COUNTERPOINT PRESS, 2015. 156 PGS. ISBN: 978-1-61902-458-8
by Patti Wahlberg
I stand atop the hill and survey the scene. I’m thirty years old. My childhood memories are fading. I’m hunting for remnants of eroding memories. I’m walking around the city in search of fog. I’m trying to figure out what I can see and what is obscured.
Fog as metaphor for the elusive workings of memory, fog as metaphor for remembering and forgetting; this is the canvas on which Kyle Boelte delicately paints The Beautiful Unseen. This haunting memoir documents Boelte’s struggle to come to terms with the suicide of his older brother Kris when they were both young teenagers growing up in Denver. Almost twenty years later, in soft, lyrical tones, Boelte begins a gentle exploration of the feelings he has suppressed, and the memories he has buried or lost since the tragic event.
The Beautiful Unseen is told in chapters that flutter between past and present. At the opening of the memoir, Boelte is living in San Francisco, obsessed with fog. Poring over maps of fog’s patterns in the San Francisco Bay, researching its history, he is compelled to explore its enigmatic ability to completely obscure, or suddenly reveal. He takes us over trails that wind up Twin Peaks, down to Ocean Beach, or through Golden Gate Park, on a literal journey through fog—the horizon, the ocean, the trees, the very path in front of us flickering in and out of perception. The literal journey parallels Boelte’s figurative journey through the fog of his brother’s death—the unanswered questions, the suppressed pain—some memories burn incandescent, others remain shrouded in the cool mist of the past.
One vividly striking chapter describes in detail a lucid memory of the day his brother hung himself:
You are in the basement and I am coming home. You are down there now and I am on the bus. You are moving boxes around the basement…Mom is at work and Dad is at work and you are in the basement…I am in front of the TV…you are in the basement.
The evocative repetition of “you are in the basement,” something the author knows in hindsight, conjures a horrific snapshot of a school boy eating snacks and watching TV, while his brother hangs from a rafter one story below. The use of present tense creates a gripping immediacy, and yet the author reminds us that memory is a slippery slope. “Where are you? I am thinking. You are in the basement but already you are a memory fading, photographs in boxes and binders, stories told over lunch.” Already the fog is obscuring.
Later in the memoir, Boelte makes a trip home to Colorado, where he and his parents talk openly for the first time since his brother’s death. He leaves with a box of papers and memorabilia, and sifts through the fog of its contents in search of answers, a way to make sense of the seemingly senseless. What would compel a sixteen-year-old boy to tie a bed sheet to a basement rafter? Was it that Kris had gotten into trouble that day at school for dealing drugs? Did his adoption as an infant play a role? Could he have been harboring a deep-seated sense of having been abandoned? Or perhaps there was a genetic propensity towards depression or suicide. As Boelte continues his search, it becomes clearer that there is no one illuminating answer in the fog of why.
In a passage earlier in the work, Boelte talks about the absurdity of the compulsion to videotape one’s entire life so as not to lose a single memory. He writes: “The more I watched the video, the more video there would be of me watching video…It was a scheme to capture potentially lost memories, but at the expense of living. Living requires some forgetting.” The Beautiful Unseen is ultimately a man’s journey to the realization that to live, one must let go. Like walking through the fog in San Francisco Bay, what is obscured, and what is revealed exist in tandem; they are part of the same story— what we cannot see still exists, it is simply hidden from view.
Very near the end of the narrative there is a sense of approaching clarity as the author explores the chapter titled “Asphyxia” in the book Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigations of Death—Boelte’s attempt to embody the last moments of his brother’s life, and by embodying, finally “see.” The text describes in clinical detail what it is like to die by hanging. Pages of graphic photographs accompany the description. At the end of the chapter he quotes from the text: “‘Review of all relevant facts suggest that most hangings, whether accident or suicide, cause a gradual, subtle, painless death.’” In this moment, the reader senses a dark burden being lifted.
One of the last chapters consists of five blank pages, a strikingly inspired visual metaphor for Boelte’s acceptance of the fog that surrounds his brother’s death. There is a soothing hush as we turn the blank pages, a sense that the slate is clean. Boelte has at last found peace with the beautiful unseen.
In the concluding chapter of The Beautiful Unseen, Kyle Boelte hikes up Eureka Peak in the fog with his girlfriend, who has stood by him through his fevered obsession with the workings of fog and memory. Standing in the opaque mist, Boelte makes a conscious decision to let go of the past, both the forgotten and the remembered, and step into the clarity of the here and now.
I have seen enough. I have stood directly in the wind. I have faced the fog straight on, been enveloped by it, felt its magnificent embrace…This is enough, I think. This peak. This moment.