The Reading Life: Vivian Gornick and Pet Psychics


Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments competes with other books in your bag if you bring it with you on your commute. It’s tough, it’s rude. It’s harsh and pretty. It’s down-on-his-luck Warren Oates, behind the wheel of a large automobile. You choose its toothy grin over whatever else you’ve decided to lug around, because the stories within are short, punishing. With Vivian, five minutes on the train feel spent.

The framing device of the memoir is simple. Vivian and her mother live near one another in Manhattan. They can go for walks together. This is their quality time, passed by telling stories about their days in the Bronx, in a housing project populated with intensely troubled and troubling women. Vivian suggests, and her mother agrees, that these women were plagued by “sexual rage.” “I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face,” she says of her Dreiserian neighbors. “It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.”

I suppose Vivian is right. It takes years to catch up with yourself, and the way to do this is to tell stories over and over. Return to the favorites, but ask new questions. I’m familiar with the desire to recall ephemera that feels more important than the milestones: swimming in lakes, bare skin on a car seat in the middle of a hot valley summer, and more things you remember for no better reason than how good it feels to remember at all.

On Mother’s Day, I was talking to my mom about how much I love reading my horoscope, particularly when it’s terrifying. I like otherworldly warnings, I explained. They give the day some structure. She mentioned someone in our family, a psychic who, upon reading my grandmother’s palm, ominously refused to tell what she saw. She ended up being right about three deaths in the family.

I love these kinds of stories. They are usually told with raised eyebrows and, as Flannery O’Connor might say, faces as broad and innocent as cabbages. Something about exceptions and rules should go here, but I am too gleeful about this kind of stuff to really care about sounding like an idiot. Tell me about heretics and weirdos, tarot card readers with flatscreen TVs next to their leather-bound books on the occult. Explain numerology to me. I like a good story about a charlatan.

So, when my mother mentioned the palm reader, I happily brought up my favorite story about a psychic being eerily correct. This is the story of the pet psychic.

Both my parents grew up in houses filled with animals. My father picked up one of his favorite pets, a terrier named Nuisance, on the side of the road. My mother had horses, and my mother’s mother had a raccoon that hid in closets. Among the wildlife were two dogs named Shiner and Bandit. Shiner was Bandit’s mother, so named for a black spot covering her eye. Bandit was an affable cockapoo.

One fourth of July, some fireworks spooked Shiner, and she began to behave oddly. The family worried, so they consulted a relative who happened to be a dog trainer. (That my family claims both a dog trainer and a palm reader is only now striking me as odd—or apt, I can’t decide.) The trainer suggested an animal behaviorist named Beatrice. She was well known in the “dog world” (which is a phrase, I think) for claiming to be telepathic. If something were bothering Shiner, Beatrice would be able to see the scene of the crime like a picture, to put it as dumbly as possible.

My mother and my grandmother were skeptical but tried it anyway. They drove out to Beatrice’s house, which I imagine had one story and was surrounded by fashionable desert grasses. (Now seems to be the right moment to remind ourselves of the setting, which is Southern California in the 70s.) When they arrived, there were too many dogs inside already, so they were told to sit with Shiner and Bandit in a Winnebago that was parked out front.

Beatrice did not see fireworks. She saw the exact colors of the dogs’ bowls. She described the backyard perfectly, down to the fact that there was a stone wall lining the property. She guessed their personalities. Shiner, she said, was obsessive and mean to Bandit. Shiner was thinking about the mashed potatoes and gravy that my grandfather had fed her surreptitiously under the table the night before. This is certainly the kind of thing a person can make up about a dog and hope to get right, but with the other details it had some weight to it. And besides, all of it was true.

As for Bandit, he was thinking about flying a kite in the hills. My mom recalls taking him when he was a puppy to a hillside outside the house they had in a different town. She remembers him being extraordinarily happy, even for a happy animal. This, too, is the kind of thing that you could just guess about a dog, but the memory was there, and this stranger was reciting it.

In the end, fireworks had nothing to do with it. Shiner had a brain tumor that was affecting her behavior. When she died, Bandit’s confidence grew. I think my grandfather fed him more.

I’m still not sure why I like this story so much or how much of it I understand. It certainly doesn’t convince me that pet psychics are to be taken seriously. What would? But I like that it’s about what it takes to be convinced of something, what it means when someone you don’t know sees symbols of your happiness, no matter how easy or small. How eerie it is when someone unexpectedly explains the shorthand you share with the people you’re closest to. When I tell this story with my family, for instance, I rarely say the words “pet psychic.” I say: “flying a kite.” I say: “mashed potatoes and gravy.”

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