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Written by Mary AllenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mary Allen


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On Sale: July 27, 2011
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76678-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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"A love story, a memoir, a haunting tale of grief and healing. This book is all that and more." --Chicago Tribune

In the tradition of Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted and Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, Mary Allen tells a riveting love story that explores the uncharted territory between passion and  addiction, grief and madness, this world and the next.

When Mary Allen falls in love with Jim Beaman, she doesn't know he has a drug problem, but she does sense demons and angels around him, like "a disturbance in the air, a sound just beyond the register of human hearing." And when Jim--discouraged and depressed, struggling with his addiction--kills himself a year into their relationship, Allen is unable to let him go. In her desperate attempts to recover from the loss, she uses a Ouija board and automatic writing to pull back from reality into the dark recesses of her mind, where she believes she can find him. The result is a mesmerizing trip across the boundaries between this world and the afterlife, a journey that leads her to the brink of insanity and ultimately back to herself.


       I always think of Iowa as a place where strange and magical things happen. Not sleight of hand, card tricks, pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat kind of magic--nothing as literal and obvious as that. What I'm thinking of is vaguer, subtler, harder to pin down and yet more genuine. It's an ambiance, a spirit, an intimation of things unseen, a sense that there could be a little bit of slippage, just the tiniest room for negotiation, in the ordinary order of things.

        Most people I know think of Iowa as anything but magical. They think of it--of the whole Midwest--as flat, dull, conventional, a place where mostly boring and mundane things happen. And maybe it is, regarded in a certain way. Maybe life is like a hologram: Hold it up to the light at one angle and it all looks ordinary; tilt it another way and everything shifts, glows, turns strange.

        I have a friend who says you always fall in love with the place you fall in love in, and I'm sure she's right, I'm sure that's partly why I think of Iowa this way. And I'm sure it also has to do with who I fell in love with--with Jim Beaman, his particular way of seeing things, his demons and angels. It even, unexpectedly, has to do with what became of him--with death, that mystifying disappearing act that has its own brand of terrible magic, that in the end may be the most magical thing of all.

        But even the first time I saw it, entering Iowa from Illinois, I was struck by something unusual in the Iowa countryside. I was driving a small U-Haul truck, moving here from Massachusetts. Earlier I'd passed through a massive thunderstorm. You could actually see it coming--the black clouds towering up ahead in the distance; the rain spattering on the windshield, then turning torrential; thunder rumbling then booming then crrracking, as if the very fabric of the world were splitting; flashes of lightning streaking down again and again in the fields beside the highway. Then suddenly I was beyond it; the sun was back out and the sky was once more an innocent placid blue.

        Half an hour into Iowa I noticed a change in the landscape. Whereas Illinois is largely flat, full of marshes and lowlands and small industrial cities, giving it a kind of dull suburban atmosphere, Iowa has a safe, kindly, fresh-scrubbed feeling. The landscape consists of miles and miles of rolling, undulating green, a verdant patchwork of corn and soybeans, the horizon only broken every once in a while by a clump of farm buildings--a large white house, a sagging red barn, a windmill, a silo, a couple of sheds--and sometimes, out in the cornfields, by a pickup truck barreling along a narrow road in the distance, kicking up a cloud of white dust. Often on the horizon the air fades to a pale, hazy, bluish shade of pink, and above it the vault of the mild blue sky curves and rises. The view seems endlessly wide; it makes something expand inside your eyes or your mind.

        Gradually, as I was entering Iowa for the first time, I began to notice a large number of monarch butterflies fluttering around in the air. They were everywhere, pottering along at the edge of the road, scissoring across the fields, sailing on updrafts above the highway, blundering into the path of the truck.

My neighbor across the street has a dog named Bob.

        Bob is a short, old, black dog with an energetic disposition and an alert, foxlike face. His parts are all out of proportion to each other; he looks more like a picture of a dog a kid would draw than a real dog: large oval body, ears like sails on a small bullet head, upside-down Vs for legs.

        Bob is in love with his mistress, Julie, a pottery teacher and waitress. At least that's what my friend Grant says. Grant's a graduate student at the university. I met him in the physics department, where I used to have a job at a journal. He's the source of most of what I know about Bob and Julie. Grant was Julie's roommate in the last place she lived. I've never met Julie myself, and have only observed Bob from a distance of thirty or forty feet.

