‘I’ve Never Been So Haunted’: Read An Exclusive Extract From Martha Wainwright’s Memoir

29 March 2022 | 12:45 pm | Martha Wainwright

In the lead up to the release of Martha Wainwright’s deeply personal new memoir, ‘Stories I Might Regret Telling You’ (out April 13 via Simon & Schuster), you can read an exclusive extract below. Chapter 9 of Wainwright’s autobiography details various struggles in her personal life, time spent around Leonard Cohen, her first-ever trip to Australia and more.

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I’ve mentioned the tension that existed between my dad and me, and the way I always felt judged by him. Though it makes me ashamed, I feel I should say a little more about the complicated ways in which I also felt judged and dismissed by my mother. 

I was performing at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on the campus of University College London, sometime after my record came out, and Kate and Anna happened to be traveling through the city on their own tour. I invited them to sit in, and also invited some friends along as guest performers. For some reason, I always feel the need to share the stage and make more work for myself. Maybe I think I can steal the show by outshining others, though that strategy hasn’t worked yet because I always get really great people. 

That night in London, we had my mom and my aunt, as well as Chris Stills, Ed Harcourt, Teddy Thompson, Thea Gilmore, and Beth Orton. (I can’t remember if Beth made it to the stage. There were some tears and drama beforehand, and I had to quickly put it all out of my mind to concentrate on hosting the show.) Ed did two new songs, “Lachrimosity,” a word he said he’d made up but that already existed, and “You Only Call Me When You’re Drunk,” which were highlights of the night, but which also perhaps set the tone for the rest of the evening. 

I started drinking at the action-packed sound check, where we frantically rehearsed the guests’ songs and put ourselves through our paces, stretching our musical abilities to their limits. I guess that’s really why I’ve always liked these kinds of shows. You feel so alive and vital, like you’ve stepped into an old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie in which the kids all get together to put on a show. Not that this should make you feel particularly vital because both of them are dead, but when you’re a performer, you want to think you are as great as the greats. Anyway, Ed smashed away at the piano, Teddy played the guitar with such ease it seemed to be playing itself, and we singers swooped up as high as we could go and dipped down into our lower registers to find something beautiful. The best of us all, of course, was my mother, moving freely from instrument to instrument, smiling and cracking jokes, charming everyone and enjoying every minute. 

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Showtime arrived, and the mood was so good we paid no attention to the opening act, who showed up with a B3 organ along with a Leslie and was personally attended by three “staff,” even though he was only about nineteen. It turns out he was an artist named James Morrison, who was being groomed by his label and management. He became pretty successful, but I try to not pay too much attention to those kinds of things. But my people and I were flying solo that night—solo of record companies, staff, money, and grooming. I tried to cover up the rough edges by putting on some makeup. Before going on, I also liked to give myself a little pep talk in the mirror, although with my mother around, I didn’t need to psych myself up as much, since she did it for me. The show went off without a hitch. 

Pumped and excited, we all went back to the management company flat where I was staying, a nice place in Mayfair, with twenty-two-foot-high ceilings, a working fireplace, and French doors. (The management company, doing okay, wanted to look as though they were doing really well.) I was feeling good. Knowing who was involved, my tour manager had arranged for copious amounts of alcohol, and my funky London friends joined us, wearing all their great outfits, including hats, feathers, old fur coats, and vintage leather boots. Earlier in the day, I had bought a selection of stinky cheeses from a good cheese shop, and someone had cut some flowers from their garden and brought them to the gig as an offering to me, and they were on the table. It was almost civilized. 

We all got shit-faced as usual—we’re musicians, after all. And pretty quickly a darker tone set in. Soon, I was in tears about my career, my insecurity always a bottomless pit. And my mom piled on, telling me I was the definition of mediocrity, and that I’d never achieve excellence because I had no real interests. About then, the last stragglers sensed it was time to leave. 

How did things escalate so fast and go so far? Booze, I know, but what was in us that the booze brought out? When she said I had no interests, and that my mediocrity was all my fault, I couldn’t control myself. I did try to move away from her, but she followed me into the bedroom, still talking, and I went crazy. I saw red. So I pushed her down. No, I grabbed her by the arms and threw her down. I’ve never been so haunted as the moment I saw her hit the ground and look back up at me in fear. Thank god I didn’t kick her. 

She was right. I did lack interests. I worried that I would never be as good as she was, or Rufus, or anyone, really. But I was shocked when she said it, and it hurt. Kate was always about to get under people’s skin and sometimes it drove people to react violently or to fear her. Even me. Especially me. 

