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A ‘Tenuously Reformed Pervert’

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Dominique Nabokov
James Ellroy, New York City, 1989
God engages me through women. My task has always been to bring women to God.
—James Ellroy

James Ellroy is, he tells us, “lurchlike big and unkempt.” He’s a “dirty-minded child with a religious streak”—his first “booze blackout” is at age nine. He “brain-screens” and “scopes out” girls and soon after “stalks” and “side-tails” them. He’s a lonely misfit child who lives to “read, brood, peep, stalk, skulk and fantasize,” in the grip of a “kiddie-noir predation.” After his parents “split the sheets” in 1955, he and his “bunco-artist,” “Hollywood Bottom-Feeder” dad with the “sixteen-inch schlong” live together not in an apartment in Santa Monica but in a “pad.” His dad makes of him a “co-defiler” of his mother: “His mantra was, She’s a drunk and a whore.”

Even before his mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy—“pale skin and red hair, center-parted”—is raped and strangled in 1958 and her murderer never identified, he’s fixated on the female as The Other and has succumbed to The Curse: “I hated [my mother] because I wanted her in unspeakable ways.” He’s a loiterer, a voyeur, a “pious Protestant boy” whose gaze is drawn to “any and all nearby women.” In adolescence his hormones “hosanna” and he becomes a compulsive burglar—a “B&E artiste”—who leaves no clues behind and is never caught. As once he’d sat in his beautiful red- haired mother’s clothes closet and inhaled the smell of her lingerie and nurse’s uniforms, so in the homes of schoolgirls of his acquaintance he lies “on Their beds…[runs] his nose over Their pillows…[steals] sets of lingerie.” After high school he’s “psych-discharged from three months in the army.”

He becomes a Benzedrine addict: “cotton wads soaked in an amphetamine-based solution,” “an ever-tapable source of jack-off sex.” He veers “very close to psychosis”—“I twitched, lurched and betrayed my mental state”—until at age twenty-nine in August 1977 he begins attending AA meetings and quits “booze, weed and pharmaceutical uppers” as well as “shoplifting and breaking into houses.” He becomes a “tenuously reformed pervert, adrift,” convinced that he has discovered God’s mission for him: “to write books and find The Other.”

But this is a brief respite. The sex fantasy is “endlessly repetitive and easily transferred.” In the throes of his pursuit of The Other—“her, her, her or Her?”—the hypersexed and hyperventilating narrator of The Hilliker Curse soon reverts to his default-perve self: lurks in bookstores near the UCLA campus, returns to L.A. haunts where he continues to peep, skulk, stalk, and generally pursue women with the passionate intensity of a visionary, or a serial killer in the making. An obsession with Beethoven—“Beethoven was the only artist in history to rival the unknown and unpublished Ellroy”—leads him to stake out the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where, after concerts,

women with violins and cellos scooted out rear exits…. Single women walked out, lugging heavy instruments. I offered to help several of them. They all said no.

The identification with Beethoven isn’t merely aesthetic but something more primal: Beethoven

was a fellow brooder, nose picker and ball scratcher. He yearned for women in silent solitude. His soul volume ran at my shrieking decibel. You and me, kid:
Her, She, The Immortal Beloved/ The Other. Conjunction, communion, consecration and the com- pletion of the whole. The human race advanced and all souls salved as two souls unite. The sacred merging of art and sex to touch God.

It is Beethoven who would have understood Ellroy’s “deep loneliness and sorrow…. I often played the adagio of the Hammerklavier Sonata before I went peeping. Beethoven approved more than condemned the practice.” Years later, nearing sixty, in the throes of yet another love of “cosmic dimensions,” Ellroy claims without irony: “I’m Beethoven with the late quartets and his hearing restored.” And it is Beethoven who supplies the epigraph for Ellroy’s unfettered and uncensored autobiographical essay: “I will take Fate by the throat.”

Since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (1936), with its blunt, bold, unflinching, and revolutionary candor—“ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked”—American writers have been scouring their devastated selves. The long reign of American confessional poets—Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath—attests to the wide-ranging ambition and ver- satility of the subgenre. In The Hilliker Curse Ellroy never mentions Norman Mailer, whose quasi-prophetic, Lawrentian utterings in The Prisoner of Sex (1971) and elsewhere closely resemble his own “loony language loops” and “Ellroyized” prose in the service of endless self-mythologizing: “Faith and self-will clash and fuel me…. Asceticism and lust clash and fuel me”: “So women will love me. So I get what I want. There is no other truth.”

Like Mailer, Ellroy imagines himself in heroic thrall to a “self-created and speciously defined” myth of sexual captivity and transcendence—the conviction “that I have always possessed an unfathomable fate.” For both Mailer and Ellroy, the male “fate” is inconceivable without a female component, or complement—The Other. (The archaic term “muse” seems to have been retired. But fundamental to this way of thinking is Robert Graves’s notorious remark: “A woman is a muse or she is nothing.”) A self-styled radical in politics, Mailer was astonishingly conservative, even primitive in his thinking about women and sex, while Ellroy, self-declared “racist-provocateur” and admirer of Ronald Reagan, is unexpectedly liberal, even feminist, in his thinking about women and sex: “I’m a matriarchalist now.”

