[C Magazine, Spring 2002.]


Letter from Chicago


Has life in the American mid-west changed since the terrorist attacks of September 11? Probably. But I haven't been living here long enough to know. Instead I'm continuing to trace the repercussions of a rupture in the mythological landscape of America that occurred about a decade ago.

Everything here — from greeting cards to legal advice is New Age. God still operates, but in a diminished capacity. His replacement: guardian angels. There are two different kinds of angels. Some are the tiny, eternal satellites of God — you know, biblical angels, ranks and ranks of them. But it's hard to take the arcane seriously here (unless it's in the form of a collectible). So a second squadron of angel was necessary: the loved one. Individual loved ones operate as part of a mumbling choir of loved ones, each having crossed over to the next realm like so many hives of dead bees that won't stop flying, buzzing, caring.

These loved ones appear to Americans in dreams and visions, as well as through mediums/chat show hosts such as John Edwards. They always have the same three messages: I forgive you, everything is all right, and everything will be all right. Clearly, spiritual life here has been reduced to hugs. But that's okay, as the main spiritual quest is the unearthing of childhood traumas, the discovery of repressed memories. Amazingly, it is a spirituality without faith, that is, a spirituality with no discernable basis in the spiritual. (The lone bookstore in my Chicago yuppie neighbourhood carries only cook books, financial planning books and self-help books in which the spiritual and psychological are blurred into a single goal-oriented blob of step-by-step instructions. Steps one through eight inevitably involve regaining lost self-esteem. They also serve coffee and tea. And the whole place smells like pot pourri. As soon as I step in, I'm covered with a rash. But as I've taken up cooking and must tax-plan for my retirement, I browse and buy with the rest of them. Enough pot pourri for a thousand decaying grandmothers.)

Americans had been unable to believe in the existence of terrorists. After all, none of them had discovered any repressed memories of terrorist abuse from their childhoods. They had focused instead on the more immediate and real threat of serial killers, alien abductors and Satanic ritual abusers. Perhaps that is why the question asked most often in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks is "Why do they hate us?" and, amazingly, the only answer they could come up with was "They are crazy jealous. Freedom-hating." They never ask such questions of serial killers (they're sick, usually with excess creativity), alien abductors (they're just doing their jobs as scientists/earth-colonizers, both rational, sensible endeavours) or Satanic ritual abusers (they're pure evil, or possibly perpetuating the behaviour of their Satanic ritual abusers, which waters down the evil). This mythological landscape, I know, doesn't quite make a coherent system. But it does maintain the delicate, impossible balance between total solipsism and absolute conformity necessary for the American way of life.