Sunday, September 22, 2013


The Face of Fear  (a memoir excerpt)

Emily Rhoads Johnson

MOST CHILDREN HAVE an inborn fear of darkness, and I was no exception. My bedroom closet, which posed no threat during the day, at night became a fearful place that harbored monsters of every description. An evil creature lurked under my bed, waiting to seize my ankles the moment I stepped to the floor. But, like the monsters, most of my childhood fears were figments of my highly active imagination. All but one, that is. And that all-too-real fear was to haunt me for years.  

On a cold night in January, 1946, a six-year-old girl named Suzanne Degnan was abducted from her Chicago apartment. The story hit the headlines of The Chicago Tribune the next morning, and my fourth grade classroom was abuzz with the news. Although it would be months before all the facts came out, we knew that someone had climbed a ladder to the girl’s bedroom window, snatched her from her bed, and carried her off to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what.
My mind churned with images of what it must have been like to wake in the night and find a monster hovering over you. A real one! To start to scream and have something stuffed in your mouth to shut you up. To be carried down a ladder and off into the night. But imagining wasn’t enough for me: I had to know every detail surrounding the case. Every day after school I would sneak down to the basement to search through the newspapers that my mother had carefully hidden away in a barrel. And every day my terror mounted. I read that the kidnapper had left a ransom note demanding $20,000 for the girl’s return. I read that a suspect had been arrested, then released for lack of evidence. I read that more suspects, dozens of them, were arrested then let go when they were found to have reliable alibis for their whereabouts that night.
And then I read something so horrific that it made my blood congeal in my veins: the girl’s severed head had been found in a sewer.
My fear escalated with every new, uncovered fact. Still, I had to know it all, no matter how gruesome. Soon after her head was found, a leg was discovered in another sewer. Then a day or two later, the other leg, then her torso, and finally her arms. The police learned that Suzanne had been dismembered in the basement of an apartment building near the Degnan home. The janitor, an immediate suspect, was quickly cleared, and the manhunt continued. A month after the kidnapping, whoever had committed the crime was still out there somewhere, possibly searching for another victim. And it was going to be me. I knew it.
The fact that my bedroom was on the second floor, miles from the ground, did nothing to dispel my fear of being the kidnapper’s next victim. Climbing the stairs to my room every night became a dreaded ordeal. What my reasoning was I don’t know, but I began closing my eyes when I climbed the stairs, blindly feeling my way upward, one hand on the banister. Once I got to my room I would open my eyes just a slit and gaze at the floor while yanking the window shades all the way down; then I would throw a towel over my dresser mirror. Any movement reflected in the glass, even my own, filled me with terror.  

It was comforting to know that my parents’ bedroom was next to mine and could be reached in a matter of seconds. I insisted that my door be left open at night, but this created another problem. The door of my room faced the front of the house, and over the front door hung a heavy iron lantern on a long metal chain. At night the lantern swung very slightly back and forth, back and forth, sending eerie shadows dancing across my bedroom walls. Sometimes the shadows were long skinny arms that shot out to grab me. Sometimes they crawled over the ceiling like enormous spiders. They darted, shrank, swarmed, slid into corners, ready to pounce. My only escape was to burrow deep under the covers and shut my eyes tight, praying that sleep would take me before the shadow monsters did.
You may be wondering why my parents weren’t more mindful of my fears, and why they didn’t seek help for me. Today when a heinous crime occurs, especially one involving a child, not only are schools quick to talk openly about it and offer counseling, but parents are encouraged to sit down with their children, talk about the incident, and help them work through their fears. Not so in the 1940s. Then, the accepted procedure was to keep silent about any subject that might “disturb” a child, be it financial woes, divorce, serious illness, death, or violent crime. It was in child’s best interest, experts believed, to pretend that such things didn’t happen. Then along came television and the jig was up. With real life right there in front of them on the TV screen, kids could no longer be fooled into believing that deep down every human being has a heart of gold, or that life is all Good Humor bars and roses.
But back to the story of Suzanne and her abduction. After the Chicago police spent nearly six months arresting and releasing 370 suspects, they finally settled on a young man known for committing burglary who had no alibi for the night of the kidnapping. William Heirens, a seventeen-year-old university student, was convicted not only of killing Suzanne, but of murdering two other women prior to the kidnapping. He was given three consecutive life sentences. Until he died in 2012 he continued to insist that burglary was his only crime, and many believe that the newspaper stories of how he kidnapped and murdered Suzanne were complete fabrications.

