Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror: a memoir (book excerpt)
by Afarin Majidi It was October 2012 when the Homeland Security agent showed up on my porch with a team of policemen. The agent was gentle as he came closer, wearing a hesitant smile and holding out an official badge, but my heart immediately began racing.
I’d been smoking bong hits under a makeshift tent made of an umbrella I’d shrouded in a rainbow of yoga scarves that hung around me in the dilapidated school chair I’d found in the trash. During an oppressively hot summer, I refused to go inside and turn on the air conditioner because the vents were filling the house with a deadly gas no one but I could smell. Instead, I communed with the hummingbirds that hovered close because they carried messages from my dead half-sister, Nasrin.
I usually had no concern for what the neighbors and passersby made of me, but I felt uncomfortable when I saw myself through the eyes of the Homeland Security agent. I stared back at the stranger—a tall, athletic-looking black man—and then at his badge. I kept hoping he’d suddenly burst out laughing and tell me this was all some sort of joke. But even though I couldn’t tell a fake badge from a real one, I saw that he was serious.
Two things slowly registered in my panicked mind: the bong I was holding and the marijuana that was barely hidden in my bedroom. Without saying a word to the agent, I shot up and ran into the apartment, despite the three policemen on the porch hollering after me to stop.
Inside, the agent caught up to me and grabbed me by one arm while I was hiding the bong and weed beneath my underwear and socks. He let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. “You don’t have to worry about that,” he said.
While they ransacked my closet, which had more clothing on the floor than on hangers, I repeatedly told them I didn’t own a gun. My legs trembled as I stood there watching them file out of the room to search my sister Arezou’s closets and, finally, the oven and kitchen cupboards.
After coming up empty-handed, the Homeland Security agent dismissed the policemen. My legs were still trembling, so he pulled out a chair and told me to sit down. I felt self-conscious in the dirty wife beater that I was wearing without a bra so I put my face in my hands and began to cry.
I wondered if the visit was James Lasdun’s doing. Had he followed through on his threats to press stalking charges against me even though we were on opposite sides of the country? The thought of this betrayal only made me cry harder. When I asked the agent if James was the reason they’d come to scare the shit out of me, he said there was more.
“You also made threats against a Social Security employee,” he explained. “Now, I’m going to do you a favor, because I don’t believe you’re violent—“
“I’m not!” I shouted through tears.
“Well, you made a threat against a federal agent, and she reported it. You also have a history of allegedly stalking and harassing James Lasdun. Naturally we’re concerned.”
“I stalked no one and made no such threat,” I said. “I told the woman she was harming me by rejecting my disability case and that she should be harmed by losing her job.”
I was horrified that this stranger had probably read the thousands of emails I’d sent James after he left me without a proper goodbye. I sensed that my innocence mattered little against the damning evidence the agent held in judgment of me, namely my very Muslim-sounding last name.
“If you ever step into the Social Security office without an appointment, you will automatically be arrested,” he said sternly.
“Arrested?” I was shocked. “You saw I have no guns.”
“You threatened them.”
“I didn’t,” I insisted. I was incensed that this African-American man didn’t see the racial profiling at play.
“You would not be at a white guy’s house right now if he told a Social Security agent she deserves to lose her job,” I said. But the agent wasn’t moved at all.
After he left, I didn’t feel safe. I also couldn’t stop crying and wondering, was it my madness that placed me on the radar, or was being on the radar what drove me mad in the first place?
A few days later, my disability case finally got approved, but instead of resting easy knowing that I didn’t have to worry about medical bills anymore, I was falling apart.
I didn’t feel safe anywhere and I couldn’t take refuge at my parents’ apartment where I was forbidden by my grieving mother. When Nasrin died in April 2012, Maman Shirin didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. My frantic behavior only unsettled.
I’d stopped sleeping altogether and my sense of smell continued picking up on a scent Arezou denied smelling—the barely detectable gas meant to kill us both. My bed was covered in empty packs of cigarettes, dog treats, Xanax bottles, and Social Security paperwork. The last time I tried sleeping in it, I smelled gas seeping in from outside my window. Keeping it shut did no good: I still smelled a draft of the poison coming in through the seams.
I wanted so badly to live that I tried sleeping in my closet because it seemed the safest option. Before I gave up on sleep altogether, I decided this toxic gas was seeping in through the tiniest crevices in the walls and ceiling. My struggle to stay alive was futile.
