The Buck Stops Here - We Assuage It
Neither John O’Brien (Lakewood High School) nor Dare Wright (Laurel School) fit, but were able to use what set them apart; to come in from the cold, without leaving behind what put them outside. O’Brien’s first novel, Leaving Las Vegas, was made into a movie starring Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue. Wright’s children’s book, The Lonely Doll, was a best-seller that stayed with women who read it as girls.
Like the protagonists of his novels, O’Brien was a white, middle-class male who could neither manage nor accept middle-class life. At one point, he may have thought he might have made a difference in that life, but he came to realize that a life on the margins was the only life he could lead. In Leaving Las Vegas, O’Brien’s protagonist, Ben (played by Cage in the movie), talks about the moment he realizes his difference, which is also O’Brien’s own recognition of it:
“I was reminded of myself as a very young boy being forced outside to play in the hot sun by my mother. Even though our house was cool, shady and comfortable, my mother felt it unhealthy for me to remain inside on a summer day. I’d stay inside as long as I could, keeping a low profile, until she would finally hear the other kids shouting and playing. That would be the last straw, and I found myself banished to the backyard, where I look back in longing at the latched screen door.”
Wright was a child of a split family, dangerously attached to her mother (they slept in the same bed until her mother died), who desperately wanted her father and brother to be part of her life. She went to New York to become an actress, became a model instead (she was beautiful, stunning) and through modeling learned how to use a camera to become a photographer. Her success in photography led her to children’s books. She never married (she was a virgin until she was raped at 80) and increasingly lived life around the dolls she had collected since she was a child.
“Dare led a busy private life with her characters,” her biographer, Jean Nathan, writes of what she calls Wright’s warehouse of the forgotten. “She bought them tiny toys, dolls, and stuffed animals and sat them down to write thank-you letters when they received gifts, photographing them in this pose. Or she wrote the thank-you letters on their behalf. And when they were ‘working,’ Dare talked to them as if they were real children. As she walked to the tripod after positioning them, she would call out, over her shoulder, ‘Now, hold still; don’t move; just stand there like that.’”
“Who is the third who walks always beside you?” T. S. Eliot asks in his long poem, The Waste Land. “When I count, there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road/There is always another one walking beside you.” We know who it is, but can’t acknowledge the stranger who is us for fear of the mob which can come at any moment (Greil Marcus writes) “as soon as it is revealed that he or she is not one of them, that you are not who you appear to be.”
Wright and O’Brien needed to walk besides the third the other side of them, and it was their writing that permits them to walk with us. In Leaving Las Vegas, O’Brien speaks of “the basic loneliness of her humanity” of Sera (played by Elizabeth Shue in the movie), the hooker who falls in love with Ben, “and the knowing and accepting the conditions of that which has been shown to assuage it.” The means by which we come to terms with our existential loneliness is rarely our choice. We assuage it however we can with whatever is available. Those who read John O’Brien and Dare Wright know they have spoken for them in a way they cannot themselves, even though O’Brien and Wright might question whether they had, knowing at the same time it was the only thing they could do.