Though Alfred Hitchcock had it built on a Hollywood lot, the movie set for Rear Window (1954) depicts Greenwich Village in Manhattan. At one point, we even learn the killer’s exact address: 125 West 9th Street. When I first watched the movie on television with my parents in the late sixties or early seventies, I remember thinking how familiar the scene looked, like it could have taken place in my Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush, where there were always those who looked and those who were looked at. That was part of the urban contract.

Ever since I was five and my father had gone bankrupt, and in a reversal of the suburban dream, moved us from Seaford, Long Island, to Brooklyn, my family always rented the street-level apartment of a two-family brick home. The owners invariably lived upstairs (away from prying eyes) while the renters lived below, where it was easy to be looked in on. Some message about social class and economic power got communicated to me: the higher-ups lived higher up. Privacy was reserved for the more well-to-do, for the landlords and landladies. To be poor was to rent the bottom floor and to have the threat of spying eyes upon you at all times. To be looked at was a badge of shame we wore along with poverty. To be seen was to be unmasked. To be unmasked was to be caught. To be caught unawares was to be made wary. To be wary and on guard was the price we paid for existence.

* * *

To look is always sexual—scopophilia as Freud, and later film theorists, called it. In Rear Window, we watch Jeffries, the war photographer (portrayed by James Stewart and perhaps modeled after Robert Capa), incapacitated with a broken leg, watching the blonde ballet dancer “Miss Torso” getting dressed in her skimpy outfits, while practically ignoring Lisa, his blonde, glamorous, stunner of a girlfriend who wears a different designer ensemble every time we see her on screen.

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” the insurance nurse, Stella, complains to Jeffries, criticizing him for staring at the windows across the way. But soon, she too gets seduced into watching and trying to solve the suspected murder in one of the apartments facing Jeffries. Even his old army buddy, the ineffectual, scoffing police detective Doyle, gets so distracted by the ballet dancer that Jeffries, in a moment of exasperation, brings him back with a guilt-inducing jolt, “How’s your wife?”

“We’re all voyeurs to some extent,” Truffaut says in conversation with Hitchcock about Rear Window.

And Hitchcock agrees:

I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in the room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down the blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.

* * *

Hitchcock may have made this off-hand remark (the everyone-does-it justification) in his interview, but in Rear Window the ethics of looking gets a more nuanced consideration.

jeffries: You know, much as I hate to give Thomas J. Doyle too much credit, he might have gotten a hold of something when he said that was pretty private stuff going on out there. [pause] I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do you … do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove he didn’t commit a crime?

lisa: I’m not much on rear window ethics.

jeffries: Of course they can do the same thing to me. Watch me like a bug under a glass.

The ethics of looking and being looked at: that is what Jeffries ponders at eighty minutes into the movie. And what are the implications for us, the moviegoers? If, as viewers, we are hyper aware of our own watching because it is raised to the second degree (watching Jeffries watching across the way), are we implicated or somehow absolved of any guilt? Does looking at looking cancel itself out? We are, after all, watching Jeff “like a bug under a glass.” What are the ethics of looking if it is looking at what others see? Is it still voyeurism if we are watching a voyeur do the watching?

* * *

At about age thirteen, I remember my mother, sedated as usual, reclining in bed in the afternoon reading The New York Post, at that time a popular afternoon newspaper. She hears something at the window and pulls up the shade, and is confronted with a pair of eyes—not more than two inches away from hers—looking right at her. A cat burglar! Both of them startle; she screams, and he runs away.

By this time, my mother has gone from having the figure of a forties starlet to the dumpy matronly look of middle age. Over the years, the drugs she has taken to control her schizophrenia have made her gain weight and have slowed her down. I am amazed she has the energy to get dressed, shop, and cook us dinner in her condition. But she does. Her broad Polish face only gets rounder and her large nose only more prominent. Her eyes, as she ages, seeming to recede and shrink inside their sockets. She never needs to wear glasses but I often wonder what she sees.

That night, when my mother tells my father over dinner at the kitchen table what happened, with me piping in some details, I remember he jokes about who was more scared: my mother or the burglar.

“Can you imagine the look on the burglar’s face when the shade rolled up and he saw your mother’s face!”

