Towering Inferno Decisions

Beta elements. That’s a term coined (at least in the context of psychoanalysis) by Wilfred Bion, to indicate fragments of life–behaviors, thoughts, ephemera–that represent split-off, dissociated elements of reality. Unconsciousness. In Crystal From The Hills (purchase link), friends Chris Leavitt (Crystal) and his friend Sweet speak of “towering inferno decisions”, bantering in offhand ways to signify watershed and ironic trivial events. For me, Towering Infernos are an alpha element: a vivid memory of a mid-seventies glam-disaster movie that proved far more prescient than it ever intended. Chris and Sweet, on the other hand, are witnessing backwards with unwitting senses, not forward. Read:

Chris’ parents, not long before Eric’s death, actually had one more shot at reconciliation—a brief one in late 2001, under tragic, yet bizarre circumstances. Nancy’s then husband and former lover was a financier in Manhattan, and died, it was later presumed, in the 9/11 attacks. It took several days for this conclusion to hit home. Initially, Nancy held out hope like countless others, thinking or rather assuming at first, and then later praying, that her husband’s failure to respond to calls following the breaking news would be easily explained. The phone service told a cold, disinterested story: “That caller cannot be reached at this time.” It persisted with that message, like an aphorism of cosmic loneliness. Eventually, that message gave way to the more earnestly sepulchral, “That number is no longer in service.” She spoke to Chris on that terrible day, as well as many others. Their call was cut off—twice—as others, friends mostly, desperately tried to get through. Chris was understanding, but struggled nonetheless with the implication of relegated status. Frantically, Nancy would put him on hold, and promise a return call in minutes. An hour passed, followed by another interruption—this time his mother apologized, sensing for the first time that she was indulging herself at the expense of her son. Then two days passed without hearing anything new. Nancy had made arrangements with friends to take a pilgrimage to what was already being dubbed “ground zero”, to walk around with a photo in hand, and to pin copies along with flyers upon temporarily erected bulletin boards.

On the fourth day, Chris heard from his father, who’d been in regular contact with Nancy during this spell, reporting that “It didn’t look good.” Eric delivered the news like he was himself mired in the clean-up or rescue effort: there was a grim, terse summery, void of pain; focused on the task at hand. That task, Chris speculated, was a fresh opportunity. Over the next several weeks, Eric was Nancy’s confidante, a supplicating listener, resurrecting a role he’d once played in their early twenties. Chris had stayed over at his Dad’s place a couple of nights during this period. He observed the ambiguous hand-wringing, the sorry attempts at providing succor: “I know,” he’d say repeatedly to Nancy, punctuated with contrived apologies, in calculated increments so as not to overwhelm with reality. Chris eavesdropped on one call, held his breath as he listened closely for the words, the moment wherein his father might spring his trap. Why don’t you come home? He was waiting to hear that climactic entreaty.

Aunt Jenny, observing nearby, though not in person—unlike Chris—plainly disapproved. She condemned her brother for what she thought was his shameless exploitation of grief. “I’m trying to help,” Eric defended weakly. His shallowness gave him away, though he argued that his motives were redemptive in nature. Delusion. Explaining himself, Eric told Jenny that he’d foreseen the attack upon the Twin Towers, through visions that posited dark-skinned men next to billows of fire thrusting upwards. He’d not said anything, of course, because he knew he’d be dismissed as a crank, and a racist crank at that. But that didn’t help him feel any less guilty, especially as one of the visions had positioned Nancy’s lover and former husband next to one of the fires. Jenny was disbelieving, of course, which simply reinforced Eric’s persecutory beliefs. She thought that the best one could say of him during this episode was that he was patient and methodical. Chris’ own attempts to assuage his mother, she observed, though lacking the ulterior motives of his father, were equally awkward. A new plateau of listening is how he later described the exchanges to her: an acid test for the silent and helpless.

Nancy wasn’t one for anger. She had always been a smiling, positive person; sanguine, Jenny had once said disparagingly. She later regretted the slight, but it was too late. Chris agreed. However, while the nation was baying for blood, performing an unprecedented appraisal of its security measures, or denouncing liberal dissent, Nancy fell down, flattened by the strangers’ blow. She kept her positive outlook, but only thinly, and not with respect to humankind. The cruel attack of the apparently foreign enemy retained its strange anonymity over time. Despite the media overwhelm, the subsequent arrests, trials, and general politicization of 9/11’s fallout, Nancy stuck to her essentially apolitical roots. It wasn’t so much that issues of national defense, wars on terror, or civil disobedience didn’t matter; it was rather that they never did. Somehow, not being involved, or not being interested, was a defiant, albeit unwitting victory: you won’t change how I am, she seemed to exude. Externally, she appeared to deflate, with lines down the side of her face marking a steep decline. Fatigue emerged as a central condition, weighing her down, tying her to her bed for days at a time, forcing her beauty inside. Loving the imperfect had been a virtue, she’d once thought. Now the price seemed too much. On better days, she liked to step outside onto her New Jersey home, onto a balcony wherein she could bird-watch. Admiring that which could fly peacefully became a favorite pastime.

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