The Observatory

The Truth Shall Set You Laughing

Jeremiah Horrigan

Jeremiah Horrigan
New Paltz, New York, USA
February 04
Working Copy
Former Knight of the Altar, St. Martin's parish in South Buffalo, NY. Old enough to remember ducking-and-covering from the nukes that Sister Jeanne assured us were coming our way, defending Santa Claus until age 10, hating playing sports, wanting to fly, escaping to Westchester County for three years, re-escaping to Buffalo for most of high school, escaping to Fordham U long enough to drop out, escaping school, getting political, getting arrested, getting tried, convicted and released for crimes against the draft. Husband to Patty, father to Grady and Annie. Housepainter, cab driver, idiot, then newspaper reporter in Poughkeepsie, years of freelancing (Sports Illustrated, New York Times, Negligent Mother Magazine) and shameful indulgence, followed finally by 18 more years of reporting, column-writing, some awards, discoveries large and small along the way, including these: Sister Jeanne was full of beans, writing is good for the soul and I'm the luckiest man alive.


Jeremiah Horrigan's Links
FEBRUARY 22, 2011 12:32AM

Why I Write: a Meditation and a Story

Rate: 11 Flag


                  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 . . . 

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 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 Hogancam 

           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 ""






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I think that like Mark, many here at OS have had to build another world, another narrative, to piece together the scraps of our lives and make them more peaceful and meaningful.
Fabulous. I loved everything about this Jeremiah. The story, the writing, the meditativness, the journalism.....
an astonishing post. Really, Jeremiah, this is one of the most exceptional essays ever on OS. Fine writing, you let nothing get in the way pf telling this story. You prove that for all its merits, "blogging" style has a long way to go to match the effectiveness of straight-ahead journalism.

And what a story. I want to meet Jeff, visit marwencol with him. This supports something I have long observed: therapy must come from context and keep the context to be effective. And it must incorporate positive activity. Yakking in an office has limited benefit.

Such remarkable questions this raises. Like: was it "easy" for him to not drink anymore, since he forgot he was a drinker?
Back from The Daily Grind. It seemed like an eon, but not the good kind.

Oryoki: What an intriguing and thoughtful response. I see the truth of it and have, now that I think about it, felt that way too. And it leads me to believe that if we disagree, it's only a matter of degree. Certainly the search for meaning is at the root of both (or all?) our writing pursuits.

Trilogy: Thank you my friend.

Greg: Whew. One of these days I'm going to write about how important responses are to the "process" we practice hereabouts. For instance: notes like yours that open up avenues of insight that allow the the story to expand.

On the question of journalism vs. blogging -- wouldn't it be a gas if blogging required more of what journalism demands and journalism would loosen up and incorporate the intimacy that blogging allows? Traditionally, you could see that intimacy at work in journalism with newspaper columnists like Pete Hamill, whose view was inclusive and humane above all. A regular guy, as they say in Brooklyn. The same spirit lived in a guy I worked for named Mike Levine, who could speak to ordinary folk without condescension. (His motto: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With facts, I might add, not mere opinion) For all the proliferation of opportunity the web makes available, there are still very few voices that can match them (although I could name a few of my acquaintance).

I'm getting carried away. Still: "yakking in an office has limited benefit." Mark is living testimony. He was given a taste of useful therapy and then it was ripped away from him under Medicaid regs. His heroism was in discovering his own therapy. Being noticed by the art and film world was serendipitous and a pleasure for him, but he would have put himself back together if no one else had never noticed. We're each of us mysteries to ourselves, and Mark's determined voyage of self-discovery is an inspiration to me.

Thanks again my friend. You going to be at the Bistro this weekend?
This is a stunning piece of work. The spot-on reflections on writing framing the story of somebody who really did build their own world. I'm imagining just how deep Mark must have reached into his own should to do this---and the good that comes from it. This piece exemplifies what's best about the creative process---it get other people to think. One way to leave the world better than we found it.
Jeremiah, I love your sensitive journalism, the heroism quietly celebrated here, the way you leave such a small personal footprint on the story and a large print on my soul. It says so much about you - all of which I'm drawn to and trust. You captured the man behind the portrait, the spirit that formed the story. This made me cry because it went so deep. Mark is an inspiration, a true hero. Thank you for bringing him here.
"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. "
Jeremiah, I love your sensitive journalism, the heroism quietly celebrated here, the way you leave such a small personal footprint on the story and a large print on my soul. It says so much about you - all of which I'm drawn to and trust. You captured the man behind the portrait, the spirit that formed the story. This made me cry because it went so deep. Mark is an inspiration, a true hero. Thank you for bringing him here.
"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. "
A beautiful piece, Jeremiah, and its themes are so close to my heart these days. In your opening note, you also raise such an interesting question about the tension between the personal inflection of blog posts or memoir and the more distanced voice of a journalistic feature. I would say that you did a terrific job of infusing this feature with your own voice and your perspective.

