Nanny, Who Was Also Midge, Who Was Also Jessie Magdalene


Jessie Magdalene MacDonnell
April 13, 1922 – October 1998

The MacDonnell house is average in size for Nova Scotia. Its two stories are chopped into six tiny bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and sitting room—a tight fit for Daniel, Bridget, and their thirteen children. Even the cliff on which the house teeters and the jagged cove below are standard. Scots who settled this spot three generations ago, the MacDonnells tend toward square jaws and pronounced noses, thick dark hair, narrow brows, and deep set eyes.

But their youngest, Jessie Magdalene, is different, more delicate, like she has been sculpted from the raw materials of MacDonnell genes, scraped and smoothed so that her jaw became a gentle curve rather than a point, her nose definitive but not obtrusive. Her hair is just as dark and thick as theirs, but its curls shine and bounce instead of tangling. Where their skin is rugged pale, hers is soft pink. The almost-transparent blue eyes they all share are inched forward on her brow, just enough to transform character into undeniable beauty. She is as quiet as the rest of them, but she lacks the physical stature that propels her parents and siblings through their world. Her way is less clear.

Jessie Magdalene, born three days earlier, on April 13, 1922, will grow up to be Midge. In 1960, a reporter from Coronet magazine writing a feature on her husband, jockey Ralph Neves, will say of her that, “caught off guard, her eyes are haunted.” She wasn’t born with the ghosts, but she had room for them in the empty space where what was carved out would have been.

One night that April, the house is dark, until the fire starts to blaze in one of the bedrooms, lighting the hall outside and even the kitchen at the other end in jittery oranges. A candle toppled onto the sheets of Alice’s bed, in the room she shares with her sister Florence. Daniel, a fisherman, is at sea. He hasn’t met his newest daughter. By the time Florence is able to find Bridget, pluck her infant sister’s lips from her breast, and get back to Alice’s room, there is so much fire they can’t see the bed. Alice is unmistakably there, among the flames, but nobody hears her scream. The eleven remaining kids form an assembly line, filling pots of water, carting them from the kitchen, and dousing Alice’s bed. After twenty minutes of this, the fire is out, but Alice is dead. The smoke killed her, and her charry body makes it hard to believe she hasn’t suffered. If pain is extreme enough, Bridget heard a priest say once, it tries the soul. Such trials separate the saints from the sinners. At thirteen, Alice was the third child. Now Jessie Magdalene is the youngest of twelve.

Two nights later, Daniel’s ship is navigating the mouth of the harbor, when a twelve-year-old apprentice on deck sharpening knives spots what he will later describe as a night rainbow emerging from the MacDonnell house. “Come quick,” he calls the other seven members of the crew, “come quick.” It turns out there is no hurry. The tunnel of ethereal light swirls and glitters like God for a solid two hours while the crew lets the little ship drift. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Daniel says, “you can’t tell if it begins in Heaven and spills into my house or the other way round.”

Daniel doesn’t find out the night rainbow was Alice’s soul until he arrives home. When he meets his new daughter, he can see a glint of the swirling tunnel in her eyes. Some of that ether spilled into them, planting a playful eeriness. Jessie Magdalene discovers her fate. She will carry whatever haunts other people.


This is a deleted scene from my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism.

Bowie’s Duet with Himself

I made my first infographic. Or a stab at one. My students are making some, so I thought I should try it too. My students didn’t know Bowie’s “A Space Oddity.” I tried to hide my shock. But now they know a lot about it.

Bowie recorded “A Space Oddity”  in 1968. It was his first real hit record–in 1969 in Britain and 1972 in the U.S. Famously, it tells the story of Major Tom, a fictional version of an early astronaut. In 1961, the first human, Russian Yuri Gagarin, traveled to space and orbited the earth. After that, the Americans and the Russians entered a “space race,” vying for a series of firsts, including getting a human to the surface of the moon.

