Runaway Train

This post contains spoilers about the 1985 Andrei Konchalovsky film, “Runaway Train.”

My late wife Alison had a weirdly idiosyncratic conception of politics that fit no clear, known template. She called herself “a Democrat abandoned by the Party,” but that didn’t necessarily tell you what you wanted to know about her politics, assuming that you did. “What, in general, did she believe?” you might ask. Well, phrased that way, nothing. “So she literally had no beliefs?” you might rejoin. No, she believed a lot of things.

What she believed was more an expression of her personality than of any abstract ideology. So she tended not to hold beliefs “in general.” Virtually everything she professed to believe about politics was particular–about this thing, and that thing, and that thing, and that thing, more a bricolage assembled from her personal experiences than a series of deductions from any general principles. Not that there were no general principles. It’s just that, for every general principle she espoused, there was, if you pressed hard enough, an exception or series of exceptions waiting in the wings. Was it nuance or was it unprincipled ad hoc-ery? Hard to say. Maybe a bit of both. 

Examples might help, I suppose. As I said, she considered herself a Democrat. She voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and for the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. She had a fan-girl poster of Barack Obama taped to her refrigerator, which I magnanimously tolerated; she in turn tolerated my brief enthusiasms for photogenic Democrats like Mikie Sherrill and Tulsi Gabbard. She absolutely hated AOC, but counter-intuitively liked Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Though she hated Trump, she professed to understand and sympathize with Trump’s “deplorables,” resenting the Democrats’ reflexive demonization of such people as a kind of elitist dogmatism. 

Liberal dogmatism was a big complaint of hers.* She particularly disliked the liberal fixation on race, valorizing what she regarded as the more sophisticated sort of multiculturalism that she grew up with in Canada.** She regarded herself as a feminist, but often found herself at odds with feminist orthodoxy, turning her back on the Women’s March of early 2017 for its excessive “wokeness.”*** She spent years ranting about what she regarded as the insanities of transgender politics, only later in life to change her mind, and to sympathize with it, up to a point. 

She felt personally betrayed by the American health care system, but loudly opposed Obamacare as a swindle and a sell out. She hated urban life, and demanded that we move to Hunterdon County, New Jersey in “the country” to escape it, but was also vehemently in favor of expanding the options for affordable housing both in the city and the country, a policy that would have made urban spaces more urban and country spaces less country. She had a healthy skepticism for hype and the seductions of power, but was an unapologetic admirer of American-style capitalism, up to and including Jim Cramer, Elon Musk, and Jack Ma. 

The one ruthlessly consistent view she held all her adult life was her opposition to the American war on drugs. Another, I suppose, was her pro-choice stance on abortion. Foreign policy was generally a mystery to her, but her heart bled for Syria, and she sent a generous chunk of her income to the White Helmets, her favorite charity.  

Her views were, in short, both predictable and unpredictable–predictable if you knew her, unpredictable if you didn’t. They were sometimes informed, sometimes not; sometimes judicious, sometimes cranky; sometimes insightful, sometimes downright silly. It depended on the topic, and on her mercurial moods. 

Every now and then, though, she’d nail an issue in a weirdly uncanny way. She’d fixate obsessively on it, then insist on talking the subject to death until you agreed with every last thing she said about it. Even once you made clear that you agreed, she’d test you to see how much you agreed, and whether your agreement was truly sincere and stable. It was easy to fall short of her expectations, and easy to dismiss her obsessions as an annoying pain in the ass. But then, one day, with the shock of recognition, you’d realize that she was right–eerily right–and that it had been a mistake to dismiss her rants as the mere ravings of an obsessive. She was on to something that no one else had been. It made you wonder.

One of her favorite rants? The dangers of train derailments involving the transport of hazardous substances. 

No, I’m not making that up. I can’t count the number of brunches at our favorite café or romantic dinners at our favorite restaurant that were derailed by this strangely random topic. Did I know, she’d demand, that The Environmentalists were once again attacking the trucking industry? Did I realize what it meant that they were? It meant–she would spell this out for me–that The Environmentalists were out to wreck the trucking industry, and all of the bounty it had brought us. Amazon? Fresh Direct? Walmart? Target? UPS? All of it was under threat. Without trucking, none of these services would be available, to the detriment of mobility-limited people like herself who relied on them for basic necessities. (Alison had a serious, mobility-limiting spinal condition.) 

