Westworld, War Film, & the Importance of Choice

The most interesting thing to me in a story is character. A movie, a book, a play, a podcast, a short film, an anecdote… any of these things lives or dies by the characters within. And my favorite types of characters are the ones who think for themselves and make a decision that is different from what most other people would do.

Star Wars! Luke Skywalker makes the choice to leave Tatooine and help aid the rebellion! That’s a choice that most people wouldn’t make. It’s a choice that 99% of the characters on Tatooine probably wouldn’t have made; instead choosing to turn over the droids, make a quick buck, and continue on with their lives. But that wouldn’t have made a very good movie, or a very good story.

At this point, I should point out that I’m going to be spoiling the First Season of HBO’s Westworld. So if you don’t want to know… stop reading now.

When we’re dealing with Westworld, we’re dealing with characters who, as far as we know, have very little ability to make choices of their own. The “Hosts” are robots, created and built by humans, and programmed to act a certain way. Within “real” circumstances, they make choices as far as they can react to the stimulus provided by the “Guests” to the park, but outside of that, their memories are wiped at the end of every cycle and they begin the whole thing anew as if nothing had ever happened.

We’re led to believe in the first episode that some of these Hosts are retaining memories, despite the fact that the people running the park are erasing them. Then we’re led to believe, throughout the entire season, that the character of Maeve has become smarter than her programming, and is plotting to escape the park. In every episode, this was the one storyline that kept me watching. This was the ONE story that had me coming back week after week, because the show was getting at the idea of true consciousness and robots with free will.

Cut to… the Season Finale. Where it is revealed that Maeve’s attempts to escape were programmed. Someone (we are led to believe that it is possibly Anthony Hopkins’ character of Ford) added new coding to her that layed out, step by step, everything that she would do in her attempts to escape the park. When this is shown to her, she refuses to believe it, and continues on with her plan.

To me, this shows that I have watched 10 episodes of a show where none of the characters I was supposed to care about were actually making any choices. It’s a show where the only real consequences came from the few human characters who, at the end of the day, were just people attending a theme park. I watched almost 11 hours of programming and the giant, “shocking” reveal was that… I should never have cared about anything that was going on the whole time.

It’s the same story with the rest of the hosts as well. By the end of the season, we realize that even when it seemed as though they were acting of their own volition, they were actually acting on some deep-rooted code that Arnold, their creator, had planted in them many years ago, before killing himself by programming one of his creations to shoot him.

I felt insulted. I felt betrayed. I felt that I had watched 10 episodes of nothing, with exactly zero characters to care about, and nothing but a hollow mystery about a maze remaining. One that had pretty much been spelled out well enough 8 weeks earlier that I was able to predict exactly where it was going. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. But when you fail to give me a character to latch onto, that’s it for me.

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like watching most war films. And it was Westworld that finally gave me the answer. War Films are usually about men who don’t have a choice. Men who are given orders, and then follow through on those orders. Yes, they display courage, valor, heroism… but only when being forced to do something against their will.

The most interesting moment in The Hurt Locker is when Jeremy Renner decides to go back to war, despite knowing how bad it’s going to be, despite knowing exactly how much pain he’s going to go through, because he just can’t handle the mundane life at home.

Saving Private Ryan is lauded as one of the greatest films of all time. I never understood why I didn’t love it as much as I’m supposed to. The opening sequence is one of the most gripping and traumatic ever filmed. It is praised for its realism. It is praised for the sheer amount of technical and directorial brilliance that went into it. And at the end of it… I still wasn’t hooked.

I know. This is one of those opinions that I should probably keep to myself. I’m probably going to get hate mail. I know these things. “Saving Private Ryan is, and should be seen as, a masterpiece” they will say. But really… the story of the movie is about a group of men who are sent on a mission that they don’t want to be on. They are sent to save Private Ryan, and they spend a good portion of the movie complaining about it.

I, personally, don’t want to see a movie where my leads are not invested in their own story. I don’t want to follow a story if the characters have not made choices that led them along their journey.

I’ll admit there are exceptions. Lone Survivor is a film that hinges on a choice–one that ends up getting all but one of them killed (spoilers in the title of the movie). That’s interesting to me. That’s a terrible choice to have to make–but the characters made it. And now I’m invested.

The ending of the first season of Westworld was a slap in the face to my sensibilities. It set up an exciting story about characters finally being able to make these kinds of interesting choices… and then said, “we were just joking. That was all a part of someone else’s plan.” There was intrigue and mystery along the way, sure, but that’s not enough. At least not for me.

On the word “Monster” (and its failures)

“What a monster!”

“That guy is just a monster.”

“Lock him up, he’s a monster!”

It’s something we’re heard, or said, countless times. It’s our go-to explanation for anything that we can’t understand. Anything that horrifies us or baffles us. And it is doing exactly the opposite of what we’d like it to: which is to stop the horrific things from happening.

I recently posted another blog about my experiences accidentally joining a cult, where the cult leader physically abused almost every member of the group, and sexually assaulted many of the male members of the group (https://justinxaviersmith.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/my-true-experience-in-a-los-angeles-rape-cult/). Of course, I received an overwhelming amount of feedback, much of which boiled down to, “I hope he rots in prison. What a monster.”

The use of the word “monster” in this circumstance lessens both the cause and the effect of what actually happened to myself and the other victims in this case. By dehumanizing our abuser and labeling him as a “monster,” we give up the ability to understand how and why these sorts of behaviors actually occurred. As a victim of the behavior, and as someone who actually fell for a lot of the “tricks” that men like this use to prey on young, hopeful individuals, I’d very much like to forego the usual use of the word and discuss more about the actual cause of this behavior.

