Years ago, a fellow novelist told me, “Everyone always asks writers about their influences. But it’s the ones you can’t name that matter most.”
It wasn’t until a few months ago, while sitting at home and watching a movie, that I figured out what he meant.
The film was Calvary, the story of a priest in a small town whose residents have, in part because of abuse scandals, lost most of their faith in the Catholic Church. I’d been meaning to watch it for a while but could no longer remember who’d recommended it to me.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Calvary turned out to be surprisingly harrowing, and as it unfurled, I felt my stomach clench. Then, in the movie’s pitch-dark and haunting final moments—moments of violence and redemption—something happened that hasn’t happened to me in years: I burst into tears, and couldn’t stop.
There was, on the face of it, nothing about this movie that should affect me so strongly. I’m not a devout Catholic, nor am I typically moved by tales of faith tested. But, most of all, I’m not the kind of person who cries at movies, at least not with such intensity. Yet the ending absolutely tore me apart.
And I knew just whom I wanted to talk to immediately after. The person who, I suddenly remembered, had recommended it to me in the first place. The person who knew.
“Mom,” I said into the phone, my voice pinched and childlike, “Mom, that movie.”
“I know,” she says. “I know just what you mean.”
All through my childhood, my parents took my brother and me to the revival theater in our hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to see the classics, everything from Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot to Harold and Maude and Grand Illusion. (Which makes me laugh now: What an eight- or nine-year-old might glean from a 1937 French movie about prisoners of war I cannot guess.)
But my favorites were the gangster movies. A greater portion of my childhood and adolescence was spent watching mob sagas, heist tales, political or spy thrillers, and, my favorites of all: film noir, those darkly glamorous movies from the 1940s and 50s in which desperation and desire bloomed.
These films were the family canon, and it suited our energy. My dad, a scholar of political theory, and my brother, a future prosecutor, were—and remain—great debaters, analyzers. After going to a movie, our favorite family sport on the car ride home was to argue about and dissect and occasionally eviscerate what we had just seen. And the worst criticism one could level at any movie was that it was “sentimental.” And it applied not just to five-handkerchief weepies (which we rarely saw, unless they were holiday or sports movies), yes, but even to witty, sparkling movies with “Hollywood” endings, such as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, or Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
Sentimental. The verdict was damning. It was a sign of softness, a willingness to be manipulated or, in gangster-movie parlance, “played.” I decided “sentimental” was something I never wanted to be.
We had an outlier in the family, however. A traitor in our midst. And that was my mother. And, reader, I confess to you now: I was her secret comrade.
“I’m not feeling so great,” I’d say, age 10 or 11.
“Really?” my mom would ask, a furrow over her brow. “Because you look just fine.”
“My throat hurts, and I feel a little dizzy.”
She would give me the once-over, slightly dubious, but in the end she’d always say, “OK. I’ll write you a note.”
Picture the scene: A few hours later, one of us is in the recliner, the other on the scratchy family-room sofa, the daisy afghan stretched from one to the other, and we are watching Splendor in the Grass or Imitation of Life. Doctor Zhivago or Stella Dallas. Candy-colored melodramas, Hollywood-slick tearjerkers about social injustice, families torn asunder. Orphans.
We’re drinking Pepsi-Cola in tall glass bottles and eating potato chips or gingersnaps dipped in milk.
And when the stars fail to align, when love is doomed or death is nigh and the climax arrives and Barbara Stanwyck watches through a rainy window as the daughter she gave up gets married, or Omar Sharif spots his long-lost love, Julie Christie, through a tram window but is struck by a heart attack before he can reach her—in all these moments, one thing can be counted on. I will look over at my mom’s teary face, pink and soft as a carnation, and feel tacit permission to do something I never would with anyone else: cry. Well, weep, sob, lament, wail.
But in the years to follow, especially during my irony-laden teens, when the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs became my cinematic touchstones, I drifted further and further from my mom’s and my shared experience of uncomplicated movie love. Of experiencing a movie that I might have, under any other circumstances, rejected as manipulative, cloying or, yes, sentimental, and just letting go.
Which brings me back to Calvary, the movie that just tore a hole in me. Watching it, its slow build, its emotional heft, I thought of how, whenever I’m asked about my earliest writerlyinspirations, I always talk about gangster movies, about watching Jimmy Cagney waving a tommy gun or pushing a grapefruit in his moll’s face. It’s such a safe, swaggering answer to the question of inspiration, which is really a larger question about what moves us. What moves me.
It made me think: As the years go by, as we grow older, we bury parts of ourselves, don’t we? The parts that make us vulnerable. That show us perhaps as we really are.
But my mom always gave, and still gives, me permission to access those feelings, those qualities. Now I see that my mom’s and my “secret”—our pleasure in melodrama and glitzy heartbreak—was less about those movies themselves than the way it gave me permission to respond purely emotionally to art. That there were things we might watch, or read, or see, that just wallop us and that we can’t explain away into tidy little packages.
And so, when the movie ended and the tears came—great, ugly, embarrassing tears—she was the only person I wanted to talk to.
There I was, 43, damp Kleenex in hand, and crying on the phone to my mom.
“I know,” she kept saying, “I haven’t cried that much in years.”
Her understanding was one deeper than words, far richer than any analysis. But not softer—no, I don’t think so. Sharper and more pointed than any rhetorical lancet. Because it cut to the quick, to the center of me, the very place my mother had breathed life to all those years ago.
So next time, when someone asks me what my influences are, I have a different answer. Because what I realized that night watching Calvary is that my greatest influence—the one I couldn’t name or speak before but now can—is neither gangster movies nor melodramas, crime sagas nor tearjerkers. It’s my mom.
About the author