Education of Mrs. Bemisby John Sedgwick
A dead body floating by a pier. An elderly woman curled up on a bed in a department store. A psychiatrist searching for her own identity. These are the pieces of the puzzle that, in John Sedgwick's masterful novel of psychological suspense, begin to come into focus when Madeline Bemis is referred to the treatment of Dr. Alice Matthews at Montrose Psychiatric… See more details below
A dead body floating by a pier. An elderly woman curled up on a bed in a department store. A psychiatrist searching for her own identity. These are the pieces of the puzzle that, in John Sedgwick's masterful novel of psychological suspense, begin to come into focus when Madeline Bemis is referred to the treatment of Dr. Alice Matthews at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital.
Mrs. Bemis's treatment gradually peels back the layers of a disturbing past whose shameful secrets and hidden sorrows stem from the war years of the 1940s—and reveals an unexpected link to the floating corpse. Mrs. Bemis's awakening sparks an intimacy between the two women that goes beyond an ordinary doctor/patient relationship—but also makes it clear that Mrs. Bemis's recovery, and perhaps even her safety, depends on quickly coming to terms with her secret history.
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She was in Filene's downtown, trying to decide about bath towels. The ones she'd had since college like the silly, "Welcome to Disneyland" beach towel sent to her by her older sister the travel agent and the plush one an ex-boyfriend had lifted from the Four Seasons didn't seem quite right anymore. But which did? She stood before a long wall of towels in every possible color and texture, each variation fraught, no doubt, with psychosocial significance. Should she go for midsize or full? Burgundy? Chartreuse? Mist gray? And would four be enough? Her new love, Ethan, slept over fairly often these days, and her new living room sofa pulled out to accommodate other visitors. All these decisions.
Alice looked considerably younger than twenty-eight. Girlish, from most angles, with a shy smile, blue eyes that people were always commenting on, and an endearing softness to her cheeks; she wore her hair down to her shoulders in a simple cut. Alice was a first-year psychiatric resident at Montrose Psychiatric Hospital, the distinguished, Harvard-affiliated institution to the west of Boston, in Concord, but, to her distress, people still sometimes took her for a teenage candy striper. Nevertheless, she was Doctor Matthews now, so she had to think more about appearances.
Dr. Matthews. In truth, that still seemed to her like somebody else, somebody more substantial. But, having finally secured a legitimate, paying job after four years of medical school, and another for an internship, she'd upgraded her apartment, moving out ofher med-student studio in a litter-strewn section of the Fenway and into a reasonably nice single-bedroom along a tree-lined street in North Cambridge, by the Somerville line. Not that big, but it was just her and Fido, the mouse she'd saved after a psychology experiment at BU. Now she needed towels.
"We have the Chantelles, ourselves," the saleswoman, Frankie, was saying. She'd let Alice know she was due in September. "They're very popular."
Alice ran a finger through the deep plush of the chartreuse Chantelle. She wasn't sure that she wanted "popular." And what did towels...mean? Alice caught herself pondering the emotional implications of comfort, warmth, dryness.
In the end, she settled on the Arbor House ones, simply because she loved the luxurious feel of them against her cheek, in a "serenity blue" that she hoped would go with the bathroom tiles. A set of four, with washcloths and hand towels to match. She was toting her purchase past the sleepware section, toward the exit, when she sensed a sudden shift in the mood of some of the shoppers around her. They were staring back toward the bedding department. Alice slowed. Had someone been caught shoplifting?
Behind her, a woman's voice rose over the general bustle of the floor: "She all right?"
Finally, Alice got a clear view of the four-poster bed around which a few onlookers were frozen in orbit. It seemed at first that there was only a heap of blue fabric in the middle, nothing more. But then she realized that the "heap" was in fact a person. An older, gray-haired woman in a blue skirt, curled up on her side looking for a moment like the Grand, Alice's grandmother at the nursing home back in Latrobe. She lay like that sometimes on Alice's visits, her mind floating off somewhere while Alice read to her from Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz the stories that the Grand had read Alice as a child. Was this woman's mind gone, too? Her stillness was disturbing, especially in a place like Filene's, which was normally nothing but movement, as shoppers surged about, bent on their purchases. The woman was alive Alice could see that much. A street person, sleeping one off? A possibility, but this woman seemed too well dressed for that. A bit of jewelry glittered on one ear.
"Call security, would you?" someone said. "Tell 'em we've got a medical situation here."
Alice approached, steeled herself. "I'm a doctor," she said quietly. "Can I help in some way?"
It was Frankie, her saleswoman, her enormous abdomen protruding. "Wait, a doctor?" She gave a relieved smile. "That's great. Oh, thank you."
"A psychiatrist, actually. But I'm an M.D."
"Well, maybe you should take a look," Frankie said. "She's kinda..." She beckoned Alice over to the bed where the woman lay on her side. The few shoppers who had gathered around stepped back. Alice stepped around to face the woman, aware of the mild buzzing of some wall clocks behind her. The woman wasn't quite as old as the Grand. Seventy, maybe seventy-five. Her gray hair was streaked with white; she wore it in a tight bun. Besides her blue suit, she had on a frilly white shirt, dark stockings, and old-fashioned, black shoes. She might have come from church. Was she praying? Her knees were drawn up nearly to her chest, her hands curled lightly around her shins, just below her knees, to pull her body into a protective egg. She seemed to have been overcome by something, but what? Her eyes were wide open, and she was whimpering faintly.
Alice crouched down next to the woman, who stared out blankly. "Ma'am?" Alice asked. "I'm Dr. Matthews. Are you all right?"
The woman didn't answer, but continued to stare.
"A customer noticed her like that a few minutes ago," someone told Alice. "Hasn't budged, so far as I know."
"Ever see her before?" Alice asked.
"Nope. Haven't a clue where she came from, either. Just boom, there she was."
The woman wasn't prostrate and quivering like the stroke victims Alice had seen. Also, there seemed to be some strength in the arms curled about the woman's legs, and there was no evidence of the asymmetry Alice had been...
The Education of Mrs. Bemis. Copyright © by John Sedgwick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
John Sedgwick is the author of the novels The Dark House and The Education of Mrs. Bemis, and contributes regularly to Newsweek, GQ, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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