Seattle was a city of trees. Enormous evergreens. Elsa and I arrived on a gray day in early June 1989, welcomed by coolness unknown to the sweltering summers of Austin, Texas, from whence we'd fled. Seattle was a city of water, too, with fingers of waterways stretching into the continent as if grabbing a handful.
Seattle. Our underground destination. Tovah and Jane’s house near the University of Washington campus, in an eclectic neighborhood filled with cafés, coffee shops, used book stores, and students from countries around the world. A hip neighborhood, if slightly run-down. Shabby-chic.
Each time we drove away from their congested neighborhood, the trees and water diverted my attention from all else, reminding me of the north woods of Wisconsin, where black magic rituals of my childhood had taken place. The Seattle evergreens, mimicking the tall Wisconsin trees that forested my youth, triggered memories of those rituals, mocking me, it seemed, as they dragged me back to the roots of my childhood. The Seattle waters, too, filling every nook and cranny dipping into land surface—lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks were everywhere—flooded my mind with wavy memories of northern Wisconsin, the Chain of Lakes area where my sisters and I spent summer vacations with our parents and their friends.
Not all of my Wisconsin memories were mysterious. I was a kid, with kid ways, always exploring. I dug up the muddy banks at the shallow edge of the water for crawdads. Danielle and I took rowboats out into the channel that ran along the edge of the resort, rowing up to piers where we freed buckets of fishermen’s minnows tied to docks. We fed chipmunks and watched in the early evening for deer arriving at salt blocks. In Seattle, my pleasant memories of summers in the north woods of Wisconsin brought me great sorrow, remembering the nighttime black rituals that degraded them.
I had to tell Tovah and Jane that I was dissociated and frightened, constantly looking over my shoulder. After all, until the final moment I’d left Austin, I was in daily therapy sessions with Ray Gunn, PhD, encouraged to remember, remember, remember every detail of childhood abuse I’d suffered and witnessed. The Endless dredging up of memories kept me in an almost perpetual state of Post Traumatic Stress flashbacks. I was a mess when I came to Tovah and Jane. A desperate, confused, scared, freaked-out mess. Arriving in Seattle for what was to be my underground escape with my little daughter, faced with forests and waterways triggering memories of my childhood, I could not turn the flashbacks off, nor had anyone taught me how. I wanted to ask if the underground network had other places to choose from, like maybe a desert, mountains, or a sunny beach? But I was far too lost in my past to think I deserved to ask for somewhere else to start a new life. I didn’t wish to be a burden, which I felt from the moment I met them.
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Tovah was a bulldozer. John Deere indestructible. She was imposing in appearance and personality, she was large in stature and weight, probably six feet tall, at least two hundred pounds. Anything got in her way, anyone opposed her, well, she’d roll right over it, them. She was around my age, thirty, maybe a bit older. As sweet as pie as long as things were going exactly to her plan. But I could see, just behind her eyes, that I’d better do as told, or the rolling thunder of her torrential rage would beat down upon me.
Tovah wore her thin, dull, charcoal hair up in a sort of twisted ponytail at all times. Even first thing in the morning, there she’d be, stomping into the kitchen, hair pinned up so that it was impossible to tell its precise length. She was a furious tornado, apt to spin out of control at any moment. At first, I thought her rage was about all the unprotected and abused children in the world, including herself as a kid. After a day or two, flinching from her harsh tone and wondering about her relationship with Jane, it became clear that Tovah’s always-present anger was attributable to more than outrage over neglected children. I, however, didn’t stay long enough to find out.
Jane was a marshmallow. Jet-Puffed spongy. I’ll call her Jane because I cannot remember her name, nor does it matter, really, being that she and Tovah changed their names regularly. She was much older than Tovah, pushing sixty. In contrast to Tovah’s olive skin, Jane’s was a wrinkled creamy white with pink cheeks. Her eyes were oceans of sadness, deep blue-green, lined with the downward creases of mourning. As if Jane’s sorrowful memories floated on the surface of her eyes about to spill over, I felt I’d drown in her grief the first time I looked into them. She said she was an incest survivor, too.
Jane had a soft, pear-shaped, middle-aged roundness to her, much shorter than Tovah, maybe 5’5” or so, although her heavy-burden stoop made it difficult to know for sure. An aging woman, Jane’s thinning, boy-cut, mousy hair had probably been a shiny chestnut at one time. She seemed docile and meek, speaking softly at all times, with the demeanor of a woman wracked with guilt, a downhearted face of shame and low self-esteem. It didn’t take too many days, however, to question her seeming innocence.
Me? My height was right between them, 5’8”, and I was very thin at thirty years old, having lost a lot of weight remembering my real life. I called it my stress diet. I wore my thick, long blonde hair tied up in a twisted ponytail when wet to keep it from frizzing, loose when it dried.
