Sunday, November 07, 2010


This article was originally written for an eJournal that specializes in DeleuzeGuarttarian theory. The editors had assured me that the subject was vital, the article was worthy, etc., but then they looked up Tim Barrus and found Nasdijj. The article was dropped. But they can’t block my own blog. I might have a bigger readership.

It’s a little longer than most of my posts, but I assure you that I wrote it..

Prairie Mary


We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist

Cinematheque, a Paris-based art school for boys at-risk, was a collaborative response between a wealthy artist dying of AIDS and his good friend, Tim Barrus, who had been banished from America for political incorrectness. (He implied he was half-Navajo.)  Backed by an endowment, Tim began to collect boy whores from the Hotel du Nord and repurpose them in his Paris loft as artists.   Traumatized, outcast but still vital, they had banded together to survive through online porn shows and hustling until the HIV virus had invaded their bodies, making their lives dependent on expensive medication and careful protocol.  Then they needed help.  What they mainly knew was sex, but what they craved was love and dependable bonding: a family. 

This actual world of desperate boys is surprisingly coherent and worldly but feels powerless, shut out.  Through art Tim Barrus and Cinematheque made it literally visible as a virtual world -- that is, one created by words and images on an assortment of vlogs (blogs with videos).  People horrified by the social implications tried to brush it aside as invented.  Or maybe this world has been assailed and discredited for opportunistic selfish reasons -- like human traffickers who operate freely in the deliberately unknown.  Scoffers claim the boys don’t exist even as the same people stalk them. 

In 2007, by accidental internet contact, a witness was added: myself, Mary Scriver, a teacher, minister, writer, who testifies to authenticity and validates the boy-world by adding context.  The manuscript of “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” developed as correspondence between Scriver and Barrus. This article derives from these sources.

Merrill Singer has described the “syndemic” nature of interacting diseases, overlaid and intensified by social burdens like poverty, stigma, violence and ignorance as well as catastrophic events like floods, landslides, earthquakes and volcanoes.  Singer vividly traces the vectors of forces that create nodes of destruction often blamed on the people caught in them.  HIV-AIDS is a unique disease in that it creates vulnerability to opportunistic diseases most people can shrug off, to mishaps such as falls, and to stigma that prevents care or funding.  It is not highly contagious so long as the mingling of blood and other bodily fluids is prevented, but -- once caught -- is viciously virulent, nearly always fatal in the end.  Meds can reduce it to a chronic condition, but a nauseated and haunted one.  On the level of nations this pandemic wipes out generations and is not at all confined to gay male hustlers, though they probably bear the highest burden of stigma.  The nation then becomes vulnerable to pharmaceutical blackmail, especially in Third Worlds.

Contemporary philosophers and social critics have established the legitimacy and value of using “high” formal concepts to reflect on “low” pop phenomena, often bringing to the surface new understandings not unlike the “upwelling” in oceans that brings up food from cold dark depths.  In this instance, the new food for thought is about the status of adolescent boys around the world -- regardless of economics, which becomes moot in the face of HIV infection, since no amount of money is enough -- and about the power of community, both the small loft group of Cinematheque and the larger networks of gay artists, philanthropies, and counterculture persisting from fifty years ago and earlier.  These empowering forces do not depend on governments, corporations or even public awareness.  There is no hierarchy.  Everything is invented according to need.
Barrus and his collaborators have no thought of creating an empire or an institution.  To them Cinematheque is simply a phenomenon, something that happened half-deliberately, based on the specific and unique people involved.  The boys, even those compromised by medical issues, grow and change daily. Some come, some go, some die.  Barrus constantly invents some new technique, some new project, even some new location, so that no one can get entrenched in habit or drawn back by old pimps and dealers -- or even punishing families.


Electronics are vital.  The Internet is not just used as communication within the group, no matter how physically separated, but also is a platform for expression, though the boys have a hard time trusting exposure.  It is on the Internet that the New Media of video -- not long-form narrative as in theatrical production but a poetry of mashed-up, collected, staged and overlaid images and sounds -- connects both within and without the group. 
Boys who refuse school do not refuse Flip video cameras or iPhones.

