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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Joining the Mystery
The truth is that I didn’t know what to do. The email was cryptic. It came less as a query and as more of a decree. It said we needed to talk. By phone. The author of the email had just finished reading November 22, 1963, and she was certain that I was the right person for her to share the vital information that she held. It was big. What she knew would blow my mind. It would blow apart the questions of conspiracy. And she wanted me to know. To see it. And to write it. I’ll confess that I both was intrigued and spooked. By nature I am not prone to seek out dangerous situations. For example, I would never be a war correspondent. I would never sail around the world with just a cooler and my will (in fact, it’s enough to even get me on a commuter ferry). But I also have an eating disorder for breadcrumbs, and as something of a pattern in my life, I have followed their trails, scarfing them down until I’ve found myself in places and situations that I’d rather not be. When we talked by phone, she gave me a taste of what kind of information she was holding. She wanted to fly me down to Texas. Take me to talk with people that for decades had been too scared to talk. She would put me up. All I had to do was listen, and then write it up. Put the truth out into the world. I seriously weighed going. I mean, I seriously weighed going.
In terms of writing, I always understand that I am entering a world, one that may have some vague familiarity, but still remains mysterious enough for me to want to explore. I want to exist inside that enigmatic world of the novel. To feel it. Understand it. Experience the confusion.
The upshot of these conversations involved surgeons, Oswald’s autopsy, Jack Ruby, and something about materials left behind in Oswald’s cadaver. There was a trusted source who was near death and he wanted to talk, but only to someone who understood, who could be trusted. The intensity of the situation got to me. It can be damaging to enter someone else’s obsessions. Too easily they can become your own. Politely, I declined. This was a big misunderstanding. I tried to explain that the purpose of the book (at least for me) was not to weigh in on the scholarship or controversy about the Kennedy assassination, but it was intended to be about the larger cultural questions about mythmaking and nostalgia, how a single event can define future generations for, well, generations. What was not clear is if my explanation inadvertently reinforced my credentials, or if it just wasn’t listened to. Next I tried to be blunt. I said I just wasn’t what she was after; I’m not the person she had imagined. I even said (in a way meant to be defacing), “I’m just a fiction writer.” Her reply was to suggest potential dates for my visit. Time was being lost. At one point, an ambassador for her came to a reading for the book, and, during the book-signing portion, whispered the importance of this mission for which I was being recruited. She too had her own secret chest of information, but this Texas evidence, due to it being held by someone nearing the end of his life, had to take precedence. To the surrogate, I tried to explain all my reasons for being the wrong person. That I thought they’d confused me with someone who taken this project on with an agenda or mission to reveal or uncover the truth, instead of a truth. But as with the emailer, her reply was that it was critical that I understood. Time was running out. I needed to get it.
One of the most frequently asked questions about November 22, 1963 was why I didn’t just write a nonfiction book about that day. The more personal answer is that I was less interested in exploring and uncovering moments of that day, and much more invested in exploring ideas of humanness—more often my own sense of self (in fact, I might argue—at least today, as I’m writing this) that the novel is much more about me and how I am trying to understand the world that was formed and left behind in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. But on the global level, the reason I would never would have written it as nonfiction is that I had no interest ever in solving the mystery of that day.
When I was in my early-twenties I interned at a methadone clinic in Sacramento, California. It was only a few blocks from my house. I signed up on a whim. I needed a distraction. And I thought I might need a career. Each day I couldn’t wait to go in. At the last stop before they could get their methadone, I interviewed the addicts about their drug use and their sexual habits. It was exciting. It was intriguing. A world I had never known. (And all just blocks from where I lived!) But then one day I saw it beyond my fascination. For what it was. The sadness. The desperation. The dishonesty. The creepy confessions. And from that point on, all I could think about what how to get out of it. I dreaded going there. Suddenly it was freaky that this all was so close to my house. I was knee-deep. I swore to myself I would never be that knee-deep again.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about writing November 22, 1963, something I just hadn’t considered when it was a project that fulfilled my own thoughts and issues, was the idea that people always are looking for something to validate their own voices. And the truth is that I don’t think I “got it,” at least not in the way that the people contacting me thought that I did. Why do I think people such as this emailer reached out? Because they had the sense that someone was listening to them. You don’t have to be driven by proving conspiracies to feel as though you’re not being heard. We live in a culture in which people are dying to be heard, almost in desperate fashion. Just look at your Twitter feed. Or your Facebook. Yet it still feels so rare that people actually are listening. For all the connectedness, it’s like we live in collective culture where people just nod their heads while someone else talks, only waiting to burst in to say their piece. And through November 22, 1963, I found myself in a conversation I didn’t know I was having. I’m just a writer. I listen. I observe. I research. I process. I try to find order in disorder. And I guess on some occasions someone reads what I write and through that actually feels heard.
In the end, I never did take up the offer to go to Texas. At one point, I thought I might go just to write about it, almost as a piece of immersion journalism. And although the mystery of the situation did intrigue me (not really the mystery of the information), like that methadone clinic, it also kind of creeped me out. It felt too dangerous—not so much physically; instead psychically. I started avoiding the emails. Ignoring the phone when it showed TEXAS on the Caller ID. It brought back the shame of trying to break up with an old girlfriend by hiding—too cowardly for confrontation. Part of my defense mechanism was to mock the situation, to talk of the world of conspiracy and its dedicated foot soldiers as some sort of renegade militia with a skewed worldview. They had become an “other.” Impossible to fathom their belief system, just as it sometimes can be for me when considering people with political beliefs opposite of mine. But then the obviousness of that struck me as stupid. In fact, it was in direct contradiction of why I wrote the book—why I even write. It is not to pull back the curtain. It is not to define and marginalize. Instead it is to join into the mystery. To become part of the voice. To understand why it could happen. Not how it did happen.
Adam Braver is the author of five novels, most recently Misfit. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders’ Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. He is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. In addition to having taught for the University of New Orleans’ Low Residency MFA program, he’s also been a regular writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.