Joan of Arc: Called by God and Driven by Drink
Canonized as a saint 508 years after her death, Joan of Arc led the armies of France when she was seventeen years old. At nineteen she was captured by the British, tried by the Church, and burned at the stake as a heretic. At seventeen I left high school because there was a parking lot that needed to be hung out in, and I didn’t want the brainy kids to have to take a shift. At nineteen I became a stand-up comic, turning my back on a successful table-bussing career, and at forty-one I was arrested, putting off my canonization indefinitely.
Joan of Arc was born to Isabele and Jacques d’Arc in Domremy, France, in 1412. I don’t understand French names. Apparently Joan of Arc was never called “Joan” in France; she was Jeanne d’Arc. Two different authors I read said they were calling her “Joan” because that was how Americans knew her. Well, who started calling her “Joan” in America? You can’t just do that. If it’s Jeanne, then it’s not Joan. It’s not even like it saves your tongue time. It’s the same amount of sounds. Why not save ink and call her “d”?
Joan or Jeanne was raised in a manner considered proper in that time and place. Her father said he would rather have had her brothers drown her than allow her to lose her virtue. I’d have been pretty water-safe back then. My mother told me that she learned to swim when someone took her out in a boat to the middle of a lake and threw her overboard. I said, “Mom, they weren’t trying to teach you to swim.”
The youngsters in Joan Jeanne Joan’s community had the responsibility of taking each family’s sheep, goats, and cows to pasture and watching them while they ate. There is a bit of controversy in the record as to whether Joan Jeanne Joan regularly took her turn driving the livestock to pasture, but if she did it drunk we’d have something in common. In June 2001 I was arrested on a felony child-endangerment charge, for driving drunk with my children in the car, a misdemeanor child-abuse charge, the details of which I am not permitted to discuss because they are sealed by the court, and four charges of lewd acts with a minor, which were later dropped. I pled guilty to the child-endangerment charge and the misdemeanor child-abuse charge because those things were true. There is nothing I care about more in the world than my children, but in fact I was drunk when I drove them to the Baskin-Robbins one day, and it was reported to the police. I have no one to blame but myself- which, I’ve always said, takes the joy right out of blaming. I wish Dick Cheney could have been involved somehow.
I did have a drinking problem. I don’t know if you heard. It was kept kind of hush-hush out of deference to me: I was actually court-ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous on television. That pretty much blows the hell out of the second “A,” wouldn’t you say? Not only have I not been granted the world-famous anonymity, but when I arrive at those secret clubhouses, there are big blinking welcome, Paula signs. Looking back, I can see that there were red flags I should’ve noticed. In my defense I’ll say that I was drunk. That’s the good news and the bad news about drinking; there are red flags, but they’re kind of blurry and they zip on by. I guess I was in denial. For a while I thought I had an ice cream problem.
I should have known. About three weeks before I went into rehab I got really drunk, went into a pet store, and bought a dog. It would have been no big deal, but we had nine cats. Believe me, the cats started hiding the alcohol after that. We now have ten cats, a big stupid dog, two tadpoles, a bearded dragon lizard, and a bunny. I’m going to be honest with you. I’d been drunk in that pet store before, and I don’t want to play the victim here, but I believe they knew and I believe they took advantage. Does anybody else’s pet store have a wine section? It seems unusual to me.
I was very drunk when I got my first bunny. I sobered up by the next day and bought another bunny to prove I would have gotten the first bunny even if I wasn’t drunk. That should have been a huge red flag. Most people in AA have bunnies. They don’t say it when they stand up. They say their names and identify themselves as alcoholics, but most don’t have the courage to admit openly to bunny ownership.
My dog was a cute little puppy when I got him. However, about three weeks later, having had no success at quitting drinking on my own, I went into a rehab for 30 days and got stuck there for 180 days. In one of the kindest gestures ever bestowed upon me, a woman I had never even met took my puppy the whole time I was away. Six months later, when I couldn’t possibly share in a circle one more time and my dog had ingested all of her furniture, this woman dropped off in my front yard, in what I liken to a drive-by shooting, one of the biggest, dumbest animals I’ve ever seen. I don’t really even have any proof that it was the original dog, but it didn’t seem polite to question it. As it turns out, my dog Cal is part black Lab, part German shepherd, part pit bull, and part chow. I believe there was at least some alcohol involved in his conception. He has eaten everything. Some bleeding-heart dog people have told me he was teething. Sharks eat everything, are they teething? I believe his German shepherd/black Lab/pit bull/chow mother got really wasted one night, went down to the beach, and had sex with a shark. The most diabolical plan of the maddest mad scientists couldn’t have come up with this combination. I read in a dog-training book that during his “chewing phase” I should put anything I don’t want chewed out of his reach. He eats the side of the house. I’m not sure which high shelf to put the house up on.
