Amherst Magazine

Ghost Writer

This piece won a sought-after gold medal in the Best Articles of the Year category for 2009.

By Rand Richards Cooper ’80

David Stringer '64
David Stringer '64 looks through a stack of his younger brother's letters. 

Readers browsing the Winter 2004 issue of this magazine came across a startling obituary in the In Memory section. “[M]y younger brother died on Feb. 25 in Phoenix,” it began. “He was murdered—tied up, beaten and strangled.”

What followed was a searingly frank summary of the life and death of John Stringer ’73, a former crew captain and anthropology major who fought a decades-long battle with drug abuse and mental illness. The obituary sketched a life hardly typical of an Amherst graduate, one “lived on and off the streets, in a crack house and for about two years under an expressway bridge.” By turns harrowing, sorrowful and funny, it evoked both John Stringer’s hardships and his sense of humor—“his appreciation of the follies of much of human experience, including his own”—while saying nothing more about his nightmarish death. Who strangled him, readers wondered, and why?

This was just one of a hundred questions that tormented the obituary’s author, David Stringer ’64. A retired high school English teacher, David Stringer had grown up on the opposite side of the ’60s divide from his younger brother. Products of the wealthy Connecticut suburbs, the two had gone their separate ways—David hewing to the straight and narrow, John charging forth in perpetual rebellion, a seeker and self-proclaimed “swami” whose failure to find a stable existence bewildered his family. After years of little contact, David intervened in his brother’s life, an effort to help that ended in a twist worthy of Greek tragedy, with David and his sister arriving in Phoenix only to find their brother murdered just hours earlier—killed, it turned out, for the very money they’d been sending him.

To David, John’s life was a story with an auspicious start, a horrific ending and little in between. “The truth is that I do not know much about John’s life,” he confessed in the obituary. In the months afterward, he decided to fill in the gap. In his retirement, David had worked as an editor and ghostwriter, collaborating on books about topics ranging from corporate leadership to the Bataan Death March. Now, he took up a much more personal book project. At his desk, he sat amid a stack of John’s letters, reports from his caseworker, the notes of the detective who investigated his killing—and his ashes, in a box on a nearby shelf.

“Who was John Stringer?” he typed, and set forth on the trail of his brother’s ghost.

David Stringer holds a postcard from his brother
David Stringer with a quote from Hamlet that his brother scribbled on cardboard.

“This place is still here?”

It’s a late summer day in 2007, and David Stringer is back East, visiting old haunts. Driving down the Merritt Parkway to Darien, Conn., where he grew up, we’ve stopped to stroll through the town center. Stringer is peering into a luncheonette called the Sugar Bowl, a nostalgia-drenched place where stools line the soda fountain counter and you can still order a patty melt and an egg cream. “Amazing,” he says. “It looks unchanged.”

On a Saturday afternoon in the late 1950s, the Sugar Bowl would be packed with high school kids after a football game, a raucous mob of players, cheerleaders and fans. Sports preoccupied the two older Stringer boys: David was a hockey goalie, talented enough to earn a tryout for the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, while Bob, one year older, was the star fullback for Darien High. John ran track, but he was a decade younger, and by the time he came along, everything had changed. “John’s senior year was Woodstock,” Stringer says. “He and his buddies were skinny-dipping, smoking pot—the whole scene.”

At 64, David Stringer is strikingly youthful, with curly hair and a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. He comes off as a congenital optimist, smiling even as he describes his brother’s later troubles: The years of drifting around, unable or unwilling to stick with a job. The heavy use of pot, alcohol and cocaine—self-medication for what doctors eventually diagnosed as schizo­affective disorder. The drug den in a rundown section of Phoenix where he lived as a squatter in the late 1980s. John Stringer had originally gone out to Phoenix to try landscaping work, but by 1992 he was both jobless and homeless, sleeping amid what his brother calls “a pile of rocks near a freeway bridge.” Convicted in 1995 on a cocaine charge, he spent 14 months in prison and in the Arizona State Hospital. Following his release, he lived off a small stipend from a trust fund—both Stringer parents had died—while increasingly suffering health consequences from years of neglect. His backsliding with drugs worried his siblings, and so did the flophouse where he still hung out with companions from his cocaine days. Finally, his siblings persuaded him to accept a condo they bought for him, and in February 2004, David and his sister Candy flew out to Arizona to help him move in.
 
