Blackbird Dreams by Meg LeDuc
In her gripping essay “Blackbird Dreams,” Meg LeDuc employs a device far more common in first-person, present-tense fiction than creative nonfiction. When Wayne Booth coined the term “unreliable narrator” in The Rhetoric of Fiction, he used Edgar Allan Poe’s deranged narrators to suggest the narrative distance between an implied author and a fictional character unaware of his irrationality. The reader is presented with two stories—the version the self-deluded narrator tells, and the author’s version, visible between the lines.
LeDuc opens her story with the detailed precision we normally associate with a reliable narrator. She’s on a road trip, driving ninety miles an hour, traveling alone on southbound I-75, nearing the Michigan-Ohio border. It’s a cold night in November 2015. She herself, however, seems to be aware of two possible stories. “I had been so sure of myself and my plan.” Now she’s not so sure. Her body seems to warn her that she’s wrong, and she in turn warns the reader that she’s “about as steady and sure as a hand grenade.”
What follows are two stories and two journeys. The first is the culmination of months of paranoia, leading to her flight to Ohio and belief that the CIA is recruiting her to battle her father’s criminal organization. Her mother’s voice on the phone leads her to question that version of the story and to recall that this kind of episode has happened to her before. Even after the crucial turning point when she says, “Mom, I think I might be having a break with reality,” she still sees spies in McDonald’s. (See LeDuc’s “Author’s Note” for the importance of this line.)
The second journey begins when she turns around to head back home to Michigan, still partly in the grip of her delusional thinking, but recognizing that she can rely on her mother. “Even though I know what lies ahead, I trust her.” As the second story unfolds, we learn more about the history of her bipolar mood disorder—and all that mental illness has stolen from her in the past, may still steal from her in the future.
“I began to write a memoir as I came to realize, this is me: I have lived this, and I have survived it too,” LeDuc writes in her “Author’s Note.” LeDuc’s essay was a finalist for CRAFT’s 2020 Creative Nonfiction Award. –CRAFT
Content Warnings—mental illness, suicidal ideation
Close to midnight, I approach the Michigan-Ohio border, headlights flashing around me like starry pinpricks in the vast, dark tunnel along southbound I-75. It’s November 2015—a cold, clear-heaven night—and I’m clocking ninety miles per hour. Frost carves the blacktop in glittering figures, but the driving has been all too easy.
I had been so sure of myself and my plan. But now, alone in the darkness, as night becomes morning, I suspect that maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong. The back of my neck has turned to stone. Pain creeps up the base of my skull.
These sensations, I know all too well, are my body’s warnings.
I swerve, slowing down as I check my phone. My cell phone log shows thirty-two missed calls. My voice mail is full.
Right now, I’m about as steady and sure as a hand grenade.
The phone rings.
I hesitate—three rings—then I answer. I know who’s trying to reach me. I can’t let her down any longer.
“Honey? Where are you?”
The tension of the past weeks and months, the fear and suspicion, fractures in me. The nights I woke, slick with sweat, from nightmares of what he might do. The raw carrots and black coffee; the ice cream binges; the benzos with beer chasers. The cold bathroom tile where I wielded a razor blade. I don’t reply. I can’t. The tears well up inside me, too strong.
My mom’s voice softens.
“Meggie, where are you?” I am supposed to meet her to see a movie this evening.
I mumble into the phone. “Mom, I….”
“Honey, where are you?”
“I don’t know. Almost to Ohio, I think.”
My mom asks quietly, “Meggie, why are you going to Ohio?”
Because I’m being recruited.
Three hours ago, an Ohio address popped up on my phone, a calendar reminder to make a phone call about the ACT Educational Testing Center for the article I’m supposed to write for the newspaper where I’m a freelance reporter. Except it was a secret message from the CIA directing me to drive to that address, where agents would whisk me away to a training center in a faraway desert surrounded by towering mountains. The CIA would educate me in spycraft and make me into a world-class spy, so that eventually, I could return to Detroit to bring down my father’s criminal enterprise.
I told no one when I left—the CIA wanted me to stay silent.
But now, alone in my little 2005 Ford Taurus, as midnight blurs into morning, doubt punctures my certainty. Maybe it is the sound of my mom’s voice, reaching out, a lifeline, catching hold of me in the black sands where I stumbled and lost myself. Speeding down the highway, my own little universe in the night, I cup the phone against my ear like a seashell, as if the waves of sound that sang to me in the womb now draw me up from my own depths.
