The best fiction is always rooted in reality. Even in science fiction and fantasy, where the superficial appeal is the upheaval of the social constructs we all know and duly despise, what grounds us to the fantastical narratives is human emotion. The fact is that even in settings so disparate from our own, we still see vivid reflections of our own internal realities. There are still times when we may feel compelled to un-suspend our disbelief, but it’s the emotion and humanity that keep us believing.
The first season of Netflix’s American Vandal, though it encompasses countless narrative threads all connected to the ridiculousness of being a high schooler in the early digital age, revolves around one central premise: the show’s two protagonists trying to suss out who spray painted dicks on teachers’ cars, and in the process, exonerate their peer who was framed for the vandalism. The one golden thread that runs through the first season is the one question repeated over and over again: Who drew the dicks?
As I walk past Cunningham Field, I’m reminded of that first season of American Vandal. It’s a calm field. A quiet field. Ever since the pandemic’s onslaught essentially eliminated sports at Swarthmore, it’s sat fallow. When students returned for the Spring in early February, it acquired a blanket of crispy white snow. There’s a red-tailed hawk living in one of the trees next to bustling North Chester Road. I imagine that as it swoops through the air and clutches a branch with its razor-sharp talons, it rejoices that at long last, it has some peace and quiet.
That’s not to say, however, that Cunningham Field is without its disturbances. I’ve been a student journalist a long time, and I’ve seen my fair share of the off-beat and occult. If you’ve ever read an article and felt outraged that such scandal regularly takes place at a small liberal arts college behind closed doors, take a second to imagine what we don’t publish. The kinds of hot tips that never make their way to the public eye because no one wants to go on the record. Still, I’ve never seen anything as fucked up and truly twisted as what I saw on Cunningham Field that first day I came back.
And even though the head honchos at The Phoenix told me that my scoop was “really not a big deal” and “also, really not news,” I decided to go rogue by writing on my own terms. The paper had one gaping loophole (that Campus Journal will basically publish anything), and I decided to exploit it once the bleeding question began haunting me in my sleep:
Who. Drew. The. Dicks. On Cunningham. Field?!
Dicks skillfully carved, as if by an occult hand, into the shiny snow that kept melting and freezing over. The first time I saw them, though I was horrified, I was impressed. It was the perfect crime: hard to catch given the emptiness of Cunningham Field, and moreover, impermanent. All traces of the vandalism would disappear in a couple of days or weeks depending on when the snow melted, and the only traces would be in people’s fading memories and in digital records that would eventually corrode into nothingness.
I immediately wondered who could have done such a thing. I couldn’t eliminate a single suspect, but what no one tells you when you’re investigating is that Swarthmore really is a small community. In some ways, I love it. But I cannot emphasize enough the mental burden I carried during the investigation. I had to project the guilt for the crime onto every loving face that stared back at me. I questioned the sanctity of my friends. Of my professors. Of my acquaintances who I talked to once at freshman orientation and to whom I never know whether or not to say hi and it’s seriously, like, awkward.
Reader, I scoured Swarthmore’s campus for days, interrogating any masked face I could find if they knew who drew the dicks. At first I stationed myself near the Sharples entrance and ambushed all of the students who lolled around the entrance pulling up their GET emails on their phones. After a day or so of relentless pestering — ahem, serious investigative journalism, dining services staff shooed me away. I hid out in a bush outside of Wharton Courtyard for a while, but after a couple of instances of being shooed away as “the Wharton stalker,” I knew that I had to try another way.
I scoured the Pub Safe logs, but the closest I could find to what I was looking for was a Dean’s Referral for a bunch of students in Parrish hotboxing the study pods in Admissions Commons and setting off the fire alarm. I’m pretty sure that Mike Hill set up a special filter for my emails so that they always bounce directly into the trash. Even a stakeout at Cunningham Field during a fresh snowfall (okay, I had to go to class, so it was only a few hours long) didn’t help me catch the culprit. The wet flakes fell in the indents where the dicks were scorched into the ground, softening but not altogether erasing the phallic patterns.
A week of guerilla journalism tactics, and I was getting nowhere even close to answering the question on everyone’s mind ever since I forcefully planted it there: who drew the dicks?
It was only as I was eating a Greek salad from Sharples in below-freezing weather, scratching my head and watching people actively avoid me, that I transcended my experience as a journalist. I became a philosopher. This entire time I had been chasing the question of who drew the dicks and trying to find the empirical truth of the actual, physical individual who crept onto an empty sports field after a heavy snowfall and scratched dicks into the ground because, well, dicks are funny. But it was chewing a soggy piece of cucumber that I realized that journalism isn’t just about getting raw facts: it’s about interpreting them in a way that creates a narrative.
This entire time, I had worked so hard on mastering my journalistic objectivity. I wouldn’t write a story about an organization if I had even so much as set eyes on one of their members in the past, never wrote for arts because I thought it was a complete betrayal of the journalistic form to admit that a piece of art actually meant something to me. But that Greek salad somehow made me realize that the entire time, I was just chasing a bitter fallacy. That whoever it was who invented the idea of detachment from the subject was probably someone who just didn’t have a cause or purpose that they cared about enough. And for me, the purpose that elevated me was the dicks on Cunningham Field.
I had reported on subjects in the past like departments hiring new faculty members and construction beginning on new buildings, but that wasn’t because I actually cared. It was just because I wanted to embrace the fancy title of student journalist without understanding what a journalist was. I, myself, was the platonic ideal of the disillusioned Swattie from which I had tried so hard to distance myself.
The empirical truth was that either one or a small handful of individuals drew the dicks. But that’s not the whole truth. People have been obsessed with phallic imagery as long as people have existed, with phallic imagery portrayed in antique civilizations ranging from the Americas, to the Balkans, to Japan. The dick is a timeless symbol because it’s one that’s intrinsic to humanity — one that no one, no matter how powerful, can ever take away from us.
People laud heroism. People laud human kindness and disavow human evil. Throughout our entire history as a species, people have created narratives and billions upon billions of protagonists just to demonstrate to each other and themselves how thoroughly they understand humanity. But perhaps there is no truer display of humanity than drawing dicks on stuff. It’s a legacy that we didn’t create but must continue to carry, every new generation a pack mule struggling to carry the burden of millennia of dick drawings. Every snowfall that blankets the ground in a pristine coat of white carries with it the opportunity for more dick drawings.
People often quote Yoda, saying, “Do or do not. There is no try.” But for me, the opposite rings true. I didn’t uncover who drew the dicks on Cunningham Field. And I won’t. But I tried, and that has to be enough.
If you have any information about who drew the dicks, please alert your residence hall’s Garnet Guide ASAP.