My own reaction to Heirens’ arrest was overwhelming relief. This man was the killer; all the papers said so, and I had no reason to doubt it. The fear that the crime had instilled in me, however, took years to overcome. I did stop climbing the stairs with my eyes shut and eventually forgot to cover my mirror at night. But it was a long time before the monster in my closet stopped wearing William Heirens’ face.

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EMILY RHOADS JOHNSON is the author of three middle grade novels and a biography about George Rhoads, her artist brother. “The Face of Fear” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress about growing up in Evanston, Illinois, in the 1940s.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Feeding Animals on 9/11

Sleeping Cat, Robert Corless, 1968-73

Feeding Animals on 9/11

Tim Keane

MOST OF US know the ritual. Usually the personal remembrance happens ahead of the 9/11 anniversary, over drinks, among friends, after references to 9/11/2001, to ‘the morning of.' "I remember where I was. . . ." Often, in my circles, it's triggered by a charged comment by me. "Now we have this Syria-insanity," I say, or something along those lines. Not that the day of 9/11/01 and its human toll and our military's global vengeance, in 9/11's endless wake, are on my mind. Except when they are. Like breaking news.

Whenever I listen to people recite the narratives about the 'morning of,' September 11, 2001, I find they are recalled with a convincing memoirist’s zeal, and often set in time zones and locations thousands of miles from New York City. And when it is my turn, I think of my own 'morning of' story as too banal to share. The stories other people tell involve how they related to or were with other people as "it" happened. But I was at home alone with two cats watching TV. My 9/11 story is so boring that I have, in more unethical flashes, considered inventing a whole new ‘morning of' story for myself. "Would you believe it? I was escorting tourist friends in the elevator toward the top of the Empire State building when we heard. . . ."

A native New Yorker I am old enough to recall the curiously macho grade school bragging in the Bronx about our city having "the biggest building in the world" back in the mid 1970s, when the Towers were almost complete. On a school trip I was taken to the roof of one of the towers. Like millions of other New Yorkers, I'd lived with those twin, often brightly lit, boxy behemoths my whole adult life, especially when I needed to navigate south and west from confusing parameters of lower Manhattan. That much is true. But on September 11, 2001, I was at home in lower Westchester. Tuesdays were my day off from teaching that Fall term. My girlfriend at the time, who was in the habit of watching morning TV, wasn't there with me, yet, from a habit I'd picked up, I had the TV turned on as if she were. Martha Stewart's homemaking show, if I recall correctly. Background noise. I looked forward to a non-teaching day, a reversion to summer—a day home, blue skies, warm temps, and a half-assed plan to work on some story drafts and read Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, which had just been republished. This is far as I get in recounting my morning of stories. It's boring. It lacks any of the inter-human drama I hear in other people's stories—viewing the event live before a family dinner in France, or watching it at a pub in Australia, past midnight, or crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with coworkers, in horror. Even days after the attack, I heard harrowing stories from friends whose lives were in genuine danger—one who watched people dive into the water near the Staten Island Ferry slip to escape the torrential downpour of debris, and another who spoke about colleagues on the 80-something floor of the south tower who were told that the fire in the opposite tower was no reason to evacuate their own offices.

