The summer before I started high school, my neighbor Allison and I were bored. So bored that once when my stepmother left to go grocery shopping we turned upside down every object in my kitchen that we could lift and then hung like bats from the couch awaiting her return. When we ran out of such creative solutions, we started binge-watching The X-Files.
My dad had purchased some steeply discounted X-Files DVDs at Wal-Mart after the cancellation of another, less beloved sci-fi program: the USA Network’s The 4400. This show had been about a mysterious ball of light hurtling towards earth that leaves in its wake 4,400 missing persons who haven’t aged a day since they disappeared. When it was forced off the air before a proper resolution could be reached, my dad was about as heartbroken as one can feasibly be about TV. The show had been for him, as TV increasingly was, not just a weekly escape, but a text which demanded thoughtful analysis. Though my dad was the one taught me to make books before I was even old enough to read them, stapling together drawings I’d scribble on the stacks of perforated computer paper we kept in the basement, literature of the traditional variety did not have much of a place in his life. He struggled with ADD and aside from the largest personal collection I’ve ever seen of books about Mt. Everest, was not much of a reader. But he was a critical thinker. He loved to ask questions, to make connections. To theorize. The 4400, riddled with plot holes, will probably never be a canonical TV show, but it was precisely these gaps that provided my dad with the interpretive freedom he craved. When that space disappeared unexpectedly, he had to find something else over which to obsessively ruminate.
He’d been a casual viewer of The X-Files during its nearly decade long run from 1993 to 2002, but had never watched it all the way through, and had forgotten enough about its overarching alien conspiracy plot that the narrative lost none of its surprise (or frustration) for him. He tried valiantly to induce me to watch these with him. Sharing pop cultural touchstones was something that meant a lot to my dad, especially as I got older and immersed myself in the brattiness of early adolescence. I think this was because we tended to be kinder to each other in the bluish cast of the TV. Stretched out on the couch with my feet in his lap, I’d slip my cold toes through the moth holes in his flannel and press them against the ugly ridge of splenectomy scar on his abdomen. Arranged like this, it would be hard to remember why I sometimes felt like my dad was the person in my life who understood me the least. Still, when it came to this particular show, I was resolute in my petulance. The special effects were too bad, I justified. I don’t even care about aliens, I said. The truth was that I had in mind here my reputation, something, it had been communicated to me, that would begin to matter a lot more in my post-middle school existence. With my obsessively good grades, frequent preference for the company of books over my peers, and orthodontia which was pointing inevitably in the direction of braces, I was determined to do everything in my power to resist becoming that dreaded adolescent archetype: a nerd. The deck was already stacked against me. To embrace sci-fi would have been tantamount to social suicide—a phrase I’d picked up from Mean Girls and quietly dreaded ever since.
But my resistance didn’t last very long. In the monotony of a jobless, campless summer, even several hundred cable channels can feel like a prison. On one particularly slow, hot day—when the prospect of going outside felt about as feasible as crossing the Gobi Desert on one foot with a canteen that had sprung a leak—the stacks of The X-Files presented themselves as an oasis more palatable than watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model for the umpteenth time. And with that, the possibility of a nerd-free future became as distant to me as a neighboring galaxy. I was hooked. The special effects were as antiquated as I predicted, but I didn’t care. For every poorly executed green screen maneuver and unconvincing prosthetic makeup job, there was action and mystery and the tantalizing possibility of romance. The Chris Carter-helmed show had premiered on Fox when I was still regularly soiling my own diapers and wrapped years before I would ever encounter it, but other than its unquestionably ‘90s aesthetic, The X-Files felt remarkably contemporary to me—even forward-looking in its frank depiction of violence and sexuality. One episode, “Home,” about an incestuous family living in rural Pennsylvania whose inbreeding is revealed after the deformed corpse of a baby they buried alive is discovered, was so graphic that Fox banned it from being re-aired. The X-Files didn’t have that patina of amateurism I often associated with older shows, and it was as dark and daring as anything I could imagine currently running on network television.
Mine and Allison’s watching habits gradually attained a kind of ritualistic quality. We would start in the early afternoon and continue for several hours until the end of the workday arrived, parents returned home, and it was time for dinner and the basic level of fraternization that our families expected of us. Sometimes we wore tin-foil hats of our own making through the duration of our daily marathon—an homage to Agent Mulder’s conspiracy-loving friends-slash-occasional consultants The Lone Gunmen and the legacy of paranoiacs that preceded them. Snacks were an essential part of the viewing process but prepared strictly before or between episodes. They also had to be prepackaged or something which could be made in the microwave, but that was mostly because Allison and I were pretty incompetent cooks and also both a little afraid of the oven. Bathroom breaks were discouraged unless absolutely necessary; neither of us wanted to be the one who made the other press Pause.
