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I always thought Rear Window was my favorite Hitchcock movie because it looks just like the Brooklyn where I grew up. I never consciously thought of Thorwald and his wife as darker versions of my own parents. So here I am, making a connection I never sought to make, and turning an eye that flinches at the comparison, to do just that. Memory is not a static thing, but is constructed anew each time and governed by context. If I was not thinking of my parents’ marriage in comparison to the Rear Window couple, I might not be asking these questions: Did my father resent my mother for being schizophrenic, for being lumpish and bedridden so much of the time? Did he harbor murderous feelings toward her? My father died in April 2011; my mother died twenty years before, in October 1991. Even if he were still alive, I doubt I would have asked him such disturbing questions. Surely, there must have been moments when he was so exasperated with her illness and her inability to work that he thought of leaving her. And surely, a man as lively and handsome as he was must have had no trouble attracting women while he was on the road.
* * *
I am not the first to look at Jeff and think, broken leg; what else is broken? Near the beginning of Rear Window we watch Jeffries take a back scratcher and put it down his cast to scratch an itch, practically cooing with something approaching orgasmic relief. On the first night Lisa is over, after she has let in Carl the deliveryman from the 21 Club with their lobster dinner and a bottle of wine, Jeff fumbles with the corkscrew, then defers to Carl. As Lisa returns to the kitchen, Jeff looks across the way at the red-headed middle-aged woman he dubs Miss Lonely Hearts. He sees she is all dolled up in apple green and is pantomiming a dinner date with an invisible male guest: first lighting two candles, then opening up the door to pretend-greet him. When she sits down and toasts her invisible suitor with her glass of wine, Jeff raises his glass, unseen, and toasts her back, right before she collapses in sobs, unable to keep up the act.
On the third night, after applying a great deal of lipstick and drinking a few shots of whiskey, Miss Lonely Hearts goes out to the restaurant visible from Jeff’s window and she returns with a man. Jeff’s reaction (“Eh … he’s kinda young, isn’t he?”) reminds us of the age difference between Jeff and Lisa. When the movie opens and we see Jeffries removing his shirt to receive a backrub from Stella, I can’t help noticing his scrawny, middle-aged chest. When the movie was released, James Stewart was forty-six; Grace Kelly was twenty-five.
* * *
As a divorced, middle-aged woman, I find myself caught in the hamster wheel of online dating, where male privilege in choosing much younger women still persists. Once, a composer who was close to twenty years my senior contacted me on a dating site, acknowledging he was out of my preferred age range, but clearly he felt he wasn’t. He impressed me as articulate, charming, and psychologically astute. He read The New York Review of Books; he even read poetry. I agreed to meet him at a movie theater in Lower Manhattan. When I approached, I could see he looked like a stereotypical short, fat, bald Jewish guy. Not even close to Jimmie Stewart at that age. I ignored my crestfallen heart and didn’t walk away, at least not for several months.
For the sake of “rear window ethics,” I’ll call this composer Joel. He had such a protruding belly it felt like I was reaching over a large workout balloon to find his lips. And since he was impotent (even with drugs), what he liked to do was watch. I can remember heading down to his loft in Tribeca. He had partitioned off a section where he did his compositions. On the other side of the room was his platform bed with a tufted white comforter. He put on a few dim red lights and took out of a closet something I had never seen before: his Hitachi, otherwise known as the Magic Wand Massager. The largest vibrator (larger than a free weight) I had ever seen, it needed to be plugged into an electrical outlet.
I am sure there are some women who have never had an orgasm quite like it until they encountered this erotic barbell, as the many plaudits on Amazon attest to, but I am not one of them. He reassured me over and over again that this would be the most intense orgasm I had ever experienced, that one of his girlfriends, who had never had an orgasm in her entire life, found ecstasy under this gigantic, vibrating wand.
I am a good sport. We tried it on low; we tried it on high. And I will try almost anything once. Even twice. It felt like I was taking a large motor, a blender without the blades, switching on to a very high speed, and putting it up against the most delicate part of my body; I feared it might singe my clitoris right off.
