Have Faith in Robocop

Storyteller and standup comedian Jeff Simmermon charts the integral role that Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic has played in his personal life.

My friend David Crabb grew up gay in rural Texas in the 1980s, long before rural Texas was the paradise for gay men that it is today. He told me that what got him through it was seeing the video for George Michael’s “Faith.” Something about the way George Michael moved told him that he would be OK, that there were people like him out there and he was just as awesome as they were in just the same way they were and all he had to do was wait until he found that tribe.

When he told me that, I choked up and hugged him tight and told him my truth, which is, “Oh my God, the exact same thing happened to me, except I’m straight and it was Robocop.”

That movie changed the way that I walked when I was in the fifth grade. Robocop changed the way I thought, the way I worked, the way I processed my own life. Robocop is a cinematic comet, flying through my life on a long, predetermined orbit and offering its lessons to different versions of me as I change over time.

I learned lessons from watching Robocop before I even pushed “Play” on our Betamax. I’d wanted desperately to see it in the theaters during the summer of 1987, but I knew it was a stretch.

Jeff Simmermon around the time he first saw Robocop.

Robocop was released on home video in February 1988. I don’t know the exact date, but I do know that whatever day it was available at our neighborhood video store is the day that I saw it for the first time.

My dad had been OK with taking me to see R-rated movies in the theater if he himself wanted to see them, until we saw The Untouchables, which proved to be the wax wings to my precocious cinematic Icarus. I was fine during the movie itself, but had nightmares for a week from the Al Capone baseball bat scene.

My loving, straight-laced dad feigned an interest in the Star Wars trilogy on my behalf, but there was no way he was going to pay good money to watch a man melt in a tub of toxic waste and deal with my night terrors afterwards. When I saw that Robocop was coming out on Beta, though, I launched my stealth campaign.

I did everything I could to appear as grown-up as possible. For months leading up to Robocop’s home video release, I avoided horror comics like a kid with a peanut allergy so I could log a long streak of uninterrupted slumber and build a solid campaign base. (I’d glanced through the Creepshow comic book at a bookstore in the fall and it had wrecked my bedtime for a full week.) I had to climb out of a credibility hole and each eight-hour stretch was another rung on the ladder, demonstrating that I was mature enough to know my limits.

When I saw in the newspaper that the original film had been tamed down for its VHS release, I made sure to read it aloud offhandedly to my parents right before dinner, when their conscious minds were distracted with cooking and setting the table and their subconscious minds were primed to instinctively agree with me just to keep the dinner train on the tracks.

Jeff Simmermon in costume for his breakout role as one of the three murderers in a sixth-grade production of Macbeth.

And I strategically declined to beg for trips to the video store for weeks prior, settling for the rental collection at the public library and any number of blockbuster adaptations in paperback so that paying money for a rental felt like a treat.

I called the video store daily for weeks to see if Robocop had made it to the shelves. I may be personally responsible for that store’s reserve-list policy, just to buy the owner a little peace of mind.

In the car on the way home from the store, I could feel neon green excitement shining out of the tape and leaving a chemical burn on my lap. “Hold it together, don’t celebrate yet,” I told myself. “Just keep it casual until the opening credits roll. If anyone sees that you want this too much, it could all go away in a second.” I waited until everything was cleaned up in the kitchen and everyone was on the other side of the house before sliding the tape into the machine.

And oh my God, what a ride. It was like being on a roller coaster at the top of the first hill, goosebumps shooting up and down my arms. There were no credits, no leadup, no previews – just pure cyberpunk black comedy from the jump.

The sound of Robocop first walking down the hall in the Detroit Police Station shot goosebumps like buckshot across my fifth-grade body. It wasn’t just the sound effects, and it wasn’t just the awesomeness of the movie. I remember thinking “This is it. This is really happening. All that work, all that careful study, and this is paying off and I am really, actually seeing Robocop do his thing.”

To me, Robocop’s footsteps don’t just sound like an armored man-machine dispensing justice. To me, Robocop’s footsteps sound like hard work paying off and feel like the sweet relief of things working out.