        Once Grant described to me a photograph of Bob and Julie, taken a long time ago, when Bob was just a puppy. It was taken in the morning, soon after they both woke up. Julie's sitting up in bed holding Bob; his face is near her face. Julie's eyes are downcast, she looks sleepy and inward and meditative. "And Bob looks like this," Grant said. He leaped suddenly off the chair in my office, leaned to the side as if straining hard against a leash, bared his teeth in a wide, goofy, manic grin. He practically made his hair stand on end.

        I often watch Bob from across the street. The front door of his house will open and he will emerge, take a brief turn around the lawn, stop a few times to sniff at trees. After he sniffs, he arcs one hind leg up in the air, squirts a little pee onto the tree, looks around fiercely as if challenging an invisible enemy. After he's done this a few times, he returns to the front steps, scratches at the front door, and lets out a sharp little yip. Then he sits down to wait for Julie to let him in. If she doesn't come in a minute or two he yips again and waits more anxiously, head cocked, tail wagging. Where could she be? Sometimes he yips three or four times, each little bark getting louder and sharper. When that happens, I feel like calling Julie on the telephone, shouting into her window from across the street: "Bob is waiting for you!"

        I can't stand to watch him wait.

I live in Iowa City, on Washington Street. My house is yellow and has a flat lawn with a sycamore tree, a two-car driveway, a cement front porch with black wrought-iron railings. Bob and Julie's house is large and pinkish tan with a high, peaked, cherry-red roof, a wooden porch, and squiggles of gingerbread trim. It rests on top of a small rise and has a long, green, sloping lawn. I have some history with that house--with this entire neighborhood, in fact.

        When I look out my window I see, not just houses and trees and sidewalks and telephone poles--the whole elaborate tapestry of the physical world--but something like a series of overlays: the view as it has appeared to me at different times, colored by different events, over the last twelve years. And when I walk the fifteen-minute walk between my place and downtown, there are various spots along the way that are more than just bits of scenery; they're landmarks in my personal history, signposts that call up certain memories and feelings. One house in particular, a block and a half away from mine--a large, three-story white building with a wide, brick-walled verandah--always makes me do a mental double take. This is where Jim Beaman lived.

        The house stands on a good-sized rise above the street; three tiers of cement steps lead from the entrance down to the sidewalk. A two-person swing hangs on chains from the porch ceiling; there used to be a second, matching one of these, but somebody took it down a couple of years ago, or maybe it got stolen. The entrance to the house is a black storm door, and at equal distances from the door are two large windows with foot-wide strips of stained glass at the top. One of these was Beaman's window; his bedroom used to lie beyond the blinds.

        There was a time when I could pass this house without even noticing; it meant nothing to me; I hadn't even heard of Jim Beaman. And there was a time--not a very long time, as relationships go--when I was completely wrapped up in the life that went on inside one of its apartments. I'd walk by wondering what Jim was up to, whether he was off at some job or in his bedroom napping or making phone calls or maybe standing at the window, waiting for me to arrive. Most of the time I wouldn't go by; I'd climb the steps to the porch, push open the heavy wooden door that lay inside the storm door, go down the hall, and be let into Beaman's warm, bright apartment.

        Then there was a time when the sight of that house was so painful I could hardly stand it. Still, whenever I passed I always looked over--I couldn't help it, as if driven by some kind of reflex--and just before I looked I always felt a tiny spark of hope, as if the laws that govern life and death might have changed from one moment to the next. Then I'd experience a little shock of dismay and disappointment. There was a certain sentence I'd tell myself then, addressing it to Beaman. I'd say it bitterly, sententiously, and in some obscure way it would make me feel better. "Your window is dark," I'd say, "and you, of course, are gone."

I came to Iowa in 1986 to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Two weeks before I left Cambridge, I rented a place over the phone from an Iowa City real estate agent. He told me the apartment was an attic on the third floor of a house. I liked attic apartments; I lived in one in Cambridge, and I thought the place in Iowa City would feel just like home. In my imagination, I pictured a tidy, cozy attic with an old-fashioned quilt on the bed, a white-painted glass-doored cupboard, a pleasant, orderly living room with a green and blue braided rug. As it turned out, the place smelled of bug spray and there were gaps in the bedroom ceiling; the bathroom had no door and the shower was a greasy plastic stall; the windowsills were rotten and filled with piles of dead beetles. I was afraid to sleep in the bedroom because of the likelihood of bats coming through the holes in the ceiling; I sealed that room off; I even put masking tape over the keyhole. Bats can get in through very small places.

