The Woman Who Rewrote Me
What happens when the person you love treats you like a character in one of her stories?
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She bought me T-shirts. They were similar to the shirts she wore, bright with colorful pop culture designs. The disembodied head of Indiana Jones floating among the clouds. A kazoo with a cursive disclaimer: Ceci n’est pas un kazoo.
It was August 2007, and we’d been dating for about two months. This was a long-distance relationship, Massachusetts to California; we wrote letters and emails, sent each other small gifts. With T-shirts she was making me over into someone else. Someone more fun and more casual, someone younger.
I was 30 years old. She was 37 and a successful writer, the author of novels, comics, and books for children. I’ll call her Cynthia.
Cynthia’s friends were writers and editors, musicians and show business people. When I visited LA, I went with her to parties, readings, conferences, dinners, shows. She seemed to know everyone.
I wanted to be a writer, too, and I was more than a little in awe of Cynthia, who wrote full time, who mixed and mingled at the intersections of Hollywood and the LA literati. I wore the T-shirts she gave me, even as I began to understand that she was grooming me for a particular role. Younger boyfriend. Hip nerd. Suitable match. I would become the right sort of character for this story, which was of course a love story, wild and daring.
We told it to one another in our letters. One of her first to me was written on the backs of sheet music pages. “I wonder if you are a dream,” she wrote. “Will you still want me in a month? Say yes. Say yes.”
She was visiting me in Massachusetts when she threw away my pillows.
I had two jobs then, one with a small press, another working as an assistant to a local author. When Cynthia was visiting, she wrote at the apartment I shared with my younger brother, or at a coffee shop, or at the house of a mutual friend. I was at work when she put my pillows in the trash and replaced them with a new set. I felt a twinge of panic. She hadn’t mentioned the pillows, hadn’t suggested getting rid of them or asked if I would mind. But the pillows were old and lumpy, and probably in need of replacing. I told myself that she’d done us both a favor.
Later, I would come to see the pillows as the first casualties of the revision process. Not everything about my life was a perfect fit for our love story. Cynthia was showing me what belonged and what didn’t, what could stay and what would have to go.
The problem with the pillows was that I’d owned them before. They weren’t discarded so much as deleted. Written out of the story.
The bigger problem, harder to excise, was my backstory. Since my early twenties, I’d been married to a woman I’d met at college. The marriage had fallen apart spectacularly, and now I was living apart from my estranged wife, seeking a divorce.
I think this was why Cynthia began to sign us up for joint cards at the local grocery stores. She told me that she wanted something official, even something so small as shared barcodes to swipe at the checkout aisle. And why not? I wanted to give her so much more. We could at least have this much together. Other cards followed, a collaborative paper trail. We traveled, we earned points. Later, Cynthia added me to her Netflix account.
Did she tell me about the AAA card? Maybe she did, and I forgot. When the 1986 Volvo wagon that I’d bought from a friend for a few hundred bucks finally stopped running, I coasted into an empty parking spot in downtown Amherst, called AAA to renew my membership, and had the car towed.
It was one of the first times I saw Cynthia angry, truly angry. Her anger was a grinding, white-hot thing, shifting her voice into a low growl. Her eyes went bright, her hands curled into fists. “Why did you renew your AAA card when I already added you to my account?”
I started apologizing before I fully understood what I’d done wrong. I tried to assure her that it didn’t mean anything.
“We’re supposed to be together,” she said. “We’re supposed to share these things.”
Our love story continued, but my past was under scrutiny, and so was everything I owned, everything that might recall the time before Cynthia and I met. In one of her letters, she wrote, “I cannot even remember a time when there wasn’t a you to love or to be loved by.” I was supposed to be following suit.
The bathrobe was faded blue cotton, threadbare, torn in several places. Cynthia wanted me to get rid of it, but not because it was tattered and a size too big for me. It was because of the ghost tendrils.
She told me about her theory. Every object from a previous relationship, she said, is full of ghost tendrils. They snake out and cling to you, keep you from embracing the present. The ghost tendrils must be exorcized, their host objects destroyed.
