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Excerpt from Spectacular Happiness by Peter D. Kramer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Spectacular Happiness

by Peter D. Kramer

Spectacular Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2001, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2002, 320 pages

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I do want to please Wendy. In person, she is the way she looks on television, patient and reasonable. I believe her presence conveys humility, a modest hope that in time the rest of the world will arrive at her viewpoint.

News analysts have asked why I do not hire seasoned defense attorneys. Many, seeking publicity, have offered their services. My policy is not to explain myself to the press. But I can tell you that I think we all might benefit from less brash assertion of our individual rights. I like that Wendy has nothing in common with the slick men we are used to seeing -- Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, Stephen Jones, Barry Shenk, Gerry Spence, F. Lee Bailey. I like how slight and fine-boned Wendy is, as if she were intent on not taking up space in the world.

Sometimes I think it is an odd thing for a man of my age to place his faith in women with girls' names, Sukey and Wendy. But that is what I have done, and without regret. When Sukey was recovering from drink, I found myself speaking with her psychologist, Emmanuel Abelman, a quirky and unhappy old gentleman whose opinion I came to respect. Manny said that I have a talent for faith and that I should rely on my talent. I have tried to do so, though it would take someone of greater capacity than mine to sit sequestered with the FBI at the door and not worry at all.

Much of this I said to Wendy. Not the bit about girls' names -- I am sure Wendy finds it equally odd that her fortunes should be tied to those of a community-college teacher named Chip -- but about my mixture of faith and doubt. She asked only how she could make it easy for me to set down my recollections. I had no answer. Manny often said I was dogged in my efforts for others but resourceless when it came to helping myself. He worked to change that in me, but the transformation went only so far.

Then I saw you on the screen. Wendy's notebook came to hand, and I felt moved to write, justify, explain. To the son I have followed in imagination all these years.

I have come to respect these drives, to respect the absurd -- a posture that has served well this past year, the year of installations. It is absurd to write you. I do not imagine this journal in your hands. The stories I need to tell would only disturb a boy of (almost) sixteen. Too many explosions. Too many delicate family matters. Even if you were here -- fond wish -- I would hold back. The understanding I have with Sukey is that we will keep the secrets of the Movement to ourselves. As for the separation, mine from you, I would want my version to emerge gradually, gently, alongside your mother's, in the course of our efforts to create a new life together: wife, husband, child.

Only from this standpoint does the compulsion make sense: I write you anyway, compose letters in my mind, incessantly. The way Herzog writes his former wives, I write my absent son. About events of the day, stray ideas, foolish jokes. The latest on Leno: Good news and bad -- you just inherited a waterfront home...in Sesuit.

If I am to respond to Wendy's request, why not in this form, the form of my thought? It occurs to me that Herzog often writes on paper, too, unsent letters, a precedent that though it is fictional makes my compulsion seem less strange to me. For as long as I can remember, I have found literature a reliable companion, surely the best guide to how we live when we are by ourselves.


In his essay on walking, Thoreau makes a quiet pun. He writes of returning to his senses, when he means his sight and hearing and smell, as if it were only when we take in the world with intensity that our judgment is trustworthy. The week you were born -- in this cottage, with the help of a midwife -- your mother was hospitalized, and you and I were left alone together. I was fiercely alive, suffused with love of you and worry over her. Without error, I heard in your breathing whether you wanted rocking or swaddling or burping or being let alone. Once I had an inkling that my own father was near. I smelled the sourness of liquor, as if he were leaning over the bed toward me. I prayed to my dead father as a religious man prays to a saint, for your good fortune.

Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer

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