My Second Wife Threw Out All My Diaries
On Memory, Loyalty, Snowrolls, EMDR, and Making Peace with the Past
Mama, there are sexual references here, but not explicit ones, and I think you and other sensitive loved ones can read this.
We are not like a street, on which the endless stream of moments passes and then is just as empty as it ever was, once the moments have passed. We are much more like a storehouse, in which every moment leaves something behind as it passes, namely that part of it which is eternal. - Karl Rahner.
January 2010, Frazier Park, California
It is just after midnight, at the beginning of a Sunday morning, and I am standing naked in the snow, by the side of a remote road in the Tehachapi Mountains. It is 16 degrees Fahrenheit.
Three men sit, wrapped in blankets, in my Mercedes four-wheel drive. A fourth, in a parka, stands next to me. “This is it, Hugo; you’re about to be as clean as you were the day you were born.” I nod, take a deep breath, and take ten steps off the road, until I sink in the fresh powder up to my knees. I am illuminated in a flashlight beam from the SUV.
“Now, Hugo,” Yehuda calls. “I’ll count! Ten rolls!”
Rolling in the snow is said to be an ancient Chassidic ritual for sexual purification. If, late on a Saturday night after Shabbat, a person does ten rolls naked in freshly fallen snow, he or she will have every last sexual sin cleansed from their body. Better yet, they will lose any fond or traumatic memory of the sex they have had. The Kabbalah Centre is big on snow-rolling, and my current wife has been on me for months to give it a go.
I don’t want to do this, not because I’m scared of the cold. I don’t believe for one minute I need to be cleansed, either. I think 97% of what I learn in the Kabbalah Centre is nonsense, but it’s where my friends are, and the Centre employs me as a part-time teacher, so that I can say things I have never believed to people who didn’t believe them until they heard me speak. I comfort myself that I’m peddling harmless woo.
The reason I don’t want to do this roll is because I’m scared it might work. And I’m terrified of forgetting my past, because my past is who I am. It is the only place in which I recognize myself.
Monday, January 30, 1995, Santa Monica, California
Sara and I have been married three months, and have lived in this rented Craftsman one week less than that. I am sitting at my desk in my home office, grading the first quizzes of the new semester. I decide to take a break, and write in my journal. I have kept journals since high school, detailing almost everything that happens to me in one spiral notebook after another. I have written mostly about love and sex, my constant obsession; in one of the journals, I have a list with at least the first name of every woman I’ve ever slept with recorded. (I never mention men, as some secrets are best kept from oneself.)
I have about two dozen of these books, and I keep them in the big lower drawer of the desk, my current journal on top.
I open the drawer. The journals are gone. A single piece of paper sits in the drawer. I take it out, my heart racing, and read Sara’s words. “Hugo, I know this will make you angry, but if we are to have a life together, we must move forward without the ghosts of your past. I’m doing for us what you couldn’t do. The journals are gone. I love you.”
I walk slowly out to the living room where my second wife is reading a novel. I look at Sara, and she looks up, knowing that I know. “I always thought I could forgive anything,” I tell her; “You have done the one unforgivable thing. I want a divorce.” My voice is trembling.
Sara shakes her head. “No, you don’t. This is for the best. Think about it for a week, and if you still think it isn’t for the best, we can talk about it then.”
I take a deep breath. A WASP marriage doesn’t end in fire, it ends in ice.
I stand there for a full minute. Sara watches me, patiently.
I smile, nod politely. “That’s a good idea, darling.” I turn and go back to grading.
Three weeks later, I will sleep with a student for the first time. I feel no guilt. Sara had already ended our relationship with the very thing she thought would save it. I am free to do as I please.
I throw myself into the snow. It is the coldest thing I’ve ever felt, and my entire body seizes up in shock. I force myself to roll onto my back, and then flip back onto my stomach as quickly as I can. Keter! Yehuda yells, the first of the ten Sefirot that are the ten levels of consciousness in Jewish mysticism. I flip again. Binah! Again. Chesed! I am swallowing snow, it is up my nose, in my eyes which are still open, but seeing only the yellow of the flashlight and the white of the powder rising as I roll. I flip and flip and flip. The snow isn’t freezing anymore, it’s starting to burn me. Or maybe that’s the rage that I suddenly realize has been coursing through me since we left L.A. for this drive into the mountains.
“Stop, Hugo! Enough, enough!” Yehuda is laughing, and the others are laughing, and I am pulled to my feet, a blanket thrown around me, a thermos of hot coffee thrust into my hands.
“You just kept going,” says my friend Paul, amused. “There’s no credit for doing more than 10, dude!”
In the car, I towel off and wriggle into dry sweats. I remember what this was all about, and I cast about for a memory, and in my mind I see my first girlfriend, April, pulling her sweater off over her head one December night in 1984, and instead of seeing her naked torso, I see a blank canvas where her breasts should be.
