Notes on Jim Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves.
I’m really sorry about
losing control of myself
+ hurting you (+ the, “ahem”,
I know + understand
that talk doesn’t mean a
damn thing to you by
now. (Especially from my mouth.) …
Some facts before things get messy. This unattributed note—handwritten as neatly as one’s science homework, its margin decorated with a ghostly heart—appears in Jim Goldberg’s mammoth book of photographs Raised by Wolves (1995), juxtaposed with a fuzzy snap of a scarecrow-like boy tilting forward as if hit by a windstorm. I think that boy is Tweeky Dave, a cadaverous teenage drug addict who died from liver disease circa 1993; he was, for a few years before his death, something of a celebrity urchin on the Los Angeles streets he used to haunt in search of opiates. He’s also the hero of Goldberg’s epic book, which chronicles the lives of various homeless kids in LA and its environs (shout-out to Echo, Marcos with the wonky eye, Wolfette, Vampchild—“this cute boy who says he’s a real vampire”—and Blade) and comes stuffed with transcripts of their conversations, faxes from Social Services, Polaroids, and other grungy ephemera testifying to the decade Goldberg spent shadowing his subjects. Tracking them through the book—on drugs, out of school, and running away from ogreish parents—also means confronting some of the gnarliest fallout from the Reagan-Bush years: the rapacious mutilation of education programs and social services, not to mention the, ahem, decline of the “family values” they claimed to protect. Tweeky Dave is just the most wretched embodiment of the trouble all those acts can cause.
“I’m really sorry about losing control of myself … ” Raised by Wolves is about what happens when the self gets lost amid all the drugs and dereliction as economics turn savage and parents disappear. Meanwhile, the kids are too spaced out to know what day it is.
Before Dave died, he liked to call Jim Goldberg “Dad,” too. Check that picture of a scar snaking up Dave’s stomach and it’s obvious that his real father, “a biker from hell,” shot him …
Or maybe he stabbed him?
Maybe he did neither: it depends how much you believe the stories coming from that junkie mouth, which, as Dave acknowledges, is famous for telling tall tales. Three hundred pages later, he’s on his deathbed playfully telling “Dad” to invite James Brown, “Trent from Nine Inch Nails,” Stephen King, and “Cher (what the fuck)” to his funeral. This sad event happens on a sunny day outside a Salvation Army Youth Center. Cher doesn’t make it. At its conclusion, the kids release balloons into the sky.
The, uh, “establishing shot” that opens the book shows a handsome pinewood house, hazy, shrouded by flowers, sleepy trees, and seen through some creep’s binoculars. When we talk on the phone, Goldberg tells me he was thinking about Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the toad-voiced sociopath who abducts and kills innocent women after tracking their movements through his night-vision goggles. Lycanthropic vibes: we could be experiencing the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf lurking outside the house of a succulent little pig. There’s something storybook-like, upstate idyllic, about the picture, too, which may not actually show Echo’s mother’s real house at all but a weirdly familiar dream home liberated from elsewhere, giving extra resonance to her claim that what’s happened to her family could strike “any home in America.”
What Goldberg assembled in Raised by Wolves isn’t a real history, which wouldn’t be a fitting tribute to the kids since they never told the whole truth anyway, but something lyrical and a little feverish. Facts get high or vanish on their way through the night. “Some of the names,” Goldberg tells me, “have been changed to protect the innocent.” Verification is difficult when it’s tested against the kids’ habits of compulsive mythmaking, which is also a strategy for survival: I can’t be hurt if I’m not the real me.
Detritus scattered through the book (an unfinished list): a court report with FUCK U ASSHOLE scrawled on it in felt tip; an ad for onion rings repurposed as the space for a story about scoring heroin after dark; a xeroxed Rorschach blot, commonly referred to as “Card IV” in clinical situations and also known as “the Father Card,” that funky monster towering over you, legs astride your soon-to-be corpse; Echo’s old Cheap Trick T-shirt; various desolate meditations on existence, such as “my mom and dad reeject [sic] me […] things are all wrong,” written by teenagers in grade-school hands.
