“I’m giving up,” I announced two weeks ago to anyone who would listen. “My writing career is over.”
It wasn’t a case of ego wounded by rejection. Coming home at 11:15 on a Saturday night after ushering two shows at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, I found my door chained on the inside. Since no one was scheduled to be sleeping in my living room — Dmitry had moved out the day before — that was not good. I went around the corner to call the police, who broke down the door and entered in ready position, guns drawn in front of them. “You stay right there, ma’am,” they ordered, but I followed them in anyway. I already knew what would be missing: my beloved six-month-old iPad and my three-year-old laptop. (Leksi, my feline companion of 14 years, was found cowering on the kitchen floor behind his water dish, traumatized but otherwise unharmed.)
If the iPad was a new infatuation, the laptop was my steady, reliable life partner. On its hard drive were three years’ writing, course materials, interview recording, iTunes and who knows what else. The detective who came later said it was unlikely I’d get anything back. “Was the laptop password-protected?” he asked. It was. The first thing the perps would do, he explained, was wipe the hard drive clean so they could sell it.
“My whole life is on that laptop,” I’ve said many times. In a sense, the thieves have taken my life.
For several weeks before the burglary, I had been thinking that writing, while fun, was never going to pay the bills, and that maybe I should focus on teaching instead. Maybe I wasn’t really a writer – a position with which any number of people at The Boston Globe and The New York Times, who could never see me as anything but a copy editor, might agree. Maybe the burglary was a sign. Without tools or a body of work, is a writer still a writer? This is a question I’d love to talk over with my writing buddy Brina, but she’s been dead for two years (Readers and writers, Sept. 27, 2010).
As the days have passed, it’s been interesting and somewhat shocking to notice what bubbles up at a time like this, in myself and others.
For example, racism. It seems a thin layer lies just beneath of the surface in even the best-intentioned white liberal. My burglary — note how I’ve taken ownership — was probably committed by someone from the neighborhood, possibly teenagers, at least one of them skinny, judging by how far they pushed up my bedroom window to gain entry. Mayflower descendents are few and far between in this neighborhood on the cusp between Hamilton Height and Washington Heights, and thus my burglars were almost certainly black or Dominican. Now when I’m on the street, I can’t help looking carefully at every skinny kid and thinking, maybe even muttering, “Did you steal my laptop?” Even so, I told my right-wing friends in Florida that I’d still be voting for Obama. A conservative is not a liberal who’s been burgled.
I’m also shocked by how much blame-the-victim I’m hearing, even from close friends. Sympathetic questions like “But you have insurance?” and “But you backed everything up?” sound like accusations when the answer is no. In my experience, insurance is a device invented mainly to enrich the insurance companies; they never seem to want to pay up when it’s time to file a claim, and I’d have barely broken even on seven years’ premiums. In any case, the greatest loss — my work — was uninsurable. Which leads to the second accusation: backing up. I tend to back up anything I consider finished, but not works in progress; if your writing M.O. is to go in and make a couple of tiny changes whenever inspiration strikes, that would mean an infinite number of versions to sift through.
The fact is, I am not the one who did something wrong; whoever broke into my apartment did. Yes, I now realize I’ve been naive in feeling secure here for almost seven years. (As Stephen Sondheim put it in “Into the Woods,” which I’ll be seeing in Central Park in a couple of weeks: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/ And a little bit not.”) But I’m not the one who forced a window open, ransacked an apartment, terrified a cat, made off with a stranger’s possessions and probably destroyed what was most valuable of all. Whoever did these things needs to feel shame, to understand what they’ve so thoughtlessly taken, and to be punished.
“Violate” is the word I’ve been hearing most often, as in “It’s such a violation” or “You must feel so violated.” Oddly, I don’t, at least not about criminals being inside my home and pawing over my things; I don’t feel their presence here. The violation is the loss, and with any serious loss comes grief. At some point I began thinking about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In the last two weeks, I’ve had brushes with all of them, though in different order.
Denial? There was no denying the empty space on my work table where my laptop had been. Depression set in when I broke down while talking to my friend Lois, who as a psychotherapist may be my most skilled listener. After that came the anger, which smolders inside me and flares up from time to time; since depression is anger turned inward, it feeds the depression. Bargaining came up when a friend suggested sending out word in the neighborhood: “If you let them know you’re not interested in prosecuting . . .” “Ah!” I replied. “But I am!” As for acceptance, I can only quote my late friend Alvin Klein (Goodnight, sweet Jewish prince, Feb. 27, 2011) on his wife’s death: “I know it happened, but I’ll never accept it.” Nor will I ever accept how easily a crime like this can be committed, and how little can be done about it.
If I haven’t yet moved on, I’ve taken baby steps in that direction. Yesterday I fled to Fire Island from the once-airy apartment that feels like a tropical prison in the July heat, now that the bedroom window no longer opens at all and every other window must be locked whenever I leave home. (Otherwise it will be my fault if burglars strike again.) Today I’ll go to the precinct house to update the 2 a.m. police report with items discovered missing since then. I started writing this on a laptop lent by a Beaumont colleague who lives across the street, and I’m finishing it on my new Dell that’s the closest I could find to the one I lost. The Word documents list is nearly empty, but there’s free online backup for a year.
Damn. I’m writing again.