Rebecca Godfrey photographed by Brigitte Lacombe, NYC, 2002.
I met Rebecca Godfrey in New York City in the spring of 1999. In my memory our meeting has something to do with her first book, a novel titled The Torn Skirt; perhaps she wanted to hand me a galley, or perhaps she’d already sent me one and I’d read it; I’m not sure. What I remember for certain was how surprised and intrigued I was by her, almost on sight. She had a wonderful face of unusual dimensions, a beautiful face, but with something better than beauty, visible especially in large eyes that were somehow ardent and reserved simultaneously. It was raining and I remember her looking up at me (she was quite small) from under her umbrella in a shy, expectant way that made me feel shy and expectant too.
The quiet restaurant we had planned on was closed and so we walked around for some blocks looking for just the right place—which turned out to be a bubble tea shop where we were the only customers. We talked about writing and music; she spoke (matter-of-factly, as I recall) of working on a second book. But more than anything we said, I remember her presence, the pleasure with which she dipped her long spoon into the fluted glass for more sweet tapioca bubbles, the directness of her gaze, the way she listened intently and spoke softly. She was thirty-two years old but she had an aura of impossible youth. Her presence was not exactly big. It was enchanting; I’m thinking of the words Nabokov used to describe a character in the story “Spring in Fialta”: “something lovely, delicate, and unrepeatable.
I blurbed The Torn Skirt when it was published in 2001, calling it a “hot book,” by which I meant like a hot hot hot diary entry, urgent and hormonal and romantic as heartbroken suicide pacts are romantic. But after that first meeting, I didn’t see Rebecca again for a long time. In 2005, I think she sent me a copy of her second book, Under the Bridge, an account of a real-life murder in British Columbia, her home turf. It received several Canadian prizes, including the Arthur Ellis Award for Nonfiction, but (I’m sorry to say) I didn’t get around to reading it. In 2008 she married Herb Wilson (who she met through the writer Paul La Farge) and moved to Pittsburgh, where he was getting a degree in philosophy; their daughter, Ada, was born there in 2009. We spoke on the phone and emailed a little during that time; I’m pretty sure she got me invited to Santa Maddalena, a writer’s retreat run by her mentor and friend Beatrice Monti in Tuscany. It wasn’t until she moved upstate to Red Hook (in Dutchess County) in 2011 that, because of interest plus proximity, we began seeing each other a lot.
By then we were both living very differently than we had in 1999: she was deep into motherhood, creating a community for her family, and working at Columbia, where by all accounts she was an excellent and beloved teacher (several of her students have gone on to secure book deals, including Madelaine Lucas, Mandy Berman, and Naima Coster). Such abundance is great but certainly challenging. My life, on the other hand, was sliding into interesting chaos; my marriage had broken up and I felt I was losing another relationship, with the children I had fostered. But I was writing well, learning how to ride horses, and planning to take a temporary job farther upstate for a year. I believe Rebecca gave me another copy of Under the Bridge at this point, but again I didn’t read it, mostly because I was not in a frame of mind to read about a girl being beaten to death.
Still … being around Rebecca during this time was an unalloyed pleasure. I enjoyed going to her place, a rented farmhouse up on a gentle hill overlooking a shaggy green meadow on one side and an orchard on the other. I remember going there for dinner with her and Herb; I remember dancing for and with Ada, who had grown to be startlingly beautiful. I remember a couple of lawn parties with writers Rebecca and Herb had known in the city, who had also migrated north; I remember an ambiance of ease and spacious charm. I remember just sitting with Rebecca, looking out on the meadow, talking about anything and everything. The quality I had seen in her eyes that night in 1999 was still there: the directness and intensity with a lingering shade of enchantment, now grounded and darkened by maturity. To quote her friend Leslie Jamison, she used “the space of conversation to talk about things that mattered the most—art, love [and] anguish.” We had both experienced anguish since our first meeting, and Rebecca had maintained a bittersweet lightness in the face of it.
Fast-forward seems like the only possible transition here:
In 2012 I put my stuff in storage and went up to Geneva to teach at Hobart and William Smith. In 2013 Rebecca went to the American Academy in Rome as a visiting artist to work on a new book, a novel based on the life of Peggy Guggenheim. That was the year I returned from Hobart, got my stuff out of storage, and moved to Brooklyn. I would sometimes take the train upstate and spend the night at Rebecca’s place, to do horse research for the book I was finishing and really just to enjoy myself in the haven of what seemed to be a beautiful life. In 2014 my marriage miraculously reconstituted; in 2017 we found a rental house upstate and began to plan a more permanent life there. Rebecca was busy with her projects—not least the spectacular curation of a local gallery show titled Girls in Trees, featuring work by over thirty-three writers and artists, including myself, Nick Flynn, and Sharon Olds—and attending to Ada’s development and accomplishments, her drawings, her nascent fashion sense, her participation in a school play.
Then, in 2018, came the shock that cracked the ground: Rebecca was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. She was given six months to a year to live. She was terrified. She was more and more often in horrific pain. She was heartbroken for Ada, who was at that point nine years old. Rebecca was fiercely committed to living as intensely as she could, and for as long as humanly or inhumanly possible. She wanted this for herself, for her work, and most of all for her daughter.
