Saturday, February 13, 2010

Haunted by Photos of the Dead 1.

In order to spare people great lumps of text I've broken the following into smaller sections which I shall eventually post in full but in pieces.


My mother, now in her ninetieth year, told me yesterday that she had hurt her hand. She had been walking through the hallway to her bedroom when she accidentally knocked it against the doorknob. She must have hit it hard because the top layer of skin came off and it was bleeding. When she looked at it more closely she realised that not only had she knocked off the top layer of skin but also the wound was deep. She could see her tendons down to the bone. She took herself to the office in the home where she lives in the hope that a nurse would be on duty.

The staff took one look at my mother’s hand and called an ambulance. My mother thought this unnecessary. She would have happily called a taxi. Still the ambulance came and took her to the clinic where they patched her up. They could not give her stitches because the skin on her hand was too thin. ‘It would tear,’ they said. Instead they pulled a series of tiny strips across the wound, and then bandaged it tight.

‘It hurts a little when I move it in particular ways,’ my mother said, ‘but I can tell it’s healing.’

I had rung to ask my mother a question about the past. I wanted to ask her about the photo of her dead baby, her first-born daughter who had died during the Honger winter of 1945 in Heilo, Holland. I was curious to know how the photo had come about.

My curiosity has been flamed by two books, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination and the other, Jay Ruby’s Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, a transcript on the nature of post-mortem photography in America, which includes several photos of dead people. A friend recommended the first book; the second, I found by accident in a used books shop. I could not leave the photographs behind.

Gordon is interested in the notion of the things behind things, the things that lie beneath. She takes notice of the thoughts that haunt her even as she is trying as a sociologist to do research on something concrete and ostensibly evident. Whereas Ruby is concerned to ask questions about why we have become so afraid of death, at least in the western world that we no longer take photos of our loved ones after death as mementos, or if we do take photos, they are kept private, not shared with the public, for fear that the owners might be considered ghoulish. (Ruby, 1995, p. 161)

I struggle to understand why so many things have become unspeakable, that it gets harder and harder to remember. But these days my mother’s memory for certain past events has a sharpness and clarity it never had before. My mother’s thin skin is a sign to me that soon she will be gone and with it her voice, I must catch her memories before it is too late, even as her memories are full of gaps and shadows. I will hitch her memories to mine and look for signs in between, look for the haunting to uncover something of her past.

I follow in Gordon’s direction. She describes how one day she was on her way to a conference to present a paper. She does not spell out the topic but how she had found herself distracted away from her topic by thoughts of a woman whose image she had discovered as ‘missing’ from the photo of a conference group in Berlin several years ago. According to Gordon’s research, the woman, Sabina Spielrein should have been present in that photo, but she was not there. Spielrein is a little known psychoanalyst from Freud’s day, little known despite the fact that she was the first to hypothesise on the nature of the death instinct.

My mother is describing her wounded hand and I cringe at the thought that her skin is so thin it cannot withstand a simple knock, the sort of knock that would leave most of us with a red mark, at best; a bruise, at worst.

‘They peeled the skin back over the hole,’ my mother said. ‘It had rolled itself up and they dragged it back over the wound.’ The image left me squeamish. Why do we wince when people describe their injuries, their own or another’s injuries in graphic detail?

In time I asked my mother the question that had prompted my phone call. She could not remember who took the photo, but she suspected it was the neighbour of her cousin in whose house she had been staying. She told me again the story she has told me many times before, always at my instigation. When I was little I wondered that she could stay dry-eyed in the telling. She seemed so calm, when I had imagined that were I the mother of a dead baby I would find it hard to go on living.

‘It is harder’, my mother said in this most recent conversation to lose an older child. ‘When a child dies so young, you have fewer memories. It takes far less time to get over it.’

For my mother, memories keep the idea of her lost child alive but given that this baby was only five months old, her life so short, there are few memories attached to her.

Still there was a catch in my mother’s voice as she spoke to me over the phone, as if she were re-remembering the feeling of her loss all that time back.

As long as I can remember my mother has checked herself; kept her tears to herself; put a full stop onto her feelings by offering some trite homily, some staving-off comment:
‘Well, that was that. No use dwelling on these things.’
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