— I recently received a commission to make documentary photographs somewhere in the United States. I have chosen as my location the place where I grew up, and where I shot much of my first film. Since I am no longer very familiar with the region, I have started doing research. To my intermittent regret, I keep few things from my distant past, aside from the negatives of photographs I took while I was in college, and a collection of books and records. Some of the survivors appear below.

The March 3, 1981 column World of the Unusual by “famed Romanian psychic” Pauline Bendit included the following item:

A woman kept her mother’s mummified body on a couch in her living room for 10 months and told stunned cops it was her voodoo doll. Police Chief Addison Woods of Massillon, Ohio, says he went to Helen Merry’s home after her uncle, Jim Harris, said she had been acting strangely. Jim said the woman wouldn’t let him in the house and worried about her mother, his sister. Cops said they entered the home and found Lena Merry, 83, dead on the couch. Her daughter, Helen, 60, told them the body was her voodoo doll and that she didn’t know where her mother was.

These women were once my neighbors. Every summer, I used to see Helen gathering dandelions in our yard. I was a child when I saw her for the first time, and she explained to me that the greens were good for salad. I thought that was odd, since my family’s salads were iceberg lettuce from the supermarket. I understood her name as “Miss Mary.” I didn’t know her correct surname until I read it in the newspaper. Apparently, her story got national attention, and not just in the tabloids. When I went away to college, I discovered that the only association anyone had with my home town was its famous “voodoo doll.” Helen Merry died in 1993 at age 73.

Semiotext(e), vol.4, no.1 (1981)

I didn’t see New York City until I was an adult. My parents spent part of their honeymoon in New York and didn’t enjoy it, so we never went there on family vacations. Had I any inkling of what disasters were in store, I would have lingered a while and soaked up the atmosphere of Times Square or the West Village. Instead, I haunted the Collective for Living Cinema, St. Mark’s Bookshop, and sometimes Lincoln Center. On one of my first trips to New York, I bought this issue of Semiotext(e). Of its contents I was most fascinated by the case study of a masochist who, under his “respectable” clothing, had been thoroughly tattooed and mutilated. When I saw Kathryn Bigelow deliver her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ceremony of 2009, I thought of her name on the masthead of this journal and remembered that she had first come to Hollywood hoping to make a film adaptation of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.

June 1983, Massillon, Ohio

I was in downtown Massillon shooting for a photography class when this kid asked me if I wanted to see a picture. I said yes, and he retrieved a creased “beaver shot” from his back pocket. The boy in the photograph must be nearly middle-aged by now. I wonder what has become of him, and I invent possibilities: he watches Fox News and disdains the “brown menace” of California, a place he barely knows; he sucks off married men he meets online and drinks at the area’s only gay bar, once called Booby’s Why Not Club, now surely called something else; he got the hell out of town, landed in the Inland Empire or the Metroplex, and searched in vain for decent work; he went to an Ivy League school, then worked as a producer in the adult video industry before it all went bust. In pursuit of the American Dream, he may have done all of the above, though not necessarily in the order listed.

Jess, ONCE UPON A TIME… FOR ROBERT, 1966, collage. In Michael Auping, JESS: PASTE-UPS (AND ASSEMBLIES) 1951-1983. (Sarasota: Ringling Museum of Art, 1983) p.77

During the 1980s, I saw a Jess exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and his work made a strong impression on me, but to this day, I still haven’t found a worthy use for its inspiration. At the time I wasn’t aware that Jess had dedicated Once Upon a Time… to his lover, the poet Robert Duncan. The two created a gay bohemian gesamtkunstwerk at various locations around San Francisco. When he was 17, Stan Brakhage stayed in their basement and had the transcendent experience that led to him becoming the great American filmmaker. Wallace Berman sought refuge in their house after the LAPD closed down his Ferus Gallery exhibition for alleged obscenity. Jess and Robert Duncan met in 1949, and they came to reside together at 3267 Twentieth Street in the Mission District until Duncan died in 1988. Jess passed away in 2004.

THE SMITHS, album released February 20, 1984 by Rough Trade Records (Rough 61)

The Smiths’ first album suggests the world of a working class youth with a taste for revenge. There is no role for him to play in the industrial wasteland where he was raised, so he writes his own story. He assumes poses that will be useful when fame and fortune beckon. He tries to avoid being beaten up or ground down. He wants to relive the old school days, this time with a sense of mastery. He relies on the favors of older men and ultimately resents the situation, or perhaps he only fantasizes about it. He rejects the advances of well-meaning female friends. He falls into the abyss of unrequited passion. A sense of menace pervades the scene, but the action remains unconsummated.

William E. Jones, born 1962 in Ohio, now lives and works in Los Angeles. His films and videos include MASSILLON, FINISHED, THE FALL OF COMMUNISM AS SEEN IN GAY PORNOGRAPHY and IS IT REALLY SO STRANGE?. His work has been shown at Tate Modern, Cinémathèque française, Musée du Louvre, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Sundance Film Festival, Whitney Museum of American Art and Museum of Modern Art, with retrospectives at Anthology Film Archives (2010), Austrian Film Museum and Oberhausen Film Festival (2011). His books include KILLED: REJECTED IMAGES OF THE FARM SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (2010) and HALSTED PLAYS HIMSELF, forthcoming in 2011.