Bowie wrote his first hit in response to the space race–and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.* I started my infographic to test a hypothesis: Bowie used the eeriness of the first humans in space as an early experiment with performing as a persona. Throughout his career, he’d become famous for his theatrical personas, including Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and Alladin Sane. I learned from Chris O’Leary’s detailed analysis of the track that it was originally written as a duet. When he recorded it, Bowie turned it into a duet with himself.

Through the process of composing the infographic, I became more convinced the song is a duet between Bowie and Bowie. But the experiment is more complex than I imagined at first. The second line of colored bars represents the song’s narrators, or personas. Blue is the operator at Ground Control, and pink Major Tom “floating in his tin can.” The purple bar represents a second hypothesis. After Major Tom sings “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows,” the persona shifts. At first it seems obvious that Ground Control sings the heartbreaking second half of the verse: “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong / Can you hear me Major Tom?” But what if both narrators are singing? What if Major Tom is singing along with Ground Control? While Ground Control addresses these panicked messages to him, Major Tom joins in. “She knows” might signal the fact that his wife knows he loves her AND that she’s heard the news that something has gone horribly wrong. This is interpretive speculation, but if it’s true, the double narrators amplify the deep sadness of the story. Major Tom sings with full awareness that nobody on earth can hear him.

Throughout his career, Bowie was reverent about well-crafted pop songs; he also loved to experiment with form. You can already see that with “A Space Oddity.” The verses are catchier than the chorus. We get two full verses and a bridge before the chorus even comes in. Bowie is subtly upending the logic of the traditional pop hit, partly to emphasize the dialogue, or duet, between Ground Control and Major Tom. Some of the complexities of the method become clear when you examine his various approaches to the vocal. The melody evolves from verse to verse. The first begins low and mysterious. After the first few lines, he doubles his voice, alternating harmony with singing the same melody in two octaves. The higher parts presage the higher, more emotive vocal of the B verse. In the C verse, the harmony continues for the first half, but then fades, with an intimate delivery of the line “Tell my wife I love her very much.” After this, the vocal is doubled again–this time in unison, duplicating the same melody. There’s a full two minutes of music after the final verse. As the vocal fades, his duet with himself feels unresolved as it’s overtaken by the chaos of the instrumental outro. Like Major Tom and Ground Control, we don’t know what’s going to become of the astronaut in his “tin can,” but the signs are not good.

*A literary note: Kubrick’s title is a play on Homer’s The Odyssey. He takes the classic tale of a warrior’s journey and gives it a bleak, futuristic twist. Bowie substitutes the soundalike, “oddity,” a wry contribution to literary history in keeping with his various outsized personas.


Chris O’Leary’s analysis of “A Space Oddity,” on his blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame, Bowie Song by Song, helped me understand the structure of the song. I got inspiration for the form of my infographic from Ethan Hein’s “track analysis” of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” 

Check out the song yourself. If you have other interpretations, I’d love to hear about them in the Comments section. Watching Bowie perform it is pretty moving.

A couple of quick announcements: There’s a giveaway in effect for The One You Get. If you enter, you have a chance to win a free copy. Everybody’s favorite online behemoth bookseller is also offering a discount.

Also, this really nice review of The Elusive Brain is just out, in Choice magazine:

The elusive brain : literary experiments in the age of neuroscience

Tougaw, Jason. Yale, 2018

Tougaw (Queens College) ably surveys an array of contemporary literary forms that in one way or another emphasize the brain, among them “brain memoirs,” “neuronovels,” and “neurocomics.” In each chapter, he focuses closely on key passages from a small number of representative works in each form: e.g., Temple Grandin’s memoir of autism; Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, a first-person novel narrated by Lionel Essrog, who suffers verbal outbursts and bodily tics brought on by Tourette’s; and Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles, which illustrates her attempts to cope with her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Collectively, such works—and Tougaw, for that matter—make a case for “neurodiversity”: i.e., what some consider a crippling condition can at times be used to great advantage (e.g., Essrog, a detective, is able to glean clues and interview more capably because of his condition). Fundamental antecedents discussed in Tougaw’s volume include the works of Oliver Sacks, whose psychiatric profiles provided starting points for efforts by Lethem and others. Tougaw knows his literary history, and he is expert at citing lineage (e.g., Cervantes, Sterne, Poe, and James for the neuronovel). This is a brilliant, readable work of scholarship.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.


