IN THE TRANCE ROOM
by MO DAVIAU
(covering "In the Quiet Room" by Jacqui Shine)
Five years and change after leaving an abusive relationship that, for better or worse, has irrevocably altered my brain chemistry, I quit going to therapy. Talk therapy works for a while, but it has its limitations. Talking about what happened and how I felt no longer alleviated my pain and shame and confusion and anxiety.
On the advice of a friend, I start seeing a shaman. Her shaman. A white man who is a shaman.
Yeah, I know. That's some white people shit right there.
I have nothing to lose; talking about who did what and why and how it messed up my mind has lost its clinical efficacy, and I figure the only healing modality left to try is magic. I go to my friend’s shaman. His name is Eric and he practices a South American lineage of shamanic healing in his office in a fancy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. His work promises to unravel the trauma that lives in my body. There would be spirits to cast out, but mostly, the idea is that trauma lives as a cluster at one’s solar plexus—a jumbled heap of wires and ribbons made of energy—and journeying through my body would ease trauma’s hold on me. He adds that Americans, as a culture, do not maintain relationships with the dead, and that I should enter a trance state and call upon my ancestors for help. So I do. I ask my grandparents, two of whom died very, very young, to come and speak to me.
Amid a cloud of palo santo smoke, I lay on Eric's futon, preparing to welcome the spirit of one of my ancestors into our practice. In my altered state, I find myself sitting at a bar in another era—I don't know what year it is, but it isn't one that I have lived through. There is smoke and when the smoke clears, I see that I am in a saloon with mirrors on the wall behind the bottles of liquor. I wish for it to be my grandfather who shows up to have words with me. Some closure, as he was an ancestor I knew in this life. But no. It was Zelia Daviau Grondin, born in 1892, murdered the day before Halloween in 1913, who bellied up to the bar that day and tapped me on the shoulder. Zelia, so young, her Wilson Administration-era bun a mess.
Help! she says.
Help? Help who?
Eric sprinkles my face with Florida water as a steady drumbeat pours out of his computer speakers. He makes a clicking noise with his tongue while holding my forehead down on the futon.
I quickly sit up with my nose full of tears and snot and ask Eric for a tissue.
I wonder who it is who really needs help.
My paternal grandmother, Zelia (how did it sound to say it in French?) is sixteen-years-old when she marries John H. Grondin in their hometown of Waterville, Maine. Grondin is twenty-two and holds a job as an undertaker at the town funeral home, as evidenced by a document I find in the Kennebec County registry that shows that in 1910, the year my father was born, he pays the state his $5 embalmer’s license fee.
Although my father never spoke of his parents during our brief time together (he was sixty-five when I was born, I was sixteen when he passed), he did share with my mother that he knew that his grandparents, who adopted my father and his older brother after the murder, begged their daughter not to marry his father. During a time in which marriage was expected, honored, and necessary for a woman’s economic survival, one would surmise that a marriage proposal from a man who wasn’t flat broke was something, but there is some really bad handwriting on the wall with John Grondin, my paternal grandfather, whose name is not my name.
The Daviau family owned the pharmacy in Waterville. They were a family of means, with a large house and ten children who ate well every night, who sent their boys to Colby College and law and medical schools. Waterville in the 1900s was a small town where the French Catholic families knew each other quite well. That there was precedence to believe that John Grondin would have made an unsafe husband for any woman, and that someone would be so bold to say it out loud, had to have meant that there was something uneasy about him. Something intuitive and unsettling. And something that was alluring to sixteen-year-old Zelia, who couldn’t see what her parents did. Or was too in love to notice or care. I don't know if there was language for what we might call creepy in Quebecois French in 1908, but maybe it would have helped someone if they could name what they saw.
While I have never seen a photograph of John Grondin, I do have a studio portrait of teenage Zelia, colorized, her hair flecked with golden strands, her skin a perfect, pale porcelain. It’s hard to see a grandmother in a photograph of a teenager. I look for the girl who was defiant, who ran off and married a man her parents disliked, and I can’t tell if she chose to marry him because she wasn’t going to let anyone not let her have the man she wanted, or if the man in question was in control and she, quite simply, was not.
I can’t blame Zelia for falling in love with an unstable, dangerous man. I did the same, exactly one hundred years after the man she loved turned up the gas lights and blew out the flame so that gas would fill the room and asphyxiate her. She was literally gaslighted. I was just gaslighted in the modern, metaphorical way. John Grondin must have been so bright and shiny in her eyes. Of the few people who know this story, or the uncountable stories that are very similar, the fact that she was so young when she married him and therefore couldn’t have known any better comes up and I bite back: I was not young when it happened to me. I was thirtyfuckingeight.
