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An Introduction to James Gatrell’s Journals and Letters


A few days after James Gatrell turned sixty-five, his colleagues at Emory University threw him a retirement party. This was late March 1992, about a month before his last semester of classes was scheduled to end. That evening, Gatrell was said to be as “as aloof as usual.” One faculty member described him as “the personification of sadness walking.” Another mentioned that “his hopelessness had a way of spreading. It was like a shadow. He was like a shadow.” Nobody was surprised to see Gatrell this way; everyone at the party knew the professor had been in a clear state of depression since the death of his wife, Emma, three years earlier. At ten o’clock, they watched as he nodded to the host and left, and, the next morning, when Gatrell failed to materialize for his classes, his colleagues could not help but fear the worst. For two days the professor’s fate remained unclear; a search of his house revealed nothing but empty rooms. Then police confirmed the purchase of a plane ticket, and that Gatrell had used it to leave Atlanta for Chicago. Upon hearing this, his friends on the faculty experienced a strange relief, yet many of them continued to believe that, in a way, the professor had still taken his own life. They knew Gatrell had needed to make a change; finally, he had made it. 

          On the morning of his disappearance, James Gatrell boarded flight 5423 to Chicago. It was just minutes before seven, still dark on the runway. From a middle seat in a middle row, a woman watched the professor lumber up the aisle, shove his bag into the compartment above her, and shuffle past her knees to the window. Minutes later, she was telling Gatrell that she and her husband were on their way to a wedding. She was excited, she said, because the reception would be in a ballroom overlooking the river. At night, the streetlamps and boats and cars would light up before them as they danced. Years later, I interviewed the woman, and she still remembered Gatrell volunteering that he had grown up in Chicago, but “on the north side, not anywhere near downtown.” She also recalled a distance in the way Gatrell spoke: “There was not a hint of nostalgia,” she said, “and never once did he use the word ‘home.’” To her, the professor had seemed “a little withdrawn but happy.” He was “smiling,” she noted, and “he was obviously smart.” It was “strange,” she said, “he hadn’t brought anything to read. He spent about ten minutes writing in a leather-bound notebook, but mostly he stared out the window, turning a stack of envelopes over in his hands.”

          The plane lifted itself into the air, and everyone grew silent. Out the window, the sun had come up, its rays reflecting across a blanket of clouds. In the second of his two journals, James Gatrell noted that these clouds were “staggering and white, like a perfect row of teeth.” He also wrote about his wife: “The savage feeling has numbed,” he declared, “but everything still feels as far away from my face as this window, as far away as this window from the clouds and the sky.”


Gatrell had always been a powerful presence. He had always had immovable convictions. Colleagues quickly learned to avoid arguments with him; during classes, his students lowered their eyes, burying themselves in their notes. Gatrell was a stocky man, almost bullish. He could be seen walking across campus with his weight huddled forward as if ready to pounce. Each day, even in the scorching heat of Atlanta’s summers, he wore the same khaki slacks, the same gray blazer, the same yellow tie, and while standing in front of the classroom, his extraordinarily large hands dangled over the desk like two tarantulas. It is also worth noting that the professor’s mannerisms had always been incredibly wooden, his tenor incredibly monotone. When younger and drinking at parties he used to brag about the years spent training his voice and face to betray nothing. Nobody ever quite believed this, but many admitted they would not have been shocked to find out it was true.

          Gatrell’s first journal, reprinted here on pages 8–53, is page after messy page, detailing Emma’s death and his grief during the year after. He began writing it when she became sick, and when she died, his first impulse was to try and convince himself she never really existed. The journal, therefore, is riddled with scratch-outs and torn pages, and what remains is an obtuse spiraling of the visceral and metaphoric. Gatrell wrote that he was “sliding apart at the hinges,” that he had been “chopped down at the knees,” that “every organ felt turned on its axis, just an inch out of place.” Much of the first journal is so inarticulate that readers cannot help but trust it; in fact, it is impossible not to be overcome by a sense that some thoughts are too personal even for journals, some hopes too elusive to be recorded at all. Unedited and unchecked, the rambling of Gatrell’s first journal barely resembles writing as we are used to reading it. Here, readers lurk in the author’s skull, feeling as though they are seeing something not quite meant to be seen. They become voyeurs of grief and helplessness, and halfway through, they realize there is no guise of medicine or help, no wish to recover or cure. They are not participating in the mental spelunkings of a psychiatrist; instead, there are only shades of brown and red and gray, and readers read what is missing and what remains.