When I moved out of the house I’d shared with my wife, I’d taken very little. Books, my clothes, my computer. My new apartment was stocked mostly with old furniture and kitchenware donated by friends. Maybe this was why the few items I’d owned for more than a year stood out.
Cynthia told me about her friend, a dancer, who married an older man, a drummer who’d been married before. When the drummer and the dancer got together, Cynthia said, he piled up everything he’d owned with his wife and burned it. A testament to his devotion.
I didn’t want to burn my bathrobe. It didn’t remind me of my wife, but of my grandmother, who’d bought it for me when I left home for college.
“You owned it while you were with your wife,” Cynthia insisted. She pointed out dark stains along the bathrobe’s collar and shoulder. “What are these from? Your wife’s hair dye? Did she ever wear this when she dyed her hair?”
I didn’t know. But I did remember my grandmother driving me to our local department store. It was one of the last times I saw her outside her house.
In the end, I didn’t burn my things. I kept the bathrobe, but I kept it out of sight when Cynthia visited.
Later, a plant fell from the bathroom windowsill, its pot shattering in the tub. I learned from a friend that Cynthia admitted to hating the plant because it had come with me from my old place. Every time she saw it, she would nudge it closer to the edge, a fraction of an inch at a time.
I couldn’t hide everything. Couldn’t forget everything, couldn’t revise my past out of existence. Back in LA, we were having a picnic in Griffith Park when a puppy appeared beside our blanket. I played with the puppy for a minute, then ushered it back to its owners. I said something to Cynthia about how cute it was.
The brightness came to her eyes. “We’ll have some other kind of dog together,” she said. Her hands were in fists.
I quickly recognized my mistake. The puppy was a Chihuahua, and I’d had Chihuahuas with my wife. I tried to put Cynthia at ease, but soon she was raging, screaming at me for having admired the puppy. Now other people were watching and listening.
It’s a strange feeling, to be humiliated in public. Your body goes numb and you drift outside of yourself, watching the scene as others must see it. I saw a woman screaming at a man, a man who must have said or done something awful, something heinous to inspire such a reaction.
All I wanted was to stop the barrage. I thought of the tattoo on Cynthia’s wrist. She’d told me soon after we met that she got it with a previous boyfriend, and that she now had mixed feelings about it. Desperate, I asked her, “I don’t hold your tattoo against you, do I?” I regretted the words even as I spoke them. It was a shallow whataboutism, and it would lead us nowhere good. But I was still surprised by what came next.
Cynthia began scraping at the tattoo with her fingernails. “If I could get rid of this right now,” she growled, “I would.”
Streaks of red rose under her nails. I begged her to stop. Eventually she did, and for a moment she seemed dazed. My hands were shaking as I packed our things into bags. Soon we were walking together toward her car, but I felt lost and untethered. The others in the park whispered to one another as they watched us go.
Now I see that moment in the park as the birth of another story, one that would feed off our love story and eventually consume it. This new story was hungry and cruel, and ten years later, I’m still trying to escape it.
By the time I visited again, I’d sold my first novel. Cynthia welcomed me back to LA with open arms, with celebrations, with champagne. Something was different, though, and worse than it was before. She was on edge and angry. When I heard from my agent that Hollywood was interested in my book, it was like a switch being thrown.
Cynthia was driving with her hands tight on the wheel, swerving through traffic. An afternoon in late April, and we were on our way to see a movie. I knew something was coming, but I didn’t know what. Finally, outside the theater, she exploded. “All my friends have movie deals,” she screamed. “Everyone has a movie deal except me.” Then, as though the theater itself were responsible, she started kicking the wall.
People were staring, steering clear. It was like that day in the park again. It was also my 31st birthday. Cynthia kicked the theater until she hurt her ankle and had to hop away.
Later, she warned me off one film deal, saying that I was being taken advantage of. Other opportunities appeared, then fizzled; no movie was made. Most don’t, of course. But years later, a friend tells me that Cynthia has finally had her big break, that one of her stories is being adapted as a major film. The first thing I think, but do not say: I wonder if she feels better now. I wonder if she can finally stop kicking that wall.
