01 May 2007

The Dark Victory of Rena Grant

I have no photos of Rena.
But she might like to be remembered this way.

Rena still sneaks up on me. I am suddenly eager to share with her a book or a song, or a bit of malicious gossip. I pass beneath her window, on the NYU campus, and I start to call up, to see if she's home: does she want to hang out for a while? Or worse: I pass beneath her window and hope she doesn't see me. She'll want to drink, and her drinking has become something I want to avoid.

But she isn't there. Fifteen years ago, she locked herself in that apartment and set out methodically to drink herself to death. She began with the scotch she preferred, and moved on quickly to vodka, then nail-polish remover and rubbing alcohol, until there was nothing left to drink, and no Rena left to drink it. The only light in her room came from the television: I don't know what she was watching. By the end, it probably didn't matter. The television was just another voice in her head.

Her demons had become too noisy, so she drowned them. She was schizophrenic, we learned afterward, and like other schizophrenics she self-medicated, using scotch as a drug. For a long time, it worked.

She was from a little town in Scotland so remote, she said, that the only entertainment was to sit around watching the peat do whatever it is that peat does. She looked like the young Bette Davis, smart and dangerous, with enormous, passionate eyes. She always had style.

I remember running into her one afternoon in New Haven. She was struggling along the street, tacking up leaflets in protest of Thatcher's oppression of the miners. That much wasn't surprising, although I barely knew her at the time: Rena was Scots, Rena was Communist. Protesting Thatcher, protesting any capitalistic, imperialistic transgression, was predictable behavior from her. But she had dressed up to do it.

Her nails freshly painted, her hair upswept, she wore a vintage shirt-dress, a faux-pearl necklace, and pumps. A third-hand fox stole clung to her shoulders only in an instinctive attempt to attack her throat. Without style, nothing.

Yes, Rena's revolution would be glamorous. Nobody doubted it. Rena would see to it. She spun tales of proletarian paradises, so vivid that the happy workers seemed to dance before us as she spoke. The romance carried her away. She sang sentimental Victorian songs: "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls." She pantomimed Verdi heroines, and poured another drink.

Her friends didn't know why she drank so much: we didn't know that she drank so much. She was by turns graceful and deceitful in her drinking. A little diversion here or there kept you from noticing that she was never without a drink, or that she became ill if she went more than an hour without alcohol. When she went to teach her classes, she recycled little cartons of Tropicana orange juice to fill with scotch, which she'd sip while she lectured. If a play ran on too long, she pretended to dislike it, left early, and went for a drink as if to purge the aesthetic offense.

The first time I ever walked out of a play, I was with Rena Grant. It was an appalling production — and Shakespeare's Scottish play, to add insult to injury. I was willing to slog it out, just to see Glenda Jackson. But Rena whispered in my ear, "Do you want to go?" And so we went. To a bar.

Eventually she stopped leaving her apartment. We pretended not to notice that she could no longer fake sobriety. We pretended not to notice what a struggle it had become just to hold herself upright.

And the voices in her head became louder, impossible for her to ignore. She was never much of a housekeeper, but her apartment became squalid. Dishes stacked up in the sink, a thick layer of grime coated the stove and much of the kitchen, both her bed linens and the cat's litter box went unchanged, and ashtrays went unemptied.

This didn't prevent her from inviting people in, but it began to alarm her guests. For my thirtieth-birthday party, the apartment was in such malodorous disorder that friends arriving early felt compelled to do a fast clean-up: since it was a surprise party, there was no possibility of moving to another venue.

Rena was embarrassed by this incident and hired a cleaning woman to come in a few times a month. This violated her political principles, but she had no alternative, she explained to me. "Whenever I start to clean house, I hear my mother's voice, telling me I'm no good at it."

"You hear voices?" I said.

"Figuratively, of course," she lied.

Not long afterward, a dispute with a colleague became so violent that the poor fellow was honestly scared. He complained to the department chairman, and Rena was ordered to see a psychiatrist. For many years, Rena had prepared for just this occasion. She had studied all the right books, and her melding of psychology and politics in the field of English literature had made her an academic star. (She ripped through Oxford and Yale, receiving her doctorate while still in her early twenties.) She used to brag that she knew precisely what to say to make a psychiatrist think she was crazy — and what to say to make a psychiatrist think she was sane. She had memorized all the appropriate rejoinders, just as an actress memorizes dialogue.

