Sybil: A brief, dramatic epilogue

Since July 2017, when I began to research and write Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I have spent hundreds of hours gathering information online, pulled many dusty books of the shelves to review, sorted through dozens of photographs and retrieved countless documents from my filing cabinets. I even pulled out my 44-year-old Best of Old Time Radio records to listen again to episodes of Gang Busters, The Green Hornet and The Shadow. Proper interrogation of memory demands meticulous attention to detail—no fact is too small to check. Nearly every one of those memory-interrogation aids proved, at worst, bittersweet and, at best, joyful. And not one provoked a viscerally negative reaction.

Until yesterday, that is.

A few days ago, I explained why the saga of “Sybil”—the pseudonym given Shirley Ardell Mason in a 1973 book and two-part November 1976 television movie—exemplified how not to interrogate memory:

Unfortunately, we may never know whether the events recounted in Sybil occurred the way Mason first told Dr. Wilbur they did, or whether they are false memories resulting from a confluence of rationalized incentives: the troubled young woman searching for a mother figure; the young psychiatrist trained in an archaic and unscientific methodology so eager to have a case of MPD [multiple personality disorder] she ruthlessly probed her suggestible young patient—herself a substitute daughter—until she heard what she wanted to hear; and the journalist and professor who, simply put, should have known better.

At every step along the way, all three women—and even Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who treated Mason when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation, but kept his doubts about her alleged multiple personalities to himself for decades—failed to consider the fantastic tales unfolding with the most rudimentary skepticism. This failure to interrogate memory perversely made them rich and famous, albeit behind a pseudonym for one. The consequence, however, was a destructive over-diagnosis of a once-rare—for good reason—mental disorder, sweeping even the powerful APA [American Psychiatric Association] along with it.

For these reasons—never mind that the artistic and piano-playing Mason reputedly could not draw or play a note as “Sybil”—this episode is a textbook example of how NOT to interrogate memory.

The proximate cause for this interest, bordering on obsession, was writing in what I anticipate will be Chapter 10 about watching Sybil when it first aired: not all of it, I think, but more than enough. I had just turned 10 years old, which begs the question how I was allowed anywhere near a television set broadcasting it, let alone sitting in my faux-leather swivel chair in our downstairs den watching it.

I write about Sybil in the larger context of how many inappropriate television shows and movies I watched as a child; this sets up being a young teen watching whatever I chose on the television set, complete with HBO, in my new bedroom. Perhaps because it was just becoming part of the zeitgeist, Sybil was one of at least three televised portrayals of child/spousal abuse I watched in 1976. The title character of A Girl Named Sooner is subjected to emotional abuse. Around the same time Sybil aired, Martin Mull played the loathsome Garth Gimble, a wife-beater who traumatizes their son into bed-wetting, on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. When those episodes aired, commercials for Electric Light Orchestra’s A New World Record featured snippets from “Livin’ Thing;” for years I could not listen to that song without shuddering. While I have long since made my peace with that excellent tune, I only wanted to push Sybil as far out of my mind as possible.

Until yesterday, that is.

As for the lack of parental discretion: one month earlier, my mother was forced to get a telephone solicitation job because my father had finally lost the business his family had operated since 1926—when it was already 40 years old. His gambling had become destructive; I recall a sheriff coming to the house one night to take him away. A few months later, on March 2, 1977, my parents formally separated; my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I moved into a nearby apartment. The night before they separated, my father sat down at our kitchen table to type out a short report for me; he had rarely, if ever, done anything like that before. When he was finished, he set the two sheets of paper to the side then asked me if I knew what was happening the following morning. I told him I did. At that point, he cried in front of me for the first and last time. Whatever I was personally feeling about the impending disruption of my young life, my empathy kicked in, and I began to comfort him.

Indeed, I had spent most of my childhood that way; my severely intellectually-impaired older sister, who had only moved into a full-time residential facility less than two years earlier, simply required too much attention. It helped that I was a naturally quiet and bookish boy.

Sue Ellen Drive Jan 1977

And that may explain what happened to me yesterday afternoon.


I am shocked, frankly, how curious I became about the underlying “truth” of Sybil; the film had traumatized my 10-year-old self that much. But, in the same way we keep poking our tongue into an aching tooth, I kept looking for clips from the film. My wife Nell, partly to stop me talking about it, first suggested I should finally watch the entire movie. Which I resisted…for about as long as it takes to read this sentence.

Unable to locate in on Comcast OnDemand, Amazon, Netflix or YouTube, I contented myself with those clips, mostly out of context. Except those clips only aroused my curiosity further. Those brief glimpses were that compelling. Then, less than 24 hours after writing the previous essay, I found the full, three-hour-plus movie here.

I immediately started to watch it, mesmerized. It was already dark, however, and my foolishness only extends so far, so I paused after the first half. Already, though, I could see how director Daniel Petrie and screenwriter Stewart Stern were playing a bit fast and loose with established facts. Setting the sessions between Mason and Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in 1970s Manhattan, rather than between 1954 and 1965, was likely a way to save money on costuming and sets. It was likely also to condense the sweeping story that “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City, not—as with the real-life Mason—about a decade earlier in Omaha, NE.

Somewhat disorienting, though, the flashback scenes set in fictional Willows Corner, WI have the look and feel of the 1930s—when Mason truly was a young girl. And the first scene we see there is the upsetting tonsillectomy Mason actually had when she was seven—the event journalist Debbie Nathan believes was the kernel of truth the suggestible Mason turned into the more outlandish tales of sexual and physical abuse. In the movie, this merely serves the purpose of establishing young Sybil’s desperate fear of her mother—and her love for her protective, albeit invalid, grandmother. But it is almost as though they knew future—and highly skeptical–researchers would point to this event, so they wrote this scene. Just as they wrote a brief scene between Dr Wilbur (Gina Petrushka) and a fictional older female mentor named Dr. Lazarus. As they walk through Manhattan, the latter tellingly says, “Such a compliment they [the personalities of “Vicki” and “Peggy”] should reveal themselves so quickly.” After Dr. Wilbur gushes about her new patient, they stop at the railing along a riverbed. There, Dr. Lazarus cautions Dr. Wilbur,

“Be careful. Honey, be careful. Do not fall in love with her illness, or she could be obligated to seem just more complex than she is, just to keep your approval. You know that about little girls, they’re defenseless but belong to somebody else. Pieces, fragments, illusions. And they are acting out a drama that has nothing to do with you.”

When Dr. Wilbur replies that she knows that, Dr. Lazarus adds the kicker: “So…you mustn’t act out one that has nothing to do with them.” For instance? “For instance, you are not their mother.” Literally the next thing we hear after this sage—and thoroughly ignored—advice is Woodward’s voiceover explaining how hard following that advice is. Watching naïve “Peggy,” who thinks she is a nine-year-old living in a small Wisconsin town, disappear into the Manhattan night so tugs at her, she wants to call her back. And, of course, Dr. Wilbur does become a surrogate mother to “Sybil,” just as the actual Dr. Wilbur did to Mason.

I finished the movie the following day. Once again, I saw how Petrie and Stern protected themselves: adding a love interest named Richard, eliminating the use of barbiturates during hypnosis and reducing the June 1958 recanting letter to a brief conversation. Most important from the perspective of memory interrogation, though, are the wholly fictional scenes in which Dr. Wilbur meets with “Sybil’s” father in Chicago, unethically discussing his daughter and conveniently learning “Hattie” was once diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She then travels to Willows Corner to investigate. There, she receives confirmation from Dr. Quinones (Charles Lane) about young “Sybil’s” many severe injuries, including bladder and uterus damage that foreshadow the climactic “green kitchen” scene. Dr. Wilbur also visits “Sybil’s” now-empty childhood home and finds both the green kitchen and proof of another traumatizing event. This is then used to get “Sybil” to admit she fabricated her recanting. And when “Sybil’s” personalities finally merge into one on a field somewhere–not even close to how this allegedly happened one day in 1965–Woodward’s voiceover tells us “Sybil” stayed in psychoanalysis for 11 years, airbrushing the months during which the movie has taken place.

All of which brings us to…the scene.

In my memory, it lasted a very long time and was quite graphic. I also had young Sybil bound in a closet. As the scene began, my heart was racing; I was legitimately scared of what I was about to see. However, while still horrifying, much of what I thought I had seen was actually implied through editing and voiceover—and there was no closet. Chalk up another win for memory interrogation.

Still, once the scene—which was also much shorter than I remembered—was over, and we were back in the park where the revelations take place under hypnosis, I began to cry. Not “a few tears rolled down my cheeks,” but uncontrollable, body-racking sobs—wet, snotty and loud. My entire body shrieked with visceral anguish. It was a good 10 minutes before I began to calm down.

Yes, any person with a drop of empathy would recoil in horror at what I had just witnessed—and what the imagination conjured on top of it. IF we are wrong, and young Shirley Ardell Mason was subjected to these medieval tortures, then Martha Mason should suffer the eternal punishments of the damned—and I write this as a Jewish-raised atheist who was never taught, and never accepted, such things.

And there was a good deal of relief I had made it through the movie; this was something I clearly needed to face.

Underneath all of that, though, was something else—my own pain and hurt. When I first watched that scene, way back in November 1976, my happy life was crumbling around me—that my life arguably turned out far better is beside the point. I was never able to express how I truly felt about the separation—I was too compliant for that. My father was shattered, and my mother was becoming what she would call “nervous.” Suddenly, not even 11 years old, I was the man of the house, at least in an emotional support sense. There was little-to-no space for me to grieve what I was losing.

So, perhaps, I did the next best thing. I displaced those feelings onto a terrifying television movie, converting and expanding already-awful scenes into Grand Guignol horror. I never fully understood this until the last few weeks, as I began to interrogate my own memories of those days. And then—when I had watched the scene again—it all came pouring it.

I suspect there is more to come.


Let me just add this: despite its factual inaccuracies and dubious veracity, Sybil deserved all of its accolades. Purely as a work of art, it is astonishing and highly recommended. As good as Woodward is, Field gives an absolutely tour-de-force performance.

As for the real Shirley Ardell Mason?

The following facts are illuminating:

  1. Shirley is said to be the only surviving child of Walter and Martha Mason.
  2. The latter was already 39 years old when Shirley was born in 1923, when a woman’s life expectancy was just 58.5
  3. Shirley survived, but was frail and sickly—and was treated with calf’s liver for what very likely was pernicious anemia.

Under these conditions, is it remotely surprising the “bizarre” Martha Mason would practically smother her only child—intelligent, artistic and sensitive—with extreme overprotectiveness? So much so that when Martha Mason died in 1948, Shirley had never really learned how to care for herself as an adult in the larger world outside rural southern Minnesota. Her father, having found a new romantic partner, then stopped giving his daughter money. That same daughter who was so fascinated by psychology in college.

