When Truth is Stranger than Fiction

People often ask me how much of my writing is biographical, and the answer isn’t simple. By definition, fiction means a story is not true, yet authors write what they know, and bits and pieces of reality tend to find their way in. Even wholly made-up stories draw on personal experience of people and events—that’s what makes them believable— though characters and situations are usually altered and embellished to create a compelling narrative. But sometimes the truth is so strange, it makes for fiction that no one would believe. This was the case with a story I wanted to write about an unbelievable incident that really happened.

My career in television was just beginning. I had landed a job as assistant to the promotion manager at the local CBS affiliate. Her background was in graphic arts. She was smart and tough and a generous mentor. We shared an office. One day she came in, shut the door behind her and collapsed into a chair. Help me, she begged, with uncharacteristic vulnerability. Thus began nearly a year of regular episodes of dizziness, anxiety, loss of motor ability, hallucinations and mental breaks with reality. Each time, I would attend her with water, cold cloths, and a constant flow of reassurances to talk her down from her precarious ledge of terror. What was happening to her? As a child of the sixties, her symptoms sounded familiar. Was she taking any medication? But, no—no drugs—just the plastic cup of Coke she always had in her hand and an occasional aspirin from the bottle on her desk. Her doctor sent her to a neurologist; he sent her to a psychiatrist. She had expensive, sometimes painful tests; she had a spinal tap. She was diagnosed with MS, then Parkinson’s, then schizophrenia.

Her greatest fear was being discovered and losing the hard-won respect she had as the only female manager in the company. As soon as a spell began, I would field calls, cancel appointments and tell the receptionist we were leaving for a shoot. Then I would guide her down the back stairs and out the door. We went for long walks in which I held my arm around her and she haltingly revealed secrets about her life. Somehow, I did not believe the doctors, but I felt helpless to help her.

Then, one day, it happened to me. Suddenly I felt light-headed, disoriented. My vision slowed and the world appeared in flashes—still frames rather than a movie. Panic engulfed me; I collapsed. A co-worker called an ambulance and I was rushed to the hospital with my boss close behind. By the time I reached the ER, I had realized something. Either our affliction was environmental, or we were ingesting something that was making us sick. I had taken two of her aspirin that morning.

Back at the television station, she had the investigative reporter secretly take her aspirin, her Coke and my cranberry juice to the state police lab to be tested. All three were laced with PCP, a dangerous hallucinogenic drug. By the next day, she had an abstract, three-dimensional work of art, called “A Better Mousetrap,” hanging on the wall of our office. Behind it was a video camera focused on her desk.

We had suspicions so, to help matters along, she called the station still photographer into the general manager’s office and berated him in front of the GM. Then she returned to our office, left a new aspirin bottle and a Coke on her desk, turned on the camera, and we left to wait in the GM’s office where the camera feed appeared on his monitor. We didn’t have to wait long. In real time, we watched the surrealistic scene of the photographer entering our office, opening the pill bottle and exchanging some of the pills for others, then pouring a copious amount of a powder into my boss’s Coke.

Things happened quickly after that. The state police stopped him as he left the station for the night. They found drugs and weapons in his car, and he was arrested. We told our story to the grand jury, and they indicted him on several counts of possession as well as assault. The amount of the drug in her Coke was potentially lethal. He pled guilty and served six months in the county jail. When he got out, he ironically obtained a detective’s license and a gun permit. I never saw or heard from him again, until he died of a heart attack a few years later. Eventually I stopped jumping in fear at every sound. Eventually I was able to drink cranberry juice again. I never again drank anything that I hadn’t opened and poured myself.

In a postscript that gave this bizarre story a fairy-tale ending, the photographer hired to replace our assailant became my husband four years later. We’ve been married 28 years.

So how could I write about it? How could I portray the sense of violation and helplessness I felt, the anger at what my boss had been through? I couldn’t. I tried, but the story fell flat—after all, no one died; in some respects it was funny. I was sure that the story, though true, sounded like a bad movie script. Then one day, I tried putting myself in his head. Who was he? How did he think? The story flowed with nary a revision, and won first place in the New Millennium Writings competition. I called the story Secrets and you can read it here, or go to “Short Stories.”

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