During my growing-up years, in the days before widespread cable television, our local CBS affiliate station aired old movies in the afternoons and then again late at night. Among the films I remember watching are these: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane; Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte; Sunset Boulevard; Sorry, Wrong Number; Rebecca; Dracula; The 39 Steps; and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Sense a theme? Indeed. I loved dramatic, suspenseful thrillers then, just as I love them now.
My favorite of these old thrillers? Night Must Fall.
Released in 1937 and based on the 1935 play of the same name, Night Must Fall is the story of a charming sociopath, played by dreamy Robert Montgomery, who finds an unsuspecting victim in a cranky dowager who lives alone (save for her servants) on a remote estate. The dowager’s niece, played by lovely, sharp-as-a-tack Rosalind Russell, views the handsome charmer with a mix of circumspection and fancy. The suspense draws on the simmering tension of their attraction. The plot, likewise, builds slowly around the subplot of a beheaded woman’s body. I’ll leave the rest for your discovery. (Suffice to say, I was not surprised by the climax in the movie Seven.)
Writing for the magazine Night and Day, Graham Greene panned Night Must Fall as “no more than a photographed stage play.” Perhaps that’s why I like the film’s slow, steady drip of high-drama, starkly-lit vignettes. The most grotesque plot detail is never explicitly stated but rather implied, making it even more horrific. Despite the truth’s being apparent from the beginning, the viewer, like Rosalind Russell’s character, remains in suspense and can’t look away.
I’ve been thinking about this film for more than a week now. Both the title and the plotline of Night Must Fall leverage the fear that often accompanies sundown. With literal darkness comes metaphorical darkness, or something to that effect.
That feeling of waking (in the U.S.) to news that Russia invaded Ukraine while we were sleeping was not entirely unlike the feeling of watching a psychological thriller film, this one in particular. We knew what was coming, but it was still somehow a shocking surprise.
With every night’s fall, I wonder what grim new news will greet me the following morning. I’ve had to resume my early pandemic practice of working math problems in my head when I wake, rattled, in the middle of the night and can’t easily get back to sleep without a trick to turn off the emotional half of my brain.
I still can’t quite make sense of it all, and I know I’m far from alone in that uncertainty.
The other thing I’m thinking about, of course, is the pandemic’s two-year mark. As we come up against anniversary dates and the news stories that accompany those milestones, I, too, am caught up in reviewing the past.
For me, March 6, 2020 began with a trip to the vet — the last such trip for my needy but much-loved dog, Charlie — and ended with a Post Malone concert, where my daughter and I were guests of a friend who had access to a private suite. I mention that last detail because the wisdom of going to a sold-out concert on that particular date when we were all just learning a new term, “novel coronavirus,” was subject to debate.
That was a Friday. The following week I helped load my clinical staff — 13 therapists, at the time — into two SUVs for a trip to Chicago. They were going to be trained in a new approach called Feedback Informed Treatment, an evidence-based approach to therapy in which the client/patient has an active voice in treatment. The wisdom of the trip was also subject to debate, but the conference hosts were taking the precautions indicated at the time (no shared snacks, no group social outings). My folks were staying in an Airbnb where they could cook, eat, and hang out together as a pod, a term we’d get to use more and more frequently in the months ahead.
Thankfully, they returned home in good health and were equipped with new skills and knowledge to carry our organization into the next chapter. After months of planning and preparation, hours of writing new curricular approaches to support parents, families, and teenagers in new ways, we were finally ready to move forward.
And then, unexpectedly, we weren’t moving forward. We were, instead, reacting and responding to something for which we could not have prepared. Without a clear horizon line, we had to fly blind, to steer through a storm without the help of a radar screen.
Many of us, including myself, responded to this uncertainty by simply putting one foot in front of the other, marching forward in a sometimes numbingly mindless progression: Just keep swimming. Don’t skip to the end.
And now here we are, on March 6, 2022.
The past two years have felt disorienting in the extreme, at least to me, and they have required an unsustainable level of flexibility and resilience. Because we’ve lived so much of the time in isolation, it has been easy to consider the challenge something we each must face alone.
Who knew that we would have to close offices and limit or eliminate things we’d long taken for granted? No one. No one was prepared for the shock of the COVID shutdown.
Who could see the impact of the shutdown on our economy, our policies, and our mental health? So very many people.
Looking back, I have only two regrets about the decisions I made in the weeks and months that followed mid-March 2020:
First, I wish I had more confidently trusted in the complex web of shared experience and response that would rise in equal magnitude to the challenge. Lone wolf has long been my nature and my native reaction to adversity. In the past two years I have grown to look for, welcome, and accept help in ways that I long resisted. I have the pandemic to thank for that growth. I only wish now that I had sooner been willing to fall into the metaphorical hands that have always been there.
Second, I wish I had forged ahead more quickly and confidently instead of running endless calculations and scenarios in my mind, waiting until I could believe the time was right to do whatever it was that needed doing. To be clear here, I have done my level best to walk my own talk for the last 24 months. I have worked intentionally and with great effort to fight against paralysis and inertia, to keep moving forward. Still, I can see now that I could have been even bolder in the face of eternal unknown. This truth is perhaps the kind that can be seen only in retrospect.
The opportunity, then, is to take these lessons into the days and months ahead.
Many writers have offered perspective on how 2022 resembles 2020, not only because of the never-ending pandemic but also because of the March surprise that so dramatically reshapes the world as I type. As Thomas Friedman wrote 10 days ago, we’ve never been here before.
And yet, in so many ways, we have been. We have faced the dark abyss of uncertainty and somehow found the fortitude that allows placing one foot in front of the other, as it were.
No one knows how it ends or what “end” even means. And so we get to sit in the discomfort of knowing and not knowing at the same time, holding two conflicting feelings together in an awkward equilibrium as we all march forward.