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you're the magic that holds the sky up from the ground
you're the breath that blows these cool winds 'round
trading places with an angel now


This page is about my friend Jenny. I only really knew her for about two years, but she completely changed my life. I learned a lot from her, I learned a lot from the mistakes I made as her friend, and I learned a lot when I had to deal with her not being there anymore.

CW: suicide

Woozle Meets Jenny

We lived in the same academic suburban neighborhood, but didn't really meet until shortly before we ended up at the same school. Our parents knew each other from the University, though my dad & hers were in different departments. Our street numbers were almost the same – 2719 versus 2715 – but on different streets about 3 blocks from each other. We were born the same year, 1965 (The Year That Was), but about six months apart.

I think the first time I remember recognizing her as an individual, rather than as one of the sea of faces belonging to children of people my parents knew or some other such broad category, was when I was with my mother at the Museum of Life & Science and we ran into her with her mother. This was a fairly common occurrence – running into contemporaries in the tow of their mothers, nothing of significance being said – except that this time, while the the two moms were talking, she was looking at me. There were radio signals going out. I could feel them coming across, but had such low expectations as regards to friendship from interesting people that I filed it along with my other idle people-fantasies. This would have been the summer of 1979 or so.

Fall of 1979: I changed schools from DA to CFS. I was in ninth grade, J still in 8th, so we didn't meet much except that we shared a bus. I remember occasionally trading jokes with her on the bus, talking about various books on occasion. I remember seeing Tigger with her, though Tigger didn't (when the subject arose many years later) remember seeing me. I don't specifically recall seeing C or E during this time; C kept pretty quiet, I guess, and E rode a different bus.

My family visited Mexico for the month of August, 1980; for some reason, I remember thinking about the upcoming school year during that time, and considering J as a potential friend, but didn't think it very likely. She wasn't the only one I was thinking about either, which probably shows how much I was paying attention.

Fall of 1980: J & C & E all graduated to the Upper School. I don't think we interacted all that much right away.

The first draft of this account said "in fact, I can't remember what drew us together. Odd. I'd never even thought to try and remember that. Too painful, maybe?" I remember it now; it was at Quaker Lake – she stole my shoes and ran off with them. I was angry at first, because it brought back the memories of being teased by the kids at DA (as well as a similar incident where kids stole my indoor-shoes in the cloak room in the school in England when I was in 3rd grade, and I got in trouble for running around the cloak room trying to get my shoes back). It was during "silent hour", and I remember being embarrassed that I accidentally allowed a door to slam (Linda Sobsey Belans looked at me sternly and made a "shhh!" gesture), and then angry at Jenny for being the initial cause (while fully realizing the futility of "she made me do it!" as an excuse -- but fortunately Quakers aren't big on punishment or by-the-book rule-following, so the Stern Look was the worst of it). At some point, though, it must have gotten through to me that she wasn't trying to make me look stupid; she was just playing, trying to get my attention. (I think it was after I grumpily demanded my shoes back.)

I started leaving humorous notes in her locker soon after that, generally signed with any of various (typically lengthy) pseudonyms which eventually evolved into "The Mysterious Person Who Writes Stupid Things on Blank Pieces of Paper and Puts Them in People's Lockers", aka TMPWWSToBPoPaPTiPL. I seem to recall something about a note dated 1645 which apologized for the long gap between notes and blamed Ye Olde Maile Servys for slow delivery.

Eventually she reciprocated, and ultimately sent me over a hundred notes. I wrote over 200, I think. I don't have them, though. But I have all the notes she sent me.

For awhile we were a group -- J, C, E, and me were self-dubbed "The Goresum Foursum", a name inherited from two years earlier when Tigger had been the fourth member. We would hang out together on the deck for lunch and in between classes [yearbook photo of J on the deck]. We weren't exactly an in-group, but we didn't feel like outcasts. (Then again, CFS was never the kind of place where you could get away with systematically excluding anyone – not compared to most places, anyway, despite C's grumblings about "cliquishness".) J and C seemed to have this sort of special status where there were a lot of people (out of all 130 or so students in the high school...) who quietly respected them.

This was the extent of our cliquishness: We used to quote from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when it was first played on public radio (and before the books were available in the US). We were avid Dr. Who fans, before we had heard of anyone else who had even heard of the show. (It was still the Tom Baker era, in the reruns they were showing; C knitted E a replica of The Scarf as a present one year [EL, E, and J all wearing it] We watched many of the same nature and science documentaries on WUNC, because that's the sort of TV our families were into, and made fun of Carl Sagan and David Attenborough.

