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Jim Killeen: The Man Who Found Himself

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

Jim Killeen is a sexual swinger in Denver.

Jim Killeen is a retired cop in New York.

Jim Killeen is a parish priest in Cobh, Ireland.

Jim Killeen is a CEO in Melbourne, Australia.

And when Jim Killeen, failed Los Angeles actor, found all of them on Google, he decided to make a movie called "Google Me."

It began in August 2006 with a routine self-Google, the sort of ego-surfing that millions perform regularly to assess their status in the digital world.

The thing was, Killeen had begun to feel his status was zero. At 38 he was unmarried, no children. The movie stardom for which he'd left Detroit had never materialized; he'd eventually launched a business providing chair massages in poker halls for a dollar a minute. It was surprisingly lucrative but (perhaps not surprisingly) unfulfilling. His father had just passed away.

So on that night in August, as Killeen typed his name in the search bar, he was looking for ego-stroking, but he was also looking for something in his life to be reflected back to him -- something buried in those listings to tell him who he was. Instead, what popped up was a middle-aged sexual adventurer in Colorado seeking fun individuals. His name was Jim Killeen.

L.A.'s Killeen scrolled further. He found a traffic engineer in Scotland. A corporate VP in St. Louis. Dozens of men, all of whom had found their own ways of negotiating what it meant to be Jim Killeen. He clicked through the Google hits and felt surprising tenderness. "I wanted them to be doing well in life," he says. "I wanted them to succeed. They were members of a very special club."

Suddenly, he knew what he needed to do. Soon he was on a plane to Ireland to hang out with a weathered priest named Jim Killeen.

What is in a name?

At root it is a random collection of letters, a functional system of identification that replaced pointing and grunting. But the poetic pleasures that come from using our names, from hearing our names, from Googling our names far outstrip their intended characteristic of being "useful." Freud would say names are cathected, meaning that we invest them with irrational emotional energy.

"Your name is one of the main anchors for your self-concept," says Cleveland Evans, a psychology professor at Bellevue University in Nebraska and author of "The Great Big Book of Baby Names." "They are one of the earliest things that most kids get in terms of language development."

Names are so personal, so meaningful -- but only to us. If your name is not Jim Killeen, you have never thought about what it would be like to be Jim Killeen. If it is, those letters take on totemic power. You might take special interest in J.K. Rowling, for example, or J. (F.) K. You might find deep meaning in the life of an ordinary community health center CEO in Melbourne.

The rise of Google made what was once casual narcissism into an obsessive extracurricular activity. While Google can't track vanity searches, Douglas Merrill, vice president of engineering, points out that when a new tool is created to answer questions, people tend to ask four to five times the number of related questions they did pre-tool. In the puzzle of which came first, the narcissism or the Google, the answer is narcissism -- inflated by search engines.

Merrill calls the multiple Jim Killeens produced when L.A. Killeen wanted only to locate himself "an interesting technology problem." Search technology tries to anticipate the exact result the seeker is looking for. It knows, for example, that a search for "Apple" is about the company, while "Apples" is about the fruit. But human names are confounding. What is the best result? Google wonders. Who is the best Jim Killeen? Without any way of anticipating the appropriate results of a vanity search, Google spits back every possible answer. "You have to figure out," says Merrill, "if they're all you."

But isn't that the metaphysical query Killeen was trying to untangle? Were the Jim Killeens in St. Louis and Australia, in some way, him ? Had they figured out what it meant to be Jim Killeen in some way he had not?

Is it possible to find yourself by finding others with whom you share nothing but 10 common letters?

That notion is a bizarre combination of humanistic oneness and total self-absorption. The "community" of Jim Killeens is not even a community so much as it is a random group of men thrown together by the fact that none of them goes by "James."

"Google Me" (which is still being edited but will be shopped to film festivals in the fall) might have begun as a gee-whiz exercise in egotism. But, Killeen says, it quickly became much more. As he traveled the globe, he asked each Jim Killeen (seven appear in "Google Me") the same set of 30 questions -- What are you most proud of? What would make life unbearable? What is man's purpose? What's your favorite color? -- and was moved by the common threads in each Jim's responses. "With varying degrees, people basically thought [their purpose] was to help other people."

And while Killeen's fellow Killeens were initially dubious -- he got a Whaddaya, nuts? from the New York cop -- by the end of the filming, when L.A. Killeen brought seven of them together (in Killeen, Tex., natch), they, too, began to feel that the project had magnitude. Not, perhaps, because their name had forced them to be the same, but because their name had given them an excuse to find out how they were actually the same.

"Answering the questions meant coming to grips with what you believed in," says St. Louis Killeen. "It was so exciting to see how the rest of the guys answered. You don't really go to a cocktail party and talk about all of these things."

As for L.A. Killeen, what he ultimately found was not a better way to be a Jim Killeen, but an inspiring (if "Breakfast Club"-y) truth about being human. "People are fundamentally good. They will invite you over to their houses. They will meet you halfway." The guys might have been initially more receptive to a Jim Killeen filmmaker, but, ultimately, the common moniker didn't end up being all that important.

Says Killeen, "Your name is just a label, just an arbitrary thing. I don't think you can use it to tell that much about a person."

He does admit there were logistical benefits to being a Killeen. "It would have been a nightmare if I were a Smith . . . or a Galakowitz."

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