February 5, 2010 at 2:35 am (By Amba)

That title’s rather memorably taken, but it’s one of the ones I wish I could use for the book I imagine someday writing about J.  Others:  Titanic, Lesser Lives (namely mine), and, obviously, The Book of J.

It’s my contention that one of the purposes of marriage, maybe the main purpose, is to be an intimate witness to another person’s existence; to see one other human being, as far as is humanly possible, as God does.  (You know I am an agnoptimist and use the word “God” in a manner of speaking, for a surmised supremity of being that keeps us reaching, regardless of whether we postulate it or it postulated us.)

Of course, J has written his own book, of another order entirely, “I-witness news” that renders any book “about” him superfluous or worse.  I often say to myself, “Leave well enough alone.  It’s done.”  Anything I wrote could only detract from the inspiring starkness of his testimony — if it touched it at all.  My 38 years of living with him have often seemed like a very long, very pale shadow of his two-year imprisonment — like being imprisoned within a shadow, so forceless yet spellbinding that you could walk right out of it, but you don’t.  Surviving is simple, living is complicated.  The survivor must forever after feel both envy and contempt for us heedless drama queens who have the luxury of just living.  One of his flagship quotes was from Céline:  “Experience is a muffled lantern that sheds light only upon the bearer.”

So what would he need with a witness who can’t see into the heart of his experience?  The answer that comes (just now) is surprising:  he’s more than just a survivor.  While nobody but he (and the others who were there, almost of all of whom he’s outlived) could witness what happened to him, nobody but I could witness so close up, like a little tiny corner of God, the piece of work he became through that and so much else.  That takes a long time, it takes not only earning trust but also getting over your own issues, to the very limited extent that that’s even possible — rubbing a clear spot in a dirty window — but (as anyone long married and paying attention could tell you) it’s quite a privilege to have a ringside seat on another soul.  Much less such a capacious and contradictory one.  Anything you make a lifelong study of and record as best you can, even in your own heart, is a little bit of the Creation that did not pass unwitnessed.  Every long-married person has a witness, and is one.

Of course, marriage isn’t the only place this happens.  A close friend is a witness, too.  And these thoughts were originally provoked by a beautiful piece of journalism as witnessing.  A one-time, short-work opponent of Muhammad Ali named Sweet Jimmy Robinson had fallen off the human map.  When you finish this long and riveting piece by ESPN’s Wright Thompson, you realize he has been put back on it.


  1. Donna B. said,

    The ESPN article is overwhelmingly sad.

    During the five years I worked for an agency providing services for the severely mentally ill homeless population… the thing that touched me most were the “clients”. One of them — let’s call her Rosie — liked me a lot because I gave her a pair of knee-high 4″ heel leather boots… hooker boots that I refuse to tell how I came to possess. Though none of the social workers at the agency had ever been successful in “placing” Rosie, she knew that she was welcome there ever once in a while… and would sit across from me telling me stories until someone with “therapeutic authority” would roust her back into the street.

    But that’s not really what the story was about… it just brought back memories of Rosie and others like her. I would have hated it if I were Rosie’s relative… someone who felt responsible for her in the same way I hate having to deal with my alcoholic brother.

    I am torn… I can see Sweet Jimmy sitting across from my desk as an interesting and compelling person… and I can also see him as a leech on the goodwill his brother might have tried to show him. I can see the brother (and caring family) as a complete figment of imagination too.

    I am currently reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Talk about the shadow of a life… or perhaps the life being a mere shadow. I don’t know.

    Never would I say that there are not people whose mere force of personality define the lives of those they come in contact with. I say that you have formed J the same way that he has formed you… just try to imagine the portion of his life lived with you — without you.

    I figure I’m either “not getting” it all or that I’m reading way too much into something.

  2. amba12 said,

    What is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”? What a name the author gave her … Dickensian. Unless it’s a biography of a real person.

    It’s really hard to talk/write about J because there is so much unsaid. I know that I affected him very much, largely by being a bridge back to the non-survivor world (and part of himself), a go-between. Yet in his dementia I have discovered (without hurt) that the high time of his life was before he met me.

  3. Donna B. said,

    It is a biography of a real person — the woman whose cancer cells were the first human cells to become “immortal”. The HeLa cells.

    The “high time”? Or simply the time that etched the deepest when the psyche was the most malleable… Or is that the same thing?

  4. Donna B. said,

  5. amba12 said,

    The “high time” — the time when his life suited him best. He felt independent and powerful.

  6. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Amba, I think nearly every male remembers the “high time” in his life as when he was young, and felt independent and powerful. When we’re older, it just seems harder. I was watching the TV last week, Tony Bourdain in Prague, and I thought “I should move to Prague. I know there are software companies there that could use me.” I’ve had invitations to move to China to teach, with offers to connect me with people with whom I could study Laozi and Hongzi seriously.

    When I was 25 I did it. Now it would be so much harder — with my mother’s health failing, and three cats I’d have to cope with (how do you move cats internationally? but I couldn’t bring myself to leave them behind.)

    I don’t think he’d really trade, however.

  7. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Oh, by the way, if you have the time you might read Orson Scott Card’s books “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead.” I think what you’re describing is very much Scott’s idea of “a Speaking” — an honest biography, a fair and thorough history.

  8. amba12 said,

    Charlie — I have friends who were in the Foreign Service, now retired, and both they and their kids (most of them also in the service) have shlepped cats to places you wouldn’t believe. They simply will not live without them. They did this until they retired — what’s the mandatory retirement age in the FS? He was our ambassador to India in the ’80s, with cats.

    I’m very intrigued about the Orson Scott Card. Thanks.

  9. amba12 said,

    State Department mandatory retirement age is still 65. The people I know who have retired have still been full of p and v and have gone on to have second careers in teaching, philanthropy, and the like.

  10. pathmv said,

    You’ve never read Orson Scott Card, amba? Definitely add it to your list. Both are about knowing somebody so well that you can’t help but love them, no matter what they’ve done (takes awhile to reach that point in Ender’s Game, but it’s there… clearer in Speaker for the Dead).

    And you would really appreciate the story about Henrietta Lacks. I first heard about her 20 years ago or so through some biology article, I think, and was fascinated by what little information was available at that time. I’ve read a brief review of the new biography, I’m looking forward to picking it up.

  11. amba12 said,

    Are the Card books related, so that one should be read before the other?

  12. pathmv said,

    Yes. Start with Ender’s Game, then Speaker for the Dead. Then there’s Xenocide after that. I’ll have to check the rest. But Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead will do you to start. They’re all sequels to each other.

  13. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    The two books definitely go in the order Ender’s Game, then Speaker. “Speaking” is a secondary idea in Ender, but I think you need the story to set up the idea emotionally.

    Scott lives in Greensboro, by the way.

  14. amba12 said,

    You know him, if I remember rightly?

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