Purse~Head is a tragicomedy/thriller that explores how trauma constructs identity through forgetting.
After a terrible accident, Gerard fears no one will believe he is innocent. Certain he’ll be implicated as the perpetrator, he does the unthinkable and tries to erase the incident by covering it up. His actions are so horrific, the trauma so great and compounded, that he represses them and moves forward with his life. Purse~Head begins the day his memory is slowly, dreadfully triggered, conflated with childhood memories, dredging a psychological swamp correlating impostor syndrome and gay desire.
How do we live knowing that we do not have access to all of our memories? That we can’t fully trust the ones we can access? Purse~Head is composed of multiple timelines to capture the energy and discomfort of this fact of consciousness.
Two images fused together become a climactic reckoning of the shape-shifting components of Gerard’s layered cognizance: Purse ... In a traumatic childhood memory, Gerard’s mother is hit by a car after making him return a handbag she cannot afford. His whole life, he’s believed he’s responsible for this accidental violence. Head ... After a casual sexual encounter gone gravely wrong, Gerard locked away the severed head of a Gardener in the freezer of his former home, along with the memory of the crime.
To keep both incidents safe and locked away tempts their discovery, yet to resolve one or the other would sever it, perhaps allowing it to re-attach itself elsewhere and grow stronger.
Gerard’s story is my interpretation of the humor and terror contained in the queer experience of everyday life. Gerard is caught in a liminality of cultural transition from sudden shifts: distant aspirations have become fast realities, from repulsive to mainstream, from anxieties around AIDS to PrEP. His version of Portland is haunted by a paradoxical fog of identity expectations, social achievements, and newfound possibilities that still seem inherently unattainable. And this loaded sense of expectancy has emerged in Gerard as a new type of pathology. Set against his recollection of childhood as he moves into a new home, while beginning to unravel the fact that he hadn’t fully disposed of a body, the story is at once playful and foreboding.
The story interweaves multiple timelines, capturing Gerard’s post-coming-of-age experience of a gay man hiding certain details about himself to find validation, all while remaining invisible. His privilege is his ability to “pass,” but it alienates him from his true self, making him believe he’s an imposter. When the Gardner dies, Gerard is certain no one will accept that it truly was an accident, because he himself has only ever lived a lie. Being “out” doesn’t mean one is no longer haunted by a time when they weren’t. The trauma is the prolonged nature of it. Admitting the horrible truth of the massive amount of fear we experience is tantamount to Gerard’s forgetting of his crime.
Gerard’s subsequent forgetting and rediscovery of the Gardener’s death is the culmination of a chain of American traumas. The Gardener is a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The only job he can hold is gardening at his mother’s apartment complex, where Gerard lives. The Gardener’s sickness is our sickness; he represents the warrior castes who defend our right to self-govern, yet become the collateral damage of territorial religious nationalism, brand-obsession, sexual liberation, and techno-libertarianism. Such fissures divide our experiences of freedom—and Gerard’s as well.
As Gerard disguises himself—a further attempt to subvert his own image and remain “unseen”—and crosses town to retrieve the head, he comes to blows with his ex-boyfriend, entangles his repressed guilt with the striving efforts of a young student, and attempts to uncover the culprit of a methadone clinic bombing. He traverses a space that feels mythical, detached from life as he knew it. As he forges a path forward into a perceived new world, each new place he enters and character he encounters is charged with potential.
Purse~Head is about accountability and privilege, accountability and forgetting. How those around us can shield us from being accountable, from remembering. As this displacement of energies is experienced physically and psychically, Gerard, a virtual refugee, begins to find his voice, as both sensitized to and a perpetrator of the global sickness of denial. He wants to push past the tidy reduction of this enigma. It’s his only chance to be free.