... she was vaguely aware of having arrived at the edge of a new period in her existence, an unexplored territory of herself through which she was going to have to pass....
In my father's house, no one discussed the vanished. Their memories haunted us, but we struggled not to mention them. No one said, "Oh, where do you think Uncle Clem is today?" No one wondered out loud about the well-being of those in our family who, having thoughtfully chosen their disappearance, had gone somewhere unknown. My father didn't like to talk about his vanished relatives, but they remained present, secretly beneath the level of conversation. If pressed, he might say something like, "Americans are always vanishing."
That was true enough. Americans are always vanishing. They flee things: the law, repression, themselves. Or else they seek things, order, love, a new identity, a new self. It is part of the national myth, a key element in the vast web of cultural reference, a recurring motif in literature, film and song.
People disappear in other cultures, but the sheer weight of the deliberately self-vanished seems so much greater among Americans. They are forever, like Ishmael boarding the Pequod, finding their way into difference or, like the Dharma Bums, into sameness. They ride off into the horizon on horses, motorcycles, cars and pick-up trucks. They vanish without saying goodby, without waving, leaving the door unlocked. Above all, solitary and always alone, they leave on foot, walking, hitch-hiking, hobo-ing. Many people have written about this dimension of American cultural mythology, pointing to one factor or another, invoking one concept or some other. In this essay, I want to add a very personal comment from my own experience and make a single, small contribution to the discourse of vanishing. Disappearing, getting away, leaving it all behind, fleeing the rat race, slipping your chains, breaking your bonds, becoming (one way or another) vanished: it is both performative, as theatrical as any disguise, and intensely self-pleasuring. It might even be (I suspect), no matter what hardships, loads of fun.
My Uncle Clem disappeared when he was only fifteen. I learned this from some letters that, against his normal tendency to ignore family, my father had kept. His mother writes him, in 1947, that Clem, his youngest brother, has been arrested for "daylight robbery." That must mean armed robbery and may suggest that Clem tried his inexperienced hand at sticking up a bank. After his attempt at "daylight robbery," he spends some time in a Waco jail. Later, he works for a carnival in Arizona. Then the trail grows cold. Ten years later, he reappears as the night-manager of a small hotel in Dallas. And then, leaving three small children behind, he disappears once more. No one in our family ever heard from him again. After much searching, I discovered a death certificate from Long Beach, California, dated 1989, but which contained no personal information. It bore only my uncle's name, and that was misspelled: "Clam."
My father disliked talking about his brother. The only uncle whom I ever knew refused to say anything, or even to admit that their youngest brother was still alive. No one in my family talked about Clem. He seemed to have disappeared from our collective memory far more thoroughly than once, as an adolescent, he had from his own immediate family. Clem had isappeared, vanished: he had become invisible.
It now strikes me as strange that no one in my father's family would talk about Clem. He chose to vanish and, whatever circumstances may have been involved, he must have done so with some reflection upon his life's possibilities. Clem's choice bears some consideration. It might have seemed radical in some other family, but in my father's disappearance was, if not exactly commonplace, a familiar pattern. Many years after Clem, one of my cousins went missing when he was at the height of personal success in his business. He, too, left a wife and children behind. After that, he was simply gone, no news ever. My grandfather's sister and her two daughters disappeared in Australia and no one ever discovered where. My grandfather, who had emigrated from England after the Great War, showed a total disdain for his past and for the family he had left behind. He never spoke of his childhood, and left no record, among many attempts to write about west Texas life, of growing up in Kent. Another uncle returned from World War II and changed his name, Roger, into Morton along with his identity, becoming a club pianist and jazz musician in a succession of northern cities. My own father changed his identity, but not his name, with intelligence and determination. He went from a west Texas ranch-boy's existence, the living death of a hard-scrabble life along the North Llano river west of Kerrville, to the (comparative) heights of being a writer and editor. Disappearance and self-fashioning runs jaggedly through my father's family like an infected pulse.
Mostly it was the men who disappeared. The desire to disappear and start life freshly did touch some of the women. As I child I would try to imagine the life my great-aunt and my cousins might be living in Australia. One of Uncle Clem's daughters, a girl a few years older than myself, left her husband and vanished in the direction of California. Disappearance was closely enwrapped around my mind: I would lie awake thinking about the new identities I could create, the places I could go, the new lives I could live. While my girlfriends dreamed about their future husbands, I most often dreamed about being someone else, someplace else. When I asked my father about his aunt, Frances, in Australia, he would change the subject, or look away. He never enjoyed talking about this secret, if highly active, dimension in his family's history, but he was adamantly unforthcoming when it was a question of the women who had vanished. The refusal to talk about this pattern didn't change anything, no one who had vanished was ever made present again by not being mentioned. It did promote ignorance.