I'm not quite sure about the order of things here, but the following things happened at around this time.

Oh, little Jennifer, I'd give a penny for
What you've got on your mind
It seems like most of the time you're lying here dreaming

—Jimmy Ibbotson (lyrics)

J and I decided we wanted to get together after school, to continue unfinished conversations from school in a less interruptable environment. We were both too embarrassed[1] to mention each other to our parents, so we opted for a quasi-secret meeting place in the woods up the street (about 1/4 mile from both our houses), which apparently had somehow become known as "Egypt" in Jenny's family. Someone had started to build a residential subdivision there and ran out of money, so there were all these curbs and cleared areas with trees just starting to come back. Sort of a post-civilization Planet of the Apes setting.[2]

Eventually there came an occasion when I had agreed to meet Jenny at Egypt but my parents wanted to take me out somewhere, and I eventually had to confess my plans. (When I got to Egypt and told Jenny about this, she said she would have preferred if I had missed the meeting rather than let parental units in on the secret.[3] The Parentals then suggested that I should invite Jenny over after school and we could study together, so we started doing that.

Jenny never liked going to her home anyway, because of the oppressive atmosphere. I only ever visited a small handful of times; one of those times she gave me a brief tour of the house – and then later her mother found out (I hadn't known it was a secret) that we had been Alone In The House Together, and admonished Jenny that I was not allowed in their house without an adult present. She was also admonished that the bedroom was not a place to entertain a Gentleman Friend. I was insulted at being thought of in this way (and also torn by confused feelings of attraction which I nonetheless would never have allowed to take control of me – in part because I couldn't figure out what they wanted, but mainly because her friendship was really important to me and I wouldn't knowingly let anything threaten that), but could barely begin to explain why; the real reasons only became apparent almost two decades later.

Despite all of the anxiety we had about our friendship, and that was placed on us by other people's assumptions about it, there was this feeling of safety and mutual protection that I think we both felt from each other. I found myself feeling unaccountably optimistic and cheerful for the first time in many years. I started standing up straighter, just a little, instead of slouching the way I usually did (still do a little).

Room 3

We gradually became more comfortable with each other, and our back-and-forth notes gradually became more serious. We both felt trapped in a lot of ways. We both felt inadequate in a lot of ways. We were able to talk about stuff that nobody else had been interested in hearing about. (I became somewhat addicted to these discussions, which became a problem later.)

One particular moment stands out clearly in my mind. Jenny had invited me to ride with her and some friends to an after-school event and was half-teasing me about the potential embarrassment of having to hang out "with a bunch of girls". In the middle of this teasing (which was perhaps almost as much a reflection of her own embarrassment), she hugged me in mock-condescension.

I need to explain something here. Up to this point in my life, I generally avoided physical contact from people. This had not always been the case; my mother has told me (and this agrees with my memories) that as a baby and a toddler, I wanted to be held and carried – it was the one thing that would soothe me when I was upset. As I grew older, though, touching became more and more problematic; it wasn't acceptable between peers (for various different reasons), and adults tended to use it in a sort of controlling or condescending way when they touched at all. I'm kind of guessing at the exact process here, but that's the feeling that comes to me when I try to think about why I went from being comforted by it originally to avoiding it completely later.

When Jenny gave me that mock-hug, it led to something very unexpected. In that moment, it somehow occurred to me that I trusted her. I didn't care if she was mocking me or not; there was a connection between us that went deeper than any possible kidding or ribbing... and the hug felt good. So I hugged her back.

In an instant, it seemed like everything changed. Things were suddenly at the surface which had been bubbling under for some time, but we weren't quite sure what to do about it. In retrospect, a lot of the lightheartedness suddenly went away too.

Some people reading this who don't know me very well may be jumping to conclusions at this point, so let me be clear: Things did not become "hot and heavy" or "steamy" at this point. That would have been in complete violation of what our friendship was about. We supported each other as people, and that's what was most important. For the entire time I knew her, if you must know (and you must, because I'm going to tell you) I never saw more of Jenny's skin than up to ankles and shoulders (from the appropriate directions). I was definitely attracted to her, yes, but the friendship was sacred; acting on those feelings would have threatened the friendship, so that was off the table.

Loss #1

Lots of other stuff happened after that which I'll have to go back and read about in order to prompt my memory, so I'm going to skip to the next part.

