An American Myth
Neither Joel nor Ridgeway, Floyd or Glenn Kenny seemed to understand
that one of the fundamental desires of many Americans is to vanish, to
fall out of the sight of the unwavering "big brother" modern society has
become. Three weeks before her vanishing, Sue seemed to understand this,
telling Glenn Kenny: "We live in an Orwellian Times." Some people seek
more acceptable means of escape, finding jobs in which habit replaces
thinking, where the routine keeps them from seeming any different from
anybody else. Others, load themselves up with video tapes and hide in
their rooms like hermits, while still others, climb behind the wheels of
their cars, crank up a Rolling Stones CD and drive, rolling along miles
of road they've never seen before.
America, because of its unusual roots as a pioneer society (the true as
be said for Australia as well) has developed one of the great myths of
modern times around this desire for escape. Americans, unlike the
European stock out of which many of its white ancestors emerged,
actually believe they can escape their past. It is an idea that pervades
American literature, but is most ably represented by Mark Twain's "The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Somewhere, early in our development, TV and movies and tales from the
mountains have ingrained in us this idea of reshaping ourselves, that we
can be free of the shackles of our family, the limitations of our
education, the consequences of our actions, even disliked elements of
our own identities. We have been brought up thinking that if we run fast
enough, for long enough, and far enough, we will leave everything that
troubles us behind.
Sue's sudden disappearance resembled many voluntary vanishings that
occur routinely across the United States each year, people -- out of
fear, frustration or mental illness -- who choose to shed themselves of
their current identity and seek the invisibility of the street.
This escape of self is a fundamental American myth, that dates back to
the arrival of the first Europeans, but was particularly prominent
during two critical phases in American history, the Western expansion
(from the Gold Rush to the arrival of the rail roads) and the Sixties.
People like Sue abandon their family, friends and careers in the
mistaken belief they can escape their past.
In 1981, my uncle -- with a history of severe mental illness and alcohol
problems -- tried to kill himself twice. He once drove his green work
truck into the Passaic River, fighting off Garfield police when they
sought to keep him from drowning. A second time, he tried to jump off
the Wall Street Bridge in Passaic. When both these attempts failed, he
vanished. I had inherited the man after he had passed through the hands
of his brothers and sisters, just one more unwanted and unwashed drunk
no one cared about. I took care of him at night and on weekends, relying
on his own apathy to keep him contained while I worked and attended
college. From him I learned many of the patterns of behavior Sue then
and later imitated, the subtle changes of mood, the actual repercussions
of alcohol which Sue could not fake. He and I shared a two-room cold
water flat in Passaic until one day when I came home and found him gone.
As Sue's friends and relations did in July 1996, I dutifully reported
his disappearance to the Passaic police. They made no move to find him.
Initially, they claimed they could not do anything legally until he was
missing more than 24-hours. Later, they paid little heed to my repeated
requests for help. When I finally found him as a resident of Greystone
Park mental hospital many months later, I learned the Garfield police
had fished him out of the river again after he had waded in. No one had
reported the incident to Passaic. No one had checked missing persons
bulletins issued. The Passaic police made no effort to call local
municipalities in an effort to find if he'd been found. Only later, did
I learn this was standard operating procedure, something Sue's family
and friends have learned over the last few months. Cops just aren't paid
to find people who run away from home. Cops are paid to fight crime.
My uncle also taught me to recognize the fugue state in which some
homeless people wander, a kind of nightmare or shell shock that has them
shuffling from place to place without real consciousness to their
surroundings. Sue used to romanticize about these states, especially
when wandering around the campus, giving us one of her many lectures of
life. Her version saw this condition as a kind of fog, and she an
innocent, helpless creature threatened by the evil world around her.
This was such a standard text in her philosophy that I was shocked when
confronted by the real thing.
During the course of my uncle's treatment, he was transferred from the
state facility in Morris Plains to a half way house on the Preakness
Hospital campus in Wayne. From this location, he was often transported
to downtown Paterson where he under went treatment at the mental health
clinic. He routinely crossed West Broadway to purchase cigarettes, and
the people responsible for monitoring him accepted this, and did not
notice him missing until they'd arrived back in Wayne. By then, my uncle
had faded into the grey oblivion that marks the street life of town's
like Paterson or Newark (where Sue allegedly disappeared). Again, the
police refused to act, and the half way house called various shelters
without success, then gave up, too.