Thinking back on my father's family, I return again and again to the purposes of vanishing. What benefit does disappearance afford? There are many fairly obvious rewards for transforming yourself into a person who can make more money and live better. My grandfather, who emigrated from England in the hope of making a fortune in American cattle country, wanted to live better. My father, who remade himself from a ranch-hand (or even a potential ranch-owner) into an intellectual who, besides writing articles and books, edited scholarly journals, clearly wanted to live better. No doubt, he also sought a measure of prestige which would not have been possible, indeed barely imaginable, in the North Llano country. That kind of remaking, though perhaps not as common as American myth has made it out to be, is close to being a national religion. It was wholly absent from my mother's family. Her family was self-satisfied and unadventurous: a strain of impoverished Anglo-Irish who were comfortable in their working-class, Canadian small comforts. They loved each other and talked freely, but no one in that family had ever vanished. When I think about my father's family, I am most struck by the strong form of the American national religion that shows up again and again. Uncle Clem didn't simply remake himself, like his father and brothers, he chose to vanish. He steered his life into the wind.
Several times I have encountered "vanished" people. Once driving north through the Atacama desert in Chile, east of Iquique near the ruined nitrate mining town of Humberstone, now as dead as the black Atacama barrenness that surrounds it, my husband and I came upon a man with a bicycle. Evidently lost in his own thoughts, he was standing by the side of the road, powdered from head to foot with the Atacama's black dust, like pulverized obsidian. As alone as most people are ever likely to be, he had only a small bundle of belongings on the bike's carryall. He wore a scruffy black hat with a squashed cone, something like the typical huaso hat that you see in Chile's pastoral heartland, around Temuco, or farther south in Patagonia. Guessing that he had a mechanical problem with his bike, Nick rolled down the window of our rented car and asked him where he was going (certain that it must be Iquique), supposing uncertainly that we might help him. Tersely, he replied, "Dondequiera." Wherever. Anywhere. He was like those swagmen whom once you could have met in the Australian bush: coming from anywhere, going anywhere, but keeping always their isolation and unbreakable individuality. Fifty years ago, and still occasionally today, in the Southwest of the United States or in the arid back blocks of Australia, you could see men walking alone under the sun, sheltered only by a wide-brimmed hat, perhaps pushing their meager belongings in a wheelbarrow. Even thirty years ago, when I was a small girl, I saw such men from the window of our car as my father drove us across New Mexico. In Australia, you might have seen such men, perhaps an occasional woman, hoisting a blanket-roll, a "swag," across their shoulders, going from one indifferent place to another, never wishing to stay, never finding a "home." Uncle Clem might well have carried a swag if, like his two cousins he never met, he had lived in Australia. I imagine him walking across New Mexico and Arizona, perhaps popping up in one Alaskan fishing village after another, carrying in his hands, or on his back, the little that he cared to keep.
In late 1990, just as the first Iraq War was beginning to look inevitable, I met Jack. He seemed to have disappeared as far into the interstices of American society as any person I ever knew. At the time, I doubted that even Uncle Clem had vanished more completely. Borrowing a friend's car in Berkeley, I had driven north to Mendocino where I planned to spend a few days walking on beaches, watching seals and thinking about a book that, vaguely, I hoped to write. My second day there, a mile or two north of Fort Bragg, I spent some time tramping along the beach at low tide in an area of sea-caves. Inside one of the sea-caves, I looked up towards the entrance to see a young man staring in at me. He was bare-chested and wearing loose light-blue cotton clam-diggers, flared high above the ankles. They were held up by a thick, dark-blue cord, woven of coarse strands like a rope and slotted through large loops. He had a black backpack slung over one shoulder. I noticed immediately the thick shock of black hair that he had combed back into a ponytail. He was lean, muscular and bare-foot. He smiled suggestively and, conscious of all the Romance undertones of danger, I smiled back. Twenty minutes or so later when I was walking back down the beach, he was standing in the mouth of another sea-cave. I smiled once more, feeling small tongues of excitement lick up my body, and said "hello." He gestured me inside while I hesitated, a fool's grin on my face, rooted to the sand. Then, embracing fate, I stepped towards him while he edged back into the cave. Its walls were blotched by patches of luminescent green and blue-green, like foxfire, but living plankton rather than decaying wood. It was a sexual opportunity certainly, though it has taken more than a dozen years for me to understand how much more than that it was and how much, that I might have understood, I missed.
