The quote in the title is from David Bowie’s Rock and Roll Suicide, and those were the days of Bowie at the peak of his most androgynous glam. These were the days and nights of glitter, of dancing in clubs, of struggling to make ends meet in dreary day jobs and yet, still being fabulous. But the Bowie song that gets me the most, that most reminds me of John and who we were together in those days, was Heroes.
Today is yet another anniversary of his decomposed body’s discovery in a canyon in San Diego. I’ve had decades of these anniversaries now. So many of them. John died a suicide and broke my heart.
I’ve written in past years about John, here and here. Today I wrote this in Facebook:
John, you died in 1976 in that San Diego canyon, sometime between August 15th when you left my house without a word or a note (I’d just left for work) and September 1st, when the coroner knocked on my door and told me they’d found a badly decomposed body that they thought I could identify. That body fit your description. It was wearing jeans, a shirt with small Carmen Miranda cartoon women on it, and a heavy gold ring. It turns out that someone in your beauty college saw that heavy gold ring, which the police showed on T.V. news, asking the public for any info that could lead to your identity. That someone knew you well enough to send the coroner to me.
This wasn’t the first time you attempted suicide (pills, ground glass, drano…), but it was the time you finally succeeded.
And it turned out that some feckless, idiot acquaintance of ours who should have known better, sold you 100 barbiturates. You chose your moment, your day to die, and took them and a water bottle down into the ravine in the Hillcrest neighborhood where we lived. Eventually the police responded to neighbors’ reports of a bad smell coming from that ravine…
Missing Persons wouldn’t listen to me when I reported your disappearance, your history of suicide attempts. Your shrink simply shrugged. Mentally ill, queer youth on SSI were a dime a dozen and so what if one of them went missing? I hated these authorities, but the coroner at least spoke to me like a human being.
So today is the day I mark and dread every year–September 1st. It’s a date flanked by my children’s birthdays. For many years, that was a mercy, but that’s no longer true. Now it’s just the stark reality of a life that I have lived without you.
I hope you are resting in peace or incarnated among parents who would actually care for you as a child this time around. You were so uncared for in this life that you left, outright abused, kicked out into the street at age 13, again at 15, doing what kids on the street do to survive… Not all the attention and love you received from paramours and tricks would ever, ever make you whole. Still, I wish we could have stayed friends all these years, and shared our stories and arch observations over cups of tea and during walks among roses. I miss and love you and always will.
Last night–for the fifth time–I experienced the final numinous moments of the Chinese drama, The Untamed, which has been playing on Netflix for the last year or so. And then I returned to the beginning for yet another pass through this sword and sorcery fantasy series (a hybrid wuxia/xianxia story). And why not? It’s still the pandemic. I live alone. My sources of happiness and indulgence are few. And…The Untamed is purely excellent in just about every imaginable way. It has almost everything I love, except for Norse Loki, cats, Elves, and Jane Austen (and I can get that stuff elsewhere), so why not? Why not indulge? So having thoroughly convinced myself of a right to wallow in unrestrained fandom, I was not prepared for what came next, for what arrived this morning.
This morning started well enough. I prepared for an 8 AM meeting with one or both of my hypnosis students in India, and had a client session booked a couple of hours later. While waiting for the India students to show up on Zoom, I decided to listen to some music. I clicked on this link to TheUntamed’s main theme song, translated as Unrestrained. It is sung by the two main actors, Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, who are also wildly popular in China as singers, dancers, and public figures. It’s a song that has made it onto “my final playlist” even though it is not my usual thing. And then I went on to have my meeting. So far, so good.
And then, in an idle period before my client session, I recalled Wang Yibo’s tweet from January 23rd, which is the birthday of the fictional Lan Wangji, the character he played in The Untamed. (Xiao Zhan’s character, Wei Wuxian–the “grandmaster of demonic cultivation”–is of course given a Scorpio birthday, Oct. 31st.) In Western astroloogy, this makes Lan Wangji an Aquarius not far from the cusp of Capricorn. And his soulmate is a friggin’ Scorpio born on Halloween and the front half of the Celtic Samhain. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this… (and if you do, great, because I’m not so sure…)
Anyway, I found this tweet touching. It showed the actor’s compassion for the character and situation of Lan Wangji (aka Lan Zhan), who will probably always be one of Wang Yibo’s most beloved roles. I have also seen a touching video of many of The Untamed’s cast saying goodbye to their characters. Fifty episodes is a long time to be in any character’s head and this can’t help but have an effect on an actor’s life. Whether actor or audience, writer or reader, I think it is a very human thing to have strong feelings for and about fictional characters. (I know I adore my own and love them like family.) Fictional characters often reveal something to us about ourselves or our situations. I even feel that some great characters take on a spiritual life of their own, almost like demigods. I am not kidding. (But that is a whole other blog topic.)
