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A Grief Journey of Transgression and Transcendence

As the leaves start to crunch underfoot and the winter darkness descends, I am brooding on the senseless violence of the recent massacre in the Thousand Oaks nightclub shooting and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

Even as I feel desensitized to the ever-growing list of mass murders in our country, the pathos of it all coincides with the upcoming second anniversary of Roger’s death, If he had lived, Roger would be 30 years old this year. He was on his way towards gaining the insights that are associated with reaching that milestone.

My son was a crime writer and crime is a genre that’s a bit of a mystery to me. I never understood its appeal. But I remember well my own existential crisis as an adolescent and young adult, with its sense of disorientation, confusion, and dread. I remember the emptiness I felt about the overall meaningless of life. I remember the lure of nihilism. These feelings are linked in mysterious ways to violence and death.

The Paradox of Freedom 

As a grieving mother, there’s real comfort in listening to the sound of your dead son’s voice. I am grateful to be able to listen to Adam Fuller’s podcast interviews with Roger as part of my grieving process. I miss him so much and he is in my mind and heart every single day. I never want to be far from him. My memories of Roger are so precious to me.

In the interview, Adam and Roger discuss the deep pleasures of the crime genre, talking about the film Drive (2011) with Ryan Gosling, Gone Tomorrow by Lee Childs and other favorite books and movies. Adam Fuller gracefully leads Roger into reflection, making comparisons to American Beauty and the musical superstar Madonna to help Roger to articulate his fundamental alienation from himself, as a young man wrestling with the profound existential problem, “Who am I?”

Roger explained that not only does the genre of crime allow for the examination of topics that are taboo in our culture, it also embraces the fundamental rags-to-riches fantasy, where the protagonist (usually a man) achieves success on his own terms. By featuring a criminal as a protagonist, viewers don’t feel guilty or ashamed of our own inadequacies, as we might feel if a worthy, good person achieved success. As Roger explained it, the crime genre allows readers and viewers to temporarily escape the existential crisis of living, the pressures of society and the inadequacies of our own identity. No wonder it’s so popular.

By imagining and writing stories that embody the transcendent transgression of violence, Roger was wrestling with the philosophical issue about how to gain freedom from his own identity, his self. He was reflecting on the dissolution of identity and the emptiness at the core of the self.  The titles of his highly-popular published books make it perfectly clear: Ghostman and Vanishing Games. In the interview, Roger pointed out, “Freedom from yourself is the ultimate freedom.”

Growing Up with Senseless Violence 

There is no doubt in my mind that violence was a formative experience in Roger’s life. In 1999, when he was 11 years old, two teenage boys walked into the school library at Columbine High School and killed 15 people in Littleton, Colorado. It was a devastating experience that brought fear into American families and schools as never before. Since then, there have been 80 mass shootings in America.  In 75% of these cases, the killers used legally acquired high-capacity assault weapons, semiautomatic handguns, rifles, revolvers and shotguns.

Since then, as a nation, we have done little to make guns less available and so, not surprisingly, beginning in 2011, mass shootings have tripled in frequency, occurring an average of every 64 days on average, (up from 1 every 200 days before 2011), according to research conducted by Harvard School of Public Health.

I’ve thought alot about the paradox of peace-loving baby boomers raising children in a post-Columbine world. For his entire life, Roger grew up in a country that was actively fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roger grew up in a war culture. Along with easy availability of guns and the crisis of masculinity, media valorization of violence and the normalization of online transgression, all these factors have contributed to a culture where mass murders have become routine.

I admit it: Roger added to the culture of violence as a successful crime novelist himself. His interest in crime writing was stimulated by both film violence as well as exposure to the dark side of the Internet. Despite his sheltered childhood without access to violent films or video games, Roger’s teen and young adult years were suffused with loads of stylish film violence designed to appeal to young white men. Before he graduated from high school, like many other nerdy teen boys, Roger was monitoring 4chan, the anonymous message board, to find and share memes, images and new forms of online transgression that captured his interest. He embraced the anonymity of Internet culture for entertainment, companionship and escape and even wrote about his online relationships with girls in the pages of the New York Times.

His favorite film was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a film that interrogates nihilism, the loss of value and meaning in people’s lives. The film shows how the emptiness of pop culture symbols and icons have created a kind of vacuum where all that matters now is the exercise of power. In a world where there are no moral authorities, it’s impossible to judge right from wrong. Killers achieve transcendence through aligning their destructive impulses with the symbols of the professional soldier, the warrior class. In the search for meaning and the search for adventure, the lure of violence can be compelling.

Transgression and Transcendence

I meditate on these two words as the second anniversary of Roger’s death approaches, with the darkness of the winter season upon us. Roger loved the Latin language, and he would have told me that ‘transcendence’ comes from the present participle transcendens, of the Latin verb transcendo (trans + scando), which means to cross over or climb. To transcend is to rise above. Transgression has the same root, of course, but here it designates disobedience, rebellion, and ignoring norms, customs and laws. Crime writing was a way for Roger to explore the relationship between these two concepts.

In trying to make sense of my son’s life and death, I am beginning to understand that, because he was wrestling with the meaninglessness of personal identity, Roger was not truly free. As a gentle and sensitive soul, after Columbine happened, Roger learned to wear armor (literally, our “suit man” was impeccably dressed) to protect himself from a dangerous, cruel and seemingly meaningless world. During his college years, substances probably helped Roger overcome feelings of inadequacy in social and personal relationships and soothed his fears about our increasingly broken and chaotic world.

He didn’t mean to die that cold November night in 2016 in Portland, Oregon at the Edgefield Hotel. Here’s what I want to believe: only days after his grandmother’s funeral, he was trying to dull the pain of grief, the stresses and pressures of success, and all the while worried for his country’s future immediately after the 2016 Trump election. He was enmeshed in both an existential identity crisis and a crisis of opiod addiction that we are just beginning to understand.

Roger deserved a second chance at life. I would trade my life willingly for his if that could bring him back. Oh, there are so many impossible dreams that I have imagined as a grieving mother over the past two years.

But I now understand that everything can be taken from me but one thing. In dealing with the death of my precious son, Roger, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard showed me a way out of existential crisis: I have to rely on myself for creating meaning in life instead of looking for meaning from my peers, society and culture. I hold on fast to “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” as Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.

In trying to live an authentic life in a world where the need for power and the values of superficial style rule over love and justice, I have to trust and honor my son’s death — and my own complex mess of thoughts, ideas and feelings, no matter what.  Working through this interplay of darkness and light —my grief process connects me to all those who struggle to find a way.

One thought on “Darkness & Light

  1. In a way we all struggle to find “truth and honor” and yet our struggles are all unique. To me, this is one of the great paradoxes of human existence. Thank you for sharing your struggles with us. I wish you healing and peace. I wish you joy.

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