Winner, Nonfiction Contest
I wrote down memories, detail upon detail, with shamanistic obsessiveness, before they slipped away, before he slipped away. I wasn’t trying to resurrect him, I told myself. I didn’t believe in magic, not even in the magic of words, conjuring presence out of an empty hat.
In spite of his skepticism, Harry Houdini promised his wife, Bess, that after he died, if he could find a way, he would contact her from beyond.
Harry could get into or out of anything, Bess knew. He could unlock, unknot, or disengage any contraption, no matter how convoluted. It wasn’t magic. Harry trained his toes to untie knots. He learned how to dislocate his shoulders so that he could loosen straitjackets. Through constant exercise, he could hold his breath longer than any athlete of his day. He even refined his esophageal muscles so precisely that he could swallow a key before an audience arrived and then regurgitate it during escape. His nimble mind could visualize the interior of any lock and the exact tool needed to open it. He raised escape to an art. While he held an audience with his mesmerizing blue-gray eyes, his fingers performed millisecond prestidigitations. He’d already defied death many times, and a year earlier, in 1925, he’d even re-emerged from a coffin after being buried alive. If anyone could escape death, or unlock the gate between this life and the next, Harry would. For Bess.
I ran across the story of Harry’s promise to Bess 10 years ago, after my own husband, Rajiv, died. Rajiv, the east to my west, atrium to my ventricle. We met in graduate school, where he studied chemical engineering, and I studied English. For 13 years, we nurtured each other’s careers and lives, shaped each other into a perfect fit. Like the Houdinis’, ours was an interfaith relationship of sorts. Bess was raised Catholic in the United States, and Rajiv grew up Hindu in India; I, like Harry, was raised Jewish. But all of us were somewhere along the more narrow agnostic–atheist spectrum. An ethic of vigilance against magical thinking provides little comfort for grievers. Rajiv’s untimely death from colon cancer at age 38 was simply unfair, unacceptable, and without redemption—as Harry’s death in 1926 at age 52, from a ruptured appendix turned septic, must have been to Bess.
How can a body be human one minute and inanimate the next? It’s unthinkable, literally: The mind cannot find a way to think it. It casts about for narratives to give sense and shape to the unthinkable. For believers, religion may at least offer a template for such a narrative.
I wandered among legendary accounts of life after death, which I needed to believe in but couldn’t. I read about the Mexican Day of the Dead and Hindu reincarnation myths, about Hades, Hell, Valhalla, and Nirvana. I lingered over stories of visitations. Maybe I just needed to be in the company of other mourners, real or fictional. I read about bad grievers like Orestes, perversely long grievers like Antigone, tragic grievers like Orpheus, “complicated grievers” like Hamlet. I read about black widows and merry widows, about serial mourners like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and mourning addicts like Shakespeare’s Olivia. But I identified most with Bess Houdini.
Untimely widows, we’d both found ourselves thrust into a strange world, where all our signposts were reversed, everyday roads blocked, maps of reality blurred. Nothing meant anything, and yet everything seemed to be a sign. When the world as you know it dissolves in an instant, you can’t trust even the foundational rules of physics. Solid laws of conservation of matter and energy spring leaks. Even gravity becomes unreliable. When you lose your soul’s mate, when your worldview, your very sense of reality, is torn apart, anything is possible. You crave the supplemental realities you used to doubt. Unable to believe, you need to believe.
Harry Houdini knew metaphysical temptation. Although he was a lifelong disbeliever in mediations between the living and the dead, he was so disconsolate after the death of his mother that he relented. Harry had been 12 years old when he promised his dying father to always look after his mother Cecilia Weiss. He kept his promise, and then some. Harry was a mama’s boy to the end. Even Bess knew better than to try to compete with Harry’s mother for love or attention.
Harry had been mourning, often histrionically, for nearly 10 years when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his new friend, suggested a séance. Sir Arthur, along with his wife, Jean, an amateur medium, believed in Spiritualism, which held that spirits from the afterlife may contact the still-living mortals in this world. Out of deference to Sir Arthur, and perhaps with a bit of escaped hope, Harry agreed. But having performed as a fake medium himself in his early years as a struggling illusionist, he quickly saw through the “legerdemain” (his word in his later book exposing the frauds of mediums, A Magician Among Spirits). Part of the séance involved “automatic writing,” in which the spirit of his mother Cecilia inhabited the body of Jean Doyle to write a message to her beloved son. The page began with the mark of a cross and proceeded in English—but Cecilia spoke no English, only German. Even if automatic writing included automatic translation, Cecilia, a practicing Jew all her life, would not have begun her letter to Harry with a Christian cross. Harry didn’t accuse Jean of lying, but said that she had been overcome with the power of her own suggestion. It was a power Harry the Illusionist knew well.
