Q: THE ROOMS OF HEAVEN looks at a dramatic period in your life. What made you decide to write the book?
A: In 1990, in Iowa City, I met and fell in love with a smart, handsome tuck-pointer named Jim Beaman. A tuck-pointer is someone who repairs chimneys, balancing on rooftops and scaffolding. It's an offbeat job most people have never heard of and in that sense it suited Beaman, who was witty and unusual, full of contradictions, himself. We talked late into the night many nights in a row, fell irreversibly in love, decided to get married. But there was one big obstacle: Jim had a drug problem. After we got together he tried to give up drugs and I tried to make him give up drugs, but as anyone could predict, this proved to be far from a simple matter. And in January of 1991, discouraged and depressed, he shot himself.
That's the first half of the story I tell in the book. Nothing was ever simple with Beaman and the second half of the book--how I coped with his suicide--isn't simple either; it's more than just a straightforward story of grief and healing, because I couldn't let him go. I simply could not rest until I had figured something out about death and where, if anywhere, Jim Beaman went. So I tracked him down, by reading books about the afterlife and eventually pursuing more radical, hands-on means of reaching him--with very interesting and ultimately disastrous results. When it was all over and the dust had settled I knew I had to write about it, to help myself make sense of it. The result was The Rooms of Heaven.
Q: Surprisingly, despite all the problems and upheaval that occurred, the book is first and foremost a love story. Could you talk a little about that aspect of it?
A: Well, I don't know whether it was some subtle subconscious psychological thing or predestination or just plain old-fashioned love at first sight, but I did fall madly in love with Jim the minute we met and the feeling never went away. I think nowadays we tend to be suspicious when people say they fell in love at first sight. We think there must be something else that's really going on, deep psychological issues at work, codependency or love addiction or some other need-driven thing, and maybe some of that was at the bottom of the feeling for me, but it felt like there was something else too, something more mysterious.
I think another thing we believe here in the late 20th century is that our lives are supposed to run smoothly, we're supposed to have relationships that work and if they don't work we're supposed to trade them in for new ones that do. But that didn't seem to be an option for me with Jim.From the minute I met him I had the feeling that this was something I was going to have to do, this was not something I could get out of. This is very hard to describe, but it really felt as if there was something divine about the whole relationship, as if it was meant to be or some similar cliche. There was something sweet and strange and unusual about the whole relationship, something slightly numinous, otherworldly, that I felt right from the start. That divine aspect was there all the time along with the other, terrible, dark aspects--the drugs and the alcohol and the codependency and the mess.
Q: How did you react when you found out Jim was addicted to drugs? Do you think you'd react the same way today?
A: In retrospect, it seems like I reacted strangely. I didn't take it very seriously; I sort of glossed the whole thing over in my mind, kept thinking it was going to go away. And in a certain way I was even somewhat attracted to it; it appealed to some rebellious, self-destructive part of me, and also to the remnants in me of the value system of the sixties. More than anything, though, I think my reaction to Jim's drug problem was a result of my ignorance. I had never been involved with someone who had a drug problem. My mother was an alcoholic but we didn't even know that when I was a kid, didn't recognize it as the source of a lot of her and our difficulties. So I had had no real, conscious experience--no experience to learn from--with anyone who had a drug or alcohol problem and I had no idea how bad life with those problems can get or what to do when I encountered them. A lot of my reaction, too, came out of denial--I didn't want to know how serious a problem it was, admit to myself that it was this huge, uncontrollable mess that was going to make a real relationship with Jim impossible.
I'm not sure I'd be able to just avoid it all--simply not get involved with him, the way you think you're always going to--but I'd approach his drug problem more realistically, and get some help dealing with my responses to his problems. I wouldn't try to make him quit, I'd try to accept that he and only he could do that work, and I'd recognize how hard, how almost impossible it is to recover from an addiction. I wouldn't just expect him to quit and then be surprised every time he didn't.
Q: We've often heard the term "codependency" in self-help books and on talk shows, but your book places the abstract idea in a real, emotional landscape that gives the reader a richer understanding. How do you define codependency, and did it play a significant role in your relationship with Jim?
A: First of all, I have to say I hate the word "codependency." I always imagine a sneery little tone in the voice that says it when I hear it in my head. Also, I think it's a word most of us don't understand very well, because codependency is a slippery concept that's hard to pin down. To me, at least as it played out in my relationship with Jim, it's a kind of mutual addiction. Jim was addicted to drugs and I was addicted to him, to the relationship with him and what I thought I could get out of it--I thought it would make me happy, raise me above ordinary humdrum existence. I also had a strong fear of abandonment, which added to the addiction-like quality of my attachment to Jim. And because I was addicted to the relationship working out and he needed to quit drugs in order for the relationship to work out, or so I thought, I was also addicted to the idea that he would quit doing drugs. I thought that there was something I could do to make him quit--which I now know was a misperception--and so I got all tangled up in how to do that. I would think obsessively about what to do next, imagine the effects my words or behavior would have on him.
There were other aspects of my "codependency" too--other hooks that kept me going. In a way it was appealing--even reassuring--to me that Jim had a drug problem, as long as I thought that he would stop, that I would, could help him stop. It made me feel important and needed to think I had that power. His addiction was clearly life threatening and it was deeply gratifying to me to think that I could save his life, partly because it made me feel good about myself and partly because I loved him so much. Of course, in the end I couldn't save his life, and it was an illusion all along that I could help him quit doing drugs, but I didn't see that at the time. At the time I thought I was helping him quit, I even thought he had already quit and that each time he did drugs it was just a slip and it was going to be the last slip because next time he'd try harder. That's what he thought too. Ironically, I think it might have been my efforts to save his life by helping him quit drugs that ended up killing him. I have the feeling, after giving it a lot of thought, that a big part of the reason he committed suicide was that he couldn't take disappointing me over and over.
