Alana Massey | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,448 words)
It is fitting that I was on my way to a museum filled with ghastly medical objects and oddities when I realized most of us are more haunted by the living than the dead. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is a medical history museum that houses such prized specimens as Einstein’s brain, conjoined fetuses in a jar, President Grover Cleveland”s jaw tumor, and an expansive wall case displaying Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection. I was on my way to the wedding of my friends Helena and Thomas, the kind of tender, brilliant oddballs so in love that I’d believe them both if they told me the other had hung the North Star or can understand the language of animals. The kind of people who get married in the Mütter Museum not because they necessarily want to, but because there are simply no other places so tastefully macabre yet oddly tender, befitting their nuptials. I don’t believe this about love but I do believe it about wedding venues: It isn’t a decision, it is destiny.
So it was not a happy or selfless thought for me to have, this one about hauntings, on the drive there. My thoughts were not in envy of the couple or of selfish indignation aimed at the attached generally; they were entirely about a love I’d recently lost. Fourteen days prior officially, but 31 days before if going by what really counts. My boyfriend of nearly two years and I had last seen each other on Monday, Aug. 21 in the morning when I dropped him off at the bus station to go back to New York from my house in the Catskills. On Aug. 22, without a fight or explanation or a breakup, he simply stopped responding to text messages.
There was ample proof of life: His name appeared on Google Hangouts and he’d make Instagram stories from time to time, and his friends reported no death on social media. I waited 17 days for a response until I couldn’t grit my teeth any longer and asked him why. Though no answer would likely satisfy me, he wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of offering an explanation for this particularly cruel tactic. He would not answer my phone call, forcing me to speak my piece and say my goodbyes over text. If you had asked me before this happened if you can get over a difficult text exchange in 14 days, I would have told you, “Absolutely.” I wouldn’t tell you that now.
I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.
This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?
Writing in LitHub, Alana Massey responds to Emily Gould’s essay on publishing’s “niceness” requirement for women to ask: what’s wrong with nice? Shouldn’t we ask men to be more nice, rather than giving women permission to be less so?
The idea that writers are good at writing and little else perpetuates a mythology that we are special creatures whose agility with language renders us more deeply attuned to the human condition than others and therefore exempt from doing the bare minimum: answering questions in full sentences at industry events and talking about our work when we are, indeed, at work. It is the decency of returned emails and speaking to your tablemates at a party thrown to honor you. Such decency is demanded in every other profession on Earth besides being a Real Housewife or playing in the NHL, and I don’t think that just because the men in our industry eschew this in favor of offensive levels of self-regard makes it courageous or authentic in women. This decency need not be the over-indulgence of cookies or new friendships on demand, but a manifestation of that thing we are allegedly so good at: seeing the human condition and responding to it with just enough tenderness to connect but not attach.
Definitions of grace have been refined and amended often over the centuries. Many understandings of it bleed into one another in the human imagination, mixing with emotions and resulting in grace being looked at often less as a matter of doctrine than of nostalgia. But the catechism defines grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” Grace manifests as both God’s disposition and God’s action; it is an atmosphere of salvation for humanity to dwell in, but can quickly be made manifest and intervene in human affairs.
Flannery O’Connor recognized our failure to identify grace when she wrote, “Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them.” I read this line in my early twenties when I was making my way through O’Connor’s collected works and intentionally widened my gaze in search of grace at work. I imagined it as a substance that blanketed creation, an unearned pardon on top of an already abundant and generous gift rendered invisible by being taken for granted. It was like the Dark Matter taking up most of the universe, or even the carbon particles in our own corner of the galaxy, but if I watched closely enough, I could see it act on objects.
—Alana Massey, in a wonderful essay about losing faith while at divinity school that appeared on Hazlitt.