It worked. Oh dear God, it worked. No, no, no. I start to panic, hyperventilating, gasping for air, trying to open the memory palace in my mind I’ve decorated so carefully with the images of everyone I’ve ever touched, and the door is locked.
Paul slaps my back. “Dude, you swallowed way too much snow. More coffee, slowly. Or do you need to throw up?”
I shake my head, and I start to weep. Benny ruffles my hair from the back seat. “I know it’s so powerful to feel so free. It’s okay to cry, it’s good.”
I can’t say why I’m crying. I can’t say that I thought all this was nonsense and I did it just so that these men would tell my fourth wife that I did it with great enthusiasm, and she will get off my case.
Eira, like Sara before her, knows I can’t and won’t let go of my past, but she’s past the point of throwing out the physical reminders of my past. (She did find my trophy box, where I kept scrunchies and matchbooks, nude Polaroids and old love letters, and made me throw it out. Eira had heard the story about Sara and the journals, and thought it would be better strategy to encourage me to discard my mementos on my own. Sure as shootin’, my cheating began not long after that big cardboard box went into the dumpster. I’m a coward, and I’ll give you what you demand, but I will exact revenge if you take what I needed most.)
I’m not sobbing because I feel clean, I’m sobbing because I feel as if I’ve been lobotomized. The storehouse that Rahner talked about has been burned to the ground, and I’ve been foolish enough to play the arsonist.
I drove up the mountain, but am too overcome to drive my own car back down to the city. Paul drives, and the men sing Israeli songs and Chassidic niggunim. I am still out of it, still trying to break into the memory palace, or to shift metaphors, still sifting through the ashes of the storehouse. Yehuda suggests we sing what he knows is my favorite Israeli song, Sheva’s Salaam. I sing along, and as four giddy men and one shell-shocked one build to the chorus, I hear a pop in my head. At first I think it might just be my ears clearing as we drive down from the mountains, but then I realize it’s the door of the memory palace swinging open.
They’re all still there. Every woman I’ve ever loved, and every woman I’ve ever touched, is still there, and I can smell the sweat and the perfume. I can see their closets, run my fingers across their bookshelves as well as their bodies. I know what’s in their cupboards and medicine cabinets, and I remember what they said when they came, and what their faces did when they told me we were done. It just all went away for a moment, but it’s there! I am not lost.
The snow roll didn’t work. My fourth marriage is already doomed, and the reckoning is already coming, but the most precious thing in my life that isn’t another person has survived.
May 2020, Hawthorne, California
Dr. Stern, my online therapist this past month, holds a pen in front of her face, and asks me to follow it with my eyes. We’re starting EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a technique for coping with trauma and painful memories. She says it will work on Zoom. I’m in enough pain I’m ready to try anything.
Dr. Stern starts asking me about the day I resigned my teaching job. She asks me to remember the lawyers in my mother’s living room, and the papers they put before me. The pen moves back and forth and she talks calmly as a dreadful day rises in my consciousness. I’ve asked her three times if EMDR means I will forget anything, and Dr. Stern reassures me that I will still have all my memories. They will just have less power to wound.
I want to be happier. But I don’t want to be happy if that means I can’t feel all the feelings, good and bad alike. What if EMDR is just another snow roll, but a more effective one? What if this is just another attempt to burn down the storehouse? I told Dr. Stern about the storehouse, and she explained that EMDR was just about making it a happier place to visit, as well as an easier place to leave, but the more the pen moves, the more I don’t trust her.
“I’m so sorry, doc, I’m not feeling well,” I say. “I’m dizzy. I think I need to lie down.”
Dr. Stern says it’s enough for one day, and promises we will continue the following week.
The next day, I leave a message on her voicemail, thanking her profusely for all her help, but cancelling all future appointments.
I come up with a new strategy, all on my own. I will no longer attempt to forget anything. I will no longer shame myself for holding on to all my memories, and living so much of my life enchanted by my own past, traumatic or scandalous or criminal or joyous. What I will do, for my sake and for Victoria’s sake, and for the sake of Heloise and David, is this:
I will decide that every woman I took to bed is watching over me, urging me to find ways to be happy and kind. I decide that the lawyers who made me sign those resignation papers, and the accountant who fired me, and the headmaster who kicked me out of prep school, and the men who hurt me long ago in ways I still struggle to name, I decide they are all on my team. They are cheering for me too. They don’t need my forgiveness, and I don’t need theirs; they are happy wherever they are but to the extent they continue to live in my mind, they live on as a cloud of witnesses.
My father is there, and my ancestors, and every student I taught or youth group kid who cried on my shoulder; they are all saying, over and over, “You don’t have to forget us, you just need to know we want you to be happy.”