Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Killer of Lover's Lane, or, the Ten-Mile-Flats Murder: Transgressions of Closure

Audio File / Podcast / mp3 file

When I was a teen-ager in Norman, Oklahoma, there was a long-standing unsolved murder. It was something straight out of Friday, the 13th or any other movie where illicit sexuality is promptly punished with a chainsaw, and where unnatural desire is slashed with a big phallic knife. Two Norman High School students -- juniors, I believe - had parked at the very end of Main Street in the low-lying floodplain, Ten Mile Flats, on the edge of the South Canadian River.

It was an isolated spot at a bend in the river, near a sandy bank. It was a part of a point bar, I believe. Weeping willows, mimosas, persimmons, and cottonwoods created a secluded, park-like Lover's Lane in the heart of the prairie.

Apparently, they were parked there at sunset, when a member of the Norman police force pulled up. He expected to find two young adults who would be defensive and who would have plenty of excuses for why they happened to be parked there, and why they happened to be partially clothed.

Instead, the officer found a grisly scene. Blood was everywhere. The girl and her boyfriend had died due to extreme trauma and multiple stab wounds.

For years, the rumor was that the killer was a "dirty cop" -- a police officer with "peeping Tom" proclivities, but no one was ever indicted or even accused. The case stayed open, and then it finally chilled out. It was a "cold case" - an unsolved mystery that had never achieved closure.
When closure finally came, it was uncomfortable, awkward, and unsatisfying. A former police officer who had left the Norman police force was arrested in Colorado for exposing himself to young teen-age girls. Someone made the connection and requested a DNA analysis.

So, although the story was officially written, with a beginning, middle, and an ending, it was not a positive experience. One still had the feeling that there was something more, and that not all the loose ends in the story were ever tied up.

The forced ending, the "too neat" closure brought to mind urban legends. In a certain way, urban legends are constructions and extrapolations of closure. They start with closure and then work backward to make the events align to have the desired outcome.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are not examples of forced closure. Instead, they have false closure.

Fairy tales, fables, and other morality tales have imposed closure. The ending has to fit a very well-defined and well-known set of values and roles in a particular society.

What does narrative closure do for the reader? What is the function of narrative closure?

In many ways, narrative closure helps combat what I like to call "ambiguity anxiety." The reality that closure is almost always a false construct is interesting. It means that everyone is aware, at least on a subconscious level, that the nice, neat ending is false. It is a lie. And yet, the kinds of tales that have the kind of closure we've been talking about are almost always considered "truth" or "wisdom" discourse.

When we think that didactic tales and all the narratives with forced, false, or imposed closure are actually false, it's a little sad. Who wants to admit that we live out our lives knowing that we are deliberately embracing false consciousness?

But, perhaps that's exactly where the jouissance or plaisir is manufactured. Perhaps that's the profound meaning of it all. We know that we are -- at least for a nano-second -- self-aware and in control of the narrative we impose on ourselves. For a flash of jouissance or plaisir, we feel alive, joyous unity, with our own false consciousness. We thrill with omnipotence (or at least the knowledge of what omnipotence might mean) -- we have, for an instant, completely controlled the meaning and the reality of our lives.

But, is the imposed closure of the morality tale effective?

The fact that the two young teenagers were killed on the edge of a river did nothing in terms of changing behavior in Norman, Oklahoma. Kids continued to park in the tree-lined shadows of the edge of the river in the middle of a flat, trackless prairie.

As a cautionary tale, the event served to propose a series of actions and to create a causal chain.

As a tale of morality, of crime and punishment, the story did nothing to change behaviors. In fact, it enchanted the place and imbued it with danger and in doing so, it deepened the magic and the mystery. By uniting sexuality and death, youth and blood, Lover's Lane became, in the dark of night, ineffable.

There was not much to say after the trial, when the headlines and the photos were laid out across the front page of The Norman Transcript.

I drove home from the courthouse, where I had been filing an oil and gas lease, and fighting traffic as people left the packed courtroom. When I arrived home, my mother was pulling weeds out of her flower garden that bloomed with bright pink, gold, red, and purple zinnias and snapdragons.

