In her new column, Corpus, Jordan Kisner examines the stories our bodies tell.
I saw a lot of dead bodies in 2018. I was researching a story about medical examiners, and in so doing inadvertently saw autopsies and death scenes and the inside and outside of a lot of corpses. It was an entirely different kind of encounter with the human form for me: so many opened rib cages, sculptural and bloody, and so many surprises. There is a delicate bone shaped like a horseshoe hidden in the cartilage at the throat. The uterus, fierce red, is startlingly pretty when lifted into the light. The dura mater, a membrane that sheaths our brain and spinal cord, clings so stubbornly to the inside of the skull that you need a tool like a chisel to scrape it out. The empty skull echoes. Skin eventually turns colors, swells, splits, peels back like curled paper.
What does a person still living inside her body do with this knowledge? What does a body mean? Nearly all of the corpses, at the moment I saw them, were in a medical examiner’s office, where the bodies are kept naked, toe-tagged, and supine, arranged on metal gurneys. Any clothing or belongings they arrived with rests in brown bags beside them. There’s a standardization to bodies kept in the morgue—the body becomes an item that has entered a bureaucratic system in order to be organized, studied, catalogued, and released. Corpses in this context are something like people, but they are also like books in a library.
Occasionally I saw a body before it had been processed, and turned into so neutral an artifact. In particular, there was a night when I went to the home of a woman who had died on the floor of her bedroom. I had been on standby that evening—if a death investigator was notified that he needed to go out to a death scene and collect a body, he would call me first and I would go, too. I was hanging around my rented room and keeping an eye on my cell phone, waiting for someone in that particular city to die. This woman was the first one that evening, and so I got into the investigator’s car and we drove together to a quiet residential block lit by swirling blue and red.
The situation at the woman’s house was everything the morgue was not; it was filthy, there was horror, people were having feelings all over the place. The house itself was falling apart and the interior was crammed with garbage. The EMS team hadn’t had enough space to work on her in her bedroom (and they’d been worried about catching fleas or bedbugs) so they’d moved her outside. There were six or ten dogs running around. The policemen on the scene immediately began reciting the story as they’d heard it from the woman’s family: like plenty of other people who lived in the area, which is a food desert, the woman was malnourished, which led to type 2 diabetes, which led to illness requiring pain medication, which led to addiction, which led to street drugs, which led to heart and liver problems and every other kind of problem, which led to rehab, which led to surgeries to fix the various organ problems and complications, which led more rehab, and on and on. It seemed possible that she’d been killed by an infection in her gaping surgical wound, but the investigator thought that she’d managed to find drugs in the few hours since coming home from the hospital and had overdosed. He referred her for an autopsy to be sure.
The autopsy is a storytelling exercise: in the absence of sure information, it is the job of the medical examiner to excavate the story of your death. “Every body tells a story,” forensic pathologists like to say. “It tells the story you can’t tell yourself.” Without conclusive evidence about what happened, the body will speak. In the case of this woman, the autopsy would confirm whether she died of an overdose, an infection, a heart attack, or something else.
One rule of an autopsy is that you shouldn’t stop when you think you’ve found a cause of death. The autopsy is intended to be the complete record of a body at a particular moment in time—all of its dimensions, markings, defects, and attributes. “Oh! He had rheumatic fever when he was a kid,” the doctor said of one, gesturing for me to come look at a tiny bit of scar tissue in the heart of a woman in her fifties. Another time, a doctor gestured at an X-ray showing that an elderly lady had dozens of healed rib fractures. She likely fell a lot. She likely lived alone long after she shouldn’t have.
This is something I never knew before: that experience is inscribed in the body at the deepest level. I knew about scars and premature graying and sunspots, appearance as a reflection of habit and experience, the residual effects of injury or illness that can permanently reshape the way a body moves and looks. But our veins, too! Even the arches of our feet; even which of our joints swell with arthritis. Once, a forensic anthropologist told me the gender, age, diet, socioeconomic background, basic medical history, and likely country of origin of a skeleton based on his teeth alone. In this sense the body is an artifact but it is also an archive.
Derrida wrote that the archive functions like a prosthesis for memory—it begins at the point where memory fails and, as dancer and scholar Linda Haviland summarizes, “provide[s] a substrate onto which the act of remembering could be consigned and further be retrieved, reproduced, or reiterated in some way.” The archive requires, according to Derrida, “a certain exteriority,” a place other than the self to hold information and memory. Historically, we’ve thought of this as a real structure, a space set apart to safeguard whatever has been chosen to survive time. “No archive without outside.”