He laughs. My sister and I—even my mother—laugh along with him. Now it makes me wince at my dad’s cruelty—at my own and my sister’s—toward my mother. He must have resented her for how unattractive she had become. And yet, I have no recollection of feeling hurt or ashamed for my mother’s sake at the time. Maybe I needed my father too much when I was growing up and could not afford to be angry at him, to side too fully with my mother. He was too lively, too charismatic, too normal for me to risk losing him. I had to laugh along; I loved him too much to judge him.

* * *

I spent my teenage years talking on the telephone in my bedroom for hours to my girlfriends. There I must have been, reclining, with one leg akimbo over the other, jabbering away with a friend, when there was a rapping on the side door to our apartment. Our next-door neighbor, who had a strange mother with the bottom of her face missing, was standing at the entrance to our kitchen with a redheaded teenage boy of about sixteen in front of him. The boy was visibly shaking. I had already come out of my bedroom when I heard the commotion in the kitchen. Maybe our dog, a Bedlington terrier, alerted me with his barking; it was rare for us to have an evening visitor.

“I caught this boy peeping in your back window. What do you want me to do with him?”

Our neighbor had the barrel end of a shotgun pointed in the middle of the boy’s back; the boy, tall and freckled as I recall, looked into my father’s face, trembling, silently pleading for his life.

“Shoot him!” My father spat out.

Of course, this isn’t the movies and no one got shot. But the idea of it, the possibility that it could happen (I had never seen a shotgun before), must have been enough to frighten the boy into staying far away from our house.

As I listened, I realized our neighbor was talking about my bedroom, so easily accessible to the street from the yard with its unlocked gate. The incident left me with the unsettling feeling that I was always in danger of being watched by a stranger through a crack in the window into my bedroom. Our building was on the corner of East 54th Street and Glenwood Road, so my bedroom had one window facing Glenwood Road and one facing our backyard. A stranger could easily hop over the low-lying bushes and stand at the windowsill and peer in. Or else open the gate to the backyard and stand next to the air conditioner and look for a chink of light between the window shade and sash, which was probably where my neighbor caught the boy, since the side of his house faced our backyard, where my bedroom window was.

I might not realize it but someone could be watching me any time the lights were on. It didn’t titillate me that someone might want to peer in at me. It felt like a threatening intrusion—one more thing out of my control. Some guy getting the better of me by spying on me unawares. And so I lived as though it always might be happening—always a little uneasy, wondering if I were being watched.

* * *

In Rear Window what always keeps my attention—and Jeffries’—are all the other lives across the way. Part of what captivated me as a teenager—and still does—are the myriad possibilities for women that exist from Jeff’s window: The single woman artist who sculpts a figure with a hole in the middle and calls it Hunger. “Miss Torso,” as Jeffries labels the ballet dancer, with her many admirers. The new bride who has such a voracious sexual appetite that she keeps summoning her new husband from the window back to bed with a wail from within: “Haaaaaarry ….” The bedridden wife of the traveling salesman Thorwald. “Miss Lonely Hearts,” who fails miserably at getting a boyfriend until the end, when she is so inspired by the composer she stops herself from taking a bunch of pills and committing suicide. The middle-aged, frowzy blonde woman who sleeps on the fire escape with her husband, and who owns the dog that Thorwald eventually strangles to death. Of course, there is also Jeff’s frustrated girlfriend Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, who became for this blonde girl watching on her TV set in Brooklyn the paragon of beauty and class. An unattainable ideal.

* * *

lisa: How far does a girl have to go before you’ll notice her?

jeffries: Well, if she’s pretty enough, she doesn’t have to go anywhere. She just has to be.

This exchange happens on the second night, when Lisa is in his arms. Of course, the viewer knows, as does Lisa, that this isn’t true. The only way Jeffries notices Lisa is when she goes over to the apartment across the way, with Stella the insurance nurse, to dig in the garden looking for evidence, but even more so when she boldly climbs up the fire escape and enters the bedroom where they both believe Mrs. Thorwald had been murdered. Lisa has to become an object for Jeff’s voyeuristic pleasure, which requires distance coupled with danger. He can finally look at her with love and desire after she has risked her life for him: Thorwald returns, finds her in the apartment, and a physical struggle ensues that might have ended in her being strangled to death if the cops had not rushed in to intercede. She has to become the surrogate wife of Thorwald (even to the point of wearing his dead wife’s wedding ring and flaunting it to Jeff across the way, which Thorwald sees, tipping him off as to where Jeff lives).

