Derick Ion – Choosing Compassion

 •update
I sincerely apologize for my initially insensitive choice of title. I quickly changed it, as it wasn't meant to be 'in memoriam', but a direct reference to my memory of who Derick once was. Unfortunately, it had already been shared several times, and that title change didn't reflect on FB – meaning all shares still show the original title. As well, I'm unable to change the url address without breaking every link that has already been shared. I acknowledge that it reads as callous – it was a clumsy mistake, hastily chosen. I sincerely meant no disrespect to the families/friends of those who were tragically lost. 

More importantly, in full acknowledgment of how upsetting this piece is to those who've had direct, negative experience of Derick, I want to clarify that this wasn't intended to make light of your very real grievances with him, nor invalidate the anger you and so many others rightly feel. It was written in a moment of discomfort – finding myself awkwardly connected to this tragedy in a rather unlikely way – recoiling to discover that I felt sympathy for 'the man responsible' – not sympathy for the man he'd become, but for the one I'd perceived him to be all those years ago. Rather than push that away – which would've been far easier than taking on the backlash I invited by publishing it – I sat down and wrote it out. I was terrified to share it, but it felt necessary. 

I've intentionally avoided parroting any of the repeated rumors I've heard about Derick's character and lifestyle as I don't have personal experience of those things. I recognize that he played a significant role in creating the circumstances that led to the fire and I'm relatively certain he'll have a lot to contend with, legally and otherwise. Still, I stand by my assertion that it's not the place of the angry mob to present evidence and decide his fate, no matter how unquestionable we collectively believe his guilt to be. As much as everyone's anger is warranted, I believe my honest response is also valid – that daring to remember a person who I'd believed to be anything but dark is just as important as ensuring that the 'shadowy being' he became is held accountable for his mistakes. 

Extending compassion is not about absolution, nor does it imply that he isn't somehow responsible. It's about choosing to look beyond the surface – daring to believe that there's some trace of goodness in the human underneath – someone capable of experiencing the gravity of this and maybe – just maybe – changing for the better. It's also my belief that anger does more damage to the one who clings to it than the one towards whom that anger is directed. If mothers can find it in their hearts to sincerely forgive the men who kill their daughters (as happens surprisingly often) I don't think it's too far-fetched to imagine such a thing here...

 • original post • 

Respecting all those whose hearts are presently irreparably broken in unknowable agony, there are things I need to say about the Ghostship Fire. Rather, about the aftermath, my own grieving process and my mostly silent observation of the world's response to this immeasurable tragedy.

Firstly, I want to be mindful not to throw my weight too far in any one direction here. This is so painfully multi-layered – the angles that define this tragedy are difficult to illustrate and harder still to interpret from a place of despair and rage. I must clarify that I do not intend to defend nor make excuses for anyone – only to speak the bold truth of my own, surprising perspective, offered as an adjunct to the more commonly held notion of who's to blame and how to treat them (him.)

This is the community I grew up in. Throughout my late teens and well into my 20's, I frequented countless spaces not so unlike The Ghostship. How many un-permitted, defunct warehouses in varying stages of disrepair have I danced the night away in? Far more than I can count. I guarantee – very few of those places were up to code. Safety wasn't a primary concern – the creation of an alternative community was really what we cared about most – one focused on art and music and dance and a rare feeling of connection not so easily come by in clubs and bars. 

As so many have chillingly echoed – it could've been me – a dozen times over. 

In the hours and days following the inferno, I've experienced the same waves of emotion that so many of us have – shock and disbelief as I frantically reviewed the 'missing' list, then palpable anger, then an unexpected sense of guilt, followed by deep, deep grief. The root of my grieving, however, I suspect is of a different slant than most – one that I realize may not be so well-received. Even as I brace myself for whatever pushback these words might elicit, I know that I must bravely voice them.

I've known Derick Ion for more than 2 decades. As is true with most of us, he's changed a lot in that time. He's made some decidedly questionable choices that've caused a lot of us to prickle. I, myself, created imaginary distance by 'hiding' him when his FB posts became too dark and erratic for my liking. Like so many others, I shook my head – quite bewildered by his behavior – and turned a blind eye. Out of sight, out of mind – not the most admirable solution, considering what high regard I once held him in. 

Admittedly, my initial anger was directed towards Derick, too – he was the easiest, most obvious one to blame. Yet, as I've watched members of our community, mainstream media and people across the globe ripping Derick apart – heavily scrutinizing his initial FB post – one that was made as the flames were still raging, before any of us knew how many lives we'd lost – as I've listened to the masses calling for blood, collectively declaring his culpability before the embers had even begun to cool – as the multitudes have swept themselves up in a kind of knee-jerk, hive-mind, vitriolic response – I've become increasingly uncomfortable. 

