A Tale of Two Johns
This morning I was listening to American writer Chuck Klosterman talk about a trick of the mind that makes the past seem ordered and reasonable and the present random and chaotic. It got me thinking about two very oddly similar interviews I did in the last year.
Both interviews were with middle-aged women, in lounge rooms of outer-suburban homes, speaking about men that they had loved named John. One of the women, Elizabeth spoke to me about her ex-husband John Mac Acuek, who was born in 1972 and died, violently, in 2014. The other, Victoria, spoke to me about her brother John Texas Hunt, who was born in 1972 and died, violently, in 2014.
Both Johns had famous brothers I was writing books about- John Hunt being the brother of combat sport star Mark Hunt, and John Mac the brother of lawyer and refugee advocate Deng Thiak Adut. Both had contributed significantly to their brother’s success, both had lived in the houses I visited, and the sadness of their deaths still hung in the air.
Elizabeth met John Mac in the mid-nineties at a refugee camp in what was then Sudan; she was an internally displaced person, and he an SPLA officer. John Mac was in his early twenties then, but also a war veteran, having been taken from his rural village at age thirteen to join the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army. They fell in love, married and, in 1998, planned to escape a war that John had been fighting in- and Elizabeth running from- for a decade.
While planning to get to Kenya, John found out that his younger brother, Deng, was stationed in a town named Nattinger, recovering from injuries sustained in battle. John smuggled himself, Elizabeth and Deng to a refugee camp in Kenya, and eventually to Sydney.
John Hunt lived his whole life in South Auckland, in close proximity to his older sister Victoria. John suffered a tormented life after a tormented childhood. As a child he suffered extreme and mental physical abuse at the hands of sadistic father, and lived almost his whole youth in a house where his father was raping his sister.
John was a tough youth in the toughest of New Zealand neighborhoods, and was an exceptional (and regular) street fighter. From all accounts though, he was also fair and decent. John Hunt was a good student, and was always disappointed when his younger brother, Mark, would act up, fail classes or be bought home by the police. Although he never said it, I think it’s safe to say John loved Mark, and that’s why John gave Mark his student loan money so that Mark could relocate to Sydney when Mark had started down a path of serious criminality.
John Mac was the first Sudanese person to gain an Australian degree, but never managed to find regular work in Australia except in a nearby factory. Hugh Riminton, the Channel Ten journalist and friend of John’s told me that he suspected it was because John was just too African in his look and manner. Even though he said he feared to and never would, John Mac eventually took work contracts in East Africa, and in South Sudan once the war was over.
John Mac was killed in the opening days of the South Sudanese Civil War. When the fighting started, he travelled to his ancestral village to try to stop the advance of an ethnic group called the Nuer- a group that had killed many of John’s family twenty years earlier. The unit John had been fighting with was been routed, and John Mac was surrounded and then shot, once, in the back of the head.
John Texas Hunt took his own life, dying in a public and hideous fashion that I won’t detail.
Since the two Johns have died Deng Adut has given the Australia Day address, and Mark Hunt has fought in one of the most-watched fights in UFC history. Elizabeth and Victoria are proud of Deng and Mark, but I think that pride pales in comparison to their continuing grief.
When I spoke to Victoria and Elizabeth, I walked out in a stupor. Both women, very admirably, told me about the circumstances of the lives and deaths of their John, but the narrative and meaning was absent, and I felt, as they spoke, that they were asking themselves ‘how did all of this happen? How did I come to this point?’
I think now that Victoria and Elizabeth could answer those questions, but only incompletely, so they leave the questions unanswered.
In her book The White Album, Joan Didion wrote that, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social and moral lesson in the murder of five…We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images…we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
I think neither Victoria nor Elizabeth had managed to freeze the phantasmagoria, but maybe because they refused to. Perhaps, for them, there are too many elements that would need to be thrown away for a decent narrative, and they’re unwilling to give those away. Perhaps they’re unwilling to sacrifice the noise to find a signal.
Perhaps that’s what grief is, a refusal to give up random and chaotic reality for ordered and reasonable story. Oddly, it feels like there’s some virtue in that.