Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The recent photos of a man about to die under the wheels of a subway have provoked an intensified version of the same question that underlies much of our lives today:  what is public and what is private?   Should death be shared, as in the death of major world leaders?  Or should it be private?  Which is the more privileged, public mourning for a famous and significant person, or the quiet, unquestioned release of a hidden passing?

It’s not “just” death but also disease and financial matters.  The public cannot seem to grasp that if they send messages on Facebook (which many use to tell their family intimate things) major organizations are converting into statistics about medicines, savings practices,  shopping, job worries, criminal liability, and other subjects most folks keep private.  Don’t worry, these monitors say, it’s only statistics.  But that’s what IS worrying -- that we lose our individual identities and become only a thumb-vote in a world where winner-takes-all.

It used to be that there was a mediating ground, a protocol of propriety and ceremony that shaped our responses to some things.  We would never have had to think about a princess suffering from hyperemesis.  Today not even Chavez or Castro can keep their afflictions private.  But should they?  Doesn’t world peace, let alone the stock market, depend upon the likelihood of their fates?

I have several correspondents who convey big trouble only by going silent.  They tell me it’s because all their energy is going into coping with the emergency.   Or they tell me that they hate to convey bad news -- or maybe, more honestly, they dread my response being inappropriate or blaming.  There are family members who don’t even tell me of deaths, maybe saying to themselves that I don’t care, that I haven’t kept in touch for years.  Or maybe my distance and my realm of operation is so different from theirs that they simply don’t consider me connected emotionally -- gone, emigrated, forsaking.

Before my mother died, she complained bitterly that she would go to a meeting (mostly retired teachers) and discover that someone significant to her had died months or even years earlier.  When she herself died, I sent out black-bordered announcements in the Victorian manner.  About half came back: addressee unknown.   My brother, more practical, sat down at the phone with her address book and called people.  Many names had already been crossed off -- she was 89 -- but even so he discovered numbers were disconnected with no explanation.

It happens that I have connections with people working to help youngsters who exist in the secret crannies of society.  No one recorded their births, they never attended schools, they would be lucky to be taken to emergency when they are sick or hurt, they have been bought and sold one way or another.  And so their deaths also go unrecorded, unnoted -- especially the little ones whose bones are not calcified enough to remain as skeletal evidence.  They simply go into the debris of the culture.

I wrote one of “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” to confront gender assumptions: a “woman” whose corpse must be dealt with turns out to have been a man.  Usually the stories go the other way -- a “man” who was really a woman, because in times of danger or for a person who cannot tolerate the confinement of women’s lives, the greater advantage is on the male side.  The story hinges on an early 19th century convention -- freedom of gender role choice in traditional Blackfeet society -- confronted by members of later white society that allowed no choice.  Death can unmask, which may be why CSI shows fascinate us.

Some diseases are so stigmatized that those who suffer hide them.  My great-grandmother was so shamed by breast cancer that she wasn’t treated until the smell made the lesion obvious.  Euthanasia has always been practiced quietly and respectfully -- no need to go to court and bare oneself by asking for physician assistance.

Do we really want to know everything?  I used to think so.  I had the idea that if all were known, all would be explained, and we could address the problems in order to solve them.  But now I know that too much is inexplicable, that there are too many predicaments in which one doesn’t have any way -- or maybe any desire -- to assuage. We talk about the necessity of closure and get restless if people grieve “too much”, but some things are too grievous to ever be “closed” by ceremonies.  No one knows how to respond because there is no effective response.

One of the most famous and dramatic episodes of “Homicide” was about Andre Braugher’s character accompanying a man into death, under circumstances much like those of the recent photographed subway death.  The writer was using the trope of the death bed/last minutes of life and the humanity of being accompanied, even by a stranger.  But not everyone feels that or the need for it.  Why do so many of us want to look at that photo of a doomed man?  What does it tell us?  Many want to know more about the man’s life and some try to guess how the photographer might have prevented the death.  We don’t always realize there had to be a photographer present. In this instance there were many people.

Another famous photo brings up in discussion the starving baby with a vulture only a few feet away.  Why didn’t the photographer act to drive off the scavenger?  (We couldn’t see that the baby was actually part of a group waiting outside a tent where a clinic was operating and would soon be treated.)   Perhaps that’s what photographs do: draw all our attention to a suffering individual in a nearly animal sympathy, but shut out everything else that is a rational response to the “big picture,” like the many who are trapped in famine caused by something that cannot be photographed except in metaphor.

The clever college sophomore wants to know whether such photos of misery aren’t just a way of congratulating ourselves for our superior lives and good luck.  We look and then we turn away, back to our busy schedules.  Maybe we’ll write a check to some NGO.  But what is the alternative?  Will a photo make stony bureaucrats repent?

I believe images can trigger change, but the price paid is that then all of us must face the heart of darkness that is not in Africa, but at home.  The images become tattooed on the insides of our eyelids.  Some venues did use their articles to recommend ways to try to survive if someone pushes you onto subway tracks and also noted changes in design of the tracks that seem to help.  People DO survive.  No photos.

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