JUNE 16, 2020
“I WAS STRUGGLING,” my mother tells me. “When dad was in Korea, there were no cell phones. If he got to a phone, I had to be home. There was no way for him to get me.”
We’re speaking about when I was six years old, in 1992, living in Fort Knox, Kentucky. My dad was in the military, stationed abroad, while my mother stayed in the states with three boys — an eight-year-old, a three-year-old, and me, a six-year-old. “It was isolation,” she says, speaking of how both her and my father’s extended families were hours away in New Jersey. “Culturally speaking, it was a different planet,” she says. “Kentucky wasn’t a place where you saw a lot of Hispanics. You were worried about who was watching and what could happen. You and Thomas” — my older brother — “were in special education because you were bicultural children trying to learn two languages.”
“There was definitely a sense of fear,” my mother continues. “There wasn’t even an emergency going on, but in my head, there were the ‘what if’ scenarios of who could take care of you or who I could call for help.”
In the two, almost three years of living in Kentucky without my father, we seemed to be on another planet. Because of the fears, because of the strangeness of our surroundings, we turned inward, to the home, to find a sort of peace however we could. We watched a lot of movies — or, more accurately, my mother watched a lot of movies. We didn’t necessarily watch them as a family, but they were often on, the ambient soundtrack of a fatherless life offering comfort through cathode rays. If my mother caught one of her movies on a channel, she would sit down and watch as my brothers and I joined, occupying ourselves on the carpet in front of the screen or with her on the couch.
These weren’t popular movies, nor were they the sort of films that demanded rewatching: they are memorable because they were so different and so weird. There was Mommie Dearest, the 1981 high-camp “drama” about the abusive motherhood of actress Joan Crawford, adapted from the memoir of the same name by her adopted daughter, Christina. We watched Flowers in the Attic, the 1987 drama about a group of siblings who are locked away in a small room by their cruel grandmother, leading to everything from incestuous desire to parent poisoning. A favorite of everyone’s was Adventures in Babysitting, the 1987 teen comedy about a babysitter, played by a decidedly non-teenage Elisabeth Shue, who falls into a series of urban “crimes” and non-punishments, all while trying care for three kids. And then there was Testament, a 1983 drama about a mother and her three children attempting to survive in the shadow of the nuclear holocaust that slowly kills them.
What’s striking in remembering these films is how different they are: they barely overlap in the Hollywood movie-making universe, making up the oddest quadruple feature ever. Aside from all being relics of the ’80s, the thing that brings them together for me now is my mother — and the fact that they happen to be stories about mother figures facing extreme conditions, trying to be the best caretakers they can be.
My mother didn’t realize this, though. She doesn’t consciously remember grouping the films together, but she does remember that, yes, we watched them, that she was seeking them out. “I didn’t even notice until now,” she says. “Maybe I watched them to make myself feel better, to see that my situation wasn’t as bad as the movies. I could have it worse — I could be that one! Perhaps that’s what I was thinking.”
“Remember, I didn’t have a mother example,” she points out, alluding to her absent and mean mother, a real-life Puerto Rican telenovela villainess known for her vicious slap and for leaving her children to fend for themselves. “The mother I had was someone I was avoiding at all costs. I was finding my normal.”
Of these four movies, the one that impacted me most was Testament, a quiet disaster film focused on human drama instead of the science-fictional theatrics of apocalypse. The movie stars Jane Alexander as Carol Wetherly, a mother to three living in the Bay Area. Her husband, played by the aggressively charming William Devane, works in San Francisco. On a day like any other, Carol attends to the children after school, listening to her husband’s voice on the answering machine saying that he’ll be home early. Then the television cuts out. Then come the sirens. And then the flash: 19 minutes into the film, their idyllic normalcy is replaced by a nuclear disaster that kills her husband, leaving the family to survive or die together in the home.
The movie is told in diary entries as Carol logs the time and the troubles that face them, all ostensibly written to her husband, in case he ever comes home. Carol faces long lines to get food, a lack of batteries to power their lives, essential workers who run gas stations while toting guns to protect themselves from panicked customers — all while she juggles the mundanity of motherhood, from dealing with the children repeatedly asking, “What are we going to do today?” to burying them when they succumb to radiation poisoning. The film contains many striking, devastating images — a young Kevin Costner burying his infant daughter in a dresser drawer, a neighborhood elder using all his energy to connect with other cities by ham radio, the town burning the dead after running out of places for all the bodies. But the most affecting scenes are the ones that take place at home.