        My friend Ron followed me from Massachusetts to Iowa City in his car, helped me move into my apartment and stayed for one night, then continued west to California. We arrived at my new home just as the sun was going down. We looked wordlessly around the place, carried my boxes and bed frame up three flights of stairs, and went out to dinner. When we came back it was dark and airless in the apartment. The previous tenant had vacated it the week before and I had neglected to tell the local utilities company to turn the electricity back on. We rested my double mattress on the living-room floor below the window and lay down on it in our clothes--Ron and I are just friends and always have been. The light of a streetlight shone dimly through the window and the air outside was permeated by the sharp, high whine of cicadas; the noise seemed to fill the night with something deranged and ominous.

      It was unbearably hot in the room. Ron had given me a fan as a going-away present, and eventually he got out of bed, took the fan out of its box, and started waving the box back and forth above the mattress to stir up some air. "I knew this fan would come in handy," he said.

        He left the next day for California. After I watched him drive away I went out and bought a newspaper to look for another place. I brought the paper back to the apartment, opened it on the bed, and began to scan the columns of ads for apartments for rent, circling those I could afford. One notice in particular caught my eye; it was for a one-bedroom on Washington Street. I called the number listed in the ad and no one answered; I waited an hour, then called again; no one answered that time either. I kept dialing the same number all day long, and I didn't call any other places. I had an odd little feeling about the apartment on Washington Street, as if I knew it was where I belonged.

        Finally at six-thirty a woman answered the phone. She told me how to get to the house--it was ten blocks up from the Civic Center, where the police station is--and I walked there in the pale, luminous evening air. The landlord showed me around the apartment--it was nothing special, just three big rooms on the first floor, with tall windows and no gaps in the ceiling where bats could get in--and I wrote him a check for my first and last months' rent.

        Whatever it is that arranges and orders our lives, leads us to crucial meetings, puts us in place for key events, whatever it is--fate, luck, intuition, guardian angels, maybe--must have been operating that day, making me focus on that ad, leading me to this apartment, this street, because none of the things that happened to me would have happened if I hadn't been living on Washington Street.

Washington Street is a wide, straight, tree-lined street that runs through the middle of Iowa City. Its houses are large and old, with handsome front porches and lush green lawns, but there are baby carriages and lawnmowers and battered bicycles on the porches and here and there a pickup truck's parked along the curb among the cars, so you know it's the kind of place where students and married couples and other ordinary people live. My part of the street is flat and open, but a little farther down, after the intersection with Governor Street, the road is split by a series of oblong brick islands covered with close-cropped rugs of grass like the felt-covered bottoms of chess pieces, and the street begins a long, slow, sweeping descent into downtown Iowa City. If you stand at the top of that slope in the evening in a season when the trees are without their leaves, you can see all the way down to the little round stoplight dangling from a wire at the intersection with Gilbert Street, and beyond that and up a rise--Iowa, it turns out, is not flat after all--you can see the glowing yellow marquee of the Englert Theater; you can even see the little black letters spelling out the names of this week's movies. Beyond that and higher still are the regular, square lines of the Jefferson Building, which a long time ago was a hotel but now houses offices for the university.

        I had an office in there once. While I was in the Workshop I taught rhetoric, and I was supposed to hold office hours twice a week so my students could drop by and see me. My friend Kathy, who was also in the Workshop and also taught rhetoric, shared the office with me. No students ever came to see us, and we spent the whole time sitting at our desks complaining and laughing. We complained about our students' work and the lack of men in our lives and our various other gripes. I can't remember what we laughed about, maybe the same things.

        Once, as we were leaving in the evening--we must have been there to drop off or pick up something, because our office hours were early in the day--we stopped in the stairwell and looked out a window that faced the pedestrian mall behind the building. It was early spring of our last semester teaching and Kathy had been talking about moving away; I kept hoping she'd change her mind and stay. I knew I'd be staying in any case. I didn't want to return to Cambridge or western Massachusetts--I felt as if my business was somehow finished in those places--and I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. But I didn't really want to leave anyway. Iowa felt like home to me; I loved the kind, green, rolling cornfields that surrounded the town, the way everything in Iowa City was safe and clean and affordable. I thought my life would be perfect if only Kathy would stay.

