Leaving Normal
Travis Mackenzie Hoover on My Own Private Idaho

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. The short explanation is that I’m a high-functioning autistic; the longer version is that I have one intense, narrow interest, a series of mannerisms with which I “stim” myself, and trouble deciphering social cues. But the more precise version is that, for most of my life, I have had an invisible force field separating me from what I until recently thought of as normal humanity. The fallout of the total incomprehension with which I viewed the world (and the total incomprehension with which it viewed me) was a constant, not-unfounded fear that something would go wrong, a sense of shame that I couldn’t succeed at life, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness that nobody would ever understand my plight. I couldn’t even explain what was going on: Asperger’s wasn’t commonly defined until the 1980s and didn’t make the DSM until 1994, meaning until then anyone with the syndrome flailed in the terrible dark from the day they were born until the day they died. It wasn’t just that I was different; it was that I had no vocabulary for describing my difference—there was no category for me at all, meaning I was just another fuckup with an attitude problem. And the lack of definition for what I was made me a secret, even from myself.

The connection of all of this with My Own Private Idaho is not immediately apparent. Nor is its relation to the context surrounding its release in the cultural bloom that heralded the Gay Nineties. But the truth is that these two phenomena provided a teenage statistical anomaly the one shred of comfort I could take as I lived trapped in a world I never made. For as a person who was clearly different but made to pass as normal, I could only cry out in identification with similarly anomalous individuals who refused to be put back in the same shadows that they (perhaps erroneously) thought they lived in. It didn’t matter that there was a very real difference between the trash-heap on which I found myself and the far more threatening and moralistic quagmire in which gays and lesbians found themselves. But then, Gus Van Sant himself is no stranger to misidentifications with the Other, as his oeuvre has been largely concerned with an age and an economic bracket to which the director cannot be said to belong. This, then, is the story of how both of us—without his knowing and without my understanding of what was going on—smashed our assumptions together to create my best of all possible solutions for the worst of all possible worlds.

When it first came out, My Own Private Idaho was unambiguously stamped with the label “gay movie.” Van Sant himself was eventually lumped in with the nascent Queer New Wave of Haynes, Kalin, and Araki, but this was an afterthought at best: the tendency to lump every gay artist into one monolithic movement was the inevitable end result of a media ill-equipped to deal with more than one thing at a time. He was more accurately described as the link between that movement and the pomo hipsterism of the previous decade: unlike the more academic movies of the queer new wave, which quaffed from the intellectual cups of Godard and poststructural theory, Van Sant was more into art school faves like the Beats and their subsequent heirs in the category of sketchy dissipation. One of his many achievements is to take the most obvious clichés of the teenage Grove Press rebellion genre—which stretched from the purity of Kerouac and Ginsberg at the top to its embarrassing corruption in Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues at the bottom—and make it seem more than glorious adolescent shock, even somehow socially conscious. So My Own Private Idaho wasn’t just gay, it was about Street Youth, and by dint of mentioning it suddenly became a serious movie rather than an extremely persuasive piece of fetishism.

But my ignorant 18-year-old self was largely oblivious to these fine distinctions. I bought the gay movie/serious issue bit hook, line and sinker, buoyed by the world that was changing around me and the friends who were coming out of the closet in rapid succession. It was a heady moment for me, and the heavy investment that I placed in that new world order is something that seems slightly embarrassing to me now. The burden of identification with which I placed on the concept of Gay—through which I refracted not only my own barely-sensed Otherness but the sexual panic caused by my being shut out of the romantic/erotic arena—could never possibly be supported by the people whose problems were perhaps related but nonetheless distinct from my own. Nevertheless, it was the only lead I had. And so I put on my best Sensitive Liberal hat and denied the nature of my interest, throwing myself into the cinematic representations of my fascination to what was no doubt the silent bewilderment of all my gay friends.

In spite of all this, the film somewhat eluded me at first. Though I was a superfan for Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant’s breakthrough film and a defining moment in my teenage film-snob development, that had been a comparatively normal narrative film. My Own Private Idaho was a more meandering affair, full of awkward stops, episodic bits, Shakespearian interludes, and the occasional intertitle to situate us. I was impressed by the weird autumnal palette (far from standard practice, even in off-Hollywood art movies), as well as the surprisingly gentle, similarly distinctive tone, but the hook escaped me to begin with. A second screening at the behest of some friends (one of whom would come out to me over a conversation on this very film) smacked me in the face. Having had time to absorb the film’s peculiar dream logic, it became a favorite for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. There was, of course, the youthful wanderlust element, in which a pair of young people traverses the countryside, having adventures. That much I got, and that much I digested—but there was something else.

For My Own Private Idaho is the story of Mike Waters, played with doomed intensity by River Phoenix. Mike is not just a stereotypical street kid created for social condescension or erotic fixation: he’s also a person searching desperately for the concept of “normal.” From the beginning, we see him alone on the road, finding his “fucked-up face” in the trees and contours of the open road, finding felicity where others would never notice it, and the rest of the movie is how he tries desperately to find his mother—the normality he craves so desperately—only to have it elude him. The film takes the form of a puzzle without all the pieces, with Mike trying to decipher the secret of where his mother has gone and how he might find her, as if this will restore the family unit that to him represents the safety and bedrock denied him as a street kid and prostitute. He never finds her. His cross-country, even international odyssey—from Idaho to Portland to Rome and back again—ultimately leads him right back where he started from, with no fixed address and no shelter from the storm.

