I particularly liked the woman who was murdered, you know, the bitchy wife who worked in a record shop; Bruno’s mother was good too—she was just as crazy as her son.
—Alfred Hitchcock, being interviewed by François Truffaut
I have had to wear eyeglasses or contact lenses for most of my life, so I always find myself identifying with the women in glasses in Hitchcock’s movies. They never have it easy. There is Midge, the overlooked, former girlfriend of Scottie in Vertigo. In Strangers on a Train (1951), there is the “bitchy wife,” as Hitchcock deems her, whose own murder is captured by one of the lenses of her fallen, cracked eyeglasses as she is being strangled by the psychopath Bruno Antony.
I memorized the eye chart when I was eight years old and in the third grade, when I saw I could not read it, and so I cheated on the eye test at school. The last thing I wanted was to have to wear glasses. I cheated for two years until it became impossible, at age ten, to see the blackboard, even when I was sitting in the front row. I will never forget, I was taking a math test and the teacher had written the questions on the blackboard for us to copy down. I panicked when I realized I could not read them at all and had to peek at my neighbor’s paper to copy down the questions, terrified the whole time I would be caught and accused of cheating. That night, I had to admit to my parents that I needed eyeglasses.
From the age of ten, I wore glasses: first ugly pointy-edged ones, then tortoise-shell ovals, and finally, gold wire-rims. I cried the day I first got them. It was a Sunday and we went from the optometrist’s office to my grandparents’ house, where we went every Sunday, in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. I knew I looked ugly in them. The next day at school, I kept hiding my face, refusing to look at the boy I had a crush on who had also gotten his first pair of eyeglasses over the weekend.
To Hitch’s credit, Guy Haines’s estranged, cheating wife Miriam does not look or act like a mousy, bespectacled librarian—circumspect and asexual. This woman in glasses is sexy and has a cool job as a clerk in a record shop, and is having so much fun running around with other men that she has gotten herself pregnant. But she refuses to grant Guy a divorce, now that he is a successful tennis player, and is going to “milk” him, this woman from “Met-calf,” for as much money as she can. As in Psycho, the woman with too much sexual prowess—in this case, a sexually avid and uncontrollable woman (perhaps a Jewish woman, given her name)—must pay with her life.
Bruno Antony, the psychopath, has manipulated Guy Haines into an agreement that each will do the other man’s murder (“criss-cross,” as he puts it), and begins to stalk Miriam, Guy’s “bitchy” (read noncompliant) wife by going to Metcalf, waiting outside the boardinghouse where she lives until she runs out with a guy on each arm, headed out on a bus to Leeland Lake, where they all get off for a nighttime carnival. Licking her vanilla ice cream cone and talking salaciously about her cravings, she spots Bruno, standing conspicuously a few yards away, smoking a cigarette.
“Hey, are we gonna go to the Tunnel of Love?” she asks her two male companions. And they are off, with Bruno trailing behind. Miriam looks back to see him following them. That look. Her pleasure in being pursued by a stranger, while she has a man in tow on either arm. The voracious woman who eats so much, one of the guys can’t figure out where she puts it all.
When it is time to “Strike a Rail” with a hammer to win a Kewpie doll, only Bruno can make the bell ring. Right before he does, he looks down at his hands, the same ones his mother had just finished manicuring for him, the ones that will soon strangle Miriam. Now Miriam is watching Bruno and he looks at her, raising his eyebrows with a silent look of recognition; he is showing off his prowess for her. Or so it appears. He does not take a Kewpie doll. She will be the doll he takes.
Then Miriam and her guys ride the merry-go-round, with Bruno racing his horse right behind hers as she looks back once more, then begins to sing with her companions, and Bruno joins in. Finally, they head to the Magic Isle for a boat ride. Again, Miriam looks back to see Bruno still following her. The whole time she is flattered by his attentions, thinking he desires her. The woman in glasses might as well have been blind.
There is something mythic in the way she looks back, reminding me of the way looking back is itself often connected with death. When Orpheus looks back at Eurydice as they are both climbing up out of the underworld, he loses her forever. Lot’s wife looks back while she is fleeing Sodom and is turned into a pillar of salt. No wonder Bruno, right behind the threesome, jumps into a boat called Pluto, named after the god of the underworld. His intent is clear.
Miriam’s namesake in the Bible is Moses’s sister who dances and sings during the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. This movie’s Miriam sings while riding a horse on the merry-go-round. Next she takes a boat to an isle, from which she will not return alive, all the while glancing back at this seductive stranger. She thinks her look is the lure, not realizing she is mis-seeing, that her glasses are no help, that his look is the lure.
When Miriam’s boat followed by Bruno’s enters the tunnel, as viewers we hear her frightening screams but we are the ones who cannot see her, and might assume the worst—that she has been killed while in the tunnel. As though her death cry precedes her actual murder when she will be strangled and unable to scream. They all emerge from the tunnel as Miriam is wrestling and resisting the advances of one of her nameless male companions, with Bruno’s boat right behind them. When they all get out at the shore, Miriam plays at running away from the two guys she is with, who momentarily lose her and call out for her, as she turns and runs toward the camera, toward the one who is watching her: Bruno. He flicks on the lighter he borrowed from Guy on the train, in order to capture her face: the flame twinned and reflected in her glasses, when he asks, “Is your name Miriam?” She barely has time to respond with a breathless: “Why, yes …” before his hands are around her throat. We watch her strangulation reflected by one of the lenses of Miriam’s dropped, broken eyeglasses on the grass. Her failure to see the deadly intentions of this stranger is what gets her killed—an act reflected in the lens by which her vision should have been corrected. Then Bruno takes the eyeglasses and gives them to Guy as proof that he, Bruno, has murdered Guy’s wife.
Since my late teens, I have always worn contact lenses. Even when I’m wearing them, I still feel like I am the one in glasses: the vulnerable one, the studious one, the unglamorous one. The one who is trying to see, but somehow failing to see, almost before it is too late.
I lived for one fall after college with my grandmother in Manhattan Beach. I was twenty-one and had a job as an editorial assistant at a small publishing house of genre novels: Westerns, mysteries, romance novels—all the books I never enjoyed reading. I used to stay out late, past midnight, in Manhattan on some nights. This would have been the fall of 1978, when my parents were living in Roswell, Georgia, where my dad had to move with my mom to keep his job as a traveling salesman.
I considered it safer to take the subway, the D train, to Sheepshead Bay and to grab a bus from there than to go to Brighton Beach, which was lonely and had become somewhat dangerous after nightfall; some said it was due to the arrival of a wave of Russian immigrants, some with mob connections. This was also the seventies, when New York City was a more dangerous place than it is today. I can remember walking down Brighton Beach Road in the early evening after work, one of the only young women on the street, and having men in cars stop and try to proposition me, assuming I must be a streetwalker. I do not think I dressed very provocatively. There was just the smell of crime in the air.
I usually got off the D train one stop before, at Sheepshead Bay, which felt safer, less deserted. There was a corner bagel shop open late that made puffy dark pumpernickel bagels—my favorite. Sometimes I would stop inside to pick up a bagel on my way home. On some nights, I grew impatient waiting for the bus and would choose to walk home: down Sheepshead Bay Road, which was well-lit, then across the wooden bridge where the road dead-ends into Emmons Avenue, which hugs one side of the bay over to the other end of the bay and walk the lonely two and a half blocks to my grandmother’s house on Dover Street.
On one of those nights when I had grown impatient waiting for the bus, I stepped onto the grey wooden bridge and began walking across it, the streetlights on either side of the bay and the lights from the fishing boats swaying upon the darkened water. It must have been around one a.m. I was the only one on the bridge. I continued across, feeling a bit anxious because there was no one in sight. It always surprised me how desolate some neighborhoods in Brooklyn could be at night. As I drew close to the far side of the bridge leading to Manhattan Beach, I saw an unmarked van with a man driving, slowly cruising east on Shore Boulevard, the street that hugged the side of the bay where I was heading. I saw the man turn his head and notice me, then begin to slow, as he turned the van around. This was a very bad sign. Was he after me? What could I do but go forward? It was just as lonely and deserted if I headed back toward Sheepshead Bay. And this guy could just as easily have driven his van around and caught up with me on the other side. I was trapped. All I could do was run.
And that is what I did. I kept running as fast as I could, jogging left to Dover Street, which was one block west from Exeter, where the bridge ended, praying that I would reach the house door and get inside before the van caught up to me. I was racing on panic followed by the adrenaline rush that pushed me to run faster and faster down those ghostly blocks of single-family homes.
What would happen to me if this man caught up with me and grabbed me and pulled me into his van? If I screamed, would anyone hear me on these deserted streets? Or come out in time to help me? I kept going, flying as fast as I could. I chose to run down this one-way street going the wrong way so if the guy was still chasing me, he had to ride down a different street and decide how many blocks to go before cutting over to ride back up. That is, if he chose to obey traffic signs.
