Kenneth Dill ’67

11 September 1989

Class: 1967

Major: History

Deceased: August 20, 1989

(Deceased 08/20/1989)

Tarantella Without Music

A remembrance by Barbara McHugh ’67

“At the end of every day I taught, I thanked God I hadn’t been found out.”
(Wayne Carver, Class of ’67 Dinner, 1992)

I came to our twenty-fifth reunion with a manila folder full of the writings of our classmate Ken Dill, who died of AIDS in 1989. Because of how Ken had enriched my life during the last few months of his, I felt an obligation to commemorate him, but had no idea of how to do it. At Carleton, hardly anyone had known Ken. Perhaps calling attention to him at this time was not “appropriate.”

So I put aside my thoughts about Ken and immersed myself in the reunion bardo. I hadn’t seen Carleton or most of my classmates for twenty-five years, and I did the usual things: met up with old friends, wondered at the middle-aged faces superimposed over my memories of their younger versions, entered and left conversations that mostly never quite jelled, but which I told myself I’d take up again before I left. I had lunch with my ex-husband and remarked on how reunions seemed both more and less significant than one expected them to be. Then on Saturday night Wayne Carver made his speech, with his remark about not being found out, and I remembered Ken.

At Carleton, Ken hadn’t wanted to be found out. Like many of us—like me—Ken spent much of his time at Carleton in hiding. That’s why so few people knew him. We had plenty of hiding places in those days: the libe, the dorms, the student union, and even the tunnels. We also had other, less tangible, hideouts. We could take shelter behind our GPAs, youthful ideals, personal dramas, god-given talents, religious and political dogmas and opinions. And, as students of an elite college, we also had access to that old standby, the fortress of intellectual contempt.

Ken, gay at a time when homosexuality did not officially exist at Carleton, had more to conceal than most of us. He also suffered, in his words, a “lifetime domination by [a] masochistic rape fantasy with compulsive masturbation”—not exactly the sort of thing you want to bring up in a bull session about open door policy. So he kept a low profile at Carleton, after transferring here his sophomore year. He hid out in the dorms, making friends with his roommates and a few people on his floor. He got solid grades, edited a student scholarly magazine his senior year, graduated, and left for good.

New York City in the 1970s seemed the answer to all Ken’s hopes. In the outline to a long autobiographical poem he never finished, he writes of his “early romantic view of male sex as a revolutionary act of joy, healing and political/cultural creativity providing me and others with a strong sense of personal significance.” He soon replaced this optimism with “the jaded habit of using promiscuity as an avoidance of intimacy.” Ken had exchanged one hiding place for another.

On the surface, though, his life had improved: after studying film at Yale, he moved to L.A., where he worked in an art gallery, cultivated friendships with artists and writers, and hoped one day to become a private art dealer. Then came AIDS. Ken discovered the identity of the rapist in his fantasy:

After subtracting whatever degree of personal responsibilities for these problems, and also admitting that most of the world’s people endure much more hardship, I am left with an irreducible amount of personal pain and suffering, which I must now attribute to God as the ground of all being…And this God is disclosed as the Master Rapist of all of us, as well as the ultimate innermost identity of the unnamed aggressor in my rape fantasy. Almost needless to add, God is the creator and prime mover of the AIDS epidemic.

But ultimately AIDS brought Ken out of hiding. In 1989 he wrote:

I was the kind of individual who had to be pushed by the force of circumstance to the very bottom of the abyss before beginning to blossom as a loving and creative individual who is alive to the rapturous pulse and imaginative possibilities of life. Ironically, AIDS may be killing me, but it is also giving me my life.

At about that time, Ken called me up out of the blue, after I hadn’t seen him for fifteen years. He was visiting friends in the Bay Area and wanted to know if we could get together. He told me right off about his illness: by this time he had stripped himself of masks and defenses. As Ken later put it, suffering from AIDS and entering into and “completely identifying” with the pain and terror of others with the disease allowed him to “see the divine presence in everyone.” He had learned that there was nothing to hide.

And when I was with Ken, I saw this too. I didn’t have to be a mystic or even a believer to savor the rare joy of not having to judge, impress, or make excuses. Simply that. But how could I pass Ken’s gift along? I could talk about Ken: I could perhaps mention that Ken was the kind of person whose colleagues at the art gallery had taken up a collection so he could travel all over the USA to say goodbye to his friends. Or I could tell about the time we were about to go out to dinner and Ken came down with retinitis, threatening him with immediate and total blindness. When my husband and I took Ken to the emergency room instead of a restaurant, his response was to apologize for spoiling our evening. He pulled out his wallet and began peeling out twenty dollar bills. Because he had inconvenienced us and because he had planned to earlier, he wanted to treat us to dinner.

