Home > Called Out of Darkness(14)

Called Out of Darkness(14)
Author: Anne Rice

I had a much more difficult time. I couldn't keep up in English classes. It was the reading problem. When an English teacher told us to read a play by Shakespeare in a week, I knew that this was virtually impossible for me and I dropped out of English and started wandering, simply seeking a liberal arts education, and ending up as a political science major because classes in political science were understandable to me on the basis of lectures, as well as on the basis of some reading, and I was able to do well in this field. I graduated with a B.A. in political science after five years, and together with Stan who graduated summa cum laude in English after four years.

We both went on to graduate school. And in graduate school I did finally learn to read. The world of literature was gradually opened to me, and certainly the world of history was opened, and I was seldom without a book at my side after those times.

It's pointless to describe my whole life as an atheist, or to attempt a personal memoir here of how I became a published writer.

What matters for the sake of this memoir is that I learned in college all I could possibly contain about the modern world. My learning was disorderly, haphazard, at times dar-ing, obsessive, and full of gaps and blind spots. But I sought freely the answers to my questions.

And the principal moral lessons I learned had to do with the Great Wars.

I'd been four years old when the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. I learned in college that this had happened. It was a profound shock. It was in college that I learned about the Holocaust, from films like The Pawnbro-ker with Rod Steiger, and from documentaries in the theater and on television. It was in college that I read (slowly) All Quiet on the Western Front.

Our professors had fought in the Second World War or experienced the war firsthand in some way. They sought to make us understand what this war had meant for Europe and for the world. And I remember impassioned lectures on the terrible Great War of attrition that had preceded the Second World War, and what that first war had "done to rational Europe," to all its hopes and dreams.

This was something I wanted desperately to grasp.

Again, the primary source of education here was lectures, not books. Remarque's novel, Hemingway's novels, other fiction, gave me something of the experience and impact of these wars, but the professors really established the context, the seriousness of what had happened, and directed the reading I chose. I gravitated to brilliant lecturers, men and women who could give me a coherent picture of the world. And all of my radiant memories have to do with lectures, or moments during lectures when certain immense ideas became clear.

I don't know what anybody else heard in those classrooms, but I was seeking to understand things like why the color and figure went out of art after the Impressionists, and why artists like Picasso, with his wild, brutal abstractions, rose to the fore.

I sought to understand all of history, actually, dipping back into the centuries as I took art classes, and dreaming of traveling to places to which we couldn't afford to go.

I longed for a coherent theory of history that was beyond my grasp.

As for what was going on around me - the feminist movement, the rise of the hippies, the transformation of the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco (where I happened to live), the Vietnam War protests - I ignored these things pretty much. They didn't interest me, per se. I had no perspective on the emancipation of women or how key it was to the conditions of my own daily life. I couldn't see how rapidly it was advancing. I think I ignored militant feminism because it was too painful for me to become involved in the fray.

Also there was no way that a young person like me, with such limited mental tools, could grasp that we were in fact experiencing one of the most tumultuous and significant times in world history.

I had no sense then that I'd been born into a world of rampant social experiment, and I did not see the world-transforming significance of the emancipation of women, and the liberation of gays.

I was too focused on the past.

As for the civil rights movement, I missed it. I'd left the South before it started; and I was in California almost the entire time that the key court decisions were made. Thousands of young people were being radicalized by their participation in this movement. I wasn't aware of it. I was deep into my timeless studies, often experiencing profound insights into social situations for which I had little or no continuous context.

But I'm not sure many other people struggling through the 1960s and 1970s realized how unique were the changes that we saw.

Assumptions about race and gender were being thrown out the window.

The Western family was being entirely reconfigured.

Women had attained more legal rights and privileges in ten years than they had in seven thousand years before. Re-spectable men and women lived together out of wedlock.

No-fault divorce came into existence. Contraceptive devices and drugs were readily available. The prosecution of rape as a crime underwent a transformation, in which the victim was no longer on trial, but the perpetrator.

The Vietnam War polarized the country. Illegal drugs spread from the campus elites to the middle classes and to the working classes, and ultimately to the criminal classes.

Millions of women not only had access to more jobs than ever before, but discovered they had to work for a living, whether they wanted to or not, and the "stay-at-home wife" became a rare being, along with the husband willing to support her.

All this was simply too vast, too swift, too inexorable for people to comprehend. Social and economic forces were too intermingled with the voices of protest or the prophets of social justice. I saw life transformed for millions of Americans, out of the corner of my eye.

Meantime, my early years in San Francisco were rich years. Foreign films were the rage, which meant continued exposure to the work of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Antonioni, Bunuel, and Truffaut. San Francisco has marvelous small theaters in which we saw the plays of Sartre and Camus. All this educated me in ways that books could not.

And around me, as ever, were good people, conscientious people, secular people who on principle wanted to make our world a better world - for the black person, for the woman, for the poor. I can't emphasize this enough: in San Francisco and later in Berkeley, I saw secular humanism as something beautiful and vigorous and brave. And looking back on it, I still see it in that way.

The great hippie revolution occurred as I was finishing my undergraduate years, and I found myself in the thick of it, living as we did one-half block off Haight Street in an apartment house that came to include the famous Free Clinic of the neighborhood.

Friends and relatives trooped through our apartment, marveling at the paintings on the walls, at Stan's poems hanging over his typewriter, at our intense and high-pitched intellectual life amid piles of books and sometime domestic confusion, a world in which Stan and I pounded away on our separate typewriters or argued furiously about philosophy and literature, no matter who might be there to witness the screaming and get upset.