And what, she asked with scorn, was The Environmentalists’ alternative to trucking? Why, the fools wanted to replace trucking with rail delivery. Trucking was, to their jaundiced eyes, environmentally detrimental, but rail was environmentally friendly. Piffle! Set aside the fact that rail didn’t travel where the goods needed to go. Set aside the environmental damage that would be done by having to build new rail lines to replace existing trucking routes. Were the advocates of rail unaware of the dangers of derailment? Why, these fools wanted to ship hazardous substances by rail. They might as well launch WMDs directly at us.

Such fools were obviously ignorant of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster of 2013 in Quebec. They’d clearly never seen Andrei Konchalovksy’s cinematic masterpiece, “Runaway Train” (1985). And familiarity with the rail disaster scene in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was obviously too much to ask (1957).  These were people afraid of jet planes and trucks, but who somehow regarded freight trains as a panacea. Freight trains! A panacea! The idiots. 

And then came the prophesy, like something out of the Hebrew Bible–at least if the Hebrew Bible had been written by a transplanted Canadian obsessed with American transportation policy. One of these days, she prophesied, a freight train loaded with hazardous substances will crash in some godforsaken town in the middle of Ohio. Maybe it’ll be a runaway train like the one in the movie. Maybe there’ll be a huge, toxic explosion like the one at Lac-Mégantic. Whatever happens, though, things will be bad, as in Atlas Shrugged. Panic will break out. The rail company executives will absent themselves, disclaiming responsibility. The government will haplessly do its best to deflect. People will demand answers that no one will have. And that will teach these assholes to make unwarranted assumptions about the virtues of freight trains. 

Holy shit. So here we are, two years after her death, and things have actually happened just about the way she said they would. There wasn’t, I suppose, an all-out explosion–just a “controlled” one–and the ensuing disaster wasn’t, I suppose, a runaway train on par with the film, just a gigantic derailment. And fine, it wasn’t in the middle of Ohio, but at its eastern edge. But things are close enough to Lac-Magéntic 2013 (or Graniteville 2005) to vindicate Alison from the grave. A freight train loaded with hazardous substances crashed in some midwestern town, leading to an explosion, to the release of hazardous chemicals, and to major panic plus a major scandal. That the town is called East Palestine is, I know, totally coincidental, but really does feel like a very familiar voice addressing me from the grave.   

What’s the epistemic status of an obsession like this? We seem to lack both the vocabulary and the conceptual framework to describe it. It doesn’t look to me like pure luck. It’s not full-blown technical knowledge, either. It’s knowledge of a sort within the compass of the average layperson, but decidedly not knowledge that the average layperson actually has. It’s more knowledge born of a certain habit of thought, something like what people call depressive realism

But Alison wasn’t depressed. She was bipolar. And though bipolarity is romanticized in certain quarters, there’s no such thing as “bipolar realism.” She wasn’t an obsessive compulsive, but obsessive realism seems closer to the mark–a non-technical sort of knowledge born of an eccentrically obsessive focus on something that most people ignore. Obsessives are often wrong, but when they’re right, it’s an interesting question whether they have a form of epistemic access to the world that the rest of us lack. In her book Mental Patient: Psychiatric Ethics from a Patient’s Perspective, the philosopher Abigail Gosselin describes mental illness in part as a matter of paying inordinate attention to facts and details that normal people normally ignore. Most of us don’t obsess over derailments involving hazardous substances. Alison did. Now we confront an “unexpected” derailment in Ohio–except that she expected it the whole time. 

My own pet theory is that we’re often drawn to things outside of us that somehow manage to illuminate things within us, or about us. Alison was drawn to train derailments involving hazardous substances, I think, because her life itself was a metaphor for an event of that kind. She was a kind of runaway train. She carried within her the freight of untreated mental illness: she’d evidently been repeatedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but had hidden it for years, maybe decades. I only found out about her illness months after her death, when friends who’d known her before our marriage emerged from the woodwork to tell me. Like a runaway train, she one day abruptly left home, and just as abruptly, made a beeline for the Canadian border a few weeks later, as if to flee the problems of her life as fast as she could. The faster she went, the more she hastened the inevitable collision with death, until there was one. 

