When their beloved Joy took her own life, these grieving friends started a circus in Iowa in her honor
FROM THE TRAGEDY OF JOY FISHER’S DEATH, THE EASTERN IOWA CIRCUS COLLECTIVE WAS BORN.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — Lindsey Moon hangs by a thread.
To be more precise, she grasps two blue nylon strands that dangle from 21 feet above the floor. She hoists herself into the cradle of the fabric, commonly called “silks,” whose ends are tied together at about waist height.
She can climb the silks like a rope. Or she can weave the fabric around her ankles and calves and do the splits to suspend herself in midair.
She can contort her body, entangle in the fabric and raise ever higher. She might execute a graceful spin or pause and tranquilly hang upside down as her friends and fellow circus performers swirl around her.
The Eastern Iowa Circus Collective was formed in memory of Joy Fisher to provide a creative outlet for aerialists, jugglers, fire performers, acro yogis and other artists.David Scrivner/Press-Citizen
Welcome to the Eastern Iowa Circus Collective, a center of almost spiritual calm for Moon. In recent years she has become a zealot of the aerial arts, acro yoga and all manner of circus feats that some might sum up as Cirque du Soleil meets fitness.
Moon, 28, is the founder and driving force behind this collective. She and her friends gather several nights a week inside a grand old church just north of downtown Cedar Rapids.
What had been a First Baptist sanctuary when it opened in 1917 now has its 10,000 square feet strewn not only with circus gear but photography lights, antiques, a piano, an unplugged bowling arcade game and tiny costume dresses for cats (yes, felines).
Photographer Michael Huang had set up his studio here with his wife, a seamstress. They welcomed the circus into their spacious workspace as the group struggled to rebound from tragedy.
The inspiration that still ripples through the room is a woman named Joy Fisher.
Joy, 31, committed suicide Jan. 2, 2017, after a short life dominated by aerials and contortions in her final years.
“She was true to her name,” Moon said. “She was just so encouraging.”
But the effervescence that Joy exuded to students at her gym, Elevate Vertical Fitness, belied a deep inner sadness.
“I had no idea,” Moon said of Joy, “how intense her struggle was.”
A troupe forged by tragedy
Eating fire might look dangerous and painful, but it’s nothing compared to losing your friend to suicide.
Just ask Moon, who has been learning to extinguish the flame by exhaling forcefully as the burning wick enters her mouth. The worst side effect tends to be singed taste buds that leave all food bland the next day.
“When you say, ‘I moonlight as a fire-eater,’ people look at you like you’re insane,” Moon said. “So I try to avoid times where I’m going to intentionally put myself in a position of looking like everyone’s drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.”
Moon’s day job has none of this visual spectacle: She’s a journalist who arranges open and honest conversations among Iowans as an award-winning producer for Iowa Public Radio talk shows.
The irony is not lost on Moon that she never had a conversation with her late friend in which Joy confided the depths of her despair.
“It absolutely breaks my heart every day that she didn’t feel comfortable saying that to some of us who loved her and were a part of the studio,” Moon said.
She and the rest of Joy’s circus friends are left with nagging questions. But the death also “forced us a lot closer in a lot of ways,” Moon said.
On this night of rehearsal, Moon also twirls a flaming hoop in the church parking lot. She’s a Prius driver who probably burns more fuel outside her car, thanks to her circus habit.
Her friend and fellow performer Cory Hanson, 30, is a longtime fire spinner who twirls Kevlar ropes (or “snakes”) soaked in a mix of white gas and tiki torch fluid.
He was in fourth grade when his childhood home was gutted in a blaze, displacing his family for more than a year. So for him, this circus seems a very pointed example of fighting fire with fire to conquer his fear.
Balyssa Bell is a former competitive swimmer and a postdoc in pharmacology at the University of Iowa who spends her free time as a contortionist.
Moon, Hanson and Bell all live within a few blocks of each other in Iowa City. They’re among a core group of about a dozen performers, including a figure skater-turned-yoga teacher and a water skier-turned-juggler.