But when the interview came, she couldn't play the part. The psychiatrist saw through her defenses, clearly enough at least to recognize that her mental health was poor, but not clearly enough to identify her sickness or to treat it.

Maybe death was her victory over the dark, the only way to prevent the destruction of what she had. If she had survived, her future would have been grim, and brief. The weekend she died, Rena faced the loss of her job, deportation back to Scotland, institutionalization and (in all likelihood) organ failure and the death it was already too late to stop.

When the paramedics arrived in her apartment, they thought she was pregnant, so distended was her belly.

I got the call around dawn on a Sunday morning when I had, as it happened, stayed up all night, doing things I shouldn't have done. My friend Kyra Sinkowsky broke the news to me, but I didn't believe her. Rena was always testing people, devising intrigues, plotting elaborate practical jokes.

Her colleagues and students at NYU held a memorial service for her, in Deutsches Haus, on May Day. Her father was there, whom we'd never met: he was the subject of her bitterest, most horrifying stories, and we now realized that we could not be certain any of those stories, and their ingredient accusations, were true.

Most people who spoke were sad and very, very sorry, gently grieving, sweetly nostalgic in their recollections of Rena, yet it seemed to me they could be talking about almost anybody. They missed Rena, not only in the sense of feeling her absence but also in the sense of not hitting the target.

Meanwhile, I was angry. Angry at myself for not saving her. And angry at her for leaving too soon, with too much work left to be done. The glamorous revolution had not begun. The proletarian paradise was still out of reach. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communism had been discredited, and even the Chinese and the Cubans were abandoning the precepts Rena held dear. John Major was still in office in Britain, George Bush in America. In Los Angeles, a jury had reached an obscene verdict in the Rodney King case, resulting in an explosion of violence that continued even as we spoke.

The memorial service was interrupted and brought to a halt when the university administration shut down the campus. New York police were concerned that the Los Angeles riots would spread to Manhattan — any minute now.

As I walked back to my office, I thought how much Rena would have enjoyed the timing — and how much more she would have enjoyed a popular uprising.

But there were no riots in New York that day, and Rena wouldn't have been there to see them anyway.

We had the stars.

In the days that followed, her friends circulated reassurances. There was nothing we could have done to stop her. She was a determined woman, we said; she argued down anyone who tried to intervene.

Moreover, Rena wouldn't have wanted us to blame ourselves. We continued to say this, until blame seemed more fearsome than death itself. We could face Rena's suicide, so long as we took no responsibility for her loss. No one of us could bear to think that any of the others might harbor some private, futile guilt. So we consoled each other. We survivors must not suffer. We were eager to let each other off the hook.

And yet, all the while I reassured our friends, I thought, "Of course you aren't to blame: I am."

If I hadn't turned away from the warnings, couldn't I have saved her? Couldn't I have been wiser, couldn't I have loved her better? She wouldn't have allowed the others to save her, but wouldn't she have allowed me?

I didn't want to be let off the hook. To bear no responsibility for her death would mean never to have shared her life.

I wanted to believe I could have saved her. I wanted to believe I could have made a difference. I wanted to believe my love was important. I wanted to believe I was not powerless, helpless, friendless.

And Rena wasn't there to correct me. She used to shudder whenever I said anything foolish (which was often). "Bill, darling, it just doesn't work that way," she would say, her Scots accent making every syllable more scornful.

And in this case, she might well have paraphrased her beloved Bette Davis: "Don't ask for the moon, Bill; we had the stars."

For the way it works is merely this: I was special to her, but I wasn't special enough to save her. It was foolish, and rather arrogant, to think I, of all the world, could have been the one. Maybe nobody was the one.

Her loss remains a deep wound, and a startling one: I go about my business, and look down to see I'm still bleeding. It's like an old war movie, where the soldier goes on fighting, never noticing he's been shot. Yet I'm in no hurry to heal.