Tim says:  it begins with music because it has to begin with music/ music drives them/ they are always plugged in/ sometimes, it is all they arrive with/ they’re junkies, whores, thieves, failures/ what they really are is alone/ if they are still alive/ there has to be a spark somewhere/ if you can find it/ put your face down into the smoke and blow on it/ it will either come to life/ or it will die/ you will find that — with them — there will never be too much middle ground where everything is almost inherently safe/ no one and nothing is that/ not even music/  

They live with iPods in their ears.  Barely within the limits set by providers, their videos are platforms for outrage, despair, confusion, hatred, laughter, love and sex.  If self-expression is redemptive, then this work is religious.  But like any religion, the first revelation is only the beginning and often seen as heretical.
At one point Barrus was in Argentina with one desperate boy when another -- away from both the group and Barrus --  became desperately ill with gonorrhea of the rectum, which in an HIV-infected person quickly becomes life-threatening.  An intense and personal video message brought him back barely in time.    Some might think this video is too personal to share, but how many other boys need this message?  An STD for a person with AIDS is easily fatal.  A bad cold can mean hospitalization with a high fever.


Barrus, who would fall down laughing at the idea of being a guru/leader, is always on the move.  “Nomadism” is his stock in trade, a lifetime of shuttling around the planet -- San Francisco, Key West, Manhattan, Tangiers, Hong-Kong -- until his most comfortable setting is not so much his own art loft in Paris as waiting for a flight in some vast airport hub.  Rooted in rural Michigan (mistaken for suburban) where men lived mostly outdoors, Tim is nevertheless an urban animal, because the extremes of the cosmopolitan city or the remote commune are the only places safe for those who are defiantly, flamboyantly different, looking for a new world order.  Or not.  When avascular necrosis forced his own health up against death and required his hips and shoulders to be replaced, he recovered by taking refuge in the country, alone but for his wife and dog.  Maybe a boy.

This would terrify many people.  Even to read about Cinematheque they need the example of Scriver, a witness, who is open to these forces while living an ordinary retired old-lady life in a small Montana village.  She needs to justify “why” and “how,” both to the reader and to persons within that world.  First, she has to account for her desire to “save” people; second, why she would choose these specific people; third, what she thinks “saved” means anyway;  fourth, what makes her qualified to say anything at all.  I would answer this way:
1.  The desire to save is a universal human and possibly even an innate mammal impulse.  “Lassie, bring help!” 

2.   My connection to these boys began with the prize-winning book by Tim Barrus writing as Nasdijj: “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping,” which I read and loved.  Barrus metaphorically walked out of that book and looked into my face.  I seemed to recognize him.  Since then the connection has been near-daily email communication, sometimes brief messages and other times elaborately produced videos.  Since April, 2007, some boys have become men, “graduates,” still vigorously alive in spite of infection.  They are off the streets.

3.  Salvation cannot be imposed on another person.  It must bloom from the heart, even in the face of death.  Seeing and accepting people as they are is the first step.

4.  My qualifications must be renewed daily: a long relationship to the multi-valent world of the Blackfeet Reservation; a reading life licensed by an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago; and a willingness to be rebuked, corrected and guided by people from another world entirely.  Though I have a bit of background in anthropology, psychology, teaching and literature, my core education as an undergraduate was in theatre -- the art of entering the lives of others -- not at all the rule-governed objective judging mode of much witnessing that makes of real life a lab experiment.  Boys-fucking-each-other is quite different when considered from inside the experience than when it is depicted from outside.  This is not a matter of ordering certain behavior to cease.  If one can imagine what’s inside a boy’s head while he accommodates a customer, perhaps it is possible to understand his craving for drugs.  If one can imagine the rest of one’s life on the nauseating chemotherapy drugs that keep AIDS at bay, perhaps one can understand the relief of marijuana.
Global sociological realizations have only bonded me closer to this experiment.  This shadow world tells us much about the surface life it silhouettes; for instance, the economic uses of uneducated boys in a world that has little need for unskilled labor and an obsession with sex as power.  Men seek to dominate other men either directly through the ownership of money, status, and women or maybe -- as we have come to obsess about -- through literally screwing lower status men.  Gay men have been socially defined as perverse, weak, worthless, stigmatized and therefore fair game for aggression, which is why the empowerment of gay men is vital to their survival.


In the last year or so Barrus has been experimenting with transparency: instead of skulking in the dark, he and the boys have been on Facebook.  Society has changed in ten years.  A new generation has evolved new values which have released older people into greater frankness.  But it backfires.  As I write, two boys in hospital with serious medical issues (hip replacement, brain swelling) looked up to see strangers coming into their room, wanting to know all about them.  They knew where to find them, that they were vulnerable.  Journalists looking for scandal?  Or former pimps come to take revenge? The boys were removed to a secret protected location.

