My dad was undoubtedly brilliant, and I have loudly lionized him for the last decade, while quietly writing the story of the real genius, my mother.And now that story will be unearthed. Step by step. Stone by stone. Just as she planned it. Reproduced in so many places, each step of the way, that stopping it is a ridiculous thought.
She was too smart for that from the beginning, even without the aid of technology.
(Although the technological side of it does feel like a sweet coup from the Universe, one further feeling of the sun smiling down. There was a time when all things were turned against us, and against this story ever getting told. Injustices piled high and lies reigned. That time is over.)
So sure, once I decided that I would simply write “backwards” – completely natural for me – the issue of keeping those sacred texts safe became pressing.
I was learning to write deeper.
I was learning that writing helped me to understand what I thought I already knew. By the time I began Ms. McCann’s second grade class at Horace Mann Elementary I had seven journals hidden away in our attic on Stanley Drive in Beverly Hills.
I was addicted to Annie and would scuttle between New York and Beverly Hills to see it. My dad could always get me the ungettable tickets and before long I had a sweet, red bound script on my lap and a letter from Mike Nichols himself in my little hands. Soon I would begin my own version of Annie at my school; not just producing, like Dad, but also directing and starring in it. Meanwhile journals were piling up and that began for me another problem.
I realized, child though I was, that there had to be something to placate my genetically over-curious mother who I was sure would snoop.
The answer was pretty straightforward, even for a seven year old.
I would need a decoy journal. Written left to right. Something for my mom to read so she wouldn’t keep looking and find the good stuff.
The ironic thing is that not only did mom figure out my little scheme quite quickly — in fact she had anticipated it — but she also respected it.
She thought it was clever.
And in a truly beautiful and loving example of her extraordinary farsightedness, she also recognized the profound implications of allowing me to continue believing that I was fooling her, namely that it allowed for me a space to explore my thoughts and feelings without the self-censorship that almost always accompanies a child’s journaling.
As a bonus, I got the benefit of feeling clever in a completely harmless way, which she also understood as healthy.
And, as I was a very good kid, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of other avenues for me to experience the satisfaction of feeling like I was getting away with something.
In college my friend Brenna was endlessly fascinated by my backward doodles while I talked on the phone. (I didn’t doodle pictures. Instead I would write some random word over and over and over and over, mindlessly. Only backwards.)
When I finally married, despite how close — both geographically and emotionally — I was to my parents, I ended up impulsively eloping since I knew they didn’t like him.
I didn’t tell my parents until the next day. “Surprise, I’m married!”
My mom’s first question was,
“does he know about the journals?”
“Consider keeping them here,” was all she said.
And she didn’t just mean the ones I was writing in at the moment.
She meant the two dozen big boxes worth stacked up in Dad’s work closet that began with a little girl’s very first secret from her mother. Her daughter’s stash of secret code.
Secret code hiding in plain sight.
Box after box after box, stacked high in dad’s amazingly tall work room closet, grew month by month of my marriage, untouched except to put another filled journal away for safe keeping. I wrote a lot, too. Sometimes hours a day. (It should be pretty clear by now that I can write quite a lot.) By the time my parents died I had been married 10 years, and in that time the number of used up, backward-written journals had more than doubled, and I had to take two boxes up into the attic to make more room.
And all that time, no one even batted a damn eye.
It makes you feel like a god, almost, to have a secret that big and that powerful. And not an egoistic god-complex, kind of god; but touched by a sweet sense of the infinite.
There was also none of the two-faced, false front thing, either. At first, I made a serious attempt to not write backwards in front of anyone. I didn’t want to be found out. This was my secret. I never wanted anyone to know about it. But it didn’t take very long for me to become bolder.
In the end, I spent decades writing completely backwards in front of everyone, and no one ever batted an eye. In all those decades no one noticed but my mother and Brenna at college. Not one soul.