I made it to my grandmother’s house before catching sight of the van once more, raced up the two steps to the side door. Put the key in the lock and I was home, slammed closed the heavy wooden door and slid the deadbolt in place. I had managed to escape from who knew what bodily harm. I will never know if the man in the van was chasing after me, but why else would he turn his van around so suddenly after seeing me? I vowed to myself never to walk home from the subway at night again. I also made a promise to myself to find my own apartment by New Year’s. My grandmother was upstairs, sound asleep. I never told her or anyone about what happened.
In Strangers on a Train, there are actually two women in glasses: Guy’s wife Miriam who does not see her stalker as a demonic calculating killer, and Guy’s girlfriend’s kid sister Barbara (Babs) who, with her glasses on, sees what others initially miss. Here is a study in contrasts. At the cocktail party her father throws, this young woman (played by Patricia Hitchcock, Hitchcock’s only daughter, who was twenty-three at the time of the filming) sees clearly, after her father the senator informs Guy of his wife’s murder, that he is the most likely suspect. She is on to Bruno the night of the party at her father’s house.
Bruno shows up and begins flirting with an older society lady named Mrs. Cunningham by asking her what is the best method for committing a murder. It’s an irresistible return-to-the-tools-of-the-crime when Bruno holds out his hands and then playacts at strangling her at the cocktail party. But he goes a bit too far, having become entranced by the bespectacled Babs, who reminds him of Miriam, the woman he recently killed. The carnival music flares up in the background as the music playing in his head, and when Bruno is forced to remove his hands from the now blubbering, half-choked Mrs. Cunningham, he faints. Babs walks away with the stunned realization that Bruno is not only Miriam’s murderer, but that he was briefly hallucinating himself back at the carnival, feeling like he was killing Miriam all over again with his hands around Mrs. Cunningham’s neck, while looking at Babs the whole time.
Shaken up, she tells her sister, “He looked at me. His hands were on her throat … and he was strangling me.”
“How do you mean?”
“He was looking at her first, then looked over at me and he went into a sort of a trance. Oh it was horrible. [She looks down and sobs, then looks up at her sister.] He thought he was murdering me. [Then she removes her glasses.] But why me, why me? What did I have to do with it?”
The glasses. Her sister Ann, Guy’s lover, the clear-sighted one, sees instantly.
I lived in Carroll Gardens from 1986 to 1995, at the time a working-class Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, and for several years, I used to take three trains to the Upper East Side to see my analyst.
One morning, I was taking the F train, then switching to the A at Jay Street to get to the Lexington line to take me up to 96th Street, where I strolled over to Fifth Avenue. On this day, I planned to do several errands afterwards. First, I had my usual therapy session. Afterwards, since I was doing research on my dissertation, I plan to go to “the Lions”—my name for the main branch of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street because of the two distinctive stone lions that grace either side of the main steps. There was an out-of-print book I needed to have a look at there. Since I was in no hurry, after my shrink appointment, I caught a bus going down Fifth Avenue and read a book for the trip downtown. I remember going inside the Lions and requesting a critical book about William Carlos Williams. Then, since the main branch does not lend out any of its books, I had a photocopy made of a particular chapter.
It was a warm day in late May and I came outside to sit at a table and read over the material. In those days, before the renovation of Bryant Park, there was a small kiosk and several tables and chairs just down the first set of steps on the Fifth Avenue side when I descended to the right of the main entrance to the library.
Now I noticed him. Tall, and a bit stocky, with medium-length auburn hair, and some light freckles on his cheeks. Probably in his thirties. He had gotten himself a beer and chosen a seat at the table right behind mine, where he had a good view of me. This man was a stranger and yet he looked vaguely familiar. I looked him over without turning my head. Why did he look so familiar? Then I remembered. He must have lived in my Brooklyn neighborhood because I had seen him on the subway platform that morning; he must have gotten on the same F train with me.
I was careful not to let him see that I had noticed him. My heart began pounding. What were the odds that he would end up exactly where I was after making so many stops? Something felt terribly wrong. I quickly calculated how many places I had been. He must have spent the whole day following me—from train to train, then waited until I was done with my shrink appointment, then boarded the bus I took to the library, and I had been too busy reading to notice him.
Or else he just happened to be at the Lions, deciding to have a drink outside when I was. An unlucky coincidence.
I am being stalked, I thought. I got up and began to run. Down the steps of the library, across Fifth Avenue. I turned around once to see he had gotten up as well and was moving in my direction. A large, hulking figure. I kept running; I had always been good at outrunning danger. I had done it before. Should I continue my day or not? Should I cry out? Find a cop? I was in the middle of Midtown on a sunny afternoon. There were plenty of other people around, so I decided not to stop.