I was wrestling with a story I didn’t understand. What could I say or do that might loosen its grip? What could I give that would make Cynthia happy?
For hours at a time, in person when we were together and by video chat while apart, I tried to reassure her, to convince her of my admiration and my commitment. Again and again I professed my love, my devotion. She raged at me, unappeased and inconsolable. My attempts to de-escalate, to argue for not arguing, were often met with the same phrase: “I guess you’re just so fucking evolved.”
Sometimes she apologized. In a letter from April 2008, she wrote, “I just got off the phone with you an hour ago, I was terrible, my skin on inside out and gazing at my navel, unable to look up.” In another, from June, “I took us down a destructive path…. I would like to rebuild trust by showing you that I understand these things and to be consistent with my work on my jealousy and to not feel threatened by imaginary things.”
More often, she blamed me for her rage. If I were man enough, she said, I would be able to take it. If I were man enough, I’d have gotten that divorce by now.
Naively, I’d believed that my divorce would proceed quickly. My wife was in a new relationship—had been since before Cynthia and I met—and I thought she would want to resolve our situation and move on. But when she found out about Cynthia, and then about my novel, she refused to move forward. Worse, she started sending Cynthia harassing emails.
Meanwhile, my conversations with Cynthia grew circular and strange. I watched her construct a ghostly version of myself, one that I didn’t recognize. This other me was monstrous and terrible, a third person in the room who spoke with words I didn’t use, who thought in ways that were alien to me.
“You think I’m disgusting,” she said.
I insisted that I didn’t, that I’d never thought anything like this.
“But you just said it,” she said.
“A minute ago. You said you think I’m disgusting.”
With minor variations, this conversation recurred at least a dozen times. And each time it did, that feeling again, of being separated from yourself, of floating outside your own body. You know that you didn’t speak those words. So what can you possibly say next? How do you keep speaking when you lack a common experience, even of the moment?
The story was being written around me, whether or not I contributed to it. I wasn’t disgusted. I was afraid.
We were in Massachusetts again, at a dinner with a group of writers, when Cynthia told me that I could not publish my book under my name. “It’s the name you had while you were with your wife,” she said. “You have to change it.”
The owners of the small press I worked for were at the table. When Cynthia made her demand, I felt helpless. One wrong word, I knew, and her rage would consume the evening, in front of my employers, in front of other writers I was meeting for the first time.
Cynthia announced that I’d changed my name before. She said she saw documents proving that I had taken my wife’s last name. This wasn’t true. But if I had taken my wife’s name, I thought, wouldn’t that have been a fine and modern thing to do?
I didn’t say that, though. I was paralyzed and bewildered. I had no idea what documents she was talking about. Worse, I knew that it didn’t matter. She wanted me to change my name because my name linked me to my past. I was a character in her story, and she’d decided that this character needed a different name.
One of my bosses, overhearing, came to my aid. But Cynthia cut him off, slamming her fist on the table. Someone changed the subject, and we made it through the rest of the meal, though Cynthia barely spoke.
Once we were alone in the car, she tore into me. She told me that I was a liar, a coward. When I parked outside my apartment, she screamed and held one fist to my face. She wanted to know why I’d married my wife in the first place.
“Did you love her?” she asked.
If I said that I hadn’t, I would have been lying, proving Cynthia correct. I told her the truth. “Of course I loved her.”
Cynthia didn’t hit me. She screamed, leaned back in her seat, and kicked the windshield with both feet, again and again.
I hadn’t been able to buy a new car after my old station wagon broke down; this one was borrowed from the author for whom I worked as an assistant. I begged Cynthia to stop. She kept kicking. I fled the car and went inside, and she followed, pounding up the stairs, slamming doors, kicking things. I said nothing. I knew there were no right words.
When she got this mad, Cynthia wouldn’t allow me to sleep. That night, as the hours ticked by, she rattled the window shades by the bed every time I was about to drift off.
The next morning, exhausted, I went down to my borrowed car. I’d made plans with my sister: I was supposed to pick her up at her Smith College dorm and take her to the Jenny Holzer exhibit at MASS MoCA. That’s when I saw the foot-long crack in the windshield where Cynthia had kicked it.