Later, lying on the damp sand, I actually tried to cuddle him. He only wanted to get up. "Lets go get something to eat." I was nonplused by this suggestion. Still, I led him to my car and we drove into Fort Bragg. In 1990, Fort Bragg was still not quite the tourist destination that it has become, the poor-cousin rival to Mendocino. It was no longer completely a working town, but it was not set up for strangers looking for a coffee-shop. Eventually we did find a place on the main street just before the road cuts down the river bank to the wharf area.
I stared at him, embarrassed by our casual intimacy, but fascinated by his good-looks and dark, almost-menacing attractiveness. His eyes, I noted for the first time, were different shades of blue. What's your name, I asked? "Jack," he replied looking back into my eyes in a warm, boyfriend mode. Short for John or for Jonathan? No, just Jack. Nothing else, just plain Jack? "That's right. Just Jack." Then I must be Jill, I responded. And so we became Jill and Jack for each other. Even though we had sex together for the next two days, I scarcely learned another thing about him. We drove down to Mendocino where I arranged a room in the old hotel. At the time, I wouldn't have been able to say why I had returned his advance so quickly. I wasn't usually easy, moving forward into sex without an introduction, without an exit strategy. I was also an educated young woman who understood the risks of STDs and AIDS. In the sea-cave, when I asked him to wear a condom, he had just laughed. "That's unnatural," he said, dismissing me. At least, I consoled myself, I was on the Pill. That ancient problem was solved.
It was 1990 and northern California was still a bit of a hippie culture. I was caught up in it, dropping my guard, letting my normal reservations slip. In any case, a handsome man in the mouth of a sea-cave, his naked torso burnished by the afternoon sun, was hard to resist. I guessed that Jack had walked down to the beach from a commune, but there was no real evidence for that. He never called anyone and no one came looking for him. Twice Jack mentioned Santa Barbara so that I guessed that he came from the south. His accent could have been Oregon or Washington, or even Midwestern. I learned nothing from his voice. I speculated that he had come north just to look for something, or to fetch something, for some craft project in his commune in Santa Barbara. But there was nothing to suggest that was true. It was just a fugitive surmise. Had some woman dumped him on the beach north of Fort Bragg? (And in the carefree manner of hippie life, he had simply begun to look about for another.)
He resisted every question I asked. When we parted, I knew almost nothing about him. If he was broke, and he must have been unless he kept a stash of money in the bottom of his backpack, he certainly didn't show it. When he left two days later, I offered him money, but he only laughed, patting my cheek, and gave me a strip of dried fruit from a side-pocket on his pack.
I tried to imagine Jack in different ways: an escapee from a commune, a simpleminded boy who had been abandoned (but, actually, he seemed highly intelligent), an adventurer, a mad man, a religious freak, a disguised alien, a writer seeking material for a novel. What he seemed most to resemble was a fictional character, a wonderfully imagined expression of spontaneity and sensuality. With his black hair, kaleidoscopic eyes and muscled body, he seemed like a figure stepping out from the shadows of Romance. He was a Heathcliff figure, though one entirely without devotion, as desirable as mysterious. Have you ever read Wurthering Heights? I presumptuously inquired.
Jack shrugged one shoulder and gave a tiny shake of his head. No? Maybe? If Jack possessed intellectual interests, he did not reveal them. It would have been none of my business. What was my business? Well, it seemed that I had been chosen to have casual sex, but nothing further. We exchanged no secrets; what is worse, we shared no interests or play of mind. Our personal identities were sealed.
