As her faculty collaborator, I’m pleased to provide a brief introduction to Emma Busch’s summer research project on the 1999 David Lynch film The Straight Story. Emma’s experience captures a particular Luther College flavor because she created a way to explore her own kind of squirrely fascinations so that, in the process, she’d develop a set of core competencies and produce socially relevant cultural insights to publish. In our first meetings, Emma and I decided this would be a worthy project because 2019 is an anniversary year for the film, David Lynch is currently being recognized at the highest tier of filmmaking honors, and The Straight Story is one among very few films set and filmed in Iowa. We didn’t know which directions, digressions, and detours the project might take, yet that openness seemed to inspire and energize Emma.
Something that impressed me immediately was Emma’s dedication to discerning whom to contact in the town of Laurens, Iowa, where the actual Alvin Straight lived at the time of his riding-lawn-mower journey, followed by her resolve to connect with them through cold calls. At a time when I observe a lot of college-age students strongly preferring text over talk with their phones, Emma reached out and made immediate connections with folks in the local library and elsewhere to set up in-person interviews. Then she skillfully interviewed her new acquaintances in Laurens, flexing with some personal challenges connected to aging and mortality that arose and seizing opportunities as she glimpsed them while on location. By summer’s end, Emma had published one very fine work of social journalism, and she’s continuing to produce more print and audio-visual works with the materials she captured.
Reflecting on Emma’s work, I see how this experience transformed Emma personally and professionally. I also see how she’ll be able to translate the core competencies of research, interpersonal connection, analysis, and communication to navigating the journey after her Luther studies are complete—a story that’s likely to be anything but straight, except perhaps in retrospect, when the dots of opportunities and accomplishments like this start to appear connected, akin to what Alvin sees in the film when gazing up at the clear Iowa nighttime sky.
—Andy Hageman, professor of English
I spent the summer of 2019 neck-deep in digital newspaper archives, slapping sticky notes in every book about David Lynch in Preus Library, and compiling a massive Google document of material about his 1999 film The Straight Story in the service of my collaborative student/faculty research project with associate professor of English Andy Hageman. While Andy’s guidance was incredibly helpful and I appreciated his willingness to humor my fixation on David Lynch memes, this project was ultimately my own. It was my responsibility to find information about this odd little outlier in Lynch’s filmography and make something out of it. On the one hand, I loved this because I hate being told what to do. On the other, it was also very daunting. Since The Straight Story features the journey of 73-year-old Alvin Straight, who drove a riding lawn mower 240 miles to see his ailing brother, I wasn’t worried about its worthiness of study. It’s an inherently interesting story, and there wasn’t a single person I spoke to in the months leading up to my project who didn’t want to know more. However, the lack of critical interest in the film’s portrayal of disability became a particular point of concern early in my research.
According to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report, approximately one in four adults, or 61 million people, in the United States are living with what the CDC classifies as one of six categories of disability: mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living, and self-care. This significant portion of the population has been marginalized throughout history because of the stigma surrounding disability. As the summer progressed, I realized that I am one of these 61 million people. I kept this realization to myself until the end of the project, when I returned home, scheduled a doctor’s appointment, and was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. In another recent appointment, my doctor said, “I can’t officially diagnose you because I’m not a therapist, but you exhibit many tendencies of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” which is obvious to anyone who has ever witnessed me stress-clean. Neither of these official or unofficial diagnoses were shocking; I’d long suspected that something about me was a little different from other people. Functioning with these unacknowledged disorders forced me to develop coping mechanisms that were actually beneficial to me in the course of my research, especially once I visited Laurens, Iowa, the city where Alvin Straight lived during the last few years of his life and home to his famous lawn mower.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dealt with my anxiety and compulsions by walking or biking aimlessly around my hometown. Whenever I got overwhelmed this summer, I did the same in Decorah, revisiting the Decorah Community Prairie and Trout Run Trail over and over (even though the geese that hang out by the Upper Iowa River are evil incarnate). These solitary walks around town became part of my daily routine: wake up, research, walk, and write. Sometimes these walks helped me surmount writing hurdles. Other days, it was nice to recharge after I interviewing someone over the phone—one of my absolute least favorite things to do on this planet.
