The Last Word


Arts & Culture

The conundrum of writing about the dead.


Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. Sunlight filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: After all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen, as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation.

A very different decision was made with another photograph from World War II: a picture of five sisters and a brother, ages four to twelve, lying side by side. The girls wear nightgowns, ribbons are strung in their hair, and they are all apparently fast asleep. Except they are not asleep—they are dead. They are Goebbels’s children. Their parents killed them with cyanide capsules in the führerbunker at the end of the war. The Soviets arrived at the führerbunker the next day, took the picture, and then held onto it. What to do with a picture like this? It presents an incompressible narrative: the poster children of the Third Reich and the Aryan race reconfigured in a morbid death tableau that is, at first glance, beautiful. The children are nestled together, tranquil.

For a long time, the Soviets did not release the picture. They were even more flummoxed by what to do with the children’s bodies. They kept their graves’ whereabouts unknown for years, exhuming them several times until the seventies, when they cremated them and cast their ashes in Biederitz River. The photograph of the dead children, like their bodies, was a powerful, worthy secret.

Those who write about the dead face a similar conundrum: not only whether but how we should portray them. There seems to be an unspoken code, but it’s vague, nothing more than an urging to tread carefully. The code, if it exists at all, is an acknowledgment that those who write about the dead wield tremendous power—power that is largely uncontested. The dead can’t call up and contradict you; they can offer no alternate story. There is only interpretation and the potential to mangle. The people who write about the dead are playing with the only thing the dead have left—the stories we tell about them. Ours is the power of the last word.

Legally speaking, the dead have no rights. In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s book about the handling and mishandling of the various Sylvia Plath biographies, Malcolm writes that “the dead cannot be libeled or slandered.” This may be true in a court of law, but in the court of the conscience we are more conflicted. We care deeply about the narrative fates of the dead. A tombstone engraved SYLVIA PLATH HUGHES was defaced three times to remove the name Hughes in the eighties, likely by feminist activists who blamed her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, for her suicide. It was a seizure of the Plath-Hughes narrative, a demand that everyone see the story on the activist-defacers’ terms. But to imagine that the activists did what they did for Plath is patently absurd. The stories we tell about the dead are not told for their sake—we tell stories for the living. Perhaps the activists meant their actions as a message to Hughes, who, as the head of Plath’s estate, was the arbiter of her narrative; they didn’t like the story he was telling. They sent a message to the public, too, about patriarchy. But they didn’t send a message to Plath, who is, in a way, irrelevant: anything she suffered is over.

The lack of rights for the deceased has frightening implications for the living. One day we’ll all be absent, with no control over our stories, whether they’re told by granddaughters, biographers, or no one. We spend our entire lives constructing the story of ourselves; the thought of someone dismantling our version is alarming.

When we are anxious to preserve the memory of the dead, whether through biographies or photographs, it’s because some irrational part of us believes they see what we are doing and disapprove—as if, somehow, the naked Jews standing in the field in Sniatyn could come back, ashamed, and ask us to look away. Some childlike part of me does not believe in death, cannot comprehend the idea that anyone is ever really gone.

This unnerving feeling of being watched by the dead comes from the sense that this picture belongs to them—that we own the representations of ourselves. But the stories of the dead do not belong to them. In a sense, the stories didn’t belong to them even when they were alive. Malcolm writes that “we do not own the facts of our lives at all. The ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed.” There is something elegant, egalitarian, even liberating about this: the story of us belongs to no one, least of all ourselves.

People who portray the dead choose which details are worthy of exposition, which merit omission, and which are essential. But any effort toward true comprehensiveness is doomed. Plath had so many selves that she warranted several biographies, with more sure to come. Goebbels’s children were not just the children of the Nazi propaganda minister, one of the twentieth century’s most reviled criminals—they were also just children. Just before their mother led them upstairs to their deaths, one of the daughters, four-year-old Heide, stopped in the doorway and said, giggling, to Rochus Misch, the bunker switchboard operator, Misch, Misch du bist ein fisch, “Misch, Misch you are a fish.” The naked men in the Nazi photograph led entire lives in which their humiliating final walk was just a moment. People do not conform easily to stories, but when they’re dead, nothing we say can touch them. They’re forever relieved of the burden of caring. And the living are burdened with the task of weighing which details matter and which are unnecessarily degrading—if only because we would want the same for ourselves.

I’m writing a book about Barbara Newhall Follett, who vanished without a trace in 1939. If she were alive, she would be 101 years old—so chances are that if she lived beyond 1939, she is now dead. Still, I find myself somehow held back by the knowledge that she could, technically, be alive.

One night, I had a dream that I woke up and found her standing by my bed, watching me while I slept. In the dream, she was the age she was when she vanished, just shy of twenty-six. I looked away for a moment and she was gone, replaced by two perfect white circles that appeared to be fading. I don’t search for meaning in my dreams, but I had to try to tease this one out. It had something to do with the conundrum of writing about the dead. Newhall Follett is locked in the age she was when she vanished, just as, in Malcolm’s words, “Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage over Hughes’s unfaithfulness.” The wrinkle in Newhall Follett’s case is that she could come back, however unlikely her return might be. But she is as silent as the dead are, just as ephemeral, just as hard to grab onto. I am asleep and vulnerable, she is watching me, judging me, and when I try to see her, I can’t. The white circles might be perfect truth, impossible and fading fast.

Laura Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her book The Art of Vanishing will be out in March 2017.