I have often wished there were some sort of machine, akin to a time machine, but more like a space or perception machine, where you could step outside of yourself and see yourself as you are seen by other people.
I mean, yeah, to a certain extent you can do that, say if you have home movies in which you’re captured candidly. But even home movies wouldn’t do the trick because typically you’re at least peripherally aware of the camera, and home movies usually are recorded at some sort of family (probably festive) event. So that’s not who you really are either. And short of retracing your steps through life and obtaining whatever convenience store surveillance video might exist, there’s really no option to observe yourself, as you are, acting as you will, when you think nobody is watching.
Several years ago, my best friend wrote a memoir about her husband – a British soldier who had served in a succession of war-torn countries like Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Iraq – and his subsequent struggle with PTSD. Before she sent it to publishers, she sent me a draft.
Although she is a brilliant writer, the tone seemed a bit off to me. I can’t write fiction to save my life, but my best friend – she is a natural born killer when it comes to fiction writing. I suggested she rewrite the book as a novel. Not only because of my suggestion but also that of our shared agent at the time, she did just that.
Halfway through her rewrite, Annie (her real name) confessed to me that in the novel version of her new book, there would be a character based on me, and that while the character had my overall personality, and was a CIA operative (as I, in an earlier life, had been), she’d taken certain liberties, and fictionalized the plot, and well . . . suffice it to say, my character would not come out smelling like roses in her book. Vague on the details, I got the impression that in the overall arc of the story, I was the villain. Annie was concerned about how I would react. She wanted me to read the draft in advance. She wanted to make sure I was okay with how “Joanna” was portrayed.
I told Annie honestly that I did not care. My exact words were: “As long as you don’t use my real name, I don’t care if my character eats her own, so long as it helps you sell your book.”
And evidently it did. Some months later, when Annie sold her novel in a bidding war among all the major publishing houses, she excitedly reassured me that – to an editor – everyone’s favorite character was “Jo.”
I first started reading Beautiful Bad – Annie Ward’s domestic thriller, now up for the 2019 Strand Magazine Critics Award for best debut mystery novel – in galley form, when it was already a done deal. Some of her descriptions of the foul-mouthed, straight-shooting, take-no-prisoners Joanna made me laugh out loud; I recognized phrases and maneuvers right out of my playbook. “Man, she got me!”
Even the blunt portrayal of Jo as a ball-breaking tyrant seemed a form of flattery. Funnily enough, in the final rewrite – after the book had already sold in a six-figure deal – Annie was asked by her editor to change Jo’s profession from that of a CIA officer to something more mundane. Evidently, the character was so over-the-top badass, she was not believable, proving truth is indeed stranger (and evidently so am I) than fiction.
I can’t say that there weren’t aspects of the book that did not make me bristle. The brilliantly crafted plot relied on a wholly fictional toxic love triangle existing among the characters of Maddie (based on Annie), Ian (based on Annie’s real-life husband) and Joanna (based on me)! Halfway through my reading, I called Annie and told her she was going to have to explain to my boyfriend that I’d never slept with her husband.
But what really got me were some of the spot-on descriptions of Jo – at her most angry, vulnerable, and insecure. There was one particularly eerie chapter that ends with Maddie, the main character, waking to find a crazed menacing Jo skulking in the doorway of her bedroom.
I read this particular passage in the daylight, on an elliptical in the basement gym at my office, and still my blood ran cold. The hair on my arms stood up, and I thought, “Jaysus, that bitch is scary,” before even registering, “That bitch is ME.”
The arresting passage fueled a furtive glance in the rear view mirror of my life. Annie and I have been tight since our early twenties. By the time I joined the CIA, we were besties. We’re now both approaching fifty. We have, as I have euphemistically characterized it, “been to the mat” – not only for each other, but with each other, more than once.
I recall one angry episode in northern Greece, where I screamed at Annie – over what, I can’t even remember – threw the key to our shared hotel room in the gutter and stormed off into the night. Annie sometimes credits me with having on more than one occasion saved her life. But the truth is, there were also instances during our arguments where she probably feared for her life.
Professionally, I am known to be cool as a cucumber. But personally, I have, and have always had, a terrible temper. I have, and always have, demanded the utmost loyalty, bordering on subordination really, from friends. My anger – usually at myself, if I were to really examine it – when I feel I’ve been crossed or wronged, can come out crazily sideways, like the horizontal saw blades on Speed Racer’s Mach 5. These are all unattractive qualities of which I’ve been peripherally aware my whole life.
But it wasn’t until reading Annie’s book, that I was able to see myself for how I am seen by others. Not outsiders or even colleagues, who still see a certain spruced up version of me, but rather the people who are most important to me, whom I love the most – my family, my best friends, my boyfriend, my children.
I was at last afforded my long-time wish, to see myself from the outside – looking at if not in. But that look at then enabled a longer look . . . in. There was a time in my life when I might have been angry, claimed I was inaccurately or unfairly portrayed. But this was no funhouse mirror; rather it was a reflection of me – the best in me, and the worst in me – rendered through beautifully crafted, and poignant, prose. And as harrowing as it was to see myself for the hectoring harpy I can be, there were equally as accurate vignettes where I saw a woman who was funny, fierce and above all consummately faithful to her friends.
The plot of Beautiful Bad takes such unexpected twists and turns that even after I’d turned the last page, I couldn’t be sure who, if any, among the three characters was the real “bad guy/girl.” What stuck in my mind, however, when I put the book down (and immediately called Annie to beg for a sequel!) was that Jo – flippant, fearsome, fundamentally flawed – still spends most of the book looking out for Maddie; and even after being left, returns to help her best friend in her time of greatest need.
The other morning, I found myself screaming at my recalcitrant teenage son – refusing to get out of bed and ready for my brother’s retirement ceremony – with such unabashed fury that my two dogs scurried and cowered under pieces of furniture and would not emerge. In the dogs’ quivering bodies and soulful searching eyes, I had a pretty good idea of how I was perceived by them, not to mention my son. A raging crazy beast. Worse than one of Macbeth’s witches. Or the salivating snarling Cerberus in Harry Potter. And yet less than an hour later, my son and I were laughing together about what a spectacle I’d been, and commiserating over the poor anguished dogs.
Through my friend Annie’s book, I’ve had the rare opportunity to pull back the curtain on myself. But even knowing what I know – seeing the main character (my character) without makeup, in her street clothes, and ad-libbing the least coherent of lines – I am not sure there’s much I’d change.