Then there’s Scott Monroe, a muscular pole dancer who in his professional life “bleep, bleep, bloops all day long” — in other words, he builds computer software for small business clients.
He’s also Joy’s former boyfriend. The two met early in life. Their parents attended the same church.
Monroe spent about five years in the Army, including a 15-month deployment to Iraq, where he survived a car bomb and sniper fire. He returned to earn a computer science degree from Coe College in 2013.
By 2015, his friendship with Joy had blossomed into a relationship. Monroe encouraged her to pursue her dream of opening a gym.
They opened Elevate together in December 2015 in half of a former movie rental store.
Joy also taught yoga and tutored high school students. The gym’s troupe performed on the road, including at the Iowa State Fair.
“She just really wasn’t scared of much,” Monroe said.
‘She had brought a real Joy into our lives’
Joy packed a lot of power into her 5-foot, 3-inch frame.
“Joy had guns,” Bell said, then slid into the present tense. “Her arms are ridiculous.”
As has become typical, Joy lingers on through her Instagram videos (@joyousverio_aerialist) and Facebook. Her final posts from Dec. 29, 2016 — just four days before her death — show her contorting on an aerial hoop, or lyra.
Joy was 14 months old when Al and Ellen Fisher adopted her from South Korea, just as they had her older brother.
Her name was inspired by a much older cousin.
“It seemed like a lovely name and a statement of the fact that she had brought a real joy into our lives,” Al said.
Al taught sociology at Coe College for 33 years, retiring in 2011. Ellen was a systems analyst for Cedar Rapids Schools.
Martin, her brother, came from a stable and loving foster family in Seoul.
Joy, however, was abandoned and then transitioned through a series of orphanages. She was hospitalized with malnutrition and became afraid of anybody in white uniforms.
Al and Ellen speculate that perhaps Joy’s lifelong separation anxiety and insomnia were a result of her tumultuous infancy.
Joy also was a restless daredevil. During her brother’s baseball games, she usually wandered off to climb a tree.
It wasn’t until college that she gravitated toward gyms.
She so loved animals — from African hissing cockroaches to giant snakes and bears — that she would have pursued veterinary medicine had she been a more rigorous student. She doubled majored in biology and art, graduating with the biology degree.
But her education didn’t lead to a clear path. Insecurity seemed to gnaw away inside Joy as she felt the pressure to establish a career.
Through their relationship and business, Monroe became more aware of Joy’s private anguish that she hid so well from the rest of the world. He even approached Joy’s parents with his concerns and encouraged her friends to reach out to her.
But Monroe realized it was hard for many in Joy’s circle to share his concern, because “she was always kind of looking like she was happy.”
Meanwhile, Moon had found her way to Elevate and had become an evangelist for the studio. She aspired to become Joy’s apprentice.
Moon still harbored unrealized dreams from childhood in which she had wanted to become a dancer, but it was her twin sister who took lessons and set down that path.
So Elevate became an empowering space for Moon as she learned under Joy.
Joy desperately wanted the studio to be successful enough to support her as a main occupation, but what her parents characterized as a pervasive depression set in.
She died alone Jan. 2 in a motel in Anamosa with a “do not disturb” sign hung on the doorknob — the opposite setting from the supportive, vibrant world of the gym that had been her ideal space.
When Ellen phoned her daughter’s room, a local police officer answered. Maybe an hour later, the Cedar Rapids police knocked on the Fishers’ door to officially tell them their daughter was dead.
It was a tragic end to a struggle in which Al and Ellen had tried everything they could imagine to support their daughter. There had been an earlier suicide attempt that Joy also never divulged in the gym.
And only after her death did Joy’s parents discover her journal from middle school in which she wrote about feeling utterly empty and without hope. Distraught, the parents shredded the notebook.
More than 400 mourners flocked to Joy’s memorial service, where her brother said his sister had told herself a lie — that she was unworthy of other people’s love and respect.
“I think she did not expect any relationship to last,” Ellen said.
A couple of months later, the clamor from Joy’s students led Monroe to reopen the gym. But the burden eventually became overwhelming.
