I hate masks
October 31, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
Tonight in the US is Halloween, a very metaphorical celebration for me. The light on my front porch is off, signalling to those who wear masks that I’m not approachable. I don’t reward those who conceal who they really are.
Actually, my mother, Tim, and I stopped handing out candy several years ago. Teenagers without costumes barged onto our property, shouting, “Where’s the candy?” Some of them had garbage bags full of sweets. Adults without costumes go treat or treating too. Mom liked little kids in costumes. Here’s my nephew Hunter as Superman.
No mask! It was still just four-year-old Hunter. He’s a grown man now, a complete stranger. After my parents died, my relationships with all my relatives except my brothers Tim and Eric ended. A death in the family will always exacerbate tensions, often to the point that everything shatters.
My father wore a mask the entire fifty-two years that I knew him. Here’s the best representation of it.
He never dropped his mask, except for once. He and I were at his house, talking. Tim had taken my mother to the doctor for her chronically bad hip, so I went over to keep an eye on Dad. Tim and I knew that something was very wrong with both of them. They were gray and ravaged, and my father was permanently dizzy. He was also having some kind of hormonal implosion that was transforming him into my Great Aunt Clarinda.
Clarinda never smiled, and she always posed for photos like that: fists clenched, eyes fixed somewhere to the right or left of the camera. She’s as much a mystery to me as the rest of my father’s family. Here’s Clarinda on the left in 1916.
My father’s mother Angelina is sitting next to her. The Fiegen girls were blessed with great beauty.
Another sister, Rosalie.
Yet they were all very grim people who came to sad ends.
When my father began changing into his Aunt Clarinda, I knew that he was very ill. After he died, we learned that he’d been told about his osteosarcoma—bone cancer—five years earlier, but he’d done nothing about it. Though an engineer, he apparently thought that the laws of nature didn’t apply to him.
On the day that he dropped his mask, he and I were sitting at his dining-room table. He wore his checkered red-and-black bathrobe, because he was spending all his time in bed.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something he said.”
He crossed and uncrossed his legs several times and cleared his throat, buying time. “Well, you and Tim have been talking about moving to Texas or Nevada.”
“Yes?” I knew what he was about to say.
“Well, if anything happens to your mother, I’m, I’m, I’m afraid I’ll have to go with you.”
He wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Of course you’re coming with us,” I said. “We’re not going to abandon you.”
His lower lip trembled. He actually thought that I might’ve said, “No way! Go to hell, old man.”
He was eighty-four; all his relatives lived into their late nineties, so I figured that he had another ten or fifteen years left in him.
“What we’re going to do,” I said, “is find a duplex. Tim will live in one, and you’ll live in the other. I’ll find an apartment. It’s all planned out. If Mom died, we were going to ask you if you wanted to come with us.”
“Well, I sure appreciate that,” he said. It was the only time I ever saw him afraid and unsure. That was the real man behind the mask.
There were photos of him as a child that showed the real person.
Here he is at eighteen months in 1929.
Christmas Day, 1938. He’s got dark circles under his eyes and a bruise on his left cheek.
Maybe he tripped and fell while playing.
Happy masks, tragic masks, calm masks, excited masks, interested masks, indifferent masks—I despise them all. Masks have their place. In performance art.
Not real life.
Both my parents wore masks.
Therefore it’s inevitable that I’m drawn to the masked. That’s my orientation. Right up to this very minute. Earlier this year I was ripped off spectacularly by someone who wears a mask of jovial sincerity. It’s very convincing; I was completely fooled.
Each time I fall for the mask, the person behind it takes something from me that I never recover. I stopped having relationships, then I stopped being a music journalist, then I stopped being an author, and finally I stopped being a documentary filmmaker. The strange thing is, all the masked predators crashed and burned, while I’m still here. In some ways I’m very diminished, but in others I’ve never been stronger.
Wearing a mask will destroy you, if your goal is to wreak havoc on others. I wear a mask out of politeness. When someone asks, “How are you today?” I don’t tell them about everything that’s going wrong. I say, “I’m great! How about you?”
One of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone is titled “The Masks” (Season 5, Episode 25, 1964). A dying millionaire invites his disgusting heirs to a Mardi Gras party. They’ll inherit everything, on the condition that they wear masks until midnight. It’s an exceptional cautionary tale.
Though I hate masks, two types have always fascinated me. One is death masks. For centuries it was a tradition to cast the recently dead in wax or plaster. This is the Australian outlaw and murderer Ned Kelly (1854-1880).
And here’s Kelly the day before he was hanged.
I assume they shaved him while he was alive. The French cut condemned prisoners’ hair above the collar before taking them to the guillotine. Kelly’s giant beard would’ve made it hard to get the rope on right; the positioning of the knot is vital. Kelly’s peaceful death mask shows that they did a good job of hanging him.
Ned Kelly’s gang had bulletproof body armor made for them out of sheet iron.
He was finally captured on June 28, 1880, after a two-day shootout with the police. Kelly was hit in the left foot, left leg, right hand, left arm and twice in the groin. After months of treatment, he recovered and was hanged.
That big iron mask made him think he was invincible.
The second type of mask that interests me is World War I respirators. This German postcard makes fun of Allied gas masks, all of which are depicted accurately.
The captions says, “Caught and captives.” Maybe that means something to Germans.
I really enjoy collecting photos of World War I soldiers in gas masks.
So what does that say about me? Do I like collecting photos of World War I soldiers in gas masks because it dehumanizes them and allows me to distance myself from their suffering? Or do I want to be a masked warrior myself, shooting and slashing and throwing grenades at my enemies?
A psychiatrist could tell me. Or maybe you can. But don’t bother. There’s a good chance that I was wearing a mask as I wrote this. It could all be hooey, a performance that has nothing to do with the real me.
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