Book Excerpt and Articles
It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me by Jane Congdon
“A swish of the cape, a bite to the neck, a full moon rising in the sky: Who knows the reasons for what we choose, or what chooses us?”
A young girl growing up in the hills of West Virginia sees a Dracula movie and immediately yearns to visit the vampire’s homeland in Romania. Something about the landscapes of Transylvania, the Count, and the suave actor who played him have touched a nerve.
Years later, when she is a grandmother, the yearning resurfaces and Jane Congdon, finally financially able and free to travel, takes her dream trip to the land of Dracula. Still unable to explain the pull of the fictional vampire and his native country, she hires a Romanian guide through a tour agency and sets out alone on the five-thousand-mile trip.
Once she becomes absorbed in the country life of Romania—riding through its villages and mountains, past rivers and railroads along the Dracula trail--memories of her own childhood suddenly emerge, and she begins to see the connections between her past and the legend of Dracula.
It Started with Dracula is the story of a mature woman chasing Dracula’s footsteps across Transylvania, but it is also the story of Jane’s relationship with her mother, which was itself a long journey from pure survival to forgiveness. We all have unfinished business, especially within our families, and sometimes it surprises us with its need.

“Welcome to My Country”
Without a word, the Romanian guide I had known for just three days pulled our Skoda sedan onto the gravel beside a lonely two-lane road. Why had we stopped in the middle of nowhere with a view of flat yellow fields? It was warm out, and still. Few cars passed as we regarded each other for a second across the front seat. Then Lucian slowly and deliberately leaned toward me with both hands out. Uh-oh.
It was afternoon. We were returning from a lake resort near Sibiu where I’d been looking for the Scholomance from Dracula. It wasn’t on the program, but how could I pass through this region of Transylvania without trying to find the fictitious Lake Hermanstadt and the witches’ school where Dracula learned the secrets of the devil?

We had walked around Sibiu that morning, stopping to buy a map after I’d talked Lucian into driving me out here. We’d had an outdoor lunch of pizza and pasta near the Liar’s Bridge, a lacy-looking wrought-iron affair built to deliver pedestrians across a narrow canyon of traffic through the old part of town. Beggars moved among the bright umbrella-covered tables while we ate, taking advantage of the midday bustle. Ancient pastel-colored German row houses three and four stories high peeked at us across a carpet of construction rubble. One already had a new identity as a night club: Chill Out. In an odd turn, I was trying to do just that, sitting on the side of a country road three hours later with the engine turned off and Lucian’s hands mere inches from my head.
I didn’t think he was a serial killer, but could this have anything to do with romance? Lucian was cute: tall, lean, muscular, and tan. He was about my age and had close-cropped graying hair, a neat beard, and a deep voice. And I couldn’t say that no such notion about my guide had crossed my mind.

This was the man who would be my companion for the next two weeks, driving me through the cities, villages, and mountains of Romania; carrying my bags; explaining the sights. He was my protector, my translator, and even my dinner partner. But what did I really know about him?
Since our initial meeting in Bucharest, he had been prompt and polite. He seemed to know his way around. He dressed well; so far, his casual wardrobe was neat and stylish. His English was good, but he was not a talker, which suited me. He lived in the city, but had a preference for nature: natural foods, the woods, and the land. I’d seen him walk a distance to throw a tiny scrap into a container. It wasn’t much information. Lucian was my connection to the country of my childhood dream—the dream that would not die: the dream of Dracula—and I didn’t even know his last name!
He was startlingly close to me now in the front seat, his eyes boring into mine. Suddenly I knew I’d seen too many Dracula movies. Nobody had to tell me what usually happened next in Transylvania!

There are places in our minds, vistas of the imagination where fantasy and reality come together. The landscapes of Romania were like that for me. I had imagined them so many times from the movies that there was a magic about the land. I’d never seen this country before, and yet I had. Layers of memory tied the Carpathians to the hills of West Virginia, my childhood, and the little movie theater where I first sat mesmerized by one Christopher Lee playing the most enduring character ever created: Count Dracula.

This story began on a moonlit night nearly fifty years ago, on the silver screen in a town nobody’d ever heard of. A swish of the cape, a bite to the neck, a full moon rising in the sky: Who knows the reasons for what we choose, or what chooses us?

Transylvania Trip Triggers Childhood Memories and New Beginnings
By Jane Congdon, author of It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me (2011, Bettie Youngs Book Publishers)

I came home from school and couldn’t get in. Both doors were locked. Mom should have been home, because she’d planned to paint that day. I looked through the glass panes of the front door and saw my mother’s pale legs sticking out from behind a chair. There were the two-toned saddle shoes; the white ankle socks she wore around the house; and her rolled-up, baggy blue jeans. She was lying on the floor, so still that I could have been looking at a dead body.

Twenty-seven million kids in America come home to alcoholics. Eleven million are under age eighteen, and I was one of those kids. I yelled and pounded on the glass. Mom raised her head and squinted in my direction, then fell back onto the hardwood with a smack. She was too drunk to push herself up and let me in the house.
By the time I went to Romania forty-five years later, the memory of my mother lying drunk on the living room floor had long faded, and I had no idea that it would come back to me on a trip through Transylvania. 