‘Write or draw what makes you joyful’
When Moon got the phone call about Joy’s death, she had just returned from an acro yoga conference in San Diego, eager to share stories with her friend.
Her grief was so overwhelming that she couldn’t make it into work.
The year seemed ever more grim as Moon felt like the 2017 national news cycle became a frantic series of alarming headlines.
Aerial fitness had become an outlet that Moon desperately craved. It built on her high school experience as both a cross-country runner and thespian.
If she wanted to reclaim her Joy in more than one sense, the only option left seemed to be to become a producer and piece together her own circus.
“With most of the world at times seeming like a circus,” as she put it, “this is what I can do.”
Monroe told Moon that he was on board with his time and gym equipment if she could arrange rehearsal space.
As the fledgling troupe has emerged, Moon has realized that what they’re building is a safe space that “forces you to communicate” — with each other; with their audiences.
This has been therapeutic for her in more ways than one. After being sexually violated by a friend, Moon found herself flinching from casual touch.
But regular physical contact with her fellow circus performers, where clear boundaries were always respected, offered a surprising antidote for the trauma that pervaded her body. Sometimes a practice session ends with a cathartic cry.
American culture tends to prize independence, Moon said. But the circus creates a healthy interdependence.
This is meant to be a “noncompetitive inclusive environment,” Monroe added, a space for “meaningful authentic conversations.”
That makes all the more sense when you consider that Joy felt tortured by what she perceived as her lack of a professional career track.
In the wake of Joy’s death, Al and Ellen are moving to Baltimore to live near their son and his family, including a 2½-year-old granddaughter. Moon is shaping the collective into an official limited liability company.
At each performance, the circus provides a blank canvas for attendees with the prompt: “Write or draw what makes you joyful.”
Moon twists and dangles from the silks. Sometimes out of the corner of her eye she catches a glimpse of the tattoo of a bluebird on her right bicep.
It was inked there in blue and purple as another small memorial to Joy. The bird almost appears to flutter and take flight as Moon flexes.
The unfettered spirit of Joy — arguably her true nature — lives on with this circus.
“I juggled knives this weekend for the first time,” Moon remarked at the recent rehearsal.
Of course, she did. Moon and her fellow circus performers know that everyday life, like acrobatics, can put you in precarious positions.
Facing them in the gym (or in this case, sanctuary) may help you persevere when you leave.
The truth is that each of us sometimes hangs by a thread. It’s just easier to notice at the circus.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
Eastern Iowa Circus Collective upcoming events
- March 24 — Cirque Session: Learn to Juggle!, 3 to 3:45 p.m., Big Grove Brewery & Tap Room, 1225 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City.
- April 7 — Cirque Session: Costume and Prop Swap, 1 to 4 p.m., Eastern Iowa Circus Collective, 1200 Second Ave. S.E., Cedar Rapids.
- April 20 — Cirque Session: Learn to Slackline, 5 to 8 p.m., 6665 S.E. Otis Road, Cedar Rapids.
- May 5 — Cirque Session: Learn to Fire Eat!, noon to 5 p.m., Eastern Iowa Circus Collective, 1200 Second Ave. S.E., Cedar Rapids.
- May 6 — Cirque Session: Keep Calm and Learn to Hula Hoop, noon to 2 p.m., Big Grove Brewery & Tap Room, 1225 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City.
- June 9 — Circus Jam, Big Grove Brewery & Tap Room, 1225 S. Gilbert St., Iowa City.
Suicide signs, counseling:
Specialists say many suicides can be headed off through counseling.
Free help can be found by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255. Callers can get immediate help from a crisis specialist, and they can get referrals to local counseling. The group’s website is suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Counselors say people should seek help if they see these signs in themselves or others:
- Talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
- Seeking access to guns, pills or other suicide means.
- Talking or writing an unusual amount about death or dying.
- Feeling hopeless or trapped.
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger.
- Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities.
- Experts also say family and friends should try to limit access to guns by people who exhibit signs of serious depression.