published Friday, April 4th, 2014

Cook: Lonely skeletons: what we can learn from the mysterious death of identical twin brothers

It is the saddest of ironies: twin brothers in Red Bank who tried to live the most private lives possible are now the talk of the town, known across Chattanooga and beyond.

"They just wanted to be left alone," said Linda Maffett, a neighbor.

For years, they were. The drapes never opened. The lights never on. Few visitors, if any. The brothers -- Garry and Larry Johnson, identical twins -- were living their anonymous lives in their anonymous home in the gentle neighborhood on Acorn Court.

Then, they died. And now, thousands and thousands of Americans know about it, as headlines from San Francisco to New York have spotlighted the news: Their twin skeletons were discovered several days ago, having been decomposing in their living room recliners since perhaps as long as 2011.

"Carbon monoxide poisoning," one person guessed.

Why are we drawn to this story? While they were alive, the brothers would have turned no heads, slipping through Chattanooga like ghosts. Think the New York Daily News would have headlined them while they were living?

But their death ... their bizarre, intimate, Faulkner-esque death captures our attention in powerful ways. Suddenly, we've all become their neighbors, peering onto news feeds as if from across the street, whispering to one another about them through Facebook, as if from the front porch.

We ask: Why didn't anyone notice them?

We wonder: How could two people live in such isolation?

We assume: It's just one more example of how we don't even know our neighbors anymore.

"The only time I ever saw them was when they'd come out and cut the grass. I would see one of them go to the mailbox. At first, I would try to speak to them. They didn't even want to speak," said Maffett, who lives directly across from the brothers' home. "Someone would have checked on them had we known them better."

Perhaps their death reveals more about us than them. Their lonely skeletons symbolize so many of our own internal worries: Will anyone notice my life? Will anyone remember me when I'm gone?

We project onto the brothers a strangeness as well. How weird, we think. Something must have been wrong with them, we say, suggesting our deep sense that without community with each other, we are not fully human.

Or rather: When we isolate ourselves, we lose a piece of our humanity.

You know what this all means.

We've turned the brothers into Boo Radley.

"The doors of the Radley house were closed on weekdays as well as Sundays, and Mr. Radley's boy was not seen again for fifteen years," precious Scout says in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

You remember Boo, don't you? He kept to himself, never leaving home, tiptoeing his life through Lee's small, fictional Alabama town. Women gossiped about him. Kids had nightmares.

But in the end, Boo was as gentle as a lamb and as big-hearted as a lion. All those assumptions? Profoundly wrong.

I wonder if ours today are as well.

"One morning ... it seems like three or four years ago, I was going to work," said Maffett. "I walked up to my car door to get in. I looked right over that way, and saw one of them laying on his back on the front stoop there. He wasn't moving.

"I went over there. He had fallen. He had hurt his leg ... He was flat on his back and I knew I couldn't get him up," she said, remembering their conversation like this:

Are you all right?

I can't get up.

Do you want me to go knock on your door and get your brother?

No. Don't do that.

(Maffett recalls him saying his brother was deaf).

Do you want me to call 911?

Yes.

Maffett said she stayed with him until the ambulance came. She tried to make conversation, but the brother only answered her questions in the briefest way possible.

"I know that they were not mean. They did not seem mean-spirited. They did not seem hateful in any way," she said. "They just lived there and kept to themselves."

I think those brothers were living life just as they wanted: together, relying on one another in a world that can be wickedly jagged and unforgiving for those too weak and vulnerable for it.

Perhaps, instead of needing all of us, they just needed each other.

At the end of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Scout encounters Boo, who saves her life. She realizes the man she'd once feared was kind, gentle and good.

"Most people are, Scout," her dad replies, "when you finally see them."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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TirnaNOG said...

I grew up in a world much different from the one we live in today. A world where people were friendly and kind. One where people who got to know one another. Even people who weren't suppose to mingle and know one another.

Today we've been taught to live in a world of suspicion, fear and wariness. Where neighbors are told to spy on one another and to report any suspicious activity. The first thing I learned at those neighborhood meetings was not to reach out to my neighbor and get to know them before making false judgments or accusations, but to be fearful, suspicious and wary of them. That it could be dangerous to interact with them. That's why I shucked the senselessness of those neighborhood meetings and went about on my own befriending and mingling with my neighbors. Especially those who don't look like me. The world is far too big and humankind is much too diverse for us to limit ourselves to schoolyard clicks.

It's unfortunate that we have people in the city who have lived next door to one another for decades and they don't even know one another. Are suspicious of inviting them over for a cup of tea and chat. That all the things we've been told and led to believe about them are untrue. The things we've misled to believe we should have never been told in the first place, and the things we should know we never set out to learn on our own. sad place in America today. A world much different from the one I grew up in.

April 4, 2014 at 6:59 a.m.

I have Christians living next door to me. All they want to talk about is how my family is going to hell, how we are sinners, and unless we believe like them we must be devils and demons. That their god will punish us for not going to church.

But they have a bumper sticker that says, "Jesus loves you."

We don't have them over to visit.

April 4, 2014 at 1:52 p.m.
sagoyewatha said...

Please stop with the universal generalizations about what "we've" done. Let the dead rest in peace. You try to sell your fantasies and projections as facts while reviewing "To Kill a Mocking Bird." Why not review some Henry David Thoreau? He lived like those twins for a while and they called it transcendentalism. No one was accused of anything or asked to take any blame. You are not trained or licensed to do psychoanalysis, and if you were you would know long distance diagnosis is unethical. In fact if you would participate in your own analysis for about ten years you might learn enough to take yourself out of your writing. then you could bring home that Pulitizer.

April 4, 2014 at 5:19 p.m.
LibDem said...

sagoyewatha, the anger management class is down the hall on the right.

April 4, 2014 at 6:44 p.m.
sangaree said...

It was at those neighborhood group meetings that gave rise to and inspired the george zimmermans all across the nation.

April 4, 2014 at 9:26 p.m.
sagoyewatha said...

LibDem = living evidence that we do not all swing from the same tree. Where is the anger in my comment? What is your role in this, are you Mr. Cook's girlfriend?

April 5, 2014 at 9:40 a.m.
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