“We went to get the keys to the new place. Then we were going to pick John up,” Stringer tells me. “But instead of giving us the keys, the manager handed us the card of a homicide detective.” They learned their brother had been killed the night before. (An acquaintance would be charged with his murder—a 29-year-old named Gerald Goldtooth, whom John Stringer had referred to in letters.) Stunned and disbelieving, Stringer and his sister toured the dingy apartment where their brother had died. “You could see bloodstains on the floor. We also found a slip of paper where he had written the PIN for an ATM card on a savings account we set him up with. My guess is they were trying to get the card out of him. But John had destroyed it—on our advice.”
 
His murder did not even make the local paper.

Leaving the center of Darien, Stringer and I drive out into the residential neighborhoods, plush woodsy lanes with Cheeveresque names like Flax Hill and Shady Knoll. After a couple of false turns, we arrive at the leafy cul de sac where his father, an executive with General Foods, bought a house in 1956. The home, a spacious colonial in a yard of big trees and pachysandra, is dwarfed by a colossal new residence next door, bristling with turrets, porches and gables.

“There’s a lot of money here,” Stringer says, with a low whistle.

We stand in front of the house, and he ticks off memories. The skating pond hidden at the end of the road. The boat his father used for taking clients out on Long Island Sound. The thousands of hours spent throwing balls with his brother Bob out in the yard. And the long silences inside the house. Stringer’s father was a stern man, a World War II PT boat captain whose favorite expression was, “Everything’s under control.” “He’d come home and have his cocktail and read his paper,” Stringer remembers. “If he’d had a tough day, he’d make us have silence contests at dinner. No one would talk, and Dad would eat his roast beef.” It seems almost a parody of WASP dysfunction: the rigid, absent father; the alcoholic mother; the rancor of a loveless marriage. When Stringer’s father died in 1988, the one personal possession Stringer’s mother saved was his money clip, inscribed with a dollar sign.

I ask about his younger brother, whether there were any signs back then that he might be headed for trouble. David Stringer shakes his head. “John was extroverted, really happy. He liked pranks and mischief, and he had a grin that lighted up the room.”

His brother’s sense of humor remained intact, Stringer says, even as the difficulties of his life mounted. “The last place he lived in was a real pit. The cockroaches were unbelievable. But John was funny about it. He used to do this thing he called his ‘cockroach dance.’ To show you how he’d stomp on them.”

The younger Stringer had been looking forward to moving. T minus 10 days and counting, he wrote to his brother. Ditching the cockroaches. Mapping out an efficient furniture moving strategy. Another letter ended with a punning sign-off—Movingly, John—and a P.S.: I’m so excited—Thank you guys! When David Stringer and his sister cleaned out the apartment, they found their brother’s few possessions in paper bags, ready to go: Photos from a boyhood summer camp and from Amherst. A couple of Carlos Castaneda books. An old cycling medal. Stringer sighs, telling how he discovered his brother’s false teeth in a bureau drawer. Over the years, John had lost most of his teeth, and his siblings had helped him get dentures. “That was the moment of chilling realization for me, seeing his teeth there like that.”

He squints, pensively, as if searching his memory for happier recollections. “See over there?” He points to the side yard, recalling a day he and Bob were tossing a football there, and John, about 7 years old, came out to join in. “Bob told John to go long, and when John reached the end of the lawn he just kept going, right into the woods, laughing maniacally.” He laughs to himself, remembering it.

“‘Go long,’ we told him, and he just kept going.”

John Stringer '73
John Stringer '73 in the stands at Pratt Field—“unaffected by the rain,” a classmate once recalled, “and completely happy.”

