Dear Damage: Essays by Ashley Marie Farmer (Sarabande Books, 2022).
Twenty-eight years ago this April, the musician Kurt Cobain jumped the fence at a Los Angeles recovery center, where he’d been an inpatient for just one day. He then flew back to his home in Seattle, wandering the streets and trying hard not to be found, days before committing suicide in his home there. His body was found on April 8th by an electrician who’d come to install a security system. It was clear to him that Cobain had been there awhile, and that he’d taken his own life with a shotgun.
In the years following his death, fans of Cobain and his band, Nirvana, have pored through the group’s albums and early singles and demos and bootlegs searching for signs of the pain that would cause him to turn to heavy narcotics and benzodiazepines, for the sounds in his music that might help explain why he picked up that shotgun on April 5th.
The sound that plays at the beginning of Ashley Marie Farmer’s essay collection, Dear Damage, is, similarly, a gunshot. It’s a noise caused by her grandfather, Bill Dresser, after he enters a hospital room in Carson City, Nevada. He bends down, kisses Frances Dresser (his wife of 63 years), and then shoots her in the chest. He tries to shoot himself right afterward, as was his plan, but the gun he’s purchased that morning from a pawn shop has a faulty spring, and the weapon falls apart in his hands. He is arrested and put in jail for the act, and Frances dies from her wounds just days later. News spreads fast through the Nevada community and across the nation, and some come to view Bill’s act as murder while others see it as a mercy killing. How one perceives what Bill Dresser did, though, depends upon whether one knows what first happened to Frances.
Two weeks before Farmer’s grandfather caused that terrible noise, her grandmother tripped in the middle of the living room, landed on her chin, and broke her neck. The injury left her paralyzed as a quadriplegic—a condition her surgeons said would likely never improve—and left her with relentless pain in the form of neuropathy. Frances Dresser’s diagnosis after the accident was a terrible curse, and she told her husband and her daughter—Farmer’s mother—that she wanted to die. She repeated this plea several times over the next two weeks. This request entered Bill Dresser’s mind, and as it sat there, it grew in volume.