Imagine that you have received a letter.

          You assume it is a bill at first, a Christmas card, another book of coupons. In the absentminded way you always open envelopes, you work your thumb under the flap, pull it free.

          Inside, you find a handwritten note. It is from someone who claims to be your son.

          You check the envelope. You see your name scrawled in pen. You see the postmark, Chicago. There is no return address.

          It is a mistake, you think. This writer cannot be my son, is not my son. And you want to wad the letter up, dismiss it entirely, toss it out with the other junk. 

          A picture starts to take shape anyway. Your son is more than a shadow now. But the handwriting doesn’t look like yours. You don’t recognize it. The details don’t match; they don’t even try to match.

          For a moment you think: I have received a letter. I have received a letter from someone who claims to be my son. 

          You hesitate, take a breath. You gaze out the window at the bare trees. You gaze at the trees with leaves or the trees that have only begun to shed.

          Do I have a son? you think. Can I have a son?

          And if I do, where has he lodged himself? Where has he hidden? Why has he chosen to remain so far from sight?

          This is not a matter of contraception. It is not a matter of whether you actually gave birth or put a baby up for adoption. But is it possible? you think.

          Even if it is not, is it possible?

          The letter hangs in your hand. You read it a third time. A fourth. 

          You steady yourself against the table. You pace from room to room to room. 

          Then you fold the letter. You fold it again and again. You conceal it in your pocket. You hide it in a drawer. 


Living and teaching for three decades in Atlanta had slowly severed Gatrell’s ties to his family in Chicago. After choosing to attend a conference instead of his mother’s funeral, the professor must have realized that the only old relationship that still remained was the letters he received each Wednesday from his eccentric nephew. In his second journal, James Gatrell recorded how he anticipated and revered these letters, and how he believed that the nephew had “a way with detail,” possessed “a rare literary intelligence,” and had the ability to turn a phrase or use just the right word. Gatrell knew he was not the only one to receive these letters; the nephew was sending them to almost every member of the family, even those who, like Gatrell, had drifted or those who had been excluded, denounced, or ostracized. On February 15, James Gatrell wrote that the nephew’s letters acted like a “web stringing the family together.” On March 5, he did the math, figuring that if his nephew wrote one letter per week to thirty different recipients, he was composing somewhere between 3,120 and 7,800 pages per year. 

          Gatrell’s second journal, reprinted here on pages 55–199, is the opposite of the first. In it, the writing, syntax, and diction are often immaculate, even if the logic can be spotty or confused. As intimidating as Gatrell could sometimes be, it is clear that the man was simply a man; he was quick to anger, slow to let it recede, and his secrets and insecurities constantly made him feel as though he had failed. By the time Gatrell left Atlanta, he had not published a book or article in almost a decade; and he obsessed over this, scattering page after page of rebuttals attacking critics who published negative or lukewarm reviews of his work. If Gatrell’s first journal hinges almost entirely on emotions of sadness, hopelessness, and loss, much of the second reads as a series of intellectual exercises. In it, he mentions his wife very few times: once in the entry written from the plane and another as an aside, a very brief remark on how Emma appreciated a certain type of flower. 


Before boarding flight 5423 on the morning of March 25, James Gatrell had already completed about half of his second journal. Curiously, none of these entries mention anything about leaving Atlanta, and this can indicate that the professor never even turned the idea over in his mind. The absence can cause some readers to understand his choices as reckless or impulsive, and they might attribute them to his apparent sadness, or confusion, or his confusion borne from sadness. Others might conclude that Gatrell was simply a selfish man, possibly evil. But no matter how readers interpret the professor’s decisions, all must believe that abandoning a life, even a sad one, is not easy, sometimes impossible; nobody, not even those as distant or detached as Gatrell, can do it without great internal conflict. Therefore, readers can assume the professor was negotiating a confluence of factors. There were the lingering feelings for his deceased wife; the anxieties about his writing and legacy; and there was the family he had shunned, the one he could not quite seem to leave behind. 

