Despairing of him, therefore, I determined to go to bed and to sleep; and no doubt, before a great while, he would follow me. But previous to turning in, I took my heavy bearskin jacket, and threw it over him, as it promised to be a very cold night; and he had nothing but his ordinary round jacket on. For some time, do all I would, I could not get into the faintest doze. I had blown out the candle; and the mere thought of Queequeg—not four feet off—sitting there in that uneasy position, stark alone in the cold and dark; this made me really wretched.
My Uncle John had been handsome and charismatic in his youth, but when I knew him he had a mustache and a belly that looked like a beach ball stuffed under his shirt. When my mother told me he had died by driving off a road into a tree, I had to suppress the urge to smile at the news. I wasn’t happy he was dead. I was the victim of some faulty wiring.
John has been a kind of secret in my life, in the way that slavery is a secret, by which I mean of course he wasn’t a secret at all. He was right there—I just didn’t ever inquire too deeply into who he was, and what his life meant. Almost nothing I write after this will make sense if I don’t first write that John had bipolar disorder. He had gone to one year of college—my college—before dropping out. He lived in places you couldn’t really live in—an unheated summer cottage, a motel, both in rural New Hampshire. There was a girlfriend we saw sometimes but I only met his daughter, who was then nineteen or twenty, six years after he died, at my grandfather’s funeral. She died before I saw her again.
Mom kept many of the details of John’s life from us, I think because she didn’t want us to be scared by her brother, whom she loved. I knew that she went to see him in hospitals, that he didn’t like his medication, and that he smelled, generally, of beer and cigarettes. When we went to New Hampshire in our early years as a family, in the mid- to late ’70s, John stayed at the old house with us, and organized games for us and our friends. We could choose between being Rockwell’s Angels and Rockwell’s Rangers—Rockwell was his middle name.
Only once, when I was in high school, did I talk to him in a manic phase. He called the house for my mother and when she wasn’t there he talked to me for twenty minutes about Vietnam, where he hadn’t served and where, in any case, the war had been over for some time. He was full of conspiracy theories that might also have been racial theories. He didn’t stop talking, and he didn’t make sense.
After John died, I wrote a long essay about him and about my family’s visits to New Hampshire, which was, for me, a strange and unresolved place, physically beautiful but psychologically dense. I remember describing how, in the kitchen in the house my mother’s family owned, the old refrigerator and the old stove stood next to each other, and it was tempting to brace yourself against the stove to open the heavy refrigerator door. But there was something really wrong with the wiring in that kitchen, and if you touched both appliances at the same time you would receive a serious shock. One day I watched the woman I called Grandma forget this and fly backwards across the room.
It must have been the summer when I wrote about this, and I was home from college. I printed it out and kept it in my bedroom, where my mother found it and read it while secretly going through my papers. In the middle of an unusually terrible fight, my father betrayed my mother’s confidence about this to me while my mother begged him not to. Then I buried the essay, buried Uncle John, buried my questions about New Hampshire and my mother’s side of the family.
In 2004 I named my younger son after John. Apart from this I forgot, more or less, to think about my uncle until a few weeks ago when, alone at home, I watched a Robert Mapplethorpe documentary on HBO. Mapplethorpe’s duck’s ass hairstyle reminded me of pictures of my uncle as a young man. As Mapplethorpe grew sicker he grew thinner, and John got fatter as he aged. But there was still something about Mapplethorpe, physically, that made me think of my uncle.
The details in the documentary also brought me back in time. They played a snippet of an AM radio broadcast from that period and I remembered driving with my family into Manhattan, trying to hear the traffic report before we had to commit to a route. At one point, while watching the documentary, I noticed the edge of one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs that had been cut and then mounted on a board. I realized that Mapplethorpe died in 1989 (John died in 1990), a few months before I graduated high school, and that, while the subject matter, among other things, of our photographs had been different, the technology we’d used had been largely the same. Kodak film, gelatin silver paper, developer, fixer, wash, water.
In the documentary they claimed that Mapplethorpe was part of an artistic revolution that was establishing photography as a mainstream art form, and this reminded me of a class trip I had gone on as part of a summer photography course, into Manhattan to see a Cindy Sherman show. Not her film stills, but a series that followed: images of plastic butts and boobs in saturated colors that made me feel physically ill. Still, for my final project that summer I had borrowed a tripod and taken a series of photographs of myself trying to express different emotions. I wanted to get closer to what Sherman was doing, in whatever weak way I could.
I had never liked Mapplethorpe’s photographs, particularly. As a young person I had mostly seen his flower photos. I had hated how highly stylized they were, their sense of airlessness, their lack of immediacy, and their rather overt symbolism. I had seen some of his photographs of men and I hadn’t liked them either, although even then I had suspected that part of my reaction to those was juvenile revulsion, and that I might understand them better when I was older.
Watching the HBO film several weeks ago I saw both that I would never like Mapplethorpe’s visual language and that I had been mistaken in feeling that the photographs were inauthentic, airless, and unreal. I saw how hard he had been trying, through sex, through the manipulation of images, to get at something that may or may not have eluded him. I saw that even my high school self, at work in the darkroom, exposing paper, cutting it and measuring to mount it, then gluing it to its board—that even I, in a van of high school students, driving into Soho, then back in my room, pressing the shutter release—had been close, in some way, to the non-magical, physical process of photography, just as it was exploding, even though I had had no idea that this was the case at the time.
And this, too, was something that made me think about my Uncle John—about what kind of adult he had been, and how, juvenile and well-meaning, I had never known him, although I had been close to him during important periods in his life and mine.
I shut off the television and turned over and over in bed, unable to sleep. I will find out more about him, I thought. I will conduct interviews. I will go to Great Neck and Roslyn, New York, and Gilmanton, New Hampshire, I will look for birth and death certificates and find the state hospitals where he was committed. I will do this properly, and in the end I will write him up and he won’t be a secret anymore. But the more I developed this idea, the more I saw the amount of work it would involve grow and spread, overwhelming me. To understand John I would have to understand my grandfather, a distant, principled figure unlike anyone I knew. I would have to understand my real grandmother, who died when my mother was seventeen. I would have to understand the world of the town in New Hampshire where my mother’s family had summered since the early part of the 20th century, and which had, even when I was a very young girl and despite my mother’s family’s ties to it, seemed on some level absolutely alien to me.
Then I remembered that when Uncle John died my mother went to his motel room with only one other person, went through all of his belongings, and cleaned it out.