24 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Justin Bruton

Twenty years after he blindsided everyone by sending a shotgun slug through his own skull, Justin Bruton is as much a cypher to me as ever, despite reams of police reports and the fact that there was a time, in the months prior to his terrible suicide, when I called him my best friend. Obviously, I didn't know what friendship really was.

Eighteen and socially handicapped, your "best friend" is the person who finally accepts you unquestioningly. Justin saw past my black-and-white screen-starlet makeup, conflation of funny ha-ha with funny strange, and adeptness at conversation equivalent to how well a three-year-old ballroom dances. He shrugged this stuff off and invited me to come throw powdered donuts at rich people. You know, what best friends do.

Look at the perpetual adolescents of Jackass, The Dudesons, and Can't Kill Yourself: lots of boys play rough. It could be that Justin wasn't trying to put out my eye when he embedded that blowdart in my brow from a few feet away. Maybe this was how he channeled his fraternal affection, through acts of minor violence. What to make, though, of his pain experiments, when he laughed in disbelief at my silent responses to various stimuli he administered — thumbtacks colorfully studding my forearm, hydrochloric acid drops eating the flesh of my open palm, electric shocks to wherever he could reach out and touch with his stun gun? Were these forerunners to the sado-motivational tactics of Tyler Durden, in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, or were they nothing more than cruelty to a trusting younger kid?

What did I know about Justin? At the time, virtually nothing. I knew that he'd lived in Tulsa and come from money. He disdained familial meddling yet depended on his parents for literally everything. He had a sister, my age. He once dated a girl who seemed cool, the first and only time we met, but whose name I subsequently forgot. He'd been suicidal on multiple occasions and was prescribed Prozac for depression. He dug PJ Harvey, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and French surrealist films. There was undoubtedly more to him, but this was all that he was willing to reveal.

Similarly, whatever his feelings about Anastasia, his girlfriend of maybe seven months, I was privy to only their external effects. The couple's countless arguments became almost normal, given his hot-and-cold affections, her fixed and potent passion. Justin never verbalized his feelings, for Anastasia or anything else of consequence. I'm unsure how much of that reticence was symptomatic of his unhappiness, and how much led him to collude with her to bring about their deaths.

So: Justin Bruton, question mark. Interested organizations with resources and authority far outstripping mine have looked into solving the riddle and come back empty-handed. His family won't talk, out of some sense of Southern propriety, embarrassment, fear, or snobbery — which doesn't help. The sole insight that I've gained since his death is that he'd been born in Texas. Thanks, Internet, for nothing.

Justin Bruton was my friend — or "friend." What's that even mean? Together we watched some great movies, had a few laughs, debated political and ethical systems, sang a few stupid songs, took memorable road trips, and drank too much coffee while daydreaming of lives with meaning. The way things ended up for me, though, leaves no doubt that our association was far from meaningless.

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