The narrative of his careless guilt spread as quickly and destructively as the flames we blame him for. When we approach anything with certainty we lose the ability to see alternatives – we perceive what we are looking for. As such, his post seemed to be concrete evidence of his 'negligent disregard' – the masses are so certain his words prove that he's more concerned about the loss of 'stuff' than he is for human life. 

Regardless who the world now believes him to be  – in my eyes, Derick was once a beautiful person who greatly inspired me. Believing that person is still in there, I think there are much more graceful ways to interpret his words. Realizing none of us can really imagine what his experience was as he posted that statement – what happens if we choose a more compassionate lens? What if we allow for his own shock and uncertainty in that moment – how might we read his words then?

It's important to note that he doesn't directly reference material possessions, and none of us can know what he intended by 'poverty of self worth'. The superficial assumption would be that he means 'things', but he could also be referring to people or community or anything else he measures his 'self-worth' by. Remember – we're talking about an alternative community that uses language not typically heard in mainstream circles – I think it's dangerous and unproductive to interpret them without first considering that fact.

Regardless what his track-record has been – no matter how many voices rise to say 'I warned you!' and declare 'I told you so!' – he is still a human being, however lost we may have believed him to be. It's impossible to guess how such an event might've rattled him – no way to assess just how soul-shattering and sobering its effect has been. Only Derick knows that. Sadly – even if he offered the most humble, eloquently heartfelt apology – we'd tear him apart just as surely.

This isn't the way. We've set him up for failure, unfairly stacking our perspectives against him, so that nothing he could say would ever be enough. 

As a community, I believe we abandoned him long ago. We chose to stand disapprovingly at the edges, to judge his conduct from the sidelines, without daring to face the deeper issues that seeded his unfavorable demeanor. However peripheral my piece of this – I chose to look away rather than engage. For that, I feel sincerely responsible. 

Though it would be so much easier to remain quiet – I can't look away anymore. Beneath the monster everyone is painting him as, I see an anguished soul who can't even begin to explain how deeply he is feeling this. I see a world spitting acid in his face, placing the impossible weight of several dozens of deaths upon his shoulders, then snickering as he shakes and stumbles, as he attempts a feeble apology, as he grasps to convey a kind of agony that words will never be able to carry

As I watched his excruciating first interview, I sobbed. Yes – I shed generous tears for the man 'responsible for 36 deaths'. I can't even imagine how much courage it took for him to show up there – to allow them to wire him up with microphones, to boldly face the vehemence and rage, in a glaring spotlight, with cameras pointed at his face and an angry world watching – to utter words he knew would be analyzed and picked apart ad nauseam. He was doomed to portray a villain, no matter what his heart intended. The headlines call him 'tense', relaying only that he won't answer, so focused on their cold form of reporting that they entirely miss the fact that he is suffering, too. 

I sobbed because I saw something very different than the news crews did. I saw an old friend, in an impossible situation, shuddering beneath the weight of it all. I saw a humility in his face that I haven't see there in a really long time. I saw the old Derick, suddenly faced with the horrific consequences of his choices – awake and unsure and terrified. I felt the terribly awkward, cultural overlap – the clash of a thriving sub-culture I know and love – one that moves and speaks in ways the mainstream doesn't recognize – and the superficial, sensationalized media, so hungry for a compelling story, ravenously devouring the strangeness of us. I felt like I was there with him – that we all were. 

And so I cried – just as I had the day before.

On Monday I'd awoken with a gripping knot in my chest and Derick's name in my heart. I allowed myself to remember him – Derick, the phenomenal photographer and brilliant henna artist – one of my earliest photographic influences. I recalled how much I admired his way of moving through the world – how much I aspired to be like him. I remembered sitting on a blanket at some long-forgotten event, at the edge of a tent in which he was doing henna, with stacks of his stunning black and white photos of India spread out before me. I was so deeply enthralled by what his photos revealed – by some indefinable quality that made me feel as though I was there. There was a soft sensitivity in his timing – a clear respect for his chosen subjects – an effortless sort of candid story-telling that made the camera disappear. 

As I sat with these memories, I realized – that is where the seed was planted – as I sat amidst those mesmerizing images, my India dream was birthed. I knew I had to go someday – to witness those people and places as he had. I was so moved by one image, in particular, that I bought it. I'd never purchased art before, but I couldn't put this photo down. Wondering what happened to it, I pulled out a bin of sentimental keepsakes and there it was – directly on top of the pile.