Back to this morning. Back to the “shattering.” Back to the crazy, sad, and ridiculously obvious thing that I never saw coming. Somehow all this came together in my brain through the translated subtitles to the song–“preparing a jar of happiness and sadness of life and death to mourn a young man”–and the above Tweeted reference to “no more painful longing” for the character’s soulmate, Wei Wuxian.
Let’s talk for a moment about the understated but strong emotions of the character of Lan Wangji. Here is someone who has had his unrequited love literally slip from his hands to fall into an abyss, to be lost forever, just as Lan Wangji has come to realize exactly what Wei Wuxian means to him. (This is no spoiler–this happens in the first few moments of the series). Later in the series we get hints about what this loss has meant for Lan Wangji in the sixteen long years before Wei Wuxian is revived in another form, through someone else’s sacrifice and revenge curse. We see that Lan Wangji has whip scars on his back and a brand on his chest, identical to a brand suffered by Wei Wuxian during a conflict with a peevish courtesan and a giant Tortoise of Slaughter. The brand on Lan Wangji’s chest is self-inflicted, perhaps to bring him closer to his lost soulmate through shared suffering. We also see that Lan Wangji “made a mess” (as the subtitles put it) and “fought everyone” and then is severely punished (the scars) and banished for three years to a cold place, in solitude except (we hope) for a few little white rabbits. We also learn that Lan Wangji has fostered a child that Wei Wuxian had cared for.
In other words, Lan Wangji’s loss and long grief has shaped his young adulthood just as the loss of his mother (and absent father) shaped his childhood. But because he is naturally taciturn and was sternly raised as a “cultivator” of Taoist practices and swordsmanship, Lan Wangji has very few ways to express his “untamed” emotions. Even his music is restrained, though it aches with longing underneath. In fact, I think some of my favorite moments are when Lan Wangji sits down at his stringed instrument to calm or heal Wei Wuxian and perhaps himself as well.
Though The Untamed is based on Mo Dao Zu Shi(Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation), a sexually explicit novel, Chinese film censorship forced the romantic elements of the narrative into a very delicate tension. The relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian is allowed to be fond (though chaste) and perhaps even passionate (though chaste). The pair are called “confidants,” “soulmates,” and “cultivation partners.” Though I am a clinical sexologist by profession and can talk freely in mixed company about all sorts of things, I actually like the lack of physical sex in the series. The sexual tension between the two main characters–which is not even acknowledged as such–makes the series so much more interesting and romantic. Given the choice between the sex scenes in Outlander and the merest whispers of flirtation and devotion in The Untamed, I’ll take the latter every time.
Now I haven’t said much here about Wei Wuxian. I can relate to him as a trickster, as a “left hand” practitioner of magic arts; as a queer person; as someone scorned by a sibling who has become his enemy; as someone who is generally misunderstood; and as someone who has become weakened (he donated his golden core to the enemy brother) and is at times dependent as a result. He’s a gothy teen turned visionary outcast. He dies once and returns. He survives. He laughs. His birthday is right next door to mine. Plus, I’d like his wardrobe, thank you very much. (I’m partial to black.)
So what is so shattering about all this? I’m getting there. In fact, I’m here.
Here is my Soulmate. We met in our teens. I was seventeen. John was fifteen. John killed himself at nineteen. I’ve written about him before. John was more than a soulmate though, he was also a harbinger, a shape of things to come. I had a hard time telling the difference between the two of us at times. We were also very chaste. He was bi-sexual but more into men. This wasn’t the best option for me but that was the breaks. He’d gone in drag as me a few times and selected clothes for me that he would like to wear–and I, I never realized that part of me was loving him and identifying with him as if we were both queer, not just him. That I wanted my own beauty, my own being, to be as nonbinary as his. It took me several decades but I finally figured this out not long ago. Too late for the beauty part…
With John gone, I tried to piece my life back together. I was alone in my grief, mostly. And I struggled with the sadness and the strange emptiness of missing “my other half.” Yes, it did feel that way. I don’t necessarily think it is a healthy thing to feel so similar and bonded to another, especially when the other is self-destructive and mentally ill, but there is no denying that this kind of bond is very real. If you ever experience it, it can feel as if you’ve exchanged soul pieces with each other or were cut from the same cloth. Decades later, it is hard for me to believe that John is not somewhere in the astral or etheric realms (or wherever), waiting for me. But I actually hope that he’s gone on to some peaceful realm or incarnated again into a happier situation. If he appeared to me suddenly, in another form but recognizable to my heart and spirit sight, would I even know how to react? I’d feel old, and ashamed, and perhaps even angry.