She is charismatic and passionate. She is brilliant and funny and odd and inspiring. She volunteers at libraries and schools. Like me, she loves trains, science fiction, video games, old movies. She shows me her city, takes me camping, takes me to the ocean, to the tar pits, to museums, to the Griffith Park observatory. I am scraping by financially, and she insists on paying our way so that we can travel together, attending conferences and writing retreats.
She writes me adoring letters, letters of apology, letters of hope and excitement for the future. She introduces me to extraordinary people who love and admire her. She brings me to another city, to meet her family, and they are welcoming and kind. I have never known anyone like her, and I want to hold on, to keep it together long enough to be entirely free for her.
If something is wrong, it’s probably my fault. I’m the one whose past is holding us back. If I’m man enough, I can make this work.
We were at her house and she was screaming at me. It was the fifth or sixth day of one of my visits. I’d timed my trip so I could join her at a book conference taking place in LA. I don’t remember why she was screaming. Maybe it was the time I’d moved too quickly through the grocery store, and she was angry because she’d wanted to enjoy shopping together. Maybe it was the time I listened to a song which she was convinced reminded me of my wife. Maybe it was the time I’d decided not to change my name.
What I remember is the realization of something so simple and so startling that I said it aloud without thinking. “Not a single day has passed without this happening,” I said. “You’ve yelled at me at every day I’ve been here.”
She went quiet. She blinked. I watched her think it through, probably reviewing each of the previous days as I’d just done.
I felt a surge of hope. Maybe it was this simple. Maybe all I’d needed to do was present my point of view this plainly and clearly. Maybe now she’d see.
Instead, she started screaming again. It was my fault that she was this angry, she said. She wasn’t really like this. This wasn’t the real her. I had caused her to do this, to be this way.
Later that night, she was sobbing and miserable. I was supposed to stay for another two or three days, but all I could think was how badly I wanted to go home. In my mind, I was calculating how much it would cost to get a cab to LAX and change my flight.
Somehow, she guessed what I was thinking. “You hate it here with me,” she said. “You want to leave right now.” She looked desperate and still raw with rage. I was terrified of her.
“No,” I said, “I want to stay. I want to stay here with you.”
She started making plans to move east, to join me in Massachusetts. She told me that she wanted a baby—that if she didn’t become pregnant soon, it would be my fault that she would never have a child. She’d said this once before, a few months in. Now we’d been dating for about a year and I was broken down, hollowed out, exhausted.
It’s no secret that writers borrow from their lives to craft their fictions. The people we know, the people we are, the people we’ve been—pieces of each get snatched up by the work, reshaped and rearranged, patchworked into new life.
And it’s true, too, that we all sometimes organize our lives into stories. To make sense of senseless turns, to provide ourselves with purpose or structure, to simply relate to one another in the most basic of ways: “Hey, I’ve been there.”
What I experienced with Cynthia wasn’t story-from-life, and it wasn’t life granted the benefits of story’s sense or structure. It was life twisted into something dire and unrecognizable, something that could never be satisfied and never be granted rest. As the story grew stranger to me, I worked harder to bend myself to its shape, until I couldn’t bend anymore.
I’d had all those reasons for being with her, for staying with her. Now I was down to just one: fear. I was afraid of what she’d do if I left. I was afraid of how the story would go once I surrendered it to her completely. She had told a mutual friend about how she would characterize me if I left her: a monster.
Still, I went through with it. When she next visited, I told her it was over. To my surprise, she wasn’t violent. She didn’t scream. She said that we’d have to divide up our friends. We each needed people we could trust, she said. People we could confide in as we found our way forward.
I don’t remember whether I laid claim to anyone, but in later years, I would think a lot about that moment, about her insistence on divvying up everyone we knew. What I didn’t understand at the time was that it wasn’t really about friends. She was figuring out who the audience for her story would be.
She took a train to New York. We were still speaking by phone and chatting through online games. She wrote at a sandwich shop in the city, joining a group of other writers for their regular work sessions. My conversations with her were somber but civil. Over the phone, she sounded caring and thoughtful, even kind. I allowed myself to feel a small hope that we’d find new footing, reconnect on better terms.