Bright and shiny doesn’t fade with age. Mistakes don’t suddenly stop being made because you are pushing forty and have been to therapy.
But maybe it was written into my DNA that one hundred years hence, this couple's youngest-by-a-lot granddaughter finds the dangerous but sparkly man that no one has the guts to warn me about, whose evil I only see with my own eyes when it is too late, and fall way too in love, and lose myself, quite possibly forever. They say that we are genetically more similar to our grandmothers than our mothers. And this, another affirmation: like having brown hair and being tall, you were genetically vulnerable to evil men. It was in your blood to do as your grandmother did.
Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter. It’s a comfort. It’s solidarity with a ghost. It's an answer to the problem. It's a dodge, too. This attraction is epigenetic and therefore fated.
My grandfather tried to kill Zelia at least twice, that made it to the record of the courts. Once, in Portland, Maine, (there are records that indicate that they moved around Maine several times) and then a year later, after he had moved Zelia and their two sons to Los Angeles, where he ultimately succeeded in killing his wife, with his son, my father, then two years old, in her arms.
How would he have done it in my era of electrical lights, I wonder?
Their generation of Catholics didn’t divorce. Ruffling the clergy was a greater sin than cranking up the gas.
Or maybe he would have just messed with her head. Got her committed to a mental asylum. Got her sent away, with the whole world believing she was some lunatic who didn’t deserve anyone’s love.
Many of the records of The State of Maine vs. John H. Grondin can be found in a simple Google search, and after communing with the dead Zelia Daviau in the shaman’s office that day, I went home and googled and came across the court brief in a book of Maine legal proceedings.
What I know:
John Grondin made at least two attempts on Zelia’s life, that made it to the Maine court system.
In early 1913, John Grondin moved his wife and two sons from Maine to Los Angeles. Nobody knows why. It might have crossed the minds of Zelia’s parents that they may never see her again.
On October 30, 1913, John Grondin turned up the gas jets in the room where Zelia slept. My father was also sleeping in the room, but he survived.
John Grondin produced a suicide letter allegedly written by Zelia that the court tossed out as a forgery. The only quoted content from the letter that exists was quoted in the New York Times, stating that she had allegedly killed herself so that Grondin could “be with the woman who truly loved him.”
There it was. She knew there was another woman.
While Grondin was eventually arrested and extradited back to Maine, in the weeks following Zelia’s death, his mistress, a Mrs. Derocher, left Waterville, Maine, and traveled to California to see him.
Wait—a mistress? Who was married? Who somehow got out to California from Maine in the era before commercial air travel?
John Grondin arranged for a detective posing as a priest to coerce a confession of infidelity out of my grandmother, who had been drugged to the point of illness for the occasion. This is the most twisted, bonkers detail of my grandfather’s mission to get rid of my grandmother. Or maybe it isn’t. Certainly abusers enlist friends and family to help gaslight their victims. But how brazen it was for him to hire someone to do this dirty work? And how easy it must have been to spin the story of Zelia as the one who was committing adultery?
In spite of all this, the jury ultimately declared her death a suicide, and John Grondin walked free.
Without my shamanic journey and visit with Zelia’s spirit, I would not know this part of the story: that John Grondin had a mistress. She was in on killing my grandmother. She had to have known about the effort and the theatrics and the fucked up-ness that went into eliminating the mother of his children so that they could finally be together. Just as The Abuser had a woman who was in on killing me, albeit metaphorically, and who lapped up whatever romantic tales he told her as to why she was better than me, who helped him mess with my head.
I find a register of citizens of Waterville, Maine, in the 1910s online. There are six women in Waterville, Maine, who are married to men named Derocher then, and though her first name does not appear in the surviving court records, according to the records I can access, I take a guess that the Mrs. Derocher I’m looking for is Rose Derocher, who died only a few years after Zelia’s murder. She had two children, too. I can never know what propelled Mrs. Derocher into John Grondin’s arms and all the way across the country, feeling very romantic about the gas and the fake priest and the poison and the four children who were being abandoned in this scenario, for she believed that he loved her better. The Waterville records say she died in 1920 of whatever communicable disease was going around at the time. And maybe that’s true, or maybe my grandfather got away with murder twice.