I have a new column on, The Elusive Brain: Literature and Culture in the Age of Neuroscience. I’ll be writing about what literary writers contribute to conversations about the brain, mind, psychology, consciousness, and mental health. I’m pretty excited about it.

Jimsom Weed

My mom and her friend Voly, eighteen to her sixteen, got a recipe for jimson weed tea from this guru beach bum named Al. “He just got out of the loony bin,” Voly whispered to Cathy. My mom has always hung out with guys more than girls. She just gets along with them.

“The stuff is all over, just off the beach,” Al said. “You see it poking out of people’s fences. This tea is gonna blow your minds.”

Three hours later, the tea drunk, Cathy’s in her room in her house on 19th Street, hiding. Her friends call the house the mausoleum, because it’s a tall stucco rectangle that isn’t even tiny bit beachy. A yellow circus truck pulls into the driveway, a grinning clown as big as a car painted on its side. Thirty men with machine guns rush out of the car and surround the Mausoleum, climbing its sides like ants. “Cathy, open up,” Doug says, knocking. “Cathy, Voly’s mom called. Let me in. I’m coming in.”

The room appears empty. Doug pokes around and spots Cathy in the closet, all wrapped around herself, a fetus, her head swallowed by the dangling bottoms of blouses and skirts and pants. “Cathy, get out of there. Voly’s in the hospital.”

“Voly, get in here,” she says to him. “They’re almost here. Get in here. They’re on the walls, right outside the window. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Voly, I mean it.”

“Cathy, I am not Voly,” he says. “Midge,” he calls downstairs. “You gotta see this.”

“Voly,” is all Cathy says.

“Cathy, listen to me,” Midge says, “Voly is not here. He’s in the hospital, getting his stomach pumped. We know about the gypsum weed.”

“Cathy, how are you feeling?”

“How do you think? They’re gonna kill us.”

“Should we go to the hospital?” Midge asks Doug.

“Nah, just let her sweat it out.” Doug walks to the closet. “Listen, Hon, take your head out of those clothes and talk to me.”

She decides to trust him, for a second. She pokes her head out and reaches an arm toward him. As her finger grazes his leg—poof, he disintegrates—leaving just a pile of dust on the floor. The circus militia finally storms through the windows. They stand around the room with their guns and make Cathy stay in the closet, a gun to her head, for several hours.

Seeing that Cathy hasn’t moved, and that she seems to be sweating it out, Midge and Doug go to bed. Just after four in the morning, they hear a slam, a screech, and the sound of a body stumbling. When they get to her room, Cathy’s outside, on the tiny third-floor terrace, trying to climb off it. “Cathy, get in here. Now,” Midge says.

“They’re almost here,” Cathy says, in tears. “They’re going to kill Bruce.”


“Bruce is one of the circus guys. He helped me. He made sure they didn’t shoot me. The cops are coming to kill him. We’ve gotta get out.”

Doug pulls Cathy inside, puts her on the bed, and talks. Eventually she sleeps. At 7:30 am, Midge pokes in. “Cathy, you’re going to school. Get up.”

“Okay,” she says.

Ten minutes later, checking on the status of things, Midge finds Cathy in her brother Craig’s closet. “I can’t find any of my clothes,” she says.

“Jesus Christ,” she says, to Doug, who’s too far away to hear. “Look at her. This child cannot go to school.” Cathy spends the day at home, with resigned Midge. Her first bout of paranoia fades, but the experience stays with her, close to consciousness, for the rest of her life.


An outtake from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism

A Couple of Announcements

My essay about my enduring crush on the life and writing of Christopher Isherwood is out today on Literary Hub.

My book The Elusive Brain is out now, with Yale University Press.

