An American Myth

 

 

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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."

 

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Dead or Alive?

 

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