Calling all Theater companies and performers!

Open Call to Theater companies, performers, researchers:
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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Aaron McKinney's Tattoos, or the Ethics of Reading Humans as Literature

One thing that I've been wondering about is how little literary criticism has been written on The Laramie Project so far.  When I started thinking about the play, my initial impulse was to write an academic article.   (I've changed my mind since then.)   But when I started to pull together scholarly sources to start my research, I found that there wasn't too much to build from.  I started to wonder: why I can I find so few literary scholars writing about this play?  

For instance, when I did a search in the MLA Bibliography for The Laramie Project, I only got eight hits; six were articles of literary criticism, and one of those is Tigner's.  I tried the International Index to Performance Arts and netted another 4-5 scholarly articles, but they're mostly about documentary/nonfiction performance rather than the play as text.  That seems really strange for a play that has been as popular and culturally important for the last eight years as TLP has.  Just for comparison, Shaffer's play Amadeus had nineteen articles written and indexed in MLAB by 1988.  Why haven't all those gape-mouthed literary professors who teach this text (of whom I suppose I am one) been writing about it? Why are pens so silent in my own professional field? 

Maybe others aren't writing on this text as a literary object for the same reason that I'm a little reticent about writing on this text in an academic forum myself.  I don't like treating actual, living human beings as abstractions (which was probably clear with one of my previous posts).  It's one thing to talk about "Mozart" and "Salieri" as characters because, even though these people are real, the play itself is a total fiction.  I can even do it with Spiegelman's Maus because the conscious meta-narrative and the fictive animal story insulates the reader enough from the unspeakable horror of Vladek Spiegelman's lived reality to give him a more critical eye.  I have a much harder time doing the same thing with a person in The Laramie Project, especially when it's somebody I took classes from or saw in church.

Maybe other critics have the same hangups.  For instance, there are only 36 articles in MLAB for In Cold Blood, and they mostly seem to be focusing on genre or journalistic concerns  rather than treating it as a literary work.  Maybe we're all running into the same question: what are the ethics of reading a documentary work or "faction" (fact-based fiction) as a literary event?  Is it ethical to treat a real, live human as a symbolic construction, whether it be the Clutters, Gary Gilmore, or Russell Henderson?  Do you lessen the gravity of the situation if you talk about Aaron McKinney's failures from a literary, rather than a historical or cultural standpoint?

Or, to put it from a more practical standpoint: am I doing a disservice to Aaron McKinney (and, by extension, Matt Shepard) as a human being if I treat him like a literary construction?   

This has been something that's been in the back of my mind for at least six years now.  I once got into a major disagreement with one of my graduate professors in the Deep South about this same issue, in fact.  We were reading Noman Mailler's The Executioner's Song for a contemporary American Novel class, and I absolutely torched it in my response essay.  To this day I still  hate that book, partially because I feel it's a bad, thousand-page ragtag attempt to do what Truman Capote did much better, but mostly because of the way Mailler dwells on the nasty little details of Nicole Baker's horrible victimization even while condemning the national reporters for doing the same thing to Gilmore.   But there was something else that really, really bothered me that I couldn't quite put my fingers on until our discussion in class:  
"Why does he have to give us so much dripping detail about the autopsy?" I had protested in our seminar discussion.  "Why tell us so much about the appearance of his mangled, bloody heart laying on a coroner's scale?" My professor gave me a funny look.  
"Jackrabbit, don't you get it?" She asked me with a tinge of exasperation in her voice.  "Gary Gilmore only has half a heart." 
 I remember feeling a little surprised that I hadn't picked up on this.  Normally, I'm an extremely metaphorical reader and I'm all over little details like that.  But Mailler's point about the autopsy had completely escaped me.  I  had thought he was going for some cheap sympathy for Gilmore after the execution by trotting out all the grisly details.  (I guess I still think he's doing that a little.)  Instead, my instructor thought that Mailler was trying to make a point about Gilmore's monstrosity.   Why had I missed this the first time?  When I went and looked back at the passage, I realized that I couldn't bring myself to treat the characters in the book as characters.  They were real people, and I was extremely uncomfortable with treating them as anything less.  Now I have to wonder how much my extreme dislike of Mailler's novel comes from his detached, literary involvement with the human beings he writes about.