“A remarkably sane book. Tougaw’s analyses show a supple and adroit mind at work.”
—N. Katherine Hayles, author of Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

“This excellent book on the relationship between the brain and experimental literature weaves together original and compelling intellectual strands that ultimately have much to say about not only contemporary neuroliterary work, but also about our present moment. With rigor and originality, Tougaw paves the way for a new type of thinking that will push the boundaries of multidisciplinary investigation.”—Sebastian Groes, University of Wolverhampton, UK

“Through his astute analysis of the literature that has come in the wake of neuromania, Tougaw deftly undermines the schisms that usually plague debates about psyche, soma, and world to reveal the complex ambiguities in both the science and the art of the brain.”
—Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

The Elusive Brain is a stunning book that does more than bridge literary studies and the neurosciences. This book uses contemporary literature and culture to explore the deepest questions raised by 21st century understandings of the brain and the nervous system. Readers of literature, cultural studies, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience will be fascinated by this interdisciplinary study of the brain, self and culture.”
—Victoria Pitts-Taylor, author of The Brain’s Body

“Tougaw’s provocative deep dive into the burgeoning genre of literature informed by brain science — from ‘neuronovels’ to autistic autobiographies and beyond — should be of interest to anyone concerned with the essential questions of what makes us human, how we narrate our own experience, and the shifting boundaries of brain, mind, self, and society.”
—Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity


Top Ten Family Deaths–Real, Near, and Imagined

10. 1959. Thirty years into his career as a notoriously reckless jockey, my grandpa, Ralph Neves, survives a severe brain injury, his life saved by surgery and a metal plate where a portion of his skull used to be. This is his third near-death experience.

9. 1922. Nanny—Midge to her friends—was born Jessie Magdalena MacDonnell, in Nova Scotia, the youngest of thirteen kids. Three days after her birth, her sister Alice died after a candle caught some sheets on fire. Bridgett, Nanny’s mother, saved her sister Florence but couldn’t reach Alice in time. Daniel, her father, was a fisherman, was at sea, just returning home. He and the crew saw a tunnel of glittering light shining from the vicinity of the house up through the heavens.

8. Ca. 1940. Ralph was riding in the cavalry, preparing for war, somewhere near Stockton. He fell off his horse and suffered a spinal injury, nearly dying for the second time. Nanny, who’d refused to marry him before this, spent months nursing him back to riding shape and followed him to the altar.

7. 1968. My mom and her friend thought it would be fun to try gypsum weed. You could pick it right from people’s yards. She ended up in her closet, hiding from the FBI agents she was sure had climbed to the roof, ready to storm in and kill her.

6. 2003. Summer died with heroin and meth in her blood. We don’t know much more than that. She’d been our neighbor as kids and moved in with my family during high school. We shared a room and a bed.

5. 2011. They found my father’s body in a drugstore parking lot. After decades of surviving as a junky, the toxicology report found no heroin in his blood. They found a lot of alcohol and other drugs. He was looking for heroin, but nobody would give it to hm.

4. 1982. Nanny and I find my mom after my aunt (and maybe some others) have bandaged her wrists. The blood seeps through the bandages and the misery through her tears.

3. 1977. Our Black Lab Mona “went to live on a farm” after she dug up 100 hits of acid buried on our property, became psychotic, killed some angora rabbits, attacked some cops, and terrified by grandmother with her furious fangs.

2. 1968. Nanny and her boyfriend Doug drove my mom to Tijuana for the abortion. At the last minute, she refused. So I didn’t die, but I can’t help imagining what would have become of my fetus if my mom had gone along with it—which would have been a rational thing to do.

1. 1936. Ralph, a nineteen-year-old wunderkind, behaves badly on the track, eager to win $500 and Bing Crosby’s gold watch. He’s thrown, rushed to the hospital, and pronounced dead. The mood is solemn at the track after the announcement—until Ralph shows up, in his hospital gown, running around the infield, bloody and battered. A doctor friend had decided to try a shot of adrenaline, for the hell of it.

Lou’s Records

There is no cooler place than Lou’s Records in 1985. Not anywhere. We could flip through these records until infinity.