By week’s end, I was so delirious from sleep deprivation and my fear of dying that I started going to the Korean church nearby to sleep in the flower garden. I figured this was the last place my enemies would look to find me, the dreaded Muslim.
One day I came back from the church energized and intent on airing out the apartment. I opened the front door and windows and turned on all the fans. I didn’t believe Arezou when she later told me I’d shattered a side window when I was getting rid of the gas. I felt certain that someone had tried to break in. I began placing a chair under the front doorknob at night while I waited for the intruder, the fear slowly devouring me until the sun came up. I even booby-trapped the front window with pots and pans in case I got lucky enough to fall asleep.
Arezou had nearly stopped talking to me by then. She silently surveyed the getup at the door in the mornings, told me I was having a nervous breakdown, and got as far away from me as she could.
In my isolation, I dwelled on how James had made me fall in love and didn’t even try to help me when I told him I’d been drugged and raped by a colleague at Rolling Stone magazine. I cried over the emotional support he gave me as the more seasoned writer before abruptly taking it all away. I then angrily remembered that he had sold my novel to a Persian heiress, who had republished it as her own.
It suddenly occurred to me that James Lasdun and my brother both lived in a small town in upstate New York called Shady. Shady indeed, I thought. Had my brother helped James steal my book? This must’ve been why James had lied to me seven years earlier about having a brother: He’d been alluding to my brother all along. How sadistic of him to infiltrate my family, I thought. How predictable that my brother would silence me!
After I sewed this patchwork of thoughts together, I wrote a report about the book heist and emailed the charges to the sheriff of Shady, New York. I demanded that he arrest both my brother and James Lasdun.
My charges went ignored for a week, so I called the sheriff, who hung up as soon as I said James’s name. I was furious that James had managed to get a federal agent to search my home for guns but I couldn’t even get a small-town detective to listen to me. I chainsmoked a pack of cigarettes before taking matters into my own trembling hands.
The handful of times I’d been incensed enough to call James in the past, his wife or daughter had picked up. This time I got what I wanted: James’s English accent on the other end. His voice, calm and cool, made my anger vanish. That familiar attraction instantly deflated the rage that spurred me to dial him in the first place.
Only a few hours earlier, I’d fantasized about him in a jail cell, paying for all he’d done to me. But upon hearing his voice, which I hadn’t heard since 2006, I felt guilty—even embarrassed.
I was suddenly horrified by my revenge fantasy, the vicious emails, and screaming phone calls. I was especially remorseful about my latest email attack, which focused on his daughter. I’d told him that she looked like a miserable tart. But it was I who was the miserable tart—and his abandoned daughter of sorts.
I continued yelling into the receiver just to save face, but suddenly all of my charges against him sounded as unconvincing as I felt. When my screaming finally ended, James spoke.
“Is that all you have to say?” he asked calmly. He didn’t sound scared at all, and as soon as I began screaming again, he hung up.
James’s voice was like coffee. I quickly woke up to the fact that it was 2012 and he was not the intangible character I’d conjured up in my head since I last saw him in 2006. He certainly wasn’t my soul mate or savior. For the first time in years, it occurred to me that he was not a Mossad agent and that he had not stolen my book.
But what of my seven-year obsession with him?
The regret I felt about the years of emails and phone calls suddenly became unbearable. Like a religious pilgrim fasting away her sins, I couldn’t eat after I began having flashbacks of the things I’d said over the years each time I was overtaken by an unpredictable and uncontrollable rage that took absolute command of me mentally and physically.
What I’d done gnawed at me for days until I broke out in a rash all over my face and chest. After being sleep deprived for nearly two weeks, my lips turned purple, and I weighed one hundred pounds, nearly twenty pounds below my normal weight. I was filthy too, my black hair slick with oil. I refused to shower, believing the water was laced with the same poisonous gas I was already breathing.
I spent the evenings on the porch, but would go inside in the middle of the night, my mouth and nose wrapped in a scarf, to see if Arezou was still alive.
“You’re going to give me a heart attack! Get the fuck out of here,” she shouted, the last time I woke her. “There’s no fucking gas. You’re psychotic!”