In a moment of clarity, I think, the CIA—really? That can’t be right.
I start to sob. “Mom, I’m scared.”
“Meggie, honey, what are you thinking?”
“I’m scared of Dad,” I cry.
It began the afternoon my father came over and stood in my front yard. “I really should come over and put a stake through that mailbox and straighten it out,” he said. He snapped out the words, red in the face, as if the hapless mailbox deeply offended him.
That night, I pulled couches across the doors, and, for several nights running, woke from nightmares of rape.
My father has never harmed me. In fact, he has never been anything but a loving and nurturing dad, and, normally, I admire him deeply. But now I am terrified.
“Come home to our house, sweetie,” my mom urges me. “I will ask your dad to leave. I promise he won’t be here when you get here.”
In this moment, I still trust my mom. Even in the midst of all my fear and confusion, I know—she loves me.
Because I know she loves me, tonight, alone in the dark, I whisper my deepest fear into the phone: “Mom, I think I might be having a break with reality.”
There is a silence.
Then, “Meggie, I think you might be too,” my mom says softly. “Please come home.”
My mom always has demanded that I face up to the facts. Many times, especially when I was in my twenties, these interventions infuriated me because I didn’t believe she was treating me like an “adult.” But her willingness to dare my anger, to speak hard truths out of love has at times been the only thing that kept me from the brink, kept me from killing myself.
Tonight, I stand at such a brink.
I take a deep breath. Let it out.
All of a sudden, I want to be held.
“Find the nearest exit,” my mom urges.
I scan the road. There is a blue highway sign with golden arches in the distance.
“Mom, there’s a McDonald’s up ahead.”
“Get off, go in, and buy a coffee. Do you have money?”
“Yes. Ten dollars.”
“Good. Look at the exit number as you’re getting off and tell me what it is. I’m getting my map out. I want to see where you are while you drive home.”
I walk into the McDonald’s. Three men in jeans, camouflage jackets, and hunters’ orange vests hunch over coffee and Big Macs at a nearby table. They are quiet, munching. To me, their silence amidst the aroma of grease and salt, and the gurgle of a coffee maker, is anything but companionable. In my mind, everyone is suspect.
Are they just hunters out well before dawn?
I chance another look and pay attention to their boots—too clean. More likely, they are my dad’s spies.
I order my coffee. I can’t tell if my voice trembles. But my hands shake as I fumble in my wallet for my ten-dollar bill. I keep an eye on the men, who seem to ignore me—but do they? The tallest, coal haired, thin, unfolds a newspaper. I wonder if it’s a code.
The cashier, about twenty, with vapid eyes, an eyebrow piercing, and a cobalt star outlined in crimson on her pallid inner wrist, wordlessly slides the hot coffee and my change across the counter. I clutch the Styrofoam in my chill fingers, warming them.
“Have a nice night,” I say to her, trying my best to appear “normal.”
She nods—nonchalant, dismissive.
I’m drawing upon my upbringing, on the good manners instilled in me. I also believe, in this moment, that being polite is keeping me safe: you never know who might be listening.
Underneath the etched stars of the frosty November night, I pick my way through the dimly lit parking lot back to my Taurus. Sliding behind the driver’s seat, I answer the ringing phone.
“Just keep me on speaker the whole way home, sweetie. We’ll talk. You’ll be home soon. I know where you are now.”
“Okay,” I say, putting the car into drive. I pull out of the parking lot and maneuver onto the road and the freeway ramp to I-75 North.
“Do you want any music on, Meggie? Would that help you calm down?” my mom asks.
“Just keep talking, Mom. It’s helping.” I take a swig of coffee. I’m driving slower now, a mere eighty miles per hour. I weave in and out through traffic, passing a semi. My windshield fogs, and I crank up the defrost. It’s a cold night out there, in the twenties. The moon gleams—a delicate white sickle hung against black sky.
“I know you’ve got a lot on your mind, honey,” my mom reassures me. “And you’re not really sure what to believe right now.”
“I’ve been scared of Dad for a long time now,” I confide, and wonder how my mom could be married to a man like him.