Harry’s implication that Jean had merely deluded herself made Sir Arthur furious with him. Perhaps Harry, for his part, was more upset than he otherwise might have been because he’d unwarily allowed himself to hope for contact with his mother. Harry and Sir Arthur’s fall-out became highly public. And Harry devoted the final phase of his career to exposing Spiritualist frauds who preyed on people’s grief, and who, just after World War I, enjoyed an especially large market for their services.
Despite having written two books and performing numerous public displays debunking Spiritualism, Harry must have still hoped, even if he couldn’t believe, when he made his promise to Bess. He’d given her a secret code by which she’d recognize his authenticity, should she get a sign. She revealed it to no one. For 10 years, every Halloween, the anniversary of Harry’s death, Bess performed a séance.
I try to imagine how Bess felt at that first séance. Harry was a rigorous unbeliever, so being true to him meant not allowing herself to believe. But to be true to him would be to long for him, to long so physically that he became real. Did she dare to hope? Did she hope too much? How did she feel when, the lights lowered, the candles extinguished, she heard the first raps on the table?
Even if the supernatural realm doesn’t exist, belief of it in some form is nearly universal. Psychologists and neurobiologists hypothesize that our brains have evolved to over-interpret data from the natural world, or to search for patterns where none may exist, or to over-attribute intentionality to random, unmotivated natural events. I would add another reason for belief: the impossibility of imagining nonexistence. Think of a person, and then imagine that they don’t exist. You can’t do it, can’t imagine their nonexistence without also imagining their existence, or at least its possibility. And when that existence has been a physical part of you, the exercise is even more impossible. Nonexistence exceeds cognition.
I admit I have always taken some pride in my ethic of skepticism and the self-discipline it requires. But pride provides meager compensation for the denial of metaphysical comforts. I’ve allowed myself to feel the temptations of the supernatural, but not to succumb. Is grieving more difficult for atheists? Some of my religious and “spiritual but not religious” friends said so, and urged me to adopt their beliefs. They couldn’t understand my resistance to what was so obvious to them, and so consoling: Rajiv was in a better place. Rajiv was watching over me. Rajiv was right by my side. Rajiv was leaving me messages in the form of ladybugs or monarch butterflies or hang-up phone calls. Rajiv had appeared before me in the avatar of a blue heron. Nobody invited me to a séance, but they did invite me to their church, or their temple, or their nature retreat, where “the spirits could speak more clearly without the mediations of modern technology.”
Their well-intended urgings made me lonelier. While they were denying the fundamental, unacceptable fact of Rajiv’s death, I was struggling to comprehend its facticity, trying to grieve in a way that felt honest to me, and to feel, really feel, the reality of nevermore.
But the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the instant after you empty yourself of hope, it comes rushing back in.
Some people are able to believe without believing, or to live in a state of permanent uncertainty, where they neither believe nor disbelieve—or they both believe and disbelieve. My mother is like that. For such fortunate people, that uncertainty is a comfort. For the rest of us, it’s torture.
Harry Houdini’s message never came. His code was never spoken, or written, or even rapped. Year after year. Bess found a new man in her life, but continued to love Harry, too. Part of her attraction to Edward Saint, her new lover, was his devotion to helping her preserve (and promote) Harry’s memory.
On Harry’s 10th yahrzeit (Yiddish for “death anniversary”), Bess announced that this séance would be the last. She was 60 years old. If Harry didn’t appear this time, he never would. “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she quipped. She’d learned how to cushion grief with glibness. The press touted the announcement, and urged her to hold the séance live on radio. Bess agreed. It’s what Harry would have done. In grand Houdini style, she and Edward Saint arranged for “Houdini’s Final Séance” to be held on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California.
Ten years was also long enough for a heart to harden. She feared beforehand that she might break down on live radio, but when the séance began, when the rappings and visions in the makeshift studio were so obviously fake that even Bess could instantly figure out the tricks, when the message again failed to come through voices or through automatic writing, she didn’t cry. She spoke into the microphone in a clear, sturdy voice the words she’d prepared. “Houdini did not come through,” she said. “My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone…The Houdini Shrine has burned for 10 years. I now, reverently… turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!”
What Bess didn’t say was that each séance produced a new death. She had to stop the séances to keep Harry from dying again and again, to stop hope’s phoenix-rise from the ashes.
On this 10-year anniversary of Rajiv’s death, I, too, know that Rajiv won’t be coming back. I can’t say I accept it, but I recognize its truth. Most of the time he feels truly gone, but every once in a while, I get intense pangs of disbelief.
Well-meaning friends tell me that 10 years is long past the proper mourning period. They commend me for dating again, for “moving on.” I don’t correct them.