But my story? I was off from work. My cats cried for morning food. I was resisting being their manservant, letting them pace around and cry. I was about to get on with the day when CBS News interrupted to display a live image of a smoldering gap at the top of one of the Twin Towers. Still I very nearly turned the set off—not another if it bleeds it leads distraction—nothing's more abrasive to a creative writing day than absorbing the manipulative hysteria of TV news alternating with laundry detergent commercials. Animals needed to be fed. Pretty big hole, there, I thought, maybe no one was in those offices yet. Then onscreen, live, an explosion in the neighboring tower. Rewind. "Can we run that again, Sam, in slow motion for our own eyes for the eyes of our viewers at home?"  Huh? Was that an airliner banking into an office building? You bet it was, wing and all. My wide open day was closing in fast. I thought, that 1993 truck bomb attack on the WTC. Back then I was actually living in Manhattan—I had a better day of story for that attack. Now, I realize, they’ve come back to finish the job. Keep the TV on.

A few phone calls didn't go through, neighbors knocked on my door and for a few minutes I viewed the spectacle from the roof—a distant skyline with two smoking chimneys. Leaving the rooftop, I came back to the apartment, the cats still paced around, more irked, more hungry, oblivious to the abstract human plotline, their only connection to these human commotions an occasional twitch and flick of their ears as first responders' sirens, even in lower Westchester, began to scream and head south.  I watched TV. “Our keeper is staring at something move on that box of light," the cats might have deduced, "he's absent from here." After the towers fell and I shared disbelief by phone and had made sure my family and friends were safe, I got around to feeding the cats. One can and a half of 9 Lives. They had almost forgotten feeding, or given up on me getting to it. Stepping up to feed them, surrounded by their excited cries, their long waving tails and up-gazing eyes, and then crouching down to their level to put the dishes of food on the floor, running my hand over their fur as they dug in and ate, a sense of sudden consolation and proper companionship and genuine existence eradicated the unfolding attack and flooded me with peace. Watching them eat, I was somehow back within the world as it is. I was present among creatures who don't commit interspecies homicide, let alone suicide. I had thoughts that seemed childish yet faultless: animals don't build skyscrapers or pray to God or organize Pentagons. Cats don't invade countries or hijack jumbo jets and, more ludicrously, crash those planes into buildings in order to kill other cats.

Later that day, after visiting family and soaking up the televised, ever evolving narratives—box cutters and flight schools and Dick Cheney and How This Changes Everything—I returned to my apartment where the cats were curled on chair cushions sleeping peacefully in fetal positions. For some reason, their docile, present figures reminded me of a paranoiac scene near my street that day, namely a single Westchester cop car that stood guard at my local train station, as if he were expecting a team of terrorists to hop off the 5:38 train to Scarsdale.

I'd fed the cats so late that morning; they weren't yet hungry by evening. I made one last round of phone calls and turned off the TV and watched the cats sleep. If there's a moral to this non-story, its clarification is going to take time, years maybe. But I thought of the cats on 9/11 when I read, or re-read poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies. In the eighth elegy the speaker articulates the profound unfavorable differences in the consciousness about Being that separates humans from animals. Mindful of Rilke's other famous poem about the eye of the panther, I always read this elegy as referring to cats when it alludes to animals. That in turn conjures my own morning of 9/11/01. As the poem describes human beings as those who are trapped in a state of looking rather than being, of expecting rather than immersing, I think back to that bizarre spell of disoriented hours in front of the TV, where my own being was in abeyance, tormented by anticipation and memory, running through histories that were mine or not, feeling dread and anger about living in other people's stories. A magnification of every day existence filtered through a political attack. All this displacement of consciousness that morning had been in contrast to my ever-present cats and their poised behavior and their assertive prowling. They moved around me perpetually indistinguishable from their existences. Lucky them.

If I understand the poem correctly, Rilke writes of the animal's consciousness as superior to that of humans because the animal's being is its essential alertness to its worldly existence, moment to moment. The animal is. And is not introspecting about that existence. The animal is not cursed by alienated self-analysis that marks human beings as largely bystanders to their own being-here. Compared to animals, we are but half-alive slaves to a future we keep imagining or straining after:

                                                But its [animal] own being
                                                is boundless, unfathomable, and without a view
                                                of its condition, pure as its outward gaze.
                                                And where we see future it sees everything,
                                                and itself in everything, and is healed for ever.

