Actual human relationships are not my strong suit. I do better with other animals, but on the basis of empathy, feeding and physical contact. I’m pretty good with cats, but even then when it comes to a divergence of desire (Bunny just brought in a half-killed sparrow. I took it and threw it out the door, too late to save it, so whom was I helping? My interior decorating — since all the hurtling about of pursuit was breaking things.)
I do better with the abstract than with the practical concrete — I mean, I speculate, write and empathize but don’t volunteer at soup kitchens. It’s always a problem when I see a need for help and the needy person doesn’t. I learned this as an English teacher, as a minister and as a dogcatcher. Not everyone wants to be improved, and the emotional rewards of what society criticizes is probably a good part of what fills our prisons.
But, since emotion is involved, I get hooked by need or potential or witnessing misery. They’re often mixed in a confusing way. I was looking for photos of our library for a bulletin board the librarian wants to create and came across one of those “convicted criminals in your area” websites. I knew the majority of them at least by sight, but two of them more closely. One was a former student who was convicted of Murder One, though the situation was more like manslaughter, and who served a decade in prison which bent him into a permanent violent violator, dependent on imposed limits for survival. The other was a man I worked with, a stupid hustler whose wife ran him. Both fancied themselves as able to step outside boundaries and both were enslaved by their self-image. They are extreme examples. Maybe.
The latter has no sympathy from me. He’s a materialistic lowlife in spite of having a good family and standard opportunities. I have no idea how he got so corrupt and no interest in finding out.
But the former, as a student, was my formal responsibility and also had potential as a writer, though his content was violent and highly political. His father was also my student, not a writer but a mystic in a political way, a Missoula shaman verging on witchcraft. We’re talking Blackfeet Indians here — oh, the dream of it all on the shoulder of the Rockies where misfits come to hide, believing they are going to a high pure place. Where politicized Vietnam veterans came to find a family and were willing to carry water, chop wood, learn stories, hunt. So mixed. This boy’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked briefly at Scriver Studio. The grandfather was honored in WWII and owned a ranch for a while. The great-grandfather lived on Moccasin Flats in a log-cabin.
There is no helping now. The generations have died except for this last middle-aged man with the heart of a five-year-old wanting to be a vampire while he sits in prison tattooing his own arms.
There are different kinds of help. With this boy what I tried was mostly transactional — that is, he was getting practicalities out of it. When he was in prison, he asked me to relay messages to his family because their phone was cut off. I sent him books and he wrote me letters. He asked for “Heavy Metal” magazine (which I read before sending) and that was my introduction to “graphic novels” and a specific pattern of need and rescue. The relationship thus served me well by giving me access to a different world. I haven’t seen him since before the first imprisonment, but he has "tattooed" me.
“The Crow” was his avatar superhero of the rotted urban scene destroyed by CEO’s whose fat greed sucked the life out of once-thriving cities. The Crow lived high up in abandoned skyscrapers. (This local man never lived in any city.) He was a person of darkness, neo-noir, and those he saved were the babies, the tender, the helpless, the female — those he could dominate, who were extensions of his own vulnerability. The pattern it set was of extremes that eliminated the moderate, the measured, the reflective, the gradual.
The usual SuperHero pattern prevents any intimacy between equals, often gender-assigned or age-separated like Batman and Robin. The Senate versus the Poor, the Minority, the Unemployed. The blurring of reality was completed when Brandon Lee was killed during production of the movie version of “The Crow”. It sold well. It is a hinge. Sort of a conflation of Johnny Depp’s version of Tonto and the Joker from Batman. Knock-offs abound on YouTube.
Help for persons in this gestalt means surrendering identity. It means letting someone else be the Crow. Risk, disease, cold, hunger, invisibility are a challenge to empathy. But how else can it be figured out? The ones gripped by major trouble have a hard time getting through a day, so how can they be asked to explain it all? But why should they accept our explanations?
We need the ones who’ve “been there, done that” and somehow managed to escape to tell us. The hardest thing for them to give up might be their conviction that they somehow deserved what happened to them, because that leaves them at the center of their universe with a causal relationship to their universe. I used to say: “witness and testify” and some of the people who accepted that advice were killed, like one brave boy who was chopped up with machetes. There’s a step or two missing in this formulation.
One is how to stay alive if you’ve seen something dangerous.
One is allowing yourself to really “see” the forbidden.
Another is how to keep from running around crying “wolf.”
Another is how to evade predator helpers who have uses for you that are not yours, like keeping you for a pet or a mascot or making you yourself into a weapon.
And then what happens after the testimony? Does the Crow start a daycare center or learn to create computer programs? Does he find “good” CEO’s who will invest in the redemption of old rotting skyscrapers? (They call that “gentrification.”) Does he start a bike shop? This kid I’m talking about once had a scheme for silk-screening t-shirts to sell at pow-wows. He had the skills, but he didn’t have the inner stability.
What kind of people can provide stability to the unstable? A whole new line of inquiry: how to help people survive in an unstable world. When is it an advantage to be unstable? Maybe it’s just adaptability.