Title: The Day Before
Subtext: Cameras still rolling.
Date: 14 Oct 15 (Wednesday in the PM)
Time: 2 minutes
Replies: 37
Revisions: 8
Publicity: Workshop

On January 22, 1987, Robert Budd Dwyer was filmed committing suicide. He was Pennsylvania’s Treasurer. He had been tried and convicted of bribery and was scheduled to be sentenced on January 23. He called a press conference, read a statement proclaiming his innocence, then shot himself in the head. He did this in front of five network cameras.

Many stations, such as WCAU and KDKA, aired only a portion of the footage. WHTM-TV, however, showed the suicide unedited. This is how I and my son, who was four, saw it on the noontime news.

We didn’t want to see it, but we did. There was a snowstorm, so I had the news on for the weather. Instead we saw a man remove a gun from a manilla folder, place the barrel in his mouth, and pull the trigger.

For a moment after it happened, I didn’t move. Then I switched off the television. The way I did it was sudden and violent, as if I were trying to erase the previous few seconds through physical force.

What was that? my son said.

I tried to smile. I’m sorry, kiddo, I said. It was a scary movie. I didn’t know it would be on. It wasn’t real, I said, and I jiggled my son’s arm.

I didn’t like it, he said. I didn’t like it, Mom, he said.

And I said, I know, kiddo. I said, But you can forget about it now. It was just make-believe. It wasn’t real.

Then I told him I needed to use the bathroom, which was true, and I would be back in a second. In the bathroom I threw up. I sat on the toilet and evacuated my bowels. When I was finished, I fell to my knees on the bathmat outside the shower stall and prayed. Dear God, I prayed. Please give me the nightmares my son is going to have. Please give them to me. I squeezed my eyes shut until all I saw was red. Please give them to me, God. Please.

It took a minute for my eyes to clear and the puffiness under them to fade. I washed my hands, and when I returned to the kitchen, my son showed me that he had finished his sandwich.

He didn’t have nightmares that night or the night after or any night that week. Neither did I. After a few days, I wondered where in the world the nightmares had gone and who was having them.


Mako » Authorship
Elk » 7:49 PM 15 Oct 15
Elk » 1:13 PM 15 Oct 15
Elk » 5:57 AM 15 Oct 15
Elk » 9:34 PM 14 Oct 15
Elk » 6:23 PM 14 Oct 15
Elk » 1:32 PM 14 Oct 15

The Thread (37)

 Author's voice in grey. 

  1. I didn’t know of this event until reading this. It’s a fascinating if necessarily sad look into media and censorship and culture – apparently different networks made different decisions about how to present the news, and the outcomes really spanned the gamut, including creative multimedia layering of audio and visual. Historical fiction is valuable, and this seems to fit the profile.

    Where the dreams or nightmares go, as if they’re bound but undetermined – that’s a delicate thought worth having. I like that that’s the ultimate principle being articulated here. I’d get more to it though, and excise the background. This would make an excellent vignette, but it kind of reads as a short story. That’s happening in The Land more generally, and it’d be great to see more vignettes (beginning and ending blur into nothing, implicating there’s more on both sides of a piece).

    The writing’s pretty tight. On format, I’d suggest quotes over italics.

  2. I feel it @mako. The brutality of the image, the powerlessness of Dad, the bewilderment by lack of impact. I think it would need two more scenes before leaving vignetteville @elk. Good old RL advice comes to mind: leave it at sandwich? Good stuff. Welcome.

  3. I think leaving it at “sandwich” would help. But then you lose the conservation of nightmares property.

  4. Should it be KDKA instead of KDKU?

  5. @mako — I’d conceive a subtext that isn’t borrowed straight from the body of the piece, per the RL custom of adding value with the subtext rather than highlighting via restatement, which is the function of a pullquote.

  6. @elk

    Thanks for the feedback! I first read about the Dwyer suicide in high school, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It manages to feel like both a culmination of something and just the beginning. There’s just a lot there.

    As for your suggestion of excising the background, I suppose I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean the stuff about Dwyer’s suicide? Because I do like the juxtaposition of the elements: hard and soft, public and private, facts and emotion, etc. That’s the engine of the piece, as I see it. And then in regards to the italicized dialogue: I wanted to avoid the convention of quoted speech to make the piece seem like less of a short story and more of a recalled moment. But perhaps it’s too much obvious effort for too little effect.