An hour into Testament, Carol’s children start to die. In one scene, she fills the bathroom sink with water in the middle of the night. She carries in her youngest son, naked, and rests him on the counter. She dabs him with a wet washcloth, cleaning him while humming and whispering gently. He slumps against the wall, barely able to lift his arms. When the bathing is done, she wraps him in a clean white towel, swaddling him, smiling at him, before lifting him to her shoulder. She stops, facing the mirror, caught by something she sees: a red stain spreading across the towel, blood coming out of her son’s bottom. It’s a quiet moment. It’s a horrible moment. It’s a moment that no parent wants to experience. But that’s Testament.
The movie uses the home as a backdrop for tragedy and disaster. Whether it’s running out of food or losing track of the days, explaining sex to your tween daughter who will never experience the act, or digging graves in your backyard next to the swing set, the horrors of disaster happen in the domestic domain. In the film’s penultimate scene, Carol sits at a table with her son and another child she’s taken in, lighting candles on makeshift birthday cakes, spreading peanut butter on crackers.
“What do we wish for, mom?” her last living child asks.
“That we remember it all,” Carol says. “The good and the awful. The way we finally lived. That we never gave up. That we [were] last to be here, to deserve the children.”
“This film is dedicated to my family,” reads a closing title card, before the crawl of the final credits.
“I would have done that,” my mother says, speaking about Carol. “I definitely identified with her. If that were to happen, I would have done that. The fact that she buried her two children and kept going? She never gave up. That’s the ultimate courage, that she couldn’t be a coward.”
“You gotta survive,” my mother adds. “You pick up things from movies. There are things that you want to be, things you visualize and you can see yourself doing from movies. I could be strong. I could be brave.”
My mom’s not wrong either: it’s well proven that movies and media can inspire people to be different, to make changes in their lives. “Some films can have a profound impact on some people,” author and clinical psychologist Danny Wedding told me. Wedding pointed to his books Movies and Mental Illness (1999) and Positive Psychology at the Movies (2008) as proof of this phenomenon, that films can shape lives in a positive direction — and that it usually takes multiple films to drill the point home. “I don’t think one film is likely to make a viewer more heroic,” Wedding said. “But watching a series of films that document heroism might increase the likelihood that a person would behave heroically in some situations.”
Watch a series of films my mother certainly did. “You put all these women together,” she says, “and they were strong, good or bad. It’s a powerful thing.”
But Carol and what befalls her in Testament offered a specific kind of courage. It was so unique to our situation, too: a mother, without a husband, left with three kids in isolation. It was a worst-case scenario, played out as televised theater. My mother believes she watched the movie a handful of times on VHS through our Catholic church, where she was a youth minister. The film was used to teach humanity and disaster preparedness through exercises that simulated situations such as a nuclear bombing. “It was scary because, in those days, a nuclear disaster could have still happened,” she says. “The Cold War wasn’t over yet, and we lived on a military base. There was the thought that people could come over and just bomb us. The chemical warfare part was something we were starting to hear about. And dad was in Korea. It was something really real.”
Testament was the result of very real fears of nuclear disaster. In the ’80s, people lived with the sense that nuclear annihilation was inevitable, that life in America would eventually stop because of a bombing. The movie premiered on November 4, 1983, during the same month a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union almost erupted over a military exercise. The movie tapped into national anxieties and dreads, as did the subsequent (November 20, 1983) release of the TV movie The Day After, which explored nuclear holocaust in the Midwest.
While The Day After started a debate about the depiction of nuclear war, Testament became known for being a film so utterly real and chilling that, as one critic put it, “the audience […] would never [want to] see a movie again.” In his four-star review, Roger Ebert called Testament “a tragedy about manners,” a film that asks “how our values might stand up, in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.” Ebert notes that Alexander delivered one of the “most powerful movie scenes I’ve ever seen” — which didn’t go unnoticed: the actress was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.
“For about three years, I had been having an ongoing nightmare,” Alexander told me, noting that the dream was about her sons eating radiated shellfish they dug up after a bombing. She was quite familiar with the issue through her participation in Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament. “I thought I was going to be reliving my nightmare while I was filming,” she said. “I was surprisingly calm and [the character] kind of came naturally. And I never had that nightmare again.”
Alexander wasn’t the only one having nightmares about nuclear disaster as it related to her children: the film’s director, Lynne Littman, did too. “I remember having dreams that my younger son’s nursery school, which was a straight line down the road from my house, was struck,” Littman told me. “I remember thinking ‘How am I going to get there?’ I dreamt about walking on top of cars to get to him.”
