But then Michelle wrote Two For the Road with me, and it wasn’t my voice alone, it was ours, Michelle’s and mine together. Two For the Road brought us closer than ever. And—I don’t know how to put it—it seemed like after that anything, everything, was possible.”
Dana turned and squatted by the fire. She grabbed a short branch and began poking at the embers. She lapsed into silence, and I wondered if I had missed her point. She’d told me that she didn’t want me to leave with the wrong idea about The Splintered Mirror, but instead she’d chosed to speak about Two For the Road. Whatever she wanted me to know about The Splintered Mirror, she’d said nothing to enlighten me.
Dana began kicking dirt on the fire. When the glowing embers were covered she filled a can with pond water and sprinkled it over the smoldering ashes. Then she laced up her hiking boots and stomped on the mess until the fire was extinguished. “I told you that there was a time when I thought that anything was possible for me and Michelle,” she said. “But it didn’t work out that way. I was wrong to think it could.”
I said nothing, hoping that she would continue, but we set off through the dark woods in silence. Dana paused at the steps to the veranda. “I’m sorry, Paul,” she began. “I wanted to explain something to you, but keeping a secret for so long, something happens. You guard it out of habit, as if the secret itself needs protection. I had no idea I’d ever see you again, and then you showed up at the Casa. I haven’t talked about The Splintered Mirror in years and maybe it’s better to keep it that way.” She turned and kissed my cheek, then disappeared into the darkness.
The next morning Dana was waiting for me at the reception desk “Your money’s no good here, Paul.”
“That’s no way to run a business,” I said.
“And how much did you bill us for your work on Hands Off Our Bodies?
“That was different. You didn’t—“
“Well, this is different, too.” She took my arm and led me to my car.
Two weeks later I received this letter:
I couldn’t tell you this at Casa dos Hernanos, and even now I feel that I’m violating a trust—but here goes. When we spoke at the Tea House, I told you how much Michelle meant to me, but of course you knew that. Everyone who knew us knew. It’s all there in Two For the Road—all we stood for, all we felt for one another. But what I wanted to tell you then, what pulled me up short, is that writing Two For the Road with Michelle shifted everything in a way I’d never imagined. I don’t know how to put it Paul, maybe it will sound crazy, but writing together went beyond love. It was a merging of our souls, a growing into something that was larger than either of us. All through writing Two For the Road our spirits were careening with sheer delight, like Chaplin on roller skates. I wanted to live like that for the rest of our life together
Oh, Paul, I’m still not saying what I need to say. Maybe if I backtrack, or rather flash-forward, I can explain. When the reviews of The Splintered Mirror appeared I was devastated. I’d made a terrible mistake and everything came crashing down on me—but it isn’t what you think. What Michelle told you about my behavior was true. I was out of control—I’m lucky I survived. I couldn’t believe how I was hurting Michelle, but I couldn’t stop myself. And I couldn’t bear to have Michelle hovering over me—eager to help, yes, but also hungry for my attention. She was suffocating me and I broke off from her. It was all I could do, the only chance either of us had to survive.
You know all this, Paul. It’s the story Michelle and I agreed to tell—and it’s true as far as it goes. So here’s where I have to backtrack. It was right after Two For the Road was published, when we settled in Key West and I began working on my novel. But something unexpected happened. I felt that as though I was pulling me away from Michelle, that we were in danger of losing the incredible bond we’d had when we wrote Two For the Road together. And that’s when I knew that we had to write this novel together. Michelle was dead set against it. She wasn’t a writer, she said: Two For the Road came directly from our daily experience—that was fine—but she’d never written a story and she’d never wanted to. But I was determined—I harangued her until she gave in. Our plan was that we would write alternate sections and that Michelle was free to shape characters and events in whatever way seemed right for her. Our novel would be “like a splintered mirror,” she said. And that was it, just what I’d had in mind—a story broken into shards, like Frank and Jena’s fractured family.
I wrote the first section—scenes that set up the family’s life in Eugene, with just the slightest hint of tension between Frank and Jena—and then I passed it on to Michelle. “This is crazy,” she told me—she said it just about every day she wrote, but I could tell that she was gradually taking to it, allowing herself to write freely and unselfconsciously.
Then one morning I woke up to find the house empty—and on the kitchen table Michelle had left sixty pages of manuscript. I read them through in a single sitting. In ten pages she’d thrown Frank into his love affair with a graduate student, a passive, needy girl. Then Michelle sent them off to a ski lodge, which led to Frank’s accident. She completely galvanized the tensions that my chapters had set up. Frank’s desire, his need to do something daring—Michelle gave everything an edge. Characters and events became wilder, more feverish—as if she were tapping into Frank’s reckless longing.
We were writing together, creating something bigger than both of us. But it was more than that. Michelle had taken the story I’d imagined to another level. She transformed it into a savage nightmare. It was brilliant, and I knew right then that I had to step aside and let her write The Splintered Mirror on her own. Michelle kept saying it was crazy, but I didn’t see it that way. I urged her to put aside her fears and push forward. And she did—she blew right past what I think Freud calls “the watchman,” the guardian who ensures that unruly unconscious impulses don’t storm into our lives. She changed my characters into avatars of deep and dreaded drives, figures out of myth and tragedy
That’s how it happened, Paul. Michelle wrote The Splintered Mirror, not me. It was our secret. The book would appear under my name; but when the reviews came in with the praise I knew it would get, why then we’d reveal the truth and Michelle’s literary career would be launched.