          In the midst of these erasures, these omissions, James Gatrell can often become a kind of vacuum, a blank page. No one will ever know exactly how much he planned, predicted, foresaw. No one will know whether he had designed his next three moves, his next hundred, or whether he had even guessed at the ending, the way he would finally turn his family against him. On the runway, American Airlines flight 5423 gathered speed and cut through the air. Inside, there were smiles from a man who barely smiled, fidgets from a man who never struck anyone as nervous. There were the envelopes, the constant shuffling; there was talk of childhood, a curious description of clouds. The woman sitting next to Gatrell did not know this, but the professor was clearly not himself. Somewhere, for some reason, he had decided to begin a new trajectory, a new pursuit. This involved his nephew and the letters, and it also seemed to require not just the movement to another place, but another persona altogether. 

          The next day in Chicago, James Gatrell began appearing on the doorsteps of family members. He still believed he would find the nephew without trouble, thinking the writer was exactly as he described himself in his letters: a young man with a job at an accounting firm, a commuter that huddled onto public transportation every morning, someone very popular among his friends. It took Gatrell about a week of bumping around the city before he realized nobody had seen the nephew in years. He also found he was the first person ever to ask family members for their letters, and he could not coax even a single one from any of his relatives. “Husbands,” Gatrell observed, “wives, and even children, hoard their letters and keep them utterly to themselves, utterly hidden.” He theorized that the nephew’s absence might be the reason they were so protective. Each member of the family had formed a unique and complex relationship with the writer, and it was the nephew’s “physical vagueness, his existence as nonexistence” that made it possible. To them, the nephew seemed “so extremely malleable” and this was what made him “worth defending.” Gatrell wrote: “Each family member imagines a different version of the writer, and, with each new letter, that version hardens into something more unwavering, something more implacable. The nephew has become shaped entirely by his recipients.” James Gatrell also sensed that the family saw him as “a threat.” He wrote: “Whether consciously or unconsciously, they seem to understand the fragility of their images [of the nephew], that the relationship they’ve constructed with him could easily shatter.” In their view, Gatrell was the one who held the hammer, and he was more than capable of swinging it. 


James Gatrell never anticipated this lack of success, and it finally forced him to a place he had been avoiding thus far: the door of his childhood home. On the morning of April 5, 1992, James Gatrell’s niece, Marge, answered the heavy knock. Her first impression of the professor was that his stare reminded her of glass: “His eyes did not focus on the world,” she said, “they did not seem to have any depth.” Marge faltered before telling her uncle she recognized him from a photograph. Gatrell could not have known the picture she referred to, but he answered anyway: “That was taken a long time ago,” he said. 

          The five-bedroom house, once so vibrant and full of people, was now nearly empty; only Gatrell’s oldest brother lived there, and Marge, his daughter. At their insistence, Gatrell left the decrepit motel and moved his things into the room on the second floor that had once been his. All the old furniture still remained, much of it now radiating the warm, weathered look of antiques. The next morning, the professor drank coffee in the kitchen across from Marge, and at dusk he took a long walk with his brother. Talking to them, he learned that although he had abandoned his family, they had not quite done the same to him. A few relatives had followed Gatrell’s achievements from afar, buying and attempting to read all three of his books. They had also been greatly affected by Emma’s death, even if most were unsure whether to send condolences. Just three years ago, Gatrell had realized there was no place in their house Emma had not sat, nothing she had not touched, glanced at, or read. Stalking from room to room, grieving, he had thrown everything away in an attempt to erase all memories of her. Now, in the old house in the old neighborhood, he studied his niece’s face on the other side of the table; in the evening he shuffled along the sidewalks with his brother. It was easy for Gatrell to accept their generosity, to sink into it: “Every morning from now on,” he wrote, “I will drink coffee with my niece. Every evening, I’ll walk the neighborhood with my brother.” 

