I’ve had trouble writing this week. Tuesday, I finally came up with a topic, but simply couldn’t pull it together, no matter how much time I stared at the screen. Today, I realized why. This week, I need to write about missing Mary.
January 11th has been hanging over me all week—like something I needed to remember that kept slipping out of reach. Even Tuesday night at writing group, when Mary’s name came up, I didn’t consciously put it together. It was driving home, when I suddenly felt a wave of panic that I remembered. I thought about Mary driving home from her class January 11, 2011—knowing that she must have felt like crap—because when she got home, she had a stroke and died. Mary was only 46.
Mary Siewert Scruggs first came to see me in 2000. She was head of writing and education at The Second City Training Center, and taught at Columbia College. Mary was funny as shit, a talented and prolific writer, and one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. At the time, she was researching reincarnation for a play she was writing, and knew I was experienced in hypnosis for past-life regressions. Mary came for bi-weekly two-hour sessions, and as we explored her many past lives, she related experiences of joy, sorrow, and the mundane. Some people she recognized from this lifetime showed up repeatedly, especially her son William.
After completing Karma, Mary continued with traditional therapy. She had long battled depression and worked to stay stable while resolving and healing old wounds. Mary was devoted and loyal to William and her husband, Richard, her family, friends, and students, and worked hard to keep her relationships solid and healthy.
Meanwhile, I was truly behind the scenes as she came up with ideas and took them to fruition—Karma, Bedtime Stories, Camp Nimrod for Girls. I helped as she struggled with fears and doubts about taking the “run for the wall” motorcycle trip that resulted in her one-woman show, Missing Man. After the trip, I helped her process all she’d learned. It felt like one of my biggest moments when I watched her perform Missing Man. I always encouraged Mary to go for what she wanted. She did the same for me.
“ Didn’t you write a screenplay about women in Saudi Arabia?” Mary asked after the Iraq War began in 2003. I’d forgotten I’d mentioned it to her, but she hadn’t “There’s a competition you should enter.”
I entered East of Mecca in the 2004 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Competition, and to my amazement made it to the semi-finals. Over the next four years I rode the rollercoaster that is Hollywood and in 2008, when I decided to rewrite East of Mecca as a book, Mary told me about Nancy Beckett’s Lakeside Writing Studio. When I joined Lakeside Writers, we discussed how to keep our therapeutic relationship separate and private, and were successful. In class, my notes to her were often informed by what I knew from our sessions, but I never shared them aloud.
A dual relationship between therapist and patient is discouraged because of the discrepancy in power, but we shared a vulnerability that balanced our relationship. I knew everything about Mary’s personal life, and she knew a great deal about mine—because Mary was shrewd and insightful enough to always discern the truth underlying my fictional character, Sarah, in East of Mecca. We encouraged each other to be brave and go deeper—to find what was important below the surface—an often scary endeavor!
The next two years, both in and outside of class, Mary supported my writing with all the deliberate care she gave her students. She read and re-read multiple drafts and gave me detailed notes. Mary believed in East of Mecca and often said she could see it on the best-seller shelves of bookstores around the country.
Following Mary’s residency at Ragdale in 2008, she encouraged me to apply and wrote me a letter of recommendation. I was able to complete a draft of my book during my residency in December 2010. Mary offered to do the final proofing and write my synopsis. When I gave her the manuscript, I told her that I knew the book would not exist without her. Mary modestly smiled and shrugged, but we both knew it was true.
I last saw Mary on January 5, 2011 for her regular two-hour bi-weekly appointment. She walked in as always with a high-pitched “Helloooo!” and a laugh. She settled, cross-legged, on my sofa with her cup of tea and proceeded to talk about her triumphs and fears and hopes and dreams, while I listened and guided. We scheduled her next appointment for Monday, January 17 at 11. It was the exact time of her funeral.
Though we were never friends in the traditional sense, Mary and I were two women there for each other as we needed to be, always supporting and pushing the other for the better. I loved her and trusted her, and her death has left an enormous void in my life. I miss her every day.
But, sometimes I still feel Mary’s presence—especially when I’m “stuck” like I was this week. Suddenly I realize that I’ve been writing on the surface—and need to take the plunge into more treacherous and authentic material. Because if there is anything shrinks (and writers) know with certainty, it is that what is MOST important always lies BENEATH the surface. We have to peel off the layers to get to what is true, even when peeling off the layers hurts like fucking hell.
*A huge “Thank You” to Richard Scruggs, who gave me his blessing to post this piece.
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