Rachel Cline is a native of Brooklyn, New York, where she currently lives. She has been a film and television writer (and production aide, and one-line actress), a content strategist, and, since 2009, a civil servant. She was also a fellow at Sewanee, a resident at Yaddo (twice), and a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome. She's taught writing at USC, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, and Eugene Lang. After receiving a BA from Oberlin College she earned an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts.
Like any daughter with a story to tell, I have a mother who looms large. For the first four years of my life, I was her greatest achievement. Then my brother was born, and then there was her book—which soon eclipsed us both. That book, a layperson's history of the birth of Quantum Mechanics, was the product of many years of loud typing behind the bedroom door. Its actual subject matter was beyond me, but by the age of seven I understood that my mother felt about Niels Bohr more or less the way I felt about John Lennon.
Mom's book was quite successful at the time of its publication, garnering a multi-page review in the New Yorker and soon becoming assigned reading at Yale. Still, I've always believed that its success was at least somewhat attributable to the striking juxtaposition of the world's most difficult subject matter with the beauty of the face of the young woman on the back of the book. What reviewer could resist? Yes, not only was my mother brilliant, she was a knockout.
I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, which was then a vaguely bohemian enclave, and my father worked as an architectural lighting designer—a profession he more or less invented. His first really big job was the immense, transparent geodesic dome that housed the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal—Dad referred to Buckminster Fuller as "Bucky." Still, no one in the school yard could understand what either of my parents did for a living and neither of my parents really had the slightest idea how to make money. We got by, but often there was a sense of impending crisis. Or perhaps this is the way it feels in any apartment-dwelling young family. There was a fair amount of yelling and a lot of indoor roller skating on rainy days.
When I was ten, my parents divorced—though amicably enough that we still often gathered as a family on holidays. My mother thought she was leaving my father to marry the father of one of my brother's friends but he got a job in Nixon's White House and decided to stay married and move to Washington. For years thereafter my mother believed herself to be on the White House enemies list and, in retrospect, it seems very possible that she was. My father remarried, happily, when I was twelve.
After the book, my mother worked at a wide variety of office jobs, none of which suited her but all of which kept her out of the apartment a fair amount. While she was out, my brother and I were cared for by a succession of African American women, at least one of whom I loved without reserve. My mother had a hard time after the divorce and the failed affair and I did everything in my power to become the thirty-five year old best friend that she needed. Watching her, I made some decisions about my own future: I would never, ever, live a life like my mother's. I would get a real job—a steady job, I would never let any Republican idiot break my heart, and I would certainly never have kids.
I went to three schools before college, P.S. 8—then in the early throes of integration by bus; Woodward, a tiny private school whose curriculum revolved almost exclusively around themes of racial equality; and Saint Ann's, an ostensibly progressive school where I read Plato and Aeschylus in tenth grade, spent most of eleventh grade getting stoned in a nearby park, and didn't learn to drive, type, speak a foreign language, or play a single sport. (I did, however, graduate and was somehow admitted to Oberlin College.)
When I was sixteen, Mom fell in love with Tom, a man I found abhorrent. Within a year, she had married him and moved my brother and I to suburban New Jersey. Sadly for my mother, and perhaps for my brother, Tom died within eight months of the marriage. For me, it was not sad, it was something else. An incredibly bitter victory? I was old enough to understand that I was susceptible to emotional damage if I harbored any magical beliefs about the role of my own hatred in my stepfather's untimely death, but I was also too young to understand the part of my soul where the darkest thoughts festered and grew.
All I really did know about myself was that I wanted to be a writer. That dream might have been the product of listening to all that typing behind the bedroom door, or of hearing my father read aloud from the Just So Stories and Winnie the Pooh, or of reading Harriet the Spy to myself when I was eight. Sometime in high school, however, I realized that being a writer and making a living were incompatible. This may have coincided with the arrival of Tom, whose industrial engineering business in the fetid New Jersey meadowlands my mother had expected to support us. Or maybe I came to this realization after Tom died, when my mother opened Barbara Eclectic, a suburban clothing boutique—selling clothes seemed to me like a terrible step down in life for my brilliant, eccentric mother (and for me, when I worked there that first summer).
At Oberlin, I majored in English and worked on the school newspaper—eventually rising to the august position of editorial writer. I tried to learn other things—ancient Greek, chemistry, American history, even computer programming, but I really didn't know how to read anything that didn't have a plot. It's kind of amazing that I didn't flunk out, given the limited number of things I actually applied myself to, but there were no distribution requirements back then and there were a lot of classes a person could take that really didn't require reading anything but novels, plays, and the occasional poem. I took them all and graduated with what I soon learned were absolutely no marketable skills. But wait a minute, I wasn't going to make the same mistakes my mother had!
The only mistakes of hers I never made were getting married and having children—if those can be called mistakes. I fell in love a time or two, but I never got pregnant and I never got engaged. The former was easy, since my ovaries were overrun with endometriosis by the time I was twenty-five. The latter is still a bit of a mystery but less and less of a misery over time.
