At the heart of The Searchers is John Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, whose emotional complexity is the force that carries the drama forward. I find myself less interested in Ethan and his moral failings and more interested in the way the plot itself--in fact, its bare outline--becomes the most compelling part of the movie, at least for me.
A girl has been kidnapped by the Comanches and most of her primary family killed in the raid. Her remaining extended family members and other close friends spend years trying to find her, coming close and failing. She adapts, as many whites captured by Native American tribes did, to life with the Comanches and becomes one of them. Her rescuers, especially Ethan, cannot stomach this: she has changed. Eventually, they separate her from the new life she's built and return her to her original society, bleak as that is.
What fascinates me is the endless search for something not-as-it-was, as though that could be restored. As though identity or personhood remains stable over time, as if things do not change. There is a deep and tremendous sadness this movie evokes in me: the quest for something lost, irretrievably, by a group of people, frozen in time, who are prevented from moving on as a result of their belief that the past may remain alive just as it was.
We have been on such a long, long quest for Robert's diagnosis--for something, anything that would help. I understand the moral position of some of those searchers: a duty to a child is like no other. To suggest that the past is past and cannot be undone or changed feels like a blasphemy.
But diagnosis is not always restorative. It can be debilitating, emotionally devastating, final. Or it can simply be inconclusive or it may offer no answers. For years, I felt I was in possession of my son because there was no diagnosis. If there were no diagnosis, no one could really take him away from me. While he might not be as he was at one time, I was free to use my best judgement, my deep understanding of his humanity, to shore up his being and interpret him to the world.
This was not denial or fantasy on my part: it was an honest attempt to see him for who he was and is. To see through a glass darkly, to quote both Scripture and Longinus (from whose work the passage originally comes). The sublime, right? To see the aspects of his person that rose above the circumstances of his condition. To reach toward and beyond the limits of understanding.
Diagnosis can take that away from a parent. It's not as though I am opposed to diagnosis, nor that a diagnosis lacks importance. There are diagnoses for many, many illnesses that result in life-saving and life-enhancing treatments. But, for many of us, diagnosis offers little in the way of answers, and living with that predicament is, well, mind-bending.
On the one hand, to know what, in fact, is wrong seems critically important. It's no picnic to live with uncertainty year after year. On the other hand, diagnosis often offers false promises, or worse yet, it allows people to judge and categorize the ill or disabled child--to leave them and move on. It might be nice to be able to say to others quickly and concisely what exactly is wrong with Robert to avoid the sort of prolonged discussion that I often have to have when I least desire to get into it. But, without one, after years of honest effort to obtain one, it gives him such freedom and latitude not to have one. He can be who he is. He can be a person and not a disease.
The biggest shock in The Searchers is that element of devastating revelation--that what you seek may not be what you had lost. That all things are mutable. That what you seek may not be what you can live with or understand.