When I tell you about Jim MacLaren, you’re not going to believe it. His story is so beyond any expectation of normal, that it instantly vaults to the level of fiction. But further. Because even as a piece of fiction, you wouldn’t believe it. No, Jim’s story is the stuff of myths. And it’s all real.
Jim was recruited by Yale College in 1981 to play defensive end on the football team, and to play lacrosse. Six foot four, two hundred and sixty pounds, with jet black hair, blue eyes and a devastating smile, he was a movie star before he even got to campus.
Add to that an ability to hold his own academically at Yale, and you have a pretty remarkable young man. And he was. He played sports, he studied, he got decent grades and pretty girlfriends. He made a tight circle of friends in his residential college (Pierson) at Yale. Then, he took an acting class, and everything changed.
I met Jim my sophomore year when he and I were both in an acting class taught by the notorious Nikos Psacharopoulos. Nikos was a short Greek man cut from the old school of acting teachers, the one in which you tear the student down and then rebuild him. He wore an endless series of blue blazers, nibbled on index cards and was one of the only men I have ever known who could actually pull off wearing a cravat in real life. He was deadly accurate in his assessments of his students, and his critiques were withering, frequently making the girls cry and the boys red with shame and rage His pedagogical outbursts were nearly comical because of his thick Greek accent and his recurrent, interrogative hiccup. I left his class several times vowing I would never act again. Oh well.
Jim and I would sit together off to the side when we weren’t taking our punishment, and snicker like smart-asses (which we were) at the nasty predicaments our classmates found themselves in beneath Nikos’ commentary. Occasionally, Jim would glance out the window and say something so funny about someone he saw on York Street I would have to bury my face in my sleeve to keep Nikos from hearing me laugh. Given Jim’s appearance, one would think he would have concentrated on Sam Shepard’s manly men, or Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski (which I did see him do quite well a couple of times.). But when it came time for Jim and me to work together, he came to me with a startling proposition: Bent, by Martin Sherman, a play about two male lovers in a concentration camp. It was astonishing enough that Jim – this paragon of straight, male hunkiness – would want to work on a scene as my lover. More astonishing, that he and I kissed on stage in front of our peers.
I wish I could say we nailed it so well Nikos was speechless. I wish I could say I remember it as if it was yesterday. But the truth is, I have only a dim memory: Jim and me in the upstairs studio in front of the class, with chairs between us to make a “fence”, and me collapsing to the ground at the end and pretending to cry. I hope this wasn’t the scene which made Nikos suggest that Jim and I had both gone to “the same school for bad acting,” and if he could find it, he would burn it down. I don’t think it was. What I do remember is that this was the beginning of a deep friendship between Jim and me that has endured nearly thirty years.
Over the remainder of our undergraduate lives together, Jim and I had some real high points. A workshop with Ryczard Cieslak, lead actor for Jerzy Grotowski. A senior year production of Mamet’s Edmond. A spring break trip to Florida (Jim got lucky, I didn’t, what a surprise). We both auditioned for drama schools, I got into Yale Drama, Jim got wait-listed. In the fall of 1985 I was back in New Haven for a radically different educational experience, and Jim hopped on his motorcycle and went to New York to study for a year before joining me in the Yale Drama School in ’86. On a nice fall night in New York, driving his Kawasaki back from class, Jim was broadsided by a New York City bus. Pronounced D.O.A. at New York City Hospital, they brought him back to life, removed his left leg from the knee down and patched him up. My girlfriend showed up at my apartment and told me the news. I fell down crying. This time the tears were real.
Soon, Jim was fitted with a prosthetic. He worked on learning to walk again that winter, and in February of ’86, he re-auditioned for Yale with one real and one fake leg. He was accepted. His relationship to his own body had been transformed, and over the next several years, Jim made that transformation complete. As part of his rehab from his motorcycle accident, Jim started swimming. Soon, he was fitted with a prosthetic which allowed him to ride bike and to run. During the final two years of his time at the Yale School of Drama, Jim lived two lives. In one, he was the handsome leading man. In the other, he was a triathlete. Jim soon found the the latter role more interesting.
After graduating from Yale Drama, Jim devoted his life to racing in triathlons. Just as a reminder, a triathlon is a “sport” designed to push the human body to the utmost extreme: a 3.8 km swim, followed by a 180 km bike ride, followed by a marathon, a 42.2 km run. By 1991, Jim was a fully sponsored triathlete with a world ranking – not in a disabled category, in the regular category. Jim is to this day the world record holder for a male amputee marathon runner, and the world record holder for a male amputee triathlete. He is in the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame. A side effect of this extraordinary journey Jim went on was that he lost touch with his acting friends, including me. Perhaps it’s better to say, we lost touch with him, for which one of us could come close to keeping up with him? After graduate school, I descended into what I shall call my New York daze, and kept track of Jim through mutual friends, shaking my head in astonishment at his accomplishments. Then there was another horrible knock on the door.
My friend the actress Mary Mara called me in tears. Jim had been in another accident. While competing in the bike leg of a triathlon in California, Jim was struck by a van which had no business being on the course. He shattered his C5 vertebra, and he recalls realizing in the ambulance that he couldn’t feel his legs. He wondered if he could compete in a wheelchair. After coming out of anesthesia following his surgery, Jim asked his doctor a question which has now become legendary: “I wonder what I’m supposed to learn this time?” Mary and I organized a fundraising party for Jim in New York, but his base of operations became California, and he and I remained separated.