Before Testament, Littman had made documentaries, including the Oscar-winning Number Our Days (1976), about elderly Eastern European Jews living in poverty in Venice, California. Testament is based on a short story written by Carol Amen, an inspirational writer from the Bay Area. Littman was struck by the tale because of the way it portrayed the disaster, the fact that it centered on the family. The film was originally supposed to be produced for public television, via American Playhouse; indeed, Amen’s story was being pursued by many filmmakers, following its publication in Ms. magazine in 1981. What Littman had that other filmmakers didn’t was the screen rights, which she procured by calling up Amen (after getting her number via 411) and having a friendly conversation.
The task of turning the story into a script went to screenwriter John Sacret Young, who was attracted to the project because of its inadvertent ties to film noir. “This was family noir,” Sacret Young told me. “What do you do when you’re faced with the darkness? How do you find the light? How do you find the better angels of yourself?” Since Amen’s story was only around five pages long, his job was to elaborate and build up a real world. Young notes that the writing process was grueling, with a brutally tight deadline. “At the end, it was an emptying, draining experience,” he says. “But it almost went to film without changes.”
Sacret Young’s screenplay followed Amen’s story, with one significant change made by Littman. “It’s completely based on the story,” she said. “I decided to add home movies, largely because I knew how to shoot them.” The addition of these sequences provides one of the film’s most devastating effects: the home movies serve as flashbacks, memories of when the family was whole, unsullied by death. They also heighten the audience’s sense of how Carol and her family are just like them, which Amen’s story had accomplished through its epistolary form.
One thing the parties involved in the project all mentioned to me was that the film seemed almost charmed: there was a magic despite the melancholy. “It was a process where almost everyone making the film contributed the time and energy for almost no money,” Sacret Young said. Alexander recalled that her introduction to Amen’s story came from one of her sons, who told her it sounded like the nightmare she had been having. “And the very next day I get a call from a director, Lynne Littman,” she added. “And don’t you think it’s funny that Testament came from Carol ‘Amen’ and John ‘Sacred’ Young?”
Carol Amen’s “The Last Testament” is less than 4,000 words long. The August 1981 issue of Ms. in which it appeared featured Lena Horne on the cover, with proclamations of “more good news for our lives” at the ages of 40, 50, 60. The feature stories in the issue feel simultaneously quaint and prescient: “New Ways Out of the U.S. Economic Crisis,” “The Long Trek to the Perfect Sneaker,” “Working from Home: How To Get Up in The Morning and More Secrets To Success,” “Irony in Iran: Women Hostages, Women Guards,” “Learning from Liz Taylor, Cicely Tyson, Sophia Loren, and Other Gorgeous Women.” “Plus,” the cover boasts, clearing its throat with a colon: “Summer Fiction Bonus,” which included Amen’s story.
“If I sound calm as I begin this, I’m not,” the story starts. “Numb would be more like it.” This is the voice of Amen’s protagonist, an unnamed woman. Her children — Mary Liz, Brad, and Scottie — as well as her husband, Tom, have the same names in Littman’s adaptation. All the affecting scenes in the movie were in the original source — the death of a neighbor’s baby, the gas-station attendant carrying a rifle, the use of ham radio, et cetera. But the story also conveys a heightened sense of the war’s impact on the natural world, from losing the sound of robins to feeling as if the world has slowed to a pause. The story starts with a bang: “Tonight as I fixed dinner and wrestled with self-pity because Tom had phoned saying he’d be staying late in San Francisco, the entire Eastern Seaboard was wiped out.” And it ends with a final diary entry on an unknown date: “If survivors come here. Want them to know something. We didn’t act like animals. Most people were good. Helped. Tried. If only we could have lived as well as we have died. I wish —” And then the story abruptly ends, a melodramatic but effective flourish illustrating the silence engulfing the world.
The publication history of “The Last Testament” is hard to trace since the Ms. editors at the time can’t recall specifically working with the story or with Amen. “I imagine we ran it because Reagan had just been elected and we were worried about his politics, domestic and foreign,” Joanne Edgar, one of the magazine’s founders and editor of the issue in question, told me. She sent me a photo of a political cartoon from 1980 by Pulitzer Prize finalist Bob Englehart, lampooning Reagan, that she had on her wall at the magazine for years, noting its eerie parallels to our own time. “Seems to fit right in today,” she says. “Who could have known?”
The appearance of Amen’s “The Last Testament” in Ms. was actually a reprint: the story originally ran in the September 1980 issue of the St. Anthony Messenger, an Ohio-based religious magazine published by the Franciscan Friars, with a circulation of roughly 350,000 in the 1980s. The story was written 14 years prior to the movie’s release, according to a feature on Amen that appeared in The San Francisco Examiner in October 1983.
