Rachel Cline: cherchez la mom

Like any daughter with a story to tell, I have a mother who looms large. For the first four years of my life, I was her greatest achievement. Then my brother was born, and then there was her book—which soon eclipsed us both. That book, a layperson's history of the birth of Quantum Mechanics, was the product of many years of loud typing behind the bedroom door. Its actual subject matter was beyond me, but by the age of seven I understood that my mother felt about Niels Bohr more or less the way I felt about John Lennon.

» Mom's book was quite successful at the time of its publication, garnering a multi-page review in the New Yorker and soon becoming assigned reading at Yale. Still, I've always believed that its success was at least somewhat attributable to the striking juxtaposition of the world's most difficult subject matter with the beauty of the face of the young woman on the back of the book. What reviewer could resist? Yes, not only is my mother brilliant, she is a knockout. Even now.

I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, which was then a vaguely bohemian enclave, and my father worked as an architectural lighting designer—a profession he more or less invented. His first really big job was the immense, transparent geodesic dome that housed the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal—Dad referred to Buckminster Fuller as "Bucky." Still, no one in the school yard could understand what either of my parents did for a living and neither of my parents really had the slightest idea how to make money. We got by, but often there was a sense of impending crisis. Or perhaps this is the way it feels in any apartment-dwelling young family. There was a fair amount of yelling and a lot of indoor roller skating on rainy days.

When I was ten, my parents divorced—though amicably enough that we still often gathered as a family on holidays. My mother thought she was leaving my father to marry the father of one of my brother's friends but he got a job in Nixon's White House and decided to stay married and move to Washington. For years thereafter my mother believed herself to be on the White House enemies list and, in retrospect, it seems very possible that she was. My father remarried, happily, when I was twelve.

After the book, my mother worked at a wide variety of office jobs, none of which suited her but all of which kept her out of the apartment a fair amount. While she was out, my brother and I were cared for by a succession of African American women, at least one of whom I loved without reserve. My mother had a hard time after the divorce and the failed affair and I did everything in my power to become the thirty-five year old best friend that she needed. Watching her, I made some decisions about my own future: I would never, ever, live a life like my mother's. I would get a real job, a steady job, I would never let any Republican idiot break my heart, and I would certainly never have kids.

I went to three schools before college, P.S. 8—then in the early throes of integration by bus; Woodward, a tiny private school whose curriculum revolved almost exclusively around themes of racial equality; and St. Ann's, an ostensibly progressive school where I read Plato and Aeschylus in tenth grade, spent most of eleventh grade getting stoned in a nearby park, and didn't learn to drive, type, speak a foreign language, or play a single sport. (I did, however, graduate and was somehow admitted to Oberlin College.)

When I was sixteen, Mom fell in love with Tom, a man I found abhorrent. Within a year, she had married him and moved my brother and I to suburban New Jersey. The move was a secondary shock but no less appalling to me than the man who'd planted its seed. Being a New Yorker was the only part of my identity that had managed to stay in place during the first sixteen years of my life. Sadly for my mother, and perhaps for my brother, Tom died within eight months of the marriage. For me, it was not sad, it was something else. An incredibly bitter victory? I was old enough to understand that I was susceptible to emotional damage if I harbored any magical beliefs about the role of my own hatred in my stepfather's untimely death, but I was also too young to understand the part of my soul where the darkest thoughts festered and grew.

What I did know about myself was that I wanted to be a writer. It was just about all I knew. This dream might have been the product of listening to all that typing behind the bedroom door, or of hearing my father read aloud from the Just So Stories and Winnie the Pooh, or of reading Harriet the Spy to myself when I was eight. Sometime in high school, however, I realized that being a writer and making a living were incompatible. This may have coincided with the arrival of Tom, whose industrial engineering business in the fetid New Jersey meadowlands my mother had expected to support us. Or maybe I came to this realization after Tom died, when my mother opened Barbara Eclectic, a suburban clothing boutique. Running the store was the first job since writing the book that she had been able to stick with, and she stuck with it for fifteen years. It paid for her retirement, ultimately. Well, that, my dead stepfather's legacy, and a few smart real estate transactions.

At Oberlin, I majored in English and worked on the school newspaper—eventually rising to the august position of editorial writer. I tried to learn other things—Ancient Greek, Chemistry, American History, even Computer Programming, but I really didn't know how to read anything that didn't have a plot. It's kind of amazing that I didn't flunk out, given the limited number of things I actually applied myself to, but there were no distribution requirements back then and there were a lot of classes a person could take that really didn't require reading anything but novels, plays, and the occasional poem. I took them all and graduated with what I soon learned were absolutely no marketable skills. But wait a minute, I wasn't going to make the same mistakes my mother had!

The only mistake of hers I never made was getting married and having children—if those can be called mistakes. I fell in love a time or two, but I never got pregnant and I never got engaged. The former was easy, since my ovaries were overrun with endometriosis by the time I was twenty-five. The latter is still a bit of a mystery but less and less of a misery over time.

