True Untrue: Tom


Tom is a doctor, and tall like a doctor. He stands 6 ’ 5”. He’s in my Friday group, the in-person group. He’s 55 years old, his shoulders are broad, his stature erect. He has a large brow, large chin, and his cheeks sag like leather coin purses weighted with coins. But his hair is thick and blond, so you don’t notice the gray much, and he could pass for 45.

We met in the parking lot of a wood-oven pizza restaurant near Lake Calhoun. I was coming from St. Paul, and I found Tom in his Buick Skylark with red leather interior. I had been expecting a Lexus or Audi, but here it was, this kind of Svengli, ‘80s vibe.

We had plans to drive by his urban lake home, on Lake of the Aisles Parkway in South Minneapolis. But first he wanted to show me his medical clinic.

I got in the car. Inside, it smelled of good cigars.

Tom had agreed to let me film him. As I had with Jim, I told Tom that the footage would be shown on a website called True Untrue dot com, and at best shown in a gallery or two, perhaps screened at a café. With luck, I could get distribution, and a true pipe dream would be an award nomination. I did in fact end up saying more to Tom than I’d said to the other men about what I had planned for this film. I was more garrulous with Tom I think because, though he was dry-humored and kind of devious looking, as a respected doctor he was fatherly, and I couldn’t resist wanting to impress him.

I started rolling as we neared the clinic. (You can’t have too much car footage—much of it is garbage.) He showed me around. He showed me the front desk, and introduced me to the administration staff, everyone. He walked me, at a quick pace, down corridors, waving at examination rooms, nurse’s stations, etc. There were women nurses moving about in ocean blue scrubs, printing documents, tearing open medical packaging. Tom was the big cheese, it was clear.

In his office, I faced him. Though he wore khakis and a red Van Heusen for our appointment, you could see how at home he would look donning a white lab coat. He would present himself as stately, and his doctoral manner would be erudite and dry, as he always spoke at Group. Severe and humorless at times.

In his office, I sat in an arm chair, and with the door open we faced each other over his mahogany desk. Tom looked a little hesitant or threatened, and his blond hair was especially combed over, kind of Jimmy Carter. This was A-roll.

“Very nice clinic,” I said.

“Thank you.”

I remarked on his surname, which I’d only learned by coming to this clinic. Our Group uses only first names and last initials.

“Are you ready to go see your old place?” I asked Tom.

“We don’t have to talk about that here,” he said. Unlike Jim, he was not eager to go.

A discussion ensued, and eventually I stopped recording. Once he’d rattled off some figures proving the profitability of the clinic, describing its staff size and overhead percentages, he seemed satisfied. In a check-in meeting, Jim would have said that this was Tom’s addict talking: the one wanting attention, approval. But Jim didn’t strike me as arrogant as much as he was obviously bred to be competitive. He couldn’t help himself. (I believed that this would come across on film and redeem him.) Yet, Tom was protective of the knowledge of things he’d done. Who he used to be. How he used to act. His professional reputation was everything to him. I could tell he was nervous about riding around the Twin Cities having his story recorded, having a document made that could ruin him if it got in the wrong hands.

Finally, we left his clinic and went in his car up Highway 100 a few miles and east on Excelsior Boulevard, into the most famed of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods. Where Fitzgerald would have lived, if he’d lived in Minneapolis (instead of St. Paul).

When we got on the single-lane parkway that ran counterclockwise around the oddly shaped lake, called Lake of the Isles, Tom said, “So you want me to show you the place Debra and I lived, right?”

Tom and I had discussed this at length; he knew where I wanted us to go. Debra was his ex-wife. During the years of his marriage to Debra, Dr. Tom was, as he put it, “at the peak of his illness.”

“Yes, the place where you Debra lived,” I said, after a long pause, trying to draw out his unease.

We arrived at the house just as dusk was settling over the neighborhood. Filaments of sunlight through the tall oaks’ boughs. Red stone roofs. Lawns you could eat off of. There were pontoons in racks around one part of the lake, walkers striding on the paths, shaking out the long day behind the keyboard, at the Pilsbury, Cargill, General Mills offices. Best Buy. Target too.