Until this moment, Lisa has put on a one-woman private fashion show, both for Jeff and for us: the first time she enters as a shadow falling over Jeffries’s sleeping form, then leaning in for a kiss in slow motion with her full red lips and blonde wavy hair falling over his face. This close-up of her face still has me mesmerized by her utter beauty, no matter how many times I watch it. When he asks her who she is, she sashays around the room, turning on three lights consecutively while ringing out her three names: “reading from top to bottom: Lisa … Carol … Fremont.” She shows off her latest ensemble, which she declares is “right off the Paris plane”: a short-sleeved black bodice, low cut front and back, cinched with a thin patent leather belt above a full chiffon skirt embroidered with black flowers. At her throat, a choker of white pearls, with an abundance of smaller ones around her wrist. She is bringing him a lobster dinner from the 21 Club. Yet Jeff remains inured to all her charms. In fact, on this first visit, he is determined to end the relationship because he knows she wants him to marry her.

On the second night, when Lisa again attempts unsuccessfully to seduce Jeffries, we see her in a black sheer blouse, attempting to make love to him. But he is too distracted, ostensibly by the murder he suspects has happened in the apartment across the way the previous night.

Nothing stirs him like danger. In that same conversation, where he tells her she just has to be, he asks her, “Don’t you have any problems?” She seems too perfect for him. He deflects her attempts at lovemaking to let her in on his preoccupation, not with her but with murder: “Why … why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?” Clearly, looks don’t work; sexual advances don’t work; gourmet food doesn’t work. Becoming embroiled in trying to catch a murderer works. Perhaps this was a lesson I intuited about beauty: that it would not be enough.

* * *

Thorwald the traveling salesman and his bedridden wife. Something keeps me coming back to thinking about them. My father, Irv, was a traveling salesman and my mother, Selma, was practically bedridden. Mrs. Thorwald (played by Irene Winston) looks svelte, much younger and more beautiful in her white chemise than my mother was in her pastel, cotton shift nightgowns. Thorwald, on the other hand (played by Raymond Burr), is much less handsome: a bespectacled, heavy, lumbering figure with a full shock of grey hair compared to my sprightly, slim, dark-haired, blue-eyed dad. “Always a smile, always a grin, that’s how Irving keeps in trim.” That’s the jingle published in my father’s high school yearbook about him. He repeated it to me over the years because he was proud of how well it still fit him.

On watching the movie yet again, I notice in one quick shot from the vantage of Jeff’s binoculars that Thorwald is wiping down the inside of his silver metal sample case and replacing the costume jewelry that looks like rhinestone necklaces, which he sells wholesale. I have never paid such close attention to this detail before. It reminds me of my father, when he sold shoe ornaments, and after he had been away on a sales trip he would come home, open up his tall, black sample case, and pull out a tray of rhinestone clip-on shoe buckles. Underneath, he would have hidden small gifts for me, such as real Mexican jumping beans that worked because, I discovered much later on, there were little worms (moth larvae) inside that made them move.

* * *

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. Eh … he’s kinda old, isn’t he? Old enough to be her father. Judith Evelyn, who plays Miss Lonely Hearts, is forty-five. When Jeff raises his glass to Miss Lonely Hearts in an invisible toast, it is as though he is acknowledging his sympathy, even identification with her. Yet we are expected to take it for granted that Jeff and Lisa are a suitable match.

* * *

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.

* * *

My mother’s condition, especially after her broken leg, was far more serious than neurasthenia. Unmedicated for her schizophrenia, my mother deteriorated to the point where she could barely function. Now my father had to assume all of the household chores, as well as working as a salesman. When he went out of town, he loaded the refrigerator with prepared foods that she could heat up easily in the microwave. He had been with my mother for over thirty years. His own ability to cope was wearing thin.

* * *

My parents’ breakup—or, rather, my Dad’s abandoning her at her mother’s—happened a year or two after the accident, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I had returned to Brooklyn for winter break and was staying at Grandma Rose’s house on Dover Street in Manhattan Beach, the place we used to visit every Sunday in my youth when both my grandparents were alive. My parents had driven up from their home in Seabrook, Maryland, for a few days, and they were staying in my mother’s and aunt’s old, shared bedroom upstairs. I must have been sleeping in my dead Uncle Jay’s tiny corner room next to theirs. Nothing had been changed since he left home, married, and then died of kidney failure in 1960, at the age of twenty-nine. It felt too morbid to sleep in his old bed; I took the pillow and lay some blankets down and slept on the gray, threadbare carpet.