        Opposite where she and I were standing, on the other side of the pedestrian mall, was the wide blank face of the Holiday Inn. Most of its windows were dark, but one about halfway up was ablaze with light, and within, like a little play inside a glowing shoe box, a tiny aerobic dance class was going on. Ten or twelve little figures in bright-colored leotards moved to a rapid, silent, pulsing beat, squatting, standing, reaching, kicking, bobbing up and down in syncopated rhythm, like miniature mechanical dolls.

I met Kathy in January of my first year in Iowa City. She was studying poetry in the Workshop. We were both from rural working-class New England--Kathy grew up in small-town western Connecticut and I was from rural western Massachusetts--and we had both worked in publishing, but the main thing we had in common was that we felt different--somehow worse and better at the same time--than many of our fellow Workshop students, who were generally younger than we were and whom we perceived as coming from more normal and more privileged backgrounds than ours. Kathy and I met at a party, and after that we saw each other or talked on the telephone nearly every day. We went to readings and more parties together, sat around Kathy's attic apartment watching TV and eating popcorn, drove to Hy-Vee and KMart and Target in Kathy's blue VW bug, talked about everything in the world there was to talk about. We didn't have much money and worried hysterically about whatever we spent, but once we bought a box of four pale-green wine glasses and split it--Kathy got two and I got two--and once when they were giving away free goldfish at Drugtown we each acquired one, then went to Kmart and bought goldfish bowls, fish food, and aqua gravel for the bottom of the bowls. Our fish died. Kathy's died quickly; when she got up the next morning it was floating belly-up on the surface of the water in her fishbowl. Mine went more slowly; for a day or two it drifted around looking sluggish and bloated, then floated to the surface as well. We went back to Drugtown and got two more goldfish. This time we were careful to pick ones that looked healthy and frisky; there were thousands crammed into a two-foot aquarium. But the new ones died too. Kathy said she felt like a bad parent.

        In the summer she acquired a small used telescope that you could just barely see the rings of Saturn through. One night we set it up in the high school football field and watched a lunar eclipse, taking turns staring through the eyepiece as the moon's light was gradually obliterated by the earth's shadow and the moon looked more and more like a round ball of rock hanging there in space, which is exactly what it is, of course.

        The same summer we took up roller-skating by the river. Kathy bought a pair of old used skates at a garage sale and around the same time on a trip I took to Massachusetts my niece gave me a pair that didn't fit her anymore. Kathy's skates were low and black and had metal wheels; mine were tall and white with red rubber wheels. I'd never been on roller skates and Kathy hadn't skated for years, so we started off practicing in a parking lot beside the University Hospital. We went there twice--both times in the evening to avoid the heat--and I had just got so I could inch along for four or five feet when an orderly came out and told us we had to leave; the wheels on Kathy's skates made so much noise they could hear them inside the hospital. After that Kathy bought new black skates with rubber wheels and we moved to another parking lot, next to the recreation center. We went there after supper every night for three weeks and skated around and around till the pinkish twilight faded from the sky and the street lights glimmered faintly in the dusk.

        Then we decided to start skating during the daytime in City Park. Nearly every day we'd walk to the student union, skates dangling from their shoelaces strung over our shoulders, change into them at the edge of a parking lot, and hide our shoes in the bushes. We'd skate along a path by the river, stop and wait for traffic whizzing by on Park Road, then skate uncertainly across the street and step up onto the sidewalk. We'd make our way over the bridge and up a rise to the entrance of the park on our right. There we would stop; the path through the park begins with a sharp descent. Kathy would stand at the top of the walk and coast all the way down the hill, flapping her arms like wings, her upper body shifting back and forth. I'd watch to see if she made it, then clump down the hill in the grass with my skates sideways, Kathy waiting for me at the bottom. From there on, the path through the park was more or less clear sailing, though parts were bumpy and narrow and there was only one long stretch--a flat wide curvy section after the path veered away from the river--where you could really pick up speed. In my mind I see Kathy flying along ahead of me there, hair streaming behind her, body swinging from side to side, arms pumping with determination, as small and fierce as an eight-year-old boy.
Mary Allen|Author Q&A

About Mary Allen

Mary Allen - The Rooms of Heaven

Photo © Dan Coffey

Mary Allen lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Author Q&A

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

From the Hardcover edition.



"Wrenching in its spare, humble prose....It will stay with you." --Esquire

"Intelligent, humorous, unsentimental...[The Rooms of Heaven] convince[s] us that the mystery of love is indeed far greater and more profound than the mystery of death." --Francine Prose, Elle

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