Our Testament

It was a worst-case scenario, played out as televised theater. 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. 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. “The [dream] lasted two hours. In one scene, she fills the bathroom sink with water in the middle of the night. Tubbs recalled Amen’s kindness and her dedication to the church. “She was writing for the love of writing,” Tubbs said. “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. magazine in 1981. “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. “Seems to fit right in today,” she says. 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. 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. “I was surprisingly calm and [the character] kind of came naturally. I watched it with wonder and dread. 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. “This was family noir,” Sacret Young told me. 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 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. 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. That’s the ultimate courage, that she couldn’t be a coward.”
“You gotta survive,” my mother adds. “They showed the movie at church a few times, and I don’t remember her being super excited about it. editors at the time can’t recall specifically working with the story or with Amen. “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. 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. 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. 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. 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. She carries in her youngest son, naked, and rests him on the counter. She wasn’t pushy with her religion. The movie stars Jane Alexander as Carol Wetherly, a mother to three living in the Bay Area. It was something really real.”
Testament was the result of very real fears of nuclear disaster. “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. “I thought I was going to be reliving my nightmare while I was filming,” she said. “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. “She was happy [the story] was going to be a movie,” Tubbs told me. “She was there to help you. 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. You were worried about who was watching and what could happen. Most people were good. “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. “The mother I had was someone I was avoiding at all costs. If only we could have lived as well as we have died. She was grounded, modest. Then come the sirens. If he got to a phone, I had to be home. For years she had suffered from lung disease and the various other maladies that come with old age. JUNE 16, 2020