Some dreams are too big for us at first, so you set them as a goal and just lie in wait. You do what you can to work toward them and along the way you grow up a little, you learn your way around the block. And sometimes if you have some patience, the branch holding that forbidden fruit bends a little closer to the ground.

And then when you get what you think you want, you have to learn how to handle it.

Murphy’s death scene in Robocop.

As a kid, I watched the scene where Murphy is shot into pieces through my fingers, terrified. I knew it was something brutal and painful, that nobody would choose to go through, but after seeing the movie over and over again that weekend, I realized that it was what Murphy had to experience in order to become a bigger, stronger, more confident version of himself. He was meant for bigger stuff and it made the gore more tolerable to know what was ahead.

The scariest part was not knowing that he was going to be rescued, not realizing as a kid that this is how stories work, that when the good guy gets slaughtered in the first 20 minutes, there’s probably going to be more movie that turns the whole thing around.

The scariest part is the waiting, not knowing how much room is left on the tape.

That year was the first year that I could feel that my teddy bear wasn’t real, and that I was supposed to be ashamed of still sleeping next to him. I knew Santa Claus wasn’t real, and could feel myself reaching and pushing for the familiar excitement the Christmas before Robocop came to home video. I was outgrowing things that I loved about my childhood, and sometimes when I was walking with my mom across a grey parking lot at dusk, the sadness would just overwhelm me and I’d burst into tears.

Robocop showed me that the adult world had a lot going for it too. I got every joke in the movie the way that it was intended, and I could tell right away that the movie was the best kind of comedy. I laughed as I squirmed at Emil’s toxic waste-ridden body detonating against an oncoming car. The adult world was scarier, but a world where you could sit in the dark with a roomful of other people and enjoy a masterpiece like this couldn’t be all bad.

As I absorbed the film, I felt like Peter Parker the night after his fateful radioactive spider bite. It was uncomfortable during certain moments, but I was surging with a strange, new power.

Jeff Simmermon, during his time as an executive, sitting at the head of the New York Stock Exchange boardroom table.

Time passed. I learned to write pretty fast and then the Internet came out and I learned to write on that. Then I walked into the boardroom on my first day of work as a P.R. executive at Time Warner Cable, sat down at one end of that long table with the sweeping view of the city and fully expected to be pulped into burger meat by an ED-209 for five more years.

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in May of 2009. What I thought was a reasonable swollen response to a misplaced muay Thai kick was actually a rare and fast-growing tumor consuming my left testicle from the center outwards. The doctor told me that within 24 hours he’d be removing the tumor and the testicle it was eating, before the cancer had a chance to spread to the rest of my body.

Then he went to lunch and ate a sandwich.

I strolled into the doctor’s office that morning like Murphy responding to his first radio call; a day later, I staggered out of a wheelchair with critical organs replaced by cold, hard silicone.

The stitches healed up pretty fast. I spent a week in bed, but all I wanted to do was get back to work as fast as possible. I thought my job needed me, that the world of high-speed broadband and cable might start to flounder if it didn’t have somebody to advocate for it on Twitter. I’d majored in painting in college and fucked around in a bunch of art-rock bands for years afterwards, never thinking I’d find myself in a necktie and a three-piece suit sitting behind a big oak desk.

“I fully expected to be pulped into burger meat by an ED-209 …”

But in the days and weeks after surgery, my body craved that necktie and that office as badly as it did the oxycodone I fed it every four hours.

I couldn’t wait to support the company, to get out there and correct the entire internet on behalf of a major corporation, the way Robocop worked for the police to raise Omni Consumer Products’ stock price. It’s not that the work was good or right, it was just normal and my body was going through the motions of normalcy while my mind raced and rebooted.

For months, I was a robot that didn’t want to remember being a man. Unlike Robocop, I was not actually all that good at my job. It would be a cheap and easy metaphor to liken my colleagues to the executives at OCP, but they were honestly kind and patient enough to overlook any number of avoidable mistakes I made and let me coast on corporate tides until I fully knitted back together.