I like a slow flip, so I can really feel the soft tap of the thick plastic Lou’s puts on every record. I’m looking for David Sylvian records, and I know the real supply is waiting in Imports, but there’s a lot to learn at Lou’s. They’re playing The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow, have been since we came in. I recognize my dissatisfaction in Morrissey’s wail the second I hear it. “A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand.” There are posters and album covers papering every inch of wall space, and right now Hatful of Hollow is displayed in the center of the ceiling, pasted over posters of The Cure, Social Distortion, Haysi Fantayzee, Everything But the Girl, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Dead Kennedys, Fad Gadget. It’s a huge light blue poster, with a simple square near the bottom containing a black and white photo of a handsome but weary man-boy with a messy fifties fade and wifebeater.

I get to the plastic divider with The Smiths written in blocky blue magic marker. There are only two LPs here, Meat Is Murder and The Smiths, with their blocky type, black and white images of shirtless boys and reluctant soldiers. I can see the record cover sitting on the Now Playing shelf, so I know this is it. It should be here.

I can see Shannon talking to the girl behind the counter with the black bob, the side pinned back with a tortoise shell barrette, the pale skin, powder making her freckles seem transparent, and silver ring in her nose. She’s wearing a white t-shirt, black cardigan, and pleated plaid mini-skirt with black tights. Shannon is a girl we met through Amy Buzick, at the Carlsbad Mall, and though we don’t know how long she’s been Newro, she wears it like it’s been years. She’s sixteen, but she’s not afraid to talk to a girl like this, who is at least 19, works at Lou’s, and has clearly passed through the phase we’re in and come out the other side much cooler and at ease with her look. “I’m looking for the remix of ‘You Spin Me Round’ by Dead or Alive,” Shannon says. “The import version.”

“We had two copies,” she says, without looking up from the records she’s pricing, “but we sold them.”

“Do you know when you’ll get more?” she asks.

“Maybe Tuesday.” The pink stone in Shannon’s nose glinting two feet away from the black-bobbed girl’s silver ring sums up the differences between them: spiked and matted white and pink mess to shiny black bob; crisp white t-shirt and soft cardigan to tatty old lady’s silk blouse with puffy sleeves; knee-length army issue wool skirt (even though it’s eighty-nine degrees out) to pleated mini, Doc Marten boots to platform patent leather shoes. This girl is out of our league, but Shannon behaves as though she believes strongly that she’s got what it takes to be drafted.

Paul’s got his arms full of import Cure records. Tiffany, a girl we know from elementary school who just moved back with her head shaved all around except for long nearly white bangs hanging in front of her face, is holding records we would never buy: Social Distortion, Dead Kennedys, Christian Death. I’ve chosen David Sylvian’s solo record, Brilliant Trees and Japan’s live album Oil on Canvas. The Smiths record has finished, and the guy behind the counter, fat with a green Mohawk and multiple rings through his eyebrows, is putting something else on: Ministry. Paul looks up. He loves Ministry.

There’s a cute guy in Import T. He’s got flame red hair, brown skin like maybe he’s Mexican under the make up, and blue plaid pants with a sleeveless mesh black t-shirt, and big army boots. He’s probably 18. I want to squeeze into Import S, but I settle for M and wait. I flip and read: Madness, glance out of the corner of my eye at the boy. Flip, read: Magazine, glance. Flip, read: Meat Puppets, glance. Flip, read: Mink De Ville, glance. He’s leafing very slowly through the Rs and moving onto the S section, so slowly you don’t even hear the plastic tap: Modern English, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Q-Feel. Glancing.

When the cute guy finally moved to U, I can safely make a leap to S. I flip to the end first, to Sylvian, and there’s what I want: The 12” single of “The Ink in the Well,” whose cover folds out into a free poster of David Sylvian lying in a dark room like he’s in an enlightened coma. I add it to the records in my pile, and flip back, slowly enough to make it look like I’m really reading every record, until I get to The Smiths. I see the light blue spine first, behind to 7” singles, mounted on cardboard, then the black and white photo. The record cover is thick. It folds out. I pluck it and look up. Green Mohawk is turning Ministry over. Paul is nodding along to it, deep in Import G. I back up and look at 12”s by The Smiths They belong to the same black-and-white, blocky-typed universe of sad and pretty men struggling with their feelings under dreary English skies. “What Difference Does it Make?” features a smiling guy in a cardigan toasting with a glass of milk and “How Soon Is Now” a guy sitting on the edge of his bed in his underwear, dark hair mussed, face in his palm.