To say Raised by Wolves remains darkly relevant today is an understatement. You don’t need Danny Brown going nuts, rapping on Atrocity Exhibition (2016) to figure it out— “Don’t have a soul / Myself I don’t know no more!”—just revisit the moment where a cop barks at an unnamed and unarmed kid, “Don’t move or I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off!”
Dave later disses the cops as “rednecks with hard-ons.”
Dave’s in love with Echo, but she doesn’t love him back. Familiar teenage trouble except the average smitten kid doesn’t say, “Baby, I love you so much, I’d drink your blood,” while frying on five hits of LSD and craving heroin. Drinking blood is also on the minds of the punk fox Blade and her BF, Tank, who cruise down to the Hollywood Boulevard (“the Boulie,” in Wolf slang) with Goldberg in tow and “stop (always) at Bela Lugosi’s star” on the Walk of Fame “and suck each other’s neck.” Poor Bela was a junkie, too, shooting Demerol for two decades until the schlock film director Ed Wood checked him into rehab. Addiction is a little vampiric kiss, the parasitic romance that slowly eats you up. Maybe, if it feels like they’re the only things keeping you alive, it’s natural to speedball the two kinds of love into one toxic mixture.
In the suburbs of New York at Xmas, Echo’s mother (referred to as R. Sylvia) explains what happened to her little girl. She started running away when she was thirteen—“one night she slept in a Goodwill dumpster”— because she was being routinely molested by her ex-cop stepfather. Once the abuse was common knowledge, “she stopped going to school and she refused to see a psychologist.” She hitchhiked to Kansas City, got dragged to a group home, and crashed back at her mother’s house but scrammed after a little while and somehow made it to Hollywood.
R. Sylvia: One night she called me in to watch a TV talk show. It was that guy with the big mouth. She said she hated him. Got up the next morning and she was gone. Just like that. To California.
Jim: What was the show about?
R. Sylvia: I don’t know. Rock stars, I guess.
There was that phase in the nineties when talk shows acted as a hotline to the darkest regions of the national psyche and simultaneously served as an accidental, shock-faced introduction to the variegated freakiness of underground culture for kids in suburbia. GWAR flew from their home planet onto Joan Rivers. G. G. Allin snarled through his appearances on Geraldo. Marilyn Manson looked like some creature from the moon on Donahue.
A loquacious wraith in a poison-green sweatshirt and a baseball cap, Dave starred in a few episodes of The Jerry Springer Show between 1991 and 1992, eager to be ogled by its audience as an authentic example of what somebody elsewhere in the book identifies as “America’s deterioration.” VHS rips of his appearances still circulate on YouTube. Dave is painful to watch, his body skeletal, his eyes bug-like, his teeth piratical, mouthing off about his real dad: “I don’t know if it was the Vietnam War or he was just crazy.” Somebody commented on the video of his second appearance, “WOW / this is as REAL AS it GETS / n to think things r only getting worst [sic].”
Family drama: quizzed by David Brinkley for ABC News on December 22, 1989, about the escalating problem with homelessness in America’s cities, Ronald Reagan stated, “They make it their own choice for staying out there. There are shelters in virtually every city … and those people still prefer out on those grates and lawns to going into one of those shelters.” Remember that one of Reagan’s ultra-creepy nicknames for Nancy, the first lady, was “Mommy.” If Pop didn’t even have a prescription for the dispossessed beyond bafflement and contempt, Mommy’s was no better. “Just Say No” was her advice—not exactly reasonable when, like Echo, your memory’s a landfill of trauma: incest, lost horses, the routine degradations of turning tricks. The fantastic white powder laid out in some cute boy’s hand will take all the trouble away. Who could say no to a thing like that? C’mon, honey, this right here’s how fairy tales begin.
Dave high-fives sunlight as he lies on the Walk of Fame, a skeleton catching a few rays, as the regular folk walk past.