And further: Mike is an outsider amongst outsiders. As a narcoleptic, he falls asleep at inopportune moments, giving him an embarrassing distinction that interferes with his life. But beyond that, he’s clearly not of the street world any more than he is of the “normal” familial one: though he travels with the hustlers who crowd around the chicken-hawk Falstaff known as Bob Pigeon (indelible William Richert), his only close connection is with Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the slumming son of power who is on the cusp of returning to his fortune. This Prince Hal is a close friend and protector, and follows him most of the steps of the way—but his dalliance with Carmella (Chiara Caselli) will take him away from Mike’s world. Despite Mike’s sheepishly announced gay love, Scott is hopelessly, tediously heterosexual—and will invoke his privilege in both class and sexual orientation to leave Mike in the dust. At the end, Mike is on the road, robbed by rednecks, and taken in by a potential Samaritan to parts unknown.

So. A social misfit with an embarrassing medical condition who searches desperately for normality and never finds it while being entertained, then dropped, by a friend who ultimately knows what side he’s on. It was the story of my life—metaphorically but definitely. It’s funny, because I was always annoyed by the classroom insistence that an against-the-grain reading was as good as a literal representation of Otherness. Surely this was a bad compromise, a stopgap made by people with little choice other than to write themselves into someone else’s movie? But My Own Private Idaho not only described my situation, it did it better than a straight social-realist attack of my plight ever could. Instead of an external review of the agonies of Aspiedom, here was a visceral review of the cost of outsiderness when even true outsiders won’t really have you. And with my diagnosis—after more than a decade of a quack doctor, superfluous medication, and chronic unemployment that left me in a pit of despair—I emerge amazed, when looking back on my love for this film, at the immense conceptual leaps I was prepared to take just to give myself an identity.

Of course, conceptual leaps have their drawbacks. There is still the matter of what Van Sant was going for with the grain—and it’s pretty much the last word in problematic. Where I and my teenage confederates were in total accord was the dreaminess of the whole enterprise, the heroin-chic-with-a-human-face that has always been the director’s trump card. One doesn’t look at the film and see the nightmare of an unprotected life: one sees young people enjoying themselves being irresponsible and living without parental authority. It doesn’t seem like such a hard-knock life: though there are a couple of painful accounts of bad dates by real hustlers, the movie is remarkably without panic or sharp edges. I remember showing this movie to an ex-roommate of mine who had lived on the streets, and being annoyed when she thought the thing to be boring. But really, she was right. Her own poetic work, and other work I’ve encountered by people who’ve lived that life, approach it with a combination of disbelief and horror at what has befallen them. Idaho, by contrast, takes grinding poverty and sexual exploitation of minors and makes it look as romantic as backpacking across Europe.

This returns us to the matter of its onetime “gay film” status, which obscures as much as it reveals. The lumping of all gay experiences into one awkward category doesn’t give much sense of the fissures and flashpoints within that experience. This is something Fassbinder discovered when he set his less-than-rosy class analysis Fox and His Friends in a gay milieu, and suddenly opened himself up to accusations that he was defaming gays at a sensitive moment in their history. I wonder what he would have made with the relationship between Van Sant and the young hustlers at whom he gazes, with the director perhaps taking as much from his charges as Fassbinder’s Eugen took from Fox. The younger auteur clearly has a fascination with marginal youth (and not just gay prostitutes) that goes well beyond mere sympathy: he’s clearly found a metaphor for something within him the way I found it in his movie (and in gays in general). And invested as he is in that metaphor—which has nothing to do with the phenomenon on which he projects—he could be accused of doing an injustice to that experience represented.

But at this juncture, I’m less interested in whether his fantasy lines up with reality than how his fantasy lines up with his need. But that interest will largely be frustrated. I can account for my own fascinations, but I will never know the truth about Van Sant’s—even as my teenage self was implicated in them. The great unspoken desire that created My Own Private Idaho will never be revealed to me. It’s the creation of someone trying (rather foolishly, I fear) to speak to his condition without actually doing so—without, perhaps, being aware of what he is doing. I can’t support his doing so under the circumstances, but to the mechanics of the thing I can relate.

This is my first mention of my diagnosis in a public forum. Call it my coming out, if you will, and call this symposium on a longtime favorite director the ideal opportunity for me to square a circle and reflect. But it’s also something else. I started this article as an explication on how an Aspie might have inserted himself into someone else’s movie, but it’s also an example of how all of us—normal, other, whatever—can find ourselves in the slippages between images, the spaces between words, and how hard and fast definitions of ourselves may never actually add up to what we actually are. The existence of Asperger’s as a concept is new, and Aspies have yet to drive a conceptual wedge into the common culture, but with time, we may create a culture as vibrant and beautiful as the one from which I stole my moves. Until such time, I have Mike Waters, and the open road. And I am content.