Now, whenever I see Officer Lewis gently help Robocop reorient his damaged targeting mechanism in the abandoned steel mill, I think of Ellen East, the VP of Corporate Communications at Time Warner Cable. She leaned over my shoulder and guided my hand while I shot all over the place until I could zero back in and fight my own battles.

Officer Lewis helps Robocop guide his shots.

Robocop was a stunning revelation for action movies in the 1980s in so many different ways, but very notably for this: The female lead is not played for sex appeal or romance whatsoever. She’s caring and nurturing but never sacrifices her confidence or competence for the hero.

That tracks directly with my own lived experience working for a woman who showed me the kind of caring that I needed the most, something well outside the tired mother-girlfriend archetypes that popular media has leaned on for far too long. I had a mom and I had a girlfriend at the time, and what I needed was way more and well outside what they could offer.

I needed an Officer Anne Lewis or an Ellen Ripley, and I got an Ellen East, who turned out to be a real-world equivalent.

“I brought you a couple jars of baby food,” she may as well have said. “Let’s get this targeting mechanism back on track while we can, because there are bigger battles to fight right around the corner.”

Jeff Simmermon on his wedding day.

Two weeks after our first anniversary and 20 minutes before date night, my wife sat me down and said, “The feelings I had for you on our wedding day are gone and they’re never coming back. While you’re at your friends’ wedding in Seattle this weekend, I’m going to be packing and by the time you come home, I’ll have moved out.”

I hadn’t been aware that there was anything wrong. Six days later, I came home to an apartment I sort of remembered, with conspicuous absences where her stuff had been removed from the walls and floor. I felt like Robocop visiting the home he shared as Murphy, walking through the empty rooms and flashing back to happier times as a softer, more vulnerable human being.

Instead of putting my fist through the TV like Robocop, I sat in front of it for several days, watching all of Breaking Bad from start to finish. I tried doing all of the things I remembered from my old life, like standup and exercising and then even dating, as though all my old feelings were memories belonging to the man I was based on.

None of it worked.

A recent piece of Robocop-inspired art by Jeff Simmermon.

My psychiatrist said, “You’re not supposed to be happy right now. You’re not a robot, you’re a human being. Everything you’re doing is healthy, not happy. Focus on healthy, and happy will come.”

Five years passed. I met the right person, fell in love and we’re now engaged. My targeting mechanisms are honed just right and now I can see the bad guys coming from a long way off. I’m 10 years past my cancer surgery and my testosterone comes from an outside source, but it’s at a manageable level. I’m not a machine pretending to be a man anymore, but I’m not the guy I used to be, either. I’m just me, and I’ve picked up some skills from being blown apart and put back together that I really don’t want to give up.

I’ve had to rebuild myself twice in the past 10 years, and I can definitely draw some parallels between Alex Murphy’s traumas, mine, and the trauma we’re all experiencing now, together and apart.

Everyone keeps talking about how fast this happened. And I’m here to tell you, it always happens fast. If it happens slow, you don’t notice at all. And we keep talking about, “Once this is all back to normal,” like we’re going to forget this and go back to the way things were. That never, ever happens. We’ve been blown apart and we’re going to use science and technology to put ourselves back together.

No matter how much science we use, we’re not going to be the people we were before this. It’s normal to grieve for the life we had beforehand, but there will be something to look forward to in the lives we have ahead of us. We just have to keep peeking through our fingers and make it to the end of the tape.

Jeff Simmermon is a storyteller and standup comic whose stories have appeared on Risk!, This American Life, The Moth‘s podcast, PBS’ Stories From the Stage and in written form on The Paris Review Daily. His new album, Why You Should Be Happy, was released on May 5, 2020, by Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla Records and is available wherever the very finest digital music and comedy is sold. His previous album, And I Am Not Lying, was released in June 2017 and reached #1 on the iTunes comedy charts. It was pressed onto pink vinyl and is distributed by Dischord Records. He’s also the producer-performer behind And I Am Not Lying, a variety show that combined stand-up, storytelling, burlesque, sideshow and music for five years at UCB Theater in New York City. He taught storytelling to businesses, educational institutions and performers until the collapse.