In the last several days I’ve seen the strain the pandemic puts my wife, Elaine Schock, under. She has lost some of her routine—regular office hours, Pilates training, boxing sessions, the occasional restaurant visit and, of course, travel. There may be much about that last one she doesn’t miss, since it can be exhausting, but at the same time it means she doesn’t get to see and visit with the people she really loves in her work as a music publicist—Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Mickey Raphael, Willie’s wife and sister Annie and Bobbie, all their extended family and network of friends. Life has changed.
I was telling Elaine a while back that the nicest trip I ever had with anybody was accompanying her to Nashville at the end of 2018. We went to the Grand Ole Opry; the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum; a formal dinner and concert where I wore tails (and looked swell); we had dinner and drinks at the best restaurant I’ve ever been to; I bought myself some new boots and I think I got Elaine something at the same store; then one night—before sleep in the hotel room—we made the only big impulse decision we’ve ever made: We picked out Ruby, our Goldendoodle.
As I was saying all this to Elaine I realized something like that couldn’t happen now—it would risk our lives—and maybe it never can happen again. Maybe we’ll never sit in a restaurant again, late at night in a low light, me wondering if I should get a chocolate soufflé. Maybe we’ll never sit in a theater again or a night club or music hall. I suspect things might improve enough that such times could be possible again—especially when and if a vaccine arrives—but will we trust the world the same way again? Maybe Elaine will but maybe I won’t.
I’ve thought a lot lately about my mother, Bessie Gilmore (born in 1913), and my oldest brother, Frank (1940). My mother began withdrawing from the world after I graduated from high school in 1969. She still went out, met me for lunch from time to time, but it became less and less often. After my brother Gary was executed for murder in Utah, in January 1977, my mother shut herself into her trailer and never walked outside again. She’d had enough of the world. It had hurt her too much. She didn’t trust her friends. She didn’t want them. She stopped talking to them and only spoke with and saw Frank, who lived with and cared for her in their trailer. Her health failed as if she willed it to. Her hands could barely hold her coffee cup. She watched TV, she still kept up on events, she’d still call me. The day after John Lennon’s death in 1980 she rung and said: “I know you liked this man and you must be hurting right now.” Other calls she’d ask what I thought about so-and-so winning or losing an election, in the U.S. or abroad. She’d ask if I was still a Communist. I said, No I’m a Democrat, just like you. She’d say, For all the good it does us. One day she was sitting at the trailer’s kitchen table talking to Frank when her mouth erupted in blood. Frank rushed to help her then called an ambulance. It turned out she had a perforation in her stomach and was in and out of consciousness. She didn’t live long after that. I hadn’t known she’d died until a friend visited me at Rhino Records in Westwood, where I was working, and took me out back to the small parking lot and gave me the news. I felt like I’d been punched unconscious.
My brother Frank had, in some ways, started pulling out of the world at a much younger age, in his twenties, after he’d been drafted but refused to carry a gun and ended up in Fort Leavenworth, until Senator Wayne Morse won his release. My brother was never the same after that. He told me the night he got back that he didn’t trust the world anymore. I learned only recently that he’d been beaten while at Leavenworth for refusing to align with white prisoners against Black inmates. As a result, he was already fairly withdrawn before my mother died. After that he became totally reclusive. I lost him twice in my life for years-long stretches and only reconnected with him in recent years, when he learned I had cancer. Now he lives in a senior care center in Canby, Oregon, that has been overrun with COVID-19, though it has stayed out of the hallways of his part of the building. I don’t know if I'll ever see him again. I don’t know if I’ll ever fly again.
The point of all this is that many of us have been forced of late to leave the world, withdraw into our homes, and right now that’s for the better. Those who can’t handle it are understandably manifesting a kind of normality—they miss the social world—but too many of them also manifest an abnormality in their hostile reactions to why this change is necessary. Some say the caution is unnecessary, that there really isn’t a deadly pandemic at work in the land, that this is a conspiracy meant to turn America against Trump and win Joe Biden’s election in November. Yeah, they really believe that fucked-up shit. This is what Trump has done to us. He has abandoned and pressured us into wards and homes of sickness, he has gassed and chased our friends and families and children and brothers and sisters in the streets, and he has severely and dangerously divided us—all for one reason: The affirmation of his self.
I want to note a passage from Mary Trump’s book, Too Much and Never Enough, which I finished reading the other night: “Donald’s need for affirmation is so great that he doesn’t seem to notice that the largest group of his supporters are people he wouldn’t condescend to be seen with outside of a rally. His deep-seated insecurities have created in him a black hole of need that constantly requires the light of compliments that disappears as soon as he’s soaked it in. Nothing is ever enough. This is far beyond garden-variety narcissism; Donald is not simply weak, his ego is a fragile thing that must be bolstered every moment because he knows deep down that he is nothing of what he claims to be. He knows he has never been loved. So he must draw you in if he can by getting you to assent to even the most seemingly insignificant thing: ‘Isn’t this plane great?’ ‘Yes, Donald, this plane is great.’ It would be rude to begrudge him that small concession. Then he makes his vulnerabilities and insecurities your responsibility: you must assuage them, you must take care of him. Failing to do so leaves a vacuum that is unbearable for him to withstand for long. If you’re someone who cares about his approval, you’ll say anything to retain it. He has suffered mightily, and if you aren’t doing all you can to alleviate that suffering, you should suffer, too…. Over Donald’s lifetime, as his failures mounted despite my grandfather’s repeated—and extravagant—interventions, his struggle for legitimacy, which could never be won, turned into a scheme to make sure nobody found out that he’s never been legitimate at all. This has never been more true than it is now, and it is exactly the conundrum our country finds itself in: the government as it is currently constituted, including the executive branch, half of Congress, and the majority of the Supreme Court, is entirely in the service of protecting Donald’s ego; that has become almost its entire purpose.”
Donald Trump has taken the world away from us, maybe even the prospect that the world will ever again resemble what it once was. It is an almost unthinkable development: The man elected to be president of the United States has taken the world—the streets, the bars, cafes, shops, music shows, travel (he’d even like to take postal delivery), even health, life and family—away from Americans. We are on our own, in our homes, waiting for that specter above us, the angel of death, finally to pass over. It occurs to me that I might handle this better than some because I’ve had an internal self that lives in connection with books and movies and music. Those things have always been an essential part of the world to me. The lockdown has only driven me deeper into those resources. That, plus I’ve already died and come back a couple times—once from cancer, another time from a fall and head injury. Perhaps even more than a couple times.
Maybe each time I’m less present in the world. Back in the mid 1970s, before Gary committed his murders and was subsequently shot to death, my mother had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery—an earlier version of the stomach perforation that eventually killed her. I remember feeling that it was as if in some way she’d already left the world. Later, when she suffered so much more, I had to wonder if surviving that had been the better for her. Sometimes I wonder the same for myself. I don’t want to end up like her and my brother Frank: shut off from the world, mistrusting it so much that I won’t reemerge into it. Right now, though, there’s no other option, unless I want to defy safeguards and potentially endanger others.
But I won’t do that. I have a family that certainly wants to reemerge into that world again, and we have a baby in the house who will, one way or another, be growing up in a world brought lower by a terrible man. He is only a baby now, but Aiden will be one of the rebuilders. That much I’m sure of.
Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.
Lost On The River ::: Hank Williams