So here I am–with his pictures on my wall, with quiet gestures of remembrance, with objects he gave me, with a scar on my wrist from the quarrel where he pushed me into an aquarium, and my ears that were pierced by him with a needle and cork, and a heart still raw. Still raw–even with all the other people that I have loved quite passionately in my life. Who would I want as a friend and a “cultivation partner” right now, but him? Who would follow me into the oaks and make witchery with me, but him? Who could talk to the cats and make up stories told by birds, but him? Who would drink tea with me and talk about “husbands,” but him? Was he my spirit brother or my real first husband, or a part of me that went down into a canyon one day with a bottle of pills and never came back up?
I’ll never know. I can’t know. The mysteries of death and the futile search of the living for clues to the missing beloved–this is why I found The Untamed so shattering this morning. Wei Wuxian returned to Lan Wangji. But John will never return to me. This is so final.
Will I watch the series again, for a sixth time? You betcha. Because there’s some solace there, even with what I know now.
John must have been only thirteen when he designed and made a beautiful maroon velvet dress for his girlfriend, Betsy. Betsy had been diagnosed with a form of kidney disease and either the disease or the treatment or both had made her bloat and swell. She no longer recognized her face in the mirror. She “felt ugly” (as teen girls do sometimes). So John made her a dress so that she could feel beautiful. He was going steady with Betsy when I first met him, a fellow student at our hippie free school.
Empathy and kindness, and awareness of the healing power of beauty: that’s very essence of John, a bright being whose corpse was lifted from the floor of a canyon in San Diego, so very long ago. Always, his impulse was toward beauty and charm, but also toward secrecy. I believe he had to learn stealth, just as he had to learn the art of theft, in order to survive his mother. Though we shared so much, in many ways he was still so secret with me. Like sleeping with me the night before he walked over to that canyon with a water jug and pills, and left my life forever.
I left him sleeping that morning, leaving a note before I left for work, “John, please feed the cats.” I probably added “love you” but I don’t remember for sure. I came home to find no John, but catfood spilled all around the bowl, as if he’d fed them with great agitation. This was one of his last actions before he propelled himself into the arms of death, at the age of nineteen. There was no note left for me.
As I mentioned in my previous blog about John, I was seventeen and he was fifteen (just about to turn sixteen) when our romance began. Our official anniversary day was March 13. Now that I am letting myself remember, the memories are cascading. I have to write them down. I am well on my way now to becoming an old person and his life has got to count for something beyond what I remember. I write now so that you can remember too, even if you never knew him.
Imagine two teenagers in thrift store glam, as well dressed as their poverty will allow, hitchhiking to Fashion Valley in the heart of one of San Diego’s main transportation corridors, to do what many teens do–hang out at the mall. However, we were haunting the stores which sold Irish Beleek china and Waterford crystal, as well as the trendy boutiques. I still have a delicate Beleek shell teacup and saucer, a present from John (not stolen, as so many of his gifts to me were). I think we went to these stores so often because he was longing for his maternal grandparents back in Ireland, and their home apparently had a few such treasures. Those good people probably never realized the extent to which their grandson was tortured by his mother. I think that when he acquired such things for himself, or gave them to me, he was attempting to create a zone of psychic safety for himself, as well as beauty. So today my cup and saucer will go on an altar, as I light my candle for John.
So many stories are embedded in objects, and I still have many that are associated with John. There are those rose petals thrown from Mick Jagger during a concert John and I attended together. I was in a long, pink satin, bias-cut dress from the thirties (very Jean Harlow) and John lifted me onto his shoulders so I could see better. Mick pointed at me from the stage, knowing of course that he was just creating a vivid, life long memory for a fan. Later, he threw a huge bowl of rose petals, and John and I scooped them up. I still have them, in a tube.
And a lock of John’s hair. And beads and beaded handbags…And somewhere, a copy of his death certificate pasted into a scrapbook, because I could still scarcely believe in the reality of his death.
