The Suffering Trickster

R. M. Vaughan’s Troubled adventures.

Summer, 2008 / No. 20
Photograph by Mark Lyall
Mark Lyall

We picture the ancient goddess Astarte having a heated argument with Baal. Astarte’s clear eyes are flashing and her lovely cheeks are flaming. She is standing waist-deep in the cold ocean, holding a baby boy. The baby is laughing at Baal because Baal is silly and brutish and thinks he’s God’s gift to the gods. Baal doesn’t like to be teased, and is trying to wring the baby’s neck. Astarte shakes her fist at Baal and places the chortling baby in a floating wooden box, commanding the sea to keep him safe from harm.

R. M. Vaughan is a video artist, a playwright, a poet, a novelist, an art critic, and a journalist. Born in Saint John, he grew up in several small towns in southern New Brunswick—a hard and haunted province with a reputation for dispersing its talent to other regions.

Vaughan’s first publication, a poem titled “Wishbone,” appeared in 1989 in a New Brunswick–based magazine called the Cormorant. He moved to Toronto in 1991, and staged his first play at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre two years later. During the remainder of the nineties he contributed to various anthologies of poetry and prose, and published his first two collections of poetry, A Selection of Dazzling Scarves and Invisible to Predators, and his first novel, A Quilted Heart. These works are candid depictions of the gritty passions of conflicted male protagonists.

His second novel, Spells, a brutally compelling adolescent coming of age story with strange mystical overtones, was published in 2003. The Monster Trilogy, published the same year, is a compendium of three one-act theatrical scripts produced at Buddies—introspective monologues that explore the states of minds of rather different characters, especially the haunting Susan Smith Tapes, which was adapted into a short film by Jeremy Podeswa, featuring Kirsten Johnson. Vaughan’s third collection of poetry, Ruined Stars, published in 2004, extends his previous poetic themes to explore other ideas and methods, such as in the manifesto parody “7 Steps to a Better Artist Statement.”

Throughout this time Vaughan has worked constantly, and often controversially, as a journalist and critic for various publications, including the Globe and Mail, National Post, and Canadian Art. His candid skepticism regarding long-held dogmas of conceptual theory in current art discourse has earned him some predictable criticism. His detractors are often quick to dismiss his credentials as an analyst, despite the fact that he doesn’t provoke an argument lightly.

“I’m from a rural village,” Vaughan says. “I’m the only person in my family with a university degree. We weren’t poor, but we were lower middle class, and I grew up in the middle of fucking nowhere. I didn’t go to the University of Toronto, didn’t come from a nice family. I’m not a member of the Anglican Church. I’m not supposed to have any kind of public forum, not supposed to speak at all. How very thin the surface is that we’ve painted over class divisions in this country. Given my upbringing, I’m supposed to be managing a Home Hardware in Moncton. I’m not supposed to be writing about art in a magazine or a newspaper.”

The year is 1965. We picture baby R. M. in his floating wooden box, washing up on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy. He is an irrepressible, round-cheeked burbling creature, spewed up out of the cold Atlantic.

“I do not remember my birth,” says Vaughan, now forty-three. “It was probably not a nice situation. I’m adopted. I believe I was a single woman’s baby and there was probably a lot of shame attached to my birth for her. I can’t imagine what it would have been like in 1965 to be a knocked-up woman in rural New Brunswick.”

Tormented by a psychologically disturbed father who was also an extravagant and compulsive liar, Vaughan navigated his childhood in the company of Taffy, a big orange cat and the “great pet” of his life. Taffy lived to be twenty-one years old.

Vaughan attended the University of New Brunswick–Saint John and got himself a bachelor’s degree in English. After a brief and unsuccessful stint at the University of Ottawa, he moved to Montreal in 1989, working the contemplatively Zen job of shaving beaks in a decoy duck factory. He also worked shifts at a high-end magazine store with a large porn collection. Sick of retail, he eventually went back to U.N.B. in Fredericton, earning a master’s in English, and started writing plays.

The year is 1991. We picture a strapping young R. M. Vaughan floating up the St. Lawrence Seaway (against the current) in a velvet-lined coracle, an irrepressible round-cheeked bundle of contradictions, skimming gleefully across the choppy waves of Toronto’s inner harbour like a gift (or a curse) from the dark capricious gods of the Atlantic provinces.

In 1991, the one-man theatre powerhouse Sky Gilbert became aware of Vaughan’s work through his submissions to Buddies in Bad Times, and convinced the young writer to move to Toronto.

“Sky has been very influential,” Vaughan says. “He’s helped me in practical ways—money, access to resources, connections—but also in artistic ways. He helped me learn how to write a play, and how not to. He’s good at saying what doesn’t work. And also how to survive the ups and downs. I’d written a play about Marcel Proust and the critics even liked it, but nobody was coming. I was thirty-one at the time, and I thought my career was over. Sky said, ‘Honey you’ve written an hour-and-fifteen-minute-long play about a French novelist that nobody reads any more. It’s non-linear and poetic, and it’s full of drag queens. And you think the bus tour is coming to this show? ’ Basically, he taught me that if you’re gonna make weird shit, don’t expect mass audiences.”

