To Search or to Be Silenced
Jason Diamond’s memoir is a testament to life after school, adolescence, and more so the life of the artist in and around the margins
There’s a point in Searching for John Hughes when Jason Diamond decides to stop searching. He sits in a diner inside an old barn, in a tiny town in northeastern Pennsylvania, with a runny omelet and a breaking resolve. He’s looking for Michael Schoeffling, the actor who played Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Shades of Jake Ryan come up a lot in the book: Diamond thinks he’s “suburban perfection” and generally represents the kind of tall, tanned, perfect-haired guy that Diamond never was in high school. But the actor, Michael Schoeffling, receded from Hollywood after Sixteen Candles, moving to a sleepy town to build furniture and, presumably, not talk to anyone about John Hughes.
The book opens in the inverse: Diamond has fled Chicago for New York, where he wants to call himself a writer. He works as a line monitor (or cupcake bouncer) at Magnolia Bakery in the West Village, and takes solace in the fact that no matter the state of his career, at least he’s made it to New York. He’s safe here from what tormented him in the suburbs of Chicago — until a Jake Ryan figure from high school comes into Magnolia that night and finds him. In this scene, it’s viewed as invasive — the reader wants to think, ridiculously, shouldn’t New York be a city for artists fleeing suburbia, not those who thrived in it? — and leaves Diamond feeling exposed. At the diner in Pennsylvania, he seems to have just realized that he has switched roles: now he is the one invading upon Jake Ryan’s life.
Diamond became obsessed with the films of John Hughes early on, subscribing to the gospel that his films conveyed the truth of adolescence:
“I expected some heartbreak and bad moments here and there, but I truly believed adolescence was going to be this magical time where everybody looked good. I thought turning thirteen was when my life would start to look like a John Hughes film.”
Even though it’s untrue in his case, Diamond still holds them up as a vision of what high school should be like. After a rough childhood with stints of being homeless, he makes his way to New York, holding down a series of menial jobs and trying to figure out how to become a writer. One night he’s out to dinner with another Jake Ryan figure from his childhood, a very genuine but annoyingly perfect guy named Reid, and impulsively tells him, “I’m writing the unauthorized biography of John Hughes.” After he says it out loud he thinks, that could work. In zippy, relatable prose, full of fervently realized memories and antics straight out of a rom-com, Diamond details the next five years as he attempts to write, perfects his latte art, and tries obsessively to find John Hughes.
The book gives equal attention to Diamond’s twenty-something plight of scattered biography-writing, and his troubled past in Chicago, where most John Hughes movies are set. We can see why he’d want to withdraw into the world of John Hughes, a universe of happy last scenes and golden homes: after his parents divorced, he was shuttled between his mom and his dad, his dad physically abusing him until his mother won sole custody, his mother eventually abandoning him, leaving him to shuffle between friend’s houses and all-night diners, off his medication and very alone. When he is taken in by a family as close to perfection as he can see, he’s eventually kicked out after he falsely takes responsibility for impregnating their daughter.
His family life leaves much to be desired, and the actual events are fairly horrifying: so it’s a wonder that Searching for John Hughes doesn’t read as horrifying. Even as he details suppressing the pain from the bruised kidney his father gave him, the way he would drink endless cups of coffee so he could stay in a diner all night without nodding off, the day that his mother tells him that she’s moving to South Carolina without him, it doesn’t feel maudlin or melodramatic — perhaps because in those moments, he’s actively receding into his fantasy world, and he allows the reader to, also. After being kicked out of his father’s car and made to walk home, Jason doesn’t wallow in his pain or the fact that his father is both abusive and absent, but instead looks up at the streets and trees surrounding him in the Chicago suburbs, connecting them to the suburban idyll of John Hughes movies. After his mother leaves for South Carolina, he spends one last morning in his house, looking up at his bedroom walls, thinking almost optimistically of how things will turn out now that he’s on his own:
“It would be an adventure,” he thinks, “like…Macauley Culkin in Home Alone.”
It’s as if he knew to protect himself from their disappointments by reframing the situations immediately.
One of the most devastating moments, one that comes without warning, is when he sits around a solid oak dinner table with family that took him in, after taking responsibility for the daughter’s pregnancy. “Their house was what I’d imagined Jake Ryan’s home looked like when his classmates weren’t trashing it during a party,” he says earlier. As he’s being lectured by the father about the pregnancy, he twists the ends of his frayed corduroy shorts around his finger, looking down and nodding. It’s telling that one of his most potent sorrows comes at the hands of another family. It’s not that this slight is at all worse than the ones at the hands of his mother and father, but it’s almost more of a betrayal because it comes from a picture-perfect family — one that could’ve been painted by his idol. After being given a chance to enter one of his fantasy families, that too became tarnished. It’s another hole poked into the John Hughes formula he so revered, one held up a lot of the time by stereotypes.
Tropes are important in Searching for John Hughes, as they are in his films. The Breakfast Club is about finding and dissembling stereotypes: the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal. The famous last lines are, “What we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess, and a criminal.” Sixteen Candles ends with the outcast getting the athlete, and the prom queen smiling at the nerd. John Hughes worked hard to mash together tropes, showing that they weren’t what they seemed. But this is a lesson it takes Diamond a long time to learn, as he casts himself as the weirdo, or the basket case, and continues to resent the Jake Ryans long after high school.
Titling himself as a weirdo, or basket case, or skater provides him with a set identity: carrying his skateboard everywhere gives him a certain kind of shield, even if it’s mostly under his arm. His other armor is the world of John Hughes movies, his nascent writing career, his goal to write the biography (said out loud more than acted upon). Rather than taking solace in a home life, he found comfort in those movies that he knows so well; rather than seeing his family at Thanksgiving, he’d watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles every year. He buried himself in the myth of the director who has created much of what he loved and when he finally lets go of his obsessions, it’s because he no longer needs their protection.
Trying to find the secrets of the man who got him through his adolescence gives him a meaning and a mission, and even if his end goal changed, it gave him something to drive him through those years and find out that there is life after high school, the fictional version and the real one.