Well, you know the rest. The reviewers were right—The Splintered Mirror was savage and remorseless. Why hadn’t I seen it? It was my fault, Paul. I urged Michelle to do it, I cajoled her. What was I thinking? I made Michelle write The Splintered Mirror—but after the reviews came out, it seemed that neither of us had written it. It wasn’t a story that I could have written, but it wasn’t Michelle’s either. It was—I don’t know how to say it—so extreme. Yet there it was, a total disaster. She wanted to reveal the truth of her authorship. She was clear that she had to do this, but I refused to let her. The Splintered Mirror came out of my fixation that we had to write together. The failure was mine and mine alone.
So there you have it, Paul. Michelle and I have kept our secret all this time, but our suffering is long past. You can see that all is well in my life, and I think the same is true for Michelle. Our secret remains a secret, but now you are in on it and I know you will be worthy of my trust.
Even after I read her letter, I could not wrap my head around it. Dana’s deception was unthinkable—lies to friends, to her editor and publicists and, most important, to her readers. There are many ways of seeing what had happened, many overlapping understandings. The simplest and most obvious explanation was that Dana and Michelle had been caught up in a folie a deux that skewed their judgment even as it elated them. The Splintered Mirror was the ill-gotten product of their folly—a frenzied, unhinged performance driven by Dana’s determination to recapture the unsustainable excitement she and Michelle felt when they collaborated on Two For the Road. Dana believed that sharing her creative work with Michelle would bring their very beings into sync—like that scene in Centering when Vicky wraps her hands over Gayle’s, her palms’ warmth flowing into her; how she looks at her blindfolded student and then closes her own eyes, breathing slowly until she feels at one with Gayle; then she gently withdraws her steadying touch, allowing Gayle to feel the power of her own centered energy as she shapes the lump of clay, slowly, slowly into an open bowl.
Imagine the outpouring of emotions as The Splintered Mirror came into being! For Dana and Michelle it must have marked a period of sustained elation, ecstasy even, of living in a waking dream—yet the more they surrendered themselves to their undertaking, the more that dream became disfigured. With a lover’s urgency, Dana urged Michelle to pull out all the stops and write with abandon, wherever it led her. What Dana ignored was something she certainly knew: that unfettered writing is part of a larger process. An unbridled psyche may be the very font of creativity, but without a subsequent interval of reflection there is a danger that—well, to put it simply, there is a danger that what a writer believes to be inspired writing may turn out to be The Splintered Mirror.
* * *
Last week, I came upon the sad news that Michelle Russell died of breast cancer. Her obituary described a life of accomplishment. It mentioned, of course, her partnership with Dana as pro-choice activists, and her role in the writing of Two For the Road—but it also noted important contributions to woman’s studies, as well as the enriching life she shared with her partner of thirty years. It was good to know that the disastrous release of The Splintered Mirror and the unraveling of her relationship with Dana did not ruin her life any more than it ruined Dana’s. On the contrary, the fevered process that engendered The Splintered Mirror ultimately freed both women to live productive lives with enduring, loving relationships.
I’d thought that Dana’s account of how The Splintered Mirror was written explained everything—that, upsetting as it was, the reason for her falling-out with Michelle was plain enough. But Michelle’s death has stirred up an uneasy sense that what I’ve written up to now is incomplete. Dana and Michelle sought something impossible, a coalescing of their innermost beings, and it led to the debacle of The Splintered Mirror, which led, in turn, to an abrupt rupture of their life together. This is true, but it does not account for what I now feel.
All that I’ve written so far has positioned me as an observer of Dana and Michelle’s story—but it is not so simple. I’ve ignored the fact that I am part of the very story I’ve been recounting. I recall Michelle’s words: “If you’d been in love. . . you’d understand.” At the time, I shrugged this off as her way of deflecting my questions about her contradictory account of her breakup with Dana. But now I wonder: why have I imagined that I am able to understand events in which one of the principals bluntly told me that I didn’t understand?
I recall a night at the very end of the HANDS OFF OUR BODIES cross-country journey. We had just arrived in New York, and Michelle and Dana were staying in the spare bedroom in my flat. It was a long and exhilarating day for them: several radio interviews followed by dinner with friends. When I heard them stumble in, I was in bed, half asleep, and didn’t bother to greet them—but from the commotion I heard in the hallway I knew they’d been drinking. I was drifting off again when I was startled by sharp yelps. I propped myself up and listened. Some poor animal was in pain—an injured dog, or perhaps a crazed stray cat mewling wildly on a nearby rooftop. I opened my window to scour the low rooftops, but it was silent by then and I saw nothing. Perhaps if I peered out my living room window. . . As I stepped into the hallway, the distressing noise rose up again—but now I realized that the cries issued from Dana and Michelle’s room, their lovemaking.
I am not a prude, but—how can I say this?—those sounds, their unbridled urgency, I’d never imagined they might be produced by pleasure. The yelping changed to high-pitched squeals, while I stood in the hallway utterly transfixed. I listened until their sounds dissolved in laughter. Then, I heard the familiar murmur of Dana and Michelle’s voices, as if their daemon selves had at last released them.
This unforeseen moment awakened a longing that I had no idea resided within me. Not desire but rather a wish to experience something that unrestrained, that transformative. Was this what Michelle meant when she told me that I had never truly loved anyone, that I had never abandoned myself to another soul? In writing The Splintered Mirror, Dana and Michelle had ventured beyond the boundaries of their separate identities into a fierce, instinctive and, yes, treacherous territory that I knew nothing about. Their wild lovemaking that so alarmed me now seems linked to the very forces that spawned their novel. Earlier I commented that Dana and Michelle’s yearning to come together in every aspect of their lives was unsustainable, and so it was, but to have lived just once, however briefly and recklessly, on those volatile terms seems, upon reflection, not an act of folly but rather the enacting of an abiding human wish: to merge our isolated self with a kindred spirit; to make whole what feels fragmented and incomplete; to mend the splintered pieces of our lives.