“The Unexamined Fact is Like a Rattlesnake”
In the beginning of October, a well-known podiatrist in a small town drove his black Mercedes behind a vacant Big Lots and shot himself in the chest.
Months before, county police had begun assembling evidence which suggested that this then-alive doctor had been involved in something fishy involving child pornography. This led to an investigation, wherein some of the doctor’s property, including hard drives, CDs and DVDs, was confiscated.
The local news articles were difficult to understand. One article mentioned a police report made by a “concerned parent,” referring to an “incident” of an undisclosed nature that was supposedly related to the doctor.
The hypothetical charge the doctor may have faced was “pandering obscenity.” According to the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), pandering obscenity refers to the following:
“(A) No person, with knowledge of the character of the material or performance involved, shall do any of the following:
(1) Create, reproduce, or publish any obscene material, when the offender knows that the material is to be used for commercial exploitation or will be publicly disseminated or displayed, or when the offender is reckless in that regard;
(2) Promote or advertise for sale, delivery, or dissemination; sell, deliver, publicly disseminate, publicly display, exhibit, present, rent, or provide; or offer or agree to sell, deliver, publicly disseminate, publicly display, exhibit, present, rent, or provide, any obscene material;
(3) Create, direct, or produce an obscene performance, when the offender knows that it is to be used for commercial exploitation or will be publicly presented, or when the offender is reckless in that regard.”
The ORC’s definition continues in that vein – mostly concerned with creating, producing, reproducing, and disseminating obscenity. Obscenity is not defined. But if we are to believe what local reports suggest, obscenity refers to child pornography.
Less than two weeks after the doctor committed suicide, another doctor – this time a neurologist at a nearby hospital – took his boat out on Lake Erie on a windy weekday and disappeared. A few days later, the boat was found more than 60 miles away, floating empty near the shore of a Cleveland suburb.
These are the facts and pieces of the facts, and the facts are somewhat fuzzy. In the creative mind, they connect to form any one of many hypothetical narratives – the first and foremost in my mind being, storyteller that I am, that the two medical professionals shared a dark vice.
There is no proof that there is any connection between the two doctors, let alone a horrible secret they hid. The two men may not have known one another. The second man may have taken his boat out once more before docking for the season, hit a patch of bad weather and simply succumbed to the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I want a narrative. I want a connection. I have a list of questions that demand answers, a litany of missing blanks I want to fill in. I believe that there is some divine puzzle to be solved, and that by sheer logic and the work of gathering evidence, I will be the one to solve it.
This is why we write.
The gaping holes in fact and our consciousness are what give us the necessary strain to come up against the difficult, to face the unknown head on. But not all questions have obvious answers, if they have answers at all. In the case of the doctors, the pandering obscenity investigation might be halted due to death. The police records may be sealed. The investigation for the other never began, the Coast Guard ending the search 48 hours after no signs of a boat or a body.
But still. “The unexamined fact,” said Joan Didion, “is like a rattlesnake.” Writers know this. And as we think, sift through research, write down words and examine motive, we often find ourselves at the edge of something very dark. It is easy to turn linguistic tricks, to create language acrobatics, in order to deflect from that which we do not know. It is not easy, however, to try and make sense of the unsensible, to search for meaning in the meaningless. Because beyond that, especially when we move into the territory of motive, we know we’ll have to turn the cool, critical eye inward.
Every day we have a litany of horrors to focus on. We’re constantly confronting terror: war, poverty, violence. We see atrocities play out on YouTube, on the news. It makes us angry, sad, sick. But we let it go and we move on. After all, we are not the ones living with it. Or so we think.
The most terrifying person is the self, and maybe this is because we can’t truly assign motive to anyone else.
It takes serious insight and courage to view the self as perpetrator instead of victim. And while human beings each possess a unique collection of experiences, there is still some faint element of the universal shared by the killer and the saint. That is the gray area. Where facts become fuzzy. But the grey is where anything interesting lies. It’s where the truth lives.
In nonfiction, it is easy to paint the self – usually the “I” narrator – around which all things revolve. It’s where we’re most comfortable, admitting our deeds in a drastic confessional, and then turning around to justify all actions on the grounds of situation or circumstance. It’s a step in self-reflection, a step in the right direction, but it’s still only the first step.
Some people argue that the very premise of nonfiction requires that you stay locked into that self, the first-response self, the self as victim and then subsequent hero. After all, these are things that happened to us, things that were done to us, the way we are, and yet still we triumphed. We are here to tell the story.
But it’s very first base of us to assume that this tired, two-fold formula of the problem and the triumph is enough to be good, true writing. Integrity comes through admitting and exploring complicity, not running from it. Mere admission is meaningless. The real comes from brushes with darkness, residing in the gray. Go there. Stay awhile.