Of course, Shirley Mason would feed Dr. Wilbur’s personal and professional interest in multiple personality disorder—however unconsciously—in order to appear “more complex than she is” to her surrogate mother, the woman who was essentially supporting her in New York City.

All of this is merely conjecture, of course, based only upon a twice-seen television movie and a little bit of online research; I confess I have not read any of the primary books on Sybil/Shirley Mason. Nonetheless, it remains the best example I have yet found of how not to interrogate memory.

Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.

How NOT to interrogate memory: Sybil, false memories and flawed incentives

At 9 pm EST on Sunday, November 14, 1976, approximately 20% of Americans had their television set turned to their local ABC affiliate. What they were about to watch, across four hours over two nights, would win four Primetime Emmy Awards the following spring. It would also change the course of psychiatry for decades, and—at least in the short term—not for the better.

Three years earlier, journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, who also taught English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had published a book called Sybil. “Sybil Isabelle Dorsett” is the pseudonym for a young woman from a small Wisconsin town treated by psychoanalyst Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in New York City from 1954 to 1965. Dr. Wilbur ascertained “Sybil” had 16 distinct personalities. These personalities only integrated after one of them, a nine-year-old girl named Peggy, finally was able to articular the horrific sexual abuse and torture “Sybil” had suffered at the hands of her devoutly Seventh Day Adventist mother “Hattie,” who Dr. Wilbur decided had been a paranoid schizophrenic.

The book had sold six million copies, so a film adaptation was almost inevitable. Presumably the medium of television was chosen because the final run-time of 198 minutes was too long for a feature film. Daniel Petrie, who would soon win a Primetime Emmy Award for the January 1976 television movie Eleanor and Franklin, was brought in to direct. Joanne Woodward, who 19 years earlier had played the title character in another film about multiple personality disorder (“MPD”), The Three Faces of Eve, signed on to play Dr. Wilbur. Many actresses were considered for the challenging role of Sybil—one requiring the portrayal of 16 distinct characters using only facial expressions, intonation and body movement—until the very last audition. That audition was by Sally Field, then best known for her starring roles in situation comedies like Gidget and The Flying Nun. Casting her against type was beyond inspired; one of Sybil’s four Primetime Emmys went to Field for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.

Less than two months before Sybil shocked and wowed the nation, I turned 10 years old. As I detail in Chapter 10 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I watched a great deal of inappropriate movies and television as a boy and young teenager. This lack of parental discretion is somewhat mitigated by the fact I watched most of these dramas with at least one parent. And, if memory serves, I did not watch all of Sybil.

I saw more than I should have, though, including the scene no child should ever see, the one in “the green kitchen.” If you have seen Sybil, you know exactly what I am talking about. Nearly 44 years later, I am still traumatized by it.

The thing is…much of this “true story” very likely never actually happened.

Yes, there was a real-life young woman with severe emotional problems from a small Midwestern town who had strict religious parents and who was treated for 11 years by Dr. Wilbur.

But the 16 personalities—and the stomach-churning scene in “the green kitchen?”

They appear to have been false memories induced in a co-dependent young woman in order to please the MPD-obsessed doctor she desperately wanted to keep seeing.


I first attempt to define “interrogating memory” in the Preface:

The results of the genetic testing and those tentative steps gave me the first inkling the story I had always told about my adoption […] was not strictly accurate. In fact, half of it was flat-out incorrect. Yet, these were the stories with which I had been raised, the stories we all believed to be true….

Delving deeper into my family history, reaching out to family members, using newly-available investigative tools such as and, and reviewing what the innate archivist in me had retained and carefully filed (school-assignment genealogy reports and a hand-written family tree were especially helpful), I observed other inconsistencies in what I thought I knew. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn—and the more I wanted to get it right, even if that meant relinquishing some of my favorite stories.

As a highly-trained researcher—I have advanced degrees in political science, biostatistics and epidemiology informed by nearly two decades as health-related data analyst and project manager—I followed every available investigative path: wandering through a maze of Philadelphia-area cemeteries to read headstones in English and Hebrew; prowling city archives and libraries; engaging in extensive telephone, e-mail and snail-mail conversations with extraordinarily helpful individuals; and even talking to literal eyewitnesses to my own history.

Two paragraphs later, I am still circling around a cogent definition:

At one level, interrogating memory is just a fancy term for “fact-checking.”

But it is much more than that. “Interrogating memory” could be considered the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories for hidden meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history and mystery.

Or to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, is that really how it happened?”

Interrogating memory was also inspired by […] partisanship so deep and intense it even affected where we got our information….

Critical thinking skills were vanishing as well, as the nation endured an epistemological crisis wherein roughly 40% of the nation believed everything President Donald J. Trump said, roughly 50% of the nation disbelieved everything he said—and everybody else was not sure what to think.

I offer this book as a counter to those divisions, a call to seek the truth no matter what the cost to our preconceived ideas. As a result, I belabor such details as precisely where and when an ancestor was born because such details matter, and because validating every fact matters, especially when what people call “facts” are too often simply regurgitations from a favorite website or commentator.

Next, I open the Introduction with a definition-by-example: the story of a friend from my early childhood so badly burned I never saw him again, a story I thought until recently I had either invented or been told as a cautionary fable.

Later, in the last chapter, I tell the story of watching Sybil as a barely-10-year-old boy. I now realize I effectively saved the best for last. Sometimes it is easier to define an amorphous concept like “interrogating memory” by providing an example of what it is not. Mutually-contradictory incentives resulting in the catastrophic decision not to examine, with the utmost scientific rigor, the sequence of events described in the 1973 book is just such an example.


We begin at the beginning, in Dodge Center, MN, roughly 75 miles southeast of Rochester—and about that distance west of the Wisconsin state line. Shirley Ardell Mason was born in that small town of roughly 900 people on January 25, 1923. She was the only surviving child of Walter Wingfield, self-employed architect and carpenter who also worked as a clerk in a hardware store, and Martha Alice “Mattie” Atkinson Mason. Both parents were 39 years old when Shirley was born; I can find no record of other children, so presumably they either died in childbirth or too young to be recorded in the decennial United States Census. Data from those Censuses reveal the Masons rented space in a house owned by Shirley’s paternal grandparents, Neill and Mary Mason, at 4 Grove Street, [1] then owned the house outright after Neill Mason died in February 1935; Mary Mason had died three years earlier in April 1932.

Shirley Mason

Photograph of Shirley Ardell Mason from here.

The Masons were indeed strictly observant Seventh Day Adventists; according to fellow art student Jean Lane, Mason maintained that religiosity into adulthood. Seventh Day Adventists are taught not to read fiction, but the brilliant young Shirley Mason was highly imaginative and loved to invent stories.

A Newsweek article from 1999 further explores Mason’s childhood:

Residents recall a somewhat withdrawn, slender girl with a talent for painting. Betty Borst Christensen, 76, grew up across the street from the Masons. “Shirley was very protected,” Christensen recalls. “Her mother didn’t let her do much.” Mason’s second-grade teacher, Frances Abbott, now 93, remembers that Mattie Mason would grab Shirley’s hand “in a vise lock” when they crossed the street. “”Shirley couldn’t get free even if she tried. She was a timid little soul always under Mother’s care”

[…M]any people in Dodge Center say Mattie…was bizarre. “She had a witchlike laugh,” recalls Christensen. “She didn’t laugh much, but when she did, it was like a screech.” Christensen remembers the mother walking around after dark, looking in the neighbors’ windows.

After graduating high school in 1941, Mason enrolled at what was then Mankato State Teachers College—now Minnesota State University, Mankato—to study art. The overprotective Martha Mason permitted her daughter to live there. Lane recalled Mason being quite thin with long hair, and often sick with colds “and this and that.” A talented painter, Mason also played the basement piano very dramatically, to relieve “a tremendous amount of emotional pressure” of unknown origin. This shy devout woman also told Lane about going downtown to “drink and carouse at the bars.” Mason began to blackout in class; once becoming “comatose” after fainting. It was then the school nurse rode with Shirley Mason on a train to Omaha, NE, where her family now lived. This nurse ascertained the problem had “a psychological component;” Mason and Lane had often talked about psychology, conceiving from Lane’s book on Freud that “most of our problems were related to our parents.” In fact, Mason read a great deal about psychology; she was “very concerned about it.”

It was in Omaha Shirley Mason met a 30-something Freudian psychoanalyst named Cornelia Burwell Wilbur, who briefly treated her, allowing Mason to graduate Mankato in 1949.[2] The Masons then moved to Kansas City, MO, where, on July 25, 1948, 64-year-old Martha Mason died from a heart attack. According to Lane, 25-year-old Mason spent the rest of her life looking for more mothers.

Meanwhile, sometime after returning to Mankato. Lane did something Mason thought was not the right thing, after which Mason spoke to her “in a little boy’s voice.” Lane just looked at her, thinking this was strange, then left as soon as she could.

Lane also recalls Shirley Mason’s mother Martha this way:

“Her mother was very, very protective. Shirley kind of took over her mother’s life. And when Shirley was in grade school, when she wanted to know what the teachers thought of her, she would send her mother to school to ask. Her mother was white-haired, tall—taller than Shirley—very thin, very nice. She didn’t want Shirley to keep rats. Shirley kept rats, I don’t know, probably because her mother didn’t want ’em. Her father was more distant. Her mother was so caring of Shirley; as long as she lived, Shirley was OK. It’s when she passed away that the father got himself a girlfriend.”

After that, Walter Mason would never give her daughter money, no matter how broke Shirley was.

All of which brings us to New York City, where Mason moved shortly after graduating from Mankato to attend Columbia University. I observe without comment she chose to live in “Gotham City” rather than near her father, who died at the age of 78 in Lansing, MI on April 12, 1962.


From two youthful suicide attempts, to a hit-and-run accident, to an anxiety-inducing 2016, I have been in therapy with four different psychotherapists. With varying degrees of success, each used some form of talk therapy, And—unless it was specifically and obviously relevant to that session’s discussion, I was never questioned about my early childhood, or about what my mother or father did to me, or what was suggested could have been done to me. And other than being an 11-year-old sipping cold Coke, I never interacted with my therapists outside of the office, nor learned much, if anything, about their personal lives. They were always a “blank slate”: never feed the patient answers, let the patient arrive at those answers on her/his own.

Which brings us back to Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.

Born Cornelia Brown Burwell on August 26, 1908 in Cleveland, OH, she earned her BA and MD from the University of Michigan. On June 4, 1934, she married 23-year-old Henry Wilbur. As of early 1942, according to Henry Wilbur’s WWII draft registration card, they were still living in Ann Arbor, MI.

Cornelia Wilbur

Photograph of Dr. Cornelia Burwell Wilbur from here.

Within a year, however, they had moved to Omaha, where Dr. Wilbur joined the newly-formed Department of Psychiatry at Bishop Clarkson Memorial Hospital. There, in 1943, she made a silent “training” film with the department’s founder, Dr. Abram Elting Bennett. The film, unsettling at times, opens with these written words:

“Short acting barbiturates given intravenously are useful in psychiatry for: 1. Estimating affective responsiveness before shock therapy is given. 2. As an aid in ventilation of conflict material. 3. As an aid in psychotherapy for relief of anxiety, ten- [words missing].