How to understand the mystery of why one brother goes crashing through the wilderness of his life, while another stays on the manicured lawn? What is environment, what is luck and what lies coded deep in the self? When Stringer talks about his brother’s problems, he cites a line from Norman Mailer’s novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance: “Your genes load the gun, your behavior pulls the trigger.”
 
But was John Stringer a loaded gun?

After the obituary in Amherst magazine, David got a lot of e-mails from his brother’s classmates.  They recalled John as a person of tremendous ebullience: “a wild, free spirit,” “ecstatically happy.” He was the campus character, longhaired and bearded, entertaining fans at halftime of football games with displays of Frisbee prowess. The guy cranking the music and dragging everyone outside on the first warm day in March. The wild man, running barefoot in the snow.

“John,” wrote Peter Fox ’75, “was a legend.”

John was bright—his transcript shows a 765 Math SAT score—and one friend described him to David as “a thinker” whose instinct was always to question conventional ideas.  But at Amherst, his grades were mediocre, save for an A- in a sophomore course in Eastern philosophy and the Hindu tradition. Majoring in anthropology, he gravitated toward Carlos Castaneda and a pop transcendentalism that swirled together political protest, personal liberation and drugs in a heady concoction. “Academics were not his first love,” wrote another classmate in a letter to David. “That would have been drugs, or beer, or rowing.” John had an interest and talent in art, especially sculpture. One friend admired a life-sized hand he crafted out of wax for a bronze casting, perfectly detailed right down to the fingerprints.

At Amherst, Stringer changed from jock to hippie, seemingly overnight. For part of his sophomore year, he lived in a windowless room in the basement of Psi U—banished by his upstairs roommates for smoking too much pot. In his cave, he hung a sheet from the ceiling, illuminated by a spotlight, and spent hours getting high with friends, blasting Led Zeppelin and playing a shadow game of air guitar. Eventually he quit the crew team. His grades floundered. After his junior year, he wanted to drop out of school altogether—David speculates that his underlying schizophrenia made studying difficult—but his family persuaded him to return for his senior year.

He was changing, his behavior taking on an edge of the manic that reminded one friend of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road. Some found it worrisome. “I really don’t know what happened with John,” his freshman roommate, Art Boothby, wrote to David. “Over the years, his hair got very long and dirty, and he got that scary look in his eyes.”
 
David saw that scary look a few times, he tells me. It’s another gorgeous day, and he and I are visiting Amherst; we are standing at the War Memorial and gazing out toward the Holyoke Range. That look on his brother’s face, Stringer says, was all about drugs. “One time out in Phoenix, I brought John to a motel, cleaned him up and fed him a meal. I started lecturing him about crack, and that’s when he got that look. It was a potential for violence.”

Stringer has grappled with the relationship of drugs and an unconventional lifestyle to mental illness in his brother’s life. Born in 1943, the older Stringer predated the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll moment in American college life. “You’re talking to someone who was a virgin when he graduated,” he says. “And I still haven’t smoked pot.”

It’s a tale of two Amhersts. To anyone who went to college after 1970, David’s Amherst is a foreign country: No blue jeans anywhere. Dorm parietals and a maid to clean your room. Compulsory chapel. A freshman swim test. The legendary English 1, in which Stringer recalls Professor Theodore Baird tossing a set of papers onto the classroom floor in disgust, as students scuffled on hands and knees to pick them up.

The five years between his graduation and his brother’s matriculation changed everything—it was the most turbulent half-decade in the history of American higher education. John’s freshman year saw the expansion of the war into Cambodia, the Amherst student strike and the Kent State shootings. A year later came the selection of Bill Ward as Amherst president and his arrest in a protest at Westover Air Force Base. As for student life, the lid was off. Drug use proliferated. Dorm rules evaporated. The abandonment of the core curriculum brought a sudden indulgence of the dubious—like John Stringer’s final exam in one music course, when he blindfolded his professor and guided his hands through warm applesauce, ostensibly to illustrate something about a Brahms symphony.