The poem is, I think, optimistic. By following the animal-exemplar, we might regain a form of being as pure aliveness. But instead, we seek through anniversaries and announcements, or from personal essays and declarations of war, a specter of a life. We attend to spectacles that are themselves signs of the same divorced condition; we expect "breaking news," both inwardly, through constant reflection, and outwardly through updates and bulletins, all to try to settle an ongoing disturbance between expectation and a universe that treats us like a guest. In the world but not able to be of it. Rilke writes:
                                    We know what is outside us from the animal’s
                                    face alone: since we already turn
                                    the young child round and make it look
                                    backwards at what is settled, not that openness
                                    that is so deep in the animal’s vision. Free from death.

Rilke's poem goes on to compare the animal to a child who somehow stays in the womb forever. This isn't the same as his saying that the animal is a fetus that hasn't been born into the world; the living animal's utter participation in the world is as unchanging and as reciprocally immediate as the fetus' relation to the enclosing womb.

The uninhibited gaze and pace of my two cats on the morning of 9/11/01 reveal that "boundless unfathomable" capacity which is signaled by the animal's unsealed eyes and its unrestrained ambulation. Here, without qualification, without a TV. That animal presence confronts us with our human absence. We are absent because of retrospection and anticipation, absent in a retreating spectatorship, absent in figurative and literal wars with this world, in a constant bracing against the environment, in a frustrated withdrawal from surroundings. "Hunker. What's going to happen next? Nothing will ever be the same."

Not unlike the day of the JFK assassination, whose 50th anniversary approaches with its own morning of, afternoon of, evening of stories of its generation of witnesses sure to flow, 9/11/01 was, in the end, for me, a day of non-stop repulsive spectatorship. That out-looking was shared by all human beings who had the perverse luxury of a few hours of access to a television set, if they weren't being shot at or bombed or starved by other human beings. Animals surely are inherently better than all that.

When we share morning of 9/11 stories we might be sharing an unspoken, pan-human embarrassment about what it is we humans do with existence—and even now, what we (that is, we as America) do with it still, in extremis, onward. The President has something to say about the Middle East. I bet he does. We tune in. Unlike the animal's gaze, Rilke writes, "our eyes are/as if they were reversed." We've glued our existence to inner and outer screens.
What consoled me about the otherwise banal act of feeding my cats on 9/11 is that they weren't watching Breaking News out of lower Manhattan; it wasn't their cataclysm and it wasn't their structures crumbling. Instruments like a television set and airplanes answer human existential need for distancing, a need from which animals are exempt.

We describe those who maim or rape or kill fellow human beings as "acting like animals." I know for a fact I thought of that absurdity as I fed my cats that morning. As the fire sirens blasted and a military helicopter flew over the Cross County Parkway and my cats ate their food, that phrase hit me—acting like animals—and almost made me sick, a hypocritical libel against animals. Which it is. Worse than animals, some say.

Perhaps those two animals I was lucky to live with and Rilke who I have been lucky to read, show me, in some way, that 'my morning of 9/11' tale isn't as meaningless a story as I had assumed:

                        And we: onlookers, always, everywhere,
                        always looking into, never out of, everything.
                        It fills us. We arrange it. It collapses.
                        We arrange it again, and collapse ourselves.

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Tim Keane is author of the poetry collection Alphabets of Elsewhere (Cinnamon Press). His award-winning writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Reader (UK) and numerous publications. He teaches writing and European literature at BMCC, CUNY, in lower Manhattan

Image: Robert Corless, Untitled (Sleeping Cat), 32" x 48" oil on canvas, ca. 1968-1973, photo Paul Moran, 2013, © estate of Robert Corless


Tim Keane
Robert Corless

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