Making everything perfect

Throwing dishes at the walls: Kate Nason's new memoir "Everything Is Perfect" traces an emergence from bad marriages and the shadow of a president and a White House intern

At a recent party in Portland to celebrate her first book, Kate Nason decorated the tables with china painted with delicate pink roses.

“Please take a cup or a saucer home with you,” she told her guests. “And if you feel like it, throw it against a wall.”
           
This, as we learn from listening to Nason’s narration of Everything Is Perfect, was how she often worked out her fury and frustration while her marriage and her life were exploding not only before her very eyes, but in front of the kind of audience that just can’t get enough supermarket tabloid shock stories or reality television trash.

 Nason destroyed a lot of dishes.

 Luckily they came from family day at Goodwill, when everything was half-price.

***

IT WOULD BE TEMPTING TO LUMP Everything Is Perfect under the rubric of “books written by women whose husbands have cheated.”

It might be just as easy to call it a revenge book, as in “don’t get mad, get published.”

Kate Nason, author of “Everything Is Perfect.” Photo: Marri Savinar

Or maybe it gets some kind of celebrity billing, salacious because the other woman—or one of the other women—turned herself into a household name when she had an affair that led to the impeachment of the president of the United States.

But shoving Nason’s first book into any of those categories would be a disservice, because while Everything Is Perfect certainly encompasses those themes, it is at heart a story about learning to trust one’s intuition.

“I could have written a revenge book,” Nason said, sitting in her garden in Northwest Portland. “I could have written a tell-all. But it was the story of how I got into this mess and how I got out of it that compelled me to write it, a need to examine the choices that landed me there.”

Most important, she said, “I wanted to write this book because I came out the other side.”

And while she in no way presents her story as a life guide for women who have been wronged, “I certainly hope that women, hopefully not in as dire circumstances as I was, will see some part of their own journey in this.”

All the names in Nason’s book are changed. This is partly to protect the privacy of the friends who formed a human protective shield around Nason when everything went nuts, and also to protect herself from some random act of litigation. But she had another motive, which was not affording the credibility of using their own names to some of the people involved.

“I just thought it would be so fun not to have to type those names,” she said.

Nason knew her first husband—the man she calls Hank—was a jerk. She married him anyway. This is the man who, after a very pregnant Nason was brutally raped, told her it was her fault because her karma was so messed up.

Next came “Charlie”: impossibly handsome in that sandy-haired, California-surfer-god way; impossibly devoted to “Molly,” the daughter who was the only good thing to come out of Nason’s marriage to Hank; impossibly incapable of monogamy.

Everything Is Perfect was published on Aug. 5 by Audible, and as we learn from Nason’s own steady voice as narrator, she wasn’t even fully divorced from Hank when a friend brought Charlie over for dinner. Her mother, who made a habit of criticizing just about everything Nason did, adored Charlie. Charlie fixed things, without even being asked. He built stage sets for student productions at Beverly Hills High. He proposed ten times before Nason decided to ignore the nagging voice in her brain that told her Charlie could not be trusted.

She married him. They moved from L.A. to Portland. So did a certain student from Charlie’s entourage of high-school groupies. Nason calls her “Mallory.”

The name, she notes, stems from the French word “malheur,” meaning “misfortune.”

Mallory enrolled at Lewis & Clark College. She babysat for Molly and “Finn,” as Nason calls the child she had with Charlie. Nason considered Mallory a friend. Sometimes Nason confided in Mallory, even sharing her suspicions about Charlie and his extracurricular activities.

Nason congratulated Mallory when she landed a coveted White House internship. In retrospect, she admits it was kind of strange that Mallory called their home in Portland from the White House nearly every day.

So fine, let’s just move to the part where all hell breaks loose. Mallory wasn’t Charlie’s only female distraction. But their dalliance became prime media fodder when Mallory was revealed to be the White House intern who was having a “sexual relationship” with the 42nd president of the United States.

Bill Clinton was eventually impeached for lying under oath about the dimensions of that “relationship.”

Specifically, what the president told the nation was, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

In the meantime, Nason couldn’t even shop at Fred Meyer without some reporter stalking her in the produce section.

