Stories from ‘The Viewing Room’

Author Jacquelin Gorman with her dog Nanette in her Noank home.
Author Jacquelin Gorman with her dog Nanette in her Noank home. SEAN D. ELLIOT/THE DAY Buy Photo

Before moving to Noank in late May, Jacquelin Gorman had lived for more than two decades in Los Angeles, where she raised a family, worked as a health-care lawyer and then as a hospital chaplain - and wrote two highly acclaimed books.

"The Seeing Glass," published in 1997, is a memoir described by The New Yorker as "profoundly moving." Gorman wrote about her temporary blindness - she lost her sight over the course of just one day, and she remained unable to see for nearly three months - but she also wove into the story her memories of her brother, who was one of the first children to be diagnosed with autism.

This year saw the publication of Gorman's "The Viewing Room," which was inspired by her time as a hospital chaplain. It won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction and has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Baltimore native Gorman, 58, had been planning to move back East, since her kids are now both out of high school. How she ended up in Noank, though, requires a little explaining - and a guest appearance by Wally Lamb.

Here's how it started, Gorman recalls: "I was sitting there with a glass of wine one Saturday night, feeling sorry for myself, and I saw this ad (in Poets & Writers) that said, 'Do you want to spend a week with Wally Lamb on the Amalfi Coast?'"

Well, she thought, that sounds really good.

She sent off an email, saying that if there was still a spot available for the writers' trip in late March of 2013, she was in.

"Before I knew it, I was on my way to go to the Amalfi Coast with a whole group of Connecticut writers and me. ... The whole week was absolute heaven," she says.

They stayed in a villa owned by the widow of renowned artist Sol LeWitt. All the participants came with the beginnings of a new work. Lamb and fellow writers Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine read them and offered advice.

Another piece of advice Gorman received was arguably even more life-changing: The other participants on the retreat suggested Gorman move to Connecticut. Her response: why not?

Ben Greenfield, one of the writers, lives in Noank and helped find a place for Gorman here. She says of Noank, "It's a storybook village. It really is. It's not only a lovely place to write, but it's a real community."

The authors in the Praiano, Italy, group, she says, "made me appreciate what a nurturing community you have here for creative people. In L.A., so many people are writing and creating that it is a competition, not a supportive endeavor, and that has proved to be delightfully different here."

She has kept in touch with Lamb, and he invited her to be the opening author at the Nov. 30 reading of his new book, "We Are Water" at the Madison Beach Hotel, in an event sponsored by R.J. Julia Booksellers.

So she will do that, reading from "The Viewing Room," a collection of stories dealing with two chaplains working in a hospital. The link is provided by the viewing room, the place in large hospitals where family members can see their deceased loved ones a final time. The stories range from an infant who dies from shaken baby syndrome to an obese woman whose body is suffering from kidney failure and gangrene but who remains a resilient, positive soul.

Lamb says, "I loved working with Jacquelin Gorman in the Praiano writers' group and was blown away when I read her unforgettable story collection, 'The Viewing Room.' How did she do it? How did Jackie craft fiction about death and dying that is triumphantly life-affirming? I marvel at her achievement and hope that 'The Viewing Room' finds the wide audience it deserves."

Gorman didn't become a chaplain until a number of years after she worked as a hospital lawyer. She reflects on the occupation shift: "People say, 'Was it redemption? Was it atonement?' Maybe it was a little bit of both. I call myself a recovering lawyer (she laughs). I was never confrontational, and I don't know really why I went (into law) - I think it was because my parents said, 'You'll never make money as a writer.' So I thought I had to have something legitimate. But I was always interested in health care, so I became a health-care lawyer."

While she had been a comparative religion major at Bowdoin College, hospital chaplaincy programs usually only take people out of rabbinical school or a seminary. But the UCLA Medical Center opened up its program to men and women who were spiritual but not religious; the reasoning was that 60 percent of their parents would describe their own spirituality the same way.

As a hospital chaplain, Gorman dealt with patients, family and staff. She supported their spiritual care, whatever that might mean; a patient might, say, ask for a prayer or a certain ritual or to hear a certain Bible passage.

"A lot of times, quite honestly, it was people just feeling they'd lost their faith," she says. "They're in these situations, and they thought God would hear them and their faith would help them, and it wasn't. They were really just distressed about it."

