When the Winter 2005 issue of The Oxford American arrived, I flipped through the pages, glimpsed the reptilian close-ups accompanying Wendy Brenner’s profile of Dean Ripa, creator and caretaker of the Cape Fear Serpentarium, and shoved the magazine out of the way. Nothing against the OA or Brenner; just an overdeveloped case of ophidiophobia.
But I pulled out the story a few months later and re-encountered Brenner and those serpents, this time succumbing to their spell. Truly good writing can make any subject mesmerizing, and what Brenner does with this profile certainly qualifies. “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium,” was named a finalist in ASME’s feature writing category and anthologized in Best American Magazine Writing 2006. I’ve used it to teach magazine writing because it shows students how breaking the rules can pay off.
Three factors make Brenner’s profile of self-taught herpetologist Dean Ripa so extraordinary. She doesn’t follow a conventional magazine profile structure. She unapologetically inserts herself into the story. And she uses such vivid language that you’re transported into the serpentarium. From the opening lines, she charms:
One day in 1971 in Wilmington, North Carolina, fourteen-year-old Dean Ripa was at home performing surgery on a cottonmouth snake, and it bit him. This was unfortunate for a couple of reasons. He knew enough about snakes to know he would probably not die, but he did need a ride to the hospital, which meant his parents were going to find out about the fifty snakes he was keeping in their spare room.
In the two opening paragraphs Brenner uses the words “snake” or “snakes” 11 times. Rather than seem redundant, this repetition sets the reader’s imagination writhing, conjuring up the hundred of serpents with which Ripa, three and a half decades after that cottonmouth encounter, now shares a home.
Ripa’s passion may be weird, but Brenner does not paint him as a freak. “The Serpentarium is no roadside attraction, but an elegant, bi-level, 6,300-square-foot gallery overlooking the Cape Fear River in gentrified downtown Wilmington,” she writes. The snakes live in swanky tanks marked with signs (“especially popular with children,” she writes) that describe “exactly how you will die if bitten by each particular snake.” The “Egyptian cobra, whose festive yellow and black stripes evoke Charlie Brown’s shirt, is believed to be the asp that killed Cleopatra,” Brenner tells us:
…in ancient Egypt, the sign reads, these snakes were awarded to royal prisoners as a means of suicide. The Asiatic spitting cobras, meanwhile, which never seem to run out of venom, are like a “SORT OF ENDLESS POISONOUS SQUIRT GUN.”
Even more suggestive than Ripa’s signage are Brenner’s descriptions. The king cobra has an “eerie, flat dirt color,” while the “long skinny” mambas are “slicing around their enclosure like a gang looking for action.” The puff adders are “grotesquely evocative, like nightmare shapeshifter snakes. We are snakes, they seem to say, but we are on the verge of becoming something else.”
Brenner, an associate professor of creative writing at UNC-Wilmington, author of two collections of short stories and winner of the Flannery O’Connor award, doesn’t follow the conventions of magazine writing. After the opening flashback, her somewhat loopy tale doesn’t adhere to the set-piece formula of most profiles. There aren’t really scenes in this story; it’s more a series of vignettes interspersed with Brenner’s stream-of-conscious thinking about Ripa, his fascination with snakes, and her fascination with him. Her tangents include her own parents’ obsessions with birds and butterflies, novelist Joy Williams’s reveling in the Bible’s “wonderful stories – about snakes and serpents and mysterious trees and seeds,” and the time her mom gave her dad a boa constrictor as an anniversary gift. Brenner grew up in a home where a serpent was once presented as a love token (what’s wrong with cufflinks or golf clubs?), so it is not a total surprise when she confesses, “I notice that I am feeling slightly in love.”
Brenner’s declaration is not the faux flirtation found in those annoying celebrity profiles in which a writer tries to spin a 60-minute, publicist-manipulated encounter at a coffee shop, or in a star’s closet, into some kind of liaison. Brenner is sincere. She sits in Ripa’s apartment − “where he lives alone with his tiny, 11-year-old Maltese dog, Wednesday … and several aquariums full of deadly bushmasters in his bedroom” − and muses:
He has been married and divorced three times, but claims his snakes played no part in his romantic misfortunes … I suggest that it must be hard to find women who will sleep in a room with snakes—or maybe some women think it’s a turn-on? “You get both kinds,” Dean says. Either way, it occurs to me, if one were going to sleep with Dean Ripa, one would need a great deal of faith in Dean Ripa.
She maintains her presence as she rips through the obligatory background: Ripa’s apprenticeship to the Italian artist Pietro Annigoni; his unlikely but enduring friendship with William S. Burroughs (Ripa was there when he died and slept in the writer’s bed for a few days afterward while fans left packages at the door); and his turn as a lounge singer (“I feel disoriented, like I’ve crashed someone’s wedding in, say, 1963”). She learns that she and he share a birthday, and it’s this coincidence − not the bushmasters in the bedroom or the 9-foot man-eater of a crocodile that “resembled a large, exotic purse,” nor Sheena, the 250-pound python − that prompts her to write: “Things are getting creepy.”
Just as she flouts convention by candidly admitting her attraction to her subject, Brenner also breaks with it by comparing her story to another. “It is impossible to meet Dean Ripa and not think of John Laroche, the ragged eccentric outlaw orchid breeder Susan Orlean wrote about,” she observes. In the end, what makes this piece so noteworthy is not its resemblance to anything else, but Brenner’s immersion in the mind of her subject.
I have nightmares about snakes that leave me upright and sweating at 4 a.m. I tried to cure my snake phobia years ago with a self-directed aversion therapy program, by walking through the reptile house at Zoo Atlanta once a week. It didn’t work. Perhaps a better course would be repeated readings of Brenner’s story, especially this passage describing Dean Ripa’s nighttime visions of serpents:
Dean dreams about snakes all the time. Sometimes they are good dreams: that he discovers he owns snakes he didn’t know about, that aliens abduct him and take him to a secret part of North Carolina that was incompletely glaciated (there is always a scientific explanation in Dean’s dreams) revealing a colony of rare snakes. He also has nightmares that his snakes are dying, that they’re eating one another, that he forgot to feed them, that he must protect them from some unseen danger. He almost never dreams his snakes bite or kill him; it is always the snakes that are in jeopardy, that he must save them.
Brenner’s piece transcends the typical magazine profile because at its heart, it’s not really about the snakes − or the particulars about Ripa’s life story − but about navigating the balance between love and fear. Ripa loves his snakes, but loves the adrenaline rush that comes from living with them even more. “Dean insists his romance has always been with danger, not death,” Brenner writes. Her confessed romantic reactions triggered by spending time with Ripa turn out to be another form of danger-seeking. She concludes the piece − breaking another rule − with a personal anecdote. She’s driving toward Wrightsville Beach and almost hits a turtle crossing the highway. She stops, gets the turtle, and carries to him the side of the road, where she sees an alligator. She places the turtle on the ground, clear of the gator:
I get an incredible rush, the wild overpowering urge to leave my car idling with its door open in the middle of the road and just keep walking, keep going, because surely right around the bend lies something even bigger, waiting just for me.
Rebecca Burns is an Atlanta-based journalist and the former editor in chief of Atlanta magazine. She is the author of books that include Burial for a King, about the Atlanta aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Rage in the Gate City, about a little-known 1906 Atlanta race riot. She teaches journalism at Emory University and is at work on her fourth book, an account of the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917.