The Black Veil by Rick Moody

A visit to a psychiatric hospital

Rick Moody: “It was an incredibly fertile time to be at Brown University. I could reel off six or eight people in my class, or the class above me, who won National Book Awards."
  • Rick Moody: “It was an incredibly fertile time to be at Brown University. I could reel off six or eight people in my class, or the class above me, who won National Book Awards."

The Black Veil

Little, Brown and Company, 2002; 323 pages; $24.95

FROM THE DUST JACKET: While still in his 20s, Rick Moody found that a decade of alcohol, drugs, and other indulgences had left him stranded in a depression so severe that he feared for his life. The road of excess led, for him, not to the palace of wisdom but rather to a psychiatric hospital in one of New York’s least exalted boroughs.

The Black Veil is Rick Moody’s account of that debilitating passage in his life. It is the powerfully written story of a mind unraveling, and of how it feels when the underpinnings of life fall away. The anxieties of early adulthood, of first finding a place in the world — the weight placed upon that first relationship, first job, first apartment — are presented here with enormous sympathy. Anyone who has ever felt his or her own psychological footing slip, even briefly, will find Moody’s account of his breakdown and return both harrowing and heartbreaking.

At the same time. The Black Veil is an astonishing exploration of guilt, blame, the public face, and the very idea of self.

Looking for clues of his lifelong sense of melancholy and shame, and recognizing signs of this same condition in his family’s paternal line. Moody embarked on a search for its origins. This quest begins with fathers (“Fathers refold maps, fathers like to appear as though they have infallible knowledge of direct routes between any two points”) and grandfathers (“The idea here is that you have to do the heavy lifting first”). It ventures through stone quarries in Connecticut, among mossy tombstones in Maine, into the coded diary of a tormented Puritan minister named Handkerchief Moody (1700-1753), and into the life and writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In these and dozens of other places. Moody finds gleaming pieces of the past, and he weaves of them an inspired portrait of what it means to be young and confused, older and confused, guilty, lost, and finally healed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rick Moody was born Hiram Frederick Moody III in October 1961, in Manhattan. When he was two the family moved to Connecticut. Moody’s parents divorced in 1970; young Moody went to live with his mother. Although he wasn’t an only child, but rather the middle child between an older sister and younger brother, he seems to have been a somewhat lonely child, a boy who kept to himself. Early on, he became a voracious, greedy, persistent, and constant reader. He read pulpy comics and he read Hemingway. As an adolescent, he attended a prestigious Episcopal boarding school, St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. He went on from St. Paul’s to Brown University, where he received a BA in creative writing. From Columbia University, he earned an MFA.

At Columbia, Mr. Moody for one semester studied under Richard Price. Asked how that was, Mr. Moody said, “He was an incredibly difficult instructor. He was not a big fan of mine.”

Did the MFA program help him a lot?

“No. Graduate school was in some ways irrelevant in my development because I’d had such amazing people at Brown, I already knew the direction I wanted to go in, and Columbia was really very competitive, and at that time it was very competitive

in the direction of minimalist Action. It was the Raymond Carver era. So here I was writing stuff that was indebted to Donald Barthelme and John Hawkes and Bob Coover, and everybody else was writing stuff that was indebted to Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason and work like that. Which was work, actually, that I like. I seemed like an outsider at that time.”

After Columbia, Moody found work in publishing, first at Simon & Schuster and then at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He continued writing. The Antioch Review in 1987 published his first story, “Gambit Declined.” It was this same year, 1987, that Moody spent a month in the psychiatric hospital in Queens, a stay described in The Black Veil.

In 1991, with the publication of his first novel. Garden State, which won the Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award, Mr. Moody’s work began to excite critical praise. He is author of Demonology, Purple America, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, and The Ice Storm (made into a movie in 1997). He is a past recipient of the Addison Metcalf Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives on Fisher’s Island, off Long Island Sound.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the morning that we talked Mr. Moody was at home on Fisher’s Island. I said to him that just before reading his new book, which I read as if spellbound, I had been reading the Thoreau essays collected by Lewis Hyde and that before the Thoreau, I had read Alfred Habegger’s biography of Emily Dickinson. “So,” I said, “because I had been reading the Thoreau and the Dickinson, I had been thinking about Calvinism and Predestination and, therefore, was ready for Handkerchief Moody’s paralyzing sense of his sinfulness.”

Mr. Moody knew what I meant. “Yes,” he sighed, “that stuff is all very central to what I was thinking about when I was writing it. Especially Dickinson seems preoccupied with similar themes. She was taking up the same kinds of emotional, psychological material that interested Hawthorne. I don’t know if the veil turns up in her poems, but you sure wouldn’t be surprised, right?” I agreed: I would not be surprised. I went on to say that for American writers in that era, this mystery of “election,” whether one was or was not saved or was or was not damned, led not only to constant examination of the conscience but to constant attempts to read the mind of God. Would He or would He not extend His Grace to your sinful self and save you? “So,” I concluded, “this querying in a sense creates a literature of confession.”