I kept on running to do my next errand, which was to go to the Pan Am World Airways office a few blocks away in order to exchange an airplane ticket that someone had sold me. At the time, airline tickets were transferable. I ran all the way there and ducked inside, figuring if he had managed to follow me, I was safe anyway inside this office. Time passed and I exchanged my ticket. I had lost him. But I have never forgotten this tall stalker.
Theorists of memory make a distinction between “observer memories,” when you view yourself from the outside as a third person having the memory, and “field memories,” when you remember an episode as though you were still participating in it. In this one, I have both types of memory. When the stalker sits down at the table, I am inside the memory, re-experiencing it as though it is happening right now. A field memory: I can still see him pouring the beer into his tilted glass, slowly, as though this were the most natural thing for him to be doing. And it is the way he takes his time, the slow confidence of his movements that alarms me most, as though he were contented with how his plan is working out. When I flee across Fifth Avenue, I see myself as though from an overhead pan in an observer memory, running across the street and glancing back at his broad steps, like a giant, striding after me across the avenue. The memory is so clear that I still think I could pick him out in a lineup, even though with time and age and the tricks of memory, I know it would be unlikely.
How can I be sure he was stalking me? What if his appearance outside the library was a fluke and he chose a table near mine by chance? Or perhaps at that moment he recognized me from the neighborhood and he just wanted to chat me up. How does someone know when she is in danger? As a woman, I believe I just knew. I felt it in my kishkes.
I had grown up in Brooklyn, hanging out with friends who lived on a dead-end road in Bergen Beach, where lost drivers on their way to the airport often turned up. Several times men beckoned my girlfriends and me over to their car window, pretending to ask for directions while they exposed themselves to us. We soon learned to stop going over to strange cars.
In order to survive in New York City, I had developed my radar for danger, I could feel it on my skin. It was a visceral response when I got up and ran for my life. If I were prone to paranoid fantasies, if I saw stalkers everywhere, I might be more skeptical of my reaction. I will never know for certain, but I still believe he was out to get me in some way that I did not want to be gotten. And I was not about to stick around to find out whether he meant to do me harm or not. And when he got up just after I did and seemed to be coming after me, hurrying in my direction, that action clinched it for me.
Why do I remember this incident after so many years? Perhaps because this memory feels so Hitchcockian, especially with its iconic setting, the New York Public Library—not unlike Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest or San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in Vertigo. Or like the Jefferson Memorial in Strangers on a Train.
Hitchcock loved to film in iconic settings, as though landmarks might lend their weight to the unfolding personal story. Or, perhaps there is something just as American about being stalked or being on the run for one’s life as there is about Mount Rushmore or the Jefferson Memorial. In Strangers on a Train, there is the quick, terrifying moment when Guy is walking in Washington, D.C., with the man who has been assigned to trail him, Leslie Hennessy, when Guy spots Bruno on one of the top steps of the Jefferson Memorial. It is a long shot, but Bruno’s stance, in a suit and hat, with his right arm slightly extended, probably holding a cigarette, is unmistakable to the audience and to Guy, who quickly suggests to Hennessy that they both jump in a cab.
In front of the New York Public Library, I felt like a more-knowing Miriam who was being stalked by a malevolent man. She thinks the attentions of this male stranger are benign, that he finds her alluring as a woman, and by owning up to her name, she loses her life. I was not interested in luring a stranger or owning up to anything. There have been few times in my life where I felt myself in real physical danger. This was one of them. And I got away.
Bruno stalks Guy throughout much of Strangers on a Train, from the time he has strangled Guy’s wife and now expects Guy to murder Bruno’s father. Like many sociopaths, Bruno is very clever. When Guy is waiting on the tennis field to practice at the club, he spots Bruno in the audience, by scanning the crowd, watching everyone’s head turn from one side to the other, following the tennis play. Only one man’s head remains fixed forward, staring at Guy: Bruno. But then Bruno leaves, and after Guy goes upstairs, he finds Bruno laughing and joking in French with an older couple along with Ann, Guy’s girlfriend. He has been able to insinuate himself into this social situation and, initially, to charm people, including Babs, who at first sight views him as an available single man and rushes over to introduce herself.
When I lived in the Bay Area in my early twenties, I went to a party in San Francisco and met a young Frenchman there. I’ll call him Marcel. Straight men were such an anomaly back then, that it was easy to find him charming in conversation, and so I accepted his invitation to visit him across the Bay in Oakland where he lived.