"They were saying the guy they found guilty was claiming to be innocent right up to the very end," I said.

"He probably believed it," she said.

"How?" I asked.

"It was the only way he could get closure in his life," she said.

"Oh, of course," I said, but I didn't really agree. I don't think he actually wanted closure. Instead, he probably wanted the ineffable, inarticulate horror of bringing the horrors of one's imagination into the realm of flesh and blood.

I never parked at Ten Mile Flats. I was shy. I was unpopular in high school. And yet, on some level, I realized that the tragedy of youthful lovers dying in the pursuit of unity was somehow generative to the community as a whole. We did not throw virgins into a cenote or pull still-beating hearts up to the Sun God in a way that anyone was willing to admit.

Instead, we had our psycho killers who punished youthful sexuality. They died so the community could live.

Now, that's narrative closure.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

words on limestone

Snippet by photographer Dave Feiden. Susan has a few deep thoughts on limestone, travertine, and stalactites with fanciful names like "Elephant's Tusk" and "Rip Van Winkle's Dream." Filmed in Thacher's Park near Altamont, New York, at the Heidelberg Escarpment.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Elizabeth Smart and America's "Lurking Polygamists" Fantasy

Audio file / podcast / downloadable mp3 file

When the young teen-ager, Elizabeth Smart, had the misfortune of being spirited away in the middle of the night from her Salt Lake City home in by what was, at the time, an unknown abductor, the nation erupted in wild speculation. Beyond the justifiable fear of abduction by a serial pedophile rapist, tabloids and serious journals alike erupted in lurid depictions of lurking polygamists who were always scouting for additional candidates for their communities. It was, after all, Utah, and the home of Mormons, whose history of sanctioned polygamy, is a source of embarrassment for some, titillation for outsiders.

In a terrible case of "no good deed goes unpunished," a homeless man for whom the Smarts felt sympathy and employed in order to help him, kidnapped Elizabeth and forced her to become his second "wife" in his own self-designed variant of a polygamous apocalyptic cult.

In the way the story was depicted, and Elizabeth Smart's miraculous return, thanks to her sister's observations, it became fairly evident that non-Mormon America continued to be morbidly fascinated by the idea of polygamists in Utah, even though the Mormon church will not tolerate polygamy of any kind.

The truth is, the American public desperately wants polygamy to exist.

If polygamy (or the lurking polygamist) does not exist in fact, the tabloids twist the stories to make them conform to a convenient a narrative that features insatiable males, nubile virgins, and complicit older "wives."

What is this about? What does polygamy represent?

Polygamy posits the existence of desire, but this is not any ordinary desire. This is a Big, Behemoth Desire that can never quite be sated. It is desire with a physical manifestation, one that envelopes and engulfs first one women, and then another and another. It is male libido, unchained.

Polygamy is limitless desire, limitless potential, and limitless satisfaction. The cynic might connect polygamy with consumer behavior. If so, perhaps the following statement is true: Polygamy IS America.

Here are the necessary elements of the representation of polygamy that has been proposed:

1. The male of the species is capable of boundless desire.

2. The female, through an act of will, is capable of infinite accommodation (this is the willing middle wife, the willing female participant).

3. That infinite accommodation is the key to deep satisfaction, and that there is some sort of meaning in the satisfaction.

4. That boundlessness, both of desire and in accommodation, expand one's possibilities. They expand "the Real." They expand the size of one's emotional world. By means of desire, something the size of a ping-pong ball blows up to a beach ball.

5. That what the world views as passivity is not passivity at all. Envisioning accommodation is an effective empowering strategy for women. It is perhaps even more powerful than the male's boundless desire. Why?

Well, in point of fact, more people will recognize and acknowledge accommodation than boundless desire. They realize that to accommodate is harder than to simply want (and take). Plus, the taking is not possible without a least some sort of accommodation (willing or unwilling). Accommodation is the air that fills the deflated beach ball.

