First Contact

Sarah Watts details how science fiction shaped her family, her religion, and her own self-image.

Sarah Watts | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,998 words)

Every Friday in the summer of 1997, my mom tended bar to pay for her masters degree and my dad took us to the movies. My twin brother Adam and I were 9 and our little brother, Jake, was 7. Because younger kids got in free, my dad would tell the ticket taker we were all under 6, and he waved us in every time without scrutiny.

We went to the drive-in not far from our house nothing more than an enormous screen looming over a gravel parking lot, littered with weeds and broken bottles. Under the screen, kids turned cartwheels, shrieking and darting out in front of the cars that crawled past. Some parents would park backward and open up their trunks, lining the bottom with blankets and pillows for the kids to lounge in; others would crack open beers from the comfort of fold-out chairs. Not us we parked facing the screen, windows up, air-conditioning running.

Once we found a parking space, Dad would send us to the concession stand with money a crisp $20 that he entrusted to my brother, because he knew Id pocket the change. Dad cracked a window to sneak a cigarette while the three of us kids walked together, gravel crunching under our shoes (always sneakers, never flip-flops, because of the broken glass), and Adam and I would bully Jake into using the bathroom so we wouldn’t have to come back during the movie. Back in the car, my brothers elbowed each other for space in the backseat, and Dad would twist off the cap to his Coke and hand it to me, offering me the first sip, the best one, the one that made my eyes water. When the orange glare of the sun had dimmed, when the sky purpled and I was fingering the dust at the bottom of my bag of Sour Patch Kids, the movie would start.

One night in July, Dad took us to see Contact, a movie adapted from one of the dog-eared paperbacks on his side of the bookshelf. At 9, I was too young to have seen Alien, and hadnt yet been introduced to Captain Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager (we were more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation family). That Friday night, my tongue raw from candy and mosquitos whining in my ear, I saw a woman as the lead in a science fiction movie for the very first time. The din of the drive-in fell away.

It was no secret that women were powerful, strong. My mom was a loud Italian woman who wore shirts that said EVE WAS FRAMED, who cracked a wooden spoon over the kitchen counter if we smarted off, who swung her hands wildly when she talked, and bent at the waist when she roared with laughter. No skin off my ass! shed yell when my dad joked about leaving her for someone younger. She earned her own money and kept it in a bank account that my dad couldnt access. Every woman should have her own money, she’d tell me. Don’t marry anyone who says you cant.

But in my world, men were the scientists. On my dads side of the bookshelf, nearly all the heroes in his sci-fi books were men. Within my family, men excelled at math, majored in engineering, talked about physics and calculus offhandedly like others would talk about the Bears or the Blackhawks. Watching Dr. Ellie Arroway, Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, was like seeing the person I was supposed to be a perfect hybrid of my moms brazenness and my dad’s love for science and progress. In the movie, Ellie slams things, shouts orders over men who try to talk over her, almost runs one of them over with her car. Eventually, she boards a spacecraft she helped design, and the audience knows that her own unyielding ambition propelled her into space. Ellie was a revelation.

I longed for science to be the thing my dad and I bonded over, like Ellie and her dad. But my brother Adam was the one with the aptitude, not me. To connect with my dad, I settled on science fiction. I grabbed Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card from his bookshelf and devoured them. I started sneaking out of bed to eat saltine crackers and record episodes of The Twilight Zone and The X-Files on bulky VHS tapes. At the drive-in, I sat with my dads sun-freckled hand on my knee and my cheek resting on the rough, ribbed, smoky cotton of his golf shirt, watching Ellie Arroway barrel her way into space.

***

Two years later I was an anxious kid with a budding panic disorder. I was jumpy. At night when it was time to get into bed, I would run across the carpet of my bedroom and launch myself over the edge of my bed so that whatever monsters were hiding under there wouldnt be able to snatch my ankles and drag me under. My steady diet of sci-fi and horror didnt improve things.

My brothers knew this and took full advantage. When I was alone, the two of them would pop out from behind closet doors and from under piles of laundry and scream at me, or crouch inside my mothers wardrobe and push the door open slowly, pretending they were poltergeists. From their smoking spot on the back deck, my parents would hear one solitary scream (mine), followed by shrieking laughter (theirs), then angry yelling (mine, again). It happened almost daily.

That Friday night, my tongue raw from candy and mosquitos whining in my ear, I saw a woman as the lead in a science fiction movie for the very first time. The din of the drive-in fell away.

My brothers discovered they could easily torture me by impersonating Joseph, Jodie Fosters foil in Contact, played by Jake Busey. Joseph was the terrorist who blew up the first prototype of Ellie’s spacecraft. He symbolized everyone who had fear of and contempt for scientific inquiry and progress but I was just scared of his creepy, sneering face. At night, on the way to his bedroom, Adam would lean in the doorway of my room where Id be reading and say, Hey remember Buseys face from Contact? Good night! I would have to sleep with the lights on.