When I went back outside to save myself, a thick fog cast an ominous cloud over the empty cul-de-sac. I knew it was an obscene hour to be awake, so when my neighbor came outside, I panicked. He ran to his car when he saw me, which made me even more suspicious. Was he watching me for Homeland Security or for the people who’d hurt me in New York? My face was still wrapped in the scarf to keep the gas away but I could smell it again—even outside.
I ran through the complex, my heart hammering while I pounded on all the front doors, yelling for everyone to get out because of a block-wide gas leak. It was only a matter of time before someone lit a match and the entire neighborhood went up in flames.
Not a single person opened the door.
I took a flashlight and went searching for the source of the gas. When I noticed a hole in the ground covered with a cement block, I took off the lid and saw a series of tangled wires. I then called the police.
“There’s a gas leak on my block,” I said, before telling her about the wires.
“What have you been inhaling, ma’am?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.
“I haven’t been inhaling anything,” I shouted. “I’m reporting a gas leak, and if you don’t do anything, there will be an explosion. I’m telling you there are exposed wires outside, and I think it’s linked to the gas.”
No one came, but while I waited for the police to arrive, the lawn sprinklers went off, which made the smell unbearable. Arezou had tried convincing me earlier that I was confusing the smell of fertilizer with gas. I began to consider that maybe she was right, but deep down I still thought we were all going to die.
I went inside with a new plan to contain the poisonous fumes. I climbed all sorts of furniture to cover all of the vents and fire sprinklers with maxi-pads. I even snuck into Arezou’s room while she slept and secured every vent in her bathroom, bedroom, and walk-in closet. When this last measure failed to bring me sleep, I decided to ignore my mother’s refusal to let me into her home.
It was 6 a.m. by the time I gathered my dog and got into my car, but when I turned the ignition, the smell of gas overwhelmed me. I feared the car had been tampered with, so I ran all the way to my parents’ apartment in my pajamas and sneakers, while clutching my terrified dog.
I still smelled gas in certain pockets of the neighborhoods I ran through. I didn’t have a television at the time, so I didn’t know the details of this sudden war that had come to Orange County, California but this potent gas was obviously the enemy’s weapon of choice.
I couldn’t imagine why I would be targeted, other than being Muslim, which seemed a crime ever since 9/11. Strangely, I was also afraid of other Muslims because I believed they too wanted me dead because of my family’s ties to the Shah of Iran.
When I got to my parents’, my mother was awake and surprisingly sweet as she made up the couch for me with clean sheets and blankets, all without mentioning how dirty I was. She tried her best to persuade me to go to the hospital in a singsong fashion: “If you voluntarily check in, you won’t be there longer than two or three days. You’ll get the proper medication and can come back home fresh.”
Even though she made a hospital stay sound like a warm bath, nothing terrified me more than the idea of being sedated among complete strangers. I didn’t want anyone to hurt me again like the guys had at Rolling Stone.
My sister Sayeh, who took care of my parents, was awakened by my visit. She didn’t say hello and shot me a look of irritation on her way to the kitchen. As she let the water run to make herself a cup of tea, I suspected she was doing something sinister with the water, like giving the liquid version of Morse code to whomever was doing the gassing. I began smelling it again and couldn’t fall asleep after she went back to her room.
When my father woke up, he looked horrified to find me on the couch with my dog. His face then settled into deep sadness, and he didn’t respond to my hello as he shuffled into the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
“I’m eighty-five years old,” he said after settling in at the dining table. He looked exhausted. “You’re going to be the death of me.”
The police showed up two hours later and told me they knew of my most recent call to James. The one I recognized from the Homeland Security visit explained to my mother that they’d come to take me on a 51/50 hold because I was “a danger to myself and to others.”
My mother intercepted when they moved in to handcuff me. In Farsi, she yelled to Sayeh to tell them I was willing to go on my own.
“She’s not a criminal,” my mother said, her accent thicker than usual with indignation. I felt doomed. They were going to take me away and do horrible things to me after drugging me.
“I promise I’ll drive her to the hospital,” Sayeh negotiated. The two cops looked at each other hesitantly.
“We’ll be checking in later to make sure she’s been admitted,” said the one who’d ransacked my apartment. “She’s very sick. She needs help.”
Afarin Majidi is an Iranian-American writer. She holds a BA in English Literature from Barnard College and an MFA in Fiction Writing from New School University. Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror is her debut memoir. Her novel-in-progress, Ziba, is set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.