Our arrangement, however, proved untenable. The pace of our consumption could not be sustained once summer drew to a close, and Allison’s interest in the show began to wane around the time of Mulder’s bizarre journey to Russia in Season Four’s “Tunguska.” In retrospect I’m not entirely sure that her gusto for the show had ever really matched mine. One year my junior—a distinction that really began to matter when it demarcated the line between middle and high school—she had probably just gone along with my enthusiasm out of loyalty to the rigid adolescent hierarchy. But her companionship, however tepid, had been essential to my enjoyment of The X-Files. The idea of watching alone was singularly unappealing; like my father, I craved conversation, someone to bat theories back and forth with. I realized he was the one I would have to crawl back to.
My dad had been surprisingly politic about the fact that I’d refused his initial invitations to watch the show but had then become an obsessive on my own terms, without him. He must have privately resented this fact, and I’m sure he felt vindicated when I approached him with the proposition that we join viewing forces. Watching with him was a much different experience than watching with Allison had been. For one, he peed a lot more. But more than that, our priorities when it came to the X-Files were almost always at odds. He preferred the mythology episodes, the series-spanning narrative of government conspiracy and collusion with extra-terrestrial forces. I found this supposedly unifying thread convoluted and unsatisfying; my favorites were the stand-alones, the so-called “monsters of the week.” These were the episodes that focused on singular supernatural villains unconnected from the overarching plot: vampires and sentient computers and telekenetics. And while I hung on every miniscule development in the glacially slow development of Mulder and Scully’s romance, my dad was largely unmoved by their relationship. In fact, he wasn’t much interested in Scully at all, however much I might have expected him to side with her based on the similarity of their professions. Scully was a medical doctor and my dad a medicinal chemist; they were both ardent proponents of the power of Science.
In spite of this, we both selected Mulder as our favorite character, though for contradictory reasons. I admired the way David Duchovny looked in a red speedo and his gracefully coiffed pompadour.
My dad, on the other hand, identified with Mulder’s Otherness, the unjust obstacles constantly thrown in the way of his quest for answers.
On the surface, the narrative of my dad’s life bears little resemblance to that of the Cambridge-educated master psychological profiler and renegade FBI agent Fox Mulder. That he romanticized himself as a kind of mirror image to the agent-slash-stud used to seem like pure fantasy to me—something I could easily dismiss, back then. But in the wake of his death two and a half years ago, I’ve been compelled to try to understand his insistence on their similarity. What I’ve realized is that my dad’s identification was located in a place much deeper than this surface; it was in his recognition of Mulder as a shade of outcast—a fellow misunderstood genius, ostracized when he should have been celebrated. Mulder’s dogmatic belief in the supernatural and noble efforts to demystify the government’s knowledge of extraterrestrial life earn him a dingy basement office and a watchdog in the form of Agent Scully. As he tells her in the opening minutes of the show’s pilot episode, “Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted.” Mulder’s peculiarities also earn him the mocking skepticism of his colleagues and the nickname “Spooky” Mulder—a name my dad went on to use obsessively for internet passwords and even a secondary email address.
My dad had started feeling “Spooky” long before he had the cultural reference to call it that. When he was a kid he had a huge ears that dwarfed his otherwise unremarkably sized head. Though he eventually grew into them, he first had to endure several years of merciless teasing from the other kids he tried to pal around with. This period of his life stoked in him a resentment of little boys that he never really got over; he frequently expressed to me his gratitude that his only child was a daughter. These suburban traumas of his youth perhaps precipitated a less-than-idyllic adolescence. Or maybe it had something to do with the cultural and political turbulence of the Seventies. But probably my father’s ultimate rebellion had its most obvious roots in my grandparents splitting up when he was eleven. It was around this time that he had his first taste of alcohol, a fact which astounded me when I first learned it. I couldn’t even go to the movies alone when I was eleven. But my dad had an older sister who was already deeply entrenched in teenagedom while he hovered on the cusp. He used to joke that she corrupted him and then he corrupted her ten times worse.
My own attempts at investigating my dad’s past have been considerably less rigorous than the strategies used by Mulder and Scully. When I was little, I was told that my dad had been an alcoholic and that he had during this time contracted a chronic liver disease, but it had always felt inappropriate to ask for any more explanation than that. I grew less curious the older I got, if only for fear of what I’d find out. I still know only the broad strokes of my dad’s most deviant behavior and what I do know, now, is mostly thanks to my mom’s sharp memory. My dad attended ninth grade at Cherry Hill West, though he claims to have missed more days than he attended. After dropping out, he spent some time at a boarding school in New England, though he was eventually expelled. Then there was the reform school somewhere in Texas that my mom tells me was “really more of a juvenile detention center.” That one he tried to run away from, but when he called my grandfather from a nearby payphone, what he hoped would be a rescue turned into an ambush, and he was taken back. Following Texas, my dad spent a few years in Puerto Rico where my grandfather was living for his work at a pharmaceutical company. It was during this time that he got his G.E.D. and regularly bought acid from a bartender.