As for my personality, you already know I was a fucked-up mess; albeit, trying the best I could to be a good mother. Despite my self-preoccupation, it was evident from the get-go that something wasn’t quite right with Tovah and Jane. One thing I found strange, and which confused me, was who exactly was in charge. It seemed that Tovah controlled everything with her loud demands, but maybe it was actually Jane, quietly playing the director from behind the scenes. And I wondered how the hell those two ended up together.
Based upon what Tovah said, she had been with Jane since the age of eleven. Jane claimed she’d rescued Tovah from a Satanic cult. I didn’t buy it. She was way too vague about how this “rescue” came about. Their evasiveness bothered me. Yeah, I believed Tovah had been abused, and yeah, probably by Satanists, but what role had Jane played?
I was confused about their relationship as well. Were Tovah and Jane friends and roommates? They had separate bedrooms. Or were they lovers? I think they usually slept together in Tovah’s room, though they seemed to want to keep it a secret. They argued like an old married couple and went to weekly couples’ counseling, which I was required to attend and sit, my daughter on my knee, in the waiting room because they would not leave us alone for a second. Whatever the nature of their relationship, it certainly was not a mother-daughter sort of thing, which one would expect, being as Tovah had lived with Jane since the age of eleven, when she still needed a mother and Jane would have been at least in her late twenties then, maybe early-thirties. If they were now lovers, which seemed the case, Jane had incestuously violated the mother-child relationship—no better than the place from which Tovah had come. Maybe this was the source of Tovah’s turbulent anger and Jane’s floating sorrow.
The first time Tovah and I talked about what was going to happen, now that we were—I wanted to say prisoners of the underground network, though it was hard to pinpoint why I felt this way—was soon after our arrival. I sat in front of Tovah, who faced me from behind her computer screen that took up most of her desktop in her small bedroom off the kitchen of their rented house. Tovah’s room was damp and chilly, with a look to match the constant, varying shades of gray of the Seattle sky. An old woolen blanket hung in the single window, partially draped down to expose outside light. Tovah’s gigantic Gothic-style bed crowded the wall beside it.
“Yeah, Hannah, we bought that bed when we were in the Netherlands. Amsterdam,” she said when I commented on its immensity. “I fell in love with it and had to have it.”
“It’s remarkable,” I said, impressed by the massive, medieval darkness of it. The intricately carved wood in an unusual pattern of swirling vines looked very old.
“I saw it in an old antique shop, the building probably over 200 years old.” Tovah laughed, sort of like you’d expect from Boris Karloff. “It’s just one of the many things we bought in Amsterdam, and all over the Netherlands.”
She chuckled, Boris-style, and explained that their Netherlands spending spree was only one such spree they had indulged in over the years, acquiring new identities after each extravagant binge.
“How in the world did you get that monster of a bed back to the states?” I asked.
“We had it shipped.”
“That must have cost a fortune.”
“Well, yeah, it did. But we used a credit card. We knew we’d be changing our identities again when we got back to America, so we figured, why not get everything we want?”
Since Tovah and Jane had to wait until the bed arrived before changing their identities, they continued stacking up credit card bills, which they shredded and tossed away after acquiring new names. Tovah explained, “We, the underground network, have access to unused and obsolete social security numbers—”
“Yeah. Obsolete, like when people die.”
“Oh.” I paused, surprised and curious. “Really?”
“Yes.” Tovah drew out the word with an attitude of speaking to a half-wit.
“Oh,” I said again, sheepish, not knowing what else to say.
Tovah continued. “Jane and I, from time to time, rack up a lot of bills. Then we change our names and move.” Her voice trailed off for a moment while she read something on her computer screen, her eyebrows scrunched up in concentration. “We’ve lived in a lot of places.”
I sat rigid, stunned. It didn’t seem right, changing identities to avoid paying bills.
“You’ll get to do that now, like when I told you to buy stuff for the baby before you left.” She continued staring intently at her computer screen. Then she added, somewhat condescendingly, “It’s a good thing we have these social security numbers, huh, cuz you’re sure gonna need one whenever you want a new identity.”
The sarcasm in her tone startled me, and the implication behind it. I hadn’t realized I could change my identity as often as I liked. I thought this was a one-shot deal for the sole purpose of our safety. Would Elsa and I forever be associated with this underground network, expected to change our identities regularly, via them?
“Yeah, I guess so, Tovah.” That was the best come-back I had. I’d just met the woman.
Next, I was required to hand over all identification. Tovah held out her hand for the items and continued to hold out her hand while I rummaged around in my purse for my driver’s license and empty checkbook, the only identification I had. When I asked why the rush to hand them over, Tovah’s eyes darkened and her face pinched, replying, “In case you change your mind.”
Alarms went off, blaring in my mind. What? I don’t have that option?
My eyes widened, my heart fluttered—alert, adrenaline pumping. I had no say over my new life or my child’s? We weren’t allowed to leave? To receive the help offered to protect my daughter, the requirement was to relinquish our identities to them? And for how long?