First and foremost, the man who raped me was not a monster. He was a human. If he was simply a “monster,” none of this could ever have happened. Monsters make themselves known. Monsters have one purpose: to wreak havoc and to destroy. Humans have a different purpose: to be loved and appreciated. When we say, “he was a monster!”, we give up the ability to ever prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Because when our children or nephews or nieces meet someone like this, they won’t see a monster. They’ll see a human. A person who needs help. A person who offers them something exciting. A person who has a few flaws, but seems to have the best of intentions.

And that’s the real, horrifying truth of this sort of behavior. Our tormentors, our rapists, our cult leaders, our terrorists… they don’t look or act like “monsters.” They aren’t the horrific hate-mongers we paint them to be. They look and act like anyone else. They appear, on the surface, to merely be human.

When I first met the man who raped me, he seemed like a trustworthy, knowledgeable, confident individual. He claimed to have a lot of skill, a lot of information, and a lot of connections that could help me. All of these things would later turn out to be lies, but at the time, they seemed promising. He seemed, above all else, to have my best interests at heart. And that’s how I was tricked. That’s how I was trapped. That’s how I wound up, months later, being slapped across the face, grabbed by the penis and led around a room, and sexually assaulted by the very same man.

Had I met him and known immediately that he was a “monster,” it would never have happened. I would have walked away. I would have known that he wasn’t a person to be trusted. That he would hurt me. That he wouldn’t have my best interests at heart. But he wasn’t a monster. He was merely a man. A man with insecurities and a need to control everyone and everything around him. A man who knew exactly how to manipulate people into believing and behaving in a way that suited his own needs. And because of that, it’s important to note: this could happen to anyone. It could happen to your children. It could happen to your siblings. It could happen to your nieces, nephews, grandchildren, cousins, neighbors… it could even happen to you.

The face of evil does not appear to be evil when you first meet it. It does not present itself as a “monster,” for then you would never succumb. The face of those people you would label as a “monster” at first glance is simply another human being.

When you talk to your children about the possibilities and dangers of trusting people they don’t know, do not make the mistake of only warning them about the people who are “monsters.” Warn them instead of people. Because people are capable of doing monstrous things, regardless of what word you use to describe them.

My True Experience in a Los Angeles Rape Cult

UPDATE 10/13/16, 6:38pm. At the request of some of the other victims, I have removed the name of my abuser to protect the other victims’ identities, as they are linked to the man via photos and social media. The abuser in question has left the country to be with family.

UPDATE 10/13/16, 12:50am. My abuser’s Twitter, website, and Facebook page have been deleted.

This isn’t an easy thing for me to write. I’ve been putting it off for almost a year, hoping I wouldn’t have to. Hoping I could just move on. But the ramifications of what happened continue to persist in my life. I need to get it out. I need to tell my story. If I can stop what happened to me from happening to even one other person, it will have been worth it.

I moved to Los Angeles for the same reason many young, enthusiastic dreamers do: to become an actor. I landed here excited, as there were endless possibilities for what could happen with my career. I hit the ground running, sending out headshots, resumes, and cover letters to every agent and casting director whose address I could find. I just knew, after everything I’d done before I got here, that something great would happen. And it would happen soon.

And something did happen. I attended a group event for actors and writers to share ideas and read each other’s work, a way for writers to hear their writing out loud, and a way for actors to get a little more acting it. As a writer and an actor, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start networking. Once there, I met a girl who invited me to another group that she was involved with, one that met every Sunday, which she affectionately called, “Actor Church.”

The perks were incredible: It was free, it was filled with actors who wanted to better themselves, it was an acting class combined with motivational speaking, and it was taught by someone who worked in casting at Warner Brothers. How could I possibly pass that up? It felt like the Universe was responding to everything I had asked for, and things were lining up even faster than I could have imagined. I happily attended Actor Church my very first week in Los Angeles.

The class was everything I could have hoped for. It began with a motivational speech about how to be the very best version of myself, it continued into doing research on actors who had made it big seemingly overnight, and finding the key points on how they did it, and then we practiced “entering the room” for an audition, and what to say to a casting director upon meeting them. The “right” talking points with which to answer their questions. Some of this felt familiar to an acting class I had taken in Charlotte, so I was happy to be able to continue the work I’d been doing without the price tag.

My mistake was never questioning anything. My mistake was never checking whether or not this man was who he said he was. I did do a quick Google search, and didn’t really find anything other than a very brief imdb page which listed him as a producer on a short film that I’d never heard of. But that fell perfectly in line with what he had said, that his job wasn’t meant to be public. He had been hired to see how actors behaved when they didn’t know they were being watched. His job was to see if the actors could be professional on set, without sabotaging the production by being unruly.

I wrote it off. It was the first sign that things weren’t quite right, but I ignored it.

I attended the meetings weekly. It gave me the encouragement I needed to continue pressing on in Los Angeles when nothing seemed to be happening. It gave me a group of actors who supported each other and pushed each other to be their very best, to take risks, to defy all odds, and to never give up. There was a whole lot of good that came out of those early few months. The people I met were on top of their game, everyone was excited, everyone was positive, everyone knew that their careers were going to happen at any moment.

After a couple months, our “life coach” took me aside. “You really have what it takes,” he said. “Not everyone in this class does. I say they do, but they don’t. Obviously, not everyone makes it. But you’re really close.”

