“The past is what we are, even as we’re constantly leaving it.”
After The Killer is Dying, Drive and Driven, James Sallis returns with a complete change of pace with Others of My Kind, a thoughtful, deeply troubling look at the long-term effects of a heinous crime. Following the phenomenal success of the film Drive, Hollywood must have its eye on this author’s work, but I’m not sure if anyone will touch Others of My Kind without significant revision due to its controversial elements.
Set in the not too-distant future, we find a troubled America in turmoil. Jenny Rowan, a single woman who works as a video editor for a Washington DC television station returns home one day to find Jack Collins, a young detective from Violent Crimes waiting for her. Collins is there for help.
Look, I’m just gonna say this. I spent the last few hours up at the county hospital, Maricopa. Young woman by the name of Cheryl got brought in there last night. Twenty years old going on twelve. Way it came about was, the neighbors got a new dog that wouldn’t stop barking. They didn’t have a clue, tried everything. Then, first chance the dog had, it shot out the door, parked itself outside the adjoining apartment and wouldn’t be drawn away. Finally they called nine-one-one. Couple of officers responded, got no answer at the door, had the super key them in.
Inside the apartment was a young girl stuffed in a closet, obviously the victim of some sexual sadist. Now in hospital, Cheryl, damaged and traumatized has simply stopped talking. No one knows who she is, where she came from, or how long she’s been kept a prisoner. Perhaps she’s suffered from “sensory deprivation,” and someone else speculates that she’s “retarded.” According to Collins, she just stares “like she was behind thick glass looking out.” Jenny understands Cheryl’s reaction because when she was eight years old she was kidnapped by a child molester, and kept imprisoned in a box under his bed for two years.
I’m not sure I was much more than a doll for him. Something he took out to play with.
Jenny Rowan has reinvented herself from a past in which she has only a few fractured childhood memories before she was taken from the Westwood Mall. later, known as the “mall girl,” she grows up in the child-care system. How does anyone ‘recover’ or deal with a past like this? Jenny never sees herself as a victim, and instead she builds an independent life, but she’s always a little ‘different.’ Valuing her privacy and finding comfort from isolation, Jenny is still, according to one friend, in a “box.” Several things change that–Jenny’s relationship with Cheryl, a relationship with a group of squatters, and even a relationship that reaches into the White House. Perhaps part of Jenny’s growth comes from the knowledge that other people reached out and gave help to her, and now it’s time for her to do the same.
In Days in the History of Silence, a book I read recently, the main characters opt for silence rather than discuss some of the more painful incidents in their lives. That novel asks how we cope with the negative, the darkness in our lives. Do we pretend it never happened or do we allow it to consume us? In Others of My Kind, Jenny has taken a very different approach to her darkest experiences. She understands that they are part of the mosaic which forms her character. Those years are not shoved out of her memory; they’re part of who she is. It’s ironic, really, that Jenny’s work life is spent editing video down to form a desirable narrative. Life isn’t that easy–although we typically shed memories we’re rather forget and shape others in our favour.
Jenny is an unusual combination of characteristics. She doesn’t need people around and enjoys distance in her relationships, and yet she’s not afraid to let people in her life. Her initial reaction to Jack Collins was to invite him in and offer him half of her dinner. How many of us could be that unwary, that generous? Then add Jenny’s past to the equation, and we see a rare young woman who has reached some sort of acceptance about what happened to her. Here she is with Jack Collins:
There’s no anger in you, is there, Jenny? None at all. I don’t understand that.”
“Who would you have me be angry with?”
“I never knew them.”
“The man who abducted you.”
“Danny? He was just being true to what he was, being Danny. He couldn’t help himself. And that was many and many a year ago–”
“In a kingdom by the sea.”
“Exactly. There’s nothing I can do to change any of it.”
“Society, then–for allowing this to happen.”
“Way too big a bag to haul around, on such a short trip.”
According to Jenny, Jack wants answers and everything black and white.
“You want it all to make sense, don’t you?” I said. “Our lives, the world. Clear reasons. Explanations. Even when you know better than most how untidy the world and all our lives are.”
What makes some people survive and others crumble with despair? To Jenny, it’s a decision. As she tells Cheryl:
At some point, we realize that it’s not just going to happen, that we’re going to have to make the decision to become human and out some effort into it. Most start young as a matter of course. Others, people like you and me, we have good reason for being late starters. But the struggle’s the same. We work at making a self for most of a lifetime. only to find that the self we’ve created is inseparable from the struggle.
At 128 pages, Others of My Kind is a novella which explores isolation and includes some big questions and covers some disturbing territory. This is a not a traditional story, and instead Sallis opts for an unusual narrative trajectory which as the story winds down, swallows up the passage of time in just a few pages. For this reader, the strength of the novella is rooted in Jenny’s character, her damage and her strength. As Jenny’s life expands beyond herself and Cheryl, the novella lost some momentum even as time sped up, and the story shifted from an intensely interesting character study to something, for this reader, slightly less successful and much more allegorical in meaning.
One problem I had with the book is a minor point, but one which niggled nonetheless. Jenny is introduced almost immediately as a vegetarian but then shortly thereafter, she’s eating salmon.