Later, though, I learned that my worst fears were being exceeded.
Friends told me that Cynthia had commandeered that writing group, preventing the others from working. While she and I were playing Words with Friends, she was pounding the table and screaming. After each of our phone conversations, she returned to them, primed to explode again. A whole circle of writers—people whose work I admired, professionals with deadlines—were being held hostage by her rage.
I remembered a train trip we’d once taken to Canada for a convention. She’d been furious with me—for which fault or infraction I no longer recall—and she spent the ride north from Hudson berating me while other passengers shifted uncomfortably in their seats or moved to other rows. By the time we reached the border, I felt ill, half-convinced that the agents who came aboard to inspect our passports would apprehend me as some kind of criminal.
Cynthia’s recriminations continued even after we left the train, stopping only once we reached the conference. Then, as she passed through the doors: a complete and sudden transformation. Among her colleagues she was professional, funny, easygoing. Only when we left the conference for our hotel did she swing right back, her anger burning white hot.
It seemed to cost Cynthia nothing to switch tracks this way, while I was left derailed and unable to keep up. Now it was happening again. Only this time, while I saw the easygoing version of Cynthia, the writers in New York were being treated day after day to her wrath.
My friends advised that I break things off entirely. I shouldn’t even call Cynthia again, they said. Just write an email.
It felt low and terrible. I was frightened, still trying to think of ways to appease her. But I knew that my friends were probably right: another conversation would only restart the cycle. I wrote to Cynthia that we should not talk, write, or see each other.
Months later, I received a final letter from her, seven pages of invective, heavy with the scent of her perfume, as though she’d rubbed it into the paper. That character she’d built a story around came fully to life in those pages. He was the lowest abomination. “Heartless. Cruel…. this true you whose nature is so very dark and ugly.”
In that same letter, she made a glancing reference to what had driven me away, but in the end, she laid the blame at my feet. “I know that I had anger and I know that I had rage,” she wrote. “Under the circumstances of the situation that you heaped on me my rage was understandable. And my rage was forgivable. Jed I wish you had been man enough, honorable enough, present enough and generous enough to help me.
“You should have helped me.”
For years, I was still trying to solve the mystery of her anger. Could I have helped her?
Maybe it was only ever about the divorce. If it had come through while we were still together, maybe all of Cynthia’s rage would have evaporated in a cloud of steam.
But maybe she wanted something I could never provide. Me without history, without a past. No ghosts, no memories, just an empty room for her to possess completely. A story to her liking.
Or maybe all she really wanted was to keep me in that desperate state for as long as possible. Searching for clues, for an answer that didn’t exist. Maybe the only solution to her rage was me, fumbling forever for ways to mollify her, failing again and again.
“I am a Chinese puzzle box,” she once wrote to me, part of an apology for an earlier bout of anger. “I am a chasm, a bat cave.”
A writer contacts me via Facebook, asking for a review copy of my first novel. The writer lives in LA. When I login to follow up, I find that she has vanished from my contacts.
She’s the first of many over the years. Cynthia peels people away from me, eroding support for me and my work. Booksellers, journalists, writers. She seems to know everyone.
Concerned friends call and write. “She’s trying to blacken your name,” one tells me. My name, the one she didn’t want me to use anymore? Cynthia is still trying to burn it away.
From a distance, she diagnoses me with a personality disorder. The demon she described in her final letter, the heartless manipulator, has duped all of his friends. Everything that happened, everything she did while we were together and in the fallout that followed—I am to blame.
We haven’t communicated in all this time, but social media feels like a minefield, and I’m mostly quiet there. She targets people who share my posts or write something about my work. Among my worst fears is running into her at a conference or some other professional space, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
For years I convince myself that soon she’ll move on. Instead, I bump up against her story again and again, and each time it’s grown bigger, more horrific. She finds ways to remind me that she’s keeping tabs. I come upon a short story of hers in a literary journal, its title plainly intended to echo the title of a story I’d written and published years before. Though I know it’s probably what Cynthia wants, I read it.
