What I’m Learning From A Giant Stack of Obituaries

This week of archival work has left me with a lot to process, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s going to take a long time to sort through everything that I found, both in the archives and within myself. Especially after reading other people’s diaries all day long, I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps, so if you aren’t into navel-gazing, you may want to skip this entry. Actually, just skip the whole blog.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you never know what you’re going to find when you do archival work. I went to the NYPL specifically looking for information about ACT UP’s political funerals, and I found surprisingly little on them. What I didn’t expect to find—or, more accurately, didn’t expect to spend much time or energy on—was obituaries, the vast majority of which were not published in newspapers.

Turns out, I’m bringing home hundreds of them. They don’t fit neatly into my dissertation as originally conceived, so I suspect they are going to become the foundation of a separate journal article. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to rationalize spending a full day (and a lot of my own money) printing obituaries I may never use.

I’m increasingly unconvinced of, and borderline hostile to, the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the professional, and this trip—these obituaries—added a new dimension to my argument. Yes, these are incredible sources, and I think they’ve been underused. They are fascinating to me, and I think my work will benefit from analyzing them, but the fact is, I didn’t need to print every obituary in the archive. Examples would have been sufficient, but no, I just had to print them all.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

I could marshal up an argument that I need all the available evidence blah blah blah, but the fact is, there’s just something about these obituaries. They’re pieces of paper printed from microfilm, and the images are all far too blurry to use in an article, but they radiate pain and grief in a way that’s hard to describe. You have to hold them in your hands yourself. The truth is, I printed every obituary because I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

There’s nothing I can do for the men and women whose obituaries I’m flying home with—I have no illusions that my work will bring them back to life, or change the way we remember (or, in far too many cases, don’t remember) them. I’m completely aware that I only have access to the obits somebody cared enough to preserve, that there are thousands upon thousands of folks who died of AIDS during the same time period, in the exact same city, that didn’t get memorialized on microfilm. I know I’m nobody’s hero, and I like to think that I’m not in the business of writing recovery narratives (think “golden moment” history). Still. It’s about respect.

Historians have feelings, and this week has been a somber one for me. That’s a good thing. I study a horrendous moment in American history, and I chose perhaps the most depressing and gruesome aspect of that moment (the political uses of the dying and dead PWA body). Sometimes I worry that I must be seven different kinds of crazy to even be interested in such a morbid topic, and I frequently worry that there’s something borderline inhumane about being so fascinated by the topic. Trips like this one are important for me, because they remind me that I do in fact find this subject matter deeply upsetting.

I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can’t get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

That’s part of the reason I reject the personal/professional binary. Certainly there are those out there who claim to be “objective,” who pride themselves on their knack for dispassionate narratives, but theirs are never the books I enjoy reading. I want to read books by historians who care deeply about their subject, who respond viscerally to their sources, who are motivated by something greater than mere curiosity. You don’t need an extended autobiographical forward to know when somebody’s truly dedicated to their topic. That kind of passion leaps off the page. I want my words to leap off the page too, even though I know it’s going to make my academic AND personal life much more complicated. Making my word leap off the page means confronting death in a way I never anticipated, in a way that is equal parts gloomy and terrifying.

This wasn’t the plan going into graduate school.

So I’m bizarrely thrilled by my expensive collection of obituaries, because it is a tangible reminder that analytical distance is a choice I can make, not a facet of my personality. I’m leaving New York ecstatic about being sad, because it means that I have the heart to write this story. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suspect it’d mean I was evil, a robot… or both.

I may still be an evil robot, but if I am, I’m an evil robot that’s been programmed to never leave anybody behind.

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