“Yes,” Mr. Moody said, “and certainly the Dickinson enterprise is about concepts of memoir and confessional material in the same way that The Black Veil as a book is about that. She constructs a confession in which she’s revealing and concealing at the same time, which is what The Black Veil, as a gesture, is all about.” Mr. Moody talked then about election, the belief held by many of America’s founding Puritans, that has it as a matter of God’s choice as to who is saved and who is eternally lost. “The whole thing of election is very complicated. As a pragmatic matter it seemed that people who were elected behaved really well and were really upstanding citizens, but the whole idea of election was that you were elected no matter what you did. So it’s a strange paradoxical kind of way to think about God. I’m sure Handkerchief Moody is totally filled with dread that maybe he’s bereft of God. Maybe his Calvinist problem was that he felt that his lowdown, compulsive behavior was proof of the fact that he was not elected.”

“But,” I said, “there can be no proof of election, and only God can save you, you can’t save yourself, so there’s nothing you can do.”

“Exactly. So it’s a strange formulation.”

“It’s a Kafka The Trial dilemma, this business of whether one is or is not one of the elect. And it seemed in your book that when you find yourself in the mental institution, going to group therapies and speaking and writing about the condition of your psyche, and in a sense asking whether you are saved or not saved, that this is simply another example of this very American literature of confession.”

“Yes, in the context of the book, this trip to the psychiatric hospital is meant to be seen as perfectly consonant with the Puritan dilemma. Definitely. It’s sort of a 20th-century solution to an 18th-century problem.”

I mentioned that one aspect of Moody’s writing that I liked, as did many people, was his digressiveness. I laughed, adding that his digressiveness is what readers who do not like his work dislike about his writing.

“That’s right,” Mr. Moody said. “And, I knew all along with this book that there was going to be a pretty high wall between the fans and the not-fans. And the not-fans have been quite loud this time.”

“But, being digressive in the way that you are in this book,” 1 suggested, “is in line with this very American project of asking oneself about guilt and innocence, salvation and damnation.” “From my point of view, I was getting closer to a really organic compositional situation with the digressive stuff. That’s really how 1 think, and that’s how I approached trying to problem-solve as a writer. You know, if I don’t force myself to be linear for the sheer sake of it, that’s how 1 naturally think. And with this book I really wanted it to be organic and to try and induce the reader to think and feel about the whole veil as a symbol and veil as a narrative, exactly the way that I think and feel about it. What you’re saying about it being formally similar to the Dark Men of the Soul diary or the Dark Men of the Soul Cry to the Heavens of the Puritans is really nice, but it’s not something that I necessarily thought that much about.”

“No, I wouldn’t have thought that you said to yourself, ‘Okay, Rick, now let’s do what Jonathan Edwards and his buddies did,’ but it remains interesting to me that your Black Veil digressions are in a thematic line with something like Edwards’s plaint in a sermon like ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ ”

“Which,” Mr. Moody said, “is such an amazing, beautiful, scary sermon. I heard a story when I went to visit the Old Manse, where Hawthorne lived. The house had belonged, I think, to Emerson’s stepfather, who I think was called Ripley. But this stepfather, who was also a Congregationalist minister, at one point gave a five-hour sermon. Five hours. Can you imagine? If you fell asleep, he would yell at you.”

Joseph “Handkerchief ” Moody, the Congregationalist minister, after his wife died, veiled himself. Apparently, for the last 20 or so years of his life, until his death at 53 in 1753, he wore this veil. Hawthorne’s story “The Minister’s Black Veil,” published in 1836 and reprinted at the end of Moody’s book, drew for many of its facts from “Handkerchief ” Moody’s life. At one point while working on The Black Veil, Mr. Moody decided he would veil himself. He used Velcro to attach his veil. 1 said that the notion of the Velcro caused me to laugh aloud.

“Well, I had to use what was at hand. I didn’t have a tri-cornered hat to affix mine to.” I asked if he really, truly did wear the black veiling that he bought and to which he affixed the Velcro.

“Yes, yes, I did. I actually went to a dinner party wearing my veil, and at one point that scene was in the book, but it just was redundant in a way because everything that I felt at the dinner party I felt in the first 30 seconds that I put the thing on. I actually still have the veil. It’s here in my house somewhere.” Mr. Moody said that his fellow dinner guests, on the night he wore his veil, “were incredibly uncomfortable. It was just an incredibly unnerving experience. I had warned people that I was going to wear it, and so no one should have been surprised, really, but it was, even in the spirit of literary experimentation, breaking all the social mores, all the social codes. It just made people really uncomfortable, and they kept telling me to take it off. ‘Enough, Rick, you’ve made the point, take it off,’ you know. And in addition to just feeling the weird, creepy symbolic layer of it,

I felt profoundly embarrassed and ashamed of myself for doing it. So there also was this very contemporary feeling about the thing, which was, 'One doesn’t do this anymore, it’s just not cool.’ But I successfully wore it through the whole dinner, and it was very hard to eat with it on, too.”