By then, David Stringer was already a young father, teaching school in Michigan, and his brother’s life at Amherst was no more than a distant tremor of the counterculture. We walk past Johnson Chapel and Converse Hall, crossing the street to stop outside the former Psi U fraternity, and Stringer pulls out a snapshot his brother sent him around that time, taken in front of a snow-laden tree by the fraternity house. In the photo, John—bearded, wearing a beat-up dress shirt unbuttoned despite the cold—holds two protest signs: Fuck the Estab and I Hate Pigs. Smiling ferociously, a hatchet tucked into the waistband of his jeans, he looks the very picture of a campus insurrectionist.

“The funny thing is,” laughs Stringer, “it was a joke.” He turns the photo over. PS, his brother wrote on the back, This is exactly what I am NOT, in case that’s not clear.

His brother, David says, was apolitical. And yet the tenor of the times fit his headlong personality perfectly. “When John wanted to do something, he jumped in head-first. That was always the difference between him and me. In my high school classes, I taught William Blake—his advice about how you’ll never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. John actually went out and lived it.”

“Energy is Eternal Delight,” wrote Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” But John’s example suggests a darker side to the freeing of desire from all restraint. Looking back, David suspects that the “radical” ethic that allowed his brother to frame drug use as anti-establishment may have masked and exacerbated a latent mental illness. John’s neglect of his studies, his abdication of personal intimacy in favor of public displays of wildman joy, his avidity for pot, mushrooms, peyote, acid: writing about his brother’s years at Amherst, David would wonder whether such behavior was “a symptom of John’s illness or a symptom of the times in which he lived.”
 
I ask him: Can the times themselves be ill? Does he partly blame the ’60s zeitgeist for the course his brother’s life took?

By way of an answer, Stringer cites a note he received from John’s fraternity brother George Starkweather ’72, telling the story of another Psi U resident—a pal of John’s—who dropped acid five days straight and worked himself into a state of near catatonia, sitting for hours on the porch, staring at the sun. That young man later left college, was institutionalized and ultimately committed suicide. But at the time, none of his fraternity brothers seemed to consider his behavior risky or even unusual. “No one intervened when he went off the cliff,” Starkweather wrote. “They just stepped over the corpse.”

In John’s case, some classmates say they find his troubles in life unsurprising. Looking back, they see a feverish intensity hard to imagine fitting any conventional career. And John certainly never had that. A stint in a commune, a succession of landscaping jobs quickly dropped, a failed attempt at becoming a TV repairman and the romance of life on the road yielding steadily to the reality of poverty, transience and drugs: some people who know what happened to John Stringer look back to Amherst and recall a person already beginning to lose his grip.
  
“We could see him slip away,” wrote classmate Mark Beckwith in a letter to David, “and we wondered how to invite him back.”

John Stringer on crew at Amherst
Early on, John Stringer was a crew captain at Amherst.

Though he describes himself as blandly conventional (“I’m a middle-class person who believes having clean shirts is important”), David Stringer has a quirky side. During his years as a teacher, he rode his bike five miles to work every day, come sun, rain or snow. In retirement, he works part-time at Starbucks. He is by far the oldest employee; his manager, he told me with a laugh, is the daughter of a former student. The Starbucks gig is just for fun, taken because he discovered that being a full-time writer wasn’t sociable enough. But writing runs in the Stringer family. One grandfather, Arthur Stringer, was a prolific poet and novelist, author of books with titles like The Woman in the Rain and The Door of Dread. In fact, it was a visit to the University of Western Ontario, where David viewed his grandfather’s collected papers, that spurred him to do what he had long dreamed of. Amazed at the sheer quantity of his grandfather’s output—more than 70 novels—Stringer realized that “if I wanted to be a writer, I should put my ass in a chair and write.”

When I read his manuscript about his brother, I was struck by the disconnect between David’s sunny disposition and the darkness the book explores. Titled What’s My ZIP Code? (after a bemused P.S. John once appended to a letter), the 273-page narrative begins with the horrific discovery in Phoenix, then circles back through John’s life, chronicling its ups and downs and the dilemmas his family faced in trying to help. David spent most of two years writing and revising the book. “I learn by writing,” he says. “I had to go through a writing process in order to know my brother.”