I hear my mom say, “I know, sweetie. But your dad is a good man. He doesn’t know what to do.”
I parse this statement as my muddled brain works furiously: Whose side is my mom on? Who does she love, truly? Suddenly, it comes to me: My mom works for the CIA. That’s it—she’s a double agent, infiltrating my dad’s crime syndicate so she can eventually bring it down. I hit the gas, revving my Taurus’s little engine.
“Are you okay?”
Strangely enough, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace. I must be right—my mom is a CIA agent: powerful, smart, skilled, and trained in handling criminals. She will handle my dad.
The neon lights and tall buildings of the city give way to long, dark fields where the corn stands sentinel—barren and dried, stripped by farmers and deer.
As I navigate onto M-53, about forty minutes away from my parents’ home, I notice two black SUVs. One pulls ahead of me and one follows behind, forming a phalanx before and behind me. I see them as an extension of my mom’s protection, and I am no longer afraid of my father’s henchmen. I imagine the SUVs’ headlights guiding me home.
When I turn into my parents’ subdivision, in an exurb north of Detroit, I feel sure of myself, now in familiar territory. The black SUVs turned off miles before, but they got me close enough to the area where my parents live. The countryside around the subdivision, a place where apple orchards grow, appears idyllic, far away from the busy world. I know the CIA chose this location because it’s a haven, a hideout: I will be safe here—for a little while.
It’s almost 2:00 a.m. when I pull into my parents’ driveway, and right away, I see the glow. It seems that every light in the house is switched on. The darkness surrounding me recedes as I step onto the porch.
When my mom opens the door, she sweeps me into a hug. “Thank God.”
I relax into her arms, the tension of the night melting away.
My mom wears faded jeans with an elastic waistband and an old “Air Jordan” sweatshirt that once belonged to my older brother. Small and fine boned, with a delicate face, her hazel eyes and soft, fox-brown hair are my rest. My mom is nearing seventy, and in a moment of clarity, I think that she’s getting too old to be dealing with a daughter in such a state. Even though I know what lies ahead, I trust her.
A pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt wait for me on my childhood bed, in the room with pink-and-blue train wallpaper that my dad never got around to updating. I scan the house, looking for him, but my mom told the truth—he is gone. I wonder where he is, but don’t ask. It is just the two of us here tonight; my siblings long since grown up and moved away. There is no need to mention my dad, or my deep fear of him again. That will come—tomorrow, in a very different place.
My mom lends me a toothbrush. At 2:30 a.m., she wishes me goodnight.
“I’m so grateful you came home, Meg,” she says. “Thank you for turning around and driving home.”
“I was scared, Mom.”
My mom turns off the bedside lamp and leans over to give me a hug.
“I know you were, sweetheart. But everything is going to be all right.”
The tears slide down my cheeks as I hold onto her slight frame. I decide that I must believe her. Clinging to this belief allows me to take a breath, even as I feel my world splinter. I’m utterly confused: Are my thoughts trustworthy? If I can’t trust my own mind, then what can be trusted? Was I wrong all along about my dad? Or is he the monster I had imagined?
“Do you want the radio on?” my mom asks, not waiting for my answer. In the glow of the hallway light that floods in the open bedroom door, she tunes my old radio, finding NPR’s classical station.
I fall asleep to an orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Little Swans.” The classical music evokes images of beautiful women attending ballets and fairy-tale lights in faraway places.
I sleep deeply and dream that white birds are alighting on my shoulders, eating from my hands. As they fly from my outstretched palms, they change to black. The blackbirds wheel in the air, turning and turning about my head. They fly faster and faster—circling, circling, circling—fusing into an onyx band that settles onto my brow like a dark crown.
When I wake, I wake to the grief that has been crushing me for twelve years, grinding my identity to grit. I remember the girl who graduated from high school ranked tenth in a strong class, a National Merit Scholar, a varsity soccer player named MVP her senior year, a girl who was headed for the University of Michigan’s Honors Program. This girl lived for books, wanted to become a college literature professor and a best-selling author; she had applied, and was accepted, into the university’s writing program.
But by the end of my freshman year in college, I was so riddled with the stress of performing at an elite public university, and—more than that—burdened by my own disintegrating mind, that I lost the ability to read. I would scan a page again and again, a hundred times it seemed, and never comprehend the words. My ability to read never fully returned.