And yet I will confess, when I first understood (after the coroner’s visit) that he was really and truly gone, I felt relief as well as sorrow. All those years of repeated suicide attempts and mental ward stays, and all the other traumatic episodes–like the time I rescued him from a giant man who evidently meant him harm, by pretending that my father was dying and we had to gonow!–or the time he crawled into the attic of the house we shared with one other person, and we didn’t know where he was, and perhaps he was trying to kill himself then among the spiders and rodent droppings, but then emerged a couple of days later, dusty and ashamed–those days were over now.
In my earliest twenties by then, I’d been trying to launch myself as an adult–going to nursing school, working as a sample librarian at an interior design studio–but the constant chaos of John meant that I could seldom concentrate long enough or ever be at peace. I couldn’t know my own mind or chart my hopes and life trajectory without knowing that sooner rather than later, another John crisis would erupt. I ended up dropping out of nursing school. I couldn’t handle all that time spent in hospitals during training, not when I’d just been with John in E.R. or the mental ward the night before. He was even in a coma once–and that thought that I, his girlfriend [assigned female back then], had absolutely no say over what happened to him, but that his cruel mother did, nearly drove me insane with frustration and grief. Fortunately, he did awake after several days.
He punished his body and his mind wobbled even more. He told me once he was seeing little red demons, chanting “bones and blood, bones and blood.” The drano he drank ate holes in his esophagus. He ate a lot of ice cream for nourishment, as a result. He fell asleep on a couch with a cigarette and the apartment he shared with a lover was severely damaged. I often wondered if that was an accident or another attempt on his own life. By the time he ended his life, he was sharing an apartment with “an old queen” (John’s words) who was pestering him for sex but who approved of me because I used a “Diamond Deb” nail file.
But we shared dreams together in a warm bed on his last night on earth. And I never knew ’til later.
John, you left behind your cat Bernard. You left me behind, and many other grieving friends. Your little sister even took your name for awhile. And I believe you left behind a mother who was quite mad, and became even more so after your death. There are very few people I’ve ever wished would rot in hell, but I confess, she is the one.
The oddest part about this story is how I later drew upon the construction of our “second childhood” when I began to have children of my own, how I created fantasy magic and made stories for my children, as well as love. How they had a rich diet of books and beauty and food that was nourishing and outings in parks and museums. But behind each childish request for a treat from my own children, there was always the echo of John’s wistful request one day for pistachio pudding (the cheap kind, from a box)–a request I never had a chance to fulfill. I made some and ate it once, as a kind of penance.
It didn’t taste of ashes, but of synthetic mockery. And yet that taste had held pleasant significance for him.
Whatever karma brought us together, John, I hope it was completed in our lifetime. I am not sure I could bear a repeat of all this, much as I love you still.
September 1st marks the anniversary of the day a San Diego coroner showed up at my door, bearing an ornate gold ring and the news that a body had been found in a canyon not far from my Hillcrest apartment.
This was 1975 (or was it 1976?). These days, it’s getting hard to remember the year, though I’ll never forget the circumstances. My “childhood sweetheart,” John Albert Brennan Suter, who had disappeared a couple of weeks earlier, was that body.
Look at him. He should still be alive, and still be my friend. In an alternative universe far kinder to queer and gender variant kids than ours, he would be. He’d probably be married to some delicious older man, pursuing his considerable artistic talents, including a gift for spontaneous storytelling. The illegitimate son of an abusive, Irish Catholic mother and an Arab university student who probably never knew of this child, from a young age John had been regularly locked out of his house and forced to shoplift just to get back in the door. I heard so many stories of corrosion and cruelty.
And since his mother had kicked him out of the house for six months at age thirteen, and again at fifteen, John had done what homeless teenagers do in order to survive. He was well acquainted with sex work by the time we fell in love. I was older–seventeen–with a couple of boyfriends in my past. John had just broken up with a girlfriend (or she’d broken up with him) who had a mother who had also looked after John, knitting him socks and providing food (and probably a place to stay).
Then John came courting me. We were both students at a hippie “free school” called Paideia, and hitchhiked to parks and various teacher homes for classes. He’d been a friend of one of my brothers first, and I remember my mom always remarking how effeminate John seemed. (Grrrr…) That was probably one of the reasons his mother had kicked him out too. But he came over with his hand stuck in a jar (really!) and wanted me to help him get it out. I am serious. That is how it started. He later told me it had been a ploy. He was fifteen and was homeless at the time. (That meant he’d been tricking for a few months again, but I didn’t know that.)