An arguably less healthy coping mechanism I’d developed from a young age was the ability to compartmentalize my feelings to the point where I can mask my panic attacks well enough that they just look like sudden agitation or reservation to those around me. Healthy or not, these approaches to dealing with my mental illnesses allowed me to drag myself through the day, especially after I encountered a major curveball in Laurens.
My roommate Amber was gracious enough to help me film the visual component of my summer research project. Our plan was to stay with Amber’s grandparents, who live just 10 minutes outside Laurens, so we wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel. After spending a day or two in Laurens, we would drive the actual route Alvin took on his 1994 journey to see his brother. I wish everything had been that simple.
The Laurens visit itself went fairly well: we saw Alvin’s riding lawn mower in surprisingly good condition in a tiny house-like shed on the site of his former home, which was likely destroyed by an arsonist shortly after The Straight Story was released. The Laurens Public Library staff were very generous with their time, and I appreciated their willingness to call friends and neighbors for impromptu interviews in addition to those I had already scheduled. However, toward the end of our interview sessions in the library, Amber became withdrawn. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong and became increasingly agitated as she remained glued to her phone instead of watching the camera. After completing our interviews, I battled with the library’s massive scrapbooks on The Straight Story and their finicky document scanner while she took a lunch break outside. Overwhelmed with anxiety and anger, I went outside to ask Amber, with as much composure as I could muster, if everything was okay. She looked up at me from her phone and said, “My grandma has less than a week to live.” I had no idea how to respond. I feel like a monster for this now, but my anxiety got the better of me and I asked if she might still be able to continue the project. Amber said she wasn’t sure, but I knew in my gut that the rest of the trip wasn’t going to work out, which plunged me into a quiet state of anxiety it took hours to dig myself out of.
Sadly, Amber lost her grandmother the next morning. After a lot of hugging and crying, we arranged to hand her off to her dad at a nearby gas station. I’m lucky to have supportive parents, and they offered to help me finish the project. My dad would be my passenger as I traced Alvin’s route. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I’m proud of myself for managing to adapt my plans during an anxiety attack, and I believe that the flexibility I developed through embracing unscheduled, impromptu interviews in Laurens was partly responsible for my ability to roll with the punches when this larger obstacle arose.
As my dad and I drove those Iowa back roads, I thought about Alvin. He used two canes as mobility aids because of the severity of his arthritis and was legally blind, both of which are realities most film critics and scholars rarely mention in their writing on The Straight Story. Perhaps it’s easier to engage with Alvin as a quirky old man who drove a riding lawn mower hundreds of miles on narrow county roads for fun, but that’s not an accurate assessment. Alvin didn’t have a driver’s license because of his vision impairment, so driving a car was out of the question. I don’t have a concrete answer as to why he didn’t accept a ride. Maybe it was a gesture for his brother, or maybe Alvin was just that stubborn. It’s also possible that nobody in town ever offered to give him a ride.
Regardless of the reason, Alvin made do with the resources available to him in the same way I have since childhood. While our disabilities manifest in different ways, I feel a sense of kinship with Alvin. Adapting to a world that wasn’t built with any consideration for disability is exhausting, and people with disabilities shouldn’t have to do this. It’s not character-building or a testament to our supposed superhuman inner strength—it’s just exhausting. At the same time, I’m proud of Alvin for reaching his brother’s house in the most creative way possible, and I’m proud of myself for reaching out for and accepting help when I needed it over the course of this project. I’m fundamentally the same person I’ve always been, but now I feel strong enough to relate to a quote Alvin gave about his trip to an Associated Press reporter in 1994: “What would I be scared of? . . . I’ve got two good canes.”
Since completing my research, I published an article on the website 25 Years Later about actor Richard Farnsworth’s portrayal of Alvin Straight. I’m in the process of finishing one on Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of his daughter and editing the footage Amber and I captured in Laurens. Some days are still difficult, but I’m managing my symptoms a lot better now. My future plans still feel very much up in the air, but The Straight Story and depictions of disability in popular culture remain at the forefront of my mind. I’m considering attending graduate school to further my engagement in disability studies. Maybe I’ll take a cross-country lawn mower trip? We’ll see.
—Emma Busch ’20