By Judy Gumbo Albert, Ph.D.
The winner of Third Place Prose describes her process in not letting the charisma of those incredible times overwhelm her own truth.
My submission to the Times They Are A Changing contest is titled “Bugged.” It’s adapted from a chapter in Yippie Girl, my memoir-in-progress that I began in 2008. The previous two years could have occupied any psychotherapist’s A list of major life crises. Stew Albert, my lover and husband of almost 40 years, died. We had five weeks between diagnosis and death. I quit my job as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, sold my bungalow in Portland where Stew and I had raised our daughter, and with two months remaining of that excruciating first year during which widows are not supposed to make major decisions, I moved to Berkeley. I bought a new house, got a different high-level job, got fired and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I wrote my outline between radiation treatments. I’d deflect depression with fantasies of publication. Mine would be a traditional love story with the 1960s and 1970s as backdrop: girl meets boy, girl dumps boy, girl and boy get back together and live happily ever after until boy dies. Grieving is not linear. Writing helped me work through loss. Writing “Bugged” helped me remember the Catskill cabin Stew and I shared, and reminded me to laugh.
But I did get frustrated writing the book. I lacked a memoirist’s technical skills. I wallowed in adverbs and piled on descriptive adjectives like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I had no idea what a sensory detail was, how to set a scene, to go from close in to distant view, to write narrative summary. Thanks to a terrific memoir teacher, I came to feel more confident in my craft. At the same time, the voice of my mother–a busty, blonde, Jewish alcoholic, long dead—reminded me that whatever I wrote would never be good enough.
Daniel Handler once remarked that there are times you must throw the baby out of the lifeboat. I’d waste weeks rescuing an anecdote with re-write only to throw it back, like the striped bass I used to catch in Lake Muskoka as a child. I learned to recognize and discard the sentence or paragraph that, no matter how well written, took a reader out of the story.
My 1960s and 70s had been a Dostoyevskian drama of love, honor, loyalty and betrayal embedded in the American revolution of my time. I agonized over how much information to disclose after forty years.
“Tell the truth,” one friend, an editor at a major university press, told me.
“Cover your ass,” a former Black Panther said.
I’d been told that an individual loses privacy rights after death. Luckily for me but not for them, most of my characters were gone. I could disclose without being disloyal. Until I discovered that individual rights of privacy for the dead vary by country and state. To be safe and ethical, I decided to pass a draft by anyone still alive who might be hurt. One friend turned out not to care that I’d revealed her husband’s infidelities. She volunteered the name of his lover, but got incensed when I intimated her husband might have been an FBI informant. I’d wasted my agony on the wrong sin.
I still struggle to keep the charisma of the 1960s and 70s from overwhelming my narrative. In that sense, writing “Bugged” was easy. I could move from Dostoyevsky to Thoreau, and turn my cabin in the Catskills into Walden on a grey-green mountaintop without a pond. Arriving in the slush of New York City represented a metaphoric transition from rural peace to paranoia. When I mixed in comic FBI agents and a chase scene, I had “Bugged.”
In 2010, I ended “Bugged” with this statement, “Every illegal act the FBI committed against Stew and me in 1975 is entirely legal today.” In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that police could no longer place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car without a warrant. In the space of forty years, this act has gone from illegal to legal and back to illegal again. I am learning not to make statements that appear definitive in the moment that I write them. My chapter “Bugged” and my memoir Yippie Girl need to rise above time.
Contact Judy on her website: www.yippiegirl.com or on Facebook at Judy Gumbo Albert and Yippie Girl.