But what is “outside,” he asks. There is, even within our own minds, “an internal substrate, surface, or space” onto and into which experience can be imprinted and archived even after it is forgotten. Haviland suggests that the body is a crucial component of this interior-exterior: a “sentient archive.” By this logic, the body carries the self and perhaps is the self but also holds within it someplace, other than the self. Some of what is lost to memory lives there.
The encounter with the woman who died on the floor of her bedroom, more than any of the others, sent me into a rictus of anger, or grief, that persisted even after the reporting trip ended. Until that point, I’d been more or less holding it together, but afterward all the bodies I saw lost the relative sterility of the morgue, where everyone is without context. Her death seemed too specific—I’d seen her bras on the carpet and her sons’ faces when they politely asked the death investigator for permission to see her before she was taken away—and too generic, too much a product of impersonal systems, too like a routine news item. Suddenly I was full of rage for the babies in the autopsy suite, the teenage suicides, the overdoses, everyone. All I could see in the mirror or in other people was the body as it eventually becomes—the familiar and beloved made strange, grotesque, helpless, architectural, rotted, lifeless. Everyone I saw, I pictured on the autopsy table. I tried not to be weird about it, but I avoided the butcher counter at the grocery store.
A complication of considering the body as an archive is that traditionally archives are curated by an authority that decides what is worth including and knows what is inside it. But most of what inscribes our bodies is out of our control. No one authority affects our childhood nutrition, national origin, and regional location, our scars, illnesses, basic features, or the habits and circumstances of our communities. We never even see the vast majority of our own apparatus. And yet the sense that we have—or should have—primary agency over our own bodies is so powerful. We protect that sense legally, manipulate it for profit, celebrate those who exemplify it, teach it to our children. Thinking of the body as a sentient archive admits the tension that we are both inscribed upon and the inscriber.
It took a few months for the vivid memories of corpses to fade, but they did. Mercifully, I stopped picturing people on the autopsy table. I thought less often of the little old lady with the broken ribs and the baby who died in a grease fire. Little flashes still came here and there, mostly of particularly gruesome things, but less often. I let myself forget and was grateful.
Most of what is recorded by the body remains a mystery to us. We cannot know which experiences will leave a trace and which will vanish, as the body itself eventually does. This is something I think about when I go to acupuncture. Tension or pain my body has stowed away beyond my conscious awareness are surfaced and eased. I started going a few years ago for TMJ, or painful jaw tension, which has come and gone with periods of stress ever since I was a teenager. A muscle in my jaw was spasming with such force that when I lay flat on my back, my neck started to shake, like a child’s hand refusing to let go. The first acupuncturist’s name was Elizabeth Bishop. (There was also an acupuncturist by the name of Sonntag at this establishment, but I chose Elizabeth Bishop. Acupuncturists as a group seem to have spectacular names.)
I laid on my back on a folding table and was scolded gently for not having taken my socks off. “Breathe,” Elizabeth Bishop commanded, and I tried to comply. When she put a needle in the crown of my head I realized a system of muscles on my scalp had been pulling my jaw tight; it all released at once. After the first session, my jaw pain went away and didn’t return for months.
Recently, I went to see a new acupuncturist, a woman named Molly Beverage. She was warm and calm, and her office was furnished with comfortable chairs and smelled strongly of essential oils. This acupuncture, though, was more intense than anything I was used to—every needle contracted a muscle so powerfully that I had to draw deep breaths to keep from yelping.
There’s a particular pain to acupuncture when it hurts, which isn’t always. The needle doesn’t sting, but it can make the muscle underneath it contract and throb before it releases. It’s not frightening pain, but it is mysterious. I noticed early on that different needles ache depending on where my mind wanders. When I think about work, certain needles light up with pain—the fleshy muscle between the thumb and forefinger. When I am angry, the needle sticking out of my sternum howls and throbs. Then it passes.
About twenty minutes into the session with Molly Beverage, around the time that the aching was beginning to let up, I smelled death. The room filled with the smell of the woman on the floor, of the morgue, of the autopsy suite. It’s a horrible, absolutely singular smell. Where was it coming from? My head was down in the donut-shaped pillow, and from that limited vantage point I started scanning the floor for dead mice. After the session was over and I got up and looked around, disturbed, convinced there must be a dead animal somewhere. Nothing was there. I thanked Molly and left. It wasn’t until we got in the car that I turned to my partner, who’d received acupuncture in the same room. “There was something dead in the room,” I said. “How could you concentrate?”
She looked at me blankly. Her nose is noticeably and reliably better than mine, but she hadn’t smelled anything at all.
Jordan Kisner’s writing has appeared in n+1, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, the Guardian, The American Scholar, and The New Yorker, among other publications. Her debut essay collection, Thin Places, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March.