Despite accusations, my claim is that I’m NOT an “enabler” of Tim Barrus in the sense from alcoholics counseling. The term is meant to suggest that he’s up to no good (like raising money for illegimate purposes or pretending to be someone he’s not). I have no knowledge that he’s up to no good. The great “crime” of pretending to have a Navajo mother doesn’t impress me much. The paradoxical charge that he is inventing boys whom he then exploits doesn’t register with me. Imaginary boys don’t suffer.
I am not an apologist for Tim Barrus, though I can see why he claimed to be Nasdijj. It looks to me as though he had a lot of co-conspirators, namely publishers and agent, and a strong motive: the money to replace both hips so he could get out of his wheelchair. The reason Sherman Alexie attacked him seems to me as commercial as the reason to pretend to be Nasdijj. (Controversy sells books; memoirs sell better than essays. Alexie was promoting “Smoke Signals.”) In fact, when Barrus was Nasdijj he used the role to campaign for good causes. I’m not sure Alexie did that and neither are some Indians. The real culprit in the case is society’s totally unreasonable and over-romantic preoccupation with what we think Indians are and what constitutes privileged knowledge of them.
I AM an analyst of Tim Barrus. That is, I seek to understand him, his life story, and what might help him write. Whether or not the boys are invented in whole or in part, I choose to consider them real, partly because of the consequences -- which are far worse for considering a real boy to be a fake than for considering a fake boy to be real -- and partly because there are evidently real boys in other places who read the blog and use the information in the way that people in a therapy group use the insights meant for others. The same rationale applies to Barrus: I would much rather give him more credit than he may deserve than to give him less credit than he deserves. At the very least the blog called “le-too” is an on-going narrative full of ideas, adventures, tragedy and comedy, images and poetry, more inventive than anything Dickens created, and often as archetypal as Shakespeare. Why must it be “fact?”
Busybodies have warned that Barrus might take advantage of me. How? I have little to lose, no money to send -- he’s never asked anyway. He has no access to my blog, but I have access to his and often post there. Some days I write two blogs, posting one on “prairiemary” and one on “le-too,” and sometimes I write one to post in both places. I’m a print overachiever, but a tech underachiever, so I don’t often manage photos and, since I can’t afford broadband, I’m not able to watch the vlogs (videos) posted by the boys unless I tie up my machine to download for an hour.
Barrus and I are collaborating on a book combining what I know from my training as a teacher and minister with what he knows from his long experience with troubled boys. Our ideas mesh, inform each other, question each other, with surprising force. Is this taking advantage of me? He’s the one with the reputation. I’m the one who has the time and refuge for thinking. It’s a synergy. Maybe I’m the one who’s taking advantage of him.
This is not about publishing so much as it’s about writing. Publishing has commodified itself into a state of disintegration. For now we can work on our book on our own terms and not try to shove it into those pigeonholes demanded by promoters and shelvers. Start a new shelf for the categories of the twenty-first century: it will have to be done anyway. We are not the only writers inventing new rules of form and genre.
But what about those real boys? Tim is aging. Some of the boys are nineteen. Some are much younger. Many have health issues that are slowly destroying them. All have artistic talent. The boys cling to Tim, try to make him a father, a protector so they won’t have to grow up. He resists.
Tim’s operating context is the Seventies in the United States -- not just the Act Up/Digger/Leather communities of San Francisco, but also the experimental communes that sprouted all over the country, esp. in the southwest. They didn’t all disappear, you know. And in America their history goes back to the time of the Transcendentalists. Some people have gotten pretty good at communes, but they have learned to keep a low profile -- which Barrus does not. Barrus’ main critics are Boomers who sneer at the whole Sixties/Seventies experiment. I say they’re jealous.
Another valence from the Seventies is Third Force psychology, often as defined by Esalen (Perls) and hippies (O’Leary), a serious and effective way to address addictive and existential problems. Barrus is not certified, defined, controlled in the way government keeps trying to control social workers. He just flies by the seat of his pants, using his accumulated experence. Shocking. Like early Freud. Early anybody.
The wave that overwhelms even Barrus is still the AIDS pandemic which plunges him into paranoia even as he fights hard for new drugs and proper protocols. The most effective part of this has been activating artists who are dying of AIDS. Often disowned by their families, they have needed repositories for their estates. I suppose that saying so is enabling in some way. Doing so is definitely enabling.
The “secret” to Barrus is his obsessional relationship with his abusive father which he tried to redeem by adopting a damaged foster son. That attempt failed painfully. Everything he writes revisits the problem: always two males, one trying to save the other. The boys of Cinematheque are another expression of the attempt to save sons, even if they are imaginary boys, or even if they are real and dying. Is there something wrong with this? It seems like a thing worthy of enabling, a good enabling.
Here’s the next step. At least some of these boys (I’m hoping a big majority) will mature into manhood and careers of their own. It won't take many years. THAT may be the real reward and payoff. What will they be able to tell us or show us with their art? Neither Barrus nor I may be here to find out. But if we could get a little lightning into a bottle for later, I think that would be worth enabling.