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Op-ed: Mollie Tibbetts and ‘American Gothic’

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The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa. — photo courtesy of Avery Gregurich

By Avery Gregurich, Des Moines

The American Gothic House is being renovated.

Here in late August, it’s cordoned off by orange plastic fencing and CAUTION tape. The front porch roof is being braced by diagonal wooden beams. It’s week nine or 10 of renovations, (the museum worker says she can’t remember which,) and she apologizes for the view. Two men in cut-off shirts are looking at the house next to me and taking pictures with their phones. We look at each other and look at the house, seemingly with the same thought in our minds: A mediocre prairie wind might blow this whole thing over.

Despite this, RVs and other big traveling vehicles from all over the country continue to pull in and out of the small parking lot behind us. They are coming to see the house and particularly the window that Grant Wood immortalized nearly 90 years ago. I hope they aren’t disappointed. Maybe they’ve also come to try to become a part of it. You too can create your own “American Gothic” here in Eldon, Iowa. There are props to use (denim overalls, pinafore dresses, glasses, a pitchfork), and the museum workers will gladly do you the favor of taking the picture. Donations are of course appreciated.

First plotted out in 1881, the house itself has led a Gothic American life of its own, regardless of the artistic and cultural fame it has come to enjoy. The first owners forfeited the house due to unpaid taxes. The next owner used the house as a candy and novelty store which failed. When the house was being donated to the state of Iowa as a historical landmark in the late ’80s, the family who were living inside it, struggling farmers caught up in the Farm Crisis, were essentially thrown out.

Inside the “Media Room” of the museum which stands next to the house, a DVD of a 1983 public television documentary about Wood plays on a loop. It’s called Grant Wood’s America. The DVD relates that Wood promised his subjects — his sister and his dentist — that they wouldn’t be recognized in his painting.

“I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house,” Wood said. A state full of incensed Iowa farmers and their wives thought that Wood was making fun of them.

An informational sign outside the house has visitors see this in “American Gothic”: “The painting is said to represent a farmer and his daughter. Their placement and expressions show a father defending his daughter, and the daughter’s reluctant submission.”

It’s an hour’s winding drive largely along Highway 21 from Eldon to outside Guernsey, Iowa. In a cornfield nearby, the body of Mollie Tibbetts was found. She’d been missing for over a month.

I drove by that cornfield past Guernsey the last week of July, along with thousands of others. It was during RAGBRAI, the annual bicycle ride across the state of Iowa that has become as much a part of the identity of the state as “American Gothic.” The bicycle route went just seven miles north of the field where Mollie Tibbetts was found, and the vehicle traffic detour went right by it.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa. — photo courtesy of Avery Gregurich

Along the drive that day, I encountered a white FBI van, scanning a drainage ditch along the side of the road. She had been missing for just over a week at that point, and her face was on posters in every gas station, on T-shirts of countless bicycle riders and plastered all over the overnight towns where the bicycle ride stopped.

The search that day came up empty, as it would for the next month, until the man charged with her murder, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, led investigators to her body.
All of us were looking for the same thing, and it couldn’t have been any closer.

We still didn’t find her. Now, the narrative of Mollie Tibbetts’ disappearance and murder has become political confetti, as Rivera is suspected of being in the United States illegally. The White House quickly tweeted after the charges had been announced, saying that “The Tibbetts family has been permanently separated. They are not alone.” Donald Trump, Jr. also took up the story, along with state politicians who pointed to the accused man’s citizenship status.

Republican Governor Kim Reynolds issued a statement saying, “As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.” U.S. House Representative Steve King posted a ForAmerica list of recent murders, saying that, “Every victim below would be alive today if we enforced our immigration laws. Leftists sacrificed thousands, including their own, on the altar of Political Correctness.”

For their part, the Tibbetts family is vehemently rejecting the use of Mollie’s murder as a political talking point. Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, said in his daughter’s eulogy that “the Hispanic community are Iowans. They have the same values as Iowans.” He also urged us all, to “turn the page.” In an op-ed for The Des Moines Register, Tibbetts furthered his plea to keep his daughter’s death out of the mouths of politicians, writing, “Do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist. The act grievously extends the crime that stole Mollie from our family.”

“American Gothic” is one of the most parodied artworks ever created, partly because of the ease at which it can be parodied. It’s almost saccharine self-seriousness and depiction of rural life has allowed for a myriad of interpretations that run the gamut from cartoon characters to religious figures. The only guiding principle of the parody is that the namesake Gothic window be present.

Here in Iowa, and I suppose beyond, we have spent nearly a century trying to figure out what the painted pair is thinking as they stand guard in front of their home. Now, I’d rather know what it is they are seeing on this side of the canvas that makes the father grip his pitchfork so, and what news is on the radio behind the curtain blocking that Gothic window that makes his daughter turn her face that way.

Like our American culture, the American Gothic House is being renovated and we are all struggling to find out what that means. Here in Eldon, they are trying to keep the house as true to the way it was when Wood stumbled upon it almost a century ago. It is to allow us to see the house as he saw it, but I have to wonder if this isn’t a kind of exercise in self-destructive nostalgia that tries to preserve a far-removed image of ourselves in lieu of building a new one.

It is our new American reality that when we look through the window and actually see inside, we find more divide and distance in tragedy than commonality. Nowhere does that divide seem to beat stronger than here in the heart of the country. We have already painted the murder of Mollie Tibbetts in shades of red or blue in Iowa. It is because just as we see ourselves in the familiar image of the farmer and his daughter, we look for ourselves in Mollie Tibbetts and her family.

The Tibbetts tragedy defies the dominant painting of the characters out here in Trump country. It has all of the ingredients for a Trump tweet storm and conservative radio host diatribe: an accused murder by an undocumented immigrant against a young white woman in the rural center of a red state. But this time, the characters themselves are fighting back, attempting to speak for themselves and disallow a false, fear-mongering narrative to be constructed around their tragedy.

Still, the parodies will continue and their pleas for privacy and a political silence will surely go unheeded. If someday you take the trip to Eldon, you should take the time to fill the roles of the two figures standing in front of the American Gothic House. You will have all the tools necessary to look the parts, and by then the construction will have been completed and the CAUTION tape will have been removed.

You should do this if only for the indisputable fact that Rob Tibbetts will never have the chance to take that picture with his own daughter. I hopw that fact is cause enough for us to loosen the grip on our political pitchforks and stand closer together, focusing our attention on mending and expanding our American heritage, and not our Gothic one.

Otherwise, a mediocre prairie wind might just blow this whole damn house over.


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