Q: Whom did you turn to for emotional support after Jim's suicide? Did you seek out support groups?
A: In the beginning I attended a support group for suicide survivors sponsored by our local crisis center. That was helpful. And I talked to a lot of people individually, people who had also experienced a death of someone they were close to. And I sought out support in books, by going to the library and reading everything I could get my hands on. I found it extremely useful to read books in which I shared someone else's personal experience, the closer the experience was to mine the better. I found that more useful than, say, reading a book of advice about how to grieve or how to survive a suicide. And I think in the end that was partly why I decided to write my book. I didn't go to any support groups that would have helped me deal with the codependency aspect of my situation--with my unresolved issues around Jim's drug and problems. Eventually I did join a twelve-step program for families and friends of alcoholics and that has helped me tremendously, but I didn't do that when I was involved with Jim or after his death. I wish I had, because I think it could have helped me enormously.
Q: What was your experience of grief like?
A: One thing I noticed right away is that people are sort of scared of you when you're grieving, when somebody close to you has died, especially if they died in a sudden violent unpredictable way. I think part of it is that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. There really isn't any right thing to say but people are afraid of hurting you with the wrong thing and that makes them nervous. But I think it's also that people are so afraid of death they don't even want to be reminded of it, and it's almost as if you, because you were close to the dead person, have been subtly contaminated by it.
Also, in the same vein, I noticed that people, even people who know you really well, don't quite expect you to be yourself any more when somebody close to you has died. It's as if death is alien and some of that alienness has rubbed off on you. I have a theory about all that. I think death is really horrifying to us because it lets us know the world isn't what we think it is. When someone dies suddenly it's as if a door opens up and the person disappears through it without a trace, and when that door opens the whole landscape suddenly changes, it isn't what we thought it was after all--it isn't just houses and neighborhoods and trees and other placid, surface things--there's something more underneath, and we know that we could and will disappear through that door ourselves someday. And that is very frightening to us and we don't want to think about it; we want the picture to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
I think that's also the reason people want you to get over grieving as soon as possible. There's a lot of pressure to stop feeling bad quickly and move on with your life. As if grieving isn't really part of life and if you do it too much you're wasting time and doing something harmful to yourself, as if allowing yourself to feel and express unhappy feelings makes you have them. In my experience, it was just the opposite, not allowing myself to have or express the feelings just made them worse and deeper, as if the feelings were digging their heels in. Of course, most therapists and grief counselors would tell you that too nowadays, but there's still a lot of pressure in the popular culture to get over grieving as quickly as possible. You're supposed to let the dead person go, which means, I think, that you're more or less supposed to forget about them.
I didn't want to let Jim Beaman go, and I came up with this idea that maybe there doesn't have to be this huge schism between the dead and the living. Maybe we don't have to forget about the dead--feel and act as if they're gone, almost as if they were never there to begin with--maybe love can and does go on and on between the living and the dead.
Q: After Jim committed suicide, you began to try to communicate with him. Can you describe that experience?
I read a lot of books about the afterlife: books about near death experiences such as Life after Life by Raymond Moody, and old books I found in the library about spirit mediums and messages supposedly from dead people that came through mediums, and various other things. Basically, I read anything that might possibly give me an answer or a little piece of an answer to the question what is death, is it just the complete obliteration of a human being, like a machine being turned off, permanently? And if it isn't--and I could never make myself believe that it is--then what is it? I was absolutely fascinated by that question in a way I've never been fascinated by anything in my whole life.
In any event, in those books, I kept encountering descriptions of various occult practices whereby certain people were purportedly able to receive messages from dead people, and I kept wishing that I could find some way of receiving a message from Jim. Then a friend of mine who was also fascinated by the possibility of contacting the dead came to visit and we did the ouija board together. My friend's mother had died a couple of months before Jim, and my friend thought she got a legitimate message from her mother on the ouija board. I was less convinced--there's always something ambiguous about these messages, always room for doubt--but I wasn't ready to give up on the whole project either.
So after my friend left I continued to read about the occult and try various methods I'd read about--focused meditation, and automatic writing, where you hold a pen in your hand and it seems to acquire energy of its own and write out messages from the dead--but nothing really worked. Then one day it came to me to try to do the ouija board alone. I did, and it spelled out one word that deeply shocked and surprised me--one word that seemed to come from Jim. After that I tried to do automatic writing again and this time it seemed to work. You have to read the book to find out the rest of the story.
Q: Eventually, after doing a lot of automatic writing, your grip on reality began loosening and you ended up in a mental hospital. What lasting effects did that experience have on you?
A: Actually, it had no lasting effects on me at all, at least not any negative ones. The doctors in the pysch ward diagnosed me as having bipolar illness--what used to be called manic depression--and I took lithium for about a year. When I stopped taking it, which I did gradually, supervised by a psychiatrist but against her advice, the doctor predicted that I would have another "episode" but I never did. I continued to follow up with a psychiatrist for three or four years after that, just to be safe. I went to a different psychiatrist at a mental health center because I had such bad memories of the psych ward and eventually the new doctor said she thought I had been misdiagnosed: I had never been bipolar but instead had had "brief psychotic disorder," a one-time only, trauma-related thing.
I'm not sure whether that was the case or whether something else actually happened--I've always suspected that my "breakdown" or whatever you want to call it was a result of doing automatic writing for hours on end, of throwing open a door in my head and inviting the voice of an invisible person, a dead person in. I'm absolutely certain that if I hadn't done that I wouldn't have "gone crazy" and ended up in the psych ward.
There's a book called Spiritual Emergency edited by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof which pos