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Recluse's Death in Maine

In James Howard Kuntsler’s The Long Emergency, he argues that the region of the US you want to live in when the profound social and economic dislocations of peak oil hit are the old Union States, where the roots in communitarian action will help new solutions evolve. When I first encountered this, I was disgusted by Kuntsler’s regional chauvinism. Anyway, wouldn’t you want to be further south, where you didn’t have to battle the winter? I thought about this a lot when I moved to Maine, and in today’s paper was an article that speaks to what Kuntsler might have had in mind.

The headline — “Recluse’s death spurs town to action” — and the story itself — a reclusive, mentally ill 51-year-old woman dies alone, in a condemned rural house with a failed furnace and a basement full of mold — doesn’t look very promising at first.

But I honestly can’t remember ever reading such a story in a Texas newspaper. And when you actually read the story, you realize that the woman had a bunch of people looking out for her. Workers from the oil company came to repair the furnace, but couldn’t work because the mold had taken over her basement. The police and Code Enforcement came; the house was condemned, and the woman wasn’t going to be removed until several days later, out of concern for her autonomy.

“She kept saying she was going to be fine and that she was going to visit a relative over the weekend,” Champlin said. “I told (the police) if you get the phone call and if she needs to be placed (in alternative housing), here’s my phone number. Call me.”

The woman, Imelda LaRoche, was the only child of a woman who was also mentally ill:

Littlefield said the police were called to the house “almost daily” in the 1970s by LaRoche’s mother, who insisted they check for prowlers and complained of strange knocks and sounds, insisting there was a man nearby who wished her harm. When she answered the door, she always was clutching a hammer under her sweater, he said.

In the years since her mother died, it was LaRoche who began to call with similar complaints. Since 2005, she had called police almost 50 times, usually about a man who was trying to get inside and hurt her.

Over the weekend, the police checked several times, but for LaRoche to not answer the door wasn’t unusual, the police said.

Littlefield explained that police didn’t force their way into the house over the weekend because it wasn’t unusual for her to not come to the door. They spent considerable time Tuesday, knocking, calling her name, hitting the police car’s siren to get her attention before deciding, in part because of piled-up mail and newspapers, to force the door.

“We’re kind of on unsteady ground when we’re talking about intruding into people’s homes,” he said. “She’s an adult, and just because she doesn’t answer the door, we can’t go in.”

When the police went in, they found her dead by her bedside. The following week provoked soul-searching by Sanford residents; the cynic in me wants to say this was Monday-morning quarterbacking, borne out of guilt.

Since news of LaRoche’s death first became public, Champlin said Sanford residents have been contacting her about how they might help, or just to say how sorry they are that it happened.

“I get stopped daily at the (supermarket). I had one gentleman from an oil company come in and say that if this ever happens again and you need somebody, call me,” Champlin said. “It’s been overwhelming.”

Today, pine boards are nailed across the doors of the small white clapboard house and a bright red sign says it has been condemned. Some clothes are still pinned to a broken clothesline in the yard, next to a broken-down wooden glider chair and a rusted Radio Flyer wagon.

But check out the kicker of the article:

“This continues to bother me today,” Champlin said. “I just want people to be aware: If you have a neighbor in need or a family member in need, you need to watch out for them.”

Something about that was very touching and seemed genuine. Look, the tragic news in Austin was usually about traffic deaths, murders, and kidnapped girls, a standard set of preoccupations, to be sure. But the death of someone who lived and died outside the system, not ignored by the system but respected by it, and helped to the degree that she allowed them? It’s not news in Austin. (Am I wrong? Please give me an example if I am.) If it did show up in the paper, the tone of the report would reinforce those values that you’re on your own, so prepare to die that way, not (as the Maine paper’s was) a rejoinder to watch out for each other. The only publication in Texas that regularly reinforces care for each other as the norm is the Texas Observer, long may it stand proud. Every other publication writes about these things out of prurience.

So yeah, I’m thinking that Kuntsler might be right.


Or maybe Kuntsler isn’t right, and is just a regional chauvinist. A recent spate of robberies in Windsor Park has people talking on the WP listserv, where many of the refrains have been along these lines:

I think we all have to be vigilant and try and look out for another as much as possible. Since our area is experiencing what seems to me to be an inordinately high number of instances for a short period of time, I think we need to continue to request increased police patrols and get to know neighbors on our block whom we maybe have never met before.