“I WAS STRUGGLING,” my mother tells me. “Whether you admit it or not, you’re emulating something. 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. “Maybe I watched them to make myself feel better, to see that my situation wasn’t as bad as the movies. “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. “I woke up at 4AM,” she told the Examiner. “U awake?” she texted. 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. “If I sound calm as I begin this, I’m not,” the story starts. It’s a powerful thing.”
But Carol and what befalls her in Testament offered a specific kind of courage. The movie uses the home as a backdrop for tragedy and disaster. 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. “What do we wish for, mom?” her last living child asks. “My adventure with cancer is not going well,” Amen explained in her invitation to the party. 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. 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. The publication history of “The Last Testament” is hard to trace since the Ms. “There was some line of connection between us, and when we met it was profound,” Alexander told me. “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). “I didn’t even notice until now,” she says. Luckily for you, I didn’t turn out like Mommie Dearest.”
We laugh and we laugh and we laugh. I could be strong. 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. “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. 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. There are things that you want to be, things you visualize and you can see yourself doing from movies. 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. I was always looking for what kind of mom I wanted to be. The way we finally lived. It’s a horrible moment. It was so unique to our situation, too: a mother, without a husband, left with three kids in isolation. “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.   She doesn’t consciously remember grouping the films together, but she does remember that, yes, we watched them, that she was seeking them out. She wasn’t in pain. Helped. The August 1981 issue of Ms. “Some films can have a profound impact on some people,” author and clinical psychologist Danny Wedding told me. An hour into Testament, Carol’s children start to die. “I don’t think one film is likely to make a viewer more heroic,” Wedding said. In the ’80s, people lived with the sense that nuclear annihilation was inevitable, that life in America would eventually stop because of a bombing. It’s a moment that no parent wants to experience. It seemed miraculous that there were trees. How do you find the light? 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 was quite familiar with the issue through her participation in Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament. I wrote all the words I heard people speak. He slumps against the wall, barely able to lift his arms. “But it almost went to film without changes.”
Sacret Young’s screenplay followed Amen’s story, with one significant change made by Littman. 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. There was the thought that people could come over and just bomb us. Anthony Messenger, an Ohio-based religious magazine published by the Franciscan Friars, with a circulation of roughly 350,000 in the 1980s. The two of them went to church together at First United Methodist in Sunnyvale, California, where Amen was the editor of the church newspaper. 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. 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. “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. She died peacefully, my mother said. I wish —” And then the story abruptly ends, a melodramatic but effective flourish illustrating the silence engulfing the world. Every event was perfectly real to me. 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. My mother didn’t realize this, though. “You put all these women together,” she says, “and they were strong, good or bad. 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. The chemical warfare part was something we were starting to hear about. “She had a deadly cancer — and she had a party before she died, literally days before. When the opportunity for Testament came around, Amen didn’t make a big show of excitement. It helps you figure it out.”
“Everyone is always trying to be the model TV family,” she adds. 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. You have to decide on the model you want to be. Young notes that the writing process was grueling, with a brutally tight deadline. If that were to happen, I would have done that. My mother believes she watched the movie a handful of times on VHS through our Catholic church, where she was a youth minister. “Culturally speaking, it was a different planet,” she says. Like Alexander and Littman, Amen stressed the roots of her story in a dream about nuclear fears and her family. ¤
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles who has been published by Playboy, Los Angeles Magazine, Eater, Popsugar, and more. 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. A LARB/USC Publishing Workshop fellow, he loves dogs, pét-nat, and short shorts. 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. was actually a reprint: the story originally ran in the September 1980 issue of the St. 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. “The good and the awful. Her husband, played by the aggressively charming William Devane, works in San Francisco. “It’s completely based on the story,” she said. “I definitely identified with her. “That we remember it all,” Carol says. The feature stories in the issue feel simultaneously quaint and prescient: “New Ways Out of the U.S. 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. “She had a huge collection of elephants,” Tubbs said. 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. “The Cold War wasn’t over yet, and we lived on a military base. “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. “There are things that you want to be, things you see and you visualize and you can see yourself doing. It’s a quiet moment. “At the end, it was an emptying, draining experience,” he says. The film was used to teach humanity and disaster preparedness through exercises that simulated situations such as a nuclear bombing. 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. She attended by herself, without her children or husband, but was of service as she could be. But the most affecting scenes are the ones that take place at home. Amen wasn’t afraid to face death, her close friend Patt Tubbs told me. “This virus is real, stay safe.”
“You pick up things from movies,” my mother tells me. But it’s actually named after Carol. 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. That we never gave up. 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. I could have it worse — I could be that one! “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. “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. 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. “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. ¤
“I would have done that,” my mother says, speaking about Carol. Littman was struck by the tale because of the way it portrayed the disaster, the fact that it centered on the family. I had to get out, to see people, see a tree. Tried. I wrote until 3 in the afternoon without stopping. 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. I can understand [Testament] because I remember having little kids and feeling overwhelmed. And dad was in Korea. Her children — Mary Liz, Brad, and Scottie — as well as her husband, Tom, have the same names in Littman’s adaptation. She never gave up. She submitted the story to multiple outlets, with no luck, until the Messenger eventually gave it a home. She dabs him with a wet washcloth, cleaning him while humming and whispering gently. “Today we said goodbye to our mother, grandmother, great grandmother,” she posted on Instagram. […] When I was finished, I rushed out of the house. 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. “It was a process where almost everyone making the film contributed the time and energy for almost no money,” Sacret Young said. But that’s Testament. “And the very next day I get a call from a director, Lynne Littman,” she added. “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. You can use those experiences, even if they’re not even real. “You pick up things from movies. “Who could have known?”

The appearance of Amen’s “The Last Testament” in Ms. 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. “It was isolation,” she says, speaking of how both her and my father’s extended families were hours away in New Jersey. 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. 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. 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. We didn’t act like animals. “When dad was in Korea, there were no cell phones. We watched a lot of movies — or, more accurately, my mother watched a lot of movies. 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. “What do you do when you’re faced with the darkness? Want them to know something. It was a celebration.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the party was called a “She Lives Until She Dies” party. The fact that she buried her two children and kept going? “It was scary because, in those days, a nuclear disaster could have still happened,” she says. 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. 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. 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. Testament is based on a short story written by Carol Amen, an inspirational writer from the Bay Area. “Numb would be more like it.” This is the voice of Amen’s protagonist, an unnamed woman. “Kentucky wasn’t a place where you saw a lot of Hispanics. Then the television cuts out. 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. 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.