In my mind, this was a casting director at Warner Brothers telling me that I was about to break through and become a star. In my mind, this was irrefutable proof that I was going to be cast in a film or television show, and soon.

“If you can just be completely consistent, at your very best, and never mess up, for one whole week… I’ll take you to a dinner with the executives. I’ll introduce you to them. They’ll see.”

I should point out now, that this sort of thing doesn’t actually happen. There is no such thing as a casting director who brings a no-name actor to a dinner with “all of the executives” so that they can decide whether to use him or her in a production. It’s not a real thing. The casting process is long and arduous and no casting director worth his or her salt would ever put an untested actor before the “executives” unless they had seen a number of auditions and trusted them completely. And certainly not at a dinner—it would be in a casting office.

I didn’t know this at the time. This man had so many elegant stories of “the truth behind Hollywood” that seemed to make so much sense to me at the time. So I did what he said. I did my very best to be “consistent.” To be “flawless” for one whole week. And I felt like I did a pretty good job. And at the end of the week… Nothing happened. It was as though our conversation had been completely forgotten.

At this point, I had begun to take special, private classes with this man. He called them “one-on-ones,” where we would meet alone together twice a week to discuss everything that was holding me back, and everything I could do to better myself. We talking about acting, we talked about my personal life, we talked about every traumatic thing that ever happened in my past… We talked about a lot of unprofessional things. And this “bonus” class, outside of the free Sunday classes, could be mine for only $250 a month.

I know. It seemed worth it at the time. It felt like 8 private acting classes / therapy sessions for $250, with someone who had the power to hand me a career. I already felt like I was ripping the guy off by attending his “free” classes every week on Sundays, so I paid the money and I attended the “one-on-ones.”

In one of these one-on-ones, after my week of perfection, I brought up the idea of meeting with the Warner Brothers executives. “You’re not ready yet,” he said. “I thought you were in a different place, but you didn’t show me you had it this week.” And of course, I was devastated. What had I done? How had I messed up this great opportunity? Clearly, this man had seen something. But he wouldn’t tell me what it was. I started tearing myself apart in my mind, analyzing every single action I had taken over the course of the week. “Well, I overslept on Wednesday, but there’s no way he could know about that…”

It was maddening. It was overwhelming. But I knew, deep down, that things were going to work out. I had what it took. I would prove myself.

Then my fearless leader revealed that he was a photographer. And he had been a photographer in Florida for many years, after another many years being an international model. “I want to take some pictures of you,” he said. “You’re very attractive, but I don’t think you see how attractive you are. So I want to show you.”

We headed into his photography studio, which was in his garage, to take the photos. He started the process out by giving me a “test.” Just to see how comfortable I was. To see how comfortable I could be. “Take off your shirt. How comfortable are you on a scale from 1-10?” I said 10. I wanted to be the very best me I could be. “Now your pants. Scale from 1-10?” I said probably an 8.

He put down the camera. “We can’t shoot today. I can only work with models at their maximum level of comfort. If you can’t be comfortable around me… I can’t be comfortable around you.” I changed my tune. I was a 10. I just needed a second.

So we started shooting the pictures.

“If I wanted to take a picture of you, and I wanted people to know you were sad, what’s something physical you could do to show sadness?”

“I guess I could cry.”

“Right. A tear. And if I wanted to show the audience that you were happy… what’s something physical that you could do?”

“Smile.”

“Right again. And if I wanted to show the audience that you were turned on…”

“…an erection?”

“Exactly. It takes everyone else so much longer. I knew you had it in you.”

And he went on to explain his theory about star performers, and star actors. “It’s all about sexual energy. You can’t be a star without it. You have to be able to look someone in the eyes and make them want you. The way you do that is by turning yourself on. If you’re turned on, the audience is turned on.”

It made sense in a perverse, twisted way. It felt like a secret code. Something that most actors hadn’t been able to unlock. I just had to actually be horny when I entered the room.

Then he told me a story about the first time he discovered that he had the ability to be sexy. I had already told him about my own past, about how I used to be extremely overweight, how I never felt confident that anyone could be attracted to me. And he said he felt the same. He said that he grew up believing he could never be attractive. And then he got over it. And this was how.

“I was doing my first ‘bathing suit’ shoot as a model,” he said, “and the photographer wanted me to turn myself on. I had no idea what that meant. I was always taught not to even look at my penis, let alone acknowledge that I had one. When he asked me to turn myself on, I just stood there, confused. And then one of his assistants said, ‘I can help.’ And he came over and started sucking my dick. And once I was hard, the photographer said, ‘yes, that’s perfect,’ and started taking my pictures. As soon as I was soft, the assistant would come back in, and he would get me hard, and we would shoot again. And it went on and on like that. One of those pictures was the one that was used in the campaign. He chose me. Because I was the only model who was actually turned on.”

It didn’t make sense. It sounded absurd. It sounded like utter bullshit. But this man was in casting at Warner Brothers, and had had a long and successful career. How could I not trust him? I wasn’t working, and he was, so he must know better than I did. So I started practicing. “Turning myself on.” So that the camera could see it in my eyes. So that everyone would find me attractive. So that the executives would want me. So that women would want to be with me.

Then there was another test he would do. And it wasn’t just with me. There were rumblings that all of the men in class were subjected to these same sort of “tests.” The first time it happened to me, it happened with another classmate in the room. That’s how I justified it. “Well, he’s okay with it… so it must not be wrong.”

The guy knew what he was doing.

This test was called, “Make me want you.” What we had to do was get completely naked and stand in front of our instructor and do whatever we had to to make him want us. If he wanted us, we “won.” If he wanted us, that meant the world would want us. If he wanted me, I would have a career.