    Thanks for pointing out what the subtext is for. I have to admit I was a little confused by that, but I think I understand now. And thanks also for pointing out my (embarrassing) error with KDKA’s call letters. As soon as I earn editing privileges, I’ll make both those corrections.


    Thank you, too, for the feedback! I also thought about ending it at “sandwich.” But, ultimately, I felt like then the piece didn’t say what I wanted it to say. And you gotta say what you mean, you know? For better or worse. (Also, the narrator is a Mom, not a Dad.)

  7. Your notes go a long way, Mako. Weird thing – I took this to be a dad, too. There’s just something about it that rings fatherly. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve got some personal tradition running in me that says suicide’s not for women.

    On juxtaposition – I think you’d get it better if it was understated. I read an opinion recently that I can’t forget, that since the advent of internet everywhere all the time, the premium on research has not just been reduced, it’s been eliminated, and now in fact bears the mark of a tax. The background can be gotten if the story’s told well enough. To include it in the story takes precious time and words from the people we want to know about. The backdrop is a footnote.

    What do you want for a subtext? I’ll drop it in.

  8. Elk, I don’t see anywhere here that indicates suicidal thoughts by the narrator.

    This was a haunting piece for sure. I found myself a little shell-shocked with only the imagined video playing in my head.

  9. Not that the narrator would have suicidal thoughts, but that even writing about a woman being exposed to suicide felt automatically counterintuitive. That’s obviously personal. Just stating my situation because I had one to state.

  10. Well, the kid does call her “Mom.”

    As for the Dwyer section, I definitely don’t think it’s a footnote. Superficially, it initiates the action of the piece, but more substantially, it initiates thematic movement. The suicide needs to do two things. One, it needs to establish the public arena that the piece pulls away from then returns to (albeit in an altered form). Two, it needs to introduce the tension between public and private that drives the vignette. I’m not sure a subtler version of the scene would have the power to do that.

    But it also can’t be too bombastic. For instance, I don’t think we can start inside the mother’s head and first experience the suicide through the mother’s reactions. We could, but it would sort of flatten the rest of the piece.

    That’s at least where my thinking is at with it.

    I do agree with you, @elk, about how research has acquired a gilded quality in some literature. The same thing has happened in art and illustration, where Google Images has made some artists reference-crazy.

    (As for the subtext, how about: “Cameras still rolling.” Also, while you’re in there, could you add a comma after “1987” in the first sentence? I forgot it, and it’s driving me nuts. Thanks, Elk!)

  11. Reasonable thoughts — but I don’t think I’ll be convinced the facts need to be stated.

    You’re absolutely right — the son does call her mom. That makes the assumption of a dad even stranger. I never for a second thought the kiddo was a daughter and not a son.

    Interestingly, I dropped the comma after 1987 before I pushed this through. There’s too much punctuatuion in the world. I used to do the same thing (after the year), but I saw a lot of really good stuff that dropped it and it just started making sense. I’d love to see the comma after the day disappear, too. And commas before “too”.

    If you meant “on this date (pause) this happened”, then ok. But if it’s “on this date this happened”, then I’d vote no. The sentence is short enough, and the subject is quite impactful in a way that makes it read better if there’s no pause.

    But you’ve been great, and thorough in your replies, so I’m putting it back because hey, you’re the author.

  12. I’d keep the comma after 1987 and I’d also include one before “hey” in the previous comment. But I’m on board with using fewer commas in general, especially after introductory clauses.

    As to the real matter, I read the narrator as male based on the male-ish behaviors, as I saw them. Calling the child “kiddo” might have been chief amongst them. Also perhaps the vomiting, etc. I associate that sort of stuff with men. Maybe I’m a pig.

    I thought “Mom” was a reference to a mother who also happened to be nearby, though that would certainly have been referenced in such a carefully written piece, and should have been the main clue. This thought, though, in my mind, actually strengthened the piece, as a child instinctively looks to mom, not dad, for comfort.

  13. I associate vomiting with women – and I distinctly recall wondering on a personal level how or why a man could/would vomit after witnessing these events on television.

    I’m working to regain a footing for men in the child’s instinctual call for succor.

    I considered a comma before “hey” but went in for the practice as I preached it instead. Read it like one fluid line of dialogue.