According to an article that ran in the New York Times on January 26, 1914, “Grondin’s counsel said that shortly after he was arrested last night he was taken by detectives into a darkened room, where the ‘ghost’ appeared and demanded in gloomy tones, ‘Why did you murder me?’ I imagine this recording being a scratchy Victrola of a distant, spooky female voice, chanting “why did you do it? Why did you kill me?”
I try not to get hung up on the antique technology that made this bizarre moment of jurisprudence possible. But I do get a little hung up on why the prosecution thought that this move was a way to get a confession out of him. Insofar as anyone in my family had anything to say about John Grondin, the story there was that he was crazy. Zelia was a beautiful young victim, Grondin was a violent nutjob, and their two little boys suffered the consequences. Was he muttering things about ghosts? Was he acting remorseful? Was he acting crazy to get out of a prison sentence? My mother seems to remember hearing from my dad’s family that John Grondin spent a chunk of his life in a mental institution, but I can’t find any proof of that.
In the aftermath of my abusive relationship, I join a couple of online abuse survivor support groups. We would compare notes—mostly what unimaginably awful things our exes had done, what meds we were put on to calm PTSD symptoms, and reports that our abusers had moved very quickly onto new women, and how all of them, to a person, were all over social media declaring their gooey, fated, brilliant, unstoppable love.
Eric the Shaman places a framed photo of the late Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, a haunting chanteuse who was a lover of Frida Kahlo's, next to the futon in his office. He tells me he will be calling in her spirit during our session. Vargas turned her pain into great art, and he knows that was what I did, too: take the darkness the world hands to me and turn it into novels and essays and the occasional interview-format podcast. He also warned me that her spirit had been known to cause other female clients to develop sexual attraction to women.
"Sounds great!" I say and give my enthusiastic consent to be made gay by the spirit of Chavela Vargas. (Note: regrettably, it doesn't work.)
The truth is, I'm scared to call in the one ancestor that I really don't want to hear from: my father.
Ghosty, spiritual people tell me that he is always with me. That he watches me. An intuitive counselor once called in his spirit in one of our sessions without warning me first. She told me that he watched over me, that he had told her to tell me that he thought I was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen and had become a wise and wonderful woman and he was so proud of me. I sobbed unbearably for a week afterwards.
My father cannot give his blessing for me to tell the story of his parents, except maybe in this magic trance space. The pain and stigma attached to it compelled him to lie about it for the entirety of his life, but it's a story that I glom onto to soothe my own pain. Abuse is in my lineage in every direction. If I can see it and name it, and have others see it and name it, then I am not the crazy, desperate, pathetic girl that my abuser wants people to think I am.
Under the guidance of Eric and Chavela Vargas, I do not meet with my father in a trance. I do not see Zelia, or my maternal grandmother. I don't see John Grondin, though a year later, I will travel to Waterville to try to hunt down his grave in the Catholic cemetery.
In fact, I do not go into a trance at all. I lie on Eric's futon as he chants and clicks and I appreciate the effort. I enjoy my sessions with him, but making contact with the dead feels invasive. I feel a little better when I walk out afterwards, into Portland's anemic sun, to the quiet space of my car, where I sit for a minute or two before I return to my regular life and its attendant sadness and unease. I try to hold in my head a little longer the magic, even if it isn't real.
It's a little presumptuous of me to think I have any business "covering" this essay by the talented and delightful Jacqui Shine. I was really struck by its vulnerability and beauty when it ran in The Sun in 2014. This essay shares with Jacqui's the experience of going to a white shaman and feeling uneasy with it but being desperate enough for help that you'll give anything a try. The tones are somewhat similar, but Jacqui's is much softer (earthworm!). You know what? I like Jacqui's essay way more! I've been trying to write about my paternal grandmother's murder in different ways for a long time and have never really liked what I've come up with. Maybe "covering" Jacqui would give this essay the emotional and organizational boost I've been seeking all these years? To wit: my housemates and I tried to play "Pictures of Matchstick Men" (Camper Van Beethoven's cover, of course) during our after-dinner sing-along at Thanksgiving this year and while Victoria nailed the violin, I was sloppy on the guitar, but we got through it. I feel the same way about my essay. Mad respect to Dr. Shine.
Mo Daviau is the author of the novel Every Anxious Wave (St. Martin's Press, 2016). Her nonfiction has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Offing, Nailed Magazine, and in three previous March Xness tournaments, and she has a story in the recently-published Ursula K. LeGuin tribute anthology, Dispatches from Annares (Forest Avenue Press, 2021). She DJed college radio in the '90s and gets low-key pissed if you speak ill of In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. These days, Mo lives in an old, creaky house in Los Angeles and is working on her third novel.