So I stood there, naked. Next to another man who was completely naked. And we took turns. “Turn me on,” he would say. And I would walk toward him, and almost immediately, “stop. Go back.” And then it was my friend’s turn. And it went back and forth like this, both of us beating ourselves up, feeling terrible about the fact that we couldn’t turn this man on, that we weren’t attractive, that we weren’t “at our best,” that we wouldn’t be able to have the career of our dreams…

It escalated. Over a few months, the game started happening more and more, and spread into our photo shoots (which were happening more frequently) and into our one-on-ones. “You need to practice your sexual energy! It’s the only thing you lack!”

I was desperate. I needed to prove that I could be sexy. To myself, to the casting director, to the woman I was interested in… It was the only thing that mattered.

So when he offered to “help,” the same way that he had been “helped” by the camera assistant in his first swimsuit photoshoot, I let him. I didn’t want to. And at this point, he had convinced me that the real reason I couldn’t get hard for him was that I was homophobic, that I had been raised with a “small-mind mentality,” and needed to overcome that. In order to do that, I needed to have a sexual experience with a man. Namely, himself.

The entire time he was sucking my dick, I was angry. But not with who I should have been—I was angry with myself. Angry because I couldn’t get hard. Angry because I was homophobic. Angry because I was a failure. Angry because I had been rejected by the women I wanted because I wasn’t attractive. I needed to overcome this mental block.

And he was not gentle. He grabbed my dick. He slapped it against his face. He nearly chewed on it. He put his fingers in my ass. He did things that I did not enjoy. Things that physically hurt me. Things that I hated him for but then pushed aside because I needed to “get over it.” I needed to “push through.”

Eventually, I closed my eyes and pretended that he was the woman that I wished I could be with. She’s the only thing that got me through those experiences. When I came, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “good job. I think you’re really getting it.”

And the reason I say “those experiences” is because it didn’t stop there. It got to a point where we had a shorthand. He would say, “Do you want to be a star?” and I would say yes, and he would say, “Show me.”

“Show me” meant “take off your pants and put your penis in my mouth.” But of course, he always made sure that I locked the door first. He always made sure nobody could know. He made it a very big deal that I “hide my treasures.” I couldn’t share this with anyone else, especially the women. They wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. So I never told a soul.

He also made a big deal about not being in a relationship, with anyone. He said “having a girlfriend or a boyfriend is like having a plan B for your career. When things don’t work out, you get to go home and complain to your plan B and feel better about yourself and really you’re just giving up.” So I didn’t try to have a relationship. I just kept coming back for more one-on-ones, for more private lessons, for more unwanted dick sucking.

I never enjoyed it. I never wanted it. I never felt like I was growing. At a certain point, I started to realize that even if he worked at Warner Brothers, he was never going to follow through on his promises. It had been 8 months, and nothing had happened. But still, whenever I was at his house, he would inevitably find a way to get everyone out of the studio, and it was the same thing.

“Show me.”

“Do you want to be a star?”

“Prove it.”

“Don’t share your treasures.”

Show me.

Sometimes, the girl I loved was literally only a room away from me. The door was locked, and I would just pretend it was her. Eventually, I let it happen because it was just easier to take the abuse than to try to do anything else. “It won’t last long,” I would think. “It’ll be over soon.”

“It could be worse.”

One time, it went further. He always made a big deal in our group classes about how I was the “trend-setter.” I was the person who would go farther than anyone else. I was the person who would be given a task, and rather than just complete it, I would also go two or three steps again. I was always going to be ahead of the curve, and that’s what made me special. So, all that in my head, during one of the “show me” sessions, he took his own pants off. His dick was hard. He looked at me. I “knew” what I “had” to do.

I could write an entire novel about all of the ways that he manipulated me. The ways that he manipulated our entire class. I could fill hundreds of pages. I could write a fucking manifesto. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to wallow in the misery of what happened anymore.

Eventually it all came out. Another guy in the class had his first ever “show me” experience and didn’t follow the “don’t tell” rules. He told a girl in the class, the girl who had invited me to be there in the first place, 10 months earlier, and she lost it. She told everyone. People took sides. The class broke apart. From there, the sexual abuse ended. The mental abuse continued for a few more months before I finally had the courage to leave.

I’m out of it now. The man never worked at Warner Brothers. He never had a job in the film industry. He was trying to motivate us all enough so that we would make it and bring him along with us. He fully believed in the adage, “You are what you speak.” So if he claimed he worked at Warner Brothers… eventually it would be true. He just couldn’t stop himself from sexually abusing his male students.

The man’s name is [redacted]. The police said there’s nothing they can do without solid evidence. He is not in jail. In fact… he’s still teaching. Before I left, he told me he was “getting ready to start a new cycle.”

That was chilling to me. It was almost a threat. But I cannot allow that to happen. I cannot allow this man to build up his own ego or his own power anymore. When people like [redacted] get into power positions, they think they can do anything. And the more power they have, the more they think they can get away with.

If you’re in a group and you have even the slightest feeling that something might be wrong… please ask questions. Ask the men and women in your class what’s happening to them. Don’t take no for an answer. They will lie to you. I flat out lied for [redacted], plenty of times. People would ask me if anything weird happened, and I would say no.

[Redacted] angrily declared that the man who accused him of sexual abuse was a liar, that he had never sucked his dick. But I knew that wasn’t true… because I had seen it happen. And yet, I said, “I know! How could he have said that?” It’s manipulation. It’s mind games. It’s fucked up. It’s horrible. Nobody should have to go through it.