          The bedroom was the same one where Gatrell began his life as a scholar, the desk the same oak desk where he had completed much of his elementary and high school work. Sitting at it, he was overcome by the same enthusiastic feeling he had had in his childhood as an incipient intellectual. On April 12, 1992, James Gatrell towered over the desk and began the longest entry in his second journal. As a writer, he had always revised as he went, so much so that he scratched holes through the page. And while it was possible he may have written drafts of this entry on separate sheets of paper, the final twenty-six pages of longhand were the only ones not to contain a single cross-out, a single erasure. The flowery and descriptive prose was also uncommon, as was the fact that he wrote it over many days and many sittings. The entry rambles, describing Marge as “a pretty girl of about twenty-three,” “round-faced,” who wore “colorful dresses that buried the curves of her body.” And Gatrell portrayed his brother as “almost ten years older” than himself, yet one who “continues to walk on legs more powerful,” one who “constantly flips his cane in his palm, relegating it to an ornament of fashion rather than a statement of ill health.” Toward the end, he wrote: “I’m saddened that the pond where we used to skirt down the bank and catch those leathery frogs and toads is now gone. A giant megastore selling threads and fabrics has risen out of it. Yet, I continue to believe, perhaps childishly, that it remains there, unseen, a calm and muddy surface, a dirty mirror beneath the harsh pavement.” 


You have received a second letter, a third, a fourth. 

          You know now your son will continue to write. He will continue to tell you about himself. You know now you will continue to read. 

          Your son informs you he is in the army. He is an actor in Hollywood. He owns a second-hand bookstore in Memphis. He plays piano in a jazz quartet near Charleston. 

          He tells you he is a reporter stationed in Europe. He fights forest fires in Wyoming. 

          No matter what his profession, no matter where your son says he is, you notice the postmark is always Chicago. 

          And you never believe him; you cannot believe him. But you anticipate the letters anyway. There is something intimate about the mail, you think. Something delicate in the handwriting, something bonelike, almost breakable. 

          Every Wednesday, you open the mailbox and find a new letter. 

          There is never a return address, and you can never inform your son that he is not your son. Sometimes this troubles you. Sometimes it is a great relief. 

          Slowly, the writer grows in your imagination, gains flesh. You actually cry when your son says his cousin has gone into a coma, when he says his girlfriend has left him, when his wife crashes their car into a tree. You cheer when your son describes the birth of his daughter, when he gets a promotion at work, when he picks the first tomato of summer. You laugh at the people in his office, the embarrassing moment when he meets his fiancée’s parents, the time he hides in a crawl space to catch his daughter drinking after graduation. 

          You do not trust the author; you have never trusted him. But there seems to be little point in remaining suspicious. 

          You trust the letters, and each week you devour them. 

          Each week, you cannot help but feel as though you’ve had a hand in their creation. 


James Gatrell spent most of his life studying language, analyzing it, magnifying it, deconstructing it. By the time he boarded the American Airlines flight to Chicago, sentences must have wavered in front of him; they must have spread across the room, blurred, sunk into the page like invisible ink. For Gatrell, “each word had become a palimpsest of symbols and meanings, a strata of successively fading definitions, associations, and intentions.” Even while he enjoyed his stay at the childhood home, he could not help but anticipate the nephew’s letters, sent from Chicago to Atlanta and forwarded back to Chicago. Each week, Gatrell continued to read them, combing for “imperceptible changes in writing and story.” By May 18, he was forced to conclude that the nephew either did not know someone was looking for him or did not care. Disappointment bloomed, vacillating between jealousy and admiration; here was a writer, Gatrell wrote, that was “not bogged down by theory,” one that was “not concerned about reviews,” one that did “not seem to be affected by the outside world in any way.” 