As I fly by my neighbors at the end of his leash, they sometimes shout after me, “Why don’t you get rid of that dumb dog?” Sometimes, after exercising the dog, while popping my arm back into its socket, I think about getting rid of him, but he’s an important part of my punishment. It should have been part of my sentence- five years probation, random drug and alcohol testing, and keep the dog-shark.
When she was twelve, Ms. d’Arc heard voices that she believed were sent by God. The voices eventually told her that she had been chosen by God to restore the kingdom of France. She was instructed to dress as a man, crop her hair, take up weapons, lead the French troops to victory, and assist King Charles in reclaiming his kingdom.
I thought I heard God speak to me once. He said, “You’re wearing that?”
I bought a black chiffon spaghetti-strap shirt and jacket once. The salesperson told me I couldn’t wear it with corduroy. There was a sense of danger in her voice. It didn’t sound like merely a “fashion don’t,” but rather a word of serious caution, as though the combination of the two fabrics might result in an explosion. She repeated the warning as she bagged the garment. She was troubled by an uncanny sense that I owned a lot of corduroy. The military must have bunkers full of carefully separated corduroy and black chiffon secreted away somewhere in Nevada. It’s one of those tigers we hold by the tail, like the A-bomb. I never wore the black chiffon shirt and evening jacket. Too risky. I buy impulsively sometimes, totally forgetting what I look like and how I spend my time. Amazingly, the fantasy of going out someplace kind of fancy, on a night when I wasn’t wearing corduroy and had shaved, lasted long enough for that shirt and jacket to make the cut through three moves and countless closet cleanings.
Much of history’s record of Jeanne’s extraordinary life comes from her own testimony during her heresy trial, although I can’t imagine that they got it all written down accurately. My criminal court case in Santa Monica was rescheduled three times in a row, weeks apart, in part because the court clerk wrote the wrong time down on my lawyer’s official document. Once, at the appointed day and time, the district attorney wasn’t there and the judge had to go to a doctor’s appointment. In an effort to cheer me up, my lawyer told me, after he rescheduled with the clerk, “It’ll be next month on the nineteenth and the clerk says this’ll be good because the judge can be there that day.” I realize that, as a criminal, my thoughts on the legal process don’t carry much weight; still, for whatever help it may have been to my lawyer in his own personal relations, I explained to him that people are supposed to plan things for the times they are available to do them, and that one does not score points for scheduling a court hearing for a time when they can be in court—especially when they are the judge. It’s hard to believe that all of what Joan Jeanne Joan said in court got written down exactly as she said it.
Jeanne claimed to have heard voices and seen accompanying apparitions several times each day for five years. She said they were Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, and were often flanked by hundreds of unidentified angels. I keep picturing Michael Landon and Della Reese surrounded by those little white decorative soaps shaped like angel heads, but I’m sure that’s inaccurate. Who would crop her hair short and cross-dress because little soaps told her to?
Joan Jeanne Joan said she never sat for a portrait, but there are many artists’ renderings of her. Since she rather famously cut her hair, it’s clear that the images of her with long, flowing red hair are inaccurate. Jeanne was a farm girl who labored in the sun, and she came from thick, short, muscley farm people, so it’s not likely either that she was tall and thin, with soft pale skin, as she’s often depicted. My face started to wrinkle this year. I don’t see what function it serves in nature, but it’s amazing. My face is folding in on itself. It’s no wonder I’m tired a lot—that has to be a draining process. I recently bought wrinkle cream. I tried to slip it surreptitiously into the basket at the Rite-Aid, but my daughter Alley saw me and kept asking, “What’s that?” in a really loud voice. I was so embarrassed. I had always hoped that I’d be willing to age gracefully, but sometimes you panic. “Wrinkle cream,” I muttered. But Alley wouldn’t let it go. She looked at me wide-eyed and said, “But, Mom, you don’t even believe in stuff like that.”
“Yeah, but what if I’m wrong?” I answered.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say by Paula Poundstone. Copyright © 2006 by Paula Poundstone. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.