In all likelihood, “The Cipher in Room 214” began with a fairly empty notebook. Most stories do, but in this case it probably looked like it was going to stay that way. The quotes that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s Carol Smith got from available sources, about a body discovered at an upscale hotel, were clearly thin. There were few illuminating or evocative details.
What was known was that an anonymous woman, of indeterminate age, had died alone, by her own hand, in a room at Seattle’s Hotel Vintage Park, leaving behind a brief and unrevealing suicide note. She had given a false address and possessed no ID. There were no signs of a struggle. She had checked in under the alias “Mary Anderson” and had, based on forensic evidence, favored Estee Lauder lipstick and velour outfits of black, navy and various shades of green (this was 1996; the story ran on Oct. 6, 2005). From all appearances, she had read the Bible before she died – the 23rd Psalm, to be exact, which is the one about the Lord protecting you as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Basically, that was it. The details were wanting. The overarching narrative was MIA.
Would the desk clerk perhaps have something to add? No, the last person to see Mary Anderson alive recalled nothing exceptional about her.
It might have ended there, with a newspaper brief: “Mary Anderson (possibly a pseudonym), age and hometown unavailable, died of an apparent suicide on Oct. 9, 1996, in room 214 of the Hotel Vintage Park. She leaves behind no known survivors. Interment in Crown Hill Cemetery, paid for by King County.”
But how could you leave it at that? Surely there was more. And if there wasn’t more, why wasn’t there? At some point, Smith decided to push on – not to the next story in her queue, but to wherever Mary Anderson’s cryptic tale might lead. What she came up with was a profound and haunting story that owes its power to its very lack of information.
Rereading the story today, when so many people’s lives are aggressively tracked in real time on Facebook and Twitter, it seems unfathomable that Mary Anderson could have vanished, in plain view, without any record other than of her death, and likewise that Smith’s story could succeed so well without benefit of so much that seems crucial. If this were a work of fiction, the blanks could have been filled, but as a work of journalism it would seem to be destined to fail. Yet Smith decided to follow the story wherever it went, and found that its frustrating blanks – which were otherwise impediments to our understanding – were in fact the story. Smith’s newspaper article, later anthologized in Volume 1 of The Best Creative Nonfiction, embraces the story’s dead spaces the way great music incorporates silence. Smith is open to more than meets the eye, and what she found was not what might have been expected, nor even what she was looking for. The story works because it is open, honest and accurately told, yet unbound by a conventional host of facts.
When confronted with the gaping mystery of life, we all have a tendency to either look away or to try to impose our own measure of understanding, whether it is accurate or not. Part of a writer’s role is to help frame things, to organize the barrage of often inscrutable information into a coherent, manageable narrative. Particularly for a journalist, whose job it is to deliver the who, what, when, where, how and sometimes why, it is tempting to try to commandeer a narrative that is as incalcitrant as Mary Anderson’s – to either dismiss it or make it work for us. Even when we choose to proceed, we may overemphasize the known as a way of minimizing the unknown (represented by those empty pages), or to understate the story’s importance due to our inability to properly tell it. Sometimes we force things. Smith does not. She chooses to highlight the few salient details that float, untethered, like unnamed stars, then to descend into a succession of alluring box canyons, in which we encounter others who are literally attempting to describe the unknown. She explores the void through the story of a woman who personifies it.
It was a risky approach, but it works because it focuses on what matters most – on the wanting itself, which is rarely so vividly conjured, even in painstakingly informative works.
“The Cipher in Room 214” is not what we have come to think of as conventional narrative nonfiction (if there is such a thing). Smith does not dazzle us with decorative reportage or fact-based literary prose, though there are a few nice, telling descriptive passages. Neither does she make her own presence known. She breaks from the nonfiction paradigm by stepping into the margins of the verifiable world. Her story reads like reporting yet doesn’t gloss over the spaces that would normally be occupied by facts; instead, she highlights those spaces, which creates a level of suspense more often reserved for fiction.
Anderson, for her part, may have intended to magnify the void, to have been purposefully obscure in the end. Either way, that void is what ultimately interests Smith, who might have been expected to be at odds with it. Together, she, Anderson and a group of concerned officials raise a litany of questions, each one leading to another, accompanied by a precious collection of curious details. In that manner Smith manages so keep us engaged, and without a hint of artifice or imposition.
If there was anything out of the ordinary about the woman’s arrival at the Hotel Vintage Park in downtown Seattle that autumn day, it was only the weather – a near record 80 degrees. That much is recorded.
The woman herself slipped by unnoticed. She had called an hour or so earlier to reserve the room. She took a cab, got out around the corner with two bags and walked into the lobby alone on Oct. 9, 1996.