Even though the accommodator is rewarded by society, it's not a role I would willingly assume. After all, it's painful having to be as self-sacrificing as one has to be in order to achieve infinite accommodation.

Boundless desire means boundless promise. It also means that the male is permitted to engulf others and to impose his needs and desires. Perhaps there is some scenario in which this could be healthy, but for the life of me, I can't think of it. Although it seems to be a great life, it is not as fabulous as it seems. After all, boundlessness, burgeoning desire, and engulfment with impunity are the building blocks of hubris.

As we know, hubris always leads to a fall. Hubris is the key element in tragedy.

photo credit: dave feiden, 2006

Confessions of a Pom Squad Wannabe

Audio file / podcast / downloadable mp3 file

I don't know if I ever told you this, but when I was in junior high, I joined the pep club. We existed to support the cheerleaders, who in turn, provided "pep" and motivation to the football team. We were a uniformed girl choir, the secular channelers of divine energy. In my orange sweater, black box-pleated skirt, white knee-highs, and saddle oxfords, I adhered to the ideal of absolute solidarity and absolute uniformity. I took gymnastics, and besides engaging in anorexic behavior, bleaching my hair, and baking under a sun lamp, I had fantasies of becoming a cheerleader or a member of the pom squad. I was not unattractive, and my family did not lack for resources. I, however, had absolutely no self confidence. That clearly doomed me, although yes, I was a true purveyor of pep.

I ended up quitting the pep club. I hated having to go to football and basketball games, and I did not like having to feign cheerfully blithe joie-de-vivre in the face that no one wanted to talk to me.

High school was even more alienating than junior high. I did not even think of joining the pep club, even though their uniforms were cuter than the junior high issue. Back in junior high, what we wore was a bold, citrus-colored variant of a private girls' school uniform. Cheerleaders were needle-thin, tan, and whose moms took them shopping at The Webb, where they would buy designer shoes and bags. Spring Break meant Cancun or skiing in Colorado.

For me, Spring Break meant going with the Spanish Club to Mexico, summer meant camp in Texas, swim team, piano, and August in Vermont. I shopped with my mother who was extremely generous and always bought me whatever I wanted, or shopped alone with money from the allowance I received from my father. In theory, I could have fit in with the pep club crowd, but I lacked the self confidence. I looked the part, my family lived in the "right" neighborhood, but I felt freakish and weird.

Thinking of oneself as the "outsider within" means that a person starts to feel himself or herself to be "different." There are a number of implications. One is that it engenders narcissism. The other is that is could push narcissism to messianism. Is perceiving oneself as an "outsider within" the first step to becoming a mad messiah? I don't know. It's worth investigating.
In feminist thought, being the "outsider within" is assumed to be more objective than those who describe a situation from being completely outside it, or from the vantage point of a person who is completely inside.

In theory, I could have written a juicy expose, a view from the inner sanctum of the pep club / cheerleaders workout rooms. Or, I could have made a movie with me as the Lindsey Lohan character in Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004), or one of the Heathers in Heathers (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1989).

However, if I look at the underlying assumption that marginalization springs from definable "difference," I'm aware that there may be a problem. It may be flawed. In other words, a person typified by difference and thus marginalized may not have access to "truth" or "insight." They may simply distort and it may or may not reflect anything about the group or the artifact (literature, film, painting, etc.)

Ethics and politics always mediate the relationship between perceptor and perception. What I was perceiving was mediated by the times. Watergate was still fresh in everyone's minds, and cynicism toward the government was at an all-time high. Disenchantment, futurelessness, and stagflation counterposed the aggressive optimism of cheerleaders. My father, who was writing a book on the coming collapse of the dollar, runaway inflation, and imminent chaos in the cities, had decided to build a summer home in Vermont that did not rely on electricity or public supplies of water or gas. He hired me to type up the manuscript. In the meantime, he prospered as a petroleum and mining geologist at a time of embargoes and high commodities prices.
Was I really a good candidate for a narrator? Could I have been a good "outsider within?" "Standpoint theory" hinges on a few assumptions. The primary assumption is that the narcissism of the "outsider within" is not so overwhelming as to create complete solipsism. In order to survive both the apocalyptic economic prophecies of my dad and my completely extinguished self-esteem? I took refuge in my fantasy world, which was, by definition, highly idiosyncratic, highly narcissistic.