“Runaway Train” was one of Alison’s favorite movies. She’d seen it dozens of times, had memorized the dialogue, rhapsodized constantly about the main character, and took a kind of unashamed ecstasy in the film’s last, manic, suicidal scene. I never quite understood what she saw in it, but then, never quite exerted myself to understand, either. 

And it’s easy to see why. I wasn’t suicidal. I wasn’t bipolar. Stressful movies stress me out. I’m not sufficiently hindered by mobility issues to have to rely as she did on home delivery, and not fixated enough on freight trains to worry about what happens when they derail. The reverse was true of her. She saw something in the film that I missed, and saw something in the world that I habitually ignored. In missing both things, I missed something about her.  

If only there was a way to give her the vindication she craved. I can’t, but in a perverse way, that by itself is the vindication she craved. Prophets expect to be dismissed. Alison departed the world in the zealous belief that she was a kind of prophet, not just prophetically right, but derided and dismissed as befits a prophet. Like so many prophets, she despaired of the world. Like some, I suppose, the world got to her. We don’t usually hear about the prophets who succumb to their despair, but you don’t have to be a prophet to know that some do. I guess we all know that at some level, but reasonably enough push it out of our minds, with the exception of the small minority of obsessives who refuse to let it go. 

*This story in The New York Times captures her complaints in a nutshell. The complaints voiced in the story were things Alison had been saying for decades, to the derision of the Democrats around her on the Upper West Side.

**To the best of my knowledge, the last thing she wrote on Facebook, three weeks before her death, was a comment on this video, a celebration of Canadian-style multiculturalism, “Flemingdon Park: The Global Village“: “This is an excellent documentary for anybody who’s interested. It was made in 2002. Not sure why it came up on my feed but glad that it did.”  February 8, 2021.

***I note with sadness that her misimpressions of the Women’s March may well have been the result of a Russian disinformation campaign.

2 thoughts on “Runaway Train

  1. This is a profound tribute. As I read through it, there were so many things that I like about her. The heartache is there too. One of my old colleagues used to say (quoting Joseph Pieper) that we are “beholders”. That is how we should see ourselves. That is especially true of the people in our lives. As I get older, I have come to think that we will never do anything more important than to bear witness to the people in our lives. You have done that, beautifully.
    I like your account of obsessive realism. There’s no way it’s just accidentally true belief.
    It seems clear to me that mental disorders often put people into a better position, epistemically, to see things that most people don’t see. John Brown was mentally unstable. He had failed in life, completely. Every scholar of the period tells me “John Brown was crazy.” But he was right. I am convinced that his mental instability, and his life struggles enabled him to see, more clearly, what other people couldn’t see. In a similar way, Alison’s obsession enabled her to see things that other people couldn’t see.
    Thanks for telling me about her. Now I will remember her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that very generous remark. I read Pieper’s book Leisure about a decade ago, and enjoyed it, though I think at the time it clashed with my Rand-influenced attachment to the virtue of productiveness. The more I think about it, though, the more I think he was right about leisure, and so I’m now intrigued to find and read whatever he says about us as “beholders.” You say, “As I get older, I have come to think that we will never do anything more important than to bear witness to the people in our lives.” I find that, too, especially in the face of mortality. It’s one reason why I write so many memorial essays bearing witness to the lives of the recently departed, though I suppose I could do the same of people who are still alive.

      I’ve been intrigued for about a decade with the idea that mental disorders confer a special epistemic access denied to “normal” people. It’s tricky. I think they do, but at a significant cost. Alison was often uniquely insightful, but in her manic and depressive phases, impossible to deal with. I intend to discuss some of those complexities in a set of essays I have yet to post. Arguably, her death has induced a disorder in me–what DSM-5 calls “complicated bereavement.” I oscillate between thinking that it’s given me newfound insight, and that it’s irreparably warped my personality.

      I think that’s what we see in John Brown. John Brown was prescient, but unstable. That combination leaves us with a lot to think about. It’s interesting, I was at the Central Division APA last night, and Connie Rosati gave a presidential address on “The Lincoln Virtues.” In Rosati’s telling, the Lincoln virtues are all virtues of magnanimity and moderation (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”), many of which Lincoln displayed during the Civil War. It made me wonder what her thesis implied for John Brown. Of course, Lincoln himself was supposed to be a depressive, so I wonder how that plays out.


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