Approaching Marwencol . . .
A note about this story
I wrote the story that follows last year for the newspaper I work for, The Times Herald-Record out of Middletown, NY. It was written under what could be called ideal newspaper conditions: I had an entire day to report it and almost as much time to write it -- eons in reporter's life.
My job at the paper is to tell other people's stories. But the Internet allows me to tell my own stories when I'm off the clock. I'm privledged that way.
But I sometimes look around at what I've written and I find myself saying enough already with the personal take on everything. Enough already with filtering the world through the lens of personality. Just as I look at my work at the paper and wish there were more juice, more voice, more nuance in what circumstances and expectations there allow.
So I offer this story as a blend of both approaches. It's not objective -- no story ever is. It's not a cobbling together of multiple quotations and boilerplate summaries. It's got a voice, which is something newspapers can deliver without violating any reportorial strictures against "bias" or failing to "tell both sides." And it has a lot of the characteristics I try to bring to my posts -- some nuance, some texture. Some surprises in the way the story unfolds and how ireaches its destination.
Among those qualities is a very recent realization that what drives my best writing is the search for heroism in an ordinary person's life. That efforts infuses my best work, wherever it gets publsihed. I offer Mark Hogancamp's story as an example of how I try to balance the writer's teeter-totter I've described here.
One last thing. Being able to meditate in writing about writing publicly -- discovering what I think by seeing what I say -- is what I most appreciate about sites like fictionique. And being able to write about people like Mark Hogancamp -- discovering how other people contend with the difficulties life throws at them -- is what I most appreciate about newspapering.
Mark Hogancamp doesn't remember most of his life. It was kicked and beaten out of his brain by five thugs outside a Kingston bar 10 years ago. His face and skull were shattered that night, his body left in the center of the dismal street outside the dismal bar, where his assailants expected a passing car to finish their night's work.
But Hogancamp survived, in the barest sense of the word. The events, names and places of his life had become a tangle of blurred, mysterious images, floating unanchored from the narrative that had once been his life.
That night was an ending and a beginning for Mark Hogancamp. Out of the blood and pain and rage came a new double narrative, one that has given Hogancamp a new and unexpected life.
Even more incongruously, it has made him an international film celebrity.
Hogancamp had to reconstruct the 40 years of his life based on a crazy quilt of other people's recollections, shards of his own memory, random photos, a video of his wedding and journals he'd kept during those lost years.
What he discovered about himself disturbed and frightened him.
He had been a drunk. Alcohol — vodka by the water glassful — had ruled his life. He'd been married and divorced. Couldn't even remember her name.
He had been homeless. He'd lived in a tent near his hometown of Marlboro in Ulster County.
He also discovered he'd had a talent — he could draw. He had worked for eight years designing showrooms for what was then Staff Lighting in Highland.
His tattered journals revealed an artist who favored bold pencil and ink drawings. Some were horror-show drawings of bloody vengeance. Many pages showed a fascination with World War II, showing comic book-style images of heroic images GIs bayonetting Nazis.
Others showed peaceful, even hopeful images of sunrises and mountains, sketched, he discovered, during the lulls in his manic life, while he was taking it one day at a time in a 12-step program.
All of it — the sweet and the sorrowful — was gone for him now. The thugs who'd beaten him had seen to that. Their arrest and eventual conviction did little to calm the oceanic rage Hogancamp felt toward them, toward humanity in general and men in particular.
The anger swelled with each passing day, especially after the rehabilitative therapy he received through Medicaid was discontinued a year after his assault.
He felt like he'd been kicked out of the human race. He had no job, no marketable skills. He was unsteady on his feet. He couldn't drive. His future was as murky as his past. He fell into a black hole where his rage blossomed.
Then, one spring day in 2003, while idly watching some workmen renovate a nearby house trailer, something moved Mark Hogancamp to pick up a piece of scrap plywood. Then another piece. Then a third. He stuck them together, forming what would become the cornerstone of a new life.
Without quite realizing it, Mark Hogancamp had begun constructing an alternate world, a new reality he eventually dubbed "Marwencol."
Checking things out . . .
Today, Marwencol occupies a small corner of the yard behind the mobile home in which Hogancamp lives and a large part of Hogancamp's daily life. It's a miniature World War II-era village set in an imaginary Belgium that exists primarily — but not exclusively — in the mind and photographs of Mark Hogancamp.
The village is populated by his alter ego, Air Force Capt. Mark "Hogie" Hogancamp, dozens of other foot-tall "action figures" of World War II-era men and women whose adventures Hogancamp dreams up, directs and documents in thousands of sequential photographs.
Each inhabitant of Marwencol has an individual personality and a role to play in an evolving storyline that Hogancamp develops with every passing day.
It's a world he created as he's struggled to retain the day-to-day world he lost to booze and human brutality 10 years ago.
Having felt abandoned when he was kicked out of Medicaid-funded rehabilitative therapy, Marwencol found in creating a land of his own devising a way to continue living in a land that had become strange and unwelcoming to him.
Marwencol would have remained a secret world if not for its discovery by a neighbor and fellow photographer nearly six years ago.
The meeting culminated in a photo spread in Esopus, a locally based art and culture magazine. The magazine praised the sincerity of Hogancamp's work, its lack of art-world irony.
The appearence of his work in Esopus, Hogancamp believed, was the beginning and end of a nice surprise.
Then Jeff Malmberg, a documentary filmmaker living in L.A., caught sight of Hogankamp's story in the magazine.
Four years later, Malmberg's documentary "Marwencol" made movie critics' 2010 Top Ten lists at The Boston Globe, New York magazine and Slate.com. It won the best documentary award at last year's Woodstock Film Festival.
Suddenly, the saga of Mark Hogancamp's homemade, backyard creation was the toast of the independent movie world. Mark Hogancamp, a brain-damaged ex-drunk, once reduced to living in a tent, had become a man hailed as an "outsider artist."
He smiles — grins very broadly — at the very idea.
Notoriety has done little to change Mark Hogancamp's daily life. He gets by on a monthly disability check. Relies on a friend to get him to a grocery store every two weeks.
Any extra money that comes his way goes directly into Marwencol, the encompassing world that is his comfort and his pride.
He believes his story can have consequences for others:
"I'd like to show other disabled people who have been left out of the regular world that even at the point where they might want to give up, there is a way to create something, if only they can find what it is."
He takes intense pleasure in the simplest things -- an unexpected gift of a bag of coffee, lunch at an an uptown Kingston restaurant.
He discovered the life that five thugs stole from him wasn't, finally, worth remembering. Hogancamp escaped his tormenters with his body bloodied but his imagination untouched. He's a manchild in a Promised Land of his own design, and, if neither world is perfect, if he still struggles every day with demons like everyone else, ask him and he'll tell you. He is content with his lives -- both of them.
Mark Hogancamp self-portrait
All photos used by permission of Mark Hogancamp. Text copyright Middletown Times Herald-Record, 2011.
For more photos and stories about Mark, check out "marwencol.com."