I learned that I did not matter, except in passing like a friendly dog he might pet on the street. He treated me with disdain, or at least emotional indifference, but he made magnificent love. If he did have intellectual interests, whether reading Brontė or studying the Zen of Physics, he would not share them with me. If there was someone, somewhere, with whom he could share such interests, she or he would have to remain, so far as I was concerned, as hidden as the moon's dark shadows. Still, I did discover that he liked Joan Baez's music. Peter, Paul and Mary. The Seekers. Did he know that the latter were Australians? No, nor cared neither. I wanted to talk about Punk, the Rolling Stones and Led-Zepplin, but he only liked folk music, any kind, traditional or art. I did not learn what else he loved or what he hated. Even though it was the summer of 1990, politics were not part of our encounter. No rumors of war disturbed us. No art, neither literature nor film (nor even TV), played a role in our brief entanglement. We made the smallest of small talk, and mostly, even in each other's arms, kept our silences.
On the morning of the third day, Jack announced that he was going. It made me feel a bit sad. He had been quirky, impossible to talk with, but delightful in his hippie way. I knew that, in all the days to come, I would remember him.
I drove him back to the north side of Fort Bragg near the sea-caves where I had met him. On the cliffs above the beach, there was a path where an old industrial railway had once existed to haul timber. It headed north up the coast and then disappeared a few miles later into a pine forest. This was where Jack wanted to be dropped off. He kissed me lightly and then jumped out of the car and began walking briskly up the tracks, still wearing his blue clam-diggers with the thick dark-blue cord. After about thirty feet, he turned, rose up on his toes and waved. "Good-by, Jill." A man in the wind, without context, he had held his identity dark. Who had he been? Well, he was one of the last hippies in Northern California. If he had met Robert Crumb, he might have become the model for a younger Mr. Natural. Above all, he was generous, kind even, but he had no public identity. I could still hear him singing "Puff, The Magic Dragon" for at least a minute or two.
The vast majority of people who vanish do not act from choice. The disappeared from war and genocide have not chosen their unhappy fates. An Argentinian woman I once knew had been disappeared for ten months during the "dirty war." She was kidnapped into the military system of hidden dungeons for an offense that was never explained, nor even spoken. Tortured and humiliated, abruptly, with neither explanation nor apology, she was allowed to go home. The entire time that she was missing, her family had no knowledge, not even an unreliable report. For all that they knew, she was dead or being tortured, vanished somehow into a Patagonian bog without boundaries or known depth. Her brother, a naval ensign, vanished when, in 1982, an English submarine sank an Argentinian cruiser, the General Belgrano, in the South Atlantic. Neither the sister nor the brother had chosen to disappear. The world's history stinks with countless events like those. However, my interest in human vanishing is focused on the small minority of people who, like Jack or my Uncle Clem, choose to disappear or, at the very least, re-fashion their identities so that, in passing, they become an undiscoverable someone else.
Jack was not much different from the man in the Atacama. He, too, seemed to have no interest in going to any precise place. His world was as open as his luck could make it. Had he lived forty years previously, he might have met Uncle Clem along the road, catching a ride on a freight train or scrounging about on a skid row. They might easily have met working for a carnival or doing menial labor in a circus. (I like that thought.) They both had seen an advantage in disappearing, in abandoning their established identities. Jack must have had a personal identity, a rich and complex sense of himself, but he had chosen to keep it private, as secret as a dragon's hoard. His public exposure was minimal, nearly non-existent. Looking back on our two days together, I think now that it was mostly psychological contact, intimacy itself, that he sought to flee. He liked women, but he evaded emotional intimacy. No man more so. He seemed strongly drawn to what did not respond, to the beaches, cliffs and forested headlands of northern California, to the world's physical splendor.
Anonymity is not easy to achieve. It is a far richer accomplishment, vastly harder to attain, than merely being unknown. It is the deep strategy of obscuring yourself from everyone except yourself. Jack and Uncle Clem both had, I believe, complex selves, but they chose to keep them hidden, a source of knowledge and enlightenment for themselves alone. The very little that I know about Uncle Clem indicates that he was intelligent and, if he cared to be, charming. Even though he had deserted them, his children remember him with affection, even some admiration. I leave aside his daughter, my cousin, who herself disappeared. She may have hated her father, and the pain he caused his family, but it may be that she consciously sought to emulate him. He might have done any manner of thing, been "anything he wanted to be"(as saddened parents often say), but chose not. Jack tried to say nothing about himself. He told no stories, and deflected all queries. His intelligence was evident in his gestures and small facial movements. He understood that, having fueled desire's insatiable needs, he tormented me. He displayed his existence before me in such a way as to raise innumerable questions, playfully and with evident glee, for which I would never receive answers. Occasionally, he would smile in such a way that I knew that he found the situation amusing. Because I was interested in him, troubled by the problems he posed, I elicited an amused response. I could discern it in even the tiniest give-and-take between us. Once I tried to send him out to buy tampons, which I did not actually need. I wanted to observe his discomfort, if any, but more importantly I wanted to have the leisure his absence would give me to search his backpack. That was a writer's strategy: learn what you can about others; hide yourself. He declined to go. In order to maintain my lie, I ended up going out to buy the unnecessary tampons myself while, I guessed, he searched my flight bag.