But now we were both shocked and we knew it had gone too far. We shared a cigarette in silence, drank some water, and got into our respective beds before the sun came up. The following morning was beautiful, and I slunk into her room with my head down. I climbed in next to her, and we said nothing, just cried together, looking out the floor-to-ceiling window onto a courtyard. We both apologized tenderly and quietly, but effusively, and then we put it behind us. We wanted to forget. 

We also didn’t want to leave each other just yet, so she accompanied me to my next gig in Bristol. That night, she and I played together to a full house in a Bristol church, and the music we shared saved our souls and washed away some of the guilt we both felt. It was a good night, and afterward, Kate and I sat outside under the stars for a long time, saying very little and wiping away tears. 

In 2004, Kate started having attacks every few months, always at night. They were dramatic, with a lot of vomiting—to the point of throwing up a foamy froth—and sharp, stabbing pains in her abdomen. By then, she had been living on her own for a while in the building on Querbes. She was set in a solitary evening routine of snacking in front of the TV and, at first, she blamed the attacks on this bad habit. She was in her late fifties and had always been pretty healthy, almost never needing to go to a doctor; she didn’t believe in checkups, mammograms, bone density monitoring, or any of the rest of the tests women her age treat as facts of life. She finally sought medical help in 2005, going to several doctors and specialists, accompanied by Anna. (I think it’s important to underline the companionship she had with her sister. Her whole life, really, but especially during these last years.) The doctors were puzzled and threw around various theories and possible diagnoses, like Crohn’s disease, as the attacks grew worse. No one ever mentioned cancer. 

Australia is a place that I visit often, and it has always seemed magical to me, with its strange, prehistoric-looking animals and reversed sky. One time, my band and I got lost in Wombat State Forest and we tried to get our bearings from the stars. We laughed and laughed as we attempted to piece together any semblance of knowledge of the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. I felt lucky to be there, lost in the forest of wombats. 

But the first time I went there, in January 2005, my mom was already mortally ill and we didn’t know it. That Australian trip would mark the beginning of her torturous road, during which she graced as many stages as she could in as many countries as she could, saying goodbye to her life as an artist and, in her way, passing the baton to me, urging me to take more and more space onstage and in life. 

We flew, along with Anna and Rufus, the day after one of my mom’s abdominal pain attacks. Kate wasn’t sure whether or not she should travel, but she got on the long flight, had a few drinks, charmed people, and made no complaints, like a true stoic. We were all relieved to take a break from the Montreal winter. (The city can be so extremely cold in the winter that the commitment to live there is really a commitment.) 

We were headed to perform at a Leonard Cohen tribute at the Sydney Opera House, which was going to be filmed for a documentary on his career called Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Hal Willner produced the concert, and the guests included Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, the Handsome Family, and Leonard’s backup singers, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. Linda and Teddy Thompson were there, too, as well as Antony (now known as Anohni). Between Nick, Jarvis, and Teddy, all the women in the cast were pretty much swooning all the time. If Rufus had been straight, that would have put the girls over the edge. 

I sang on “There Is a War.” I remember once asking his daughter, Lorca Cohen, which of her dad’s songs was her favorite, and that was her answer. I was a little surprised, but if you knew how conflicted and restless Lorca is, you would understand her reasons. (Lorca and I used to be good friends, but no more. Cross her and there is no coming back from it. If I were to paint her portrait, there would be a wide and deep backdrop of burned and still-burning bridges.) The concert and following film and soundtrack album contributed to Cohen’s massive comeback, priming the world for his incredible return to touring (which was necessary, too, after he was left almost penniless by a former manager’s theft and fraud). I also got to sing “Tower of Song” (in the movie, they annoyingly recorded U2 doing it separately and used that) and “The Traitor.” Here I was, singing Leonard Cohen songs at the Sydney Opera House, when fifteen or so years earlier I had been carrying my blue boom box with his tape in it everywhere I went. Some dreams do come true. 

A few years later, I actually had a chance to audition to sing backup for Leonard on one of those world tours. Leonard knew my music and was very supportive of me, having come to see me play a few times in LA. He had always given me good advice, like “Never listen to the label executives.” One time, after hearing me practicing in Lorca’s house, he told me I had something special. I was flabbergasted. In those days, I always stayed with Lorca when I came to LA to work or visit Rufus. Leonard lived upstairs and he was around a lot. Once, I saw him in the backyard in his fedora with a bowl of fruit neatly placed on a simple wooden chair beside him, a beautiful naked woman reclining on the edge of the hot tub nearby—as if every scene of his life was a photograph or a painting. 