“Sodium thioethamyl and sodium pentothal both ultra short acting barbiturates are given intravenously in a five per cent solution by intermittent injection (1 c.c. per minute) until the response desired is obtained.

“This method called narco-synthesis caused the patient to reexperience emotions originally associated with psychic trauma. The patient synthesizes emotions and memories under light narcosis and develops insight, thus breaking up the neurotic, infantile reactions.

“It is also of value in determining whether certain schizophrenic-like states will respond to convulsive shock therapy. This is measured by the amount of emotional release occurring under the influence of the drug. These cases showing strong affective responses are likely to respond to convulsive shock therapy.”

Five different patients are then shown—with only the bare minimum of context, one of them an 11-year-old girl—before and after their injections. Mercifully, we see no shock treatments. But it is not at all clear what we are supposed to conclude from this film.

From our current scientific and ethical perspective, this film is upsetting. Administering powerful narcotics until the “response desired is obtained” is astounding: at no point is this response explicitly defined, suggesting it is solely at the psychiatrists’ discretion. Electro-convulsive therapy is now only used in rare, highly-proscribed situations. We have learned barbiturates can lead to tolerance and psychological and/or physical dependence, especially after prolonged high dosage. Moreover, we also now know that “at moderate to high doses, some of the drugs may actually impede memory or make it more likely that the person misremembers.” [Italics added for emphasis.]

I question why Drs. Bennett and Wilbur made this creepy film rather than present these cases to a medical journal for peer review—did they fear the scrutiny? Finally, as someone who wrote informed consent forms simply to administer health-related questionnaires, I do not see how such consent could have been obtained. Did the parents of the 11-year-old girl really allow her to be administered sodium thioethamyl on camera? The ethical misconduct, however beneficent the outcome, is appalling.

But this was the treatment milieu of Dr. Wilbur when Shirley Mason resumed her sessions with her in late 1954, at the former’s Park Avenue home office in Manhattan.

And here reality and fantasy begin to diverge.


Here also is where the public record tells different stories. While it is clear Dr. Wilbur made the mistake of asking the impressionable Mason to read about MPD, it is unclear when this took place. An August 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview with journalist Debbie Nathan, whose 2011 book Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case makes the case against Mason having MPD, clearly states this occurred in Omaha in the 1940s—perhaps resulting in the “young boy” who corrected Jean Lane. But in an excerpt of Nathan’s book published in the New York Times in October 2011, Nathan herself describes the sequence of events this way:

“One day in late winter of 1955, about five months after their first session in New York, Mason surprised Wilbur by telling her about some bizarre “jams” she’d gotten into. Sometimes, she said, she would “come to” in antiques shops, her mind a blank, facing dishes or figurines that were smashed to pieces. Or, she recounted, she found herself in strange hotels with no idea what city she was in.

“Wilbur was astounded. She believed Mason was experiencing what were known as fugue states, a condition she treated in her very first patient in 1940. A person suffering from a fugue state left home for hours, days or even weeks, and behaved like someone else entirely. Fugue states were a rare form of hysteria caused by dissociation. From Wilbur’s point of view, they were also spectacular.

“Ten days after receiving her fugue-state diagnosis, Mason arrived for her morning appointment. Usually, she settled herself primly on the couch and spoke softly and timidly. But on this day her movements were energetic, her voice loud and childish.

“’How are you today?’ Wilbur asked her patient.

“’I’m fine but Shirley isn’t,’ was the answer. ‘She was so sick she couldn’t come. So I came instead.’

“Wilbur didn’t miss a beat. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ she said.

“’I’m Peggy!’ the patient chirped.

“She gave details. Peggy was a little girl with dark hair. Shirley couldn’t stand up for herself, so Peggy stood up for her. Shirley couldn’t get angry, so Peggy got angry. Shirley was always scared, and Peggy liked to have fun. When she gained control she went anywhere she felt like going — including to other cities, like Philadelphia.

“At the next appointment, Mason apologized for missing her last one. Wilbur told her she hadn’t, that she had actually been in the office — as someone else. She wanted to tell her patient that she had a condition even stranger than fugue states. But before Wilbur could introduce the topic of multiple-personality disorder, Mason changed the subject.

“The following week, Mason seemed poised and well mannered rather than loud and childish. ‘I’m Vicky,’ she announced. Wilbur asked Vicky if there were any other people inside Shirley besides herself and Peggy.

“’Oh, yes!’ Vicky answered. There was Peggy Lou, but there was also Peggy Ann. Both were outgoing, though Peggy Ann was more tactful. Months after Peggy first appeared, Mason wrote in her therapy diary that when she was a child, she and her mother, Mattie, would play a game in which Mattie would call her daughter by the names Peggy and Peggy Ann. (During Shirley’s childhood, some of the most popular dolls were marketed as ‘Peggy’ and ‘Peggy Ann.’ Mattie loved dolls and bought many for her daughter.)

“When Mason left, Wilbur, flabbergasted, did the math. She’d known about multiple-personality disorder for years, but her patient had a least four personalities, more than Wilbur had ever heard of.”

It is hard for me to comprehend how Dr. Wilbur could so credulously have accepted these “personalities” without careful and intense probing. Nonetheless, by this account, Dr. Wilbur and Mason never discussed MPD until the following session in early 1955. This suggests Nathan herself does not have all of her facts straight. Indeed, Dr. Patrick Suraci, author of his own book on Mason, condemned Nathan’s methods and veracity.

Returning to Nathan’s account, meanwhile, rather than dismay at the MPD diagnosis, Mason was curious and relieved. “Vicky” then began to hint at dark secrets, leading Dr. Wilbur to use narcosynthesis to uncover what she was now certain was a buried truth: young Shirley had suffered traumatic abuse at the hands of Martha Mason, who Dr. Wilbur now suspected, without any independent examination or investigation, was a paranoid schizophrenic.

Over the next few years, Dr. Wilbur injected Mason with sodium pentothal and tape-recorded their sessions. Most tapes were destroyed, but some—as well as numerous transcripts—are stored with a cache of documents Schreiber had archived at John Jay after her death in 1988. It was in those sessions the first details of the traumatic events were revealed: “And they put flashlights in you and bottles out of little silver boxes and they put a blanket over your face and hold a light over. You can’t breathe and it hurts and you kick and you can’t move.”

It appears likely that Mason, desperate to keep seeing the therapist on whom she had a crush and/or had replaced her mother, and under the influence of powerful memory-altering narcotics, had transformed a not-very-pleasant tonsillectomy at the age of seven into a horrific tale of sadistic sexual abuse. The operation was recorded by Martha Mason herself in the baby book she kept for her daughter, currently housed in the John Jay archive.

But Dr. Wilbur had begun planning a book based upon her sessions with Mason, and she would soon begin to lecture on her patient. It was Mason herself that first threw a monkey wrench into the works. In June 1958, she handed—unprompted—Dr. Wilbur a typed letter in which she essentially admits lying about her then-four personalities:

“Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about ‘fugue’ trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

And here, in a nutshell, is why interrogating memory is so difficult. If Mason had never before experienced MPD, then who was the young boy who spoke to Jean Lane in Mankato? And, unless Dr. Wilbur and Mason first discussed MPD back in Omaha, then where did “Peggy” and “Vicky” come from? Remember, by Nathan’s own telling, these “personalities” appeared spontaneously, before narcosynthesis. A likely explanation is that Mason happened upon the rare syndrome when she read about psychology in college. The line about being “much more original” is telling here; Mason, like many psychotherapy patients, wanted to maintain her therapist’s interest.

Dr. Wilbur’s reaction, however, is even more troubling. Rather than spend time discussing the letter and its implications for her treatment, she shuts down Mason, telling her this is merely her mind’s way of avoiding facing “the truth.” In fact, using baffling circuitous logic, it was proof the abuse had occurred. Mason, not wanting to lose Dr. Wilbur, then wrote a letter recanting her recanting. The narcosynthesis resumed, and before long four personalities had become 16.

What happened next is what most convinces me Dr. Wilbur and Mason, based upon what seemed to them rational incentives, created a pattern of false memories and non-existent personalities each firmly believed to be reality—because they were never properly interrogated; perhaps Mason was less certain, though she never again claimed they were false.

That is because Dr. Wilbur again chose not to publish the case notes, ones she could have validated with her tape recordings, in a peer-reviewed journal, but in a mass market book. According to the CBC interview, because Dr. Wilbur was not a good writer, she chose a journalist—not a fellow psychiatrist—to help her write it. Schreiber insisted “Sybil,” a name she chose from the Greek prophetess of myth, had to be cured first; there are numerous versions of how this suddenly happened in 1965. In the movie, Dr. Wilbur first goes to Sybil’s childhood home—which the Masons left at least 20 years earlier—and finds verification of some of the traumatic stories. She then brings Sybil there…and Peggy finally tells what happened in the green kitchen, after which Sybil “meets” Peggy and the personalities integrate.

Meanwhile, Schreiber, after her own fact-checking, begins to doubt what she is writing. But the advance had already been paid, so after getting firm denials from Dr. Wilbur and Mason, she kept quiet. In an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show around the time Sybil was released, Schreiber takes umbrage at the word “hoax,” insisting “every word in the book” is true. In a way, this is true—the accounts of the sessions were likely recorded accurately. It is simply that the insufficiently-interrogated memories adduced in those sessions are likely false.

The book and the movie, as we have seen, were overwhelmingly successful; all three women, who shared equally in the profits, became wealthy. The public attention, in fact, was so great, the definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to include the diagnosis “multiple personality disorder.” Almost overnight, the cumulative number of cases skyrocketed from 75 to over 40,000. Dr. Wilbur even opened her own MPD clinic. All of which meant that any subsequent desire by any of these three women to interrogate those memories with proper rigor would have meant the loss of fame and fortune, and sparked an angry backlash.

On top of that, Dr. Wilbur continued to care for Mason financially and emotionally for years, even though Mason had a successful career as a commercial artist. Both eventually moved to Lexington, KY; Mason never married and, like Dr. Wilbur, never had children. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, leading Mason to reverse roles and take care of her, Dr. Wilbur died from a stroke on September 20, 1992. Mason then died from breast cancer on February 26, 1998.

It was at that point what residents of Dodge Center, MN had long suspected was finally revealed: that Sybil Isabelle Dorsett and Shirley Ardell Mason were one and the same. At about the same time, a series of a lawsuits stemming from the over-diagnosis of MPD led the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to reconsider its definition. Eventually, it was redefined and given the more anodyne name “dissociative identity disorder.”