Nason’s collage relating to “Finding the Sun,” Chapter 25 of her book, “wherein: I drive to Bend, desperate to find the sun, amidst depression over the Portland rain and my suspicions, despite his gaslighting, regarding my husband’s affair.” Excerpt: “If you were looking for a reason to lose your mind, 1996, in Portland, Oregon was as good as any. It was the flood year. Even the locals inured to the rain could be overheard at check stands and coffee counters saying things like: ‘Can you believe this? I may shoot myself,’ followed by incantations containing sun-filled words like Palm Springs, San Diego, and Zihuatanejo.”

But juicy as all that may sound—juicy if it wasn’t your husband fooling around with Mallory, and if it wasn’t you, just trying to pick out an avocado—in some ways, both Mallory and Bill Clinton are ancillary to the bigger story behind “Everything Is Perfect.”

For instance, how does a woman with an art history degree from UCLA sit down and write a book about something more personal than, say, Michelangelo? How does she recount what is a decidedly lurid tale without pandering to reader prurience? How does she somehow manage to come off sounding neither bitter nor victimized, even when describing long-term marital duplicity or a vicious sexual assault that took place in the final weeks of her first pregnancy?

How, moreover, does a fledgling memoir-writer avoid subjecting herself to re-traumatization as she slogs through memories most sensible humans would prefer to shove into a shoebox and bury at the back of the closet?

How does she keep from embarrassing her children? (Let’s not worry about Charlie or Mallory. They’re on their own in the embarrassment department. Ditto for the 42nd president of the United States.)

The short answer is: ten years. Five years of slow, painstaking writing, often in non-chronological clumps. Then: two years to find an agent. Two more years to negotiate the deal with Audible that followed “36 glowing letters of rejection.” Then, another year in production.

Nason knew she was a storyteller, and she knew she had a story to tell. But it’s one thing to regale your friends and family with your latest adventures, and quite another to translate those escapades into an actual book. Nason started by taking classes at the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters in Southeast Portland. She joined a small writers’ group, “One Page Wednesdays,” where writers in the group would share just a single page of writing.

One Wednesday, someone in her group said: “Kate, you’ve got to stop querying agents.” Instead, her friend advised her to start attending writers’ conferences where she might draw notice from editors or agents.

Just a few weeks later, Nason found herself at The Writer’s Hotel, an annual conference in Manhattan where writers submit an entire manuscript to be critiqued. It was there that she realized the book should not be in the present tense, as she had originally written it.

“I sat down, and I was able to put the entire book in the past tense,” she said.

Next up: The prestigious Community of Writers conference in what is now known as California’s Olympic Valley, but which—like the writers’ conference itself—for many years had a less politically acceptable name. Everything Is Perfect is now featured on the Community of Writers’ website.

Nason’s own background is in art. She lived in Florence—the one in Italy, not the one on the Oregon coast—for two years. She worked at well-known galleries in Los Angeles and managed the Venice Beach studio of a prominent artist. After she and Charlie were divorced, she supported her children by running Chairwear, a one-woman slipcover-design business in Portland’s Irvington district.

She tends to think of creativity in terms of spinning tiny threads into something big and beautiful. In that sense, she says, “Writing is a very alchemical process.”

While working on Everything Is Perfect, she would sometimes dictate to herself while out for a walk by herself at dawn. Sometimes she wrote—via notes on her cell phone—while strolling at the beach. When she would hit a block—and only a very dishonest writer would pretend this never happens—she put her laptop aside and turned to the giant stack of magazines she kept nearby. Then she began tearing out pictures and making collages.

Invariably, these images reflected whatever was gnawing at her about her story.

“I would sit with these images and, unbelievably, I would get them arranged and I would know my way into the scene,” she said.

Along with her collages, Nason had a human support team the size of a small army. Among them were the American scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell and the Persian poets Rumi and Hafez, all long dead but very much alive as spiritual coaches for Nason. Nason also drew guidance from her personal shaman—who, because this is Portland, made house calls.

During the long, slow unspooling of her marriage to Charlie—the years in which gaslighting was more or less the fuel that kept the engines running in their household—Nason surprised herself when she began to pray. But instead of invoking “Our Father,” she heard herself turning to “Mary, Mary, Mary.”