Ellroy doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, as Mailer did in some of his more flamboyant personal essays, but he shares Mailer’s penchant for bombast and mysticism, the rhapsodic identification with a transcendent self: “My nerves continued to crackle at history’s mad pace”; “I was a man of devout faith.” (Faith in what, precisely? Ellroy is never more than jokey about his vaguely delineated “pious Protestant” background that never seems to interfere with his sex fantasy–driven life.) In startling contrast to the jazzy diction of his typical speech is a solemn oracular voice, its essential looniness disguised by the quasi-visionary language:

There’s a world we can’t see. It exists separately and concurrently with the real world. You enter this world by the offering of prayer and incantation. You live in this world wholly within your mind. You dispel the real world through mental discipline. You rebuff the real world through your enforced mental will. Your interior world will give you what you want and what you need to survive.

And:

I possess prophetic powers. Their composition: extreme single-mindedness, superhuman persistence and the ability to ignore intrusions inflicted by the real world. I believe in invisibility. It is a conscious by-product of my practical Christianity, honed by years spent alone in the dark.

In this intense inner world of women “summoned in dreams” to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s music, Ellroy is not hesitant to acknowledge that “I masturbated myself bloody.”

The Hilliker Curse is a sequel of sorts to My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir (1996), Ellroy’s account of his impassioned though ultimately futile investigation into the death of Jean Hilliker, undertaken with the assistance of a retired Los Angeles County homicide detective named Bill Stoner, and also his fascination with the famous Black Dahlia case of 1947: the murder, dismemberment, and “body dump” of a beautiful young Hollywood model and aspiring starlet named Elizabeth Short.

Going through the police file, more than thirty-five years after his mother’s death, Ellroy learns a plethora of details about her life, many of them demeaning and sordid, including the fact that her partially undressed body was found by the roadside in El Monte, California, close by a high school playing field, with her nylon stocking and a cotton cord lashed around her neck—“a classic late-night body dump.” After a desultory police investigation the case was abandoned, unsolved, just as the Elizabeth Short case was eventually abandoned, unsolved, to be resurrected in Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia of 1987, the first novel of his acclaimed L.A. Quartet.

My Dark Places is a brilliantly imagined and executed memoir, far more engaging than The Hilliker Curse since its subject isn’t the author’s unbridled “symphonic romanticism” but the 1958 murder case of a woman whom Ellroy scarcely knew, and its language is less jazzily histrionic and oracular. Where the tone of The Hilliker Curse is manic, the tone of My Dark Places is calmly elegiac:

A cheap Saturday night took you down. You died stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear….
Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.
I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us.

And at the conclusion of what has been an exhaustive, grinding, and failed mission, My Dark Places is a declaration of love:

I’m with you now. You ran and hid and I found you.
Your secrets were not safe with me. You earned my devotion. You paid for it in public disclosure.
I robbed your grave. I revealed you. I showed you in shameful moments. I learned things about you. Everything I learned made me love you more dearly….
You’re gone and I want more of you.

It’s questionable whether The Hilliker Curse is even partially comprehensible if one has not read My Dark Places. Certainly one could not intuit the significance of the lost Jean Hilliker for Ellroy from his sometimes glib allusions to her in the new memoir; nor could one guess at the powerful emotions evoked on virtually every page, and in particular those passages concerned with the child Ellroy in thrall to fantasies of the Black Dahlia—“my symbiotic stand-in for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy.” Where The Hilliker Curse is a stand-up monologue of the “dirty-minded child with a religious streak”—at times not unlike the performance of a carnival geek whose sole, terrible trick is to bite off the head of a live chicken for the titillation of an abased crowd—My Dark Places is a profound and pitiless exploration of the origins of obsession, to the point at which obsession shades into near psychosis:

My nightmares had a pure raw force. Vivid details burst out of my unconscious…. I saw [Elizabeth Short, whose dumped body had been surgically bisected at the waist]…spread-eagled on a medical gurney.
Tho se scenes made me afraid to sleep. My nightmares came steadily or at unpredictable intervals. Daytime flashes complemented them.
I’d be sitting in school. I’d be bored and prey to odd mental wanderings. I’d see entrails stuffed in a bowl and torture gadgets poised for business.
I did not willfully conjure the images. They seemed to spring from somewhere beyond my volition.

Yet in The Hilliker Curse Ellroy is critical of My Dark Places as “fraudulent and dramatically expedient.” His effort at “play[ing] detective and [framing] my mother within book pages” has come to seem in retrospect dishonest:

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