In fear, I didn’t ask what the consequence would be if I did change my mind and want out. We had just arrived. I didn’t want to face the possibility that I had made the biggest mistake of my life. The control they'd wield wasn't what I had expected, Tovah’s anger not what I'd sensed on the phone when we discussed my emergency to leave Austin with my child. I thought we’d board the plane, instead of the proverbial train, en route to the safety of “the underground,” a place of nourishing compassion and understanding people who would provide my longed-for new identities. Then off I’d ride with Elsa into the sunrise of a brand new life. Free.
From that moment on, gazing at the backside of Tovah’s computer screen, our time in Seattle became hazy. Like UFOs in films of sightings, events flitted all over the place, the camera shaking and never seeming to focus, leaving one to doubt the authenticity and wonder: Is this real?
Why I don’t remember is a mystery. I can only speculate that perhaps the ensuing drama triggered Traumatic Amnesia. Or maybe Tovah and Jane drugged me. Because later, after I left them, everything becomes clear, and combined with what I do remember while with Tovah and Jane, I remember with the clarity of the miraculous way the camera comes into focus for UFO witness interviews.
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After stripping me of my name, Tovah informed me the next step would be a trip to a Jewish cemetery to look for graves of baby girls who died around the year I was born. She explained this was one way to pick up a new identity for me. “Elsa will be easier because she’s still a baby,” she said. My spirits lifted when she added that I could change my birth date to make myself younger if I wanted to.
The next day, anxious for our new names, my exuberance overshadowed any doubts I had acquired. I even consented to leaving Elsa at the house with Jane.
Gingerly stepping over graves, Tovah and I searched for headstones of babies who’d died in childbirth a year or two after I was born. She insisted I choose a Jewish name for myself because that’s what she had done. I didn’t argue. Tovah and I had an affinity to Judaism in common. As kids, we'd found solace going to synagogue with our Jewish friends, where no one tried to convert us or force us to see their beliefs as the only truth—the opposite of the Christian churches and dark occult circles to which our caregivers had raised us. In the 1960s and 70s, my sisters and I were minority shiksas (gentile girls) in the predominately Jewish community of Skokie. Many Holocaust survivors lived in the area, their prisoner numbers tattooed on the inside of their forearms. There weren’t many Christian families, and no other Swedes.
My Jewish friends lived in boisterous homes with friendly bantering and laughter, and an endless supply of garlic-spiced salami sausages hanging on cabinet doorknobs. In contrast, my home life was rather subdued (on the surface), with bland Scandinavian food spiced with mild aromatics such as cardamom and nutmeg. After school on Fridays, I’d walk to synagogue with Jewish friends who invited me to Hebrew school. The boys would pull out their yarmulkes and the girls sometimes wore white lace on their heads that looked like doilies.
Hebrew school was fun, distinctly different from the somber and boring Sunday school classes my parents forced me to attend at their church (which at times also hosted not-so-boring bizarre occult rituals). In Hebrew school, we read books backwards, from back to front, allowing me to identify Hebrew writing, though never mastering the language. During Hanukkah, we sang songs and played with dreidels—wooden spinning tops with embossed Hebrew writing. Sometimes I stayed for Friday night synagogue services. I was fantastic. The rabbi opened the curtain at the front of the congregation to reveal the beautiful Torah, sparkling with jewels and gold. He hefted it onto the podium, reading and singing in Hebrew from its pages.
But the common language spoken in many of my friends’ homes was Yiddish. Though I never mastered Yiddish either, I learned a few words: nosh (eat), bubbie (grandma), oy vey (exasperation), putz (stupid person), mashugana (silly or crazy person), yenta (gossiping or busybody woman).
Tovah’s childhood with Jewish friends was like mine. It created a bond between us. After all, who else could possibly understand our conflict between Jewish friends’ acceptance of us and our unworthiness instilled by the Christian-Satanic confluence of our parents? These historically nomadic and persecuted people accepted us. Our Jewish friends provided another way to view the world, free from pressures to conform. I wanted to be Jewish.
Nothing came of our excursion to the Jewish cemetery. I didn’t ask why, didn’t want my question answered by Tovah’s impatient, sarcastic sigh. She only said that choosing Anna for my new name was okay because it’s a name from the Old Testament, thereby Jewish. Kamberlyn—Kami for short—was Tovah’s choice for Elsa, just because she liked the name. Whatever. I went along.
Thus, I became Anna and Elsa became Kami. And we began a new life in which names meant nothing, our existence controlled in every aspect by the underground network via Tovah and Jane . . . at least for the few weeks I agreed to live on the fringes of society with my baby.
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Springtime, 1972. The Jewish kids are turning thirteen. I’m invited to their bar and bat mitzvahs—bar mitzvah for boys, bat mitzvah for girls. It’s so much fun! We dress up in gowns and eat delicious Jewish food. Last weekend was Ira Cohen’s bar mitzvah at the Sheraton Plaza downtown. We danced the hora and sang Hava Nagila:
Hava nagila ve-nismeḥa
In English it means “Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice and be happy.”