Anyway, after a few years of trying to find my way through the lower depths of publishing (typing mailing labels for review copies, proofreading, something called "traffic,") I decided to go to film school. This was a highly rational choice, I thought. I was going to learn a trade: screenwriting. Screenwriters got paid. There was even a union, or was it a guild? Anyway, there were pensions and work rules and benefits.
So I got an MFA and worked for five years in the movie business as a secretary. It was the best secretarial job on earth, don't get me wrong: I traveled all over the country and I learned to drive—two things that I might never otherwise have been able to do. In addition to typing and filing I did glamorous things like renting a piano for Richard Gere, making a salad for Sean Penn, knocking repeatedly on the dressing room door of Kim Basinger, spending my per diem allowance at the craps table in Lake Tahoe, having my wallet stolen three times in one month in New Orleans, and driving to various small regional airports in the middle of the night with very heavy cans of film in my care. I also drove Winona Ryder to the airport when her name was still Winona Horowitz—and when I had had my license for about six weeks and shouldn't have been driving anyone anywhere.
Then, one afternoon, in a production office in New York City, a young playwright asked me to get him a cup of coffee. I was ostensibly sitting at the table with him as an associate producer on a movie project based on one of his plays, but the other two people at the table—the executive producer and the producer—were men. I realized no one was ever going to stop asking me for coffee if I didn't start doing something besides being that secretary who wrote the slyly funny memos. So I quit my glamorous job as a secretary in the movie business and became a temp: I got paid twenty-five dollars an hour for word processing documents for investment bankers—this was at the height of the arbitrage boom—the bonfire of the vanities.
While temping, I managed to write two "portfolio" screenplays but then there was this one summer, I think it was 1987, when every single person I knew got married and I broke up with the boyfriend I’d had since college. By 1990, it seemed like a very good time to get out of town, so I moved to L.A.
I got myself a Honda Civic, a secretarial job at Disney, a desktop computer, and tried really hard to become a screenwriter. (I think William Goldman once said something like ‘the worst thing that can happen to a young writer in Hollywood is hope.’) Luckily, just as despair was beginning to kick in, John Romano, a former professor of mine from film school, asked me to write an episode of Knots Landing—John, a Dickens scholar as well as an accomplished screenwriter, had taken over the writing of the show. The staff I joined shortly thereafter also included a novelist and a playwright—both friends and peers of John's—and Lisa Seidman, a "real" TV writer, who kept us from turning every storyline into a pastiche of great books, opera plots, and not-so-great movies from the fifties, although that was definitely the fun part. Well, that and making all that money. TV writers make a ridiculous amount of money. Unfortunately, I got fired after six months—along with everyone else but Lisa.
It took another five years in Los Angeles to get me fully over my hopes. Even though I was more or less reliving my mother's itinerant work life throughout those years, my successful avoidance of marriage and children meant I was still keeping my word to whoever it was I'd promised all that. Anyway, as the belief that I would one day get one of my scripts made faded, I found myself writing for a small company that produced training materials for corporate clients. Had these materials been films, they would have been called "industrials" (shameful) but they were CD-ROMs so they were called "new media." That was a very lucky break for me—it got me through the rest of the decade and the first draft of "What to Keep." By then, "new media" had come to mean "the Internet" and I was writing style guides, “content strategies,” and where-to-click instructions for huge corporations willing to pay ridiculously inflated prices for skills like mine—skills they otherwise valued not in the least. I got a job with one of those internet bubble companies, which paid for my relocation to New York in 1999 and laid me off in July of 2001.
I might never have come back to New York if my father hadn't developed cancer of the esophagus. At first, it was just a visit so that I could hear his voice again before they surgically removed it. Then I got myself assigned to East Coast clients so I could come back more often—even with his electro-larynx, it was hard to understand him on the phone. Then—as he grew sicker and sicker—I started to realize that most of the people I relied on for support and comic relief lived not in L.A. but in New York. So I came back for good. Although my dad died in early 2000, by that time I had a job and an apartment and a network of friends who got my jokes. I also somehow (well, through my derelict old high school, is the truth of the matter) made an alliance with an amazing literary agent (Nina Collins, now the head she-wolf at What Would Virginia Woolf Do?) who sold my first two novels to Random House. As I said, I came home for good.
But what about my mother, you ask? She spent the last 25 years of her life in Wellfleet, Massachusetts reading voraciously, entertaining and making friends, and creating paintings, prints, and collages that look like the work of someone who’d been doing it from the jump. She never wrote another book, but The Questioners, (subsequently re-titled Men Who Made a New Physics) was only out of print briefly (and if you are in any way involved in publishing you know what a huge miracle that represents). She died in my arms in August 2018 after a long, complicated, and very upsetting adventure in the land of dementia. It turned out there was no danger of my becoming her, but that didn’t stop me from spending most of my adult life leaning decidedly out—like a sailor keeping her boat upright while taking advantage of a powerful wind. If she hadn’t died, I would have killed her, but I miss her every day.