At 11, I decided I would be the next great sci-fi horror writer. I wanted it so desperately that just thinking about writing would give me a buzz, like a gulp of champagne. I imagined myself shoving past the hordes of male sci-fi writers and squeezing my novel into a spot on Dad’s bookshelf. I hadn’t yet discovered Shirley Jackson or Margaret Atwood I wouldn’t read them until high school. I thought, like Ellie, Id need to elbow my way into space alone.

But the act of writing infuriated me. Id pound out a few paragraphs on our familys shared desktop computer then bang on the delete key until it vanished. This doesnt sound anything like Stephen King! Id shout. My dad would walk by the computer on the way to his office and I’d cover the screen with both hands. Dont even look at it! Its terrible!

In Contact, Ellies love interest, Palmer Joss, says that science is essentially just the search for truth. As I wrote fiction, I pursued the truth, asking questions of my world, my characters, myself: Was I really a writer? A good one, a real one? Or was I deluding myself? I wrote and deleted, trying to make what came out on the screen sound like the pages of my dads books.

My friends knew me as a writer, but not as a smart person. That was Adam, the scientist, the one our classmates nicknamed “the smart twin.” I didnt blame them. Adam did calculus problems for fun; I bombed every math test I ever took. At 13 when he tried to explain to me how electrical currents worked, I drowned him out with loud fart noises. Still, he came to my defense. She’s way smarter than I am, though, for real, he’d tell our friends. She’s been reading since before she turned 2, hed say, which was true. She read War and Peace when she was, like, 5, he’d say, which was false.

Youre artistic, my mom would say, when Id complain to her about how dumb I felt. Youre a writer! But those werent the things that mattered. Those werent the things that could make you rich, win you respect not unless your genius was undeniable, unless you were the next Stephen King. Maybe I could be the next Stephen King, I thought. I wrote and deleted, trying to prove my hypothesis.

For a reason inexplicable to me now, I thought that in order to write scary stories or creepy sci-fi I had to actually be scared constantly, all the time. So when Adam would remind me of Buseys face, Id stay up until the sun started to glare through my bedroom window, writing fiction, my heart pounding. Id conjure the creepy sneer as I wrote and deleted, breathing my stories into life.

***

When the three of us were in college, right before the housing crash of 2008, a real estate conglomerate bought the drive-in and tore it down to build condominiums. Adam was majoring in physics, Jake in photography, and I was going back and forth between social work and creative writing. You should try getting a real degree, Adam would tell me when Id complain about finals. Then, ever the softie, he’d palm my shoulders in a conciliatory hug. You know Im just fucking with you, right? hed say. Im totally kidding.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the weeks best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


When we were on break from school my brothers and I would meet up at the kitchen table in our parents house and play dominoes and talk about school and God. Ever the scientist, Adam could never fully believe in a thing unproven; I, on the other hand, was devoutly Christian. During our table talks Id bring up something I had read in the Bible and Adam would bellow Oh, you mean your BOOK OF LIES??! Then: I’m totally kidding. Tell me more. Another time we set up Jakes telescope on the back porch and took turns gazing into the cosmos, the five of us. When it was Adams turn he squinted through the eyepiece and said Hey I think I see Jesus up there. Oh, wait, nope, it’s a cloud. Your religions a lie. I laughed so hard I pulled a muscle, and yet he still took me aside later and asked, his voice low, You know Im just fucking with you, right? I knew.

As much as my dad had raised us to revere science, he never scoffed at the existence of God. To him, science and faith were tools that you used to solve different problems; pitting one against the other made as much sense as saying someone should throw away all his wrenches and use only hammers to fix everything in his house. You needed both.

When we talked about faith wed talk about a scene from Contact, wherein Ellie, a staunch atheist, debates Palmer on the existence of God. Whats more likely, Ellie challenges him, that an all-powerful, mysterious God created the universe and then decided not to give us any proof of his existence? Or He never existed at all, and we created Him to not feel so small and alone? How do you know youre not deluding yourself? I’d need proof.

Proof? Palmer asks, then grows quiet. Then he asks, Did you love your father?

Yes, Ellie says after a minute, taken aback. Very much.

Prove it, Palmer says. She cant.

Adam loved that scene because it explained science so clearly. Science is a method, he told me, for testing verifiable and falsifiable models of reality, or hypotheses. But the existence of God, much like the existence of love, is neither verifiable nor falsifiable by nature. It cant be tested. That doesnt mean that God is real, he explained, and he was inclined to think that He wasnt. But if it wasnt able to be tested, it was outside the realm of science altogether a question meant for a theologist or philosopher. Nothing chapped his ass more than atheists who used “science” as a checkmate against the existence of God. Not because he believed, but because it was intellectually lazy.

