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Houdini

June 14, 2010
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Depression is the mind’s prison, but some writers have been so gifted that they could let the rest of us know what it’s like, locked up that way.  David Foster Wallace did it.  I’ve read that he tried to change his medication and when it didn’t work, he went back to the old one, but it was no longer effective; he went down so fast and dark and he hung himself almost two years ago.

‘Listen,’ she said.  ‘Have you ever felt sick? I mean nauseous, like you knew you were going to throw up?’

The doctor made a gesture like Well sure.

‘But that’s just in your stomach,’ Kate Gompert said.  ‘It’s a horrible feeling but it’s just in your stomach.  That’s why the term is “sick to your stomach.”  … What I told Dr. Garton is OK but imagine if you felt that way all over, inside. All through you. Like every cell and every atom or brain-cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn’t, and you felt that way all the time, and you’re sure, you’re positive the feeling will never go away, you’re going to spend the rest of your natural life feeling like this.’

I used to spend too much time in the bathroom at school, opening the third story window and sitting on the ledge.  I’d look down at the tops of the school buses and imagine what my thirteen year-old body would look like splayed out.  Would it bounce a couple times?  How long would it take someone to notice?  What if I lived, and good lord, how embarrassing would that be?

Being medicated, though, was far worse than the nearly constant zoned-out storyboarding of violent sudden demise.  On meds, I knew exactly what feelings I wanted to have.  I would want to be SO angry and despondent when I couldn’t go somewhere or do something or be someone else.  Or I’d want to be elated, when I was successful in a class or was on the good side of an in-joke.  On meds, I couldn’t have feelings.  I knew they were supposed to be there, but instead I was in a numb fog all the time.

When you want to feel something and can’t, or want to feel nothing and can’t, I think fight-or-flight kicks in.  People who fight, they lash out.  They break things, they break relationships, they break themselves. Although it looks reckless, it’s borne of a greater, more primal urge.  It’s not I Want to Die; it’s I Want to Feel [Anything But This].

The method is instructive.  Violence is borne of a need to see one’s own blood; Creighton chose the quiet pillowed subsurface of the mighty Mississippi.

He could have tried to run like hell and escape it.  Janette runs to her work, and now maybe she’s running to New York.  LaDonna just runs anywhere her feet will carry her – the bar, her husband, her ex-husband.  Chief runs straight into jail, gets out, and keeps running, sewing, working, mentoring.

And there are plenty of folks who run straight into the arms of New Orleans herself.  Don’t know much about Texas Bouncer Dude, but he’s done run from Texas and hasn’t seemed to have stopped working since.  It’s pretty clear Sonny, flawed as he is, was running from Holland.  And they all end up in New Orleans.

It happens over and over in real life. Person takes trip to New Orleans, person discovers new dimensions of self, person relocates for good.  New Orleans, our main character, the city that has lit the imagination of the world for nearly three centuries.  The last refuge for America’s weirdest.  The most Caribbean of cities, the US Minor Outlying Island, the surreal shimmer in the humidity.  Go see the Mardi Gras.

New Orleans is, seemingly, where all the misfits escape to.

Harry Houdini had roamed the Palladiums and Hippodromes of the world encumbered by an entire cargo-hold of crates and boxes, stuffed with chains, iron hardware, brightly painted flats and hokum, animated all the while only by this same desire, never fulfilled: truly to escape, if only for one instant; to poke his head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond.  The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited ‘escapism’ among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape.  As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.  (Michael Chabon)

I wish Creighton had poked his mind through the borders of his prison for one moment.  I wish his final moments had been enough to make a life.

But for some, they are.  For Davis, certainly, those moments are enough.  For Kermit, they’re enough.  For me, they’re enough.

The City of New Orleans, quenching our collective desire to escape.  As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.

14 Comments
  1. June 14, 2010 7:42 pm

    I have a friend who is bi=polar and as she endures it I have asked her why she doesn’t get back on the meds, she says, “because I feel NOTHING.” It’s noble but dangerous.

  2. June 15, 2010 6:39 am

    WTF is up with “the nearly constant zoned-out storyboarding of violent sudden demise.” Is this something our mothers did to us or are we born with it? I spent my entire youth haunted by these images, hobbled by the panic they carried. Becoming a parent only transferred the fear to my children. I’m better now, but it’s required huge effort, and it’s not all the time.

    This is a beautiful post, Alli. I continue to maintain that one of the best things about Treme is the wonderful writing it’s inspired in the NOLA Blogosphere. Your conclusion perfectly describes my experience. I just wish I was there watching with y’all on Sunday nights.

  3. June 15, 2010 11:10 am

    Gorgeously done, alli.

    To the extent we can pinpoint exactly why Creighton did what he did, I agree it was because NO no longer worked for him, he couldn’t see the grace he’d observed before. And maybe he thought that because he couldn’t, it was gone completely, that no one could. I don’t know for sure.

  4. alli permalink
    June 15, 2010 11:26 am

    Thanks, sophmom. I don’t know if I could stomach the lifetime of anxiety that goes along with being a parent. I greatly admire the strength it takes to do the job well.

  5. alli permalink
    June 15, 2010 11:32 am

    Thanks, virgotex.

    It broke my heart to see someone who had so clearly escaped to New Orleans at one point in his life having to escape from it. I wonder if we’ll see versions of that theme with other characters.

  6. June 15, 2010 11:40 am

    Really lovely work. Thanks for this.

  7. brueso permalink
    June 15, 2010 1:08 pm

    I’m with y’all, though I’d actually say that on his last (?) day, Creighton actually was savoring the things he loved about N.O.

    While there were huge frustrations for him concerning N.O. (or rather, the way the government bungled things after the storm), I think the bigger issue was his frustration that he thought he couldn’t write anymore, and with an impending deadline, that dread got bigger and bigger and bigger. (It is of course tragic that he WAS writing his YouTube rants and was getting some praise for them- but he didn’t seem to regard that as respectable writing so he totally dismissed it.) The feeling that they’d lost their gift has caused more than one writer or artist to call it a day.

  8. June 15, 2010 1:44 pm

    And that he was suddenly living a lie, pretending to be something he wasn’t, an author.

  9. June 15, 2010 2:50 pm

    Practicing letting go is an exercise from which we all benefit. None of us do it easily. I’m sure you would be a wonderful parent.

  10. brueso permalink
    June 15, 2010 2:57 pm

    bingo! And he likely thought “If I’m not a writer, I’m just taking up space here.”

  11. June 15, 2010 10:42 pm

    This is also A Good Post. Damn, you people are shaming me.

    Much love, Alli. Yet again, you prove there is None More Metal.

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