My Life in Song: Processing Grief Through the 1992 Hit Disney Musical, “Newsies”
Shimmying my way through childhood abuse, suicidal thoughts and depression.
I was seven in 1992, the year Newsies came out and the year I began to have suicidal thoughts at summer camp. Watching my second-grade peers climb a jungle gym from the bench where I hid out during recess, I didn’t have the words for it, only the sensation of being disappeared by the living; parental neglect had long since stolen my voice, muted me into a ghost who could observe but never participate.
Newsies is a tale of singing newsboys and well-choreographed dance numbers, yes, but it is also one of children escaping the crushing grip of their oppressors. I understood profoundly the experience of being abused like Jack Kelly and the Gang were by the uncaring, megalomaniacal adults in their lives; one day, when I had more power, maybe I would complement their protest songs with my own.
The World Will Know: Few people in the nineteenth century seemed particularly concerned that 10-year-old boys were smoking cigarettes and being sent to jail. This song is an address from survivors to their abusers: Your world will feel the fire and finally, finally know.
Abuse by my parents generally passed unrecognized or flagrantly ignored by the world at large. Several times (nearly a double-digit amount of times,) my mother knocked my little friend Tommy to the ground and began licking his face. His mother watched the display though did not intervene while my mother dragged her stinky mouth slug along the ridge of Tommy’s nose. No one mentioned it being unusual when she nodded off into her entrée at family functions, offered a blowjob to the young man whose car she rear-ended, was so tardy in bringing the dog that gnawed off its own left paw to the vet that it had to be euthanized for advanced sepsis.
2. Seize the Day: No one can break us/no one can make us/give our rights away. My pre-teen years were filled with discomfiting revelations about the humans I interacted with daily: the instructions for us to be silent while Laura’s dad was sleeping and the unusual behavior of Laura’s mom wearing sunglasses indoors were related; Christina’s parents continued obtaining foster children and needing larger and larger vans to transport their expanding family, but wouldn’t upgrade until another kid was dropped off at their house; when Samantha’s mom threw chairs at Samantha’s dad, it wasn’t because she was crazy, it was because she found out Samantha’s dad had been fucking another woman for twenty years.
No one said, hold on to your voice, you’re gonna need it, kid, or, you’re right and your instincts are completely correct, or, the few words I would impart on little Rachel if I could find her in the matryoshka of my sad memories: Don’t Think, Just Get Out.
3: Santa Fe: This ballad, performed by Jack Kelly, nee a fetching, 17-year-old Christian Bale, suggested to little me that there was an as-yet-unvisited place out there that was my real home.
I lived in Santa Fe for a few weeks when I was thirty three and observed it to be the kind of place where brawls between eighty-year-old millionaires erupted in the parking lot of Whole Foods. The landscape of the Sangre de Christo mountains is breathtaking and the sun shines overhead more than three hundred days of the year, but the locals still manage a considerable amount of crankiness. Jack Kelly didn't want to come here, he wanted to get on his horse and fulfill the manifest destiny that was popular towards the end of the nineteenth century, riding West and settling in the best approximation of home he could find. Why the minute that you get there, folks will walk right up and say, welcome home son, welcome home to Santa Fe.
When I was seven years old I was certain that Jack and I would find our Santa Fes. I believed we would leave the homes that made us homesick and find the places that just got us. Jack was hot, quick talking, and streetwise, and I was creative, thoughtful, and obsessively attuned to others' needs, and I didn't see a reason for either of us to remain unappreciated for the rest of our lives. Jack and I had so much to offer the imaginary families that would materialize the instant we located our forever homes.
At the end of the movie, Jack rides off in Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage and we can't be sure where he ends up. If I had to guess I would say he hangs around New York because he never saves up the funds to leave, hangs out with Spot Conlon in Brooklyn, succumbs to binge drinking and rabies, and is buried in an unmarked grave like Edgar Allen Poe in 1849.
Just be real is all I’m askin’, not some painting in my head. I met Jack Kelly and the Newsies thirty years ago and am yet to find the home he sang about, yet to rest my feet in a place my 7-year-old and 19-year-old and 26-year-old and 37-year-old selves felt like anything more than a ghost.