There’s the psychogeographical heaviness of LA to consider, too. Much of the action in Raised by Wolves happens in the shadows of Hollywood’s industrial-entertainment complex. The kids stalk through Tinseltown’s sprawl like hungry ghosts. On that dismal margin of Highway 101 under the Hollywood Freeway, a slick bro in a convertible pulls up. Poor Marcos (“he calls himself the Ugly Duckling”) fails to seduce him into a date. There’s the Troll squat, and “the old Errol Flynn estate turned squat up on the hill.” Sometimes the kids go to rathole motels at night to get high, nod out, or gawp at whatever’s flickering on the TV, including, as Goldberg notes, a schmaltz-fest about a girl orphan saved from the horrors of street life by some Daddy Warbucks–esque benefactor. Skid Row awaits. And twenty-seven miles from the Boulie is Manhattan Beach, home of McMartin Preschool, whose staff were notoriously subject to a trial from 1987 to 1990. Children scarcely old enough to spell their own names alleged that their teachers arranged hot-air balloon trips to the graveyard for festive bursts of animal sacrifice and molestation. That was the era when wicked children were supposedly in league with Satan.
Annie, Dorothy, the Artful Dodger, even dopey Ryan Atwood from The O.C. all embody the orphan as a supernatural combination of cherub, rascal, and hunk deserving special reward for the traumas they have seen. Their real-life counterparts get treated like hot garbage. But maybe it’s fun being a drug-crazed rapscallion haunting dank underpasses and parking lots, setting your brain alight with freaky chemicals, running from the cops like they’re Captain Hook and you’re Peter Pan … in the right spirit, the whole festering place could be Neverland. See the boy skating who looks like he’s on fire or the Polaroids of the kids grinning. No grown-ups. There are reasons why they “stay out there,” Ronnie.
A snapshot-style portrait from Goldberg’s book Rich and Poor (1985) provides another read on the fragile bond between parents and children that looms through Raised by Wolves. It shows a protective ma and her skinny blond angel son, hands in his underwear, the two together in a desolate little room. “My mom looks pretty,” the boy writes in wonky Crayola alphabet, “I look scared.”
Goldberg says one of the questions haunting Raised by Wolves is, “Who are the wolves now, the parents or the children?” Old questions: Can you be born a wolf, or are you transformed into one by your environment, and can solace be found even in savage conditions, as in the tale of Romulus and Remus, famous orphan bros nourished by a mother wolf? Whatever else happens, a brutal juvenile-detention system assures a child’s decline, turning him or her, as one counselor at San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center tells Goldberg, into “cold-blooded killing animals that can’t be helped.”
Two shots from juvenile hall: an Xmas tree huddling in the corner like some wizened fungus and a picture of a bed that was presumably used in a turn-of-the-century madhouse, its frame bound with suffocating belts. Sweet dreams.
“Say, I hear they’re giving job interviews for the carnival.”
“Yesterday we were walkin’ down the Boulevard and this giant lion walked up to us.”
“She had me snortin’ mousse.”
“I’m lonely. I’m gonna get a puppy and name it Megadeth.”
All the kids shoved to the margins by familial contempt or indifference—or their own private craving for a life that’s a little more dangerous than your average Happy Days rerun—are drawn together into this motley congregation. There’s punks, boys whose dads died in Vietnam, a hair-metal girl in a Rush shirt (the chorus to their misfit jam “Subdivisions” goes, “Conform or be cast out!”), LA goths, fabulous queer black boys acting out what wasn’t even called “transitioning” yet, obnoxious skaters, and miscellaneous drug-addled urchins. Itemizing the contents of his childhood before he hit the streets, Dave lists candy bars, heroin, TV, and stray dogs. “This was a weird family, dude,” he says, “this was not The Brady Bunch.”
The gay contingent is having untold fun. Meet Deion: “I’m so fine, Miss Thang, I made $250 for just sitting in a jacuzzi and jacking this daddy off […] Got fucked-up good and got free food. See, this guy, he cares about me.”
