One morning last week I woke with a physical exhaustion that has thankfully become quite rare. So when I came home from an unenthusiastic workout, I opened Netflix and crawled under a blanket.
In one of my searches, I discovered 2 documentaries that interested me and were listed to be streaming on Netflix, but were not! I scrolled and scrolled, past so many until I landed on The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel. A young woman named Elisa Lam left Vancouver in a familiar quest for answers to the question we all ask at some point; Who am I? This quest took her to California, first San Diego through Los Angeles ending in San Francisco. She would get no further than LA, no further than the Cecil Hotel.
It was an eerie story of conspiracy and perhaps the supernatural as she simply disappeared. There was a surveillance video of her in an elevator and then no more. It was also a story of homelessness, hopelessness, mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, the police, a hotel’s history of evil/tragedy and a musician in Mexico.
The series was 4 episodes and in the 4th, we learned what actually happened. I’ll ruin the suspense here, this is the 4th paragraph and there wasn’t a conspiracy or governmental coverup, there was a lovely young woman who had serious mental issues that caused her, ostensibly, to climb into a water tank on the roof of a hotel and drown.
I intended to make this a post about easy characterizations and a need to understand that lead us down all sorts of paths we don’t want to go, and which have been adding to our disconnect and division. Maybe I will, but it’s so much more in my head now, I just can’t let this one go.
Elisa Lam was a very prolific blogger, posting every thought and idea on Tumblr. I imagine anyone who read her work felt as if they knew her, that’s probably why the story was so captivating for so many. She was our sister, daughter, friend, co-worker, wide open about every thing in her life. We wanted the best for her, wanted her to find meaning and love. If you’re reading this, do you feel like you know who I am? Do you think we’d be friends? I hope so. In all likelihood, we would. It’s sure a new, interesting world, where we can become close to people we’ve never met, and in Elisa Lam’s case, never even had a conversation.
I like that. I think it’s one of the most beautiful side effects of social media. We are closer than ever before, nothing separates us (except physical space, I suppose.) And we are farther apart than ever before, falling prey to the delusion that online relationships can take the place of relationships IRL. She traveled to California and slowly fell apart in public and no one asked the smallest question, if she was ok. Maybe she would’ve lied, pretended like we do, that yes, she was fine. But maybe she would’ve told the truth, that no, she wasn’t.
I wonder how many times I pass by a person in distress, too busy or distracted or too minding my own business to look or listen. I wonder if a human connection – even a tiny, superficial one – would’ve saved Elisa Lam’s life.
You already know I think we’re here to walk together. We’re made for just this sort of human connection, and we’ve wandered so far off that path that when we are asked, it’s jarring and we feel a sense of intrusion. When did that happen? And I wonder if we felt it slipping away.
In this film, one of the main characters was Los Angeles and a part of LA called Skid Row. Apparently, the idea was to take the homeless and other “undesirables” and imprison them in a square of the city where they could be ignored and forgotten. Human beings were “undesirable” and systematically, purposely ignored and forgotten? It seems like we all have to ask the question that drove Elisa Lam to California in the first place: Who are we????
Her death obviously wasn’t the Cecil Hotel’s fault, but it sure feels like a metaphor. The Cecil was crafted with great care and beauty and over time, seems to have forgotten it’s original creation. Great care and beauty were poured into this structure so that it could take creat care of others. But without a clear vision or purpose, it fell into disrepair and became just another flop house where the people who interacted with it were seen and treated as disposable, which in turn made this once grand hotel disposable, rotting from the inside.
It was a super sad documentary, but as Black Widow says to Bruce Banner in the 1st Avengers movie, “No, we need a little worse.” Not paying attention, whistling through graveyards and hiding behind masks of the images we desperately try to keep, has gotten us here. Maybe we need a little worse, too, a few more cameras shining the light of truth on our increasing dysfunction, to force a course correction. And if we do that, if we start to care or listen or love, maybe Elisa Lam’s death would’ve been for something. Now, it’s just a senseless casualty of modern life.
But it doesn’t have to be. We get to choose what it is, and we get to choose here, now, today.