Gone: An American Vanishes in Vienna
After her son disappeared, Kathy Gilleran went on a quest for the truth. A documentary
A scene from the film: Kathy’s Vienna vigil | Photo: gone-film.com
Aeryn Gilleran with his mother Kathy in September 2007, before he disappeared | Photo: gone-film.com
Aeryn Gilleran was a civil servant like many in Vienna; he had been a researcher at the United Nations Industrial Organisation (UNIDO) since 2003, and was elected staff council in 2007, when suddenly, he vanished. Now five years later, this unsolved mystery is the subject of a compelling, profoundly moving documentary, Gone, by Gretchen and John Morning, chronicling a mother’s heartrending and tireless search for answers to her son’s fate.
On 31 October 2007, Aeryn’s mother Kathy Gilleran received a call from UNIDO reporting that her 34-year old son had failed to show up for work for two days. Entirely out of character, his behaviour attracted his colleagues’ concern. Kathy, a veteran New York police officer, immediately flew to Vienna to find out what was going on.
Upon her arrival, Kathy was devastated to learn that the police had no interest in an investigation. Detectives told her that Aeryn had been at the Kaiserbründl, an exclusive men’s sauna in Vienna’s 1st District, on the evening of 29 October, when he suffered an extreme and sudden emotional breakdown, fled the sauna and ran naked through the city streets and jumped to his death in the Danube Canal. A fisherman had called the police to tell them he had seen a bald-headed man float by in the canal. The police claimed that Aeryn had committed a “spontaneous suicide” and insinuated that, as he was gay, he was likely to have been HIV-positive and despondent about his health.
To Kathy, nothing added up. First of all, there was no body. Second, on his last visit home in September 2007, Aeryn had seemed very happy with his life abroad. He was also excited by plans they had for Kathy to move to Vienna for a while, so she too could experience life in Europe. That Aeryn was openly gay had never been an issue for Kathy and she was shocked by the homophobic attitudes of the Vienna police.
The film itself
The documentary immerses the viewer in Kathy’s painful quest for the truth. Footage shot in New York and familiar street scenes in Vienna, compelling direct-to-camera interviews and personal photos and video clips give the film a haunting and emotive depth. We see snapshots of Aeryn as a child, with his family, graduating from college, having fun and enjoying life. As Kathy remarks, he loved Vienna, its culture, its history and architecture. We see footage from Kathy’s days as a neighbourhood police officer and through her commentary, we learn how her life has been changed forever. We become witness to what is, in effect, a living hell of shock, anger, and grief. The film contrasts her raw emotions as a mother and her professional acumen and ethics as a police officer.
On the flight to Vienna, Kathy recalls how surreal the situation was, that she was able to stay calm and kept finding herself thinking that Aeryn would be there to meet her at the airport. She had only booked her return flight for one week later, imagining she would find out what had been going on. In retrospect she recognises her level of denial; she did not want to believe anything had happened to him.
When asked what word she associates with Aeryn, Kathy simply says “gone”.
No help from the authorities
With the help of translators provided by UNIDO, Kathy made several visits to the police in Vienna where she was met head on by a bewildering array of cruel indifference and sabotage: refusal to speak English, refusal to open a window in a stuffy room when she felt sick or to provide tissues when she was unable to stop crying; when English was spoken at times it was used to insult her. She was told by one police investigator that she was “unacceptable” and was challenged about her own policing abilities: “What were you, a parking meter maid?”, more homophobic comments about her son; attempts to intimidate her by physical proximity, sexism and sarcasm, and pressure to sign a report in German that she could not even understand. What’s more, the police kept changing their story. Kathy was initially told that a diving team had explored the canal and that the area had been thoroughly searched, but this turned out to be a fabrication. Kathy soon realised that the police either simply did not care about a young man who was not an Austrian and was also gay, or they were afraid of the truth and chose to cover up what really happened.
Why had there been no press coverage of Aeryn’s disappearance, she asked police investigators. When the story did come out it was with sensational headlines like “Mr. Gay Austria runs through the streets naked” and reports that he was an “unbalanced gay man”. The labels were dehumanising, so that Aeryn was not a real person anymore.
Kathy recounts the terrible time when she had to pick up Aeryn’s belongings from the police, collected in a huge plastic garbage bag. When she picked up the bag she was overwhelmed by the smell of her son and could not stop crying. The police ignored her. Later, she found more heartbreaking evidence that the police had not taken the case seriously, including a very recent medical report from a laboratory showing that he was not HIV positive.
During those first few months, Kathy would visit the UNO City after breakfast, do some shopping. She would later take an U-Bahn to the last stop and then more often than not walk back into the city and stand in front of the Kaiserbründl or visit the churches. On a visit to a gay bookshop in Vienna, she made some useful contacts. Articles published in Falter resulted in two witnesses coming forward who were prepared to state that they saw a naked man running through the streets who looked frightened for his life on the evening in question. The police refused to give any credibility to this and as far as Kathy knows, the police may also have never investigated thoroughly what happened at the sauna.
No end in sight
With her financial resources squeezed, Kathy was eventually forced to give up Aeryn’s apartment and she explained the agony of this when all she wanted to do was stay there and wait for him. Unable to part with them, she shipped back pictures, films, and CDs because she knew that he loved them so much. Returning home, she felt like she was abandoning him.
Back in the U.S, she tried to exhaust herself with working long days so she would not have to think too much. She admits to crying endlessly, howling like a wolf at times from pain and emptiness. Finally she decided to set a limit: No crying before 16:00.
A review of the police investigation brought little, nor was she able to effectively expose the poor handling of the case.
Kathy returned to Vienna for the 2011 Viennale showing of Gone. The documentary may help to chip away at the wall of deceit. Perhaps someone will develop a conscience, she muses.
It is bad enough that Aeryn has gone; but not knowing the truth is worse.
5 July, 19:00
1., Friedrichstraße 4
6-17 July, nightly 19:00
7 July at 18:00
6., Rahlgasse 1
(01) 208 30 00
View a reportage about Gone on ORF2, 6 July at 21:10.