So, if not MPD, what—if anything—was wrong with Shirley Ardell Mason? Besides the natural difficulty of being an intelligent, imaginative child raised in a conservative small town by a slightly odd, severely overprotective and deeply religious mother, thus never learning how to fend tor herself in the larger world and remaining child-like for years that is? Nathan hypothesizes she had pernicious anemia, whose symptoms could easily have been misdiagnosed as a psychogenic disorder. Both explanations likely have merit.

Unfortunately, we may never know whether the events recounted in Sybil occurred the way Mason first told Dr. Wilbur they did, or whether they are false memories resulting from a confluence of rationalized incentives: the troubled young woman searching for a mother figure; the young psychiatrist trained in an archaic and unscientific methodology so eager to have a case of MPD she ruthlessly probed her suggestible young patient—herself a substitute daughter—until she heard what she wanted to hear; and the journalist and professor who, simply put, should have known better.

At every step along the way, all three women—and even Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who treated Mason when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation, but kept his doubts about her alleged multiple personalities to himself for decades—failed to consider the fantastic tales unfolding with the most rudimentary skepticism. This failure to interrogate memory perversely made them rich and famous, albeit behind a pseudonym for one. The consequence, however, was a destructive over-diagnosis of a once-rare—for good reason—mental disorder, sweeping even the powerful APA along with it.

For these reasons—never mind that the artistic and piano-playing Mason reputedly could not draw or play a note as “Sybil”—this episode is a textbook example of how NOT to interrogate memory.

Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.

[1] This street, and intersecting East Franklin Street, have since been renamed. In fact, nearly every street name in Dodge Center is now a number like 3rd Avenue, SW.

[2] In the television movie, “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City. She is sent to her for a neurological examination after she blacks out teaching art to elementary-school aged children, then severely slashes her wrist smashing a window.a

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.


I was wrong.

The ants came back.

They came back with a vengeance, in fact, after a few days of deceptive absence. I opened a kitchen cabinet to get a glass—and three or four of them scurried out of sight. Windex is their bête noire, at I grabbed the bottle from the window ledge behind the kitchen sink and sprayed it liberally in the cabinet, making a mental note to wipe down the glasses later.

Nell bought a set of ant traps, which she strategically placed in the kitchen; they have yet to venture much beyond there. [Eds. note: as of Tuesday, the traps appear to be working]

Saturday, April 18, 2020 was otherwise a quiet and mundane day in our sheltering-in-place haven. When I first checked my iPhone upon awaking, an e-mail from my sister Mindy’s long-term residential facility informed me she had recovered from COVID-19and returned to her regular building; given her age and chronic health conditions, this is remarkable.

For dinner, Nell made pizza from scratch for the third time—achieving the thin crispy whole-wheat crust I had loved the first time she attempted it. Even better: she had restocked our supply of cut pineapple, which I added to pepperoni for my personal pie.

While eating their own pies—our younger daughter’s still without tomato sauce—Nell and the girls watched the third Hunger Games film on our big screen HD television. Following that, Nell and I watched episodes five and six of season three of Broadchurch. And once everyone had gone to bed, I took an earlier bath than usual—I needed a night free from writing and class preparation—then settled on the white sofa to watch Two-O’Clock Courage on TCM OnDemand.

Despite being directed by Anthony Mann, renowned for both classic film noir and noir-tinged westerns, and listed as “film noir” by 12 different experts, I would not classify it as such. Yes, its beautifully-chiaroscuro opening sequence is broadly reminiscent of such iconic films noir as Detour and Scarlet Street, also released in 1945, and it follows the classic noir trope of the amnesiac investigating her/his own possible criminality—mirroring the excellent Street of Chance from a few years earlier. However, it quickly morphs into a standard, albeit mostly entertaining, murder mystery yarn, complete with bumbling police detective, wise-cracking crime reporter, besieged city editor and meet-cute romance.

For all that, I sat up with an animalistic cry of delight during the opening credits, when the name “Bettejane Greer” appeared on the screen. The then-20-year-old actress—with whom I admit to being rather smitten—would soon drop “Bette” from her first name. It was as “Jane Greer” she dominates the absolutely brilliant Out of the Pastone of my three or four favorite movies, full stop. And she steals every scene in which she appears in Two O’Clock Courage, as well.


Sunday, April 19 was equally banal—in a good way. The night before, I had pulled out my vinyl copies of The Byrds Greatest Hits and a Buffalo Springfield two-disc “best of.” While eating my afternoon “breakfast” then folding laundry, I started to play Side 2 of the latter album—I particularly wanted to hear the propulsive “Mr. Soul”—only to be put off by the poor condition of the vinyl. The Byrds record, however, still sounded terrific, so I rocked out to both sides—especially Side 2, which I practically wore out in high school; at one point, Nell asked me to turn down the volume out of respect for our downstairs neighbors.

For dinner, Nell made a scrumptious all-vegetable whole-wheat lasagna, with a cheese-only version for our younger daughter. The former also stretched her baking chops by making whoopie pies for the first time, using a cookbook I had bought for her the previous summer. I can take them or leave them, to be honest, but these were wicked good. Mirroring the preceding evening, Nell and our daughters watched the fourth and final Hunger Games film, while I worked on my psychedelic rock slides for an upcoming “History of Rock and Roll” class. And then my wife and I wrapped up Broadchurch; I was frankly disappointed with the ending—but I leave it that to avoid spoilers.

Once Nell was in bed, I returned to my slides, easily the single best part of this enforced home schooling. I also confirmed that—despite the blue recycling bins and black trash bins sitting in front of a number of houses on our street—there would be no trash collection on Monday, April 20, a state holiday.


I had a hard time falling asleep, then had a bizarre series of anxiety-driven dreams in the morning. Actually, I had dreamt the night before I was giving a PowerPoint presentation to a large group of people, but the slides showing on the screen were wrong, and I could not find the correct ones anywhere on my thumb drive.

As for Monday morning, meanwhile: while I never have recurring dreams, per se, I have dreamt on multiple occasions I am back in the Philadelphia area, and at one point I make my way to a 24-hour diner (which never looks quite the same) I know to be in a section of the western suburbs where a main road divides into two roads. No such roads or diner exist, and I can only vaguely describe where these roads would be—Conshohocken, maybe, or Norristown—but it is a joyous thing to go this diner. This is not surprising, given my life-long affinity for such places. In this instance, traveling to this diner—and having a strawberry milkshake?—was the culmination of a series of unpleasant events relating to breaking something behind glass in a hotel, and needing to escape, and being very unhappy in a hotel room at night until it occurs to me I can leave and go to this diner…


About an hour after Nell brought me my first mug of coffee, I finally roused myself. And I had to decide what—if anything—to teach that afternoon, given that it was a state holiday. Nell told me the girls would be perfectly happy if I did not teach at all, given how well they were playing together at the moment. For her part, Nell had simply written out our older daughter’s schoolwork schedule.

April 20

I deliberated briefly, considering three possibilities:

  1. Watch episode five of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, as I had planned
  2. Skip class entirely
  3. Switch days: read for less than an hour from Chapter 1 of the book I am writing on Monday and watch Jazz on Tuesday

I ultimately settled upon choice #3. After spending 45 minutes having my quiet time with Nell, I finally got out of bed…and saw dried blood on the bottom sheet where my feet had just been. Examining my feet, I discovered that I had bled from the back of my right ankle during the night. Moreover, when I finally went downstairs around 3:15 pm, I saw a spot of dried blood on the white sofa where my feet would have been as I stretched out on it.

Here is what I think happened.

A combination of dry skin and chafing from wearing topsiders without socks—my right foot takes the brunt of my daily cavorting in the backyard with our golden retriever Ruby—had left the back of my right ankle raw. While I was on the sofa, something landed on my ankle, and I shook my leg to flick it off. I do not think I was bitten—there is no swelling or itching. Rather, I think I scraped the raw spot over a rough spot on the sofa, making it bleed.

Meanwhile, when I wandered into the classroom, I saw that our younger had been conducting her own classes:

No holiday on the white board

At 3:35 pm, the girls and I settled into our places in the classroom. After briefly reviewing the adventures of my paternal grandfather Morris Berger, our older daughter began to read about my paternal grandmother’s family—the Ceasars, captured beautifully in this photograph, perhaps taken on my grandmother Rae’s 1st birthday:

Ceasar family c 1903

About six pages in, our older daughter came to this passage.

It is Jewish custom to name a new child after someone recently deceased, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, and it is Ashkenazic Jewish tradition not to name a new child after someone still living. The best explanation of this tradition is that “…it is a merit for a deceased person to have a descendant (or other relative) named after him or her. If the name is given while its bearer is still alive, this will no longer be possible (in the same family) after that person’s passing.[i]


…it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.[ii]

While I have never questioned using these draft chapters as way to teach history, Judaism and the nature of justice, inter alia, this external validation was still rewarding.

But our younger daughter had her own thoughts, which she politely raised her hand to share:

  • “Spirits cannot enter a different body once they are, you know, dead.”
  • “Perhaps this is why some people claim to have experienced past lives.”

Rather than point out these are contradictory ideas—unless I misinterpreted what she said—I chose not to go down the metaphor-vs-literal rabbit hole, Instead, I reminded all of us for whom each of us was named, spending a few moments with my regret that I will never meet the man for whom I am named—my paternal grandfather Moshe ben David Laib, later Morris Berger.

At this point, we were only a few pages away from the end of the chapter, so I simply read them aloud myself. As much as our older daughter loves to read, neither daughter objected. Within a few paragraphs, we reached a brief discussion of b’rit milah, the Jewish ritual of circumcising the male penis at eight days of age.

There were grimaces and grunts of disgust as I explained what this entailed. Reading a few more sentences, meanwhile, led our older daughter to exclaim, “You tell them what day your circumcision was?!?”

Well, I replied, they could easily figure it out for themselves—which is not technically true, since I was circumcised at 10 days of age, most likely because October 8, 1966 was a Saturday—the Jewish day of rest. And then it was Sunday…so why not do it on Monday.

I, for one, would not have raised any objections.

Two pages later, we finished the chapter. It was 4:06 pm, and I dismissed class for the day (“Wait, that’s it?”). After washing the dishes and wiping down the kitchen counters, I took Ruby into the backyard for our exercise ritual. To do so, I had to remove some large packages out of the way. One of them turned out to be more SodaStream canisters.

The other had “SNACKS” written on it in bold letters, along with multiple stamps of “Frito-Lay.” When Nell saw it a short time later, she said with some chagrin: “This is what happens when you buy food [online] when there are no salty crunchy snacks in the house.” Indeed, the box was filled with small bags of four varieties of Lays potato chips.

By 9 pm, I had already eaten two of them, with plans to eat more.

Dinner, meanwhile, was leftovers of pizza and lasagna. As Nell was pulling this together, we were talking in the kitchen, and somehow “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes came up. I may have been singing the tune, having bought it on iTunes the night before. In the few weeks I have been teaching the history of rock and roll, I have dropped something like 80 bucks on 56 new songs.