          During the first month with Marge and his brother, the professor surfaced for a moment from the depths of sadness and ambition; he enjoyed many morning chats and many afternoon walks. But the nephew’s letters continued to arrive, and it was only a matter of time before the professor returned to his pursuit. On May 21, James Gatrell drew a deep breath and dove back into the cold dark; opening his journal, he recorded a new design, one meant to “exploit [his] family’s belief that [the nephew] was a genius.” For a week he refined the plan before coiling out farther and farther from the childhood home on a second round of family visits. James Gatrell no longer requested the letters directly. Instead, he talked about himself, reminding relatives of his expertise. He had written books, he told them, he had studied literature. As a critic and scholar, he was the only family member who had the knowledge to “extract greater meaning from thousands and thousands of [the nephew’s] pages.” 

          In designing his plan, the professor guessed that the same impulse causing his family to protect the nephew must also be tugging them in the opposite direction. While the family refused to share their letters in fear that the nephew would not fit their imagined version of him, the writer’s absence also produced within them a deep longing to know the truth. After a hundred letters, recipients could not help but desire greater knowledge about what they had been reading and who had been sending it. “The curiosity was latent,” Gatrell wrote, “it was already there. I simply illuminated it, drew it out, fed it.” Stressing his qualifications, James Gatrell promised the family he could produce a panoramic view of the nephew and his work. He put it this way: “They knew it already, but they yearned for someone to show them that, for all this time, they had been peering out a tiny window in a tiny corner of what was actually a great city, vast, filled with other buildings, other views.” 


James Gatrell did not record another entry for almost a month. As he worked, the bedroom filled with so many letters that paths formed from the bed to the desk, the desk to the closet, the closet to the door. Marge, who brought meals up to him, described it as letters overwhelming “every flat surface”; “mounds” growing “up from the carpet”; stacks sagging “over the dresser and nightstand,” “rounding out the edges” like glaciers or kudzu. Gatrell still came down for coffee in the morning, but his eyes were glazed and he looked even farther away. He told Marge he felt frozen; all this time he had been attempting to arrange the nephew’s work by date, recipient, and content. Already he had conceived countless systems of classification and organization; already he had abandoned them all. 

          In both journals, Gatrell mentioned his hatred of air conditioning, the stagnancy of it, the manufactured taste at the back of his throat, the way his lungs could not quite want to breathe it all in. Fortunately, Chicago’s summer was nothing like Atlanta’s, and Gatrell was able to work with the windows open, curtains dangling to catch the breeze. By the end of June, he offered his first real reaction to the letters, starting with consistencies: the way the nephew always wrote in first person, the way his narrators were always male, the way he always sent his letters from Chicago. Then Gatrell conveyed a sense of shock, marveling at just how much the nephew’s “lives” varied from one thread of letters to another. So far, he had identified over thirty narrators from a wide range of backgrounds, races, ages, and careers. Characters ranted about each other, they sobbed or lusted, they judged or intellectualized, and together they became a “cacophony of voices that overlapped as friends, as neighbors, as assailants, as saviors.” Some moments could be harrowing: a murder, a rape, a soldier leaving for war. Others were beautiful: a wedding, a birth, a child taking his first communion. And many events were described from different perspectives, sometimes up to five or ten. Gatrell wrote: “The characters can interact with each other for quite a while … or they can enter each others’ lives for less than a minute before forgetting and moving on.” 

          Across the table, Marge listened to her uncle explain how individual letters lost their importance among the whole. He had been waiting for a protagonist, he said, a character like the nephew, to rise from the stacks; but so far he had found no recluse, nobody purporting to write or be a writer. Instead, the multitude of voices increased in pitch, complimenting each other, harmonizing, drowning the others out. What Gatrell had hoped for was a “giant epistolary novel,” one that had actually been “sent to readers through the mail,” one where “readers remained unaware they were reading a novel at all.” In the upstairs bedroom, the letters spilled over, leaking out the door, and Gatrell concluded that “this might not be one novel; it might be a hundred. This might not be one puzzle but thirty or more.” In addition, the pieces were resisting him, refusing to fit together; the colors pressed up against each other in such a way that it seemed they would never form any clear or distinct picture. 