And yet such an anecdote can be misinterpreted; people could misconstrue Ken’s kindness as a compulsion to be liked, or even a result of muddle-headedness from AIDS. Perhaps the better option was to present excerpts from Ken’s writing, but the one long poem that Ken had begun as a way of making sense of his life and impending death remained largely in outline form, and his other writing, although powerful, was too intimate to offer to the public. Also, Ken feared the effect of his poetry:

I am constantly in danger of exploiting my illness, deserving the epitaph, “He was only good at dying, not living. The wisdom of mortality became his greatest glory.” Spiritual wisdom, even this very sentence, is easily corrupted by the power trip of self-knowledge and its arrogant, self-righteous expansion to the lives of others.

The task of commemorating Ken, I concluded, was beyond me. Long before I even got to Northfield, I’d given up trying to do anything more than xerox some copies of Ken’s poem for Ken’s former roommates. I hadn’t even contacted the person in charge of the memorial service. After all, I told myself, I had no real responsibility in the matter—I didn’t even know all that many people attending the reunion: most of my best friends had left before graduation. And then Mr. Carver gave his talk, which made me remember not only Ken’s fears of being found out but also my own. Over the weekend I’d met some wonderful people I hadn’t even known as a student here: I’d missed out on them because I’d spent much of my time at Carleton in a self-protective fog, my hiding place of choice.

Of course, all that self-concealment had ended long ago for everyone, I told myself. As middle-aged grown-ups, most of us had faced the kind of life-and-death issues that make adolescent insecurities seem trivial. Besides, we knew all about what underlay our fear, and our various disciplines supplied us with any number of words to describe it: death anxiety, loveless childhoods, spiritual barrenness, dysfunctional memories, chemical imbalances, the groundlessness of being. So I really didn’t need to worry about the ghost of my nineteen-year-old self, who was making me increasingly foggy as the weekend wore on. I kept missing important lectures and meetings, and at times I caught myself either failing to listen to people or saying things that closed me off from them—nothing blatant, you understand, just the wrong tone or implication. Oh well, I probably just had jet lag.

Except then I missed the memorial service altogether—the concert for all my classmates who had died, including Ken. Of course I had excuses (I hurt my eye and so got a late start, I didn’t want to interrupt my husband, who had patiently endured my reunion and who now was engrossed in a conversation about his particular field). But in actuality I had just spaced the concert out. I had failed to support my classmates in the most basic way, because of my fogginess. And behind the fog was the fear.

I had done nothing about Ken because I was afraid of getting found out—exposed as a California flake, suburban bourgeois, outmoded hippie, generic nerd. I could rationalize all I wanted about inexpressible verities or the need to avoid spiritual self-aggrandizement, but the truth was that I was afraid of what people might think. Ironic, considering what I supposedly learned from Ken.

I had one hiding place left: self-condemnation. If I reproached myself loudly enough, I could drown out the disapproval of others. I went to the chapel memorial as an act of ostentatious penance, but by now my eye was getting so painful it was all I could do to remain in my seat. After the service, I staggered out the door, mumbled some apologies and got ready to leave for home. I needed to get back to my real life, to the safety to all my adult roles and titles, where I could forget all this.

But then something interesting happened. Somebody hugged me, reminding me that I wasn’t quite the pariah I imagined. At the airport, another Carl gave me a homeopathic remedy for my eye. And finally, by sheer chance I sat next to a classmate’s husband on the plane, who engaged me in a conversation about modern literature for three hours, distracting me from my the pain in my eye, teaching me one hell of a lot, and expecting nothing at all from me beyond a few literate murmurs.

And I remembered something wonderful about Carleton, then and now. In the dorms and the tunnels and the classrooms and all the other hiding places, I always encountered other people, fellow hiders who, in imperfect and miraculous ways, let me know that I was not alone. Even more amazing, the empty barren place in myself, that dull void I was always trying to hide, was precisely what provided a place for the light from other people to shine. And then I finally truly understood what Ken had given me: in his openness, Ken had allowed my light to shine. I had mistaken it for his alone. But perhaps, after all, the light belonged to both of us, or perhaps to what I can only identify as God.

But I don’t want to get metaphysical here; I want, finally, to commemorate Ken. Ken had hoped to end his big poem, entitled “Tarantella with Music and Song,” with a dance “as a maddening affirmation of unknowable mysteries.” A tarantella is a dance performed by Medieval Italian peasants to remedy the tarantula’s bite, which, interestingly enough, they believed caused compulsive dancing. Well, this commemoration is neither poem nor dance, but I consider it a tarantella of sorts, a thank-you note to remedy my compulsive over-achieving, self-concealing performances of the past (and no doubt the future). So let me end simply by thanking Ken—as well as Theo, Aline, Lorin, Carl, Marc, Leigh, Roger, Harry, Phyllis, Mary Claire, Barbaras Miller and Liston, Mr. Carver, and all the other Carleton beings of ^* light, who shine through all my days.

Barbara McHugh ’67
Written in 1992

Posted In