* * *
For the last five months of my dad’s life, I used to visit him in a nursing home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, after a debilitating stroke left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Every week, I caught the Bolt Bus from Midtown Manhattan to Philadelphia, which made a stop at Cherry Hill. I can still see the Tick Tock Diner on the corner of 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, with its huge clock on the marquee, which always seemed to be warning me that time was running out. Helen, my father’s domestic partner of over twenty years, would pick me up at the highway bus stop. We would have a quick sushi lunch and then she would drive me over to the nursing home.
My father had developed an ugly temper after his stroke, which was brought on by two surgeries in quick succession to remove tumors from his bladder. The blood thinner, Coumadin, that he had had to stop taking before surgery had not built up sufficiently in his body and so he fell out of bed early one morning in October 2010 with a massive ischemic stroke. Afterward, along with paralysis on his right side, he had trouble speaking. He uttered what at first sounded like gibberish, but he seemed to understand what I said to him and, with great difficulty, I could often more or less decode what he was trying to say to me. His girlfriend, however, refused to make the effort, and had developed a nasty habit of mouthing back at him whatever syllables he had uttered, which enraged him.
“Phphbhslbiph,” he would say.
She’d parrot back from her chair, a few feet away, “Phphbhslbiph.”
Usually he would hurl curses at her right afterward: “Geh the fuck outta here!” That sentence was clear. His ugly rage would rattle her and she would usually get up and walk out. I knew she would retaliate by not visiting him for a while. Though I tried several times, there never seemed to be a way get through to her that she was provoking him. She preferred to play the victim rather than the tormentor.
* * *
Here, especially, rear-window ethics arise. Do I continue, knowing full well that some people in my family who may have no knowledge of this information might read this in print (my sister, for example)? Perhaps she won’t believe me, just as she never believed that my father’s girlfriend behaved cruelly toward him during the last few months of his life. In the end, it is part of the story I need to tell.
* * *
It had been on one of those days when my dad had cursed out Helen. Before leaving, she and I both used the ladies’ room in the lobby. I don’t know what possessed me—maybe she seemed unusually unnerved by my dad’s outburst—but I wanted to comfort her, to remind her that my dad had been good to her. She had had a bad marriage previously, having been cheated on by her husband for ten years. She and my dad had lived together for over twenty years; she had, in the past, sometimes chuckled and referred to herself as his common law wife.
“You know my dad was always faithful to you,” I said, while washing up at the sink.
“Well, he wasn’t faithful to your mother!” she fired back.
Now I was the one who was too shook up to speak.
When I got home, I was able to see Helen’s outburst as her displaced rage at my father for being sick, for becoming a burden to her even before his stroke (he had lost most of his eyesight and depended on her for something as simple as pouring him a glass of milk), for the obligation to visit him, which she more and more avoided, though she was retired and lived a ten-minute drive away from the nursing home. By the last few months of my dad’s life, she sometimes visited him just once a week (usually the time I traveled out by bus from Manhattan). So here she was, baring a secret my father would never have wanted me to know about and that I never wanted to know.
It became increasingly more difficult for me to be around her. Once, at lunch, I had to say to her, “I don’t want to hear about it,” after she had begun launching into yet one more unsavory episode from my dad’s past, but I could not stop her before she blurted out something about my father smoking pot and going up to a woman’s room while he was on one of his many road trips.
Why did she feel the need to blurt out these secrets to me? Perhaps it was a way to lash out at my mother (who, by this point had been dead for twenty years), and at me, as a stand-in for both my parents. I had always thought of the word “shrew” as such a sexist word, but here I was, encountering its living embodiment.
* * *
For many months, I remained shaken up by what my dad’s girlfriend had said. There are some things I would rather never have known. And my dad’s infidelities while he was on the road are among them.
Now that I do know, it seems patently obvious. My father was youthful looking, lively, and sexual, and he was living with a wife who had sunken into a drugged somnolence, had gained a lot of weight, probably because of all the medication she was on to control her schizophrenia, and who grew increasingly less attractive. How responsive could she have been in bed? A question I am too embarrassed to contemplate further.