My dad, who would sometimes wander in and join us at the table, took a simpler tack. All of this, all of creation, and it just appears out of nowhere? From nothing? hed chuckle. Whats the scientific likelihood of that?

But the existence of God, much like the existence of love, is neither verifiable nor falsifiable by nature. It can’t be tested.

Here’s my favorite scene: When Ellie finally boards the spacecraft as its sole passenger, shes launched through a wormhole and arrives in a star system called Vega, the place that had been sending radio transmissions to Ellie and her team in New Mexico, earlier in the film. The view of space outside her craft is golden, amber, speckled with glittering stars, a spectacle for which her scientific training did not emotionally prepare her. No words to describe it, she gasps. Poetry. They should have sent a poet. For all her talk of understanding the complexities of the universe, in the end, Ellie needed something outside of the hard sciences to make sense of it.

Before bed, Dad would wrap us all in big bear hugs, pressing my cheek into the same rough, ribbed, cotton of his golf shirt. The universe is pretty big, hed say, quoting Carl Sagan. If it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.

***

In November 2012, wed graduated, gotten jobs, gotten married. Jake had his artwork on an enormous mural on the side of a building in downtown Chicago. My mom completed her masters. Adam was a physicist at a world-renowned accelerator lab, and I was a freelance writer, married to my college sweetheart and pregnant with my second child. My husband, Lou, and I lived with my parents so we could cobble together enough money to pay off my student loans.

The day after Barack Obama was elected for a second term, Lou and I went to the babys anatomy scan with our daughter, then 15 months. My dad was at home expecting a text from us Boy! Girl! to announce the sex of his newest grandbaby. It never came.

When we returned from the appointment, it was hours after we should have been home. Lou and I shuffled into the house with our sleeping daughter and my dad met us at the door, lifting her gently from Lous arms.

Well? he asked.

Theres something wrong with the baby, I mumbled. I brushed past him and bumped into the edge of the wall with my shoulder. I dropped my purse to the floor, numb. I kicked my boots off into the middle of the kitchen, shed my coat and let it fall at my feet.

What? he asked.

I dont remember what its called, I sighed, turning and heading up the stairs to my childhood bedroom. I wanted to get under the covers and fall asleep, quickly, forget what I was carrying in my womb. Its something to do with his head, his spine. I dont even know. They gave us a pamphlet. Just ask Lou.

Instead, my dad handed the baby back to Lou, walked into his office, and called my mother, who left work and drove home without asking for details. By evening, both of my brothers were home as well, sitting wordlessly around the kitchen table with the rest of us. I was grateful for them, but unable to say so, unable to do anything but drape myself across the kitchen table and weep.

Later I remembered the diagnosis they gave us at the doctors office: spina bifida. Right after he was conceived, on some muggy day back in July, the neural tube that would become his spinal column failed to fuse together completely, leaving a hole at the base of his spine. The hole had caused a cascade of other defects in his tiny body that the doctor, stone-faced, had rattled off as he peered at the ultrasound screen and pressed the wand deep into my belly: Hydrocephalus. Bilateral clubbed feet. I cant even see his cerebellum. When he told us that the baby would likely be paralyzed from the waist down, I screamed at him. What the fuck else is wrong with him? Does he have two heads?!

At home, nobody really knew what to say. I wouldnt terminate, they knew we had already named him. This baby is MINE, Id think one moment, fiercely protective, but in the next moment Id crumble. How in the fuck am I supposed to do this? I pictured him mangled, just an assortment of tiny parts all bent and misshapen. What am I doing? What have I done?

I did nothing but lie on my parents couch and cry for the next four days. One day, my dad emerged from his office and sat next to me, laying his hand on my knee.

All right, he said. Im tired of moping around. Enough crying. I wanna meet this little guy.

When Ellie boards her spacecraft, right as its about to launch, the floor of the ship opens to reveal a swirling, dizzying cosmos. Terrified, Ellie can only squeeze her eyes shut and whisper, Im OK to go. Im OK to go, as the craft shakes violently around her. In that moment, Ellie has fully stepped out in faith. She doesnt yet know that she will journey into space and come out of the wormhole having experienced transcendence, growth, the purest kind of love. In that moment, shes just terrified, and decides to soldier on in spite of it, a scientist at heart making her own enormous leap of faith.

Im OK, I thought, not knowing if it was true. Im OK. We are OK to go.

* * *

Sarah Watts is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her reporting and essays have been featured in The AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, and others

Editor: Katie Kosma

Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross