Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Real Life Underworld

Today, I am happy to be hosting a bit of a book tour by an author named Heather Siegel. Her book, Out from the Underworld is a tale all too common in our broken society. If we were not immersed ourselves, then I imagine most people know somebody who had a very non-Brady childhood. The book is solid writing and tells Heather's story from the early days on and is full of unsavory and unpleasant moments. Have there been children who endured worse? Sure, but that is not the point. Here is one author laying her soul bare and sharing her LESSONS. I never understand people who "can't finish due to the language" or whatever. What is here in these pages is an uncensored look at ONE story. There is depth and emotion from the author that will pull you in and keep you turning the pages. Is it sad? Yes. But is it truth? Absolutely. This is a story worth reading.

Everybody will find the parts that resonate with them specifically, but more than anything, I think what I took away from this was a person who has the ability to take a horrible situation and, instead of being a stereotype that falls into the same pattern, makes a conscious effort to rise ABOVE. Too often, people dealt a bad hand use it as an excuse to repeat bad behavior. I have always found that weak at best and more of a construct of having that idea preached at them from the mindless TV drones and people who think they are helping by providing such excuses. Bravo to Ms. Siegel for sharing such a raw tale, and doing so in such eloquent fashion.

Get your copy HERE.

Book Description:

Heather Siegel was six years old when her mother disappeared, sending her father into a tailspin that took Heather and her siblings down with him— from a comfortable suburban home to a barely habitable basement apartment, a dark world they soon found themselves fighting to return to from the exile of foster care, then fighting even harder to escape.

Forty years later, Heather Siegel tells the remarkable story of how she and her siblings, Jaz and Greg, banded together to find out what happened to their mother and fight their way Out from the Underworld with nothing but their wits, determination, unbreakable bonds and gifts for humor and compassion to sustain them. A wrenching, inspiring story filled with heartbreak, hope and love, Out from The Underworld will move you to laughter and tears.

Where to buy the book:

Author's Bio:

Heather Siegel holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from The New School. Her work has appeared on and in The Mother Magazine and Author Magazine, as well as in various trade publications. She was a finalist for the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Award in Nonfiction Writing, the 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference Nonfiction Writing Award, the Carolina Wren Press 2012 Doris Bakwin Award and the 2012 Kore Press First Book Award. A multi-creative person with interests in the arts, nutrition, health and beauty, she has founded several independent businesses, including a coffeehouse, a café, an organic juice bar and a natural beauty bar. She currently lives with her husband, Jon, and daughter, Julia, in the woods of Long Island in a house filled with light.

Connect with Heather:  Website  ~  Facebook  ~  Twitter

A Real Life Underworld

I know there are some people who think that subterranean living is no big deal. I mean basement apartments are certainly a part of American living and can even be seen as a great way to gain some extra income. But I am not one of them. Every time I see an ad to “refinish your basement” I think, “Not in a million years, thank you very much.” I’ll keep mine for its intended use of storage space, and to hold the house’s plumbing, electrical and heating infrastructure.

Maybe this is because the basement that I grew up in was much more like an underworld than a home. Or maybe my disdain for basements has as much to do with the other underworlds that seem braided into our lives during those years we lived beneath the earth.

 There was the underworld of the funeral home that my undertaker father worked in, replete with “walk-in freezers,” a casket room, an embalming table and a cosmetics counter where my Dad artfully applied “life” back into the cheeks of the deceased. And there was the dark underbelly of a world that my mother unfortunately fell into—and which eventually pulled her away from us—including the hot blinking lights of NYC and some unsavory characters she befriended.

Metaphorically speaking, there was also the underworld of thought in my family—something I would come to describe as a sort of “victim mentality” that the adults around us all seemed to share and pass on, as their parents before them had passed onto them. It would be a mentality that I would rally against—as would my siblings—deciding to end it with us and our generation.

But it was also that damn basement that made me hate basement living so much.

And it didn’t help that the place was haunted.

I’m not talking soft core hauntings like memories, thought there were certainly memoires floating about that place-- of my mother and the good times, as well as her mysterious absence, something that no adults around us wanted to talk about.

I’m talking hard core apparitions.

Were these spirits passing though on their way to hell? It wouldn’t be unlikely, I remembered theorizing as a fourteen year old girl to my brother, Greg, who was 12 and my sister, Jaz, who was 16. We were, after all, halfway there.

Maybe we were on their turf!

There was the time that Jaz walked on the treadmill and felt a hand clamp down upon her shoulder and yank her off the machine. Or the time Greg woke to a man standing over him; when Greg blinked the man had vanished—but had left a scent of cologne in the air. Or the myriad of times I woke to feel hands pressing down on my throat and chest. Many years later, as an adult, I would watch the movie The Entity and think, “Oh, hey, I know that evil spirit! He used to frequent the basement.”

Besides being haunted, the basement was also… well, it was a basement: cold and dark and moldy and full of insects, it lacked anything remotely connected to the warmth of a home.  Suffice it to say, were weren’t going to win a spread anytime soon in the pages of Architectural Digest.

Black and white checkered floor tile had been glued down over cement (and not very evenly, I might add; it was an unusual day when I didn’t stub a toe). On top of this sat a pair of frayed, brown, velour couches that some distant relative had discarded--which we’d arranged into an L-shape to face the nineteen-inch television abutting the stairs. (Now that I think about it, those stairs were actually the one architectural feature the basement did have, even if they did symbolically remind of us our descension to the lower world).  Overhead, fluorescents-- of course-- blazed and flickered, illuminating things we’d rather not see, namely that our refrigerator, a thirty-year old dinosaur that likely had come with the purchase of the house, sat as its own piece of furniture in the living room.