* * *
Thorwald in Rear Window might have chosen to behave as my father did, instead of killing his wife. These are thoughts that never occurred to me until this writing. In the movie, Jeff and the viewers observe one scene where his invalid wife, who has just been served supper by her husband, sneaks out of the bedroom and catches him on the phone (probably to his girlfriend). Then, when he puts down the phone and menacingly walks toward her as she is backing up into the bedroom, Jeff (and the audience) watches as she mocks him, to let him know that she knows what he’s been up to. And who can blame her? Thorwald is enraged, which we, along with Jeff, get to witness. As for my mother, I think she would have been too drugged up to suspect my father of anything.
* * *
My father did eventually leave my mother. I have to backtrack here and remember her broken leg because it was only after my mother broke her leg that she began the downward spiral that made it impossible for my dad to continue living with her. Like Jeff, my mom had broken her leg (of course, why didn’t I see this connection before?), not while out in the field risking her life for a photograph, but while sitting in the backseat of my brother-in-law’s car. At the time, my sister Marla and her husband Paul lived in a house on an oil storage tank reserve where he worked as an engineer in a tiny town called Piney Point, Maryland. With my parents in the backseat, Paul was driving them and my sister out of the compound for his birthday dinner. He must have been going a bit too fast to notice a satellite dish that had bounced off the back of a pickup truck and was lying in the middle of the dimly lit road. He hit it, going sixty miles an hour, and my mother was the only one injured. She broke her right leg, and so for the next month, since she was incapacitated, she lived at my sister’s, who could take care of her.
For the previous five years, my mother had managed to live without taking any medication. I remember suggesting to my father on one of my visits before this that something different had to be done with her. She had been a zombie for too many years. Perhaps she could go off her drugs and see a therapist with him instead. He agreed, and she just stopped taking them (Stelazine and/or Thorazine) cold turkey with no ill effects. But the fragile equilibrium of the mental state my mother had managed to maintain without medication broke down after the accident. She went into shock, lost a lot of weight. Became helpless. I remember visiting and watching my sister wash our mom’s hair and cook for her while she lay on the couch all day. Finally, my sister had had enough and insisted my dad had to take her home.
* * *
What is wrong with Thorwald’s wife? We never really learn why her husband has to bring her meals to her in bed. We only catch a glimpse of her for a few moments in the beginning half-hour of the film, but she certainly doesn’t look ill. We first see her with a wet towel over her forehead, but it has been a hot day, about ninety-four degrees by Jeff’s thermometer. A slender brunette with a tan, she wears a sexy white one-piece gown with a plunging neckline—not unlike the one Lisa will wear the night she decides to stay over with Jeff.
The first time Thorwald enters, late afternoon, she seems piqued with him for being late, pointing at her wristwatch as she continues to scold him. He picks up the folded newspaper from the floor and with two hands raises it and slams it down on her bed and barks, “Quiet!” before storming out.
When Thorwald brings her dinner on a tray later that night, we hear her mutter, “Well I hope they’re cooked this time,” as she sits up in bed. He fluffs up a pillow and places it behind her back for support; then he kisses her hair and, just afterward, she looks at him and dismissively flings a flower in a bud vase from the tray, which he retrieves. He goes back into the living room, begins dialing the telephone as he pours himself a quick glass of whiskey. When she hears him making a phone call she is nimble enough to remove the tray, slide off the bed, and tiptoe to the doorway to listen in. “Who was that … ?” she asks. And then, she walks backward, perhaps accusing him of an infidelity he thought he had kept hidden. He hangs up the phone and lumbers threateningly in her direction while she continues to taunt him, laughing openly at him as she sits back down elegantly on the edge of the bed with a disdainful air. At first he hunches toward her, but finally flaps his wrist dismissively and walks out. She hangs her head on her wrist in mild despair.
I imagine a doctor in the mid-fifties would have labeled her condition as neurasthenia: another way of saying she was easily fatigued, depressed, listless. And that is why she has taken to bed. As to which came first—her husband’s philandering or her neurasthenia—the movie is silent.
* * *