Let’s cover the next 15 years in one paragraph. Jim transformed yet again, becoming a motivational speaker, founding the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and pursuing a Ph.D. on (what else?) mythology and depth psychology. I got drunk, got sober, left New York, adopted Philadelphia, got married, had kids, landed a job, lost a job, wrote a book and acted in a ton of plays. Somewhere in there, around 2004, Jim and I made a brief reconnection in Boulder Colorado, where my Mom lives and where Jim had re-located as place to live and work. It was the first time I had seen him since drama school. I remember he greeted me with a big smile and a hug from his wheelchair. Throughout the afternoon, I remember the distinct feeling that Jim sensed this reunion was harder for me than for him, and was trying to make it easier.
In 2004, Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern made a documentary called Emmanuel’s Gift, which told the story of brave boy in Ghana, born with one horribly deformed leg. In order to change his country’s discriminatory attitude towards the disabled, Emmanuel biked one-legged from one side of Ghana to the other. The bike came from Jim’s foundation. When he was asked where he got his inspiration, he said “Jim MacLaren”. Word of this around-the-world connection made it to some powerful people in the USA, and once again, Jim’s life was changed.
In 2005, Jim MacLaren and Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from the cable sports network ESPN. None other than Oprah Winfrey presented the award, given annually to a person or people who’s contributions transcend sports. Between 2005 and 2008, Jim was making big money as a motivational speaker, largely as a result of this award and the extraordinary story of his life. Through it all, Jim never lost his love of performing and story telling. His speeches were extraordinary. His wealth of knowledge born from his extensive education, combined with his natural grace, good humor and charm made him irresistible.
In 2008, the economy tanked. The large corporations that were regularly shelling out 50K a speech weren’t calling any more, they were struggling to survive. This combined with some egregious mismanagement of Jim’s investments resulted in his most recent transformation. It is perhaps the most cruel, rendering him nearly bedridden. It’s only joy for me is that it has brought me and my friend back together. Out of cash and forgotten by his famous friends, Jim ended up in what was essentially a state-run nursing home in California. About a year ago, another knock on my door – this time electronic. It was my dear friend Doug Wright, yes, the Pulitzer winner author of I Am My Own Wife and Quills, who had been Jim’s roommate for two years in college and had stayed in touch with him more closely than I. “Jim’s in desperate straights,” his email began, “his sister is trying to get him moved from California to Pennsylvania where she lives. Send her any money you can.”
And so, having no money to send, I wrote her and offered her any other help she needed. The email campaign worked, and enough money was received to move Jim via ambulance to a subsidized apartment in Akron PA, just outside of Lancaster, near his sister and her family and, thank you God, an hour or so from me. This is where he lives now, in an inconspicuous apartment in a small town in Amish country. Jim spends most days alone, visited by his sister and her family, and the occasional nurse or paid care provider. He has his computer. He watches a lot of T.V. He is trying to get strong enough to get back into his chair.
I have visited Jim four times since his sister deemed him strong enough to receive friends. Jim suffers from a variety of ailments common to paraplegics. The most worrisome now is a recurring bladder infection. Today, I visited Jim in Lancaster General Hospital where he has been far too often over the last several months. As always, he greeted me with big smile, and exuded an energy which let me know how genuinely glad he was to see me. I sat with him for two hours. We talked about everything, just like we always did. He recently showed me an amazing Porsche hybrid he’d discovered online. We talk about politics. We talk about art. We talk about girls. Occasionally, only occasionally, he talks about himself, and then with a weary smile. “Yeah, guess I was meant to have a few bumps in the road . . . ” he’ll say, his voice trailing off.
Driving home from seeing him today, I was seized with a desire to write about him. It occurred to me that Jim is a modern day holy man. In many other cultures, a man with the life that Jim has would have been thought to have been touched by the Gods, and the tribe would have gathered around him. Many times my friends and I have remarked that Jim’s life is epic in the Athenian Greek sense. Driving home today, I became more and more convinced that Jim has something terribly important to teach us, and that I want to help him do so. I became convinced that, staff infections be damned, Jim’s story isn’t over yet.
I am not the only writer to have been fired up by Jim. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love wrote a profile of Jim for GQ Magazine in 2003. This is one of the only excepts of her article I could find. It describes the day before the accident that paralyzed Jim :
The day before Jim MacLaren broke his neck, he woke up in his house in Boulder, Colorado, stirred out of bed earlier than usual by some strange and unfamiliar energy. He left his then girlfriend, Pam, sleeping and went outside to sit in his backyard to eat his breakfast alone. The sun was coming up, reflecting off the mountains, and the morning light was filmy and gold. Jim could hear his neighbor’s young children playing next door. He could hear birdsong and the tremor of leaves. He’d brought a book outside with him to read, but it lay in his lap unopened; he couldn’t focus on it. He couldn’t pay attention to his breakfast, either. He wasn’t even thinking about the Ironman he’d be competing in the next day. None of this mattered, suddenly. All Jim wanted was to sit in stillness and experience the inexplicable bliss that was surrounding him in this moment.
And then the bliss started to grow, to rise within him. Jim moved from a state of contentment into a state of joy, and soon even the joy could not be contained, and it became a euphoria that spilled out over his whole body, lifting the hair on the back of his neck and running goose bumps across his skin. He was overcome by a thrilling sense of what he could later only describe as anticipation. He’d never felt anything like this, and he never wanted it to end. He was laughing and crying at the same time, elated beyond his sense.
Jim’s girlfriend heard the noise and rushed out of the house to see what was wrong.
“What is it, Jim?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
He looked up at her through his tears and smiled. He was 30 years old. He was twenty-four hours away from becoming a quadriplegic, and he could not contain his excitement.
“Pam,” he said, and he was never more certain of anything in his life. “Pam – listen! Something amazing is about to happen to me!”
Friends, something amazing is about to happen to Jim MacLaren again, today, in 2010. I am going to be a part of it. Are you?
Follow these links to help Jim, and to find out more.
Jim MacLaren, originally published Friday, May 21, 2010