Nell told me how she will always remember the song: as the soundtrack to the moment fans of Moonlighting fans like us had been anticipating for two years. When I mentioned I planned to put the song on the annual birthday mix I was preparing for our oldest daughter, she said, “Well, maybe don’t tell her that part.”


After falling asleep on the white sofa sometime after 5:30 am on Tuesday, April 21, 2020, I awoke to Ruby crying in her crate. As with her dinner, she thinks she only gets her breakfast if she begs for it. A few minutes later, Nell walked downstairs; to my groggy query, she told me it was 7:45 am. I got off the sofa, stretched for 20 seconds, rinsed out and put my empty kefir glass in the dishwasher, kissed my wife, then went back upstairs—where I promptly fell back asleep.

At 1 pm, I awoke to my iPhone alarm; I then turned it off, resetting it to 1 pm again. Maybe 15 minutes later, Nell came in with my first mug of coffee. As she pulled up the black shades, I saw it was a gray and rainy morning; in fact, I had to rescue one of our now-empty blue recycling bins from the street. Once Nell was settled in bed next to me, and I had sufficiently awakened, she told me Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had ordered all schools in the Commonwealth closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year. We were expecting this announcement—in fact, we were surprised it had not come sooner.

The question Nell and I face now is when—or if—she and our daughters, including the four-legged one, make their way to Martha’s Vineyard, where they would stay through the end of the summer. When Brookline schools first closed, our initial plan was to home school for two weeks, after which Nell and the girls would go to the Vineyard to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has so reduced travel to the islands, the Steamship Authority expects to run out of money by May 31 without assistance from the Baker Administration.

The fear, then, is they would be trapped on the island for months, which nobody wants. For my part, while I would certainly miss my family, I would also welcome that block of weeks—even months—in which to complete a final draft of my book.

As Rachel Maddow would say, watch this space.

Meanwhile, this sequence of three headlines–the first I saw–on Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire elicited an “Oh, for f*ck’s sake” from me:

  • Barr Will Consider Legal Action Against Governors
  • Study Finds More Deaths from Drug Trump Touted
  • Kentucky Lawmaker Charged With Strangulation

When I went downstairs around 2:45 pm, I saw Nell had drawn up our younger daughter’s school schedule for the week:

April 21

Less than 15 minutes later, the girls and I settled into the living room to watch Episode 5 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns; it was only 87 minutes long, so class was dismissed at 4:42 pm. At one point, when the various commentators were discussing Glenn Miller, I paused to explain “damning with faint praise.”

Our younger daughter did have one of her should-be-patented “Ohhhh!” moments. In the segment “On the Road,” we learn how one swing band would cram 10 into a touring car, their instruments in an attached trailer. Confused, said daughter asked, “Why couldn’t they simply take turns driving the car while everyone else rode in the carriage? They could then put their instruments in the car.” Her sister and I started to explain there were no windows in the trailer—until we realized she was picturing a modern-day camper. Once we explained the difference, the light went on—and out came the “Ohhhhh!”

Hey, she was clearing paying attention, and that is all I can ask.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[i] Accessed September 16, 2017.

[ii] Accessed September 16, 2017.

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.


Five weeks into our mandated isolation, we have settled into a helpful weekday routine. Nell is awake by 8 am or so to let our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever Ruby out of her crate—where she prefers to sleep—so she can frantically inhale breakfast out of her green ceramic bowl. Nell then takes Ruby out for the first time then gets our daughters out of bed and pointed in the direction of breakfast. Morning class starts at 9 am and runs until noon or so.

Once they have eaten lunch, our daughters are free until sometime after 2:30 pm—meaning they retreat to their respective bedrooms either to catch up with friends electronically or to spend time on various electronic devices. If the weather is nice enough, Nell sends them outside; our older daughter is perfectly happy to go for multi-mile runs, while her younger sister will reluctantly spend time on one of our three porches.

Around 1 pm—just as the alarm on my iPhone goes off for the first time—Nell flicks the switch on my coffee maker, which I set up the night before to make exactly eight cups of a half-caffeinated blend; for her own initial caffeine fix, my wife chooses between her Keurig machine, blue and white ceramic tea pot, and espresso pot. Once my coffee maker beeps its completion, she pours some into my navy-blue Yale mug and the rest into my daily-washed L.L. Bean thermos. She brings the mug of coffee upstairs and places it atop the light brown three-drawer Ikea chest I use as a bedside table.

I thank her, groggily. On rare afternoons I rouse myself immediately, but most mornings I doze off for a short time. By 1:30, though, I have generally completed my ablutions and gotten back in bed to check my iPhone. This also the hour each day Nell and I have to ourselves to converse as adults. After flicking through—and mostly deleting—my e-mail, I turn to Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire to read about the latest mischegoss, political and otherwise. I generally read the stories aloud; it is one of our inside—jokes is not quite the right word—that for members-only stories (I happily pay the nominal subscription fee), I lean over to tap her on the shoulder, saying in my best stage whisper, “This piece is only available to Political Wire members.” To which she responds, “Oh, thank God.”

While I intend to start my class at 2:30 pm, by the time I finish Political Wire, check the home page of, the latest polls, my website and Twitter (“OK, who is yelling at me now?”), it is usually at least 2:15 pm. I shower and put on a pair of light tan or brown khakis and a button-down shirt, also from L.L. Bean, or a polo shirt if it is warmer; I need to exude some modicum of authority while teaching our hormonal pre-teen daughters.

Downstairs, I tidy the kitchen and living room a bit before having my, umm, breakfast—some form of whole grain cereal with a glass of orange juice and any leftover fruit smoothie Nell may have made. “A bit” means I gather every dirty mug, glass, dish and eating utensil—as well as the pot(s) and/or ceramic spoon rest on which used teabags get placed—and put them in the sink to wash later. I usually wipe down the kitchen counters as well.

Pouring a second cup of coffee from the thermos, I start to gather our daughters into either the living room or the “classroom.” Meanwhile, Nell retreats to our bedroom for some peace and quiet. When she is not napping, she watches videos on her iPhone. One such video teaches how to cut male heads of hair; indeed, she has been eyeing the ever-shaggier mass of curls above my neck the way a butcher eyes a large rack of ribs.

Around 4 pm, Ruby—who has been chilling with Nell—comes padding downstairs to begin to alert us to her impending 5 pm supper. If she is genuinely frantic, though, I call a short break to take her into the backyard. “Daddy” class is generally over between 4:30 and 5:30, after which I feed Ruby if necessary, then take her—and me—for a proper play in the backyard.

This has become my daily “exercise” routine. To make the repeated throwing of a small stick interesting to me, I try to throw it underhand so that it loops over a branch some 15 feet above the ground extending some ten feet over the yard, maybe 20 feet from where I stand. Complicating these throws are smaller branches growing around this thicker branch. Ruby finds this game absolutely delightful, as she gets to scamper up and down the steep, dark-soiled incline that runs from the edge of our yard five or ten feet up to the shared driveway. I try to keep the stick out of this driveway, despite how infrequently cars drive over it, but my aim is not always true.

I make this “shot” maybe 30-40% of the time. When I do not, I poetically berate myself out loud—trying to exercise the brain as well as the body. For example, after missing one recent shot I let out with, “Denied! Dejected. Depressed. Defeated. Determined!” Generally, though, I simply ring a series of changes on “Utterly awful. Tragically sad.”

As I wait for Ruby to return, affectionately emitting variants of the word “dingus” when she momentarily loses track of her stick—though she always gets a hearty “that’s a good girl” when she finally does what she went out there to do, I try to keep from standing still. I jog in place or do jumping jacks or simply jump and down. At times I do a kind of St. Vitus dance of waggling limbs and bobbing head, getting the blood flowing and my heart rate elevated.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this spectacle, Ruby has slowed down enough to head inside, albeit still with some moderate cajoling—and perhaps a toweling of the paws at the bottom of the stairs. This is also accompanied by a kind of reductionist Beat poetry: repetitive reformulations of words like repugnant, repulsive, repellant, reprehensible and reprobate.

Heading into the kitchen to wash my blackened right hand, I begin to tackle the dishes in anticipation of Nell making dinner. Every other day of late, this means loading and starting the dishwasher—always all-but-empty when I finally go to bed, even if that means I wash the dinner dishes by hand. So be it.

By 6:00 pm—6:30 at the latest— I am settled in my office to work for a few hours, while Nell and the girls eat dinner in the living room and watch either Disney Channel or Nickelodeon on our big screen HD television. However, more often lately they eat quickly and disappear back into their respective girl-caves, freeing Nell to watch diy Network.

The understanding is that Nell and I will reconvene in the living room just before 8 pm to watch MSNBC for a few hours (well, not most Fridays), interspersed with the 9 pm bedtime of our younger daughter. “If you are getting up,” Nell will say to me, “will you tell younger-daughter to brush her teeth. Pleasethankyou.” We often use the maximum live program pause of 25 minutes allowed by our television, albeit with the fringe benefit of allowing us to fast forward through commercials.

Between 9:30 and 10:30, Nell takes herself upstairs to bed; I follow shortly after with Ruby to spend some quiet time with her. Once Nell has turned off her bedside lamp, Ruby and I wander back downstairs; she either goes into our older daughter’s bedroom or outside one last time. At which point I get to work completely cleaning the kitchen, including readying my coffee maker for the following afternoon. They say Duke Ellington played orchestras like an instrument: that is how I wield the kitchen sink faucet and its two-setting detachable nozzle. I conduct a symphony in multiple water temperatures, vigorously scrubbing to my own internal beat with sponges and my bare hands, with the dish towels a second movement. Lately, I know not why, I have been using my left hand—which until recently was a kind of decorative appendage—for most of the counter-top scrubbing; maybe I want to rewire my heavily-left-dominant brain. Or maybe I just want to keep things interesting.

Along those lines, my sense of smell has vastly improved of late. Minimal exposure to outdoor allergens is likely the cause; I particularly noticed the opposite effect when I ventured out into the world on Thursday, as you will read below.

With the kitchen now ready for the morning, I check in our older daughter, old enough now to brush her teeth and put herself to bed on her own—and then I grab a jar of Skippy Natural peanut butter, a spoon and a fresh SodaStream in my commandeered green bottle (perhaps adding a squeeze of lemon and/or lime) and settle into my office. There I work until the wee hours of the morning. A long hot soak in a bath or a short hot shower later, I settle onto the white sofa to wind down with informative-yet-entertaining YouTube videos on our television. Drifting off to sleep for a brief time, I rise with the dawn—who knew sunrises are as lovely as sunsets—to drag myself upstairs to bed properly.

Rinse. Repeat.


When I awoke on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, I learned a new four-letter word: ants. As has happened in previous springs, we have an infestation. However, as of Friday, they had mostly disappeared. As bad as they are, however—and as itchy as I have been via power of suggestion—this was nothing compared to the revolting infestation of pantry moths I tackled alone one summer nine or ten years ago; they had planted eggs in a basement-stored bin of dog food we still had from our former golden retriever. I still shudder with disgust thinking about it.