Like Alexander and Littman, Amen stressed the roots of her story in a dream about nuclear fears and her family. “I woke up at 4AM,” she told the Examiner. “The [dream] lasted two hours. I watched it with wonder and dread. Every event was perfectly real to me. And then I went back to sleep.” The next day, after her husband went to work and her children left for school, she wrote out the story:
I started at 9AM and I simply wrote everything I saw. I wrote all the words I heard people speak. I wrote until 3 in the afternoon without stopping. […] When I was finished, I rushed out of the house. I had to get out, to see people, see a tree. It seemed miraculous that there were trees.
She submitted the story to multiple outlets, with no luck, until the Messenger eventually gave it a home. “There was some division among members of the editorial board over whether or not we should run Carol’s story,” the magazine’s editor, Brother Jeremy Harrington, explained to the San Jose Mercury years after the release. “I felt the story had merit.” Amen noted that she wasn’t political, wasn’t an activist, but that the story had an urgency, being mailed out to her eventual publisher on “the day the Russians invaded Afghanistan.”
What we know of Amen now is mostly from her stories and from memories of those who knew her (she died on July 4, 1987, at the age of 53). “There was some line of connection between us, and when we met it was profound,” Alexander told me. “She had a deadly cancer — and she had a party before she died, literally days before. It was a celebration.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the party was called a “She Lives Until She Dies” party. “My adventure with cancer is not going well,” Amen explained in her invitation to the party. “I may not be around to see all your projects reach fruition — best-sellerdom, acclaim of critics, peers and friends.” She wrote about her cancer too.
Amen wasn’t afraid to face death, her close friend Patt Tubbs told me. “She had a huge collection of elephants,” Tubbs said. “She wrote an article or short story about ‘the elephant in the room’ and it was about her cancer.” Tubbs also noted that Amen wrote for Reader’s Digest and Guideposts, primarily on the “inspirational” beat. The two of them went to church together at First United Methodist in Sunnyvale, California, where Amen was the editor of the church newspaper. “When she passed, we named one of the rooms in the office ‘Amen Corner’ because she had worked there,” Tubbs said, noting that people frequently assume the room is named for religious reasons. But it’s actually named after Carol.
Tubbs recalled Amen’s kindness and her dedication to the church. She attended by herself, without her children or husband, but was of service as she could be. Before having children, she was a nurse, then turned to writing and the teaching of writing, which she did at various schools in the Bay Area and elsewhere. “She was writing for the love of writing,” Tubbs said.
When the opportunity for Testament came around, Amen didn’t make a big show of excitement. She was grounded, modest. “She was happy [the story] was going to be a movie,” Tubbs told me. “They showed the movie at church a few times, and I don’t remember her being super excited about it. It certainly wasn’t what she expected.”
The picture we get of Amen is of a stoic sort of person, someone others looked to for calm and for answers. “There were a lot of younger people and people her age looking at what she had to say, whether it was advice or whatnot,” Tubbs said. “She was there to help you. She wasn’t pushy with her religion. That’s one of the things that I like about her: she was more by show instead of saying what you shouldn’t do.”
“She had a lot of class,” a former student of Amen’s told the San Jose Mercury for her obituary. “She not only taught us how to write, she taught us how to die.”
Three days before my mother and I spoke about Testament, I missed a call from her at 7:50 a.m. “U awake?” she texted. “Can u call me please?”
When we spoke, she told me that her mother, my abuela, had died in an assisted living facility in Jersey City. For years she had suffered from lung disease and the various other maladies that come with old age. She died peacefully, my mother said. She wasn’t in pain.
“Today we said goodbye to our mother, grandmother, great grandmother,” she posted on Instagram. “This virus is real, stay safe.”
“You pick up things from movies,” my mother tells me. “There are things that you want to be, things you see and you visualize and you can see yourself doing. I can understand [Testament] because I remember having little kids and feeling overwhelmed. You can use those experiences, even if they’re not even real. It helps you figure it out.”
“Everyone is always trying to be the model TV family,” she adds. “Whether you admit it or not, you’re emulating something. You have to decide on the model you want to be. I was always looking for what kind of mom I wanted to be. Luckily for you, I didn’t turn out like Mommie Dearest.”
We laugh and we laugh and we laugh.
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles who has been published by Playboy, Los Angeles Magazine, Eater, Popsugar, and more. A LARB/USC Publishing Workshop fellow, he loves dogs, pét-nat, and short shorts.