Tiffany and Shannon are at the register. I follow them there. “Paul,” Tiffany says. “Speed it up.”

“Almost,” Paul says, finishing the Gs.

Shiny black bob rings each of us up, recording the title, ISBN, and record label of each purchase. Shannon’s got all 12” singles. She’s known for being a good dancer. Tiffany has all hardcore. I have Japan and David Sylvian and The Smiths. Paul has all Cure, most of it early, all of it import. Black bob documents it all without smiling or glaring or showing any response or judgment. I almost wish she would so I’d know what she thinks or likes.

“Let’s walk to the beach and look at the records,” I suggest when we get out onto the sidewalk.

“I have to meet my sister,” Shannon says, not offering where or how. We all know her sister April is 18 and has a car and a punk boyfriend. Shannon disappears down the sidewalk and the rest of us walk the block and a half to the beach, where we sit in our heavy clothes and slide our records from their plastic. People are packing up, dragging their towels past us, shaking their heads at our inappropriate choice of dress. The sun wobbles over the horizon, turning orange.

“What time is it?” Tiffany asks. We don’t have watches, so we can’t say. “Excuse me,” she says to the family of four passing with their picnic basket, “Do you have the time?”

“5:45,” the mom says.

“Fuck,” Tiffany says, loud. The family of four speeds up. “I’m so fucking dead. My mom said I had to be home by 6 no matter what.” The mom and dad whisper to each other and turn the corner.

We slide our records back in plastic, fumble with our bags, sink our boots through sand, climb the steps to the street, and walk our fastest to the corner, where the bus stops. We want the No. 19 bus, which runs directly from K-Mart in Escondido to the Encinitas corner where Lou’s is.

“We just missed the 5:49,” Paul informs us.

“Don’t they run every half hour?” I ask.

“Not after six. It’s every hour now.”

“So we have to wait until 6:49?” Tiffany asks. “I’m a corpse.”

“Let’s find a pay phone,” I say. “Who has quarters?”

“I have some bad news,” Paul says.

“What?” I ask.

“It skips an hour. The next bus is at 7:49.”

“That gets us home at, like, 9,” I say.

“Fuck,” Tiffany says. “I’m a corpse.”


This is a deleted scene from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (Dzanc Books)

Highly Recommened Reading


written by Seo-Young Chu November 3, 2017


I think everybody should read Seo-Young Chu’s brilliant invention of ways to live and think through sexual abuse, so I’m posting it here.

Read This! Let’s Get Him Out of Our Heads

In the current issue of The Nation, Jess Row writes about getting our President–a master of digital rhetoric–out of our heads:

This is a big deal, because we humans naturally absorb our environment and often inwardly rehash stuff we hear around us. In other words, what we take in from our surroundings influences our “inner speech,” the conversations we have with ourselves in the silence of our minds. According to psychology professor Charles Fernyhough, author of the acclaimed book The Voices Within, our inner speech is shaped by the social worlds we inhabit. “Other people’s words get into our heads,” he explains. We absorb an assortment of verbal cues from others and those cues turn out to influence the way we talk privately to ourselves.

I love that she cites Fernyhough’s book–and there’s a literary connection here, because literature is so much about hijacking our inner speech. I’m happy for Ralph Ellison or Jane Austen to colonize my mind. But I’m determined not to let this destructive, abusive, power hungry man do it. More than that, I don’t think we can fix this problem until we take Row’s idea seriously. The guy depends on us to let him dominate our thoughts and feelings. It’s the foundation of his power. Let’s expel him, first from our minds and then from government.

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