On Bravery, Irony and Marwencol: Hate Is Never Heroic

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Hogancamp in the film Marwencol from PBS.org

Here's a short version of an extraordinary, multi-layered, deeply weird story. In response to the Caitlyn Jenner media hoopla, Terry Coffey, an evidently fed-up regular guy in Salem, Oregon, posted a dramatic, apparent combat photo on Facebook with the comment: "As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner's transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I'd remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!" His post quickly went viral, with close to a million like-minded conservatives applauding him and posting their own bloody-combat-soldier photos, from Iwo Jima to 9/11 to Iraq, of "real American courage."

A few days later, the story took an odd turn. Coffey wrote another post explaining that with the huge response, he began to feel he should credit the photographer of the initial "combat" photo, and went looking for him. He found Mark Hogancamp, a former Navy man, sometimes homeless alcoholic, and amateur artist who in April 2000 was brutally attacked by five strangers outside a bar in Kingston, NY, and left for dead. After nine days in a coma, Hogancamp woke up brain damaged, with no memory of his previous life. He spent a year relearning how to walk, talk, eat, though the hand-eye connections needed to draw were destroyed. When his rehab money ran out, he began his own therapy - or as the blurb for the eventual documentary about his life puts it, "When his world was stolen, (he) made a world of his own." In his backyard, Hogancamp created a 1:6 scale World War II town he named Marwencol, a combination of his name and that of two women he liked. Within that safe, small, self-controlled, women-centric world, using dolls as alter egos of himself and the people in his life, he acted out meticulously detailed, often brutal tales of love and war, heroism and friendship for over a decade. “There was one rule in my town,” he says. “That [people] be friends...behave. So they did, they were.” Hogancamp documented the town and its inhabitants' lives in striking photographs. Over time, some memories returned. One: He likes to wear women's clothes. Another: That's why he was attacked.

Back to Terry Coffey, the guy who posted that photo of American bravery. When he learned Hogancamp's story, he wrote another post, explaining he'd randomly chosen the photo from a quick search. "I could have chosen any one of hundreds of photos depicting bravery, but I chose this one," he wrote. "Do I think it was an accident? No, I don't." He went on, "What happened to this man was cruel, wrong, and unforgivable. Hate helps nothing. Love wounds no one.  God heals all (and irony makes you think.)" Of the gazillion people who had responded with their own proudly-battle-scarred-go-'Murica photos, a few wrote back to thank him for contemplating, clarifying, revising his original stance. Many others flew right by it, and its deeply ironic backstory, to post yet another triumphant image of war.

A few years ago, meanwhile, Hogancamp's photos had caught the eye of a local photographer. That led, in turn, to a series of gallery exhibitions, an award-winning 2010 documentary and, due out later this year, a book of his images. He views this new life as an unlikely second life after the first one ended, and himself as "just a regular dude, surviving." While still fragile and reclusive - for solace, he often carries some of his dolls with him out into the world - he has attended screenings for the film and sometimes spoken at them. He admits these public appearances are frightening for him. It helps to wear a skirt or heels, he adds, "but that's what got me beaten to death." He does it anyway.

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Poster design by Scott Meola of SIMPLISSIMUS

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