By Deni Béchard
January 29th, 2013
The film that I most remember seeing I have virtually no memory of. I was fifteen, in rural Virginia, alone in the trailer where my family lived, and I noticed that someone had rented Born on the Fourth of July. It was on the VCR, and having nothing to do, I put the cassette in, turned the TV on, and sat on the couch.
Everything about that day was odd as I recall it, and there’s no way to explain it without going back five years, to when my parents separated, when we lived in Vancouver, BC. One morning, instead of driving us to school, my mother dropped us off at her friend’s house. She returned several hours later, her van packed with everything we owned, and she drove us to Virginia. Those five years that I didn’t see my father, we were poor, living first with my aunt and then in a trailer park, before my mother married an ex-Marine and we moved in with him. I spent a lot of time in school detention, reading voraciously and dreaming of traveling the continent. Though I often questioned my mother about my father, only when I was almost fourteen did she tell me that he’d been a bank robber. My life suddenly felt like the novels I read. I befriended worse kids. We broke into cars, storage units, and a neighbor’s house, shoplifted and vandalized, stole a motorcycle. There were fights, a lot of drinking, and some getting knocked around by my stepfather. I was determined to live with my father, and my mother let me when I turned fifteen.
The father I found ran a seafood store and wanted me to respect him for the business he’d built, but I let him know how pathetic I thought selling fish was and insisted he tell me about his crimes. He told stories of bank and jewelry store heists, and others in which he won fights, with his fists or a baseball bat or by breaking a man’s leg. He’d been stabbed himself, had all of his limbs broken, had been in penitentiary with rapists, with men who’d killed women or bitten their nipples off. His job in prison had been to serve food, and he told me that when the rapists were let out of their cages to eat, he spit on them and their food, but that he was different, that bank robbers were respected. And yet if bank robbers were respectable, his new seafood business wasn’t, I quickly learned. He bought salmon illegally from Native Americans and had me do a pick up from them on a back road at night, a thousand dollars in my jeans pocket. He even had me try to get money with a baseball bat, at a house where a girl hardly older than I was, and hugely pregnant, answered the door. And though he was 51, he had a thing for teenage girls and left me alone to live with one of them for a month. She and I became confidants and lovers, and when he found out, he threatened to kill me, then drove her into the country, with everything she owned in a black garbage bag. He returned without her and said he’d taken her to her family. He gave me two choices: quit school and work for him, or move out and go to school. I chose the latter, but after eleven months in Vancouver, I returned to my mother, even though I hated my stepfather.
My mother, stepfather, and two siblings were living in a trailer in the forest, next to a house that was under construction, and the day after my return, the sun shone in the windows, lighting up the white walls of the narrow rooms. Everyone was gone, I didn’t know where, and I felt like an intruder, as if they should have stuck around for a day or two just to get a sense of me, to see that I wasn’t the same person they’d known. But they’d left, and I’d woken up late, and in the bright trailer I saw Born on the Fourth of July on the VCR and I put it in. I have vague flashes of the beginning. Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic soaked in the rain and then dancing at the prom. I didn’t care for Tom Cruise, not since Top Gun, when every girl I’d liked had been too busy fantasizing about him to notice me, so I had no great expectations. I vaguely recall war scenes, confusion, him shooting a fellow soldier and later shot in a field, but from there everything is blank but for a few crisp images and a sense of discomfort. Why was I watching a movie about a man in a wheelchair? When was he going to heal and stand up and go back to being a hero? Wasn’t this a war movie? Among the images I recall are a bleeding prostitute, a desert roadside, two men in wheelchairs fighting. There was a confession at some point.
Now, twenty-three years later, I don’t know what I remember and what I’m making up. I have to close my eyes and work outward from an image, each one anchored by strong feelings of unease. The movie did nothing that a movie was supposed to. I didn’t feel triumphant but disgusted. Then, when it was over and the TV was off, I sat on the couch, the room obscenely bright, no curtains in the windows. I was afraid someone was going to come home and find me there, and know, just from seeing me, everything I’d done. But the feeling shifted, and as I tried to make sense of the movie, I understood that everything was going to be all right. There were places to put all that I was holding—fucking my father’s teenage girlfriend, seeing his enraged faced, or the face of the pregnant girl through a crack in the door, over the chain, or my crimes, their sheer stupidity that I’d known even as I was committing them, breaking into a neighbor’s house and stealing knives and spare change. I had no words, no real knowledge that I could have shared, just a sense of space.
It takes dozens, if not hundreds of revelations, for any type of awareness to begin, and I would find that same feeling in novels and films and art, over and over. Of course, I wasn’t finished doing idiot things or hurting people, but I found forgiveness in unflinching honesty. That someone could make a film like this created more space in the world. It took everything out of boxes and pulled down walls, my child’s mind looking for the fairy tale, the love story, the good soldier who will become a hero, only to become an entirely different kind from any I could then recognize. I’d wanted the movie to tell me that everything was going to be okay in the usual ways, but it told me just that in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I have never watched it again, or read the book, maybe not wanting to lose the clarity of what I felt. I have only read Ron Kovic’s Wikipedia page, learning that he wrote the book manically, in the fall of 1974, around the time when I was born. I can’t analyze the film in any technical way or judge its merits. But it did what I’m not sure art could ever do for me again, at a moment when only art could.
About the author: Deni Béchard is the author of Cures for Hunger (2012, Milkweed Editions), a memoir about growing up with his father who was a bank robber. His first novel, Vandal Love, (2006, Doubleday Canada; 2012, Milkweed Editions) was published in French and Arabic, and won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, both for the best first book in Canada and for the best overall first book in the British Commonwealth. His articles, stories, and translations have appeared in the National Post, Maisonneuve, Le Devoir, the Harvard Review and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He has done freelance reporting from Northern Iraq as well as from Afghanistan. He is currently working on Empty Hands, Open Arms, a book about grassroots conservation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Film Personal Essay Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood