The Outsiders

••• John MacGregor Unlocks Henry Darger's Unreal Realms

The central wound of Darger's life was the loss of his mother, who died of puerperal septicemia right after giving birth to his sister. Darger was not yet four; the sister was put up for adoption by his harried father, who would eventually give up raising his increasingly unruly son. Darger never knew, or claimed never to have known, his mother's name (or his sister's); MacGregor has discovered that it was Rosa or Rosie—and also that Henry was in fact her third child. (The previous two may have been illegitimate; it is also possible that Darger's parents were not legally married.) MacGregor's detective work yielded information on Darger's admitting physician and diagnosis ("self-abuse"), and he sheds light on the atrocious conditions at the Lincoln Asylum, where a truly grotesque scandal broke out during Darger's stay: a child ravaged by rats, a doctor who died after attempting self-castration, a teacher who used inmate corpses for anatomy lessons, referring to the deceased by name.

The boundless violence of the Realms starts to become more explicable; the inhumanity reads like sublimated reportage. Poring over MacGregor's meticulous and moving study (the endpapers are photos of Henry's room), one thinks of the beginning of The Good Soldier: This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.
photo: John MacGregor
John MacGregor has been on every page of Henry Darger's novel. There are 15,145 of them.

At the start of the first Nathan Lerner Annual Lecture, entitled "The Aronburg Mystery: Murder in the Realms of the Unreal," John MacGregor warns the audience that graphic details lie ahead, and says, "Feel free to leave if you find it more than you wish to put up with."

No one bails, though several listeners shake their heads during particularly stomach-churning patches. In his lecture, MacGregor explores the connections between the disappearance of Darger's photo of Elsie Paroubek, a girl who was kidnapped and murdered in Chicago in 1911, and her counterpart in the Realms, the child martyr Annie Aronburg. Both girls, real and fictional, are conflated with Darger's real sister—and with the fictional, orphanage-destroying tornado known as "Sweetie Pie," whose story overtakes the last 4878 pages of Darger's History of My Life. Patiently building up his argument, MacGregor proposes that the Glandelinians' obsession with disemboweling children has its roots in the young Darger's loss of his mother due to his sister's birth. Their attacks on the inner body can be seen as repayment in kind. The horror takes on a tragic cast.

All the violence in Darger's work helped refine MacGregor's concept of the artist. "That stuff is scattered all over the Realms, so I was hitting it for years," he says. "I think the most important thing it did was to make me take very, very seriously Darger—to stop seeing him as a folk hero or something, and realize that this was a man with pretty serious problems. No question he could have been dangerous."

Chicago-area scholar Michael Bonesteel, who edited and introduced Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, recalls meeting MacGregor in the mid '90s while researching their respective books. "I think he considered himself the senior scholar," he says. Though they agree on a number of points, Bonesteel objects to "his take that in his heart Darger's a serial killer. . . . I think there's no question that he has a mental illness—but I don't really think it's as severe as perhaps Dr. MacGregor would see it."

"Is John MacGregor a controversial figure?" asks Brooke Davis Anderson, director and curator of the American Folk Art Museum's Contemporary Center, who has worked closely with MacGregor in establishing the Darger study center. "Yes. Because in his public speaking about Darger, he often presents him as a known murderer and pedophile. And these are things that we don't know." But Anderson admits that she hasn't actually heard these accusatory lectures; rather, "the controversy has been born mostly out of a feeling by audience members that it's unfounded and that it's a bit inflammatory."

But has MacGregor ever made such claims? He denies it. At the "Aronburg" lecture, he read aloud from a 2000 Times article by Sarah Boxer: "Mr. MacGregor has suggested that Darger murdered her."

"It bluntly states that I thought Darger was a kidnapper and murderer of Elsie Paroubek," he says, his frustration audible. "I've never made such a wild and unprovable statement." He then cites and dismisses a Wall Street Journal piece for a similarly misleading take.

Journalists sometimes like the pose of knowledge as much as the knowledge itself (perhaps explaining why one of the Realms' fictional Henry Dargers is a reporter). In a 1997 Slate piece, for example, Larissa MacFarquhar dismisses MacGregor thus: "Despite the fact that virtually nothing is known about Darger's inner life, MacGregor (typically, for a critic of outsider art) writes confidently about how compulsive Darger was. . . . MacGregor careers from the vulgar Freudian to the idiosyncratically bizarre—for instance, 'The trauma of [Darger's mother's] death was represented in his later life by an obsessional preoccupation with weather.' " She writes confidently about how nothing is known, when in fact Darger left behind a virtual report card of his mental state; what's vulgar is her knee-jerk reaction to anything with the whiff of Vienna.

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