One day, we learn from the book, she found a fabulous statue of the Madonna Mary at a second-hand store. It was beyond Nason’s budget, but she bargained and bought it anyway. She placed Mary in her backyard as a shrine: The Madonna of Broken Dishes.

***

MALLORY, “Miss Lewinsky,” is 48 years old now. Several years after Nason‘s breakup with Charlie, a letter arrived at her home, written in schoolgirl-cursive, and all in lower case, as if the writer were channeling ee cummings. Mallory said it was a shame things had worked out the way did, and that she forgave Nason for anything unkind she might have said about her.

Nason ignored the letter. She also plans not to watch Impeachment, the forthcoming installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series on FX. Monica Lewinsky is both a major element and a producer of the program. In the 10-part series, Lewinsky is portrayed by someone with the improbable name of Beanie Feldstein.

Nason’s collage relating to “The Big Reveal,” Chapter 29, “wherein a visit from one of my husband’s lovers reveals the truth about the existence of another.” Excerpt: “I flew out the door, [my car] a fiery chariot on autopilot transported me to…the place where he worked. I was Judah-Ben-Hur, shimmering white stallions at full gallop out in front of me. Their manes, my hair, a fiery blaze streaking the sky. Everything made sense now.”

***

TRUST: AFTER SUCH CRUEL BETRAYALS, it’s hard to imagine how Nason could trust anyone, ever again. For 14 years after she divorced Charlie she focused on raising her kids, building her business and trying not to remember the front-porch press conference where she stood mutely beside her philandering husband while he confirmed that he had been intimate with “Mallory.”

Her children were happy in Portland, and all Nason wanted was for her life to be “calm and level.” She had a phalanx of friends, but at that point, had no interest in romance.

“I think what I had to learn was to trust myself before I could trust another,” she explained. “I mean, really learning to listen to what my gut was telling me.”

And then, with Molly off at college and Finn happy in middle school, “I thought, I have raised my kids and built a business. The one thing I have not done is build a relationship.”

Gingerly, she began dating. Imagine her mortification when one gentleman pieced together parts of her story and said, “Oh my God! You’re that woman!”

Then he leaned across the table and earnestly told her: “I want you to know that I prayed for you.”

Nason’s gut told her this was not the right guy.

And then she met Tad Savinar, a Portland artist, playwright and urban designer who had been a member of the design team that shepherded the Westside Light Rail Project into existence. Savinar proposed to her on a trip to Florence. Nason designed the blush-colored dress she wore when they married in that proud Tuscan city. It is a truth universally acknowledged that everything sounds better in Italian, and as they walked through the streets following their ceremony, children and adults alike showered them with wishes for a Felice Futuro, a happy future.

Secretly, Nason wondered sometimes why she had always been fascinated by all things Italian. After all, her namesake great-grandmother had started speaking what she insisted was her native language, French, to Nason when she was little more than an infant. Nason attended a French-speaking preschool. She diligently studied the language until she got to college. At UCLA, she rebelled and started taking Italian.

On her deathbed, her grandmother sent Nason an urgent summons. “I have something to tell you,” her grandmother said solemnly.

Turns out Nason’s great-grandmother wasn’t French at all. She was Italian.

The book Nason is working on now will be titled La Bugiarda—“The Liar.”

Write what you know, the experts advise. Nason knows a lot about people who do not tell the truth.

But this book, she said, “will be way more fun.”

About the author

Elizabeth Mehren is a writer and journalist based in Portland. She is the author or co-author of five books, including the forthcoming “To Bear Witness: Stories of Survivors of Holocaust, Genocide and the Atrocities of War.”

One Response. Have your say.

  1. linda belans says:

    This is an elegantly told and written review of Nason’s courageous memoir that many women will recognize as a mirror or cautionary tale — although hers is more dramatic and sometimes more public than most of us will ever experience.
    It’s an honest, well-told story of the dire consequences of ignoring one’s strong intuition over the course of relationships. It’s the tale of fall and recovery. And, of the personal impact of one of our country’s most consequential stories.

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