Business brought us together, Bebe Moore Campbell and I.
She was the best-selling author of Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, a 1992 New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winner of the NAACP Award for Literature. Inspired by the infamous 1955 murder of Emmet Till, this brilliant novel (amazingly, her first) is the fictional journey of the aftermath of a 14 year old boy's brutal death in Mississippi. It follows the families of the killer and the victim over a forty-year saga as they struggle to escape the ghosts of racial and class bigotry.
I was hot off writing and producing several Emmy Award winning drama series and ready for my next creative project. Deeply moved by Your Blues, I determined to adapt it for the small screen. Because Bebe and I were both members of PEN USA West, the international writers' organization, we knew each other's work. But, of course we did not know each other. That would come only with time and trust.
Over lunch we sized each other up as cool professionals are wont to do. There were differences. The color and cultural divide, first off. She was Afro-American from the east coast. I was European-American from the heartland. Ambition, personal and collective, got us over that fast. There was story to be told, hypocrisy exposed, prejudice eradicated.
I first pitched the book as a mini-series to CBS. My agent, the head of TV packaging for ICM, lent her considerable authority to the undertaking. This would be a prestige project with stellar casting, designed to bring a bevy of golden statues to the network. The CBS executive listened, pondered, then inquired: "does the black boy have to die?"
One year (and many pitches) later, I finally sold the book to Showtime, thanks to the passionate support of a more insightful executive, Joan Boorstein. What appealed to her was what most impressed me. There was no "color line" in Bebe's compelling characterizations, only shades of heartache. Her masterful storytelling made the reader feel as much compassion for a white killer and his shamed family as for the innocent black boy sacrificed on the altar of fear and rage. Bill Cosby's company came on board to co-produce and after two years of developing the script, it looked like it would finally go to film. And it almost did - until a higher power at the network decided otherwise.
Bebe stood beside me as the project went into turnaround and I took the book to other networks and studios. But it was always "too black", "too political", "too period". Too raw, too true, too unsettling for too many. Still, Bebe and I remained bonded, two young hardheads on a mission to open closed doors. And there were so many closed doors - and minds - to open.
Business brought us together, Bebe and I, but our own family blues forged the friendship.
There was illness in her family and in mine. Not the kind talked about at industry fund-raisers where tuxedoed guests sport satin ribbons in their lapels. A physical affliction, certainly, like all biological illness, but one silenced and stigmatized for centuries.
Ignorance will make a bigot out of the best of us if we don't trouble ourselves to look beyond appearances. And the appearance of this illness is indeed frightening. Delusions, hallucinations, mania on the worst days, lack of insight, judgment, and civil behavior on others. The spectrum of symptoms goes by a number of names: mental illness, brain disorder, neuro-biochemical imbalance. Individual cases can range from depression and anxiety to bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder to schizophrenia.
Bebe and I learned that a combination of medication, therapy and unflinching family support is essential for healing. But it's a winding road wrought with dangerous detours, the most insidious being substance abuse. When sleep won't come, agitation won't calm, despair won't retreat, drink or drugs can temporarily dull the pain. (The irony is, in our hip modern culture, it is more acceptable for someone to explain his abrupt two week absence as a stint in rehab rather than a sojourn to a psychiatric unit.)
The afflicted are intelligent and often creatively gifted. They know -- at least after the symptoms fully retreat -- the cost of their illness: lost friends, lost jobs, lost dreams. Like their biological cousins, epilepsy and alcoholism, brain disorders are genetically based and triggered by environmental stress. As with diabetes and countless other illnesses requiring regular medical care, a "normal" life is possible but only if there is daily vigilance. The difference is, when one has a brain disorder, he is not always "in his right mind" to be vigilant about anything.
That is why Bebe and I were hell-bent to supervise the treatment of our loved ones so they could survive the darkest throes of suffering. Doctors, hospitals, social workers - every day was another battle with an overwhelmed, under-funded, mental health care system that knows more failure than success. We told ourselves and one another that, by the grace of God, our family members would recover. What we knew for certain was that they could not do it alone. Only a deep, fierce, abiding love could help restore their faith in themselves and a future worth living.
In between phone calls and NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) meetings, Bebe and I occasionally sustained each other's spirits with a fancy high tea at the Peninsula Hotel. Life was tough, damn it, but we could still laugh together and live with style. And yet those precious get-togethers were often cancelled to take care of one more crisis. When she and I had dinner before her reading at Vroman's last fall, we promised ourselves high tea in the rose gardens of the Huntington Library to welcome the spring. Her latest novel, 72 Hour Hold, had just been published to glowing reviews, and our family members were on better times. Life was good again and meant to be enjoyed.
But in February, Bebe called with the news that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was stunned, but not bereft of hope. All of us who knew her were convinced that she would prevail. This woman was a force of nature, a gift to her family, her community, her world. As with all treasured gifts, she was not a presence any of us could possibly imagine losing. But we did. On November 27, 2006.
During Bebe's memorial service at her beloved AME Church the pews were filled with hundreds who came to mourn her passing and celebrate her life. Inscribed in black letters on a white archway above the center aisle are the words, "First you serve". Bebe Moore Campbell did that with every ounce of her being.
She fought the good fight with courage and grace and lifted up all in her path with a simple but profound truth: To give dignity to our humanity, each of us must put aside our differences and open our hearts to a meeting of beautiful minds. Her last novel, like her first, begins as a quest for justice and ends as a journey of family healing. Bebe inscribed my copy: "For my friend and fellow sister in the struggle. We will see sunlight soon..."