“But why can’t we just slide it into the kitchenette? It’s embarrassing,” we begged our father.  This plea happened during our last stretch in the basement, when he had taken us back there—yet again—and it made us question things in a new way. We had also done everything we could to camouflage the unit such as draping it with cloth and buying a fake plant to shroud it. But no matter what we did, there remained a refrigerator in our living room.

“God, you guys act like it’s a dead body,” our father said. He liked to say things like that, as if we were the crazy ones for caring that four of us inhabited 800 square feet of dampness. But we knew better. We lived in middle class suburbia and no one we knew had a refrigerator in their living room.
For that matter, no one we knew lived in anything other than a cape or a ranch home with windows; nor did they sleep on futon mattresses or spritz their a hot water heater as part of their cleaning routine in the “kitchen.” (I think in my mind now I am still constructing the louvered doors I longed for to hide that embarrassing heater).

We had been through a long rough patch, my sibling and I, but moving back for this final stretch was a complete demotion to us, to a status even below foster children. At least while living in other people’s homes we had had them to blame for the chintzy furniture and bad taste in draperies. Now what could we say?

Of course it’s true that we were happy to have a roof over our heads, happy that we weren’t homeless and made to sleep beneath the open sky—although now and then it did rain upon me; for the foot of my futon caught the bathroom drip from above. But it was also a senseless kind of roof, seeing as our father worked a profession that paid a middle class salary that could afford us a place above topsoil.
Have I mentioned that the place was also dangerous?

Just navigating to the back steps, down the bush-lined path at the side of the house, one needed a machete. The evergreen brush was so sorely overgrown that frequently one of us would come bursting through the screen door cradling a poked eye or a scratched forehead. I do believe there was a hedge clipper in the garage, and I even recall my father outside on occasion snipping away, but those bushes seemed to me symptomatic of my father’s life issues then; the more he clipped, the more wild and untamable things became.

There was also the fact that when night fell we could not see two feet in front of us. How many nights I walked that path alongside the house, as if on a pirate’s plank, knowing an awful inevitable awaited me around that bend.  Sometimes, as I rounded the back edge of the house, I’d ward off my potential attacker, “Alright, Let’s get it on! You want some of this?” Sometimes I cowered at a leaf rustle, fumbled with the key and hoped for the best.

Once inside, little perils seemed to mock us, like the cheap mirror squares on our bedroom door, the end corners of which nipped at our passing fingers; or the bathroom shower tile wresting itself from the wall with each watering, and once, with the assistance of mildew, freeing the corner soap dish that nearly severed my big toe.

Most mocking-- and probably actually dangerous-- of all, was, of course, the monster living inside our bedroom closet: the oil burner. Our clothes hung along the plumbing pipes, but the closet was reserved for the great whale who heaved and growled wintertime, yawning awake. The only separation between us and its noxious breath was a thin wall of paneling. 

We did not know it yet, but the cats-- in further rebellion perhaps—were using the floor beneath the belly of this beast as an alternate litter box. Countless nights I jolted awake smelling the fresh scent of shit and would flick on the light, searching frantically for its source.
The quality of air—if I want to be so generous as to call it air- was pretty scary, too. We all chain smoked, including Greg, when he was old enough to stand inhaling, and then sprayed the air heavily with Lysol to hide the smell from our grandparents-- and not once do I think we ever opened a window. I am also remembering that we had no vacuum. Although we did have carpet.

 Blue speckled, the carpet was in Jaz’s and my “bedroom.” On the days when I could no longer take the chaos of our overflowing ashtrays and clothes piles, I would “clean” by folding all the clothes into neat piles, emptying the ashtrays and sweeping the rug by madly swinging the broom towards the door of mirrored glass. Pennies and paperclips and odd bits of plastic would hurtle forth, threatening to crack and shatter the glass. All the while, a plume of dust and dander would rise like a tornado from the earth. I would hang in there as long as I could, but finally the sneezing attack would begin. And I would not—could not—stop, going twenty, thirty sneezes in a row. I would have to dash outside and sometimes wait hours before returning, before my lungs and sinus passage would finally settle down.

Thinking about it now, is it any wonder that I still suffer residual health issues—that we all do?
It was there that my sister began suffering from migraine headaches, her central nervous system going on alert sending a tingling sensation through her fingertips.

(“Stress,” my father insisted).

It was there that Greg’s heart, that miraculous little organ that once healed itself of a pinhole, would skip a beat now and then.

(“Hypersensitivity,” my father said).

And it was there that we never knew when we woke if it was night or day. If we were dreaming or awake. If we were dead or alive. 

Subterranean living: Needless to say, I don’t think I will ever come around to liking it. 


  1. Thanks for your review and for having me here today. Your comment about not understanding people not reading because of the language made me chuckle. I had a similar response.

    Very cool blog. And Border Collies rock-- although Goldendoodles aren't too shabby either.

    1. You are welcome, and welcome to return any time you like. Also, I can see the reason to love Goldendooddles...however, we are just weeks away from adding a Newfoundland to our home...and that has me very excited.

    2. Best of luck on your new book tour, BTW.