Fall of 1981. We had been going through some friction. I don't know if it's an oversimplification to say that I wanted more and more attention and started to get too demanding about it, but there may be other important bits I'm forgetting. I was going through serious mental issues which I managed to more or less completely conceal from my parents. I had gotten the idea from Jenny, based on her experiences with one Dr. Zinn (and her accounts of older sister Sandy's experience with being committed because her boyfriend was a psychopath), that psychiatric treatment was a process wherein the patient's understanding of reality was bent mercilessly until, like Winston in 1984, you came around to acknowledging the view of reality which The State wished to have imposed upon you, and accepted that 2+2=5 if that's what you were told – so I made no efforts towards getting therapy. (It wasn't until quite a few years later that I realized it was only a certain flavor of bad psychoanalysis which might approach that level of mental violation.) This left Jenny (after Cindy backed away) as my only source of therapy, and it was too much for her.

Realizing that I was being too much of a drain, I had been trying to reform myself – to avoid pestering her with my problems, demands for conversations, and so on.

Then came Christmas break. She called unexpectedly one day; continuing my vow not to be clingy, I started in with an amusing anecdote about one of the pigeons at the lab where I had been working over the break... and suddenly she hung up.

Then she called back, and said something like "You're not going to make this easy, are you." I asked what she meant, and it finally came out that she didn't want "to be friends anymore". I didn't argue with her about it, I don't think; if someone decides they're not your friend, you certainly can't force them to be. I don't think I even protested that I had been trying really hard not to pester her... but there's no record, and certainly nobody else I can ask. Maybe I did cajole and wheedle. I do remember saying that it would be absolute hell passing by each other in the hallways at school ("no it won't!" is what I remember her replying, somewhat casually). I do remember nearly breaking down, and asking if it was possible that maybe someday, if I didn't bother her at all or anything, we might be friends again eventually, in a few years or something, if I worked hard to be a better person. She said yes, that was possible. And then we ended the conversation.

To say I was crushed would be wholly inadequate. I basically clung to the thread of the idea that we could be friends again someday if I just behaved myself, and somehow managed to go on like that. I stopped standing up straight.

Wish on a rainbow is all I can do
[and] dream of the good times that we never knew
Cathy Dennis

We went to the beach that summer; I was completely unable to approach feeling ok, much less enjoy much of anything, but somehow managed to put up a good front. I spent a lot of time writing long, long letters to her which eventually became letters to myself. (I still have those.)

When we got back from the beach, I realized that I was completely not up to the thought of going back to school and having to be actively not-friends with Jenny, so I pleaded to do something different instead... and made what was probably my first big mistake which essentially resulted in my academic career going straight down the tubes from that point, but that's a subject for another time. I don't know if things might have gone better had I stuck around CFS, or taken a year off; maybe there would have been opportunity for reconciliation, or maybe someone would have noticed that I needed help. I did get some counselling at the place I went instead, but the help they could offer was limited to studying habits because it didn't even occur to me to bring up the stuff that had happened with Jenny.

Jenny Is Missing

well there's always someone you cannot replace

The Grays
"Same Thing"

Spring 1983. I was trying again to integrate myself into the academic world, mostly failing miserably (sometimes succeeding moderately for brief stretches), and generally hating life. It was a Thursday, and I had almost decided to bicycle out to school and, despite fearing her reaction, tell her that I still loved her no matter what (Never mind whether she thought I was too immature because I probably was, never mind if she never wanted to talk to me ever again – I just really appreciated who she was, and would support her efforts to be herself to the best of my ability given the opportunity, and didn't want her to think that I had lost interest in her and was staying away because I preferred to. I wanted her to know that she had a supporter if she needed one. I probably wouldn't have been all that eloquent, but it's all true.) – but talked myself out of it.

The next day, we (myself and family) were packing to go to the beach when I got a call from C (with whom I hadn't spoken in months, she having retreated from me long before Jenny did and for much the same reasons) asking if we'd seen or heard anything from Jenny or had any idea where she might be.

...but you're hiding something deeper you can't face
as you wander around, just feeling out of place.

—The Grays

Because of the suddenness and the coincidental timing (just as we were about to go out of town – and nobody saying "gee, maybe we should hold off on this"), I was eventually able to convince myself that it was one of those things that happens every so often when everyone's all worried and concerned about something but it turns out soon after to have been nothing to worry about. I didn't know what had happened, but it couldn't have been that serious. Nothing serious ever happened in my life. People didn't die, let alone kill themselves. Not for real. Certainly the melodrama of someone killing themselves and rotting in the woods for the better part of a year before their bones were discovered was simply out of the realm of possibility. Especially not my best friend Jenny.