Perhaps to escape the ants, our older daughter had gone for a 2+ mile run in the neighborhood that morning. This remembrance of the outside world may have triggered her suppressed cabin fever. Otherwise, I cannot explain the madness about to befall us.

Tuesday is “family history” day, so we read aloud from completed chapters of the book I am writing. On this particular day, I began by tracing the history of the idea of the book, establishing inexorable chains of historic events running in both directions as one uncovers more—and more accurate–information.

Film noir personal journey

At some point, I noted my father’s time as a member of Philadelphia’s La Fayette Lodge No. 73, Free and Accepted Masons. This triggered something in our older daughter, as she yelled something about the Illuminati then drew this:


Once I dealt with this marginally-relevant interjection, our younger daughter read aloud the first page-plus of Chapter 1. Clearly, she and her older sister—who LOVES to read—have been immersed in The Hunger Games franchise lately, because the latter kept saying, “I volunteer as tribute” to read.

Meanwhile, I do not remember what set that same daughter on this path, but the next thing we knew she was telling her younger sister, in a grating cartoonish voice, “I baked you a pie!”

I baked u a pie

This was only the beginning, though.

When it was our older daughter’s turn to read, she calmed down and read. At one point, however, she misread the first name of my paternal grandfather Morris as “murple,” and it was as though someone had flicked the crazy switch.

It is possible she got this nonsense word from an episode of her beloved The Amazing World of Gumball. Whatever its source, for the next few days, she could not stop herself from loudly proclaiming the following ditty in the same cartoonish voice,

I baked you a pie!

My my my!

You did?!? What flavor is it?


Are there any other ingredients?

Yes, the sweet dreams of the children of Santa Claus!

I honestly thought it was going to be the “children of Saturn” the first time she regaled us. According to Nell, she has since used the variant “sweet tears.”

Somehow, we made it through the pages I wanted to read and adjourned for the day, but not before our older daughter had scrawled “I SEE YOU” in bright red letters on a piece of three-hole notepaper for her younger sister.

I had planned to eat leftover beef stew for dinner, but Nell threw me a curve by taking the bechamel she had made the previous day, adding what remained of our shredded cheese, and pouring it over cooked whole wheat penne. I could not stop eating this faux macaroni and cheese out of its pot, it was that delicious. Later, though, I did heat up some beef stew and eat it over some of the cooked penne left out of the pot.

You see why I need to keep jumping up and down in the backyard every afternoon.


On the morning of Wednesday, April 15, 2020—the day our stimulus payment landed in my checking account—our younger daughter inadvertently missed two online meetings of her 4th grade class. When I came downstairs that afternoon, she calmly told me what had happened before bursting into tears; what I quickly realized was that thought she would be in trouble with me.

She was not remotely in trouble with me, which I made very clear to her.

Once “Daddy” school began on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, we settled into the living room to watch Episode 4 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, which broadly covers the years 1929 through 1934. At one point, I paused the program to explain the stock market crash of 1929 as best I could.

Otherwise, we watched in companionable silence—until about halfway through the nearly-two-hour-long episode. I forget what set our older daughter going again—perhaps it was her joyous cries of “Kashi” at the snack she had just obtained from the kitchen. At any rate, from the blue sofa, where her younger sister was snuggled under a comforter, I heard, “At least she didn’t offer to bake a pie.”

Really, kid, really?!?

And with that we once again tumbled down the murpleberry pie rabbit hole…though we did manage to complete the episode. Shortly after this, we received official notice from the Town of Brookline that protective masks are now required any time we leave our homes.

Dinner that night was leftovers, with me eating one of the two cauliflower crust frozen margarita pizzas I had purchased at CVS a few weeks earlier. They are tasty enough when you eat them, but the aftertaste is nasty.


When I came downstairs on Thursday, April 16, 2020, I was a bit confused what day of the month it was; Nell had not been sure if it was the 16th or the 17th, so she left out the second digit, neglecting to add it later.

InkedApril 16_LI

The girls and I settled in the living room to finish watching Border Incident, which we had begun the previous Thursday. After its gruesome finale, I showed them the opening and closing scenes—the latter featuring some of the most striking chiaroscuro lighting I have ever seen—of He Walked By Night. At the start of these final scenes, the main character—and villain—has a small dog in the apartment in which he hides from the police. Our daughters were frankly more concerned with the fate of the dog than of its owner, even as they kind of wanted him to escape. He does not; it is unclear what becomes of his dog.

My plan then was to use a darkened room to experiment with photographing persons and things, comparing the traditional three-light schema—key (front), back and fill (side)—to the sparer cinematography often associated with the classic era of film noir. However, at that time of day—and it was a sunny day—it was not possible to make any room sufficiently dark, so we will try another time. Instead, we returned to the living room to watch the opening scenes of the Weegee-based 1992 film The Public Eye.

At that point—shortly after 4 pm, I believe—I was prepared to dismiss class for the day, given how long Wednesday’s class had been and how long I anticipated Friday’s class would be. Our younger daughter actually wanted to continue watching the film, but her older sister indecisively hemmed and hawed for a few minutes. Once I made clear class was no longer in session, though, she beat a hasty retreat into her bedroom.

As much as her younger sister enjoyed the film, meanwhile, once I pointed out Stanley Tucci, then a relative unknown, who plays a major role in The Hunger Games films, she became distracted by her love of the series; she has been falling asleep many recent nights listening to Audible recordings of the books. That was my cue to dismiss class for the day.

I then girded myself to drive to our local CVS to pick up refills of two of my four prescription medicines. It feels weird to put on socks these days, let alone a face mask and clean white rubber gloves, but I did so. I moved Nell’s Pilot onto the street before driving away in my Accord—this way both cars were started at least once this week.

Earlier that day, Nell had told me how many items were NOT available from the Wegman’s online shopping service, with cheese and breakfast cereals among the most notable. Thus, when I arrived at CVS, I hopefully looked through the refrigerated section—no cheese of any kind. I did grab a family-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios…as well as three flavors of Haagen Dazs ice cream (butter pecan, dulce de leche, strawberry); one bag each of Doritos, Fritos and Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips; and a package of Fig Newtons. I generally try to limit my intake of junk foods, but these are not normal times. Plus, I get to jump up and down in the backyard nearly every day…have I mentioned that?

Tossing some non-food items into my overflowing plastic basket, I got in the line, separated six feet from each other patron, for the prescription counter; I am convinced strips of blue tape will be the future symbol of this era. Two white plastic folding tables blocked direct access to the counter: the card-swipe machines sat atop the tables. When it was my turn, though, I was only permitted to pay for my prescriptions—which, thanks to good health insurance, only cost $1.18 in total—there. I paid for the remainder of my items at the storefront registers and left.

Briefly debating with myself, I decided to brave our small local Star Market. As I parked along the side of the building, I noticed an array of orange traffic cones and those ubiquitous strips snaking away from the main entrance. However, nobody stopped me as I walked into the relatively-empty store. I found it well-stocked with cheese and cereals, so I purchased a wide variety of the former and two of the latter.

When I arrived home, marveling at how few cars were on the road at what used to be called “rush hour”—and having been heartbroken driving by a bar and restaurant owned by friends—Nell set to work washing the outside of nearly everything I had purchased. She repeated this process at 6:45 or so when our Wegman’s order arrived—26 plastic bags filled with varying degrees of skill.

For dinner, Nell made use of some salad greens about to rot and to prepare a delicious turkey taco salad; our food-contrarian young daughter had mini-burritos with melted cheese. Then, after the evening routine I detailed above, I completed the PowerPoint slides I needed to teach the history of folk rock Friday afternoon. This task took me until 3:00 am, after which I folded the laundry which had again accumulated on the blue sofa.

Knowing I needed to be awake at 9 am for our younger daughter’s virtual state-mandated annual Individual Enrichment Plan meeting, I sacked out on the freshly-laundered cushions of the white living room sofa and went to sleep.

I did not bother to set the alarm on my iPhone.


I first stirred just after 8 am, when Nell awoke and fed Ruby. At 8:29 am, Nell took Ruby out for a walk. Exactly one minute later, the alarm on the iPhone Nell had left on the classroom table, went off…loudly.

That was my cue to go upstairs to bed until my presence was required, first turning off Nell’s alarm. At 8:57 am, Nell woke me up with a start, and I wandered sleepily downstairs, hoping this would not be a video meeting.

It was…but because other people could only hear Nell if she plugged her headphones into her laptop, I became a proxy participant only. I was perfectly content to sit on the white sofa—Nell sat on the blue one—and fiddle with a Rubik’s cube. At one point, I shuffled into the kitchen to replenish my water—it seemed foolish to drink coffee then. As I returned, not realizing Nell’s microphone was on, I belched.



The meeting went well, meanwhile, ending just over an hour after it began. Our younger daughter elicited all manner of deserved praise for her sunny disposition and hard work, and it was agreed she no longer required occupational therapy. Parental obligation behind me, I put myself to bed for real. Nell awoke me at 2 pm, so class did not begin until 3:16

Before presenting the 220 slides—many one slide broken into seven or eight slides to maintain flow—I sketched out how rock and roll, infused by musical genre or cultural influence to create each branch, rapidly expanded after 1964.

Rock and roll branches

Rock matures

Folk Rock

Early in the presentation, I had to reprimand our daughters for discussing The Hunger Games rather than pay attention to their loving, hard-working father. I appreciate that by Friday afternoon, it is hard to focus…but, c’mon The Byrds were freaking awesome!

Here are highlights of their reactions:

  • They were disturbed by how facially-hirsute The Beatles—“They used to be so cute!”—became in the late 1960s
  • The gyrations of R.E.M. band members in the “Wolves, Lower” video—an example of a later band heavily influenced by The Byrds—disturbed them.
  • They were quite taken by the young Joni Mitchell—finally, a woman! In fact, they were riveted by this video.
  • Our older daughter reacted positively to “The Sound of Silence”: “I know this song!”
  • They reacted to The Graduate—which both daughters thought sounded like the title to a horror fil—with “Who’s Dustin Hoffman?”
  • That same daughter decided Neil Young was pretty unpleasant. Profound influence aside, I agree: he just always seems to be angry about something.
  • She also liked “Marrakesh Express

As I was teaching, meanwhile, our older daughter was making herself hysterical “drawing” family members with her eyes closed:

Drawing 1 April 17

Drawing 2 April 17

Drawing 3 April 17

It took over two hours, but shortly after 5:30 pm class was dismissed—bringing week five of home schooling to an end.

For dinner, Nell decided we should lay off meat for a few days, so she made a mouth-watering asparagus and green pea risotto. At 8:30, we settled onto the white sofa to watch episodes three and four of season three of Broadchurch.

And that was that.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.


I have no further news about my older, severely mentally-impaired sister Mindy, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. Meanwhile, Nell’s mother Sarah has not yet tested positive, despite an outbreak in the critical care unit of her senior living facility, where she has been living since a bad fall last November.