As I read his description and signature on the back, I broke into tears. I sobbed for quite a while, mourning the loss of the man who took that photo, grieving for the vision he once held – one that, to my young, impressionable eye, was so full of honor and attuned to the subtleties of light. I cried to realize that he'd been gone a long time – that I'd never allowed myself to acknowledge or feel that loss. Was he one of my best friends? Not by a long shot, but he altered the course of my life, all the same. As I held that photo, I could see just how deeply his work influenced mine. 

 'Karnataka City Gypsy Cobra Family - in the back alley of Mapsa Goa, India 1997 - Derick Ion Almena' •  update  - it has been brought to my attention that this photo may not have been taken by Derick, but by an ex who was with him in India – that he claimed it as his, despite knowing she'd snapped it. Though I can't confirm this, I think it's fair to acknowledge the question of its origins. 

'Karnataka City Gypsy Cobra Family - in the back alley of Mapsa Goa, India 1997 - Derick Ion Almena' • update - it has been brought to my attention that this photo may not have been taken by Derick, but by an ex who was with him in India – that he claimed it as his, despite knowing she'd snapped it. Though I can't confirm this, I think it's fair to acknowledge the question of its origins. 

People ask if I knew anyone who died in the fire – I recognize a few faces and have met some in passing, but don't personally know any of them. My heart is broken for their families and loved ones. Many of my friends lost several loves that night – I ache for their incredible loss. This hits so close to home – it'll take a long time to find our footing as a community.

In the face of such profound tragedy, how do I explain that my life was deeply impacted by the man now publicly 'on trial' for the fatal blaze and that my heart aches for him, too? How to convey that the fire burned away my complacent judgement, unearthing an unlikely compassion for the man the world is holding accountable – that this moment's chosen 'scoundrel' is someone I still care for?

I didn't know that I did, but it's true. I care about him just as surely as I care about everyone in our community. And I'm gripped by a feeling of failure. I see that it was easier to pretend it didn't affect me – easier to forget about the person I'd known and ignore the one he'd become. He'd significantly touched my life, yet I turned my back on his.

We all have something to learn here, as we engage in these bubbling conversations about fire safety and underground events and the housing crisis that is pushing artists to these dangerous edges. We must also look at how we treat those among us who fall unfortunately into shadow. Clearly, we're not doing a very good job. Not everyone looked away – some chose more aggressive approaches. Yet, aggression begets aggression – push against him, he pushes back. The cycle is viciously ineffective. 

I can't say how different the outcome might've been – perhaps the path was laid and nothing any of us might've done could've changed the course of it, but I have to wonder – what if we'd looked closer, with empathy, rather than turning away? Would it have hurt us to extend a bit more kindness? To ask questions, rather than admonish and judge? 

I've made different choices in life than he has. Still, I see how many times my path has diverged – how many places in which I might've misstepped and wound up in a far darker place than this. 

As I watch Derick clumsily navigating this awful, hyperbolic spotlight, I think...once again – that could've been me.

Can we...please – let the man find his own words, without shredding every, single one he chooses? Can we dare to imagine the possibility that he might need time to process and come to terms with the gravity of his role in this, just as we all need time to fully comprehend the magnitude of our loss? Can we please not vilify him based on hearsay – regardless how much of it we pick up? 

Punishing Derick for the loss of precious lives will not bring them back. Hating him does nothing to ease the pain of their passing, nor fill the gaping holes left in our community. How about we shift our focus towards celebrating the magnificence of those 36 beautiful souls? I'd so much rather see my FB feed fill up with tributes – nostalgic accounts of their untold stories – anecdotes about how they touched your lives.

As the ash begins to settle, may we all find the courage to put down our pitchforksto choose forgiveness and compassion, instead. 

post-script • 
I'm told that the Derick I recall in this piece never existed – that, in my youthful naïveté, I 'bought the bullshit'. It'll take a while to integrate that perspective as it unsettles a lot more than just my old ideas of who he was, tugging at the deepest foundations of my work. I'm more than willing to consider the possibility that my view of him was somehow slanted in his favor based on my admiration of his crafts. I was young – his life looked pretty shiny and impressive from the outside. Somehow, I managed to avoid the darkness that so many claim was always there. Incorrect or not, my emotional remembrance of who I perceived him to be was genuine. However imaginary that person might've been – his influence on my life was not. This doesn't make me a 'follower of his cult', or a 'defender' of his awful ways – only a woman bold enough to admit that I hold a contrasting memory of who he once was. I regret that my sharing of that memory has so upset people – the last thing any of us need is more pain in this moment. Yet I can't offer a false apology for being honest. I can only hope that you'll someday recognize that this truly wasn't meant to be inflammatory. 

 Zippy Lomax – taken at the Ren Faire by Derick Ion – 1999ish

Zippy Lomax – taken at the Ren Faire by Derick Ion – 1999ish