Through the Looking-Glass

On the trail of the crippled detectives

After the children gird for the big battle, Schwartzman delays payoff, inserting two myth-tinged stories about their ancestors (including a Pegasus-riding boy whose speech can usher things into being) and, in the penultimate chapter, a furiously perfunctory school scene. It's as if Schwartzman, feeling a late-inning twinge of responsibility, decided to pay lip service to the more proper theme of education. Five p.m. rolls around—schooltime in Paris, or so we're told. The four sisters (Ben has died) immediately spend seven hours . . . building a school. The elder sisters conduct comically simple lessons—how to spell cat and dog, the stumpers 1 + 1 and 2 + 1. Then it's time for lunch.

Schwartzman upends this peaceful scene with a war cry. Her hypnotic drawing shows a weapon-heaped wagon—these kids mean business. The ensuing calculation of casualties is like a cruel parody of the recent math class: In an hour, Lee and Sylvia kill 20 men, while Anne and Lisette, whose cumulative age is under 10, dispatch five. The sisters triumph (Henry Darger's butt-kicking Vivian Girls come to mind), and "everyone bad died"—but the story ends ominously: "[S]omehow Lee knew that Black Romer [Red Romer's son] was still roaming looking for evil to do."

Lewis Carroll's Alice was Lee Tandy Schwartzman's age when she ventured through the looking-glass in 1871. Intriguingly, the crippled detectives' main weapon against the Red Romer is a large mirror, inherited from their grandfather, which they find under their house. Any assault gets reflected back. And the name "Red Romer" conjures the "Redrum" revelation in Stephen King's 1977 novel The Shining. Is he so afraid of the children's mirror because it shows him to be a murderer? Mirrorlike, the book overflows with repetitions, twinning (Lee and Sylvia are the same age), echoes.

But along with this doubling comes uncanny divisions. The rollicking chapter "A Happy Day Without Worrying"—love-filled dreams, seven-course breakfast, and birthday presents—is followed by one in which Lee's good-mood song sets off an intense woe in Sylvia: "I'm gonna cry forever." Is there such a thing as a bipolar text?

Drawn again to the story's genius, I contacted Gwen Head last month at her home in Berkeley, where she lives with her second husband, Bernard Taper, the noted Balanchine biographer. Head confirmed that her "only daughter" and the Crippled Detectives mastermind were one and the same, explaining that Lee had changed both her first and last name before entering college. (A poem in Fire Shadows indicates the school: "Harvard Yard, Fall, 1986.") In awe of "both her creativity and courage," Head spoke candidly of her daughter's crippling struggle with mental illness—no surprise, as Fire Shadows wrestles with it, sensitively and ferociously—and noted that she has been doing better for several years. (Head asked that I not use Lee's current name in this piece.)

Head affectionately recalled that Lee was "a great bedtime staller," always asking for more stories. A "somewhat withdrawn kid," she was happiest when writing or drawing. Head sent Lee's epic to Stone Soup after learning about the magazine from her friend, the poet Sandra McPherson, whose daughter had already begun contributing. (Lee's father, Allan, said that Lee began concocting Crippled Detectives during free time at her Montessori school; he also described her upbringing as "middle class or higher.") Lee's parents divorced not long after Crippled Detectives appeared. She began showing signs of bipolar disorder soon after: "You turn the pubescent corner, and there it is," as her mother put it.

Head's The Ten Thousandth Night (University of Pittsburgh, 1979), published on the cusp of her divorce and a yearlong teaching gig at Iowa, has a poem in which parts of speech attain a sinister edge ("The adverbs are especially menacing"). But in the wake of Lee's institutionalization, Fire Shadows has no time for such abstractions. The poet is terrified by the moment "when words start to detonate: bingeing,/purging, bulimia, tactophobia, spend-/ing disorder, schizo-affective, masochistic." Free verse gradually cedes to stricter vehicles: the sonnet "Barbies" (with its palindromic—abcddcba—start); "Writing the Theme About Tess," a relentless villanelle; "Pantoum of the Suicides"; and the rigorous, harrowing "Triple Sestina: Her Dream." In "Zebra," the poet addresses her daughter: "There are two yous . . . to tease apart." The title describes Lee's disintegrating dye job (two-tone hair emblematic of the self-splitting war within), a pattern subtly mirrored in the poem's bipolarity of single-rhymed ("smart," "art," etc.) and unrhymed lines. It's as if Head sought repetition and constraint to impose order on the mental messiness.

The poems don't mention Crippled Detectives. Yet just as Nabokov's Pale Fire is a symbiosis of poetry and prose (John Shade's verse sparking Charles Kinbote's commentary), the dream version of this article would be a small book: the whole of Crippled Detectives footnoted with Head's poems, or Fire Shadows illuminated by Lee's prose. Once you read both, it's impossible to think of one without the other.

Head ambitiously puts Lee's illness, which has a hereditary basis (think of the inherited mirror-weapon), into a family context: "I have what my father had," Gwen-as-Lee writes. Head doesn't shy away from the litany of medications, the psychotic breaks and bouts of cutting. In the triple sestina, Lee dreams: "I see the dangerous/smile of my double: My Self, whose friendly expression/of greeting drips nitroglycerine, set to explode." This Self "doubtless still carried explosives,/firearms, daggers, and poisons." For Crippled Detectives' violent finale, a seven-year-old girl imagined guns, swords, and dynamite. The Black Romer, as feared, has returned to wreak havoc.

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