Whether John was really “more gay,” or actually bisexual, or possibly more truly asexual, I will never know. He never had a chance to grow into and understand his own sexuality without it being a bargaining chip for food, money, or a couch (or bed) to sleep on.
I got him a job at a local free clinic, paid for by a government program that provided jobs and training for disadvantaged kids. (I was also in that category.) Our combined income of $380 a month gave us enough for an apartment in Ocean Beach and barely enough for food. John stole furnishings off front porches. I didn’t want him to, but I couldn’t stop him–by this point, it was part of what empowered him. There were times, later on, when he also stole from me.
Drugs were not a problem, though. Just in case you were wondering.
At first we created a marvelous “second childhood” together, which is why I refer to him as my childhood sweetheart. Every month we had an “anniversary” which was an occasion for handmade cards (we both drew and tried to outdo each other with how beautiful and clever our cards were) and other small treats. John’s imagination was rich with Babar elephants, talking birds, Jean Harlow, and creatures of fey realms. I wrote stories for him. He told stories to me. He also upped my glamour, choosing my clothes for me. He had amazing taste.
And then one day we were walking down the street and passed a grown-up couple–a woman with long red hair (very Irish) and a darker man, Hispanic. They didn’t acknowledge us. We didn’t acknowledge them. I thought they were strangers but after they passed, John whispered, “That’s my mom and her boyfriend, Johnny.”
John told me once he ate ground glass, “just to see what would happen.” I was shocked. It wasn’t until later that I realized he was telling me the story of one of his first suicide attempts. Our relationship soon devolved from our idealistic beginnings (pretending we were married) to a desperate struggle. Our government funded jobs were defunded. I can’t even get into everything that happened next, except that John started tricking again. Sometimes we lived together (we shared several apartments over the course of our time together), sometimes not. Sometimes we had other relationships, sometimes not. And the suicide attempts were suddenly more serious and right out in the open.
After the first couple of hospitalizations in the mental wards of San Diego, John got SSI. But there was very little therapeautic help for him beyond a diagnosis of borderline schizophrenia and an array of medications which never seemed to help much. Remember too that those were the days when being gay or lesbian was considered a mental illness in and of itself.
Yes. Things deteriorated. He was raped (probably more than once). He drank drano. He could be found in the infamous “circle” in Balboa Park, a famous trysting spot for gay men. He pushed me into a fishtank during an argument–it shattered and I have a scar on my wrist from that event. He got arrested for breaking into a posh eyewear store (for Christian Dior sunglasses). Even so, we went out dancing, had cats, and continued something that felt like love, though it was usually (and had always been) rather chaste. He started beauty college through some kind of rehabilitation program.
One of his fellow students sold him 100 barbituates that he would take into that canyon, along with a water bottle from my fridge. One of his fellow students saw the ornate gold ring on television, posted on the news by police anxious to find something about the identity of the corpse that had been stinking up the neighborhood a few blocks away. Whoever that student was, he knew John well enough to direct the police to my house. I suspect it was the man who had sold John the pills.
The coroner left with a photo of John, smiling, so that it could be compared to the body’s teeth. It took his mother two weeks to claim the corpse and arrange for burial, far away. Without a car in those days, I could never go visit the grave. I never have. John wanted to be cremated, but no, he had as close to a Catholic burial as his mom could arrange. John wanted his favorite childhood toy back too (his Steiff teddybear) but his mom never gave him that either.
So, at age 22 I was effectively widowed even though I’d never been married. The coroner just couldn’t help telling me some of the grosser details of the condition of the body, which made for nightmares for years. And so this haunting has continued, though I’ve done all kinds of things to try to stop it or soften it–even “reading to the dead” as per anthroposophical recommendations. (That helped a little.)
My own children were born on dates within a week of each other, and these dates happen to flank this anniversary of Sept. 1st. I’ve always considered that a mercy. For years I could distract myself from mourning by planning birthday parties and focusing on my kids. Now that both are very much grown, I am once more confronted by the stark meaning that this day has always held for me.
But this year may be different in that I now have my pagan devotions–and my gods and guides and ancestors and wights to support me. So I will light a candle in John’s honor and wish him well. We always say “rest in peace” for the dead, but for those who survive the suicide (or other violent deaths of loved ones), there is never any peace at all.