From there my dad moved to Durango, Colorado, where he attended Fort Lewis College until he was asked to leave after being arrested while attempting to break into a pharmacy. He transferred to the University of Northern Colorado where he managed to become the Chemistry department’s star student despite the fact that he regularly showed up to class with a coffee thermos full of vodka. When he came into my mom’s life a few laters, though, my dad was back on the straight and narrow, or at least regularly attending AA meetings. My mom was at the time a member of AlAnon, a therapeutic program for the families and friends of alcoholics and addicts.
My parents met during the last hours of 1989 at a New Year’s Eve party in the basement of a Catholic church held by ACOA—that’s Adult Children of Alcoholics—to which members of AA and AlAnon were unadvisedly both invited. My mom had come with a date, but my dad still managed to get her number, along with another woman’s. More romantic circumstances could not possibly be imagined. In spite of all this, they married, and had me less than three years later. The rest is history, and by that I mean my own personal one, where I need no secondary source to confirm my dad’s fluctuating sobriety.
Unlike my dad, we never see Mulder hit to bottle too seriously over the course of The X-Files, but he did often wind up in similarly compromising situations due to his dogged pursuit of the truth, whether that was being locked in the utility closet of a hospital while an alien doppelganger puts the moves on Scully; or drugged by a vampire-slash-pizza delivery boy and singing the Shaft theme song from the floor of his motel room; or strapped to a table in Russia or covered in chain link, and subjected to nefarious experimentation involving an extraterrestrial black oil. In each of these cases, it still seems clear to the audience that Mulder is not at fault; his misfortunes are external, imposed by corrupt and secretive. He’s only trying to do what’s right. He Wants to Believe.
This, I think, is how my dad sometimes felt about his addiction. That it was a black oil which came from somewhere outside himself. That it was someone else’s doing. He may have sat on the wagon only intermittently, but my father nonetheless remained a devotee to the doctrine of AA. I grew up knowing about the Big Book, about what the triangle inside the circle on his omnipresent necklace meant. But despite his love for the program, he struggled to fully embrace some of its most essential steps:
- Making a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself
- Admitting to God, to yourself and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs
- Being entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
My dad could admit that he was Powerless over alcohol, could Surrender to his higher power, but I’m not sure he was willing to process fully his own responsibility. If he’d just had smaller ears, if his parents had never split up, if he hadn’t been sent back to Texas, he would be a whole and functioning member of society just like anyone else; these were theories he couldn’t shake. Mulder, for my dad, was simply an extension of this logic. Another way for him to distance himself from guilt.
After my dad died unexpectedly in November 2011, even just the opening notes of The X-Files theme song were enough to send me into what felt like a physical spasm of grief. Though I may have disagreed with the way he had aligned himself with Mulder, I had somehow managed to internalize the comparison to the point that looking at David Duchovny’s face on the screen felt like rifling through the old photographs I wasn’t yet ready to face. Gradually, this visceral reaction waned, and I was able to watch again, but I noticed a curious phenomenon upon revisiting the show. This second time around, I found myself identifying with Mulder. I felt like the spooky one.
There is an episode in season four called “Paper Hearts,” in which Mulder has a series of dreams where the guidance of a mysterious red light suggests to him that the missing sister Samantha he’s always insisted was abducted was perhaps actually murdered by infamous pedophile and serial killer John Lee Roche. Roche is serving a life sentence on thirteen counts of first-degree murder, but after Mulder’s dream-light leads him to the burial site of a fourteenth corpse, a girl from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania who’s been missing since 1975, he’s able to uncover evidence suggesting that the total number of Roche’s victims is in fact sixteen. Lee Roche points Mulder and Scully in the direction of a fifteenth body, but an autopsy determines this one isn’t Samantha either. That leaves one victim unaccounted for, and in his efforts to wrestle the truth from Lee Roche, Mulder goes so far as to spring him from prison and bring him to the site of his sister’s abduction: the Mulder summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. In his desperation to finally put Samantha’s disappearance to rest, he nearly allows Lee Roche to kill again, as the murderer escapes his company and kidnaps another little girl before Mulder is ultimately forced to shoot him.
Unlike Mulder, I have the luxury of knowing with certainty that my father is dead. I know what happened to his body. I know where I can go to be in the presence of his walled-up ashes, should I ever want to. But it is not so much the mystery of Samantha with which I connect. This is because I have a theory that what haunts Mulder so much is not what remains unexplained of his sister, but the loss itself. The guilt that comes along with that loss. He was supposed to be watching her at the time, after all. This is the axis of my identification of Mulder. Like Mulder with Lee Roche, I too want to find a tangible source of blame for my grief, and I want it to not be me. I may not have been personally responsible for the well-being of my dad, but it’s true that I hadn’t spoken to him in the two days leading up to his death. Maybe if I had thought to call, I would have heard something in his voice. A warning sign.
I’ll never know, of course. But sometimes, I want to believe.