While I often think that use of the first person in journalistic features can open up a subject, it also can be a crutch for loosening one's writing style and sounding less distanced. You've shown that a good journalist has a heart and soul as well as a pair of eyes to record what he sees. Bravo! And, oh, how I wish you could talk to the students in my current magazine-writing class... Rated
What an amazing, inspirational story. I will look for the DVD. It's just the sort of thing I love to watch.

And... "Finding out what I think by seeing what I say." Well that's a great way to explain the lure of blogging, how if you're doing it right, it's as revelatory for you as it is for anyone reading.
Roger: Thanks man. The photos here hardly do justice to Mark's creativity. And resourcefulness. He's been creating Marwencol for years, his own writer/producer/director/photographer. He lives in a trailer that's seen better days and depends on SSI to see him through. But really, he lives in Marwencol. When he talks about it and when he showed me some of his characters, I never saw a man look happier in my life. When someone opens up to you like that, and I know you know this, you can't help but respond in kind & give "the story" the best you've got. And there's no better feeling in anyone's world.

Maria: What a lovely way to describe what I've been struggling to get at in this post-and-response: to leave a small personal footprint on the story, with the hope that it would have an impact on the reader. You took the words right out of my mind.

Martha: High praise from someone who, in the words of H. L. Davis, has so deeply "studied on" the art & craft of writing. Thank you.
I'm glad you mentioned the word "feature," because that is exactly where this piece hails from -- the features department I once worked in which allowed and encouraged and even demanded length & depth & voice.
Needless to say, while features are still written, the features department, at least at my paper, is long gone. From my days as a cub, that's where I learned to write. I broke the sexual barrier at my first paper back in the '70s by being the first male to join the features department there. And -- I know you'll appreciate this one-- the last time I joined one, about 15 years ago, my tough-talking, 5-W-driven city editor told me "You don't want to go there -- that's where the GIRLS are,"
I could only nod my head and smile.

Bell: I wish I could lay claim to that phrase but it belongs to E. M. Forster (some say W. H. Auden). I pass it along at every opportunity because I believe it's as true a statement about writing as ever I've seen. And yes, it's more likely to enter the picture for folks who post (I despise the term "blog). Way more likely, as I know you know.
It's an interesting story, Jeremiah, and I can understand your fascination with it, but being someone who did newspaper early in his existence (mostly high school and college papers, and several courses in journalism, I mean, not a career but a very zealous hobby among people who understood professionalism), the prelude is the most interesting part for me. Partially it's nostalgic, but partly also it appeals to the part in me that thinks things like this should be taught more as formal disciplines with not just gimicky knowledge but wisdom passed down from those who have been there to those who aspire to respectfully stand in their shoes. Such philosophy of journalism is fascinating and lately much neglected, though as you know it used to be so much different and much more rigorously taught before it all sort of got knocked apart by do-it-yourselfers (possibly to include myself, depending on how you count). So I really enjoyed you adding that angle on things. Count me as one of them willing to listen eagerly to those like yourself who've got perspective and experience to share on matters like these.

I do think there's an angle in the ensuing story that would have sounded utterly self-serving and quite different if told by himself.

Thanks for writing both pieces and for offering them as nice unit.
Kent: Thanks for your ever-scrupulous insights. You're correct if you detect a bit of nostalgia on my part for the old days aand the old ways, though many of theose old ways were stifling for reader & writer alike. Your description of passing knowledge based on experience is exactly what I've argued for within & without the newsroom. I taught feature writing a decade ago as an adjunct at the local state college & loved it. It might have been a career-changer for me but for my lack of anything beyond an English BA. Credentials are all that matter in the halls of academe, which is why those halls ring so hollow these days.
Amazing for its detailed recounting and the heart...