When a stepfather goes missing, how do you describe him? As a pilot? A Vietnam veteran? A loving husband? A brutal father? Or as someone who used to be? Robert Lunday’s Disequilibria: Meditations on Missingness (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), is a hybrid memoir about the 1982 disappearance of his stepfather, James Edward Lewis. In Disequilibria, missingness appears a matter of perspective, the shape of it shifting always, changing depending on where one stands.
Echoing that fluidity, my conversation with Lunday flowed beyond the bounds of his book to contemplate the questions it raises: How to reconcile with one’s citizenship in a country that is always at war? What to make of missingness that is forced? And, perhaps most importantly, how to contend with missingness on a global level to understand how it exists in our personal lives?
Lunday is a professor of English at Houston Community College. In addition to Disequilibria, which won the 2023 River Teeth Nonfiction Prize, he is the author of the poetry collections Mad Flights and Gnome.
When Lunday and I spoke on Zoom, he mentioned he’d been working on Disequilibria for fifteen years, and so our conversation began with my incredulity.
The Rumpus: Fifteen years is a long time to work on a book! What is it like to write for so long about something that is no longer there?
Robert Lunday: I typed some things out with my typewriter in 1982, just after he disappeared. I tried but didn’t trust myself as a prose writer at the time. So I put it away and kept it long enough for it to feel like I discovered it years later, long after I’d written my first book, Mad Flights, a collection of poems from about twenty years ago. That book ends with a longish poem that is about the disappearance. Looking at it again, I realized it had this particular trope in it familiar to somebody my age—a boomer—which is orbiting. The disappearing man is a comet that goes out so far that the orbit is broken.
So then I tried to write a standard sort of memoir, one that was just about me and my family and my stepfather, but something wasn’t true about it, so I put it away for many years. Partly because I fear writing, I would avoid writing this book by doing my genealogy research, which is what would also bring me back to my writing. It is nightmarish how incredibly white I am, in my ancestry but also in that literal and allegorical vision of the American past. I found dates of my family coming over as Mayflower passengers. I found family members who were 1609 Jamestown settlers. I found seventh, eighth, and ninth great-grandfathers who were the architects of slavery in Virginia and Maryland. I would escape from that horrific past back to the comfort of my writing, but of course there are traces of that legacy there too.
Rumpus: Can you explain how it is that the writing helped you to find comfort or make sense of that past?
Lunday: It’s part of what I teach my students: to look at the story of their lives as if it were a silo that they’re rising up through in a hot air balloon. You start at the bottom and slowly rise so that you start to see the broader landscape that you’re a part of. It’s both liberating and frightening, going higher and higher still until it starts to become less personal and more communal, more political and social, until it eventually becomes historical and, if you go high enough, it becomes mythical. You see that you are like Ulysses, like Icarus, like Napoleon, whoever you want to name, you are a part of history and it is a seamless continuum back down to you there on the sidewalk in your neighborhood. We are living myths, but we are also just living our humdrum domestic lives. It is a startling continuum. That’s part of what I was trying to get at in the book, and why, in finishing it, I realized I’d just started.
Rumpus: So often the creative process is circular in that way. You arrive at your destination, which is just a small little door, and realize there is a whole other world on the other side. I’m curious about why you titled that door/this book Disequilibria, a term from physics, and why you subtitled it with “missingness,” a mathematical term. Technical definitions aside, what do disequilibria and missingness mean to you?
Lunday: I had seen missingness used, not a lot, but mostly by people who were writing from the social science perspective, which is mostly strictly literal. And so I would get trapped in it and have to kind of stop reading and shake my head to get back to the lyricism, which, in a way, was like the relationship I had with my stepfather: my tendency to be lyrical, which he would often deny and suppress. It’s how the practicality of missingness is dealt with too. Law enforcement and scientists who are mostly trying to deal with real world problems of missing people: How do we help their families? How do we help them when they return? Because most missing persons do in fact return, or they deal with forced disappearance, as is briefly mentioned in the book and what I’ve been focusing on more recently.
Rumpus: Can you define “forced disappearance”?
Lunday: Writing the story about my one family’s experience seemed so small in comparison to missingness elsewhere. When I closed the book and looked up and I saw how big missingness really is . . . it’s like seeing this mountain range I didn’t even know was there.
