Cook: Lonely skeletons: what we can learn from the mysterious death of identical twin brothers

Cook: Lonely skeletons: what we can learn from the mysterious death of identical twin brothers

April 4th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It is the saddest of ironies: twin brothers in Red Bank who tried to live the most private lives possible are now the talk of the town, known across Chattanooga and beyond.

"They just wanted to be left alone," said Linda Maffett, a neighbor.

For years, they were. The drapes never opened. The lights never on. Few visitors, if any. The brothers -- Garry and Larry Johnson, identical twins -- were living their anonymous lives in their anonymous home in the gentle neighborhood on Acorn Court.

Then, they died. And now, thousands and thousands of Americans know about it, as headlines from San Francisco to New York have spotlighted the news: Their twin skeletons were discovered several days ago, having been decomposing in their living room recliners since perhaps as long as 2011.

"Carbon monoxide poisoning," one person guessed.

Why are we drawn to this story? While they were alive, the brothers would have turned no heads, slipping through Chattanooga like ghosts. Think the New York Daily News would have headlined them while they were living?

But their death ... their bizarre, intimate, Faulkner-esque death captures our attention in powerful ways. Suddenly, we've all become their neighbors, peering onto news feeds as if from across the street, whispering to one another about them through Facebook, as if from the front porch.

We ask: Why didn't anyone notice them?

We wonder: How could two people live in such isolation?

We assume: It's just one more example of how we don't even know our neighbors anymore.

"The only time I ever saw them was when they'd come out and cut the grass. I would see one of them go to the mailbox. At first, I would try to speak to them. They didn't even want to speak," said Maffett, who lives directly across from the brothers' home. "Someone would have checked on them had we known them better."

Perhaps their death reveals more about us than them. Their lonely skeletons symbolize so many of our own internal worries: Will anyone notice my life? Will anyone remember me when I'm gone?

We project onto the brothers a strangeness as well. How weird, we think. Something must have been wrong with them, we say, suggesting our deep sense that without community with each other, we are not fully human.

Or rather: When we isolate ourselves, we lose a piece of our humanity.

You know what this all means.

We've turned the brothers into Boo Radley.

"The doors of the Radley house were closed on weekdays as well as Sundays, and Mr. Radley's boy was not seen again for fifteen years," precious Scout says in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

You remember Boo, don't you? He kept to himself, never leaving home, tiptoeing his life through Lee's small, fictional Alabama town. Women gossiped about him. Kids had nightmares.

But in the end, Boo was as gentle as a lamb and as big-hearted as a lion. All those assumptions? Profoundly wrong.

I wonder if ours today are as well.

"One morning ... it seems like three or four years ago, I was going to work," said Maffett. "I walked up to my car door to get in. I looked right over that way, and saw one of them laying on his back on the front stoop there. He wasn't moving.

"I went over there. He had fallen. He had hurt his leg ... He was flat on his back and I knew I couldn't get him up," she said, remembering their conversation like this:

Are you all right?

I can't get up.

Do you want me to go knock on your door and get your brother?

No. Don't do that.

(Maffett recalls him saying his brother was deaf).

Do you want me to call 911?

Yes.

Maffett said she stayed with him until the ambulance came. She tried to make conversation, but the brother only answered her questions in the briefest way possible.

"I know that they were not mean. They did not seem mean-spirited. They did not seem hateful in any way," she said. "They just lived there and kept to themselves."

I think those brothers were living life just as they wanted: together, relying on one another in a world that can be wickedly jagged and unforgiving for those too weak and vulnerable for it.

Perhaps, instead of needing all of us, they just needed each other.

At the end of "To Kill a Mockingbird," Scout encounters Boo, who saves her life. She realizes the man she'd once feared was kind, gentle and good.

"Most people are, Scout," her dad replies, "when you finally see them."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.