On a flight from Chicago to Zurich, I discovered the fascinating depth of newspaper obituaries. They include such seemingly random details pertaining to the intricacies of lives recently past, as a writer I knew that this was valuable source material—you just don't make those things up. To combat the boredom of the nine-hour flight, I began converting the entries into haikus and other forms of metered verse. For instance:
Patrick and Percy,
both born eighteenth August, both
died twentieth May.
I became a little obsessed. I began collecting obituaries, composing dozens of haikus, be they single-stanza entries or dozen-lined epics. I thought perhaps I'd incorporate them into a photography project at some point and drifted off to something else.
When I inherited a cigar box full of negatives taken by my great-grandfather, I conceived of something I called the Chapters Project, which I visualized as a series of portrait paintings on oval canvasses that would include hand-sewn photo albums, each containing some of the photos taken of my vintage family mixed in with pictures I'd collected of other Ye Olde Schoole persons, the point being that the viewer would not know to whom I was related and, unless I double-checked, neither would I.
I was fascinated by the idea that we're so attached to some remnant of history, be it a name or an invention or an event, that we're told our ancestral lines attended to. My entire life, I've been asked if I'm related to "...THAT Booth." For years I never knew, and then about a decade ago I was informed by a family member that, yes, indeed, we are. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it doesn't really matter, does it? When I tell people that, according to my family, I am indeed related to the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln, as well as the founders of the oldest Shakespearean Theater company in America, there is a sense of wonder and fascination conferred upon me that I did nothing whatsoever to deserve except claim some old and shaky rumor. Yet it seduces us nonetheless.
Whilst looking through the photos of families almost certainly not related to me, I came upon the cache of post-mortem photos I collected the year previously when I thought my doctoral dissertation would deal with memory, mourning, and loss. I've long been fascinated by these images, final mementos of affection capturing the lately deceased in poses to suggest a sleep not nearly so final. But my topic changed and the photos were largely forgotten, and when I stumbled upon them again, my mind sped head-first into the obituary haikus I'd also set aside. These were such natural partners, my subconscious must have planned the entire scheme while I was (naturally) not paying attention.
But I mean, pictures of dead people, haikus based on articles of dead people—many years had past since I shed the teenage angst of inappropriate body piercings and coffin-shaped purses (*facepalm*). It wasn't the dead people that interested me as much as the lives implicated by the images, the words. Yet I knew next to nothing about who these individuals were, so I did what writers naturally do when they don't know something—I made it up.
I taped each photograph to a single sheet of paper, assigned each a name and a haiku, and I began inventing their lives. What did this young woman, so peacefully reposed upon a bed of lavish velvet, do for a living? Was she married? Did she have children? Where did she live? What were her secret, unyielding passions? What led to the cause of her death? Who remembers her? What remains?
It's that remainder I focused on—what is left when someone we dearly love departs? Some photos, clothing, possessions, a few letters, left-behind grocery lists and phone messages. Ephemera. Things. Stuff. So I began listing the stuff that might be associated with my inventions, and sometimes these items painted a clear picture of texture and form, depth and color. I assembled these items—photo, haiku, scraps of handwriting, a broken pair of glasses, a toy rocking horse, rosary beads, a magnifying glass, a pipe, a pacifier—onto scraps of redwood I had left over from the construction of a fence. I found redwood particularly appealing because it doesn't burn, per se. It charcoals. My abuse did need not be too light-handed.
I assembled and reassembled, coated in sheets of paint and Mod Podge, hammered and sewed and burned and burnished, until I had a few pieces near completion and at least 30 more designed and ready to go. I found the conversations in these assemblages quietly compelling, bearing dignity and confidence in the individuals I fashioned. My question was, and still is: are these lives any less real, have less of an impact, than those of the "actual" persons in the photographs about whom I know nothing? Are these identities inherently false, intrinsically of lesser value, because they did not live and breathe and love and die as I have here depicted them?
Is a fictional character worth less consideration, bear less of an emotional impact, because its details do not match those of someone who was once as tragically human as you and I? Do we relegate the characters of fiction this degraded status because we fear that, if we do not, our own lives are at risk? Our own memories? Our legacies?
Which brings me back to my rumination about The Girl Next Door. There I struggled with Jack Ketchum's depiction of a horrific act of American true-crime that felt, to me, like a back door exploitation. Is my work so different from his? If there is a difference, what is it? Where is it to be found? I feel in my heart that there is a difference—that my goals and my methods and my results bear little resemblance to Ketchum's, but again, it is the similarities that strike me in this quandary. I'm aware of what many of these details are, both in contrast and comparison, but it is the question itself, and its inevitable contemplation, that interests me. If I cannot perform this ethical autopsy upon myself, how can I recognize the tumors, lesions, and miracles in any Other?
Let the vivisection begin.