Over the years, I’ve gradually been giving away Rajiv’s clothes and books. I’m finally trying to clean out the last of the closets, garage, and crawl space, places that still harbor vestiges of him, those last epithelial cells. I pull out stacks of boxed-away papers. Since he’d become an environmental engineering professor, he left volumes of lesson plans and research data full of words like “bioremediation” and “nitroaromatics” and “abiotic degradation.” Pages full of carbon rings and differential equations, which I’ve long forgotten how to read. The hardest thing for me has been to throw away anything with his handwriting on it, as if the rhythms of his body still live in those graphite lines.
As I weaken over the recycle bin, I tell myself that even if he does come back, the research will be outdated.
Bess publicly gave up séances; I’m giving up writing about Rajiv, his death, and his hoped-for, un-believed-in, return. It’s time. Writing about him has been a way of bringing his spirit up again and again, of making him tenuously real as I conjured up his body: his 5’6” (on a good day) frame, slight but sturdy. The stiffness of his shoulders, incongruous with the soccer skip of his legs beneath them. The arms that danced when he spoke Hindi or Bengali, but became all jutting elbows when accompanying English. The white appendectomy scar against his cinnamon skin. The hard angles of his jaw. The eyes that looked black indoors but went gold in the sun.
There, I’ve re-animated him again. And again he slips away.
I’ll remember Rajiv’s spirit, but what I fear most, even mourn most, is the loss of his body. When I resurrect his body, it’s at a distance, and merely visual. I can no longer conjure up his feel, his smell, the cool warmth of his shadow. I can’t remember the way his bones lined up with mine when we hugged. Where did his hipbone hit me? What part of him was my ribcage pressing into? When I call up images of him, they’re the images from photographs.
After my mother’s father died, he appeared to her in a dream. That was over 40 years ago, when I was a child. My mother doesn’t remember the dream, but I vividly remember her telling it to me. It was probably the start of my adult beliefs.
In the dream, Philip Berman, my grandfather, returned to his bereft, doubting daughter to tell her that there was no returning, that the afterlife doesn’t exist, that he was truly dead. He spoke in Yiddish, a language that, in real life, my mother didn’t understand, as my grandparents kept it as the medium through which they spoke secrets in front of the children. But in the dream, she understood. I imagine Philip’s small but sturdy frame, his blue-gray eyes, his clear voice, speaking in a Yiddish that I don’t understand but do. It’s the same face and voice I see when I try to conjure up Harry Houdini.
Of course the dream doesn’t make any sense. A messenger can’t return from the afterlife with the message that there is no afterlife. My mother didn’t need it to make sense. She received the message and accepted it. But few of us get such an impossible message. Along with the impossibility of imagining nonexistence is the impossibility of ever getting confirmation of nonexistence. I won’t be getting such a message any more than Bess did. The closest we get is 10 years of failures and fading. Then, we extinguish the candle and say “Good Night.”
I imagine Bess, after that last séance, willing herself to accept Harry’s loss. Such acceptance is hard. It takes discipline. As much discipline as Harry used to train his mind and body for escape. She does it out of loyalty to Harry—and faith in him. If there were an afterlife, no matter how impenetrable the barrier between that realm and this one, he would have found his way out and back to her. But he was right, had been right all along: The body and the soul are not distinct or separable entities. The body is not simply an enclosure from which the soul escapes. We are our bodies. Our souls are neural and muscular, the electric synaptic patterns and entwined tissues and refined reflexes that we live. Harry was his body—his smile, his independently moving toes, his mind that could see into the interior of locks and imagine their mechanisms, his 5’5” frame with the prominent ribcage that brushed against Bess’s breasts when they waltzed—just as much as Rajiv was his body.
Is 10 years the time it takes for one body to leave another? For its neural imprint to erase? For its biochemical traces and cellular memories to degrade? For even the skin to forget? Is 10 years the lifespan of maybe?
As I imagine Bess, in homage to Harry, forcing herself to accept, finally, his nonexistence, I see her using all her concentration to empty herself of hope. It’s an act more difficult than performing magic, and harder than the art of escape. She visualizes all four chambers of her heart, and inspects them for any residue of sanguinity. She knows that the vacuum will fill again, probably with the next beat. But in tribute to Harry, she experiences the emptiness, observes it, studies it, knows it.
I wonder if Bess held true to the resolution she announced at the last séance. Did she honor it with stoicism and discipline? Or did she, despite her conviction that communication with the dead was impossible, give in to temptation yet again, and allow herself, from time to time, to hold miniature séances in her heart?
Deborah Thompson is an Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop the new master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction. She has published numerous essays in literary criticism and nonfiction. Her piece “Mishti Kukur,” which appeared in The Iowa Review, was awarded a Pushcart Prize. She belongs to the Slow Sand Writer’s Society, to whose members she is beyond grateful.