Editor’s Note: In 1998 an unsolicited manuscript arrived on the desk of an editor at Esquire magazine purporting to be from a Navajo writer named Nasdijj. The essay, about the writer’s son who died of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, was published in 1999 and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award that year.
Nasdijj is a Navajo word meaning “to become again.”*.1 This statement is a lie, no such word exists in Navajo, Nasdijj does not exist. This pseudonym is an assumed identity of a man named Tim Barrus who was born in 1950 of European heritage, and who was a writer and editor for the gay leather magazine, Drummer in the 70s. Barrus has been married twice to two different women, he wrote five novels between the mid 80s and the early 90s dealing with homosexuality, before getting into social work, and then becoming Nasdijj.
In 2006 the scandal was broken wide open by Matthew Fleischer writing in the LA Weekly. Sherman Alexie, a prominent Native American author denounced Barrus, saying, “His lies matter because he has cynically co-opted as a literary style the very real suffering endured by generations of very real Indians because of very real injustices caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes."*.2
The Nasdijj scandal came at the same time that the James Frey and JT LeRoy stories were coming to a head, making waves through the literary world. Although neither Barrus, Frey, nor Laura Albert—who wrote as JT LeRoy—plagiarized, the swift public reaction was enough to derail their literary careers.
We came across Barrus on the website Medium without knowing his history. The writing was very good; strong and poetic. We reached out to him to see if he wanted to collaborate. The below text is the ensuing product.
“Trying to write briefly about Carl Sandburg,” said a friend of the poet, “is like trying to picture the Grand Canyon in one black and white snapshot.”*.3
They were friends. They were the best of friends. Hardly anyone knew they were friends. They were so unalike. Nevertheless, they saw things in each other that humanized them both. One of them was of the common people and the American dream. The other was a goddess. The biggest film star of her time. The secret nude of the national dreamlife dreamtime on walls everywhere there were men. She had washed dishes in an orphans’ home. Her mother was insane. He had swept out stables, and wrote extraordinary poetry, a biography of Lincoln and won Pulitzer Prizes. His life as a child had been hard.
Both were bigger than life could pretend to obfuscate. Both had created and recreated their second selves. That was what bound them together. Self-taught. Self-invented. And spinned sub rosa like a thousand publicists whose job was to keep the approved images alive. He wrote movie scripts. She played and purred in them. None by him but he wished she had. They both knew how the machine worked that made Hollywood Hollywood. There were no illusions.
He called himself Charles Sandburg to escape the way the Swedish in him chained him to a box Robert Frost had locked away. He was a creature of the prairie. She was a creature of the male animal everywhere, and she knew instinctively how to handle them. Place was meaningless to Marilyn Monroe and her house looked like she had just moved in. Carl took a place and disassembled it. Creating places we did not know were ours. He was old enough to be her father. She was young enough to symbolize the strictly iconic, and breathless enough to stay vulnerable. She laughed at his jokes. He played the banjo and she danced around the room. Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe were made for each other in the same way Joe DiMaggio was made to swing bats.
This was someone Marilyn could confide in. Carl Sandburg didn’t go to the gossip columnists to blab away, and no gossip maven would have thought to have gone to him. He listened. To the Marilyn behind the words. She was just ending her third marriage, and was having an affair with the President of the United States. She would sing to JFK on his birthday in that dress. Carl Sandburg would coach her through rehearsing for the birthday performance, going as far as to show her how to tippy-toe across the stage.
They were not equals in their disparate worlds. With Marilyn, you were either in orbit around her, or you weren’t. He was a socialist whose many books, an entire library of them, threatened to push the Sandburgs into the lake. She lived in Brentwood. He lived in Connemara, a huge farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina in the Blue Ridge that he loved. When she died, he was distraught. He could not bring himself to believe she had killed herself. There was almost no one at the funeral. It had been kept strictly small—to prevent it from becoming a media circus—but among those few friends who knew her, really knew her, knew the Norma Jeane Mortensen that was still in her when she had been among us, who lived through her, these were the friends who understood that Marilyn was the other her. “When I am her and don’t think about Norma Jeane, sometimes it works.”
Sandburg worked in an upstairs room and wrote his material on an orange crate. Connemara was a rambling place of family, kids, animals, and the lake. When Marilyn died, Carl was asked to be a pallbearer. He was too frail to go, and he never made it up the stairs of Connemara ever again. Marilyn died in 1962. Sandburg’s last book, Honey and Salt, came out in 1963.
Passion may build itself houses of air/And look from a thousand tall windows—/Till the wind rides and gathers/passion may be a wind child/ transient and made of air—/Passion may be a wild grass/where a great wind came and went./ The evening sunsets witness and pass on.*.4
They were their own best works of art. Yet Sandburg was not referring to Lincoln in Honey and Salt:
They are the grand lone ones/For they are never saved/along with the corn/ They are cut down/ and piled high/and burned./Their fire/lights the west in November.*.5
Honey and Salt nailed her to the wall. He would never write another thing. I did not know him. I discovered later on in life I had to know his work. What I knew of Sandburg in school was a dull memorial. But I knew her in every way a 12-year-old knew her and a thousand stories there. I was from the sticks as well, and Marilyn’s death shook me because I did not know what suicide was. That you could kill yourself took Sandburg’s passionate wind out from under me. I was in the top bunk that August morning, and the paperboy had left the paper on the porch. I could see the headlines from my perch and the lurid gift of it was a kick in the ass that it was time to do some growing up.
That people could be themselves and yet another identity, too, meant that you could die a hundred times. How could she do it? She had everything. I would take a shotgun and blow my guts out. I survived. I survived the man who had been abusing me all my life. I was Marilyn. And if I could not be Marilyn, I would be her friend.
I did not know Norma Jeane. I did not not know her. Marilyn would come to my school in her high heels and we would run away together.
She was my last escape. When he was inside of me, he was inside of her as well. We were the Ides of March. Caesar was a Kennedy, and I was in the seventh grade. In addition to the sacrifice, a seer had predicted that harm would come. It did. The Ides of March would have been the first full moon of that New Year. I grew my hair long as if in some kind of cosmic grief that knew the sixties would live forever.
In the backlots where they made the movies, it had been the carpenters, and the electricians and the prop men, and the mail boys who had loved her. But it took a poet to be them, too. The creative hush. Sandburg said it. I drove to Connemara and the house was closed. It is being emptied and renovated. Sheer chaos. Pulitzers in a pile of prizes. I was allowed in to take photographs. Connemara in that moment reminded me of Marilyn. Boxes packed and put away. The orange crate no longer useful on the third floor, but just another crate in a jumble of them. The loneliness had taken up a residence and the laughter that was Norma Jeane moved in.
In the distance, he was still playing the banjo—singing—with his head held back, and she was dancing for her Caesar in unadulterated sin.
Beautifully and decently, like a clock or a violin/ Like a summer day near falltime/Like any lovely thing brought to the expected end.*.6