Whatever Jack felt about the situation, or about me, ironic or sardonic, he concealed it all. Something, somewhere, must have happened that made him wary of intimacy, determined to block intrusions, fierce in defense of his very private mind. In Uncle Clem's case, I suspect that he sought anonymity because of things that had happened in his childhood. His mother, my grandmother, would have hounded him with her Baptist moralism and, no doubt, held up the examples of his father, a self-transformed Englishman, and his brothers, all of whom pursued careers in law or the academy. (Even Uncle Roger, who became Morton, studied law at the University of Texas before he flew artillery spotter planes for the U.S. army in World War II and then metamorphosed into a jazz pianist.) Family intimacy is a systemic form of intrusion. Set against this intimacy, there is, its polar antithesis, anonymity: stark but crystalline.
Consider the man holding the bicycle in the Atacama. He knew what he was doing. No swirling gusts blowing down a pass in the Andes had brought him to Humberstone. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and on his bike he had stashed several bottles of water. He was alone in a hostile part of the world, but he was not mad. He may have ridden up from Santiago, or down from Africa a bit to the north, or (more likely) he simply rode from place to place, and would continue to do so until something, some constraint or moment of bad luck, made him stop. Buried within his minimal existence, blackened by the Atacama, he did not seem to be a successful person, not even a happy one. Still, there were reasons to think that his mind was alert. Not only did he know what he was doing, and had dressed the part, but he knew the scornful answer to give my husband when he asked if we could help. Dondequiera. I was certain that he was smiling, faintly. He may have been engaged in a conscious act of rejection, the refusal of something in modern Chile, social inequality or military impunity, which he did not like. His open-ended travels through the Atacama on a bike may have enacted his personal condemnation of General Pinochet. His appearance was like a mask. It hid something, an intelligence, even an intention or a plan, that neither Nick nor I could guess.
A mask provides the right metaphor for anonymity. Most masks confer a borrowed, sometimes a false, identity. Those are the masks for Hallowe'en or Carnival. The Russian thinker, Mikail Bakhtin, observes how the masks of medieval Carnival borrowed the identities of important people, high in the local social hierarchy, in order to mock them. I might dress like the bishop in order to make fun of him, sending up his ludicrous pomposity. My husband might dress like the mayor in order to mock his mannerisms, his clumsy gait or his stupid stares. Another kind of mask bestows fabulous identity, the appearance of being someone, like Wonder Woman or Spider Man, whom it might be fun to resemble and, for one night at least, whose shape can be assumed. Such masks work like a transformed identity, though only for a few hours and in the key of metaphor, to enhance the bearer. There are other masks. The bandit's black scarf or balaclava hides the person, simply but effectively. In a ghost's costume, or bearing a noodle-head, you might be anyone. The purpose of such disguises is not to enhance or to create a mocking travesty, but to annihilate the person's public dimension.
Hiding or destroying your public dimension creates an absence that opens an important path to self-fabulation. The anonymity that Jack and Uncle Clem sought was like a black balaclava. It made intrusions unimaginable. Questions would be difficult; criticisms, impossible. The human world continually jabs fingers outwards, probing, prying open your deepest secrets. In Uncle Clem's case anonymity kept his Baptist mother, with her kit of Sunday school nostrums, and anyone who might have tried to take her place, at an unbridgeable distance.
Anonymity hid Clem's and Jack's persons, reserving their consciousness for their private delight, though it also allowed their eyes the freedom to twinkle, and occasionally smile. Even in the midst of hardship, their anonymity, craftily fashioned and exceptional, would have given them continuous pleasure, a long self-touching of the mind.
About the author:
G. L. Mind was born in New Brunswick, but was taken to the United States at an early age. She spent her formative years in Great Falls, Montana. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Art History and Art Education. She has taught at colleges in the U. S. and Australia. She lives in Helena, Montana. She is an independent scholar and writer.
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