I went to Romania to satisfy a childish interest, a love of Dracula from the movies. As a girl I’d been mesmerized by the on-screen vampire, temporarily removed from my own crazy life and transported to a country as distant to me as the bright, yellow moon. I’d retained a curiosity about Dracula’s homeland and still wanted to see it. 
Eight months of planning prepared me well for the physical trip and the writing I planned to do—a series of travel essays—but nothing I did in advance carried a hint of what was to come. I couldn’t have prepared for the inner journey I would make back to my childhood to see the connection between Mom and Dracula. 

 Back then my mother dominated my days, days when I came home from school and searched the house, hoping not to find her stumbling around drunk. On the best days, she was in the yard kneeling over her border garden of marigolds and zinnias or seated on her red stool with the chrome legs, ironing the family’s dampened clothes in front of the TV. On the worst days, I made my way room by room through a house as silent as a tomb in broad daylight, holding my breath at every corner and doorway, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t find my mother drunk and surly, as I had so many times before.
Thirst was what Mom and Count Dracula had in common. Each had a terrible, destructive, insatiable thirst that left victims in its wake. My mother’s need for alcohol was as intense and frightening as Dracula’s yearning for warm blood.

 By the time I went to Romania, I was fifty-nine and a grandmother. Mom was eighty-seven. After many years apart, we had reunited and lived within a few miles of one another. She’d stopped drinking. She seemed free of the past, but I wasn’t. I’d tried to make sense of her alcoholism by attending twelve-step meetings, but peace and happiness eluded me. I’d always thought I was inferior, a disappointment. What are you supposed to think when your own mother turns against you when you’re thirteen? That was many years ago. I’d accepted it and moved on. I thought I’d buried the past, but that wasn’t good enough. I had to deal with it. 
That’s what I realized in Romania.  
I fulfilled my dream to follow the footsteps of Dracula, a joyous trip, and in the process captured a colorful collection of present-day impressions and descriptions for my book. Riding through Romania with a hired guide, I marveled at the highlights of a country that repeatedly reminded me of home. Memories of my childhood continued to surface alongside legends of Romanian castles, monasteries, cities, villages, and even a prison. I found myself thinking of forgiveness in a new way. I wanted to be free. 

It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me is the story of my journey toward forgiveness and self-love after my relationship with my mother is redefined in Dracula’s homeland. Whether to bring up the past with Mom became a big issue for me after I came home. I didn’t know if that discussion had to be part of my healing. 

Many times when we were together, I would look across the room at Mom and think, “Now. I could bring it up now,” and my heart would beat fast, and I knew she had no idea I was struggling with that. Mom was losing her memory to Alzheimer’s by then. Mine had come alive and hers was dying.

 In the end, I did what I could live with. I’m still amazed that I had a second look at my life. After hiding secrets for so long, I let down that guard in Romania. I opened my mind, and look what happened. I saw my life in a brand, new way. Telling my story finally freed me.

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Congdon Takes on the Past and Wins in It Started with Dracula
Posted on September 29, 2011 by Diane Landy

October. It’s approaching that time of year when we’re attracted to the frightening, the scary, the creepy–perhaps for some, even the bloodcurdling and macabre. Can I entice you, then, with a little Dracula-related reading?
As part of Concord University’s Homecoming 2011 festivities recently, Concord alumna and author Jane Congdon was featured with her debut book, a memoir entitled It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me. An intimate audience gathered in The Presidents’ Room of the university’s library to hear her speak. I asked her to pose for the photo below with Dr. William Ofsa (my favorite English teacher/professor of all time).

I found Congdon to be a personable speaker and became interested in her life-long attraction to Dracula which culminated in a journey to Romania to write about her travels there. She first became infatuated with Dracula in 1958 as a teen when she and a girlfriend saw Horror of Dracula, a British Hammer Films movie, at her hometown theater in Glen Ferris, West Virginia.
With Halloween approaching, I felt this to be the perfect opportunity, an apropos occasion, to read her book to get in the spirit of the season, so to speak. I was also intrigued by the many facets of her life that she revealed were associated with the memoir: her fascination with not only Dracula but his homeland as well, her school girl crush on Christopher Lee–the actor portraying Count Dracula during her formative years–as well as her openly-confessed difficulty with an alcoholic parent at approximately the same time in her life. I was curious to know how these seemingly diverse subjects could be rolled into one package, one theme, one book.

If you’re planning on traveling abroad, there are interesting tidbits of wisdom/tips on preparation for and during travel, or if you have ever wondered what traveling to Romania might be like, you will come away from this memoir with detailed images of its people, its landscapes, and its architecture, as well as some of its history.
So then, just how do all these elements come together in the memoir? As Congdon pointed out during her book talk, traveling very often involves the traveler having an epiphany of some sort; however, she didn’t begin her journey to Romania, she said, with any expectation whatsoever of revelation. She just had a passionate curiosity about a fascination that developed long ago on a moonlit night in her small town theater. Traveling through the mountainous landscapes of Romania, however, so similar to her childhood home, does trigger memories of another monster of that same time period that she has to come to terms with. If you’ve ever suffered from issues or the angst and fear involved in being subject to an alcoholic friend or family member, you will definitely connect with Congdon’s story at an entirely different level.

And, oh yes, there is a hint or nod to romance in the book: he is Romanian, his name is Lucian and, according to Congdon, he’s “tall, lean, muscular, and tan.” I certainly don’t want to spoil anything, though, so that’s all I have to say on the subject.
Dracula, anyone?