It’s here, too, in Houston, where I live—which is more than ninety percent Latinx, Central American, and Mexican—a continuum back to those places. Living in the borderland, everybody knows somebody who disappeared or was disappeared by the border patrol or by the desert itself.
There’s also MMIW, missing and murdered indigenous women, especially in the Northwest and Canada. But when I cracked open and started reading these Native American and Native Canadian writers, I saw patterns of experience I hadn’t seen or thought about before. I have a kind of shame about not knowing but also a joy in experiencing the languages and artistic forms these writers use to describe it.
So missingness as a term is not mathematical for me. It’s trying to take all of that and more and fit it back in but without ignoring the classic whodunit implicit in missing persons stories, because that’s where I began too. Often, the missingness is a McGuffin—it’s not really the point, but something else more nefarious is the point. In my case, it would be the idea that my stepfather, who appeared to be a straitlaced John Wayne kind of person in whom what you see is what you get, was actually quite complicated. His missingness points to something that we never knew was there in him and of the larger systems that engulfed him, which is often one of the tropes in missing persons. It looks like maybe my stepfather got involved in smuggling.
Rumpus: If you’ll permit me a fine-toothed question on the terminology of missingness here, because of how dependent the term is on point of view, I’m curious about what’s gained in the distinction between missingness or forced disappearance and, say, murder?
Lunday: I know. Disappearance is tricky because you don’t know if the missing are alive or dead, so they’re both and they’re neither. And that’s unsettling. For forty years now, I have had these recurring dreams in which my stepfather returns, and I don’t feel especially happy about it. I think it’s because part of me in the dream is this six-year-old who feared my stepfather, and the other part is the sixty-four-year-old who pities him.
In the book Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon defines this as hauntedness. And it’s magnified in forced disappearances, during the period of the junta in Argentina, for example, because part of the effect of the disappearance was that no one knew anything and nobody was being told anything—not by the media that was state controlled or by the state itself. You might be told that a missing person ran away, for example, if you were told anything at all. Everybody knew it was more than that. The subterfuge of language is that even speaking about these things could endanger someone’s life. And so, I guess what I’m getting at and part of why I used the mathematical titles is that these things have to do with the cruelty of randomness, which I intend as a metaphor for suspension. We have to learn to live in suspension.
Rumpus: And I imagine it’s a kind of suspension that can be difficult not to be swallowed by.
Lunday: I recently went to a conference for families of the missing in Houston. There were two main types: people who had someone go missing years ago, and people whose loved ones disappeared just in the last few weeks or months. The latter is usually a family who has lost a child. The thing I noticed was that it [which type people fell into] didn’t matter, everyone was very emotional. Everyone had a hard time navigating between talking about missingness in a procedural way and then dealing with the undercurrent of raw wordless emotion. The years did not necessarily help. I’m hopeful, though, that through books like this, we might build a tropic language to assuage, if not the pain of missingness, then the loneliness.
Rumpus: I’m tempted to assign this particular pain of missingness the solipsistic structure you raised, at various points in the book. Can you say more about the commonalities between solipsism and missingness, the way they overlap?
Lunday: Ah yes, the primal question! You’re walking down the sidewalk and you have the thought: Am I the only conscious person? Is everybody else a robot? This tends to yield two possibilities. It could be yes, they’re all as aware as I am–or they are not. The third possibility is: Oh look! A squirrel! Which is to say that you never answer the question. This may be, in a way, better, to never really, fully know, to have the search delayed by living itself.
Of course, my usual fear is rather the opposite, that other people are more deeply conscious than I am, that I am still trying to wake up.
Rumpus: Do you feel, in a way, lost to yourself?
Lunday: In the book, I wrote briefly about Jonathan Hamilton, who went missing. Eventually they found his jawbone in the Texas Colorado River, a small part of him that comes with the large probability that he’s dead. If they find a leg bone, well, maybe not. There is something weird and uncanny about that.
His mother, Angie Hamilton, read the book and found me on Facebook. I mentioned the missing person’s conference in Houston, but she said she didn’t want to go because, after all, her son wasn’t missing anymore. Jonathan has been found dead, or at least a part of him had been found, and so she assumed all of him was dead.
I told her that she was still a part of the missing persons community if she wanted to be. “You went through it,” I said. “That’s never going to go away.” She had to contend with that metaphysical question of missingness.