During one of the coldest winters I could remember, I balanced by school
work with my night time job at Dunkin Donuts while making frequent
sweeps of the Paterson streets. I learned the pattern of homeless
behavior and how invisible these people became, fading into the
background of any given scene. I learned to look for them in doorways
and on park benches. I learned to recognize the blank look in their eyes
as they shuffled along the street, an endlessly hungry mass of ragged
souls who had indeed escaped their identities. I also learned how false
Sue's interpretation of their condition had been, how unromantic their
fugue was. Yes, Sue was right in claiming these people as vulnerable,
but what she missed then, and later when she slipped away from her
Nutley home, was the utterly lack of value these people had. Few, except
for ego-depleted street gangs, would bother hunting such grey creatures
of the street. While these people gamaking frequent sweeps of the
Paterson streets. I learned the pattern of homeless behavior and how
invisible these people became, fading into the background of any given
scene. I learned to look for them in doorways and on park benches. I
learned to recog
After months of searching, I found my uncle sleeping on the Paterson
police station steps where he had obviously set up residence along with
other wandering souls. Someone had storesidence along with other
wandering souls. Someone had stolen his shoes and that seemed his only
concern. Although he could obtain another pair readily enough from one
of the charities, he avoided such places, thinking someone would seek
him there or report his passing to the local mental heath officials.
Outside of such places, shoes -- especially ones that fit property --
were hard to come by. The lack of them limited his ability to scrounge
for food and cigarettes. Even I led him to my car, he begged me to get
him a new pair. So desperate was he by that time that he was willin
After this and a later attempt by my uncle to vanish, I learned to
discount Sue's theories of the fugue state, though I listened much more
closely to her diatribes, her speeches about living on the edge, noting
how she loved to ponder her own self-destruction, how she painted
pictures of a doom she knew little about. She describe depression --
saying she was so helpless and vulnerable -- when she displayed very
little of the physical tendencies which mark off clinical depression.
Despite her attempt to act out the role, Sue's rhetoric remained too
logical, her diaries too well crafted, and her gaze much too clear.
Studying her as she talked, I couldn't help get the same sense I got
when viewing the college actors. She went through all the proper motions
but hadn't yet master the technique that convinced a closer observer of
the truth in her performance. In some ways, she reminded me of a child
who insisted on having everything her own way, and during those few
times when the world ignored her, she threatened to hurt herself -- part
of that old childhood fantasy which said: "You people will really miss
me when I'm gone."
It is one of the great fallacies of American culture, and causes the
most fundamental damage to our psyches when we come to realize how
little power we have over our futures or our past, and how we carry it
all around in our head, as if carrying a road map with our route already
highlighted, and while we may attempt to deviate from that path, we
always wide back upon it by some -- a Bob Dylan once put it -- "a simple
twist of fate."
I spent most of my life seeking to escape my family, my mother and her
brothers in particular, and found myself carried back to them, to bear
witness to their deaths. In fact, when I inherited my uncle in 1981, I
came to realize just how powerful fate was in shaping my life. He was
the man I had feared most as a kid and the man from whom I sought
frequently to escape. I stole money to escape him. I acquired new
identification, became a new person, hid out and hung out with some of
the most notorious felons of our time, and yet still found myself having
to take care of him for 17 years, and only recently, escaped him as he
slipped into a coma. I sought to escape my mother, too, and found myself
responsible for providing her with a home in her old age, working seven
days a week for over two years in order to pay her rent and utilities.
Even more frightening to me is the ironic fact that we also can't escape
the sins of our fathers. For me, it came as a revelation over my uncle's
death bed when I realized that the only two people to see him regularly
over the last half decade before his death were the children of those
who had caused that death a half century earlier. My uncle was an
alcoholic. He started drinking at 16 when my father and his uncle snuck
off the construction site for beers at a Haledon pub. His uncle's
daughter was the nurse who saw my uncle and helped him in the hospital,
and I was the man who showed up weekly bearing petty gifts which I
thought might ease his pain (and my guilt for hating him).
I won't go into the details as to why I hated him or why I needed to
escape him and my family so terribly. Those things are well-documented
in my novels, and are often the central themes. But my experience is not
unusual, and some of the most celebrated and intelligent Americans
sought to escape their own identities. Some of us made the attempt early
in our lives, a kind of Native American Dream Quest, out of which w
well-documented in my novels, and are often the central themes. But my
experience is not unusual, and some of the most celebrated and
intelligent Americans sought to escape their own identities. Some of us
made the attempt
Sue never learned, but largely because she seemed to escape so well,
learning how to alter her identity and grow invisible at a very early
age. In an interview with Joel Lewis, Bill Madaras alluded to the reason
for Sue's early education in becoming someone other than herself. Sue
had told Bill that one of her mother's boyfriends had raped her at
three. This, of course, would later manufacture itself into seduction in
her mother, Martha's mind -- a Martha whose frequent temper tantrums
made her seem like Sue's jealous younger sister instead of a parent.
Both the rape and Martha's reaction may have created in Sue the need for
alternative people, an intentional development of multiple
personalities. Whenever something happened to Sue, she could assign it
to some other person, since none of these Sue's seemed very important,
even later, even when she supposedly accomplished something important in
the writing and publishing of "Redlight."
Dead or Alive?