I am ashamed of so much of what happened… but I’m out of it now. I’ve learned from it, I know what to look out for, and I have made it a part of my mission to prevent this from happening to other young, susceptible people.

Things are looking much better for me lately. Since finally freeing myself from the pressure of being perfect and attempting to please the man who could never be satisfied, my career has actually leapt forward. I’m in a movie that has been playing the festival circuit and comes out on DVD next month. I’m about to produce and star in another feature film. I’ve published a novel. I’ve been approached by a literary agent to represent another of my screenplays. Things are looking very good. And I know it’s because I’m finally out of my depression. I don’t want to kill myself anymore, like I did for about 6 months after getting out of the cult.

I live for me, now. I live to stop the spread of hatred, prejudice, and manipulation. I live to spread joy, love and equality for all.

“Fly”

This is another story I wrote while in College, another one I very much loved. Take a look:

 

There is a fly in his apartment.

I’m sitting on his bed, waiting patiently for him to get home, but there’s this fly.  Normally, this wouldn’t bother me.  Today, however, the fly shouldn’t be here.  It’s my fault the fly is here, and its being here could prove disastrous.

I get up and look around the apartment for some way of dealing with the fly.  I don’t say “kill,” because the fly hasn’t done anything to deserve death.  It’s simply a nuisance, and it’s possibly in the way of me completing my task.  I’m not even sure he’ll notice the fly, or if he does, that he’ll understand its significance, but I don’t want to take any chances.

For that, the fly must be dealt with.

I find a jar in one of his cabinets that could be used to contain the fly.  I scan the apartment for the insect, but it appears to be eluding me.  I walk into the next room to see it circling a lamp, where it settles.  I can’t capture it there, not without breaking something.

I swat at the fly and it leaves its perch, settling instead on the bed.  I bring the jar down upon the creature, but, as flies often do, it escapes.  There are a few more attempts at cornering the insect against a wall and a few times on the carpet, but to no avail.

I decide it’s time to try a new tactic.

I enter into his kitchen again, searching the cabinets for anything else.  I might be able to use, and I find a Band-Aid.  A simple tool with many uses.  It’s perfect.

I tear off the white strips of the bandage and place it sticky-side up on the counter.  I open his refrigerator door and find a loaf of bread.  I open it, take out a crumb of bread and place it on the sticky part of the bandage.  This is harder than you might think while wearing gloves.

I return the bread to its proper location in the refrigerator and carry the bandage into the bedroom, where the fly is taunting me yet again.  I set it on the windowsill and wait.

I’m patient.  I know it will happen eventually.  I watch the fly as it settles on the lampshade.  The pillow.  The ceiling.  The ceiling fan.  The window.  My arm.  Finally, the windowsill.  But not the bandage.  It can sense the bread, I’m sure of it.  It studies the bread with its thousand eyes and I know I have it beat.  After a few moments, the fly lands on the sticky part of the upturned bandage.

For a second, the fly is content eating the bread.  Then it tries to fly.  It lifts upward momentarily, but the bandage is too heavy.  The fly can’t get off the ground.  It struggles against its captor, but I have been successful.  The fly is detained.

I look at the clock.  It’s 5:06.  It’s almost time.

I watch the minute hand creep around the clock face, pointing at the 2, the 3, the 4.  Still, the fly struggles against the bandage.  I look at it pitifully.  If only it could understand what I understand, that sometimes there are forces at work that you cannot overcome.  Sometimes you just have to understand that you’re going to die.

At 5:27, he walks through the front door of his apartment.  As I suspected, he acts normally, suspects nothing.  He opens his refrigerator and pours himself a drink.  He whistles while he performs his actions, unaware that I am seated only a room away, waiting for his entry.

The fly tries to take off again.  I want to yell at it, to convey the message that there’s nothing it can do, but still it fights.  There’s honor in that, perhaps.

He walks from the kitchen towards his bedroom and stops dead when he sees me sitting on his bed.  He doesn’t ask how I got in.  He knows who I am.

“Look, tell them I have the money,” he starts to plead.  Pitiful.

I raise my gun and fire two shots.  He’s dead before he hits the ground.  I stand up, wipe off the barrel and begin to make my exit.  I look at the fly.  Even now, it struggles against its bonds.

I walk over to the windowsill and pick up the bandage.  I take the fly gently between two fingers and pry the bandage away from its legs.  One of the fly’s legs tears off, still stuck to the bandage.  It’s better than what he got.  I let go of the animal, and it flies out of the bedroom.

When I open the front door to leave, the fly leaves as well.  A wise decision.  I close the door behind me and walk out onto the street.

“The Divorce”

This is a short story I had published when I was in college, but I’m still quite proud of it.

This was the dinner he finally realized he wanted a divorce.  She hadn’t done anything any differently, but that was exactly the problem.  But maybe he should have tried something; maybe it was his fault.

It was the little things that annoyed him.  The way she separated her bites by size so that she could eat the smallest ones last.  The way she sniffed every drink before bringing it to her lips like it were wine, even if it was water.  It was as if she mistrusted everyone, as if she thought someone was trying to poison her.

It was the way she offered to pay for the meal after the server had already taken his card.  The way she got up from the table to use the bathroom without telling him where she was going, just assuming he would figure it out when he saw which direction she went.  He sometimes secretly wished she wouldn’t come back.

But she had come back.  Like she always did.