John himself was a prolific letter-writer, scribbling notes on pieces of cardboard or the back of a Lipton tea box. Many of the letters included in What’s My ZIP Code? are remarkably lucid and upbeat. Others, disjointed and in places delusional, show the pressures of psychosis. And still others display a surprising wit. In one letter, John describes seeing downy pigeon feathers floating on the surface of a swimming pool and, nearby, a workman’s sawhorse resembling a bull: these signs, he informs his brother, will help him predict Wall Street’s coming “down” or “bull” trend. “Unless this is too outlandishly crazy,” he adds, “I’ll keep in touch with you about this.” Winking at his own claims to magical, “swami” powers, John used humor to keep a handle on sanity; reading What’s My ZIP Code?, one can’t help but admire the courage he showed in battling his demons.

For David, writing the book was a way to face his own demons, especially the “what if?”s that kept him awake at night after his brother’s death. What if he and his sister had flown out to Phoenix the day before? What if the new condo had been completed on schedule, two months earlier? There were other, deeper questions. “What if we had called or written more often?” Stringer writes in his manuscript. “What if we had gotten him into earlier treatment? What if we had been less selfish and one of us had volunteered to take him into our home?”
 
Eventually, he says, he stopped second-guessing himself. As for not rescuing his brother by taking him in: none of the Stringers, all of them raising teenage children, wanted their families dragged into John’s world. There was also the question of what John himself wanted—his right not to be rescued. What’s My ZIP Code? portrays a man’s rejection of work, of housing, even of hygiene as a choice, an alternative lifestyle. Throughout, the Stringer family takes the position that an intervention won’t work without John’s willingness to change—and that attempting it against his will would insult his dignity as a free human being.

But what is the meaning of free choice and dignity in the context of a life driven by substance abuse and mental illness? When I asked Stringer this, he paused for a long time. “I know people will say this isn’t a lifestyle—it’s a set of symptoms,” he answered finally. “And it’s hard to look at John without seeing the cockroaches and saying, He must have been miserable. Did I never say in my middle-class heart, Get a job, ditch the drugs, clean yourself up? Of course I did.”

Writing the book changed his thinking, Stringer says. He mentions the works of Frithjof Bergmann, a University of Michigan philosopher whose 1977 book, On Being Free, defines true freedom as identifying with your choices in life. His brother did just that, Stringer insists. “When John was living under the bridge, Bob and I went out to see him, and we asked him, Are you happy living like this? And John said, Yeah. To him, we were the ones who had to go to work and pay bills and all that stuff—and he didn’t have to do any of that.” Eventually, following his release from jail, John began taking antipsychotic medications, and his outlook changed. The drugs flattened out his grandiosity and dulled his mania; he began questioning the choices he had made in his life. David sees the change with ambivalence. “Most people would say he was finally regaining his mental health—now he could see that he wasn’t really a swami. But I’d say he was happier as a swami.”

In a chapter titled “Shrunk,” Stringer details his brother’s mixed experiences with the mental-health profession. The chapter’s complaint about psychiatry lies not with diagnosis itself, but rather with what David sees as the radical reductiveness that goes along with it. Once you put someone in a “diagnostic box,” he writes, “everything looks like a symptom of the disease.” Labeling his brother as a schizophrenic eliminates the reality of choice and rebellion in his life’s story, along with the humor, extravagance and self-mockery that his brother specialized in. “Yes, John was a dismal, sick, miserable failure. He was also an expression of an alternative way of living—and of a joy—that my own uptight, gotta-get-tenure, gotta-be-responsible way of life could only wonder at.” Writing What’s My ZIP Code? taught Stringer to be wary of labels. “The core of a person is mysterious,” he says. “It’s unfathomable, and a label tends to fathom.”

Stringer Brothers
Brothers John (left) and David Stringer. 