In January, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, requiring Nell and me to clear out the bungalow in which she has lived since July 2013 by February 29. We managed that feat with hours to spare, in no small part due to the prior efforts of one of Nell’s first cousins. We relied heavily upon a storage unit we have rented as long as Sarah has been living in that bungalow. Nonetheless, a load of my mother-in-law’s furniture and belongings now resides in our half of a fairly spacious basement.

And it was into this teetering maze of tables, bookcases, boxes and storage bins I found myself venturing late on the afternoon of Saturday, April 11, 2020. Just two nights earlier, I had written a long e-mail to my maternal aunt and her two children in which I had neglected to wish them Chag Sameach for the second night of Pesach.

It was thus no small irony that what I—a Jewish-raised atheist—sought in the basement was the second of a pair of decorative Easter baskets Nell—an Episcopalian-raised agnostic—needed for the following morning. I was also in search of empty plastic eggs, which I saw almost immediately after insinuating myself into a narrow opening between a dining room table and a bookcase. And while an exhaustive search did not turn up the specific basket I sought—I did find an acceptable substitute—I happened upon two bags of paper grass, one purple and one green.

This was all very satisfying, even if I normally pay little attention to how Nell and the girls celebrate Easter. However, a short time later, as I was headed upstairs for some reason, our younger daughter came bounding into the living room excitedly proclaiming her anticipation of the following morning.

Perhaps it was because I was still irritated by President Donald Trump’s callous “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY!” the previous day, even if I have no dog in this fight. At any rate, I demanded to know if our younger daughter, who is on the cusp between accepting and rejecting such entities as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, even knew what was commemorated on Easter Sunday. She actually did, it would turn later, but in the moment was unable to retrieve that information.

And when Nell also hesitated, it fell upon me—or so I thought in that inexplicable moment of prickly self-righteousness—to tell my version of the Biblical story of what happened to the body of Jesus two days after his crucifixion. To her credit, Nell then admirably filled in the gaps of my story, though she insisted on referring to Tetrarch Herod as a pharaoh. And that led us down a further rabbit hole of discord, which Nell and I then carried upstairs then back down into the kitchen. She berated me for saying our younger was not allowed to celebrate Easter unless she knew its backstory, to which I indignantly retorted I only said she should know it, not that she was disallowed.

The background music for this ridiculous contretemps was the movie Nell had turned to on Turner Classic Movies. There are a handful of movies I have essentially memorized–The Maltese Falcon, L.A. Confidential, a few Marx Brothers films–but it is likely the first one I learned this way was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 masterpiece What’s Up Doc?. I could not help but recited the dialogue even as we were having our heated discussion. Such is the nature of good art.

But as is usually the case with the regular dust-ups between me and our younger daughter, it was over almost as soon as it had begun—with some tears and an apologetic father.

Well, except for one karmic postscript.

After Nell and I resolved our own quarrel, I took our golden retriever Ruby out for a needed visit to the backyard. We walked out our front door, down a few wooden steps to the sidewalk, then right to the edge of the driveway. Here, Ruby took off like a shot towards the backyard which slopes down from the driveway; I scampered after her. As I did, something small and furry raced by me in the other direction.

It was a small brown bunny.

Which I promptly relayed to Nell and our daughters with the winking addendum, “Make of this what you will,” which especially amused our younger daughter.

Soon after that, Nell and I settled down to watch a movie; I brought with me some of the same brownies as the night before. We had watched One Crazy Summer as a family the previous Saturday night, which got Nell and me talking about the relationship between Demi Moore and her ex-husband Bruce Willis. Which is why I recommended—it was my turn following Nell’s suggestion of Broadchurch—the 1991 crime thriller Mortal Thoughts.

However, once I told Nell how horrible Willis’ character is in the film, she hesitated a moment; he will always be David Addison to her. And the violent early scenes almost put her off as well. Still, she persisted, and I was rewarded with a “that was better than I expected” when it was over. I observed we had just watched one of two movies released in the first half of the 1990s, the other being Pulp Fiction, to feature both Willis and Harvey Keitel—but never in the same scene.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, and I had put in a few hours preparing many of the PowerPoint slides for Monday’s “history of rock and roll” class, I was inspired to watch a film which has likely ascended into my top 10 favorites, and which shares a key feature (which I will not spoil) with Mortal Thoughts: The Usual Suspects. Bryan Singer’s 1995 masterpiece gets better every time I see it.

By the time I awoke on Sunday, the Easter celebration had already ended, though our younger daughter has yet to find two of her stuffed plastic eggs. The classroom table was laden with numerous sizes and colors of chocolate eggs and one or two unwrapped chocolate bunnies when I finally went downstairs.

Nell was preparing to cook a large, delectable ham and a bundle of asparagus, much to my delight. First, however, I had committed myself to walking down the hill to a small local grocery store for a handful of dairy items I deemed necessary.

Thus, once I had completed the meal I call “breakfast,” I put on socks, a navy-blue windbreaker and my docksiders—along with one of the yellow and white cloth masks, complete with elastic bands, one of our downstairs neighbor shad sewn for us. In my shirt pocket were two thin white rubber gloves. I was carrying two of the white plastic shopping bags I had been given at a nearby Star Market a few weeks earlier.

I was about halfway down the hill, my sinuses already rebelling against the damp weather and the spring pollen floating in the air, when I realized I had neglected to take my wallet—or any of the other items I routinely put in my pockets before going anywhere; my Swiss army knife, Burt’s Bees lip balm, a pen and pocket-sized pack of tissues. At least I had my keys.

This is how out of practice at going to stores we have become.

I trudged back up the hill, retrieved the forgotten items then walked back down to the store. All but one of the few other customers wore masks as well. Somewhere in my journey, I had lost one of the rubber gloves, so I only used one gloved hand to pick up the few items I needed. Walking to the one open register, I saw blue strips of tape marking six feet gaps on the floor; a large clear thick plastic sheet was suspended in front of both registers.

When it was my turn to pay, I began to put my blue shopping basket onto the counter. “No, you can’t do that,” said the young woman in the gray Mount Washington sweatshirt standing behind the register. “Sorry,” I said, taking each item out of the basket with my gloved right hand, after which I put the basket on the floor a bit further away. I also bagged my groceries.

Once I had lugged those groceries up the hill and into the kitchen, I used a Clorox wipe to “disinfect” each item.  I then put my windbreaker through the neck of a deck chair on the porch off of my office to air out, while I stripped and took my second hot shower of the day. But not before I had distractedly scratched the stubble on my jaw my gloved hand, because, you know.

The four of us gathered for dinner in the living room not long afterward. As we ate, we watched the latest Buzzfeed Unsolved true crime video from “the boys”: the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Given the relative youth of the episode’s hosts, I was not that surprised they nelglected to mention the enormously popular television series loosely based upon the case, The Fugitive. And that led me to explain why Philadelphia-born noir writer David Goodis had sued the producers of the series.

A short time later, after I had made significant headway in my nightly kitchen cleaning, Nell and I settled back in the living room to watch the first two episodes of the third and final season of Broadchurch. The epilogue to this was my finally finishing my PowerPoint slides just after 3:30 am.


When I awoke—slowly, sluggishly, somnambulantly—on Monday, April 13, 2020, a violent rainstorm was blowing outside our bedroom porch doors. In fact, the wind blowing through the glass doors rattling the black, pull-down shade so that the wooden grip at its bottom knocked against the door had been waking me on and off for some time.

I finally roused myself, though, showered, dressed and made my way downstairs.

This is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 13

And on the always-popular white board, Nell had drawn this:

Its Monday Gerald and Piggy

I was running late, so I wanted to gather our two daughters quickly enough to begin class at 3:00 pm. Wandering into my office to collect my desktop computer, I noticed the remains of our younger daughter’s breakfast and her Harry Potter plastic wand on my desk. She now uses my office—to participate in online meetings with her fourth-grade teacher—because it is quiet once the door is closed.

This is fine with me, so long as she cleans up after herself, which she usually does; on this day, she was even more scattered than usual. Mildly miffed, I yelled out for her. When she did not respond, I marched over to her closed bedroom door and knocked rather vigorously on it. Opening the door, I pointedly told her what was on my desk. Apologetic, she scurried into my office to retrieve her dishes—though she still forgot her wand.

I was not actually that upset, but a short time later, as we were about to begin class, she burst into tears. Nell and I were standing in the kitchen with her, and we tried to puzzle out why she was suddenly so upset. She usually does not know in those moments, though I suspect I startled her with my loud door rapping; she reacts poorly to such things—and the loud weather did not help.

But these once again subsided quickly, and she and her older sister settled into the classroom to see this:

British Invasion

British Invasion

We worked through the slides, covering Beatlemania, the early days of The Rolling Stones and The Who, and a few other key British Invasion bands in good time, finishing around 4:45 pm. I did my best to “explain” the first of these, to which our older daughter sniffed, “They’re not that cute.” Our younger daughter was amused by the change from the “mod” Who of 1964 to the more outlandish Who of 1969–even if she is now convinced Animal was actually the Who’s drummer. And the only song our older daughter especially liked was The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Well, there had been one unexpected—and joyful—break in my presentation. The only YouTube video I had not been able to link to a slide was for Devo’s surrealist cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When I came to that point in the presentation, I went to the URL I had saved. As I was fussed with my mouse to make the video full screen, the video for A-ha’s “Take On Me” somehow began to play.

This is our older daughter’s often-proclaimed favorite song, so I promised we could play it once the Devo video—which I played, along with Patti Smith’s seminal cover of Them’s “Gloria,” to demonstrate the durability of certain iconic rock songs—had ended. At which point our older daughter bounced out of her chair, crying, “I need some room to floss!”

Following both versions of “Gloria—our daughters were not quite sure what to make of Smith, with our younger daughter remarking, “It seems obvious to me stuff happened to her in her childhood”—class was dismissed.

This was my chance to, at long last, remove the slowly-discoloring wedge of lime from the green SodaStream I have commandeered as my own. It took a series of knives of various sizes, a long metal skewer and some very strong fingers to complete the task. I did not replace the soggy mess I removed with a fresh lime wedge, or even a lemon wedge.

The highlight of the rest of the evening was the mouthwatering faux croque monsieur, sans fried egg, Nell cooked for each of us from some leftover ham, despite earlier protestations she was too lazy to make a bechamel and our dangerously-low quantity of cheese. I washed mine down—albeit a few hours later—with a can of Wolfgang Puck’s delicious basil tomato bisque.

Sheltering in place with my beloved wife and daughters has its perks.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing X

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.


I neglected to mention—having forgotten all about it—a call I received on Tuesday. One that I received on my iPhone, Nell received on her iPhone, and we received on our landline.

I listened to the voicemail the woman calling had left me and decided it was not urgent.