The year was 1982. New Year’s Eve. I was twenty-six. My friends had invited me to stay over in their studio apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan after a late-night party. I called the next morning to wish everyone a happy new year. My grandmother answered the phone in her usual deadpan.

“Hello? Sharon? Here. I’ll put your mother on the phone. She wants to talk to you.”

My mother got on the line. Before I could wish her a happy new year, she said, “Sharon? Your father left this morning and drove back to Maryland.”

“What? What are you talking about? What happened last night?”

“Nothing. We were all sitting around. We ordered in Chinese food for dinner. Everything was fine. Then this morning he got up from the kitchen table and said he was packing up and leaving me here.”

“What? What do you mean he packed up?”

“Yeah. He just drove away. He went back to Maryland without me.”

She sounded shell-shocked. I was scared. We both knew he wasn’t coming back for her. My first thought: now, am I going to be the one who has to take care of my mother?

I spoke to my dad the next day. He said it was not premeditated, but my aunt asked, “Then why did he bring such a big suitcase for her clothes if they were only coming up for a few days?”

At the time, I was incapable of believing my dad had planned anything. Now, as I watch Rear Window over and over again, and, alongside Jeff carefully study Thorwald the traveling salesman as he ties up a large trunk that ostensibly holds all his wife’s clothing, I begin to have my doubts. Thorwald’s alibi is that he has put his wife on a train to her mother’s in the country. The alibi my father was telling was that he just reacted in the moment, had planned nothing.

I can picture the chocolate-brown vinyl suitcase my dad brought up north with my mom’s clothes inside. Larger than a carry-on, I can see it open on one of the beds in my mom’s old room. It has a powder-blue interior. Perhaps the idea of leaving my mother at her mother’s was half formed, in the back of his mind, if things didn’t go the way he wanted, as he must have suspected they wouldn’t when he asked his miserly mother-in-law for money.

That morning over breakfast, on New Year’s Day, my dad had asked my grandmother, my mom’s own mother, to help him out financially. My mother needed psychiatric help and therapy, which my dad could not afford. He remained a struggling traveling salesman his entire working life. My grandmother refused, just one more of her many rejections over the years. She never trusted my father, maybe because he was married to her mentally ill daughter, and she held him responsible for her condition. My father once told me, early on in my parents’ marriage, that my grandmother had blamed my father for my mother’s breakdowns. She said this in the presence of a psychiatrist, who said that was impossible since my mother had had at least one breakdown before she even met my dad.

I can picture my dad getting up from the table; he was probably splenetic.

“I’ve taken care of her for over thirty years! You think it’s been easy? And no one has lifted a finger to help me out. If you won’t help me, then you take care of her now!” He stormed out of the house and drove back to their place on Good Luck Road in Maryland.

This is my dad’s account of what happened, which he repeated to me several times over the phone. “Look, I’m turning sixty. I have a heart condition. I need someone to take care of me for a change.” Part of me didn’t blame him and part of me was furious with him for leaving my mother with the woman she hated most: her own mother, who had never been able to accept that she had a schizophrenic daughter.

* * *

For the next eight years, my mother hibernated in that house, deteriorating both physically and mentally, sleeping in the musty bedroom she had shared as a child with her younger sister, the grayish-green flowered wallpaper still up with her own Lincoln High School class photograph from 1944 on the wall overhead.. During those years, no one did much to help her; no one forced her to see a psychiatrist or physician. She dropped down to about ninety pounds. It became increasingly more painful for me to visit her: to witness her steady decline, to see the cockroaches running rampant in the kitchen (even after I brought over Combat, which they refused to put down), to see the unhappy pair my mother and her mother made, reminding me of a scene out of Grey Gardens.

One time when I was visiting, my mother brought me upstairs to her room and lifted her blouse to show me her emaciated body. “Look at me. There’s nothing left of me.” She was all bones, like someone in a concentration camp. She told me she was afraid to sleep on the bed, that there was broken glass on it and that her mother put threads in the soup and was trying to poison her.

My mother continued to waste away, growing thinner, laying in her childhood bed most days, until my grandmother called her downstairs for a meal. My father had been her whole life, especially once my sister and I had grown up and left home. I think she just lay down for those eight years, waiting to die.

* * *

All that time, I struggled with my guilt over doing nothing. Shouldn’t I, as her daughter, have her move in with me? But how could I manage, being a part-time professor, editor, writer, who was barely cobbling together a living? How could I bring her to live in my rundown fourth-floor walkup in Carroll Gardens? I doubt my mother would have been able to climb the eighty-two steps. I was terrified she would overwhelm me, swallow me up. She was no ordinary mother. How did I know how to deal with a paranoid schizophrenic who hallucinated? It was too much for me to take on; nevertheless, I felt steeped in guilt.