And it was there in front of anyone and everyone to see. Mom saw it. But she was looking. She paid attention. Nothing escaped her notice. Nothing. Sometimes I thought my mother was more like an antenna than a human. And Brenna, in college, saw. But she, also, was a “noticer.” A noticer who was in close proximity to me almost all the time.
But nobody else saw. I wrote in those top secret journals in front of Tony a million times, and tons of other people, too. Every place I went, spanning decades, I wrote starting at the left side of each page, aiming for the right, like letters in a mirror. I always, always have a notebook with me. I’m always writing in it. It’s the very first thing anyone notices about me. The mechanical pencil ever-hooked to my shirt is suddenly in my left hand — spinning, spinning — and I’m writing. Even in bars it’s there. And I’m hella fun at a bar, too, but the journal is still ever-present. Open. And I write in it, right there, in front of everyone. It’s just part of me, so no one thinks twice about it. And no one notices that my hand is moving the wrong way on the page. By the time I decided to actually call attention to it, I had spent my entire life with the realization that almost no one really sees anything, despite almost everyone thinking they see everything.
That was an amazing discovery. To have the world unveiled with such force, to realize beyond all doubt at a very young age how very little people notice, changed at once my perception of everything else in my world. And everyone else, as well.
This impression was sealed at thirteen. We had just moved to Houston and I was sitting alone in my new middle school’s cafeteria, not eating a thing while writing so furiously that I failed to notice a real asshole — a proud bully — standing right over me with his little group of bully wannabe’s. He looked down at my sacred spiral notebook and demanded: “Gimme that.”
I didn’t know what to do, but he grabbed it so fast that I didn’t have time to make that decision.
I froze. It was open, I had been writing… it was right there. And now my hubris, which had made me sloppy, overly bold, and thoughtless, was about to kick me in the ass. My secret of a decade, destroyed, in a matter of seconds.
He studied the page for a minute that seemed to me like a lifetime; and then made a very unfriendly sound.
I couldn’t breathe.
Finally he spoke: “You have very pretty handwriting,” he said, and then handed me back my book.
“Thank you,” I replied, grabbing my journal back a little too eagerly, as if it was breath itself.
People are very unware as a species. Completely unimpressive.
Tony never seemed too interested in the box of decoy journals stacked in our garage – at least he wasn’t interested yet; that would later change — but when my mom found out she had only a few weeks to live, only to have my dad cut in line and manage to die first — the last thing on my mind were journals.
I was shell-shocked, anguished and lost. And my marriage was fine.
Still, mom understood that with neither parent alive my secret journal hideout was about to disappear, which to me seemed unimportant in the extreme, but there was no whim too silly for me, the only daughter of my just-widowed dying mother to turn down. One last game of “journal intrigue” seemed like the exact right ending.
It was our last secret together.
It wasn’t the old journals themselves, so much, that were important.
What my mother understood, and what I would all too quickly come to understand, was the significance of the secret, itself.
Secrets bond us to others. A secret that only you and one other person in the world know is a bond forged in titanium. To have that secret handed back to you, to carry alone and by yourself, is an impossibility. It just keeps the dead person from ever really dying. I found out that it is even stronger than death.
It spans immortality with grace and ease.
Especially a secret like this one, which was conceived by my mother for the whole purpose of spanning immortality in the first place. The journals got incorporated in later. She had her wildly bold and hyper-imaginative immortality scheme cooked up long before I was even on the scene.
And it’s a doozy.
For Tony any secret was fundamentally sinful.
(Anyone else’s secret. He had plenty of his own that were anything but innocent.)
For me my backward journals are, quite literally, as close to sacred as anything physical could possibly be. They have existed for as long as my ability to write has existed, an outward manifestation of my very soul that I never shared with anyone.
And over all that time, the longer the secret stayed secret, the more value the secrecy itself seemed to have. Everyone has thoughts and feelings they never share with anyone.
And we all have the right to that.
There was no way for me to know back then that whatever instinct made my mother suggest that maybe I should keep keeping that secret a secret would end up having value, but that is, indeed, what has happened.
Stick around. It’s just getting good.