She signed the register “Mary Anderson.” No one spotted the hesitation marks in her handwriting.
There were no tags on her luggage.
The desk clerk, Smith notes, recalled no accent, nor anything to make her seem out of place in the luxury boutique hotel. The woman appeared normal – neatly groomed, with an expensive, olive-green woven-leather purse, and paid $350 in cash for two nights in what Smith describes as “an elegant room at the end of a long, richly carpeted hallway.” That hallway, in this story, is the portal to the void:
This is where the trail of Anderson’s life ends. No one knows precisely what happened next. Was she absorbed in the final details of erasing her identity – perhaps flushing away a driver’s license and address book, ripping the label off a prescription bottle? Did she anticipate the confusion her act would cause? Did she have second thoughts?
What we do know is this: She made no phone calls. Ordered nothing from room service. Instead, in some unknown sequence, she put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign, applied pink lipstick and combed her short auburn hair. She wrote a note on hotel stationary, opened her Bible to the 23rd Psalm and mixed cyanide into a glass of Metamucil.
Then she drank it.
In the note, addressed “To whom it may concern,” Anderson wrote simply that she had decided to end her life and that no one was responsible for her death. She added, “P.S. I have no relatives. You can use my body as you choose.” She signed it “Mary Anderson.”
After she failed to check out of the room, the hotel staff bypassed the lock and found her propped against pillows, a King James Bible clasped to her chest. The room was neat and orderly – a detail that, given Anderson’s inexplicable death by poisoning, seems to mock our need to impose order on the story. Anderson’s obsessive ordering is the reader’s enemy, but what are we to do – capitulate to the chaos of the unknown? Giving the two equal weight, Smith compels us to read on:
And yet … her death raises other questions: How can a person live to middle age without leaving any ties to the world? What about her dry cleaner? The cosmetics counter lady? Did they wonder about a troubled woman in their midst?
Somewhere, someone must realize that she doesn’t come around anymore. To push through life and touch no one, to develop no gravity that pulls anyone else into your orbit, seems impossible.
Even in her death, Mary Anderson has traction, a pull on certain strangers.
In her interviews with the people – mostly government employees – who wander those box canyons, Smith found that, like us, they appear to be at once drawn to and repulsed by the unknown. There is the former chief investigator for the King Count Medical Examiner’s Office who ordered Anderson’s embalming and burial, who remained haunted by the questions surrounding her life and death. The investigator, Jerry Webster, used all the available tools in his effort to discover Anderson’s true identity, which was, after all, part of his job. But it clearly wasn’t just a job. He had a deep, abiding need to find out. “I’m convinced she left us clues to who she was, and we missed them,” Webster laments. He and other investigators tried to trace Anderson’s clothing and makeup to their point of purchase, to no avail. They published an artist’s rendering of her face. They checked the address she gave, which did not exist. Another investigator wondered if she had intentionally sought to challenge them to figure out who she was. Her age was estimated at between 33 and 45, and an autopsy concluded that she had been in good health, had had cosmetic surgery and a copper IUD implanted in her uterus, and had never borne children. That was it.
Smith uses the familiar journalist’s tools to frame the mystery, providing facts about missing persons and clinical depression, and at one point resorting to uncharacteristic – and, under the circumstances, strangely intrusive – speculation. Ultimately, her research leads her, and us, back to the unfathomable mystery of Anderson’s life and the deliberateness of her death. Though by now we’re already acutely aware of it, she reminds us, “The mind wants to make sense of it, to find a reason.”
In the end, Anderson won. No one found out who she was. There was no funeral service, and she was buried in an unmarked grave, which she shares with an indigent man. Yet Josh Quarles, the front desk manager at the hotel, who found her body, and otherwise recalls nothing remarkable about her, tells Smith, “I’ve thought about her a lot over the years. It shouldn’t be that easy to just disappear.”
In the introduction to the anthology where her story was reprinted, Smith is quoted: “In many ways, the story of Mary Anderson is the antithetical newspaper story. There was no news peg. There was no resolution.” And yet, she notes, “Readers connected with the questions it raised about who we are, and how we live in the world. To me, there is no higher calling for creative nonfiction.” Smith’s piece is a fact-based paean to the unknown. It works because she is restrained in her account, though not utterly detached in that the questions she raises are existential – not something normally explored in journalism. She wants to know what happened, as everyone does, but she recognizes that sometimes the truth falls between the lines, in what is, for whatever reason, and perhaps of necessity, left out.
Alan Huffman has contributed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; the Los Angeles Times; the New York Times, Outside; Smithsonian; and Washington Post magazine, as well as to numerous websites including the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. A former reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, he is the author of five nonfiction books: Ten Point, Mississippi in Africa, Sultana, We’re With Nobody, and his latest, Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, which was published this month.