That is, until my sister, a psychiatric nurse by training, decided to act. She brought Mom to her comfortable suburban home outside of Princeton. Cleaned her up and let her stay for a few months. I can remember watching my brother-in-law Paul, who used great tenderness when he had my mother sit in the living room and soak her feet in a basin filled with warm water to soften up her toenails before he could cut them. They were so long (one or two inches, literally), they curled at the end, and were the color of ivory piano keys. How did she ever fit them into her shoes? It was a sign to me of how much her mind had let her body go. Gently, carefully, Paul cut them so my mom’s feet looked normal again, not like a crazy homeless woman’s.

* * *

After about two months, my sister called me up to say it was time to have Mom hospitalized. “Sharon, you have to be the heavy.”

“Why? Why me?”

“Because she’ll listen to you. You’ve gotta tell her she has to sign herself in.”

I had to be the one who would get my mother to voluntarily sign herself in to the psych ward of the local hospital, since she was not a clear danger to herself or to others. Why did I have to be the one? Did she sense that my mom trusted me more—perhaps loved me more—than her, the self-described “cold fish” who barely showed her emotions?

On the way, we stopped at a local Jersey diner for lunch and my mother complained about her food. What had she ordered? Something with a sauce? She ordered some rice pudding for dessert, but lay down her spoon after a few tastes. “Slop. Real slop,” she said, and my sister and I looked at each other and laughed, partly because she was right, partly because we were nervous about what we were about to do.

When we got back into my sister’s car, I realized my mother still had no idea what was about to happen or where we were taking her. My sister had not said a word to her, probably worried that she might have had trouble getting my mother into the car.

“Where are we going?” Mom finally asked.

I breathed in deeply, then launched in. “We’re taking you to a hospital, Ma, because we think you need help,” I said as calmly as I could from the back seat, bracing myself for her reaction, all the while feeling the surge of that roiling mixture of guilt and obligation to get my mother the psychiatric help she needed.

“I don’t need any help,” is all she said, in her Brooklyn, nasal accent. I was surprised by how little resistance she was putting up. The fight had gone out of her.

“We think that you do,” I replied, and all three of us remained silent until we pulled up in the hospital parking lot.

“And I promise you there won’t be any electroshock. No more wires, Ma. I promise. They won’t do that to you again,” I said, as we were getting out of the car, knowing that what had frightened her most during past hospitalizations was the ECT she had undergone. It was what frightened me most when I learned about it: sticking wires and electrodes on someone’s head and running electricity through the brain. How primitive. How frightening.

“Just let me put on my lipstick,” she said, in the hospital parking lot. Then she opened her purse and stood, leaning over to look at herself in the car’s rearview mirror, applying her hot-pink lipstick before carefully rubbing her lips together. No matter that her eyes were watering, her face oily and grainy, her hair a greasy mess, and that she still was so emaciated. In her eyes, with her pink lipstick on, she would look presentable for her intake interview, where she would try to act as normal as possible and tell them she had no idea why she was there, why her daughters had taken her there. But she would agree, first looking up at me for reassurance, to sign herself in.

* * *

At the end of Rear Window, Lisa gets her man by risking her life. In the final scene, we watch her recline, initially with the travel book Beyond the High Himalayas (clearly meant to impress Jeff), before she switches to her real interest, the “Beauty Issue” of Harper’s Bazaar, having proven herself to her man who lies napping in his wheelchair with two broken legs.

I am not sure I have ever felt like Lisa, partly because she speaks and dresses and moves like an upper-class debutante. As for myself, to paraphrase an old cigarette commercial, “You can take this Brooklyn girl out of the working class, but you can’t take the working class out of this Brooklyn girl.”

When I hold my life up to Rear Window, I find I have not managed to see my way through to a happy ending. At times, I have felt like the woman artist working away on her sculpture; at others, like the young blonde dancer with a flurry of handsome suitors; at still other times, like Miss Lonely Hearts, putting my head down to sob at the invisible man across the table from me. Of course, my story is not over. Though I live on a high floor in an apartment building, someone can still look in on my life. Perhaps this writing serves as an invitation to do just that: recounting my story and those of my parents has become a way of living with the shades up.

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