In his own lifelong struggle to understand and manage his extraordinariness (which so many tried to stamp out), Barrus worked with Fritz Perls, the Gestalt therapist, and learned from him the technique of the “red chair.”  The one wishing to “work” sits in one chair facing the empty other chair, imagining a relevant symbol there -- then talks to it or him/her.  Well, actually -- yells, questions, accuses, and explains -- whatever it takes. 
Parallel to his writing, Barrus has been a lifelong teacher of atypical kids, the kind that are separated for special handling: autistic, deaf, hyperactive.  He has done triage for drug overdoses in an ER, had special training in handling violence and has acted as a veterinary assistant.  More than that, as a young man he was a prostitute.  (I’ll wait for a moment while you get over that.)  Whores learn a lot from expensive, highly educated tricks.  They develop extremely sensitive antennae.  And big-time street creds.  More conventional folks should consider the fact that Barrus, as a single parent, raised a happy, achieving daughter who teaches with her husband overseas and he is grandpa to two more little girls.  That is, Barrus’ qualifications are as accidental and near-random as the forces that afflict the boys, but very apt because they are responses to the same forces.

As a nineteen-year-old Barrus was managing Headstart programs.  When slightly older he was chair of the board of directors of the Ingham County Office for Young Children and then worked with the Moore Living Center in Lansing where the patients took control of the institution.  In San Francisco he administered a United Nations art program celebrating the International Year of the Child.  He taught in Taos, at San Felipe del Rio, and on the Navajo Reservation.  Somehow he survived the AIDS plague though he lost a community of photographers, sailors, and writers. He was not immune. 


At present there are hundreds of thousands of children, particularly boys, living on fringes, down sewers, under whatever conditions they can bear, a simmering and suffering cauldron of potential disease and disorder that must be addressed.  Official concern is growing, but Cinematheque is an example of a passionate, private, and partly posthumous effort that breaks trail.

Small independent groups form when social conditions and other forces and needs push and draw them together.  To reflect on what those might be in the instance of what we’re calling “Cinematheque,” it is necessary to describe the group, though it is by nature covert, private, and guarded because of real social dangers.  It is stigmatized, and therefore marked as fair game for exploitation and abuse.  Even describing the group is difficult without triggering stereotypes that aren’t valid, so I will try to use new language.  If I sound like a social worker, I have failed, since even “do-gooder” concepts are stereotypes.

The one constant is that everyone in the group has HIV-AIDS, but not everyone is at the same point on what is a “continuum” disease.  In early stages the virus is hard to detect.  You can’t tell a person has it by looking at them.  By the time (possibly over decades) it approaches end-stage, it is devastating.  At any point along the way a crisis can be precipitated by mishaps, contagion, or interruption in medication (as when the younger boys, sequestered in the mountains of Italy, were in an earthquake).  Constant vulnerability and the need to be guarded, to anticipate future emergencies, does not come easily to adolescent boys.  Guarding against giving the infection to others is not a high priority.  Telling such a boy to stay off skateboards is useless.  At any rate, being wrapped in protective custody, no matter how comfortable (especially for the do-gooder) is not an answer.  It’s a capture.

Most of these boys acquired HIV by “hustling,” meaning sex acts for money.  Some began on the street doing fellatio instead of cleaning windshields at what would normally be primary school age.  They have learned a “vocabulary,” a “grammar,” a set of mores and interpretations based on this which is so compelling that it’s hard for them to think any other way, particularly according to conventional social rules from which they are excluded anyway.  They speak a private language, partly self-invented.  They believe “normals” automatically despise them.

But the boys didn’t all come to sex work the same way or at the same stage or in the same country.  They are polyglot.  Some were products of war, others poverty, often broken families, alcoholism, drug use (though that can arrive later as a way of self-medicating to endure sex work), “criminal” behavior, refugee or illegal immigrant status, and abuse (sexual or violent).  A few were mentally or emotionally vulnerable to begin with -- more have been pushed out of rationality by circumstances or the viral infection of the brain.  Courts, schools, families, lovers -- some have been abandoned by them all.  Predators are also organized: human trafficking of boys as sex slaves is a world phenomenon, largely ignored if not denied.  Drugs that control the boys are very useful.

Economic forces are crucial (sex for food and shelter) but wealth is relative: some boys are from extremely wealthy families, which does not guarantee anything.  Some have become superstars, just like popular models or athletes, and make a lot of money for a while -- which they would have to give up if they gave up sex work.  Drugs are also a wild card.  “Using” to make an unbearable life tolerable is one thing, whether it is to tolerate sex work or the constant nausea and stabbing peripheral neuropathy of nerve damage.  But at the same time as it can be a tranquilizer, it can be a means to suicide. Users entangle in criminal relationships that mean exposure to law enforcement and/or drug cartels and mafias -- both of which use violence and death as enforcers.  Money will not cure AIDS, but enough money could fund the research that would find a cure.  Many suspect that the income flow from the present antiretrovirals are so bountiful for big pharma that they covertly discourage success.  AIDS meds are a powerful political weapon -- funding cut-offs can kill millions of people and precipitate revolution.