So I went to the beach for the weekend, and when we came back she was still missing.

Jenny Is Still Missing

From The Durham Morning Herald – but the headline is wrong; she was 17.

It was when we got back from the beach and heard she was still missing that I got on the bike (that same small-wheeled 3-speed bicycle she had once found so embarrassing) and went out hunting for a couple of hours, passing within yards (how many yards? I still don't know exactly where...) of where she was later found (possibly even then still alive, for all anyone knows). Though it seems highly unlikely, I still like to torture myself with it every now and then – that and the fact that I had passed up the opportunity, on the last day of her life, to tell her that I loved her. (Note: there are conflicting reports about her whereabouts that day; she might not have actually been there.)

I had been writing her a letter. Since I couldn't deliver it -- part of our "agreement" being that I was not to write her anymore -- it got kind of long. It got much longer very quickly right about then, and even more depressing than it had already been. (I don't have it with me right now, so I'm going on memory.)

The things about that summer and the following year that stick in my mind are (1) the endless speculation -- she often went for early morning walks unaccompanied; what if some stranger had attacked her? someone thought they saw her getting onto a bus... (2) setting these deadlines in my mind -- if you don't show up by the time school starts up, if you don't show up by Christmas... (I think the deadlines were for when I would give up and kill myself, but I don't remember for certain.) (3) The strange, frightening dreams I started having around that time, and which have never really stopped.

"She said 'I got some news this morning up from Choctaw Ridge / Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.'" – Bobbie Gentry

...and then that boy found the skeleton in the woods. I remember my mom telling me about the find, and it didn't mean anything... until she almost whispered the name "Jenny". So Jenny finally did show up – just in time for graduation – and my life felt like it was over.

"I died that day!"

−Buttercup, The Princess Bride

She would have been a senior that year, and the school set aside an empty chair at the ceremony. She had always been terrified of her frequent inability to concentrate on her schoolwork -- and now she was being graduated (albeit symbolically) despite having missed over a year. I'm sure they would have graduated her for real if it would have brought her back, and that's part of what I don't think she ever realized: that her problems just weren't as huge as they seemed to her; she wasn't the failure she thought, or had been implicitly told, she was in danger of becoming. Or were the problems really so insurmountable, and just seem smaller in retrospect? As someone who is hardly a huge success in life, I can't exactly go back metaphorically and say "Look, Jenny – everything will be okay; you just have to hang on for a little while." Because things aren't okay, and I don't know if they ever will be. But still... a lot of people would have moved heaven and earth to save her, "success" or not.

Dreams last for so long
Even after you're gone

−Jewel Kilcher

Now she's the "Jenny Hall Teacher's Fund" or something like that. Another memorialized dead person.

But you don't understand -- she was my FRIEND.

The End

Durham Morning Herald, 1984-06-05 Durham Morning Herald, 1984-06-06 Durham Morning Herald: the obituary

I don't remember the name of the boy who found her; somebody told me, but I was in too much of a daze to remember or make notes. When she disappeared, I went looking for her on bicycle myself, touring the few places we had walked together and then (for lack of any better ideas) the places I used to go by myself. On the way back from one of these I passed through the intersection of 751 and Woodburn Road, and went right past her. I have a vague memory of dismissing a "dead animal" smell as I passed by -- thinking that it was just crazy to imagine she would actually be dead, much less that I could be going right past her.


While a year and a half of friendship seems brief, I suppose it could have been briefer (via). (On the other hand, that person might still be alive.)

  1. At the time, everyone (including me) thought I was a boy – and any hint of a heteronormative relationship caused anxiety for both of us, for slightly different reasons.
  2. It was eventually re-developed and is now the site of The Forest at Duke, though the lay of the land circa 1981 is still detectable in places and I often get weird little tugs in my head when we drive through there to visit Jenny's/Sandy's mom.
  3. One of the times we met in Egypt, I rode there on my bike – a Raleigh RSW 16 with small, wide, all-white tires. It turned out she apparently found it quite embarrassing to be walking with someone who had such an odd bike, and even considered leaving at one point when I went to move the bike out of sight of the road. This perhaps shows a glimpse of Jenny's neurotic side, and her anxiety around our meetings.