“I would have thought you would have gotten gravy and sauces all over it.”

“Absolutely, and at the end of the meal, everybody was, like, ‘Thank God that’s over.’ ”

“Did you sweat under it?”

“No, because it was in winter. And the way I had mine was that it would sort of flutter away from my face because it was attached at the forehead. So I wasn’t conscious or I’m not in recollection of having sweated that much. But I was definitely terribly embarrassed. At one point 1 had been thinking of wearing it for a week. I had this performance-artist friend who was saying, ‘Oh, you should wear it for a week.’ And after the dinner party, I felt, ‘I don’t think 1 can do this anymore.’ "

“Think how Handkerchief Moody must have felt, who wore it for perhaps 20 years."

“Exactly. That’s the reason I did it, because 1 really wanted to try and get a pure sensation of what it felt like to have the thing on, to feel that that was the only recourse, with respect to your heart and your psychology, was to wear this thing, to be driven to wear it.” Early in his book, Mr. Moody mentions a man who haunted Mr. Moody’s subway station, a man who wore a ‘Marge hooded garment” that entirely veiled and hid his face. This man, this subway presence, came to seem to Mr. Moody “in some other register of consciousness” to usher from within himself “things that long preceded him.” This veiled, faceless man became “something which should remain hidden but which has come to light.” 1 mentioned this man to Mr. Moody and asked about Mr. Moody’s response to the man’s “veiling.”

“When 1 started the book, I was living in Brooklyn Heights, and 1 would occasionally on Atlantic Avenue see completely veiled Islamic women. And it was always a shock. There was the kind of period of adjustment, even though I was in an Arabic neighborhood, and it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise — well, it’s just a shock. And the mentally ill people on the subway, like this man, again, there’s a context for that, and it’s a really creepy sort of anguished image. But it misses the fundamentalist layer of a Puritan wearing a veil, I think, which was what the book was trying in some way to recreate. So we have that old context at the same time as we have a contemporary context.”

“I wondered,” I said, “as I read The Black Veil, what effect going to Brown had on you — that, and studying what you studied at Brown — semiotics, deconstruction, all that.”

“It was an incredibly fertile time to be at Brown University. I could reel off six or eight people in my class, or the class above me, who won National Book Awards, people who are now major American filmmakers. There were at least four fiction writers of national reputation there. Jeffrey Eugenides, who wrote The Virgin Suicides, was there; Donald Antrim, who’s written several novels — The Verificationist, The Hundred Brothers; Edward Ball, who won the National Book Award for nonfiction a couple of years ago for Slaves in the Family, Todd Haynes, the filmmaker who made Safe and Velvet Goldmine and other films. And there’s also his producer Christine Vachon, who produced I Shot Andy Warhol and many other films. And that’s just sort of the beginning.

“So in terms of the arts, it was incredibly fertile. But that kind of really intense deconstructionist, semiotic thing, that oddly has a lot in common with the kind of critical apparatus of Puritan thinking in that the politically correct apparatus is not entirely different from the heavy, weighty, fire-and-brimstone apparatus of Puritan theology. So they sort of went hand in hand. Oddly. But, hand in hand.”

“Also,” 1 said, “the veiling..."

“Yes, totally. Veiling turns out in Derrida to be a completely central idea. It’s in there all the time. Pages and pages and pages about what it means."

I mentioned that “veil” provides quite a bit of fun for someone who likes anagrams. “There’s ‘live’ and ‘evil,’ just for starters.” “Yes, and if it’s plural — ‘veils’ — it’s also an anagram for Elvis. I’m completely afflicted with that kind of anagram-making. In fact, my fiancee and I do try to one-up each other with puns; that’s sort of how we interact sometimes for hours at a time."

Anagram-play and punning, I suggested, are the ultimate verbal digressions.

“Yes, taking the word apart and seeing what’s in there. It was an exciting point in the research when I started getting so down into the whole thing that I would start cataloging instances of the word ‘veil,’ and turning the word around, and finding its origin and all that. At the end of the day, I think the book is really about the depiction of consciousness. And the particular obsessions with my own consciousness.”

I said that the digressiveness and the voice in which Mr. Moody “tells” his version of “The Black Veil” story is in line with that interior lyric voice that we think of as the voice in which so much of American poetry is spoken and, further, that what the reader heard was a voice that was seeking for, or rummaging around after, its salvation.

“I hope so,” Mr. Moody said. “That’s the kind of ambition that I’m trying to bring to what 1 do. I would feel really good if I felt that there were readers that were taking it on that level. For me the most moving responses that I’ve gotten from the book have been from people who are somewhat afflicted with what we call depression now, but it’s a kind of melancholy, a dark melancholy, the morbid thinking that the Puritans felt. I’ve felt most gratified when those people come up to me at readings and say, ‘This has really helped me out, what you’ve done.’ ”

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