She threw herself into the Guggenheim book with just as much energy as she was forced to spend on medical treatments. Her community rallied for her: former students drove her to and from Manhattan for treatments; neighbors brought food, cooked meals; everyone contributed on GoFundMe. And she rallied back, still having dinners, still going out, still summoning the verve to snarl about someone who’d just published a book about Peggy G. that sounded like crap!
It was at this point, out of concern for her legacy, that her agent negotiated a reissue of Under the Bridge; it was at this point, too, that I finally read the book, with the idea that I would write an introduction. When I did, I was stunned. While I had liked Torn Skirt, nothing in that novel had prepared me for this. Under the Bridge is a profound study of the seismic contradictions of adolescence, its poignancy, chaos, and sheer natural force, its mystery of cruelty and innocence. It is written in a matter-of-fact yet poetic and even oracular voice. Weirdly, I found myself occasionally forgetting who had written it; I would look at the author photo and feel amazement. I’m not sure why this was—I think she had so seamlessly joined the book’s various voices with the unfolding of its events that it felt almost as if the story was telling itself. Or, as I put it in my introduction, “as if I were instead reading about something we might call ‘fate,’ such a stark drama of good and evil that it stopped mattering who the author was.” It is possibly the most passionate introduction I’ve ever written, and I meant every word.
It was great to see Rebecca’s happiness with the reissue, to interview her onstage at McNally Jackson (she looked low-key amazing in a Chanel dress), and to attend the readings she did with her friend Gary Shteyngart (they both read from the book) and the celebration hosted by another longtime friend, the Brigitte Lacombe rep Janet Johnson. The party was held outdoors, on the lawn of Janet’s small, exquisite property in Dutchess County, and there was so much goodwill and warmth. When Hulu optioned Under the Bridge as an eight-episode series, it was like the completion of a dream. It was everything that Rebecca wanted, marred but also heightened by the looming obvious, which everyone was still hoping could somehow be elided.
Rebecca died on October 3, 2022, at the age of fifty-four. I can’t know what she was really feeling during those last four years, but from the outside, it looked like wildly varied highs and lows, negotiated with sheer, determined will. For a while the treatments worked and she was very much herself, working and living hard, traveling to LA to collaborate with the writer-director Quinn Shephard on the adaptation of Under the Bridge, to meet with Hulu executives, and just to enjoy the shit out of the place. Also for enjoyment, she traveled, alone or with Ada, to Europe, almost recklessly taking as much as she could and giving as much as she could, too. Her friend the writer and producer Stephanie Savage remembers one of those trips this way:
Last September we went to Baden-Baden and the South of France. At first it started as a joke about “taking the waters” [there] but then we were like, Why are we laughing? … She was in a lot of pain, on many meds. Her mobility was not good. But we visited the thermal baths. And the water was warm and healing. A few times I held onto her. She was so slight I was worried the currents would pull her away.
Through it all, wherever Rebecca was, she worked on the book about Peggy G. like a fiend. (When she died, it was almost finished; she left such extensive notes that Knopf plans to publish the novel posthumously.) At the end, in her final days, she was dictating passages from her hospital bed, and, according to Savage, “ordering her coffee from Sant Ambroeus.” When I went to see her, there were so many friends coming by that, due to COVID restrictions, I had to wait almost all day to get in. She knew she was about to die and she was in a lot of pain. But she still wanted to gossip, to admire my nail polish and the view of the East River. The only time I saw her cry was when she talked about Ada.
When you miss a person you don’t miss their CV or their accomplishments, however much you might appreciate those things. You miss something indefinable that you feel only in their presence. All the things I’ve written of here are very real. Rebecca’s achievements have been rightfully celebrated in obituaries in the New York Times, Kirkus, and the Globe and Mail. I value her work highly and consider it important. I admire how she conducted her life. But to tell of it does not quite convey what I found most lovely about her. For several weeks after her death, images flashed through my mind, images of very small moments: Rebecca with her glass of bubble tea, her eyes full of life; Rebecca carrying a tray of appetizers across her lawn at a garden party; Rebecca and Ada visiting my favorite horse with me in the rain; Rebecca standing on the sidelines of a dance party, her face in an expression of private bitterness; Rebecca slipping me some colorfully wrapped pieces of marzipan candy as she walked past in bright sunlight.
That last one happened when she was sick but in a period of respite. We had just sat down in the big Adirondack chairs outside her house when she said “Oh,” got back up and went inside. Returning to her chair, she slipped me two or three of the candies like she was passing a note in high school, not looking at me. Such a tiny thing, this gesture! I wish I could convey how delicious it was, what subtle playfulness and hospitality it showed. That quality is something that can be glimpsed in at least one photograph of Rebecca taken in the nineties, in which she’s wearing a Ford-Dole campaign T-shirt and reaching into a bag of chips. It’s so touching to look at now, so her. So lovely, delicate, and unrepeatable.
Rebecca Godfrey in New York, summer 1996. Photo: Chris Buck.
Mary Gaitskill is the author of several novels and story collections, most recently This Is Pleasure.
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