In the end, I decided not to take the job, even though it would have been an amazing gig. From what I understand, Leonard paid well and always took great care of his musicians and his singers and his crew. But there is only so much hip-swaying, oohing, and aahing I can do while clad in a black suit before I start feeling underused. (I still know all the parts, though, having once sung them so obsessively.) 

After the tribute was over, Kate, Anna, Rufus, and I stayed on to do a small tour together—nepotism at its best. I hadn’t released my first record yet and was the furthest thing from famous, but I was able to play my songs in front of the large and faithful Australian audiences who had taken Kate and Anna into their warm embrace decades earlier. It was the beginning of my relationship with the country and continent that would become one of my “best markets,” but more than that, Australia became meaningful to me for the friends I made and for the opportunity to experience its sheer beauty. 

Later in 2005, one of Kate’s scans showed a mysterious blurry mark. Exploratory surgery was the only way to really find out what it was. The surgeon, Dr. Tabah, explained that the blurry bit could be something inconsequential, like scar tissue left from the severe bout of peritonitis Kate had barely survived in her twenties (more about that later), but he thought it was wise to check it out. 

Looking back, I think we were already dancing around the truth. It wasn’t scar tissue. Kate was recovering from the surgery when Dr. Tabah came in to tell us that he had discovered a large tumor in her upper colon that had almost completely obstructed her digestive tract. It was about the size of a fist, big and nasty, and if he hadn’t removed the thing, she could have died from the obstruction. He’d removed the surrounding lymph nodes, too, and had also caught sight of a few small lesions on her liver. He looked particularly concerned when he mentioned those. Dr. Tabah was kind but clear: the lab would need to biopsy the tumor to make absolutely sure of what it was, but he doubted it was benign. In fact, he used the opposite word: malignant. And the lesions on her liver indicated that the cancer had probably spread. 

A day later, Kate was moved to a large, bright, single-occupancy room, which Dr. Tabah had pulled strings to get for her. We all gathered around, each with our different reactions to the news. Anna got on the computer and started doing research on possible treatments. Aunt Jane—who had looked so calm while the doctor was telling us the results of the surgery, it was as if she hadn’t even heard him—retreated for a while, and Rufus kept himself really busy with work. Since there was room for a cot beside Kate’s bed, I packed my pajamas and toothbrush and moved in for the next few days. 

On that first night I spent sleeping in Kate’s room, everything changed between us. I never questioned her or raised my voice to her again. Whatever difficult mother-daughter dynamic we had had in the past vanished. I was very teary and spent more time than I probably had to in the hospital-room bathroom crying. Brad, I remember, found me there, and took me by the shoulders and kissed me very hard. 

The last time I’d been in a Montreal hospital, I was eighteen and there to have an abortion. After looking through a phone book to try to figure out how to get one, I finally broke down and asked my mom for help. She told me to call the hospital to make an appointment, which I did. She also spoke to our family doctor, who had taken such good care of my grandmother. He’s one of those doctors with a soothing voice and soft cool hands that make you feel better all on their own. He’d come to the house in Saint-Sauveur when my grandmother died. Her body lay in the small downstairs bedroom where she had spent the last few months of her life because she was too frail to get up the stairs. He was a spiritual man, the follower of an Indian guru, and he was also the guru’s doctor; he’d brought him to a mountain to die. Though Gaby was already gone, he’d rubbed her forehead with his thumb to help “release her soul,” as he said. The gesture seemed very kind. 

After my mom had filled him in, he asked me to come see him. At our appointment, he made it clear that whatever I did in response to the pregnancy was fine with him, but he recommended that if I went through with the abortion, it might help for me to take a moment, if it felt right, to say goodbye to the child who wouldn’t be, through a dedication or prayer or something of the sort. On my ride home from his office, on the 24 bus along Sherbrooke Street, I apologized and tried in some way to set us both free. When I got home, Anna was there with Kate and they told me that if I wanted to keep the baby, they would take care of us both. I thanked them but told them that I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I’m sure they were relieved, but a little sad, too. The next day, my mom drove me and my boyfriend to the hospital and waited for us outside. 

Now, years later, I wheeled Kate out to that parking lot after she was released, as I would over and over again during her illness, always hoping not to have to return, and always knowing we’d be back.

Stories I Might Regret Telling You is out via Simon & Schuster on April 13