When I was teaching on the rez almost 20 years ago, the girls in the 7th grade said I didn’t understand what their lives were like at all, I just didn’t know where they were coming from. So that night I wrote a little essay, pretending I was one of them and saying what it was like. The next day I handed out copies for them to read (anything to get kids to read!) and asked them to tell me whether I understood after all. “Weeelll,” they said, “Maaaaaybe.” (The boys wanted me to write one about them, but it didn’t come out so well.) Later I sent some stuff to the Office of Public Instruction and the little essay I wrote was in among other things without being identified. One of the women down there in Helena got all excited about it and wrote me to say that this child just had to have a scholarship. I explained it was me writing and the offer immediately disappeared. I explained that the girls were really like that girl in the essay and DESERVED a scholarship, but they weren’t interested.
A sequence of authors have been unmasked in recent years. JT Leroy is coming up again: a young male victim of abuse who turned out to be a woman fifteen years older. She protested that the abuse was still true, that JT was one of those salvific personas that abused persons develop, but the world was horrified by the false identity -- not the abuse. The “Horse Whisperer” claimed that his father was abusive and beat him with a chain, so he turned to horses. Others challenged that and I don’t know what finally happened. One young ethnic chic lit authoress, fairly shocking, was unmasked as a non-writer who simply claimed the role -- the actual book was, well, more like assembled by a committee, not even ghost-written. The author of “The Story of O” has been identified -- they say. All of these cases had two things in common: they were shocking and the writer was masked. Not at all unusual over history. The examples also tended to confuse the truly offensive ethics of journalists -- real, on a payroll and supposedly confined to the facts -- making up informants and stories.
One of my chief sources of books is remainder houses, and I’m especially fond of Daedalus, which attractively presents books that interest me, so I ordered a copy of “The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping,” about a man named Nasdijj and his efforts to save a boy suffering and dying from AIDS. There was a dog and a second boy and they were running away from the authorities because the authorities never get it and try to trap you, strap you down, get your fingerprints, make you memorize your social security number, put a microchip in your forearm, put your genome on a computer chip, and issue you a “real ID” card with a retinal scan that you must present at any borders. You get the picture. Everything but a yellow star on your coat.
So as usual, I Googled this guy. Out spills a huge controversy over who the author really is and he turns out to be Tim Barrus, who previously wrote prize-winning SM porn in San Francisco. Oh. And he has a blog which you can find on Google. Somewhere between being a free-spirit and a fugitive, a cultural hunter-gatherer, he moves through a world that has never given up the Sixties and Seventies. Horror, sci-fi, shock... it never ends. This morning I was trying to upload some photos of my earnest threadbare family in the Thirties onto Photobucket and having to work around a huge ad for “Skinwalkers” with headshots of kids with fangs dripping something -- probably KY jelly like the Alien. Not what Navajo envisioned as the original Skinwalkers.
A lot of people are really mad at Tim for not being the guy in the book. Isn’t every author every character in every book he or she writes? The twist is that these readers want to be just like the fictional Nasdijj, they identify with him! The nice lady editors of Manhattan liked him, too, so long as he was down-and-out, but when he popped up in person, liberally using the f-word which we only allow in the movies or among our adolescents, they were horrified.
Tammy Fay Bakker died yesterday and the paper printed her last photo, grotesquely thin but the same crust of makeup on her sagging face, the same preposterous wig. Who was she really? A malicious hoax? We think we can tell by looking at her Halloween getups, but her friends said she was genuinely warm and inclusive, never mean-spirited or self-righteous. A natural Universalist. How much can we really tell by looking at a face, a surface, a presentation?
People might ask what can I know about ghastly shocking stuff when I live in a quiet village where it’s safe. When I’d been here a while, I was told about the little house a block down this street where a babysitter and the children were murdered over drugs and about the young father who was quarreling with his wife and to punish her sat in their pickup a block up the street in front of the bar and shot his very young son in the head -- then himself. Skinwalkers indeed. If I wrote about such things around here, I would be well-advised to fictionalize either them or myself in order to avoid lawyers looking for major settlements and free publicity. The US libel law is beginning to be more restrictive, allowing heirs to sue for damage to the estate of a public person if comments about the famous deceased person diminishes its value. And there’s the whole story.
The commodification of information. Newspapers and publishers are so controlled by advertisers and political friends that they edit to serve the purposes of sales, to maintain image and reputation. So the Great Falls Tribune prints a story about some murder or drug conflagration on the reservations, then -- to escape criticism -- prints a story about a man who cleans up his corner of the rez or a kid who shines academically. Nothing sells so well as the sensational! The gorier and more horrendous a crime is the better the paper sells. The more controversial a book is the better it sells, up to a point. Clearly no one wanted to hear about Charlie Russell’s VD, at least not around here. It might interfere with sales.
So the pressure is towards shocking content, but not from familiar people -- rather from discardable sources. Under-culture folks. A black women once told me, “We know the REAL truth about white folks, because we see them from the UNDERsides.” She meant because whites go slumming with dark people and also pay them to be intimate servants.
Blogs break all the rules BECAUSE they are from hidden sources and often have shocking content, the worst images you can imagine, guaranteed to haunt your sleep. Even Googling won’t tell you whether the writer is honest or competent or whether the content is true -- though there are websites that strive heroically to do what responsible editors used to do: find the truth.
We assume that the underculture has privileged knowledge, and often they do. But they don’t always have the words to tell their story. People who interface with them -- social workers, cops, EMT’s, and teachers -- can do it. (Check out http://ambulancedriverfiles.blogspot.com/) That’s who Tim Barrus really was -- an articulate person who hung with outcasts and told their stories.
Here on the rez they tell about a man who came from outside to teach. Sitting in front of his first high school class, he tried to take the roll by asking the students to give him their names. Every name provoked peals of laughter. Some sounded pretty normal and others were typical Indian names. He couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Finally he came to a girl who claimed her name was “Marilyn Monroe.” He kept her after school. Eventually he found out that really WAS her name and she was a model of diligence and sobriety. The other kids had been giving him the names of all the town drunks. The story is supposed to be about fooling the teacher, but why did the kids think those poor old drunks were so funny?
In 1961 when I was teaching on the rez, some grad students at a major back East university sent a questionnaire they wanted the students to answer. The questions were invasive, even insulting. The kids asked me if they had to give true answers. I said there was no reason why they had to. The rest of the day was given to remarkably inventive atrocities. I can only imagine what the grad students thought, but I think they were entirely willing to believe the tales. I’ve always wished I could see the final report. It was the most enthusiastic writing project all year.
No neat conclusion here, except that our appetite for shock plays into the masking and unmasking of identity. A sense of humor is helpful.