Patients often feel as though they lose their identities in a hospital - as though they are no longer a CEO or a mother but are just a number on their wrist.

"It always happened that, once I sat down and talked to them about their lives, we kind of found where the meaning was. I also just reassured them that I saw this all the time. ... It was the situation," she says.

One of her experiences as a chaplain had a much more personal impact. Gorman promised a patient who was dying of kidney failure that she'd become an organ donor - and, three years ago this month, she did.

"I always hear (on the anniversary) from my recipient, Leo. He's so lovely. He's doing great. He's playing championship doubles tennis, and I always tell him my kidney must be so incredibly happy because, in my body, it could not get the ball over the net. It must be like, 'Finally!'" says Gorman, who wrote a piece on being a donor for Reader's Digest.

***

Gorman wrote about her life in memoir, rather than fiction, form in "The Seeing Glass." She recalls, in vivid, visceral detail, the terror of slipping into complete blindness so rapidly, a condition caused by bilateral optic neuritis. She deals, too, with memories of her older brother, Robin, who had autism and was placed in a hospital for the mentally ill when he was 12 and Jackie was 6.

The impetus for "Glass" grew out of an article Gorman wrote for Redbook about how her relationship with her daughter, Kelsey, shifted when she lost her sight. After the piece ran, publishers called Redbook, asking if Gorman would write a book about the whole experience.

The focus was going to be solely on Gorman, but then her editor Julie Grau asked what Gorman had thought about at night when she couldn't see.

"I said, 'All I did was dream about my brother.' She said, 'Oh, my goodness, that's as much the story,'" Gorman recalls.

Jackie's late mother had, in fact, asked her to write about Robin, who died at age 31 when he was hit by a car. And Jackie did, scouring records and going through his things.

"It really was a longing to know what his life was like," Gorman says.

While "The Seeing Glass" details Gorman's first bout with blindness - a symptom, it was later determined, of Multiple Sclerosis - she fell victim two more times afterward. She had planned on including those additional rounds in her book's final chapter, but Grau, who had just come off editing "Girl Interrupted," had other ideas. She told Gorman, "It's too much. I've decided (readers) can only cry four times in that book. The fifth time, they won't read any more."

Gorman told People magazine when "The Seeing Glass" was published that the hardest part about sinking into blindess that first time was "not being able to see my daughter's face." (Her son, Ben, was born later.)

Her vision is now back, although her brightness sense remains a bit off. She says she's lucky, since it's unusual for someone to have bilateral optic neuritis and then to have the vision all return.

A side note: Some intriguing familial tidbits get brief references in "The Seeing Glass." Gorman's great-uncle was Ogden Nash. Her grandfather was chair of the opthamology department at Johns Hopkins, where they named a research center after him; Gorman writes, "Bob Hope, whose eyes my grandfather 'saved,' flew in from California to give a speech at the dedication ceremony."

***

Gorman's already working on her next novel, which is, again, inspired by a real experience. It happened back when Gorman was going through a tough time in her life and her marriage was ending after 25 years.

"I was outside, and a woman walked by and she handed me a key. She said, 'I can tell you're in trouble. ... I want you to have this key to my house. You can come any time. If you need help right away, go to the right. If you need to be left alone, go to the left.'"

Gorman never went to the house but left the purple key on her keychain for years.

She was in the grocery store one day and saw a woman who drove a Lexus and wore expensive jewelry - and she had the exact same key on her chain.

Gorman eventually saw the obituary of the woman who gave out those keys; she had been a psychiatrist, back when few women were; she had started a homeless shelter; and she had been a women's rights and gay rights activist.

Gorman eventually decided to go and look at the house, only to find it had been levelled and a McMansion was being erected in its stead.

She cried and realized she had to explore what it was that made her so emotional.

"Was it the idea of safety? Was it the idea of always being welcome that I held onto?" she says.

In her next book, presumably, we'll find out.

IF YOU GO

Who: Author Jacquelin Gorman, reading before Wally Lamb

When: 6 p.m. Nov. 30

Where: Madison Beach Hotel, 94 West Wharf Road, Madison

Sponsored by: R.J. Julia Booksellers

Tickets: $10, with $5 good toward the purchase of Lamb's "We Are Water"

Contact: (203) 245-3959, rjjulia.com

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