He turned the car onto the highway toward home.  She sat silently in the passenger seat watching the wiper blades clear the slight drizzle from the windshield.  She was always useless in the rain, completely distracted by the sight and the sound.  She could sit, mesmerized, for hours at a time.  He understood up to a point, but eventually he would get bored.  He would try to talk to her, or to kiss her, but she would remain in a sort of trance, unresponsive and motionless.

“Sarah, put your seat belt on,” he told her when he noticed the red light on the dashboard.  As he expected, she ignored him.  Why couldn’t she just listen this once, when it was actually important to him?

Frustrated, he began to merge onto the highway.  He hadn’t, however, noticed the semi truck coming from behind him.  As soon as he merged, the truck hit the back of his car.  The back end swung out, gliding across the damp pavement.  The front of his car skidded to the right and the rest of the car followed.  Still moving forward, the vehicle tumbled off the road.  It crashed into a ditch and came to a crushing halt.

He took a moment to realize what had happened; to examine himself to see if he was okay.  He couldn’t find any serious injuries; he just seemed a little shaken up.  He turned to look at his wife.

She hadn’t been so lucky.  She was bleeding, knocked out on the dashboard.  There was a crack in the windshield where her head had struck, and an open wound on her scalp.

He didn’t think about the divorce again until they got to the hospital.  He was sitting in an uncomfortable blue chair when the doctor came to tell him how she was.

“Are you Henry Salinger?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Is your wife Sarah Salinger?”

“Yes, that’s my wife,” Henry said.

The question had immediately reminded Henry of Sarah’s initial complaint that her last name would begin with the same letter as her first.  He should have known then.

The doctor’s next statement snapped Henry back to the present.  His wife had been paralyzed from the neck down.  She would remain this way for the rest of her life.

Henry was numb.  He couldn’t tell her about the divorce now, it wouldn’t be fair.  To leave her at the worst possible moment—how could he explain that to people?  His parents, his friends, their friends… It would seem like he was only leaving because of the accident.  There was no way he could possibly make them understand.

When they finally let him see her, she was crying.  Henry sat at her bedside and held her hand, but he wasn’t sure why.  It wasn’t like she could feel it.  Henry acknowledged that that was a strange thought to have.  The gesture seemed right, though, and he didn’t know what else he could do.

She looked out the window in her room.  It was still raining.  He thought that meant the conversation would be over, as she would go into another one of her trances, but instead she turned back to him.  There were tears in her eyes, but she wasn’t making a sound.

“If you want to leave, I understand,” she said.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

And he didn’t.  He stayed in the hospital with her all weekend.  When he was sure she was okay, he went back to work, but still returned to the hospital every night to be with her.  He slept there most nights.

He began to bring in her favorite things from their house, her favorite blankets, her favorite pillow, the giant stuffed bear he had won her at the state fair the year before.

Her parents came to visit.  At first they weren’t sure what to say, but Sarah assured them that Henry had been driving safely and had told her to put on her seatbelt, she had just failed to comply.

They told Henry that he was wonderful, great, amazing.  They said he was the best person they had ever known, that their daughter was lucky to have a man as great as him in her life.

“She really needs you right now,” Sarah’s mother had told him.  “We’re so glad you’re here.”

Henry had simply said thank you, it wasn’t anything, he loved her.

That seemed to appease her parents, and the other visitors.  Henry became popular amongst the hospital staff.  The nurses all adored him, said he was the best possible husband.  If they were ever in an accident, they could only hope they had somebody as wonderful as Henry Salinger.

Henry couldn’t take any more of their talk.  He began to close the door to Sarah’s room when he came to visit.  That way it was just the two of them, and he didn’t have anybody else to fool.

When they were together, she didn’t talk a lot.  Henry would tell her about work, and she would listen and laugh or cry, depending on the story.  Then he would kiss her and tell her he loved her.

He noticed that the nurses didn’t feed her correctly.  They just put any bit of food in her mouth, regardless of size.  He began to relieve them of their duties so that he could do it the way she liked.  He organized each bite in order and gave them to her how she wanted.

He allowed her to take a sniff of any liquid beverage before pouring it into her mouth, trying everything to make her feel like her old self, trying to get her to show any reason to make him leave.

And she began, slowly, to act like her old self.  After a year had passed, she was talking again like she had before the accident.  She would laugh joyously, tell stories about people she knew at the hospital.  And Henry would listen.

And then it would rain.  Sarah would stare out the window, quietly taking in the beauty of the storm.  She would observe each drop of rain against the window, and each flash of lightning would illuminate her smile, or her tears.

When these times came, Henry would lie on the bed next to her and take her hand in his.  They sat like this for hours, never saying a word.

Swiss Army Film (Swiss Army Man Review)

“Swiss Army Man,” the film by Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert), is one of the most fascinating, insightful, and important films that I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s so perfectly relevant to everything going on today, while also being completely absurd and so much fun you may not even notice that you’re learning.

This movie, much like the tool on which it gets its name, will be something completely different to every person watching it. So much of the interpretation of this movie will be entirely up to the viewer, and everyone will bring to it and take from it something extremely different and personal.

The premise of the movie is fairly simple (but also wildly inventive): Hank is stranded on an island and is preparing to kill himself. At the last minute, he spots the corpse of Manny on the beach. He discovers that he can use Manny’s corpse to help him do things—like jet-ski across the ocean, store rainwater, and chop wood. When Manny “wakes up” and begins to speak, Hank tries to teach him about life, and together they set off towards home, despite Manny not knowing what a “home” is.