Actually, if one thinks about it, true identification is not possible without at least a basic level of narcissism. Narcissism suggests that one is able to conceive of an individuated self.

Of course, the deeply-held hope is that there is some sort of value in the vision of the "outsider within."

The "outsider within:"

a) exists within a definable group.
The Norman West Jr. High school pep club. We were wildcats. (I think.)

b) is truly marginalized (in fact, or in one's imagination).
I did not fully participate in the activities of the pep club because I had no real friends. In fact, the other girls would not really talk to me. I never quite figured out why. I assumed it was because I was fat, ugly, and a complete loser. In fact, I was pretty ordinary.

c) can articulate opinions or interpretations that are not the same as those generally expressed.
I tried to keep those to myself. I failed. No wonder I was ostracized.

d) believes that the opinions and articulations have value because they are different, precisely due to the fact of being different.
I may not have thought so, but society certainly might have thought so. What were my fantasies at age 14 or 15? I wanted to be a concert harpsichordist. I listened to the sonatas of Antonio Scarlatti at every possible moment. I fantasized about winning medals and making "A" times at swim meets. I wanted to build my own harpsichord. I imagined myself in the Spanish court as Scarlatti composed passionate sonatas for the Spanish princess who employed him. At the same time, I imagined myself painting, sketching, and traveling to exotic locations where I would learn languages, then return to New York City, where I had an office in a glass building and I wore elegant outfits. Alternatively, I would go to a small village in South America where I would be a missionary (for a week or so).

e) accepts that there is value in one's difference (this necessitates that a baseline of human dignity).
What was the difference? I refused to experiment with drugs. I never smoked pot, drank alcohol, or smoked cigarettes. In this way, I was different than the majority of my peers. At the same time, I tried to diet. I wanted to be desirable. I wanted to be desired. I spent most of my life in daydreams instead of learning social skills. Did that matter? Did it make me truly different? Who knows. It certainly made me different within the pep club. I did not spend much time learning cheers or socializing with other girls. I was afraid to have them come to my house, where my mother was a wild card presence. I could never predict how she would be, or what condition the house would be in. She suffered from thyroid disease, but no one knew it at that time. All I knew was that I was embarrassed, even though she always bought me the most expensive clothes of anyone I knew, and I always had the nicest musical equipment, sports equipment, school supplies.

The other members of the group have to recognize the vision as containing points that are common to the shared experience of all.

There is where we may or may not have a point of convergence. Perhaps it does not really matter. Perhaps what is most important is the action of perceiving oneself as "different" and then going through the mental exercise of the "standpoint" and positioning oneself outside one's self-identified group, and then, attempting to view the behaviors, values, and attitudes from a "bestranged" perspective.

Make it new. Make it real. Do the two go hand in hand?

In my mind, being a part of the pom squad never moved much beyond a fleeting impulse. I never gave it enough serious thought to actually take tangible steps in the world of real phenomena. It was nothing like my foray into the pep club. In that case, I really did join the group, and there were measurable points of difference. I never quite had a sense of the narrative the successful members -- the cheerleaders and the pep club members -- constructed for themselves for their lives, which included their families. All I had were my fragmentary narratives, my fantasies, and my desires to escape.

Perhaps that is the first requirement of the "outsider within" -- that is, the desire to escape a dominant group consciousness that threatens to overwhelm one's sense of having an individuated self. Hence, the narcissistic response…

I was the pom squad wannabe fantasizing about building my own harpsichord and playing Scarlatti in such a way that anyone listening would be instantly propelled into a state of enchantment.

Perhaps that sense of magic never goes away. When we need refuge, we retreat. We become the "outsider within" -- safe from engulfment, safe from the threat of harm by members of the dominant group.