I muddled through my classes, dropping out of some and faking my way through others. In my junior year, my anxiety and gathering depression spiraled out of control into a full-blown suicide attempt. After that, I moved home, commuting several times per week between Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor, an hour-and-a-half drive each way. At home, my mom would read to me, propping up my college textbooks and novels like Wuthering Heights and The Mill on the Floss on the counter, as she chopped carrots and celery for homemade minestrone soup while I sat at the kitchen table and strove to stay awake, fighting for consciousness against powerful psychotropic medications that tired me to my bones.
In my college days, as I struggled to read and dropped out of class after class, I would sometimes ask my mom, sobbing, what I had done to make God angry with me. It was Job’s question, the age-old riddle: “How have I offended thee?” My mom would tell me I had done nothing wrong; she would tell me that God cherished me. Once, she cried with me and told me that she, too, questioned God.
Five and a half years after I began college, I graduated with my BA in English from the University of Michigan in 2007. My parents never doubted that I would get my degree—it simply was expected that I would persist. I never stopped expecting it of myself. And I did get my degree. But I gave up my dreams of attending graduate school, sure that I could not complete a rigorous PhD program with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder and its crushing challenges to my mood, my energy levels, and my stability.
Now, this morning, overwhelmed by grief, I ask the question once again: “How have I offended thee, Lord?” It is my silent prayer. But I haul myself out of bed, knowing that this is no time for self-pity. Self-pity will only undermine me and make me feel like a victim, when I need to be brave.
Downstairs in the kitchen, my mom is frying an omelet. “Are you hungry?” she asks. “Did you wash your hands?”
When I sit down at the kitchen table, the veggie and cheddar omelet tastes salty, fluffy, and rich. My mom knows how to make an omelet—she whipped the eggs with whole milk. In this moment, her breakfast makes me feel both cared for and slightly edgy, especially since I haven’t been allowing myself to eat breakfast for about a year now. But my mom wants me to put good food in my body.
“Thanks, Mom.” I eat rapidly, huddled over, staring down at my plate. I’m scarfing food. When was the last time I ate? I can hardly remember.
“Slow down, Meg,” my mom says. “You’re gulping. It’s not going anywhere.”
She pours me a small glass of orange juice and sets it down before me as if I am five years old—or ninety. After all I have been through, I don’t feel thirty-one years old. I might as well be ageless, a natural element, a piece of granite or the sea itself. But, sitting there, swallowing orange juice, I also feel fragile, as if every bone might turn to salt.
I realize suddenly—I can’t look back. Behind me stretches a wasteland of scorched ambitions and lightning-struck dreams.
There is nowhere to go but forward.
After I finish breakfast and brush my teeth, I shower, taking my time, steamy water pouring over my skin as I elongate each moment of normalcy. While I dress in jeans and a sweater, my mom places a bag of toiletries and some simple clothes—jeans, sweatshirts, socks, and underwear of mine that she has stored away—beside the door.
“It’s time, Meggie,” she says.
I know what she means. We have been through scenes like this before—six times over the past ten years. They always involve preparing and packing, and a sense of me casting my nets wide, hoping to find the fragments of myself that have scattered to the four winds. I have already lived this moment.
How many times will I repeat this scenario? How many times will I go away before I go away—never to come back? Deep down, I wonder if this is my final chance to right my capsized life, to save myself.
As I begin to pull on my coat, my mom waves me toward her. “Come here.” Gently, she unclasps my locket, a gift from my grandmother, who passed away six months ago. I have been wearing the piece of jewelry like a talisman ever since she died. The locket gives me a sense that my grandmother watches over me and prays for me in heaven, petitioning the angels for my safety, just as she prayed for me in life. I need her prayers now.
As I watch my mother place the locket in her purse and cover it with her fingers, I know that she is right: anything—everything—can be stolen where I am going.
MEG LeDUC is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a BA in English and Creative Writing. Her writing has appeared in Brevity, San Fedele Press, and IHRAF Publishes. She won a 2014 Michigan Press Association Award for News Enterprise Reporting, and her essay, “A Different Kind of Home,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. An MFA in Writing student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives and works in Detroit with her husband and three cats.
Featured image by Dan LeFebvre courtesy of Unsplash