Sunday, November 16, 2008


How dare I take on such a project as this one? What hubris to think I could keep my balance while acting as interocutor for Tim Barrus, who dwells somewhere between devil and savior, not even wearing underwear? How do I, an over-scrupulous old woman in a decrepit small house in Montana just off the Blackfeet Reservation, pretend to know anything about boys at risk, risky boys, fighting to stay sane, alive and creative? What use am I to boys who have survived by themselves in the street for years -- in whatever ways they had to?

Because there’s no escape from holocausts. On this prairie it was smallpox and massacre. As soon as Columbus and his sailors put one foot on the American continent, the micro-organisms they carried jumped to the indigenous people. Nine months later, the first mixed-blood babies were born. The Blackfeet were among the last resisters but Time cannot be resisted. For every smallpox-infected blanket and for every peace chief shot at dawn while waving his treaty (as at the Baker Massacre), Washington D.C. has indirectly killed a thousand Blackfeet by diverting the money they were supposed to live on and by canceling special funds promised for food, health care and education. Genocide is not always so dramatic as gas ovens and atomic bombs.

The two images that haunt me from WWII are both from newsreels, not still photos. One is a bulldozer moving a huge pile of stripped bodies towards a mass grave. Their arms flop over and their heads nod, but not with life. The other is the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima: a man has finally managed to push his way up through the debris and he rises up through the remains of his roof. He stands, only emerged from the waist up, and he is insane. He doesn’t know anything. His eyes roll, his mouth gapes.

More recently there is the little girl, napalmed and running with soldiers behind her. Or the small emaciated child in Africa, crouched in the dirt while a patient vulture waits nearby. Or maybe it’s today's news stories of the eight-year-old Mexican boy kidnapped for ransom and, after the money was delivered, killed by battery acid injected into his heart. Or maybe the eight-year-old boy so tormented by his father and his “friend” that he simply shot them to death. His step-mother would not help. His mother says she knew nothing about it. What about the internalized holocaust of the young Blackfeet mother here who killed her toddler son, probably in rage, put his body in the trunk of her car, and went on with her life for months and months before the body was found, all the time on supervised parole.

And you want me to be shocked by young boys who might be gay, HIV, thieves, violent, whores, and all that? You want me to scoff at the idea of them magnetized into groups, guided by an outrageous old writer and artist with a small energetic dog and a small fiery wife? No permission. No certification.

I’ve never met Tim Barrus but I’ve read his books, both the trilogy he wrote as Nasdijj (shocking SHOCKING behavior) and the earlier “Anywhere, Anywhere” and “Genocide.” I was just curious. More importantly, for the past two years we’ve been in email communication almost daily and I’ve read the death threats his little group gets. I’ve emailed back and forth with the two young Irishmen who manage the Internet connections and who think they’ve almost figured out how to completely block the death threats so that the younger children, already traumatized by torture and war, don’t see them. The authorities know about all this. They just give it a low priority.

Barrus and I share quite a few traits apart from being neatly opposite, him always on the move through airports while I refuse to go any farther than the grocery store; him living like Jesse James with his adolescent renegades while I spend my days alone, sometimes only speaking to the postmaster. Barrus plunged into the counter-culture of San Francisco in the Seventies and reveled in it. I carefully took the train to the Blackfeet Reservation in 1961 and attached to a protector twice my age.

Bob Scriver was a sculptor and I had come from the theatre department of Northwestern University. We believed in art. Barrus believes in art. One of his earliest salvific communities as a kid was the art department at Michigan State University. In San Francisco Barrus did theatre, soliloquies from a stage. He wrote porn. He worked with disabled kids. He met his wife. I taught on the rez until 1973. Then I left in the middle of a recession and ended up becoming an animal control officer in the days when they were usually all men. Going door-to-door in Portland, Oregon, I saw how people live -- all kinds of people.

Both Barrus and I wanted to know other people from the inside, the way a good psychotherapist might inhabit a client without violation. Barrus, living in a real closet in a hippie Victorian house, welcomed sex of any kind. I was besotted with one man, wanting him and only him all the time.

Things went tumbling after that. In 1988 Barrus was writing “Genocide” in that Florentine library and I was stepping out of the Unitarian Universalist ministry so I could return to the Blackfeet Reservation, where I served as the Methodist interim for a year. At that point we both had discarded all safety.

By 1999 Barrus had had life-endangering pneumonia that was treated with steroids so strong that they triggered avascular necrosis, which causes one’s bones to crumble. He was in a wheelchair, needing hip replacement. The Nasdijj trilogy was written to pay those bills, but they were also from the heart. “The Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams” was displaced, reorganized, disguised, reassigned, until it became a “memoir” but it was really the story of a whole category of children he knew from working with them on the Navajo reservation as a special education teacher. Barrus has no brother but he did have a Demon Father. And he claimed his mother, whom he loved very much though she couldn’t defend him, was half-Navajo, a compliment. This is politically incorrect and brought a firestorm down on his head, led by Sherman Alexie who was once exactly the sort of kid Barrus had helped all his life. Who owns the story?

The first triptych book is the one that Barrus’ wife likes best, but Barrus himself feels “Genocide” is the key. I came to this writer through “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping,” an account of trying to save a boy dying of AIDS, not from death but from humiliation, pain and abandonment including that of supposedly well-meaning institutions. This story is essentially true -- it happened. It is the devotion and deeply involved care that attracts me to Barrus. Aside from all the theory and reflection, he does his best to save those he loves. If his granddaughter is ill in Bolivia, he goes directly there. Later, when there is rioting in Bolivia, he again goes directly there. When one of the Irishmen kicks heroin, it is Barrus who walks him semi-comatose, puking and shitting, into the shower and washes him. When Barrus’ faithful dog, the helper dog in the book I love, dies of old age, the whole team -- who all love her -- do their best to give her a little more time. When that is ended, Barrus immediately gets another dog. Crashed? Then begin again.

If every cocaine addict in North America and Europe stopped using tomorrow, the result would be that all Middle Eastern and Central American and much African war would stop the next day. Cocaine finances wars. It is the individual small decisions of many “civilized” people that control much of the tragedy in the world. Doubt me? Consider what the collapse of the global financial world is showing us. Many small consumer decisions mount up to a debt that exceeds the capacity of the planet to produce profit.

I used to have a poster that said: “Faithfulness in small things is a big thing.” St. Francis.

So Barrus and I are trying this small thing: a sort of writing partnership. We’ll see where it goes. I’m hoping my University of Chicago School of Divinity big-time education will be a can-opener, a lantern, a compass. While I was at the Div School, Jonestown happened in the Guyanas. So many said they hadn’t seen it coming. What Barrus and I see is not “coming” -- it’s been here all along.

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