Deion is a homo-hoodlum with a penchant for getting ripped to the max on Hollywood’s best speed and “hubba” (crack). He could’ve starred in a West Coast version of Paris Is Burning. In mad pursuit of his beloved hubba one spring night, he steals a car with a bunch of wild-eyed pals and almost gets shot by the cops. He escapes the wrath of LA’s finest (soon to be infamous everywhere for pummeling Rodney King) and burns rubber to another hotel room where he smokes rocks until his brain melts as the alarm in the ceiling keeps going off. It’s no heart-stopping surprise when he goes AWOL midway through the book. Goldberg learns that he’s cooling out in “some witness protection program whilst helping some former hotel hot shot who likes little boys and girls.”
Another vanishing act.
Three cops roll down the street, seen from a high window as if by some paranoid speed freak.
Whatever the toxic nature of the relationships between teen hustlers and their johns (Goldberg says, “there were always adults preying on children”), the kids devote major time to bragging about their sugar daddies and detailing their fantastic largesse. Cultivating the attentions of these shadowy gentlemen is an art. Some boys invent sugar daddies to make themselves seem in demand, adored, like little children dramatizing the exploits of their imaginary friends.
Calling Goldberg from the hospital, Dave sings the Scarecrow’s ditty “If I Only Had a Brain” but slyly turns (tweaks!) it into a junkie lament, “If I Only Had a Vein” … then the line goes dead.
When Dave dies, the hospital connects Goldberg with the boy’s family in Texas, and he gets the true story. If it contradicts Dave’s lurid tale, it’s just as tragic. Dave was one of a pair of orphaned twins adopted by a sweet-tempered Christian couple—his obsession with Echo suddenly looks like a doomed attempt to capture this missing double, his absent sister. As this unnamed sibling explains over the phone, Dave was born without stomach muscles and had to undergo experimental surgery in a bid to fix him. “He was a mess,” his sister says, cold, “and nobody expected him to live past eighteen.” Asked why her brother would concoct such wild tales about his life, she states, “My guess is David could never distinguish between reality and his dreams. I think this was because of his psychological and physical problems. They got in the way of everything. He stuck out so much that he never grew up. He ended up being a very confused boy.”
To Goldberg, the family hands over the rights to Dave’s remains like neighbors permitting the retrieval of a lost dog from their yard: “Yes, that would be fine.”
“I call them again,” Goldberg writes, and “leave a message about the date of the funeral. They never call back.” Goldberg still has the box containing Dave’s ashes.
The balloons go up into the sky.
“I know this whole round world do not love me nohow,” Washington Phillips sings on “I Had a Good Mother and Father,” from 1929, “and it is on account of sin.”
Still hooking in her first trimester, Echo has a baby with a wastoid called Twack Jack, whom Goldberg calls “a dog-faced surfer geek,” and another with a second dude shortly afterward: two girls. The boys jet—Twack Jack is popping wheelies in the hospital parking lot and hounding Goldberg for drug money when Echo’s in labor—but miraculously she cleans up. She watches TV; she changes her name back to Beth; she looks after the girls. She tells Goldberg, “I like having a place to brush my teeth”: a warm, disinfected idea of happiness.
A home movie of Echo as a radiant ghost, slouched on the swings in the afternoon sun.
An elementary-school portrait of Echo appears early in the book. She’s a blonde little girl in a cotton-candy-pink dress with a cute gap-toothed grin. Next to the picture is a careful little note recalling a family trip as if it were paradise, sweet and bright and gone forever.
We saw anything and everything you could see
It was the best time
We stopped in the middle of
this light green forest
I wandered off and climbed a tree
Nothin’ but bright green everywhere.
That was the time
my parents were happiest together
And I was happiest with them
That was the only time I can
remember us being a real family.
A new ‘bootleg’ edition of Raised by Wolves will appear in September via jimgoldberg.com.
Special thanks to Lauren Panzo at Pace/MacGill Gallery, in New York. Extra special thanks to Jim Goldberg.
Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London. His book of essays, This Young Monster, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, is out now.