People all around us were discussing the ideas of Timothy Leary, the effects of LSD, the joy of being a dropout artist.

Marijuana smoke was thick in the air. It was the incense of the church of psychedelic transformation. People took carefully structured LSD trips with others who had experienced the drug, acting as protective "guides." I was no more part of this than I had been part of childhood or adolescence. I was working at a fairly high-paying job in a theater box office downtown as I went to school. I showed up for art class in high heels and stockings, no matter who said what, and ignored the pressure of my hippie friends to leave "the establishment" or drop out of school.

I didn't touch LSD. I was too afraid that it would drive me out of my mind. And the new revolutionaries provided me with a whole series of new gender shocks.

In the midst of rampant liberation, the flower children were stridently if not viciously sexist. "Chicks" were supposed to bake bread, clean up, feed their hippie boyfriends, and if at all possible hold a job to support the artist-poets of the group, and perhaps even fork over a bit of financial support received from frantic parents back home. It was no accident that these "chicks" wore long dresses and long hair.

They looked like pioneer women, and they worked just about that hard. There was so much pejorative talk of

"chicks not knowing how to be chicks," and how "chicks" were anti-marijuana, and how "chicks" were middle class, and how if your "old lady" was a real "old lady," she should feed you, and how "chicks" brought you down nagging at you to do chores and things, or make a living, that I withdrew from the company around me in alienation and disgust.

But all this was superficial compared to the real changes in the status of women and g*y people that were taking place.

This was nothing. But it was the nothing that surrounded me and threatened me, and the nothing from which I withdrew.

As we rolled into the 1970s, I continued naturally and unconsciously to ignore anyone who ever sought to define me as a woman, because I didn't feel like one, and I made the tragic mistake of saying casually, "I don't like women," which I would never do now. I wanted to separate myself from a class of beings who were being treated essentially like dirt, at the very moment in history that they were gaining unprece-dented freedom and rights.

I couldn't see the larger picture. I didn't understand feminism in a fair or reasonable way. I was fleeing from being a woman; and feminism invited too much pain.

I was in graduate school when my daughter became sick.

Two years later, after her death before her sixth birthday, I became a writer.

It was practically an accident, and yet it was the most deliberate thing I ever did. The book was Interview with the Vampire.

I recognize now that it was distinctly postmodern in its use of nineteenth-century characters, opulent sets, and ornamented, adjective-laden prose. It was distinctly postmodern in its use of old-fashioned plot and straightforward narrative, and in its use of heroic characters. Modernism had supposedly killed the well-plotted novel. It had supposedly killed the hero. Well, not for me. I didn't even really know what modernism was.

The novel was also an obvious lament for my lost faith.

The vampires roam in a world without God; and Louis, the heartbroken hero, searches for a meaningful context in vain.

But for the purposes of this narrative, what is also important is that the book was a flight from gender, a flight from the world of which I couldn't make any sense.

In my fiction, the characters were practically andro-gynes. The vampire heroes, Louis and Lestat, had feminine beauty, luxuriant hair, rich velvet clothes, and preternatural strength. They loved each other or others, with no regard for gender, and they loved the child vampire Claudia in a way that established a polymorphous sensuality for the entire work. The work wasn't about literal sex. The work was about the "marriage of true minds" beyond impediments. The work had nothing to do with domestic struggle, or class struggle, or gender struggle. The work transcended all of this. The work was about my own fierce polymorphous view of the world in which an old woman might be as beautiful as a young male child. My book reflected a fusion of the aesthetic and the moral with some tentative connection to the lost harmony of my Catholic girlhood.

Where did such a view come from? How had it been sustained?

This book established me as a writer. And to a large extent, the sexism I took for granted in the behavior of others dropped away overnight. There were still people around who reminded me "to take care of " my husband's ego, or inquired tactlessly and in the presence of others as to how Stan was

"taking all this." There were even people who came to Stan to request funds for various projects, laying out their demands to him, in front of me, as if I did not exist.

But this was not significant.

In the main, I ceased to be somebody's wife. I became the author Anne Rice, and generally when people spoke to me, they had something to say to me and it was about my work.

And that meant it was about my mind - this genderless and oversensuous mind.

I didn't realize this immediately. I've never realized anything immediately in my life. But in truth, my life had changed.

I was that person now in the eyes of the world that I had always been in my own eyes. Personhood had come at last. The goal of my life had been attained.

Another dramatic event transformed my life at this time and, very possibly, saved it. I gave birth to a healthy and beautiful son, Christopher, on March 11, 1978. Stan and I were elated. But within less than a year, we became painfully conscious of our heavy drinking, and the impact this was having on our care for our son. Neither of us wanted this priceless child to grow up in a household with two drunken parents.

On Memorial Day of 1979, we made a pact never to drink again, and though I violated the pact that summer, when I went home to New Orleans for the funeral of an uncle, I took my last drink the night before flying back to California.

If Christopher had not come to us at that time, it is very likely that heavy drinking would have killed Stan and me, or so diminished our existence and our capacity to work that we would have experienced a slow and ugly disintegration.

We'd confronted this possibility many a time. But our resolves to stop drinking had never been lasting. The love of Christopher, and our hopes and dreams for him, now provided the incentive we needed. Though we did not join any organization or 12-step program, we maintained sobriety from then on.

As I look back on it, I think that Christopher was aptly named, because he brought a saving grace into our lives that was all but miraculous. A child of exceptional gifts, he surprised us, challenged us, and educated us over the years in countless ways, as only a child can do, and he is now a highly successful novelist. He was and is a treasure. And he was as much a part of my life from then on as any success I derived from my writing.

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