Like any film that starts with our protagonist attempting suicide, this film is about finding joy in life. It’s about being brave, owning your self-worth, overcoming obstacles, challenging yourself, and doing your very best to fit into a world that just doesn’t understand you or care about you. It’s about misunderstandings, childhood, growing, learning, and honesty. It’s about finding love—and not the kind of love you think you’re looking for, but the kind of love you actually need.

Early in the film, Paul Dano’s “Hank” explains to Daniel Radcliffe’s “Manny” what love is. And he defines a very simple heterosexual definition of love. At this time, I was a little bit put off by this very narrow explanation of love as being that of a man and a woman being together. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that this isn’t the film’s doing… it’s the character Hank. He’s grown up in a way that leaves him completely unable to open his eyes to anything different. He’s lived a life based on fear of judgment, mainly from his father, who raised him after his mother died when he was still very young. It seems she was the more encouraging one, albeit encouraging in a way that may have seemed confusing for a child. At least, confusing in a world that doesn’t accept anything foreign. As Hank tells it, his father caught him masturbating and told him that it would shorten his lifespan because it expends extra energy, which is why men, on average, life shorter lives than women. When Hank’s mother saw him crying, she told him that maybe if he masturbated enough, he could catch up to her and that way they could both die on the same day. Unfortunately, all the masturbation in the world couldn’t have helped, because she died very soon thereafter. Now, Hank is afraid to masturbate because it makes him think of his mother.

To me, there is no simpler or more perfect explanation for the way Hank is the way that he is. And there’s no more perfect explanation as to why any of us are the way that we are. We’re all told from a very young age that our body’s natural urges are wrong. They’re sins. We’ll go to Hell. We’ll go blind. And then we grow up in fear of our own bodies and of things that we enjoy, rather than actually doing anything that makes us happy. Manny’s complete and utter shock that anyone would tell someone not to do something that makes them happy is precisely the spark that sets off the rest of the learning in the movie.

At a certain point, Manny begins experiencing erections. Luckily, his boner acts as a compass that leads the two of them home. When he remembers a woman that he may be in love with, he believes that recreating a memory of her will be the key to unlocking his full potential as a multi-purpose man for Hank. Hank begins to dress like the woman in Manny’s memories (although he resists at first), and it is only when Hank is dressed as a woman that he begins to truly let go of his fearful notions of the world. It is as a woman that Hank is able to express true feelings for Manny, and is able to actually kiss Manny, an expression of love that literally doesn’t fit into his own definition of what love is. Thankfully, there is never a conversation about this being weird or unacceptable, because both characters understand that this is a thing that makes them happy, which means that it’s something that’s okay to do.

Oddly enough, the simple issue of “farting” becomes a poignant and meaningful metaphor for hiding our true selves. Manny farts a LOT. The decomposition of his body stores up a lot of gas, and that gas leaves his body the way gas leaves any of our bodies. Eventually, Hank tells him not to fart. That other people will judge him. Manny very sadly apologizes after asking a few questions about whether he is the only person in the world who farts. Hank recreates the book “Everybody Poops” (on a Bible, no less) so that Manny won’t feel bad about his body, and Manny takes that as a cue that his farts are A-okay. Hank doesn’t complain, because those farts are what helps Manny surf across the ocean like a jet-ski, light fires, and launch them through the air to continue on their journey. But at a certain point, Manny asks Hank why he never farts in front of him. His argument makes sense—I’m farting in front of you all the time, but you hide your farts from me. And if you’re hiding your farts from me, what else are you hiding from me? How do I even know I can trust you? The fact that it sounds juvenile is exactly the point… we’ve all become so afraid of ourselves and our bodies and our urges and just doing what makes us happy that we hide everything from each other.

I’m not advocating that everyone starts farting in front of each other all the time. I do, however, think that we should stop being ashamed of ourselves. We should stop teaching children to fear their own bodies, to fear their instincts, and to hate other people for being different. We need to teach people to love and accept themselves, because how else are they going to be able to accept anyone else? It is only once Hank realizes that he is completely accepted by Manny that he is able to come to terms with himself.

The ending of this film is where I’m sure a lot of people will be divided. After a journey of joy and excitement and discovery, Hank and Manny find their way to civilization, to the backyard of the love of Manny’s life. It is hinted that maybe Hank has simply been living in the woods right behind her house for a long time. Maybe he was never stranded on any island after all. Maybe literally all of this was just a hallucination. It’s revealed that this woman, Sarah Johnson, who has been the object of both Hank and Manny’s affections throughout the film, is actually married, with a daughter around five or six years old. The presence of Hank’s father adds insult to injury when he calls his son retarded in front of everyone. Here we gain even more insight into who Hank is, and how he grew up. Hank has always been different. Maybe he actually was diagnosed as being on the spectrum at one point. Maybe not. Either way, he’s grown up being called retarded and being hated and judged by his father, in a society that doesn’t understand him, where he has no friends, where he legitimately feels like everyone hates him. He hates himself so much that he attempts to kill himself (possibly) very near to the backyard of the woman he has loved, but never spoken to.

If these assumptions are correct, we read the movie in a very different way from this point. Rather than being about a man trapped on an island, it’s the story of an outcast from society who ran away, hid in the woods, and simply observed life from a distance, trying desperately to understand why he’s so different and what it is that he lacks that makes everyone else seem so normal. He’s tried to hide his farts. He’s tried to stop masturbating forever. He’s followed the rules. And he finds himself alone, friendless, and homeless. His mother is dead, and his father doesn’t care enough about him to check to see if he’s actually dead before leaving what at first appears to be Hank in a body bag.