Theatre is a painful profession, Vaughan contends: “You put all this work into it, and put on a show, and wake up the next morning to find that some reviewer has shit all over it. But you are expected to just carry on—the show is only going to run for three weeks anyway. If any of those people who’ve freaked out about art reviews I’ve written had endured even half of what I’ve endured as a theatre artist, they would all have killed themselves years ago.”

R. M. Vaughan complains. Sometimes he complains publicly, like the time in 2006 when he wigged out half the artists in the country with an article in Canadian Art cynically examining an exhibition of Vancouver photo-conceptualist art on display in Antwerp, blowing the whistle on a Belgian curator who openly expressed his feelings that much of the show was “boring.”

Vaughan also complains about more personal matters: “I hate the bear culture here in Toronto. It’s superconservative and very femme-phobic. Everyone has to pretend they’re some kind of construction worker or truck driver. I cannot stand it. It’s like being at a fucking N.R.A. rally, except they all want to suck each other’s cocks. It’s fucking stupid.”

People who never complain are often keeping pain a secret. Vaughan is an artist who addresses pain as a great big piece of the human pie. The Monster Trilogy is arguably his most successful play. It has been staged in Winnipeg, Atlanta, Toronto, and Victoria, and this fall will be translated for audiences in Vienna. The play consists of three excruciating monologues, open-eyed character studies of ordinary people in the throes of extreme psychic torment. A right-wing cop agonizes over whether the psychopathic crimes of a distant relative mean that she has passed the “kill gene” on to her son. A pious reverend turns the gruesome snowmobile death of a local teenager over and over in her mind, exposing her own desperate death wish in the process. And, in a seemingly psychic feat of empathic narrative, Vaughan channels the character of real-life child-killer Susan Smith, who drowned her own two sons, telling police they’d been kidnapped by a black man.

In Vaughan’s version of her story, Smith is in jail, making tapes for Oprah, Barbara Walters, and Jerry Springer:

Miss Walters, I liked the way you described the candles folks left by the lake—you said they was like “tiny sparks of life for two tiny lives that were snuffed out early,” and that is so true. My babies went to God like birthday candles, special and bright and just the right size, but only on for a minute before the wish comes and puts out the flame. I think if you ever came here to see me you and me would get along real good—we both got sensitivities.

It is hard to follow R. M. Vaughan into this woman’s mind. Her pain is fogged by a haze of inarticulate shame that envelopes the audience like a stinging ocean mist. But she’s still alive, and being alive, is still engaged with the world; still trying to get on TV, still worried about how she looks on camera, still making excuses, and still in love with her children.

“There’s no point in writing about unpleasant people without empathy,” says Vaughan. “Otherwise they’re just cut-out characters. Are you familiar with Othello? Iago’s only any good if you like him—that’s what makes him really dangerous.”

Vaughan’s dark empathy spills over into his current day job, writing a celebrity Q. & A. column for the Globe and Mail, happily negotiating the ins and outs of big entertainment P.R. machinery.

“I might make fun of [the celebrities] at times, but underneath that I have a lot of respect for anyone who does creative work, because I do it myself. I don’t consider myself a pure journalist—such things don’t exist anyway. I’ve made art, I’ve put things up for public scrutiny. I know what it’s like to be shit on by critics; I know that rather intimately. I like to be playful and tease.”

Vaughan’s art projects are often autobiographical, bittersweet and funny-sad with a touch of self-mockery. One of his most playful and teasing projects is Live With Out Culture, created in collaboration with the journalist and author Jared Mitchell. In 2005, the City of Toronto financed a massive promotional campaign called Live with Culture, featuring outdoor banners of ballet dancers and other artists depicted cavorting awkwardly amongst books and paintbrushes. Vaughan and Mitchell produced a parody campaign, featuring photos of Vaughan lounging about with his belly hanging out, abject and dissolute. The sad-sack banners and buttons were shown in a Queen Street window at Paul Petro Multiples in 2006, and again at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art the following year.

“I just looked at those dancing underwear models and thought, This is nothing to do with how I make anything—sitting in sweat pants and stained T-shirt making some piece of crap nobody wants,” Vaughan says. “This has nothing to do with the artists I know or their practice.”

Toronto’s Live with Culture project is a part of its official Culture Plan for the Creative City. The plan is peppered with quotes from the urban thinker Richard Florida and seems to have wholeheartedly embraced his “creative class” construct: “The Culture Plan recognizes that great cities of the world are all Creative Cities whose citizens work with ideas, are intensely mobile, and insist on a high quality of life.” The theory is very simple: Today’s industries need smart workers, and smart people like interesting cities. So cities that are interesting will attract industry. Increased tourism is, of course, an added bonus. With industry and tourism as the motivating factors, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a large disconnect between the culture plan and the actual artists that are being used as bait. Toronto is trying to become as interesting as its “competitors”—Milan, Montreal, Chicago, and San Francisco. To many practicing local artists, it seems unlikely hanging banners from lampposts on Bay Street is going to do the trick.

