The Anthropology of Fire

“Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves.”
(Italian proverb)


Monday, 9 a.m. Not writing.

Dim, dreary morning, the forecast calls for rain. The writer stands at the window. She prefers looking outside to staring at the blank page. A squirrel is stuck on the roof of the neighbouring shed again. It chirps in distress; the sound is piercing. She talks to the squirrel, offering words of encouragement. She knows it is absurd to talk to animals; it’s a habit held over from a lonely childhood.

Two weeks before the show, an email marked urgent arrives in my inbox. Debbie, the woman who has hired me to perform my autobiographical play, My Own Private Etobicoke, had just been contacted by someone who doesn’t like the promotional poster: a black-and-white image of me shushing the viewer, an image intended to evoke secrecy. Perhaps it’s the red devil horns drawn in a child-like scrawl on the top of my head. Perhaps it’s the tagline: “Surviving a childhood rife with secrets, superstition and schizophrenia – all on a steady diet of sugar.”

“Is the playwright making fun of mental illness?” the woman asked. “My mother has schizophrenia, and it’s not funny.”

I reply with an offer, “She can contact me directly with her concerns.”

I hear nothing back.


Monday, 11 p.m. Not writing.

In the western province where it rarely snows, the writer dreams of a blizzard. She’s stuck in a parked car; her father is in the driver’s seat. Snow is piled up high on the sidewalks, spilling onto the banks of the road. Her mother is outside, wearing the baby-blue Jackie-O-style coat from an old photograph. Father and daughter sit paralysed, watching as the mother wanders around the barren landscape of the storm. A familiar feeling permeates the dreamer’s sensibilities – the real world begins to intrude.

During a weekend writing workshop, I mention that an essay I have written about my mother’s mental illness and the impact it had on our family is going to be published, and I am feeling anxious.

“Does she know about it?” asks the instructor, a respected author.

“No. Are you kidding?” I tell the class my mother’s violent behaviour terrorized us, she refused to take her meds and the police often had to intervene.

The instructor decides this is a perfect teaching moment. “It’s fine to write about family if one wants to make enemies and end up friendless.”

The author is suspicious of nonfiction, skeptical of both content and motive. She refers to a best-selling memoir about a poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland, dismissing it as complete fabrication.

Later, in my one-on-one session, I break down in tears. The instructor, a born-again Buddhist, stares at the wall to her left, waiting for me to stop. Finally, she says, “Listen, why put yourself through this? Write fiction. It would make your life easier.”


Tuesday, 6 a.m. Not writing.

The writer feels cold, having dreamt of snow in summer. She pulls the blanket tighter, hoping to fall asleep. She wants to go back to the world of the dream and fix everything so her mother will be safe. She gets up and collects her cat from his usual hiding spot, curls up with him under the comforter. He purrs, a fur-ball furnace.

In this memory I am seven years old: I follow my mother downstairs, the cool, linoleum-lined basement a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat wave that makes the rest of the house unbearable.

My mother sits down next to me. “I’m telling you something you can’t repeat.”

I nod.

“Good girl.” She pats my head, smoothing down my hair. Even though we are alone, she whispers. She says we have to go back to Italy. Our neighbour, Mrs. Grabar, is against us and we must stick together; my father won’t take her concerns seriously. “But you understand me because you came from me.”

I scan her scowling face. Her dark eyes, with their indistinguishable irises, stare back at me, scrutinize my trustworthiness. Later, during a school trip to the Toronto Zoo, I see the same unblinking gaze in the reptile cage.

For a few days I say nothing, keeping my word while the secret thrills me. I watch my father eat dinner and smile to myself: I know something he doesn’t. When I finally break my promise in a state of hyper-child-chatter, he yells at her to stop filling my head with garbage. My mother never confides in me again.


Thursday, 10 p.m. Writing.

For the last three days there has been an overpowering, noxious smell in the writer’s building. She works on a piece about her mother. The sick feeling in her stomach won’t subside. Other members of the co-op are experiencing symptoms of physical distress. The maintenance committee calls the fire department. The writer looks down at the courtyard from the landing outside her third-floor apartment, watches the firemen move with purpose, taking powerful strides. They leave; they cannot determine the cause of the stench.

The night of the performance in Maple Ridge, I set up in a school gym and wonder about the mysterious email-woman, whether she will come and satisfy her curiosity.

During the show, I am caught in the unforgiving glare of fluorescent gymnasium lighting. I can see every single audience member. It’s bizarre and uncomfortable, acting out episodes from my childhood on a basketball court. I focus on a friendly face in the crowd; the woman smiles and nods.

Ten minutes before the end of the play, I glance in her direction and see that she is crying. I look away quickly, mumble through a mistake, and follow the patterned black line on the floor to move on to the next scene.