Hank finds joy again when he meets Manny, who is actually dead. It’s only someone else who is a complete and utter outcast, someone friendless and alone, who can help Hank discover what it means to be alive.

Hank attempts to tell everyone how amazing Manny is. In front of a news crew, Sarah, his father, and the police, he looks like a complete lunatic as he raves about Manny’s magical powers and how he was saved by them in the woods. They find the makeshift bus he’s built, they find signs that he’s been out here for a very long time. And they start to take him away in handcuffs… when Manny begins to fart again. His body amazes everyone in the same way that it amazed (and rescued) Hank at the very beginning. Manny takes off into the ocean like a jet-ski, and the onlookers stand slack-jawed at something they never thought was possible; at the possibility that maybe, if they were wrong about Hank being crazy, maybe they’ve been wrong about everything. Maybe hatred and judgment isn’t the way to live their lives. Because if what they thought was lunacy actually turned out to be true… what else have they been wrong about?

I think I’ve raved enough. I adored this movie. I had a smile on my face pretty much the entire time. I’ve never seen a film so adeptly and intelligently navigate Transgender issues, Religion, Homosexuality, Mental Illness, Depression, Love, Life, Parenting, and Discovery. Much like Manny, this film is filled with secret tools to uncover, messages to unlock, and lessons to learn. It’s a film I will be revisiting many times over the rest of my life, and a film that I look forward to sharing with people.

“Boys R Toys”

Today I came across a woman wearing this T-Shirt. Before I tell you about our interaction, I feel the need to talk a bit about my own feelings toward the shirt, and the sentiment that it expresses.

I understand that the intention is good. It’s kind of a silly joke, a pro-woman saying, “we don’t need men, we’re just as strong on our own,” and that’s completely true. Women can do literally anything that men can do, and should be able to do whatever they want.

The problem, for me, comes in the expression. The WAY the message is being carried out. Because the shirt isn’t saying, “Go women!” What’s it’s SAYING is, “Men are less than human!”

You can argue with me. You can disagree. But that’s what it’s saying. Literally, men, or “boys,” to try to put them down further, are “toys.” THINGS. To amuse yourself with. To have fun with sometimes. But not to take too seriously. Maybe even… to collect.

I’ve been raped. It took me a LONG time to be able to admit that. And I spent years feeling like I was, in fact, less than human. That I was useless, sexually. That men were terrible and that maybe I “deserved” it.

But let’s take a look at it in the reverse. Let’s say I’m wearing a shirt that says, “Girls R Toys!”

Doesn’t look good. In fact, I look like an asshole. Probably one of the lowest forms of people. Because, not only do I not respect women, I feel the need to put it on my shirt and wear it around. “Hey, ALL WOMEN, I think I’m better than you, and you’re nothing but objects to me.”

So I say to this woman, who has been complaining about how men don’t respect her or take her seriously, and how backwards people are in this part of the country, “maybe your shirt is attracting the wrong kind of guys. Maybe saying, ‘I don’t respect men’ is attracting the type of men who also don’t respect women.” And she laughed and said, “you’re probably right. But people tell me all the time how much they love it.”

And I went a little further. Probably crossing a line, but I was bothered. “I’ve actually been raped,” I said, “and this shirt is offensive to me.” Her response, “Oh, you too? I was raped when I was 15, that’s how I lost my virginity.”

And that’s terrible. That’s a horrendous story, and very sadly, one that I’ve heard FAR too many times. It’s sad to look at the world, and all of my friends, and say, “at least half of the women that I know have been raped.” That’s just not okay. But it’s a sad truth.

“That’s terrible,” I said. “I wish it on no one. I’m very sorry. As for everyone who ‘loves’ your shirt… well, like you said, people are backwards.” Her response: “Since I’ve always been mistreated, manipulated, used & abused by guys, I saw the shirt as more empowering than offensive like a laugh to their face, eye for an eye.”

Me: “I understand why you feel that way. And I understand that you feel vindicated and empowered by the message. But know that you’re hurting other men, and making them feel worthless. How would you feel if I had a shirt on that said ‘Girls R Toys!’ and then when you asked why, I said, ‘well, a girl raped me so now it empowers me to think of all women as less than human’?”

From this point, she got angry. “It’s okay for men to wear awful shirts but when I do it, it’s disrespectful?! You don’t get to judge me for what I wear!” And I pointed out that I was merely trying to point out a different point of view. That MAYBE we ALL need to treat each other with respect. That respect goes BOTH ways. That in order to GET respect… you have to GIVE it.

This is a small, tiny microcosm of the actual issue, which is that we’re living in a rape culture and most people are completely unaware. But the fact that this type of shirt is allowed is a major part of the problem. The fact that NO ONE sees the issue with declaring that all men are playthings, despite constantly calling out every day on twitter when someone says the same thing of women.

The truth is… IT’S NEVER OKAY. It’s not okay for men to degrade women. It’s not okay for women to put down men. It’s not okay to disrespect each other or degrade each other or any of the things that happen every single day. But we’re still living in a world where, if a man gets raped, people laugh at him. They say he’s lying. He’s making it up. They say it’s “impossible.” This woman heard me say, “I’ve been raped,” and she said, “get in line.” As if to say, “there’s no fucking hope for any of us, so why even try?”

And yes. I’m fighting an uphill battle. But I know that. I’m proud to be fighting for equality. I’m proud to be a feminist. I’m proud to be able to say, “let’s stop being assholes and just love each other for a change.”

And for the love of God, can we do something about these awful shirts?