The skin under James Gatrell’s eyes darkened, his face sunk a little into itself. In the small room, surrounded by letters, he began to resemble a prisoner, sallow, no longer accustomed to the light. “I couldn’t tell whether he was happy with his work,” Marge remembered, “but I knew he wasn’t sleeping, and I never saw him finish an entire meal. I made coffee in the mornings, but he didn’t come down anymore.” Three months had passed and rarely had Gatrell opened his journal. The sixteen entries he wrote during that time stumble in focus and tone. They show that before James Gatrell even finished reading and sorting the nephew’s letters, he had begun to weave a complex fantasy for himself. In the entries, he imagined “James Gatrell” as a celebrated editor, lauded by the same critics he had once attempted to discredit. He wrote their praise of his tireless efforts, affirming that although the nephew was the writer, “James Gatrell” had been the one to recognize the genius, pursue it, mold it into the perfect combination of voice and story. Fractured and whole, sweeping and insular, Gatrell conceived this work to be called Letters. It was, he imagined, a beautiful collage, and critics would note how it reproduced “with surprising accuracy and efficiency, the tangles of the reclusive mind.” Recording these predictions, the professor withdrew further into himself, his disillusions shaping his actions; now when pieces of the puzzle did not fit, he forced them; when they resisted or refused, he began to cut, rewrite, rearrange. 

          On April 6, 1993, about a year after leaving Atlanta, James Gatrell published the novel Letters. The final version had his name emblazoned on the dust jacket, the nephew’s nowhere to be found. Instantly, family members regretted handing the letters over to Gatrell; they decided he was the same he had always been: a man willing to bend the truth to exploit others, a man willing to pass someone else’s genius off as his own. Over the course of his life, many people had accused Gatrell of lying, but it is worth noting that in this instance, or any, the professor had never promised “to keep his word.” For him, the idea of truth always slipped and slid, altered and changed, and while his “theft” of the book clearly violated countless written and unwritten codes, readers should acknowledge the positive effects that came from it. Of course the commotion surrounding Gatrell’s “dishonesty” was a clear catalyst for the book’s success, but more importantly was the way it piled new fictions upon a slew of other fictions, raising questions that otherwise would have faded. As author, the nephew had signed a multitude of names, tricking recipients into forming real attachments to obvious fabrications. He had willingly convinced his family he was something he was not, and he had chosen to sidestep authorship, passing it along, erasing it entirely. On top of that, the editor, James Gatrell, had whittled thousands of pages to just under five hundred. He had chosen what to leave in, what to omit, and we know now that if the story didn’t flow, if it needed something else, he had added words, paragraphs, or entire sections. In light of this, it is interesting to consider whether the name on the dust jacket still refers to James Gatrell, the professor; instead, “James Gatrell” might be the intersection of author, editor, reader, letter writer, and recipient; it might be an overlap, a juncture between each mechanism working to call the book its own. 


Now you have received fifty letters, a hundred. Always from someone who claims to be your son. 

          He writes to you in confidence, sharing what a real son might never share. 

          One week he describes a murder, a rape. He describes the robbery of a bookstore, a bank. He tells you he has three children and abandoned them. At work, he turns in a friend to weasel a higher position. At church, he goes to confession, lies. 

          Your hands shake. 

          You think: My son has killed somebody, raped somebody. He has robbed someone. 

          From where you sit, you can see the porch, the mailbox out the front window. You can see the lawn that needs cutting, the car slightly dirty, the ivy tiptoeing up the neighbor’s wall. Down the street, you hear children playing. You hear the twist of the wind. The grumble of a bus. 

          Now is when you finally wonder: Do I stop reading? 

          It is when you finally wonder: Do I forget these letters? Do I take them to the police? 

          And you have to remind yourself that this is not your son, not really. 

          You weep. You kick the wall in fury. You slam the bedroom door, open it, slam it again. 

          Over and over, you crash up against your son, what he lets you know, what he will never let you to know. 

          Then you reply. You drop an envelope in the mailbox with no address, no return address. In the letter, you denounce your son, you comfort him, you urge him to do the right thing. 