“To be fair to the City,” Vaughan adds, “they sincerely thought it was a successful campaign and didn’t get why it would be laughable. I guess in a way I’m making fun of someone’s innocence. But this is what happens when culture is determined by bureaucrats who’ve never made a piece of art in their lives and have absolutely no connection to the community they’re supposed to represent. It all comes back to that goddamn Richard Florida. I leave it at that because [the writer and performer] Darren O’Donnell is doing way better work about the foolishness of the Florida era. His last book, [Social Acupuncture], is great about how stupid that creative-class bullshit is.”

Does the trickster suffer? We picture a contorted R. M. Vaughan, laughing and crying as he steers a shaky wooden raft through a torrent of whirlpools; eddying, drifting, and plunging back into the fray.

Being a hard-wired whistle-blower is far from easy. “It takes a toll,” Vaughan says. “It takes a toll on your psyche, on your energy. But I know that, because I like to be in trouble, I will probably do it again. I don’t know whether or not my new book will cause a shitstorm, but if it does, I think I have better strategies for managing it.”

In 1998, Vaughan was sexually abused by his psychiatrist. He complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. The doctor’s licence was suspended following a tribunal, but only for five years. Vaughan’s latest book of poems, Troubled, released this spring by Coach House, deals directly with the affair.

“I wasn’t going to write the book, but the day they gave him his licence back I sat down and started it. It was a really difficult book to write. The only way I could do it was with poetry, not because it’s too painful, but because it is such a muddy situation, I wouldn’t have been capable of writing it in an analytical way. I had to do it through images and writing about sensations.”

Vaughan acknowledges that making this document a book of verse rather than a marketable, Oprah-appropriate doorstop memoir might have cost him the funds to purchase a property in southern France.

“The book is not a J’accuse,” he says. “The starting point is more like, how did I do something so stupid? I’m trying to figure it out, with full blame put where it should be. One of my editors described it as a bizarre act of forgiveness.”

The book includes copies of correspondence between Vaughan and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. The name of the psychiatrist has been blacked out. “It’s not for legal reasons,” Vaughan says. “All the documents are public. But I didn’t want it to be too much about a specific person. People wouldn’t be able to identify with the art of the book it if it was all about naming names.”

Vaughan only found out that the psychiatrist’s licence was being reinstated when he got a phone call from the Toronto Star asking for comment. He sent a letter of protest to the college. They wanted him to get involved again, but he had had enough.

“I just said, ‘No. I’ve lost faith in you people. Your whole system is set up to protect doctors. I give up.’ I already went through a whole year-long process during the tribunal. It was humiliating and degrading. I did it because I thought I was doing the right thing, but now he’s out again making his two hundred grand a year, and he’s going to be fine. The system is fucked and that’s another reason I wrote the book.”

Vaughan now has a new approach to doctors. Even when setting up an appointment with a nutritionist, he is careful to take control and set boundaries. He wants others to be aware that adopting the role of a skeptical customer is just as important when shopping for health care as it is when purchasing a new fridge or car.

“I think about what was done to my father. He was on every imaginable psychologically generated medication. We found pills stashed all over the house when he died. Health care is an industry, and like all industries, it needs to perpetuate itself. Everyone should be aware of that.”

Vaughan is not worried that launching his new book will dredge up the humiliations of the past. Through writing, he has settled matters in his own mind, and now sounds calm and confident.

“It’s just something that happened to me, and I’ve taken as much responsibility as I should for how I was complicit. The bottom line is that I was in a weakened state, in the middle of a complete mental breakdown. Psychiatry is supposed to be a safe space where you can go to someone and say, ‘I think I’m in love with you,’ and they have the training to know that you’re not in love with them, that you’re just so weak you’re clinging to a rock. Their job is to say, ‘No, you’re not.’ It’s not their job to say, ‘Why don’t you come over to my house and we’ll have sex.’ When he entered into the relationship with me, that’s when my complicity stopped. I chart how I got there in the book.”

Vaughan is done with psychiatry. “I did go to a couple of shrinks afterwards. But I’ll never go back. Now I realize that there are aspects of me that are unfixable, and that’s O.K. It’s O.K. to have things that can’t be fixed.”

The year is 2008. Next week is the launch for Troubled. We picture the dashing adult R. M. Vaughan arriving at the soiree in a white and golden chariot, a troubled, clear-eyed, hunk of a man bedecked in feather boas. We will push through the adoring crowds and grab him gently by the ears, kissing each one of his perfect, handsome cheeks.

The Talking Creek Talking Magazine
The Suffering Trickster
Read by Derek McCormack
Sally McKay lives in Little Italy. She is an artist, writer, and curator. Last updated summer, 2008.