No matter whether imposed by the disease or the peripheral complications, disability and death are constant companions.  Cinematheque takes care to present boys who “look good,” while quietly supporting those who use walkers or wheelchairs, those who are bedridden with fever, those struggling through withdrawal.  People are sympathetic until they see ugliness, which they interpret as “evil” and which therefore reinforces stigma.  The boys themselves need at least a little distance from the idea that they are lepers.  Managing grief is a major part of daily life and this raises religious issues in a world where priests give small children HIV by molesting them.

Not all the boys are “gay” and not all the gay boys are homosexual in the same way.  (“Gay” or homosexual means simply same-sex desire or acts -- nothing to do with personality, style or gifts.)  Some came by the virus through injected drugs.  Most are imprinted with male sexual acts, uninhibited in that behavioral mode, but yearning to partner-up emotionally with someone they can trust.  This is not unlike the female paradigm in modern society: the Harlequin romance model.  The boys tend to be gynephobic, fearing what is unknown.  Some are polyamorous, meaning attracted to many others of various kinds.  To love is to fuck.

Pimps treat boys as property, selling them if they can.  It is an organized crime.  Own or be owned.  In the toughest part of the world, infected boys are simply taken into the woods and shot, like "downer" cattle. If boys escape, they are pursued, maybe killed unless they are still worth money.


In our times we have more willingness to explore the edges and reluctance to constrain free expression have expanded, even in the face of opposition.  Thus art, with its tolerance or even valuing of shock and deviation, is a natural way for stigmatized and sequestered boys to rebuild their hearts, to see new ways of life, and to acquire practical skills for making a living.  It is an ideal means to the end of helping a boy become a man, should he manage to live so long.  The availability and fascination of electronic arts, especially videos and music, are huge advantages with intense emotional content and absorbing skills. Tim’s way of helping the group in the face of a new loss is to assign a video project difficult enough that they are soon grumbling about it instead of grieving.
Not that he doesn’t have other strategies:  flight lines (“getting out of Dodge”) work well; getting each boy his own dog helps; going up on the roof or walking on the beach for a little one-on-one.  But in the end it is Art that is a means, a strategy, a handhold for climbing out of misery, a consolation, an alternative way of earning a living, and something approaching religion: memorial, ritual, absolution, prayer.  Sometimes Tim doubts the worthiness of the art, succumbing to the social definition of art as frivolous unless it is famous and worth a lot of money.  But the truth is that art is a universal human component that our society too often suppresses, and it is a process rather than a resulting object.  All the boys are or soon become artists.

How society made such a group necessary (many more boys petition to join than can be included) is easier to understand than the personal forces that allowed the actual beginning of this group.  One was that Tim, who had spent his life working with handicapped and troubled kids, also had other skills.   He had always been a photographer, a painter, a poet, a free-lance writer, an editor and publisher in several contexts -- not just the various kinds of “gay” -- and he was perfectly acceptable in Paris where he had a loft.  Tim’s ultimate qualification was that he had also been a whore when he was about their age.  But he was not an ashamed, hidden, victim/whore -- he had made it into a form of theatre: flamboyant, confrontive, embellished and proclaimed, just as he had done as a semi-delinquent long-haired kid with eyeshadow and a vest with fringe to the floor.  He did not apologize or avoid:  he went on through.

Tim’s challenge has been to find the resources in himself to oppose the death and suffering of boys. Yet the strongest resource is love of the boys themselves.  He worked with governmental bodies and NGO’s at every level.  He came back to transparency, even though it meant stalkers and attackers plagued the group because of their vulnerability.  Now it has become too much. The loft on the Pigalle became too dangerous. Beyond that, Tim’s own AIDS has now flared into AIDS dementia. It appears that the famous rages against publishers were early symptoms that have now progressed to memory loss. A fall broke his collarbone and leg. The avascular necrosis is advanced enough that he cannot travel. He is sixty.

When Tim realized what was happening, partly through formal diagnosis from MRI scans, he was prepared. The Cinematheque group has recently changed its name and retreated from Paris to a remote location that echoes a much older form of response to disease and disorderly society:  the monastery.  Cinematheque is no more. Something new is born: The Studio. A bonded pair of Irish boys, now men and partners, have assumed leadership of the group. Tim arranged their funding. Individual boys travel to stay with him for intervals, partly taking care of Tim and partly learning how to fish.

Now Tim writes poetry, nothing like the wildly purple erotica of his early poetry. Now it is stripped, burned, influenced by several poets on Facebook. You can find it there under his own name: Tim Barrus.

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