I took BART from San Francisco to the East Bay one late afternoon to the address in Oakland that he gave me over the phone. He greeted me at the door and showed me in. He was thin, with dark straight hair and he smelled strongly of perfumed bath powder, the kind a woman might use. In the afternoon light, he looked very pale, ghostlike. Has he also powdered his face with it? I thought. He quickly explained to me that he lived with an older woman, who allowed him to stay there for free, and she happened to be out of town. I did not ask him more because I did not want to know more; I sensed he was a kept man who was cheating on his benefactor while she was away. There was something creepy about him now that I had not sensed at the party the week before. I asked to use the bathroom and found the powder there. A bit odd, I thought. It must be the woman’s bath powder.
We sat down at the dining room table and he brought out a bowl of fruit. I glanced at the bowl and saw a mixture of overripe peaches and bruised apples, the kind of fruit my grandmother might have offered me back in her filthy, roach-ridden house in Brooklyn. This was, after all, California, where fresh produce was as easy to come by as a slice of pizza in New York. I was feeling uneasy, a bit queasy, but pretended everything was normal and just said no thank you. Marcel proceeded to tell me a story, a dating story, I supposed apropos of our date.
“Oh, I thought you’d like this story. There’s a woman I’ve been corresponding with in L.A. for six months. She put a personal ad in the L.A. Times looking for a woman. So I decide to answer her and I am calling myself Mary. We’ve been writing letters back and forth and talking on the phone a lot and I am thinking she is falling in love with me. We’ve never met, of course. Every once in a while, she is asking to me to come up north and visit. And when she calls here, it’s happened two times already, I disguise my voice and I tell her Mary is out of town. It’s sad, is it not?”
“Sure, Marcel. Sure.” I began, feeling a sickening mixture of fear and repulsion. Why was he telling me this story? And how was I supposed to respond?
I glanced down once more at the rotting fruit; I had seen and heard enough. I got up and told him calmly that I had to go back to San Francisco. I could see he understood and he led me to the door.
This story has never left me because, up until now, I have never understood why Marcel felt compelled to tell me his secret and sabotage our meeting. Now I see he probably could not help himself from revealing how perverse he was. The way Bruno couldn’t help himself from talking about murder with Guy on the train, after initially charming him by recognizing him as a tennis star. Or from talking about murder and then almost strangling a woman at the senator’s party. If there is something twisted or pathological in a person, it will usually reveal itself soon after the initial display of charm.
What mixture of narcissism, passivity, and subterranean attraction prevented Guy from getting up and leaving the car where he had seated himself with Bruno by chance? Or even after lunch, when Bruno, no matter how persistent, revealed his sick plan for them to do each other’s murder: “Now, you think my theory’s okay, Guy … You like it.” “Sure, Bruno, sure,” Guy says, before leaving the train. Why respond this way to a psychopath, who will see it as a sign of encouragement and assent, rather than a case of being “yessed at” in order to get away gracefully.
Just recently, a female stalker entered my life. This time I know that’s what to call her. I don’t know her name—or even if we have ever met. She called up two of the places where I teach and demanded to speak to me or to be given my email address. According to the people who received the call, first she tried to enroll in my course and then she went on a rant about what a terrible person I was. Finally, growing more and more upset, she accused me of stealing her boyfriend of seven years. During her last call, she threatened to slash my face. I’m a bit old for that kind of talk and I never ran in such circles, even as a teenager, but she still scared me.
One night, an anonymous caller—I assume it was the same person—called my home every two minutes, but I never picked up. I figured out how to block anonymous phone calls altogether. The next day I called the police and tried to file a report, as had one of the institutions where I teach, but because neither of us had a name or phone number or other identifying information, the police would do nothing. If she ever shows up where I live or work, that will be another matter.
The power to make someone paranoid: Perhaps that was all she wanted. Or to sully my name at my workplace. I was amazed at how easily I began to feel defensive over something I hadn’t done. This was crazy-making. For a few days this stalker succeeded in making me feel paranoid. Looking behind my back when I walked the dog. Glancing around in fear at the people in the supermarket. Then I calmed down, reminding myself that I live in a doorman building. I will have to hope that her inability to get through to me or wreak much havoc made her go away.
I wrote about this most recent stalking incident and then deleted it, feeling nervous, superstitious—yes, even paranoid—that I would invite more stalking from a person who seemed to have stopped. “Paranoia strikes deep / into your life it will creep,” sang Buffalo Springfield, when being paranoid was part of the antiwar, counter cultural movement in the sixties.
It was also in the sixties when I was growing up with a schizophrenic mother who felt paranoid every time she had a breakdown. Someone was always out to get her, she was certain: usually my father or the police or her own mother. It took me many years to acknowledge and accept that I was not like her, would never become like her. And the best way I can continue to mark our difference is by putting this episode back into my story as my way of taking a defiant stance: a refusal to give in to paranoia.