She has lifted details from my personal life—my failed marriage, my childhood home—and transfigured them, used them as raw materials for a bleak fable. Its cruel main character is that same distorted, monstrous version of me, akin to the one I watched her construct through those months of wrestling with ghosts.
About eighteen months ago, my jaw stopped working right. The muscles were taut and sore, and I could barely open my mouth. I’d cut my hand on some rusted chickenwire while working in the backyard a few weeks before. Was this what lockjaw felt like? I made an appointment with my doctor.
The test came back negative—no sign of tetanus. Gently, my doctor suggested that I see a different kind of doctor. “I know someone who’s good with mind-body issues,” he said.
It took me several sessions with the therapist to start talking about Cynthia. Then we talked about that year a lot, and I remembered much that I’d set aside. Fear and shame had kept me silent for so long. Fear of judgement, because some might blame me for letting myself be bullied and intimidated. Fear of reprisal, because Cynthia is in a position of power in our community. Fear of not being believed, because she has been working for years to control the story of who I am.
Session after session, I failed to find a solution. Even if I understood what had happened, would could I do about any of this?
Finally, my therapist laughed. “You came in here because you could barely move your jaw,” he said. “I don’t want to read the signs too closely, but it’s obvious that you needed to speak. But you’re a writer, so what you need to do now is write.”
When I teach creative writing, there’s sometimes a moment toward the end of classes when conversation shifts from writing to the writing life. How to get by, how to survive, how to navigate this odd community.
I often tell my students something along these lines: Be bold with your work. Take risks, take chances. But when making decisions about who to trust with your own self, please, please take care.
From Cynthia, I learned hard lessons. I learned that one’s own silence can serve as a tool in another’s hands. I learned that some people don’t see in silence a chance to make amends, but a chance to maintain control, and maybe to destroy.
With Cynthia’s notion of ghost tendrils in mind, I began this essay as an inventory. Of haunted objects, of things destroyed, of things that escaped the destruction. I thought that if I could catalog the memories, I might finally stop having nightmares, stop waking with a cold rush of panic and her voice in my head.
Is this how you sever yourself fully from someone who wanted to obliterate your past? From someone who still stalks seething at the borders of your daily living? I wanted an exorcism. I wanted out of this story. But the only way to stop serving as a character in someone else’s story is to tell your own.
So here’s something I’ve told no one. Sometimes, while Cynthia was holding her fist close to my face, while she screamed and made her threats, I wanted her to hit me. Wanted her to mark that line so brightly, so clearly.
Because at the time, everything else was hard to categorize. Words are what I know best, but I didn’t know the words for what was happening to me. If she’d hit me, maybe then I would have known what to call it.
I have the words now, and I have a story. Part of it goes like this. For a period of about a year, I was with someone who controlled me with threats of violence and self-harm. With public humiliations. With verbal assaults and name-calling, with the destruction of things I’d owned or borrowed. With sleep deprivation. With anger that could erupt at anytime, anywhere.
Sometimes I still can’t sleep. But maybe I can learn how not to be silent.
That isn’t my only story, of course. I’ve just moved with my partner of eight years to a new town. She and I had been living in Amherst, in a big house with a group of artists, musicians, and writers. Now we have a little place of our own.
We take our dog Milton for walks in the neighborhood. Milton is about fifteen, one of the Chihuahua mixes I’d adopted with the woman from whom I’m now long divorced. When she and I ended our marriage early in 2009, we agreed that Milton would come to live with me.
All ancient history. To my partner and me, Milton is the dearest of pals. He doesn’t mean anything else; he’s just exactly everything he is.
As for this neighborhood, I want it to mean only good things for us. But at the back of my mind, a tickle of worry. The house we live in isn’t far from my old apartment, the one I rented with my brother during that year I spent with Cynthia.
I walk the dog past the old place, past the spot where Cynthia held her fist to my face and dared me to speak the truth. I feel only a glimmer of the old fear. Meanwhile, the dog is onto some new good smell, absorbed in the present. I let him lead the way from there.