During a long bend in the road, Tom slowed the car and pointed ahead. “Here it is,” he said. With my window down and the camera out the window, I shot it: a neo-Tudor castle with slate roofing. The snaky limbs of a spider monkey tree passing through the viewfinder. A three-season porch at one end of the house, in the yard a flowing water feature.

Tom took the next road off the parkway and circled back, then turned into an alley. Every house had a double garage or carriage house or both. He stopped the car at the end of the alley; we were behind his house now, and he shut the engine off.

He looked in the rear-view suspiciously, out each side window, peered into the backyards all around us.

In meetings, Tom was consummately poised, sometimes even eerily unflappable. He was fidgety now, and it was minutes before he sat back and sat still. In the camera’s digital display, he looked as I’d always thought he looked, since meeting him: like the type of doctor who just might put a woman under so he can feel her breasts. Audaciously, I zoomed in on Tom’s face. His eyes were looking what they call “half-lidded,” seemingly secretive.

“Are we going in?” I said.

“Going in? No. Jan and the girls are home….” He trailed off.

I said that was fine.

“Now you know what I mean,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“You’ve been to my clinic. You saw the nurses I work with.”

“Oh, right,” I said, in recognition. Tom had described in many meetings the temptation that was presented to him in the form of his female staff. He had never done anything that broke codes of conduct—or if he did, he never told Group about it. He still had his license to practice and his reputation. Maybe he’d looked through a cracked door here or there. It was more about the computer for Tom, as it was for most of us in Group.

“The women,” he said now. “Every day. Every day. That’s all I had on my mind, in the past. Now it comes to mind frequently, but I never let it stay on my mind. That’s the difference.”

I nodded, steadying the lens on him, staying quiet.

“Take Jacqueline, for instance. So what if she’s black and athletic? Goes to the gym. That’s not what she’s there for, to be a body for me to look at. She’s trying to do her job.” Tom turned and faced me. “I literally had to explain these things to myself like that, when I started treatment. Old habits die hard.”

I wished he hadn’t said that, but he did. Tom had often explained, in group, his belief that it “takes a lot of intelligence” to carry on at the levels he had carried on, running a business, raising a family, keeping a house, all that the same time. Diabolic levels of deception and secrecy. He’d had affairs with two married women, and gone through monumental challenges to keep his family—all women. But when he went for something with “old habits die hard,” I had my doubts.

I didn’t need to particularly, but I took out a lens cloth and wiped the lens, and as I did so, told Tom that in a minute I would ask him to talk about the house and times with Debra.

Tom nodded.

Soon I asked him, “So what’s it like to see this house? What’s it remind you of? What happened here?”

Tom cleared his throat. “Well, I wanted to bring you here, out back. I wanted to get a look at this garage, actually. This spot here…”

He pointed just outside the car, to an area between a privacy fence and the back of his old garage.

“This spot here is where I would smoke cigarettes. A doctor smoking cigarettes, can you imagine? I was always telling patients who smoked that they must quit right away. It was imperative.” He looked at the spot, and so did I. This was the cleanest city alley I’d ever seen, with signs everywhere for security companies. There was nothing nefarious looking about the spot.

That’s where I’d smoke,” Tom said. “And not only smoke cigarettes…”

Tom turned his head thoughtfully, as if regarding the site through a lens of passed time. He laughed, a light sniffle. “Jesus. Those weeds were so tall. Sometimes I’d get a rash.”

“So Debra’s in the kitchen….” I said, trying to provoke Tom to paint a picture of a typical scene which has him out here.

He picked up on my intent right away, snapping, “Oh, no Debra’s on the phone in the den, haranguing someone on the city council. Gossiping with other mothers. Mothers of our daughters’ friends.”

“I see.” I realized that by placing his wife in the kitchen, I had made a gaffe on camera that would need to be edited out, revealing myself as a stereotyper, or sexist. Gender normative! Shit! “I didn’t mean to place her there for any reason,” I said.

“No, I know. But Debra doesn’t do kitchen work. We had a cook, and a nanny. And anyway, when I was out here, she didn’t give two shits.”

“Did Debra know you smoked cigarettes?” I asked.

“No. Or she pretended not to. We weren’t intimate often enough for her to get close enough to smell. Or taste. I would brush my teeth, and go to bed.”

I asked Tom if he had ever gotten caught out here.