I don't think that my discomfort with living people as metaphors has lessened much at all.  Nevertheless, I have been thinking quite a bit about it recently in connection with Aaron McKinney's interview in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.  It's not that I don't see him as a human being (actually, the very fact of his humanity haunts me.)  It's just that I can't help but get interested in him on a more literary level, too.

For instance, when I watched 10 Years Later, I was struck by the fact that, in both Henderson and McKinney's interviews, the cold played an important symbolic role.  It's the cold that always comes up in connection with Shepard's murder, too.  If you've never been up at seven or eight thousand feet, you might not realize how dangerously cold that thin air gets year-round, especially when it's below freezing and the wind is blowing.  I can't stand it for more than ten minutes without at least a coat, and McKinney left Shepard out there in his socks for eighteen hours.  It's thinking of Shepard's stockinged, frozen feet in the cold that  really pushes my rage over the edge. 

For Henderson, that's what finally made him connect with his victim: the cold.  When Henderson lost his mother in virtually the same circumstances not too long before his conviction, that's what he focused on-- the cold.  For those of you who haven't seen the new play, Henderson's mother was assaulted and murdered in early 1999; she died of hypothermia trying to walk back into town at night in January.  That emphasis on the cold serves an important thematic point: compassion.  For Henderson, that's the final key that made him learn to finally feel compassion and remorse for his victim-- something that the judge did not believe that Henderson felt during the time of his sentencing.  (I find this interesting because Dixon was murdered just a couple months before Henderson's sentencing.  That fact never makes it into The Laramie Project, at least not in its final form.  Surely somebody had mentioned it to them...?)   

McKinney, however, complains about being cold all the time, about having too thin of uniforms, or the blankets aren't thick enough...  I wanted to scream when I heard this in performance because he never once makes the connection between his slight discomfort in a compassionless environment and his own lack of compassion for Shepard.  He takes the compassion others feel for his victim and instead lays it on himself.  He's numb, cold; he has no feelings.  Curiously, during what we see of the interviews, at least, Henderson never complains about being cold. He's learned better.  Cold is what happened to his mother; it's also what Henderson knows he did to Matt Shepard.  

Next, McKinney is also in the middle of a very long process of turning himself into a walking tattoo, which also fascinates me; on the one hand, he's willfully trying to make himself into a statement of who he is, but on the other hand, he's making himself into the role he walked into after  the  murder.  The tattoos are an attempt at subjectivity, to inscribe his own identity, but their content merely paints him into the figure the world already thinks him to be.  He's turned himself into a walking caricature of Aaron McKinney, one of the most notorious murderers in America exaggerated to the point of absurdity.  It's really kind of sad: the only agency he has over his own identity anymore is to embrace the one he's been written into and can never escape.  Rusell Henderson, the seemingly helpless one, creates art; he's capable of making the most beautiful ketches of Jesus, but his current prison won't let him have even pencils and paper.  And yet, Aaron McKinney, the seemingly powerful one, the doer, is being made into art, a walking canvas full of distrust and rage and Nazi pride.  You can't get any more metaphorically charged than that.  The two interviews are rife with this kind of symbolism about identity and agency, subjectivity, and compassion and hate and helplessness, and I feel queasy the more I think about it. 

So what I'm trying to figure out now is this: I'm a rabid humanitarian.  My first rule of  existence is to treat human beings as individuals worthy of love and not as categories-- period. Should I feel guilty for analyzing Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson as literary subjects rather than insisting on treating them only as individuals?

At the moment, it makes me feel guilty.   But I can't help but do it.  What do I do now?


1)  tatoo, via ☆☆ Paula Souza.☆☆'s Flickr photostream:

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