          It’s impossible, you tell yourself, silly. But you hope the letters will find him as they found you. 

          A month passes, another. Then his letters stop. 

          My son is dead, you think. He is hiding. He is in jail. 

          He has received my letters, you think. He has read them. He wants nothing else to do with me. 

          Sitting on the sofa, you realize how easy it is to pretend. How hard it will be to stop. 

          You’ve willingly become a father, a mother of the son. You’ve tried on his life. 

          You will continue to hear his voice in your head.


When readers view James Gatrell through the limited microscope of his journals, they are faced with a number of frustrating absences. Just like the decision to board American Airlines flight 5423 without documenting the thoughts that led him there, Gatrell also offers no hint as to why he chose to publish the nephew’s work as his own. Again, he seems impulsive; again, the act is, at first glance, one of loneliness, desperation, blind ambition. Complicating matters are those last sixteen entries, where the professor is deeply mired in illusion, imagining himself as editor and never as author. In section X of this introduction, I argued that the professor had not intended to “steal” the book; that instead, the omission, or change, might be the editor’s most profound edit: never had one considered the author’s name to be a correctable weakness, never had one simply thought to cut it. On October 14, James Gatrell wrote his last entry. It does not mention the novel, Letters, which he would release in about six months; instead it focuses almost entirely on the nephew, and it leaves readers reading into what is not there: “I still do not understand the core of [the nephew’s] genius,” Gatrell wrote. “I still do not feel as though I can see his presence behind the shade, as though I can comprehend him.” 

          Closing his journal for the last time, the professor spent a week in a daze. He claimed he was acclimating himself to a new way of life, “finding his sea legs,” and he began to come down for coffee in the morning yet refused to drink it. While Marge sipped from her cup, Gatrell told her that he no longer had the desire to render the world, that he no longer wanted to read the renderings of others. “Nothing is stable,” he said feverishly. “I am perpetually nauseous.” Marge believed he had the flu, and she brought him tea and unbuttered toast as he stayed confined to his bed or stalked eerily about the house. He seemed so sick, she neglected to take her usual precautions, and she did not notice Gatrell trailing her to the grocery store. Stifling his coughs and huddling against buildings to wait for the dizziness pass, the professor stayed a block behind, watching Marge as she entered the store and exited with a full cart. He pursued her over four more blocks and down a thin alley before he found himself in the courtyard of a small apartment complex. The courtyard was empty in the late fall, dreary, the concrete chilly and bare, the potted plants withering to their stems. On three sides, wooden stairways threaded from balcony to balcony, and Gatrell huddled under one of them, waiting an hour in the cold for Marge to reappear. 

          Later that evening Marge came upon her uncle in the old bedroom, seemingly recovered, packing his things. She asked where he was going, but he muttered something and slammed the door, leaving her alone in the hall. When I talked to Marge almost two decades later, she still did not know for sure when her uncle realized she was taking care of the nephew, delivering food and writing supplies to him, dropping stacks of letters in the mailbox. The nephew, she remembered, “made all his orders through the mail, never by phone, always under a false name.” Sometimes he sent letters to her, asking for things, or he ordered from companies or catalogues. Gatrell had found the nephew, and when he pounded on the door, the nephew opened it, probably expecting a delivery. The professor forced his way inside and what he found was mostly emptiness, a bare wood floor, worn and scratched without carpet, bare walls, veils of dust alight in the corners. There was a bed in the last room, a desk, and the nephew had envelopes piled between them, reams of paper. In the drawer, Gatrell discovered a large collection of ballpoint pens. 

          For a year, James Gatrell lived with his nephew, refusing to open the door when Marge knocked. Through the wall she could sense both men deteriorating quickly, the professor trying and failing to reconcile the real nephew with the lives he had read about, and the nephew attempting to produce letters in the presence of this other person. From Gatrell’s second journal, we know the professor believed the nephew had to keep a list of characters, a collection of addresses, a diagram of arcs, beginnings and endings; outlines of a hundred plots. According to Marge, this document did not exist, and Gatrell would not find it. Nor would he ever persuade the nephew to speak. The way she imaged it, the two spent much time staring at each other, Gatrell trying to see the accountant, the soldiers and reporters, the musicians, doctors, firemen, murderers, rapists, fathers and sons and husbands. The recluse just hunching there, wordless, while Gatrell asked him questions and answered in his own harsh whisper, both of them, all of them, lost among the empty space, hardly anything at all.