Anyway, after a few years of trying to find my way through the lower depths of publishing (typing mailing labels for review copies, proofreading, something called "traffic,") I decided to go to film school. This was a highly rational choice, I thought. I was going to learn a trade: screenwriting. Screenwriters got paid. There was even a union, or was it a guild? Anyway, there were pensions and work rules and benefits.

So I got an MFA and worked for five years in the movie business as a secretary. It was the best secretarial job on earth, don't get me wrong: I traveled all over the country and I learned to drive—two things that I might never otherwise have been able to do. In addition to typing and filing I did glamorous things like renting a piano for Richard Gere, making a salad for Sean Penn, knocking repeatedly on the dressing room door of Kim Basinger ("Miss Basinger? They're ready for you."), spending my per diem allowance at the craps table in Lake Tahoe, having my wallet stolen three times in one month in New Orleans, and driving to various small regional airports in the middle of the night with very heavy cans of film in my care. I also drove Winona Ryder to the airport when her name was still Winona Horowitz—and when I had had my license for about six weeks and shouldn't have been driving anyone anywhere.

Then, one afternoon, in a production office in New York City, a young playwright named Howard Korder asked me to get him a cup of coffee. I was ostensibly sitting at the table with him as an associate producer on a movie project based on one of his plays, but the other two people at the table—the executive producer and the producer—were men. I realized no one was ever going to stop asking me for coffee if I didn't start doing something besides being that secretary who wrote the slyly funny memos.

I quit my glamorous job as a secretary in the movie business and became a temp: I got paid twenty-five dollars an hour for word processing documents for investment bankers. It was the height of the arbitrage boom—the bonfire of the vanities was burning into the night. While temping, I managed to write two "portfolio" screenplays. In 1987, I had broken up with my boyfriend of seven years, but I was having an extraordinarily difficult time getting over him. By 1990, it seemed like a very good time to get out of town, so I moved to L.A.

I got myself a Honda Civic, a secretarial job at Disney, a desktop computer, and tried really hard to become a screenwriter. It didn't work. Luckily, just as despair was beginning to kick in, a professor of mine from film school asked me to try to write an episode of Knots Landing, then in its death throes after twelve seasons of prime time. John, with whom I had studied screenwriting at Columbia, and who was, himself, a Dickens scholar, had taken over the writing of the show. The staff I joined shortly thereafter consisted of John, Don and Jim, a novelist and a playwright—both friends and peers of John's, and Lisa, who was a "real" hour drama writer. She kept us from turning every storyline into a pastiche of great books, opera plots, and not-so-great movies from the fifties, although that was definitely the fun part. Well, that and making all that money. TV writers make a ridiculous amount of money. Unfortunately, I got fired after six months—along with John and Don. But now I had hope, which is the worst thing that can happen to anyone in Hollywood.

thus, it took another five years in Los Angeles to get me fully over my hopes. Even though I was more or less reliving my mother's itinerant work life throughout those years, my successful avoidance of marriage and children meant I was still keeping my word to whoever it was I'd promised all that. Myself? Anyway, as the belief that I would one day sell one of my scripts ceased to lead me astray, I found myself writing for a small company that produced training materials for corporate clients. Had these materials been films, they would have been called "industrials" but they were CD-ROMs so they were called "new media." That shift was a very lucky break. It got me through the rest of the decade and the first draft of "What to Keep." By then, "new media" meant "the Internet" and I was writing style guides, on-line help, and where-to-click instructions for huge corporations willing to pay ridiculously inflated prices for skills like mine—skills they otherwise valued not in the least. A consulting company of the sort now understood to have been a product of "the bubble" paid for my relocation to New York in 1999. When they laid me off in July of 2001, I fought for the financial settlement that enabled me to finish writing the book.

I might never have come back to New York if my father hadn't developed cancer of the esophagus. At first, it was just a visit so that I could hear his voice again before they surgically removed it. Then I got myself assigned to East Coast clients so I could come back more often—even with his electro-larynx, it was hard to understand him on the phone. Then—as he grew sicker and sicker—I started to realize that most of the people I relied on for support and comic relief lived not in L.A. but in New York. So I came back for good.

Although my dad died in early 2000, by that time I had a job and an apartment and a network of friends who got my jokes AND returned my calls. I also somehow (well, through my derelict old high school, is the truth of the matter) made an alliance with an amazing literary agent, and she gets my jokes and returns my calls, too. Furthermore, she sold my novel. As I said, I came home for good.

But what about my mother, you ask? Cherchez la mom, I called this story, so where is she? My mother is well and happy and lives in two of the most beautiful seaside vacations spots on the East Coast. She has never written another book, but The Questioners, (subsequently re-titled Men Who Made a New Physics) was only out of print briefly (and if you are in any way involved in publishing you know what a huge miracle that represents). She is a proud grandmother (my brother married a wonderful woman and produced a son, thank God), an insatiable reader, an accomplished visual artist, and my close but cautious friend. I thought that my writing a novel would please her tremendously, but she is still a little bit afraid that What to Keep is my indictment of her failures as a parent. She is not a bad parent, though; she never was. She is just a woman with a passionate soul and a tremendous creative drive, like me.