Rumpus: Where it began and where it ended, where she belonged and where she didn’t, it’s almost as if the most real thing for her was in the search for Jonathan, in the seeking of the unknown. As you wrote in the book: “Nothing is more real than the search through the dark woods.” To turn this into a question on form, how did you find the undefinable form of this book, which you describe as hybrid?
Lunday: Hybridity is tricky because you don’t know. What I mean by it here is that the book has got the lit crit and the social crit, and it’s got fragmentation, and, at the end, it’s got a sort of fantasia into fictional dreams. But it’s also got some standard memoir kind of stuff.
You see, I love American Romantics. I love Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Fuller, Douglas, and Melville in particular. I love the continuum between their poetry and prose because many of them write poetry but not well—not by our standards today. But they wrote amazing prose precisely because it’s so filled with amazing poetry. I love that. I draw upon that.
As for the structure, the book is vida contemplativa versus vida activa. I never felt I could be a warrior—not that I wanted to be, but part of me did, of course. How could you be an eight-year-old boy who gets a toy gun for Christmas and not want to be a warrior? But I always saw the complexities of things. My stepfather would always tell me, “Don’t think, act. Follow orders.” For me, I want to stop to consider the different angles. My stepfather would say, “Boom, you’re dead.” That was his attitude. I always felt this otherness, the kind that necessitated pause to consider the otherness that exists in the world, and in me.
Rumpus: I love the way you phrase inclusion as a sort of inward process, of being open to the otherness inside of yourself. I’m curious to look at that, specifically, in terms of your relationship to war. As the son of military men and as a pacifist, how do you reconcile this?
Lunday: It all exists inside. Don’t get me wrong, I still have viscerally in me the boy’s admiration for the power, the strength, for the beauty of it. For me, skydiving is really the great figure of that. It’s such a poetic thing—falling through the sky. And I loved being in the drop zone, some of my earliest memories, looking up, just the beauty of these big men turned small, fragile-looking. It’s almost a discovery of the law of linear perspective. They were small out there, can’t harm you out there, but the one thing about that is that orally, you can hear voices. Visually they look so far away, farther than the moon, but you can hear them talking to each other across that distance. They will land, and they will walk back, and they will become large again. That’s a bodily memory for me—a beautiful representation of that militant male power.
A lot of my family members were in Vietnam. I’ve watched as a lot of these men, older now, turn from confident soldiers into people who never really feel at home, who are bitter and angry now. They were kind of lost in that experience. Because we have not come to terms with the rightness and wrongness of our wars, they are still lost.
For me, of course, it was all wrong. We get into wars through lies. In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. For what? You can go look at that wall (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.) as I’ve done and see more than fifteen thousand names of American soldiers who died. Maybe there are a thousand or so unaccounted-for servicemen.
We don’t even know how many Vietnamese died. It’s in the millions. How many Vietnamese now, are missing? At least three million. We don’t know, because one of our weapons of war was to take away the bodies and deny the families the very much needed taking back of the body to honor it and cremate it and say prayers so that its soul would not be restless. That was part of our PSYOPs: to kill the already dead body. I mean there is so much horror.
So in me, I’ve got this love and admiration for war that is kind of frozen in time—the eight-year-old boy’s notion of that. I have this educated, liberal adult anger about it and moral outrage at it and I haven’t got them resolved.
Rumpus: If you could build a monument to missingness, what would it look like and what might it need to accomplish?
Lunday: There are a few, in Australia for example, although I’ve only seen pictures. In Sri Lanka there is a memorial to the disappeared who are mostly sons and husbands. In Lebanon, there is a webspace that looks hauntingly like the physical Sri Lankan memorial, in the sense that it is mostly blank spaces, so that it looks forever unfinished—blank spaces without names.
For me, the memorial might be something like an old-fashioned card-catalog cabinet—you’d open the drawers and find some piece of the missing person inside, of James Edward Lewis. In a way, that already exists because my mother still has his chest of drawers with his stuff inside: medals, paperwork, cufflinks, and things like that. It would be bigger. It would occupy an old used bookstore or something with many rooms, some of it would be neat and some of it would be messy, and you could never finish, like going through a big museum, you could never finish. Before you could get through the last room, your legs would just be too tired.
Author photograph by Yukio Lundlay