The same person called me again on the morning of Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

When I went to bed the previous, err, night, I was wicked excited for what I had planned to teach our daughters Wednesday afternoon. And I was still excited when I awoke that, err, morning. Sleepy, but excited.

Once I had gone downstairs, however, I thought I should call back the woman who had called three of our phone numbers four total times in two days before lugging my desktop computer into the classroom.

As I have written elsewhere, my older sister Mindy has had severe mental disabilities since birth. In December 1974, she entered the Woodhaven facility in northeast Philadelphia; she has lived there ever since. I became Mindy’s legal guardian after our mother died in March 2004.

The woman trying so hard to reach me was calling from Woodhaven. I had concluded from her initial voice mail she was simply calling every resident parent and guardian to provide an update on how Woodhaven was dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. But her persistence swayed me, and I called her back.

What I learned is that Mindy, who is 58 and has numerous comorbid conditions, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. For now, her symptoms are fairly mild: elevated fever and runny nose. Nonetheless, they moved Mindy and a number of other residents to an unused residence on the same campus. But as the woman and I discussed, the novel coronavirus is going to sweep through these units like a scythe through wheat; there is little we can do about it. Not to be overly ghoulish, but a very practical part of me is now relieved I purchased a burial plot for my sister more than a decade ago. This was on the advice of multiple interested parties. Still, I was hit hard by the news—it is the closest the pandemic has come to us.

We had already come very close with my mother-in-law, as there is an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the senior care facility in which she lives. They have already moved her twice to keep her from becoming infected; she loves her current room, which overlooks a garden.

The upshot was that I was less excited when class started some 15 minutes later. We began with my asking if they had heard about United States Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders ending his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joe Biden the de facto nominee. They had, and we had a conversation about the relative ages of Biden and possible vice-presidential nominee picks. Then I told them about their aunt. They took this news in stride; to be fair, they have only spent time with her once.

In fact, at this point, our younger daughter needed to tell me about a “joke” she had inadvertently made that morning watching an episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet; they had finished The Blue Planet the previous week. At one point, narrator David Attenborough had been talking about Colombia before switching to a small island off the coast of China. Looking up then—and having missed the transition—our younger daughter exclaimed, “That’s Colombia?!?” This then became a running joke between the three of them for the rest of the episode.

Once I started to talk about how American music did NOT die following the February 3, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, however, I quickly hit my stride.

Not so sleepy 50s

My simple contention is that, despite a relative period of hibernation for rock and roll, American music actually flourished between February 3, 1959 and the arrival of The Beatles in New York City five years and four days later. It was only 12 years after the fact, and with a blindered, rock-centric view of music, anyone could claim music “died” that day. But in making my arguments the previous Friday afternoon, I rushed my presentation and played no music. So, I created a PowerPoint presentation replete with sample songs for every artist.

The Music Never Died

After listening to songs by the three musicians who died in Clear Lake, Iowa that winter day—with older daughter recalling Holly as “the geeky one” and Nell rocking out to “Chantilly Lace”—I played them one track each from three of the great jazz albums released in 1959: “So What” by Miles Davis, “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus. The first and third tunes elicited little response, but our older daughter reacted excitedly to “Take Five”:

“Hey, I’ve heard that song on Donkey Kong!” (She reminded me later this is a level of Mario Kart.)

A few moments later: “Wait…if hearing this song is education, does that meaning playing Donkey Kong is education?”

Sorry, kid, it is not.

We then moved on to developments in popular music. Our older daughter could not get past Roy Orbison’s slicked-back hair to appreciate the effortless clarity of his tenor singing voice. I did get the chance to explain who Dick Clark was watching Bobby Darin perform “Splish Splash” on a companion program to American Bandstand. Our younger daughter then insisted that Dionne Warwick “sounded French” singing “Don’t Make Me Over.” Her older sister and I never did figure out exactly she meant by this.

The remainder of this section of the presentation elicited little comment, although our younger daughter was quite taken with Frankie Valli’s powerful tenor voice.

After a short break, I quickly ran through how the 1950s were not as sleepy as usually portrayed, all the way through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. I am laying the groundwork for a perhaps-vain attempt to explain why The Beatles made such an outsized impact in the United States in 1964.

And then we reviewed three very different artists who began to wake rock and roll from its sleep. I had summarized the formation of The Beach Boys and The Beatles the previous Friday, so I simply played “Surfin’ Safari” and “Please Please Me.” Our older daughter surprised herself a bit by enjoying the former song.

In between, I started to talk about a young Jewish-raised folk singer from Duluth, Minnesota. Just as I was saying he had been born Robert Allen Zimmerman, our older daughter interjected with, “Oh, is he Bob…Dylan?” When I played a clip of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the same daughter thought he was cute—in no small part because of his tousled hair.

And with that, class was dismissed.

Famished, and having been craving tuna fish salad for a day or two, I made what amounted to a deconstructed cheddar tuna melt—the ultimate comfort food, even if it lacked bacon, tomato and diced celery. That did not stop me from happily consuming one of Nell’s delicious cheeseburgers with sliced onion, lettuce and tomato, as well as the rest of the cheddar-flavored potato chip she had impulsively bought the day before.

After that, pausing Chris Hayes, we gawked at the beauty of the “pink moon.” I quite like that these photographs taken from our upstairs porch are a bit blurry.

Pink moon

Misty-eyed view of Boston


When I went downstairs on Thursday, April 9, 2020 this is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 9

Once again, I schlepped my desktop computer into the classroom. This time it was to show them a set of slides I had prepared for the “What Is Film Noir” adult education course I taught in October 2018:


I focused on the role of what once was called the “lighting cameraman,” the chiaroscuro tabloid photography of Weegee, and the six collaborations between cinematographer John Alton and director Anthony Mann.

We then moved into the living room to watch the 1949 Mann-Alton film Border Incident. I chose this film over the previous year’s He Walked By Night to demonstrate film noir did not always take place in the criminous urban jungle-and that it could feature, in the expert hands of Mann, an almost casual masculine violence. Our older daughter was favorably impressed when a young Ricardo Montalbán appeared on screen, noting his “charisma.”

I could not agree more, kid.

We stopped the film, however, with about 20 minutes left to go—which includes one particularly dark, in every sense, murder scene—because our younger daughter desperately wanted to watch the second Hunger Games film. The latter is 146 minutes long, and the goal was to watch it before Chris Hayes started at 8 pm.

As the film was playing, Nell came into the kitchen to ask if she could make pasta with sauce and turkey meatballs—well just cheese and butter for our tomato-sauce-loathing younger daughter. She asked me because, well, while Nell can cook almost anything brilliantly, I am better at preparing pasta.

Which is how I came to make dinner that night for the first time in weeks. It was merely boxed whole wheat linguine, a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce and frozen Trader Joe’s turkey meatballs, but I always heavily salt the water, simmer the sauce on low heat and gently stir the pasta in the boiling water to keep the strands from sticking together. Some things simply cannot not be rushed.

And, wow, was it good. Nell later came into the kitchen to say, “This is so delicious, I am taking seconds.” She also called me a “rock star” because I had already mostly cleaned the kitchen—the highest compliment I generally pay.

A few hours later, once everyone had gone to bed and the kitchen was completely clean, I sat down to write an e-mail I had been planning to send for months. It was to my maternal aunt and her son and daughter, and it began by apprising them of the health status of Mindy and my mother-in-law. It also finally brought them up-to-date on all I had recently learned about my genetic family—one of whom I met in person last August in Philadelphia—and my aunt’s father’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department.

One reason it had taken so long to write this e-mail was my desire to attach the chapter of the book I am writing that discusses my mother’s ancestry. But I had had yet to incorporate new information I had learned from this same aunt in January into the chapter, complete with validation through sources like This I finally began to do Wednesday evening, with a full chapter edit on Thursday.

The editing and e-mail composing took a few hours to complete, during which I needed to put our golden retriever in her crate. As much as I enjoy writing, this was a particularly emotionally draining experience.

And so, of course, I completely forgot to wish them a Chag Sameach–Happy Festival–in honor of the 2nd night of Pesach, or Passover, despite having just looked at black-and-white photographs of my maternal grandfather’s family holding its annual Seder–a meal during which the story of Passover is told in ritualistic fashion–in 1946 and 1953.


When I awoke on Friday, April 10, 2020, I found a voicemail from my maternal aunt on my iPhone. She had read my “captivating” e-mail and was in the middle of reading my chapter, wondering where the information on her mother’s family was. At this point, I literally said, “Keep reading. Keep reading. It is all there” to the voicemail.

Going downstairs a short time later, already running late to start a 2:30 pm class, I found this in the classroom:

April 10

It was thus closer to 3:15 than 3:00 when the three of us settled in the living room to watch Episode 3 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I prefaced our viewing with a brief summary of the first two episodes. Unlike the previous Monday, though, we watched the episode without rancor or hard feelings. And when we began to hear the story of a clarinet-playing Chicago-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants named Benjamin David Goodman, I paused the episode to point out the similarities with the family history we have been discussing on Tuesdays. And I also made the mistake of foreshadowing the tragic death of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, with whom our older daughter was quite taken.

In fact, both daughters have gotten into the flow of the series, even if our younger daughter fell asleep on the blue sofa about halfway through this one. I later learned a proximate cause: she had a fever of 102.2 degrees. Otherwise, she seems generally healthy. We shall see…

About halfway through the episode, we took a short break during which I toasted the last of our whole wheat bagels. Putting in onto a plate with a knife, I grabbed what I thought was opened foil-wrapped brick of cream cheese and took it back to my seat in the living room. As I spread it on my bagel, however, I noticed the consistency was too thin, and it melted almost like butter. It did not taste quite right, either, though it took me a few bites to realize this was not, in fact, cream cheese. I then found an actual brick of cream cheese in the refrigerator, which made all the difference.

Relaying this mistake to Nell later, her response was an alarmed, “What? You ate Crisco?” She had a similar reaction when I brought out from the office the half-full glass of kefir I had been too tired to finish before going to sleep. We will not even talk about the soggy wedge of life that has been floating in my green SodaStream bottle for a few weeks; you can see my bottle in the center background of the first photograph above.

Once the episode had ended, and our younger daughter had awakened, I dismissed class—and week four of home schooling. At this point, her older sister jumped up from her chair and took off for her bedroom, throwing over her shoulder, “See ya! I am off to play LankyBox!”

At that point, it was time to take Ruby out for her evening romp in the backyard, resulting in her second shower in 10 days. A few hours later, I sat down with Nell and a bowl of her delectable beef stew to watch the final two episodes of season two of Broadchurch, the capstone to our first month of sheltering in place. I followed the stew with a tall glass of non-fat milk and a mixed plate of Nell’s homemade dark chocolate brownies–the recipe being from Alton Brown led me to call them Alton-Brownies: one part from the batch she made for the entire family, one part from the batch she made only, with a special, newly-legal type of infused butter, just for her and me.

I cannot think of a better way to end the week than on this high note.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…