“When a car came up the alley, I would throw the cigarette across the yard, or if I was doing more than smoking, I would turn my back, pretend to be inspecting something. I don’t know what. The siding, I suppose.”

Tom was often openly contemplative in our meetings. Yet once he struck on a particular phrase, he would use it again and again. I had heard “inspecting the siding” before. But I had to remember that viewers wouldn’t have.

“I was under a lot of pressure at the time,” he said, his voice more tuneful than ever. “I was a workaholic. I had unbelievable financial burdens, as I still do, as well as staff I was beholden to. People’s incomes and families depended on me. And my demons were getting the better of me. I started to lose my mind.”

I asked Tom what he meant. I sat up and aimed.

“One time, I came out here…I kept the cigarettes in the garage, mind you, just inside the side door. One time, I go in to grab them, and I hear this strange sound, and I look up, there’s a snake up in the rafters. A big black snake, they come in 4 to 5 feet around here. He’s in the garage rafters, rising up, swaying around, like he’s in the African jungle, at home in the canopy. When you try to trap a snake, they just remain motionless and stare at you like they are immovable. They know you are more frightened of it than it is frightened of you. With a hockey stick, I did manage to get him in a crate with a lid, and I drove to River Road, set him loose on the riverbank, watched him slither down, the bastard. Granted, I lost my shit at that thing. I was cussing, nearly wailing. I hate the sight of snakes. I’m like Indiana Jones that way, detest them. They’re so stubborn. You’re yelling at them, at they’re looking at you. Mostly what I was irate about, though, was my sanctuary being interrupted. I was powerless to keep it… well, to keep them out. They weren’t invited. But they came, ugly, frightening, strange.”

I agreed that snakes filled me with a special kind of terror, too.

“So I get back to the garage, put the crate away, and go to throw something away in the trash can, lift the lid, and, BAM, there’s a big black snake a top my garbage, curled up amid the stink. Jesus! I fell over backwards and broke my glasses. Now, I don’t know if you know this, but black snakes all look the same. Identical. I wasn’t sure whether this was a second snake or the one I’d just relocated. Though it was irrational, part of me believed that it was the one I’d just set free two miles away! I thought I might be dreaming, or the snake had practiced voodoo, leaping through space. I was that freaked out. I managed to put the lid back on, and put the can outside. By this time, my hands are shaking as I get my cigarettes and go behind the garage—“

I asked Tom how come he smoked behind the garage rather than in the garage where neighbors couldn’t see him?

He said because of the smell. Debra would smell it in garage. It would get on his clothes. Outside, he could blow smoke away.

“So just as I’m getting involved in my other habit, there in the weeds in the dark, when a black slithering catches my eye. Then the licking tongue flickering and the eyes glowing in the dark.”

I said nothing.

“Were they the same eyes? This was like something out of a horror movie. The raised knife around every corner.” The doctor was more expressive now than I’d practically ever seen him. “Part of me was like, Am I really being pursued by snakes? You know, when something like this happens to you—I see it with patients—the rational mind kicks in. I’m reasoning with myself: snakes travel in packs, they’re harmless. But I was completely out of my gourd with their appearance. Why did they insist on this space to invade—my garage? I felt my rage growing.”

“Did you ever find out anything more about the snakes? Were other neighbors having problems?” I asked.

He said that he had not, and when he caught the snake a second time and relocated it, and a third appeared, he said frankly he couldn’t be certain he hadn’t hallucinated them all.

“I began to think of them as messengers,” Dr. Tom said, in what I was sure would be the long segment that would become the defining scene for Tom’s role in the film. “You know, the lore about snakes, in certain Native American mythologies anyway (and of course Americans have coopted this), is that they are signs of luck, fertility, whatever. Well, I didn’t see it that way at all. Not remotely. The invaded a place I cherished. That’s precisely why there were so frighteningly—and perhaps, if there is a god, why they appeared where they did, above my cigarettes, which was a gateway drug for my acting out. I was a basket case the whole week I moved those snakes. But it wasn’t long after that I began to make the efforts that got me into Group.”

I knew that Debra had left Tom upon his first confession to her of a problem, and only after tremendous efforts (purchases of expensive apology jewelry, setting of terms in writing, much therapy) did she return.

He still had his practice, his house, his family.

“Dr. Tom, you did well,” I said. “You still have your title. You still have your good name.”