  14. I’m retagging this 80s in the spirit of Falcon’s notion that we’re not likely curating an arabic collection but rather a languages collection – similarly 80s not 1987.

  15. Also thought the call to mom was to mom off screen, and that it was a strength. I think in addition to my natural biases, whatever they may be, the suicide incident itself called up concepts of maleness, inherently. This is what a man does? It’s two men watching it in my mind, barring a pointed reference to maleness that disrupts that assumption. The idea of removing the historical context feels arbitrary and off base. It would be a completely different piece without it. Still do think sandwich can end it because it has the power to imply what the last paragraph may put too fine a point on.

  16. The dad assumption may also have to do with American Pastoral, which has been on my mind much while switching from Isis news to Taylor for the benefit of my . . . daughter?

  17. Fair — I’m just suggesting something like, “It was the day of Dwyer’s suicide.” That’s sufficient for a reader to fill in. A recitation of Wikipedia may save a click but if that was the criterion for inclusion we’d stop writing and just read Wikipedia and let the facts drive the story instead of letting the story drive us to the facts. This is particularly so in the case of historical fiction.

  18. How about those stars to set off what is mostly fact?

  19. I don’t care for the stars. If we’re really clamoring to make cuts, how about the second sentence: “He had been tried and convicted of bribery and was scheduled to be sentenced on January 23.” This is really the only somewhat peripheral fact that I could see being excised while leaving the impact and intent of the piece intact.

    That said, I don’t agree that this intro is the equivalent of just reading Wikipedia or that it’s a simple recitation of facts.

    That said x2, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a recitation of facts, if that’s what’s dictated by the art.

  20. Reread it and it’s completely obvious as written that mom is narrator. Amazing how reading context creates its own meaning. I would have left Dwyer as a name and not looked it up had the info not been there to jog my memory.

  21. Side note — LI1 is an interesting choice for a suicide/vomit piece. But utmost respect for opening the copyright slightly. Always cool.

  22. Full confession: I love the inclusion of facts in pieces of fiction. I think they’re a wonderful way to add texture and context, to alter the rhythm of a piece, to create film-like cuts and transitions, to do a thousand other things. But of course that doesn’t mean they always work.

    I think the Dwyer section does work here; I think it is integral to the piece and that the piece falls apart without it. That’s why I’m not a huge fan of the stars. They segregate the suicide, and they derail the transition paragraph. Ironically, I think the stars make the suicide read more like an excerpt from history by removing it from the narrative. The reason I think that section isn’t just five lines from Wikipedia is because there’s a conversation between it and what comes next. There’s a flow and exchange that alters both parts.

    (Which, as Rabbit points out, could happen even if it were a quote from Wikipedia. It might not be artful or clever in that case, but it could still work.)

    I love this conversation, though. And I love hearing how people react to the inclusion of the Dwyer section. Because I can guarantee this is going to come up again. Not with every piece I write, of course, but I truly do love playing with how facts can work in the context of fiction.

    Also — and this might be semantics more than anything — I don’t consider this to be historical fiction. It lacks the character participation I associate with that genre. I could get behind a period piece, though.

  23. @elk – Oh, well, maybe I don’t totally understand the different copyright options then. My goal was to add a level of protection to it so it couldn’t be included just anywhere without my consent. Since it is kind of rough and about a sensitive topic. Is there a better copyright level for that?

  24. Good defense, Mako. We’ve had debates on other pieces about concepts and interpretation of truth and reality in some of these vignettes. Echoing the other comments above, it’s hard for a reader to escape the color of his own glasses, and questionable whether he should bother to try.

  25. This was/is a solid discussion. Reminds me of some of the earliest discussions on the site.

    I just had to scroll up to see how the gender part of the discussion started. I probably heard a male narrator for some of the valid reasons included above. But to be honest, I don’t think it was told by a female narrator. It may have been told through female lenses, but female lenses worn over male ones.

    Anonymity of animals’ genders just became an issue. Was bound to happen. I’m not saying that the author is necessarily the narrator. But in this piece, it seems like the narrator is wearing the author’s lenses – lenses I’m arguing are likely male. Like others, I get a sense of it in the text. Perhaps I’m reading (stupidly obviously) male qualities into mako the shark, and feeling like more work wasn’t done by Mako to bring something more “Mom” to the voice of the narrator, other than to refer to her as mom. Gender is a mind warp for a horse who writes most often about You and I.

  26. Any copyright should do. It’s your prerogative, Mako. I think what Elk might have meant was that the subject is a bit dark for what LI1 permits, i.e. display across the web as lorem ipsum, which is usually used as placeholder content for demoing or selling something in a kind of neutral or attractive manner.

  27. Just walked away feeling a little tactless about using the word work in my previous reply. Was on the move and trying to get a thought out. What clue do I have how much work Mako put into that piece. If anything, I’d be curious to know to what extent Mako thought about the narrator’s gender while crafting it. It’s a solid piece, as this discussion shows, and narrator gender is something I’m interested in.

  28. Speaking from the heart is always appreciated, but you were ok from the hip too @horse.

  29. I’d throw in some references to cooking dinner and changing diapers.

    Then we’d know it’s definitely a dad.

  30. I just saw the Mako’s full confession. I echo Rabbit – nice defense (not that you needed to defend anything, but I think we’re all psyched to learn more about authors and their pieces, so I’m glad you did). I especially like its articulateness. It’s almost as though it has to have some merit because it’s articulate, which may or may not be a principle of living, but it’s a power of writing – rhetoric, I believe.

    Stars are a goner.

    My only definition of historical fiction is three-factor and full of holes: (1) fiction; (2) situated no less than about ten years prior to publication; (3) intentionally or unintentionally maintains fidelity to a more accurate than not set of past facts, no matter how large or small the set.

    Obviously factor three is the one the lawyers will end up arguing about. Go ahead and offer all your ways of prying it open. That in and of itself would be a fun little exercise in historiographical philosophy. Putting the philosophy of history aside, it’s the “no matter how small or large the set” that I myself am least sure about. Maybe the set needs to represent some appreciable portion of the total work – maybe. You can quibble over the decade of distance, but you have to draw a line between contemporary and not, and decades feel like the first passing markers of discernible differential in culture and society, at least at this phase of human evolution.

  31. +1 @bear – you forget the laundry though.

  32. That’s where I draw the line.

    On one side of the line is everything that could ever possibly need to be done. On the other side is laundry.

  33. You’re not contemporary.

  34. This is all very interesting to me. I’ll try hard to be as honest as possible in my responses.

    The gender issue is fascinating to me. I was specifically intrigued by your comment, @horse, about you seeing the piece as being told by a male author through a female character. It makes me wonder why that’s textually true for you. Are there any particular signifiers that suggest the author isn’t a woman? Or does the piece misunderstand or misrepresent women in a certain way?

    And I should hasten to add I wasn’t offended by anything you wrote, Horse. Far from it. I write more women characters than men so I have genuine curiosity about the topic and a forum in which to indulge it. I appreciate your comments.

    Aside from that, I wonder if the issue isn’t one of gender roles rather than gender. It was surprising to me that so many people read the narrator as being male because it felt obvious to me that the character is a mother. She’s at home with her child at noon on a weekday, and her first instinct upon seeing the suicide is to protect her kid through self-sacrifice. That all signals “mother” to me.

    But that’s my bias. My instinct isn’t to think of a father possessing such motherly qualities, even though they obviously can and often do.

    I also wanted to lightly weigh in on the anonymity of our genders. Bear in mind: I’ve been a Rooster Land denizen for literally less than a week so I hesitate to even say anything. But the site’s anonymity is important to me, and that extends to gender. I know this particular bell can’t be un-rung, but I thought it was worth mentioning nonetheless.

    Oh, and thanks for explaining the copyright, @hummingbird, especially the lorem ipsum part. If someone with editing capabilities could change this piece to the default copyright level, I’d appreciate it.

  35. I’m with Mako on anonymity — it’s a core feature.

    RL1 copyright coming your way. Don’t hesitate to use the full range of copyrights, though. You can use LI1 here no problem, it’d just be an odd circumstance were the piece to be used for lorem ipsum, or at least one I can’t readily imagine. But you’re free to make it available for that purpose, for sure. Weaker copyrights can be a valuable tool for propagation.

  36. @mako, very good questions. I think they deserve to hang out there for a while, like oak leaves on a warm day in early autumn, on a lawn near the sea, a few miles from where I grew up, not very far from where I am right now, where I sit in the car waiting to give someone a ride home so we can walk the pup and then watch a show and eat ice cream. As far as anonymity, I agree.

  37. Anybody USA, and quite beyond.

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