This is a review of Jerry McGill’s excellent memoir, Dear Marcus: Speaking to the Man Who Shot Me. But first I want to tell you about:
My Experience in a Wheelchair
I was in a wheelchair once. It was only for a day but it was enough to appreciate how maladjusted society is towards people with disabilities.
Three of my buddies and I were up in Portland to catch a basketball game and since one of us uses a wheelchair another one of us had to sit in another wheelchair so that we could all sit together. This is one of the stupid inconveniences of being in a wheelchair. First, you can’t sit anywhere. You are relegated to these special balcony areas. And second, you could only be accompanied by one other person not in a wheelchair. Apparently, disabled folks are only allowed one non-disabled friend at a time. So to keep that patronizing ratio and sit all together, a second person had to get in a wheelchair and I volunteered.
Once we left the arena I didn’t need to be in the wheelchair but I decided to stay in it for the rest of the night. For one thing, why wouldn’t anyone want to be seated as you stroll around the city. And for another, I thought it would be a great way to work out my arms. And so began my glimpse into what being in a wheelchair was like.
For starters, people stared. They weren’t furtive glances or discreet peeks from the corners of eyes. They were full-on gazes. Suddenly, I was someone who could be looked at without the usual social restrictions. It’s true that Portland, Oregon is a fairly white town and people of color could be considered a rare sight. However, I had walked around Portland many a times without the kind of barefaced scrutiny that I received.
And it didn’t stop there. On occasion there were comments by strangers directed at us. For instance, one guy just mockingly yelled out as he walked past, “wheelchair race!” I was tempted to stand up and chase him down the street. See if he could outrace me.
Of course, there were the countless irritations of living in a world not planned for wheelchairs. Finding a restroom that was designed so that a chair could maneuver in it, not being able to enter a restaurant without a ramp, just to name two.
My Experience with Jerry
But all this is a small taste of what my friend Jerry McGill experiences on a daily basis. Honestly, before spending that day in a wheelchair, I never really thought about him as someone with a disability. He’s about as independent as anyone I know, maybe more.
He doesn’t hire attendants and has always lived by himself as long as I’d known him.
He has always worked full time, sometimes working two jobs.
He volunteers more than anyone I know. At the time he did the graveyard shift at a teen homeless shelter and worked extensively with a non-profit that helped young disabled people.
He makes the time to do all his creative projects in dance, writing and film.
He goes to the gym almost every day.
AND he was better with the ladies than the rest of us guys combined.
Did I mention he’s paraplegic?
If anything, on the surface anyway, one could argue it was a sweet deal to be in a wheelchair. For instance, no proper wheelchair seating sometimes worked in his favor because he always got to sit court side at the local college basketball games. We boys clamored to accompany him on game nights. Plus he ALWAYS got to sit shotgun since getting into the backseat of a car from a wheelchair is a pain. And one of the funny things about being in a chair is that people push you whether you want to be pushed or not. Indignities aside, who wouldn’t want other people to ferry you around like a prince on a palanquin.
So I never got to see the tragic side of being shot by a cowardly stranger in the back at the age of 12 and not being able to walk again. I mean, that is heavy. To his credit, Jerry keeps it positive, never uses his condition as an excuse for anything. Never puts a guilt trip on us. Never burdens us with the demons and memories he has had to overcome. He was just one of the guys, whatever that means.
I like to think that I wouldn’t have minded being burdened a little. So it was a gift to read his memoir. You might think that reading about how a boy survived a bullet would be an unsettling, uncomfortable read. Or you might expect to be inspired by a heroic artist who learned to “make a martini out of a lemon.” You’ll be right on both accounts. But not because of the bullet.
The harrowing moments are the ones of the casual violence in his neighborhood, and the fear of a strung-out father he hardly knew. And later, hell was also encountered in the months of hospitalization and surgery. “Hospitals are your blandest, least profound nightmare.”
As for heroism, the bullet was also irrelevant. Jerry went on to do what he was destined to do before the bullet, which is to create, and connect with people.
I’m not gonna lie. The bullet mattered of course. The scene where he describes the moment he was shot was gut-wrenching to read. It’s not sensationalized. It’s told plainly, even Hemingway-esque. But the tragic moments are balanced with hilarious ones, like the taxi-driver who asks him about his sex life.
Although it’s a quick read, I had to take a break midway to digest it. Maybe it’s because I know him and I had to process it with all that I know of him, piecing together memories. For instance, his strong aversion to the sight of blood now makes more sense. Or that many paraplegics have trouble regulating body temperature explains his low tolerance for very hot days. Or the complex relationship he has with his hard-working mother who visited him in the hospital almost daily. And a platoon of other details emerged from my memories.
But I don’t think you need to know him to appreciate the depths of this gem of a book. Just as a pure literary work, it’s inspired writing. The narrative conceit loosely follows the tradition of epistolary, or letter, writing. The memoir is written to “Marcus”, the imagined name of the shooter who had never been caught. And the chapters are interspersed with scenes from the screenplay of his life, fitting for a film maker. The prose itself alternates between the dense poetic layering of self-reflection with the fascinating events of his journey and the details of life as a paraplegic.
A lesser person could have remained traumatized, maybe hardened. But over the decades since the shooting, Jerry entered that darkness and emerged with a heart big enough to face the man who shot him and offer forgiveness and even thanks.
Despite the weight of the events, the memoir never dips into sentimentality or self-pity. Instead, the narrative maintains a fixed eye towards growing into the future and healing in the present. More importantly, Jerry draws us a map on one way out of the darkness that all of us faces at least once in our lives.
Dear Marcus is available at all the online bookstores. Here’s Amazon’s link. Honky by Dalton Conley is a good complement to Dear Marcus. It’s also a memoir, by one of Jerry’s childhood friends, in which Jerry is featured prominently. You can also join the Dear Marcus Happening on Facebook. And finally, I wrote an ode to him a couple years back on this blog teasing him about his stint on a popular soap opera.