It was only recently that I saw, for the very first time, Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and as it was designed to do, it chilled me to the bone. The movie descends like a shroud upon the lives of Myra (Kim Stanley), a would-be psychic who seems at the beginning of the film to be what one might describe as dotty and demanding, and her cowed husband Bill (Richard Attenborough), a milquetoast of a man who seems far too acquiescent to her insistent personality. But Myra is more than just a bit dotty, she’s borderline demented, and she has emotionally pummeled her husband into participating in a bizarre kidnapping plan— they’ll “borrow” the daughter of a wealthy businessman and then achieve fame and riches by helping police to discover her whereabouts. As the crime progresses, Séance reveals itself to be a disturbing, suspenseful movie, built not on whether the young victim will survive, but instead on just how deeply Myra will devolve into her own fantasies of parenthood, and it’s this aspect that made me begin to get a little nervous when I was watching it at home.
We’ve been told that the room in which the young girl is being held was once that of Myra and Bill’s son Arthur, who apparently died while still a young boy, and whose psychic contact with Myra is the basis of her claim to conversancy with the dead. But the real nightmare of the film is sparked when the line between Myra’s self-defensive delusions and a much purer madness dissolves completely. It’s soon revealed that Myra, who still believes she can speak with Arthur, never actually knew the boy—he was, in fact, stillborn, the room upstairs lying for years in a perfect state of waiting for a child who would never play or sleep in it. And under the pressure of keeping the kidnapping scheme from being discovered, she’s begun to believe that the best thing for Arthur is to send the little girl to the other side—to murder her—so that her precious baby would be lonely no more, and perhaps leave her tortured mind alone in the process.
Kim Stanley touches plenty of raw nerves depicting Myra’s desperation to connect with the way she envisions the world is supposed to be, but Richard Attenborough is in his own way just as effective, pinpointing the futility of Bill’s balancing act between empathy and comfort and a desire to force his wife (and, of course, himself) to deal with their grief rationally, expressively. But as I descended deeper into the movie, I had to question the wisdom, especially around this time of year, of seeing a movie about a muted, near defeated couple who have been haunted by devastating loss into making the worst decision possible as a means of reintroducing themselves to the world. In many ways I feel like I’ve been hiding out for the past 20 years, trying in my own way, like Bill, to help myself and my wife ride the wake of an event that just can’t be rationalized or explained away with homilies or assurances that everything happens for a reason– What reason could possibly suffice? For 20 years I’ve been trying to find a place where the grief over my own lost son, Charlie, who was stillborn on this day in 1997, can somehow be grappled with, made sense of, instead of just routinely crushing me like a bug under a boulder.
And frankly, the rather more agnostic turn my life has taken in the shadow of Charlie’s death—a direction it was already headed in, by the way—has been for me more of a comfort than the ostensibly reassuring thought that Charlie is somewhere hanging out in spiritual limbo somewhere, waiting to be reunited with the loved ones God saw fit to deprive him of at literally the last minute before he was to be born. In my mind, it is more strangely comforting to believe that what happened to Charlie was not the design of some sadistic deity who does things for his own self-absorbed reasons without the apparent need to let us poor earthbound bastards in on them. I’d rather just accept that the uterine abruption which resulted in his death occurred simply because it was within the realm of the physically possible for it to have occurred. It was not a proactive referendum on my or my wife’s abilities as parents, and we were not being punished for some presumed, speculative offense, like insufficient fealty and praise to a codependent Creator. So, despite the temptation (and, oh, how we have been tempted), guilt has never been a satisfactory option– at least not for me– in thinking about all the ways in which things might have turned out differently during that summer 20 years ago.
But despite all my attempts at setting things at ease rationally, there is still the grief to be understood, and it’s here that I found myself empathizing not with Myra’s actions, but instead her disorientation and panic at not knowing what to do with that grief. If her dogged insistence that on some level it should all make sense is something to which I cannot subscribe, I can at least understand her inability to deal with the power of that grief and its repercussions. At times I wish I did believe, like Myra with her Arthur, that Charlie was constantly by my side, or somehow accessible in his incorporeal state, because it might—might—make life a little easier to live when I start thinking about him a little too deeply, a little too sadly. That comfort is, after all, what memories are for. But there are no memories of a baby boy lost at birth that are not utterly, overwhelmingly sad—even those revolving around the happiness of anticipation are necessarily, unavoidably colored by the pain of what was to come.
And it is no comfort either to think of him separated from us by a mere dimension or two, our reunion to come at a time still to be determined. Yet in the immediate smothering of that grief, oh, how I wanted, just like the shattered, flailing Myra, to believe. A couple of weeks after my wife had returned from the hospital we were, of course, still reeling and trying to find a way to put our hopes and dreams back together. We had gone out to a local mall, and as I sat waiting for my wife to complete some piece of business, a little girl, probably no more than two years old, waddled up to me, looked me right in the eye, said, “Hi, Daddy,” and then just as matter-of-factly waddled away.
It took every bit of energy I could muster to keep my composure in this public place and not explode in a thunderstorm of rage and tears, and for years I held on to that strange encounter as evidence of perhaps an actual contact between Charlie’s spirit and my own. I don’t believe that anymore—I can’t believe that anymore, because too many things have accrued in my relatively meager experience, Charlie’s death being but one, to make me call into question beliefs my Catholic/Christian upbringing have insisted I take for granted, on unquestioning faith. But I remembered that experience anew when I saw Séance on a Wet Afternoon and it made me realize that confronting my own experience through this movie wasn’t a thing to be feared after all. My own loss made connecting with the dark insistence on spiritual redemption that fuels Myra’s clearly unacceptable, psychotic actions a little bit easier, a little bit more artistically rewarding, the recognition of a strange bit of empathy directed toward a woman who might seem too far gone for simple understanding.
I still love my boy, and I know I will grieve for him in my own way until my own candle goes out—I can’t, as so many were quick to advise us in the earliest moments when our wounds were still so fresh, just move on. I also know that I don’t need to hang on to hopes of ghostly encounters and heavenly reunions to keep that love alive. But while I never want to wallow in past agonies I don’t want to forget the pain either—it is now and forever a part of what binds our lost child to us. I do believe Charlie knows the peace we’ll all know someday, and that, to me, is a thought which is happy enough. It’s the only one, in fact, that could possibly compete, after being separated from him for 20 years now, with actually knowing that 20-year-old young man, being his dad in this world, experiencing the love I’ve always felt for him reflected back on me like sunlight. That is a thought I’ll allow myself to dream on occasionally, and I will not feel ashamed for my tears.