In October 2004, eight months after his brother’s death, Stringer traveled to Phoenix for a gathering of John’s friends. It was an evening spent eating, drinking and telling stories. One friend recalled John’s years under the freeway bridge, how he referred to it as “camping” and liked brewing “cowboy coffee” in an empty tin can. Another told about the time John bestowed a suede jacket as a wedding present, in perfect condition— except for a rank odor that betrayed its origin in one of his “Dumpster-diving” expeditions. Stringer learned how his brother would retreat to his bed, which he called his “sarcophagus,” pull the sheet up over his face and lie there meditating for an hour at a stretch. He heard about the time someone gave John a juicer, and John was so excited that he ground up and drank four pounds of carrots a day, until he literally began turning orange. On and on the stories went, told with fondness and plenty of laughter, and Stringer left with a new sense of his brother’s life.

In 2006, David Stringer returned to Phoenix to testify in the trial of John’s accused killer. The trial ended in a hung jury. “[L]ife often moves without the satisfying rhythmic resolution we yearn for in music and literature,” Stringer writes in an epilogue to What’s My ZIP Code? “Sometimes, however, we find a different way to create a sense of justice that is, for me, fundamentally aesthetic.”

That different sense of justice had already begun to emerge in December 2004, when 30 members of the extended family—from Colorado, Michigan and New England—descended on Bob Stringer’s winter home on the Gulf Coast of Florida to pay tribute to John. The impromptu memorial service took place against the backdrop of a vivid sunset on the beach and an unruly wind that blew John Stringer’s ashes back in his siblings’ faces—a snafu that David noted would have amused the deceased. The beauty and humor of the ritual helped counter the family’s fear that John’s killer would never be brought to account. Whatever happened to Goldtooth wouldn’t bring their brother back. “A gorgeous sunset couldn’t do that either,” David Stringer recalls thinking. “But it had a feeling of rightness to it, of resolution, that’s more important than justice.”

What’s My ZIP Code? remains unpublished, and Stringer is revising it a second time, hoping its eventual publication might help other families deal with their own John Stringers. Recently, he has added a chapter written from John’s point of view, imagining the last day of his life—the ghostwriter, channeling his brother’s voice. As for the question he started out with—“Who was John Stringer?”: When I asked how he would answer that now, after writing the book, he responded in classic Amherst fashion. “I might answer by rejecting the question,” he said. “Because ‘who’ is ultimately mysterious. You get glimpses, but that thing at the core is inscrutable.”

Stringer’s book serves up one trenchant glimpse of his brother after another, as if inviting readers to choose the image that would best sum up a life full of such extreme highs and lows. Would it be John Stringer as he appeared in the 1973 Amherst yearbook, sitting in the stands at Pratt Field during a downpour, wearing a fur coat and holding a two-quart bottle of beer in his lap while grinning hugely at the camera—“unaffected by the rain,” a classmate recalled, “and completely happy”?

Or Stringer on a frigid New Year’s Day at Amherst, when he kicked a Frisbee and it shattered into a zillion pieces?

Or would it be him as David found him in the late 1980s out in Phoenix, standing outside the drug house where he lived at the time, malnourished and with filthy hair, when a little girl approached and asked David, “Are you his probation officer?”

Or might it be Stringer on the day he challenged his brother Bob to a game of tennis, wearing ratty sneakers at his brother’s posh tennis club, attempting to vault over the net in mock triumph and laughing hysterically as racquet and balls went flying?

The life John Stringer lived, its mix of passion and pathos, goes repeatedly to the place where memory becomes metaphor, inviting foreshadowing and symbolism, as if to make a writer of everyone who knew him. In his book, David writes about a pair of glass bookends in the family’s house in Darien that refracted light prismatically, edging everything in rainbows. As a child, John Stringer would hold one of the bookends up in front of his eyes and try to walk across the room while staring through it—stumbling, but so enraptured by beauty that he could not put the glass down.

Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is a fiction writer, essayist and critic. He is currently the travel correspondent for Bon Appétit and writes a column about fatherhood, Dad on a Lark, at Wondertime.com. He lives in Hartford, Conn., with his wife, Molly Winans ’89, and their daughter, Larkin. 

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04 and courtesy of David Stringer '64.