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After Mike Flannigan died, in his 40s, from a ruptured appendix (another preventable loss, I thought grimly), Kathy went to L.A. and tried to peddle her story to the movies. No one bit. But an agent introduced her to the Freedmans, who thought her life might be the stuff of literature (Mrs. Mike was eventually adapted for the screen; the film is truly ghastly). They invited her to their tiny apartment, a converted garage on what had once been the actress Mary Pickford's estate, and spent two days listening to her talk. "We were enchanted by her story," Benedict recalled. "Here was this girl, very young, incapacitated—but willing to fall in love, really fall in love, passionately, without any care for anything else. That reinforced our own determination to live the life we wanted to live regardless of the clouds on the horizon."

I knew the feeling. "Did any of their children survive?"

Nancy shook her head. "No. They had adopted an Indian girl. But not the ones that are in the book. I dreamed those."

I must have looked confused. "Mrs. Mike is a novel," Benedict explained.

"A novel?" My stomach clenched. I felt an abrupt, almost physical sense of displacement, the way you would if, say, you found out at age 45 that your mother was actually your aunt. I'd based my life on this book. It was a core part of my identity. As an 11-year-old I'd accepted each word as gospel; it had never occurred to me to question that assumption. Now I looked at my ancient library copy, which I'd brought with me: Sure enough, a red F was taped to the side, indicating it should be shelved in the fiction section.

"But did she really live in that town that burned down?" I asked, my voice rising.

"Yes," said Nancy.

"No," said Benedict.

Yes? No? Which was it? I'm sure I looked as stunned as I felt. "What's true is her spirit," Benedict added, firmly. "She was a person afraid of nothing, willing to take on anything. And the most important scenes—for example, when she leaves Mike and goes back to Boston—we didn't invent that. But we also didn't check her account of things."

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