After the show I seek out the friendly face. She hasn’t moved. She sits bent forward, holding her head in her hands. Her body is turned toward the man next to her; he comforts her, rubs her back.

“Are you okay?” I hold out a box of tissues.

Her friend takes the box. “She’ll be fine.”

I sit down beside them.

I’m used to being approached after shows by people who don’t want to speak up during the public discussion, people who want to whisper their stories: me too, they say, I lived this too. Their faces reveal fear mixed with relief: they are speaking about something they have kept hidden for years; they are finally sharing their story, even if it’s with a stranger.

She turns and hugs me; I know before she speaks that she is the concerned individual who contacted Debbie.


Sunday, 10 a.m. Not writing.

The writer’s father calls: he’s excited about her upcoming move back East; she’s both excited and filled with trepidation. She wonders if she will be able to write about her family from there. She notices that her father often goes quiet when she talks about writing a memoir. He worries she is dwelling on the past. He tells her it’s not healthy, offers platitudes like the “past is finished, keep it in the past.” She responds with a refrain from a favourite movie, “we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.”

At the Q&A session after the show, the audience has all the same concerns as previous groups; I’m asked about the violation of my parents’ private lives. Even though no one divulges any personal details in the group setting, I know the query is only coming from family members of the mentally ill. Simply asking the question betrays their secret; silence and suppression were survival techniques employed by many families in the past.

And then there’s me, the blabbermouth, the snitch, disclosing private information in a public forum, sharing stories about my mother’s schizophrenia and my father’s depression (and subsequent suicide attempts), while cracking jokes about my maternal ancestors, three generations of women who suffered from severe mental illness. I talk about my own experience of mental illness, the predisposition to depression I inherited. The idea of revealing so much is ludicrous to many members of the audience.

The question is always, “Do your parents know you do this?”

My answer is always, “Yes and no.”

To some audiences I say, “My parents are thousands of miles away. I wouldn’t do this in my hometown.” To others I say, “Keeping the catastrophic consequences of untreated schizophrenia a secret helps no one. I don’t want anyone to go through this like we did – alone, ignorant and terrified.”

I tell them, “I lose sleep over this. I spend months not writing and when I finally sit down to write, this is the story that comes out. I don’t know how to balance my need to share this story with the destruction of their privacy. I hope I do them justice.”

I worry that no one walks away unscathed. Everyone gets burned.


Friday, 11 p.m. Not writing.

Coming home from her goodbye party, the writer finds a fire truck parked in front of her building, lights flashing. She unlocks the gate and holds it open for a fireman. Tenants are gathered in the courtyard. An apartment two stories directly below hers is filled with smoke. The writer imagines the fire raging in her home, the flammable quality of everything she owns: her journals, her mother’s rambling letters, her father’s crumbling grade school primer (a prized possession) – a memento of his curtailed education. Upstairs, the cat stretches out from his sphinx position to greet her. She scoops up the sizeable feline; she couldn’t have saved much else. Amber lights flash across the ceiling of her apartment.

When audiences ask if my family knows, I tell them my father is supportive and my mother doesn’t know because she is too ill to understand: Yes and no.

The friendly-faced woman approaches me as I pack up. “Thank you. I don’t talk about this to anyone. I mean, my husband sometimes, but…”

I smile. “I’ve had that trouble too.”

“Can I ask you something?” She leans in close. “Did you ever wish your mother dead?”

I stare at her. “Every day,” I say. “And I wonder about my karma.”

“Me too.”

I tell her about the time I gave a speech during Mental Illness Awareness Week at a conference, how I started off with that fact, thinking it was something I wanted people to know about me right away. No one booed me off the stage.

I give her my email. She promises to write; maybe we could have coffee sometime. We hug goodbye.

I never hear from her again.


Saturday, 9 p.m. Writing.

The next day the writer learns the smell came from a slow-burning fire in the underground parking garage – a smouldering bit of insulation behind other panels that didn’t burst into flames because there wasn’t enough oxygen. The writer thinks about taking a break, going for a walk, getting some fresh air. The day is lost, the act of writing feels like striking a match against velvet, nothing ignites. She comes from a family that believes in omens.

There are no accidents or coincidences – only Fate; the past, present, future are all mapped out, filled with events beyond comprehension. Maybe the fire is a sign that she’s worn out her welcome on the West Coast, her safe haven for twenty-one years. Maybe it’s time to go home. She thinks of Rilke, turns to his words for comfort: “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves.”

She stares at the ceiling, listens as fire trucks shriek past her window. Some nights the noise comforts her; the sound of the alarm, the wailing of the siren, offers solace.

…after Anne Carson

“The Anthropology of Fire” won Second Prize in the 7th Annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, awarded in April 2012.

Eufemia Fantetti was born and raised in Toronto. She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph. She won Event Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction contest and is a two-time finalist in the Canadian National Playwriting Competition.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 27.

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