Toward the end of my research, I sat down to dinner with Marge and her husband. It was a beautiful spring evening, and we ate on their screened-in porch. There was a slight breeze; every once in a while a car drove by on the quiet street. In her hope that my project might illuminate the story behind Letters, Marge had entrusted Gatrell’s journals to me. I had read them several times, mapped out a timeline, and noticed that a year and a half had passed between Gatrell’s final entry and the official date of his death. From interviews with the family, I knew about Gatrell’s appropriation of the nephew’s work, but they had so far kept everything that happened afterward a secret. I had not yet learned that Gatrell had lived with the nephew; I did not yet know that the nephew had even stopped writing. I simply sensed that the ending I had was not the real ending; and after we ate, I found the courage to ask Marge what I had been wanting to ask. She nodded on the other side of the table, as though she had been expecting it, and she motioned to her husband to open another bottle of wine. Closing her eyes, Marge described how her uncle had followed her, how he had found the nephew, and how for a while she had gone to the door each day to pound on it. Six months after James Gatrell released Letters, a year after he moved in with the nephew, Marge finally called the police. “They knocked for ten minutes,” she said, “but like always nobody answered. The difference was that this time there was no sound coming from inside. Usually, I could hear a scratching, like a mouse caught in the wall; a sound like something was where it shouldn’t be, or something was lost, trying to get away.” The landlord arrived with the key, and they all walked into the dust, coughing, making their way from the front of the apartment to the back. The shades had been drawn for over a decade and the police swung their flashlights as they pulled at the coverings. Still, “no one saw [Gatrell’s] body until the landlord tripped over it,” and the nephew’s body “was nowhere to be found.” 

          When Marge finished, she had tears on her cheeks, her face showing no expression at all. Clearly she blamed herself for Gatrell’s death, for the death of the nephew, if he had died, and for the deaths of a hundred of the nephew’s characters. It is a biographer’s dream to have access to journals, to scour them, to interview people lucky enough to brush up against a subject’s life, but on the porch with Marge and her husband, I felt as though my shovel had finally worn down; I felt as though I had dug too far. For a moment, I felt a strange type of claustrophobia, a feeling so close to collapse, and as I returned home to finish edits on the new edition of James Gatrell’s journals and Letters, to write this introduction, I vowed to do so in all honesty, to avoid speculation. But I realized the very nature of this task was impossible; when working with a man like Gatrell, any attempt to fill the gaps became, in essence, an act of creating new ones. If I returned to the professor’s first journal, for instance, I found so many statements contradicting each other, so many emotions twisting back on themselves. The second journal, too, is problematic in its awareness of its own artifice. James Gatrell must have suspected readers would one day climb through these pages, and this can turn a sentence as straightforward as “I am scared; I am terrified” into a booby trap or dead end. In addition, those who knew the men better than anyone, Marge and her family members, had the most biases, the most holes, and for an outsider like myself, there was no way to tell how their prejudices affected their versions of the story. And, lastly, there is James Gatrell, a sixty-three-year-old man who arguably never even knew himself; a professor who might have hoped his nephew who lived and wrote so many lives could aid him in understanding just one. 

          Before I left that night, Marge told me something she was sure James Gatrell had never discovered. In the years before the professor had found her cousin, he had also begun sending letters to recipients outside the family, mailing them to random addresses which may or may not have existed. On the porch, with the old house in front of us, the dark street behind, Marge took my hands in hers. “Find them,” she urged. “Find them.” 

Lucas Southworth’s first fiction collection, Everyone Here Has a Gun (University of Massachusetts Press), won AWP’s Grace Paley Prize. Recent work has appeared or will appear in AGNIAlaska Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XLVI (forthcoming in 2022).