At UCLA’s Donated Body Program, Dean Fisher uses a device to dissolve the dead bodies of donors. This alkaline hydrolysis machine, called the “Resomator,” turns bodies into liquid and pure white bone, which is then pounded and scattered at sea. Compared to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is better for the environment, yet the process is currently only legal in the U.K. and in 14 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Is this the machine that could disrupt the death industry?
The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.
Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.
At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.
I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.
This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.
Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.
A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.
For two years I’ve been walking into the tall grass to take snapshots of this field at the top of the “crooked mile,” a winding hill that leads into the shallow valley of swamp and stream in which my house stands, just past the sign that reads pavement ends. I use my phone. I want the rough eye. The note. The diary. The record. The document. This time, this moment, unplanned.
This moment: stopped on the drive home from another trip to the hospital. One of many during the past two weeks, after two heart attacks, or maybe it was only one, rising and falling like a tide, across thirty hours. It began as night fell, as I wrote what I thought were the last words of a book I had begun two years before, following my father’s heart attack. Mine, like his, was “mild.” I’m told the pain can be instantly alarming. Not for me. I had been hitting snooze on this pain for months. Maybe years. Doing so was easy. It was only an ache, or sometimes a ripple, weak as chamomile, never sharper than nettles. That is, I did not know it was a heart attack. Then, after midnight, my chest began to fill as if with heavy water. My breath was cut into small and ragged pieces. I was being pressed, as if by a hard hand, back into the rocking chair in which I sat until dawn.
Waiting for the words to return. I’ve always had words, sentences that knitted themselves, paragraphs that fell into place. Always there was language, easy as air. I used to love a line by Catullus: “Calling all syllables!” They’d come. Now they don’t. I’m not sure I need them to. Even a snapshot of the dark-that-isn’t-dark-at-all might be more than I want to set down. Never before in my life has just being here—with the fox and the doe and the owl, with my pulse and my fears and the frozen air hot in my throat—felt so close to enough.
A few months back, I was invited to take part in a program for ABC television called “You Can’t Ask That.” The premise of the show is that there are taboo subjects about which it is difficult to have an open and honest conversation, death being one of them. The producer of the program explained that I would be required to answer a number of questions on camera. She said questions had been sent in from all over the country, and the ten most common had been selected. I wasn’t to know what these were until the day I went into the studio for the filming.
It turned out that the producer of the program herself had a need to talk about death, as she had recently lost her father to cancer, and was struggling to cope. This is so often the case with people I talk to about my situation: they listen for a while, then they tell me their own death story, but always with a vague sense that it is shameful, that the whole sorry business is somehow their fault. In taking part in “You Can’t Ask That,” I wanted to do my bit to change things around, to win back some dignity for the dying, because I don’t think silence serves the interests of any of us.
The questions, as it turned out, were unsurprising. Did I have a bucket list, had I considered suicide, had I become religious, was I scared, was there anything good about dying, did I have any regrets, did I believe in an afterlife, had I changed my priorities in life, was I unhappy or depressed, was I likely to take more risks given that I was dying anyway, what would I miss the most, how would I like to be remembered? These were the same questions I’d been asking myself ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 2005. And my answers haven’t changed since then. They are as follows.
Kate Axelrod | Longreads | July 2017 | 8 minutes (2,056 words)
I sat in the Emergency Room with my grandmother on a cool night last June. Hours earlier, Sadie had stood up from the couch too quickly and fallen. She and my mother had been waiting at the hospital for much of the day. Sadie was bored but wouldn’t complain except to be dismissive of her own pain. This is all so dumb, she’d said when I arrived. I’m really fine, so unnecessary for you to come all the way uptown for this. On the gurney next to her, a woman with a British accent sat erect, and asked continuously for the lighting to be alternately dimmed and then brightened, as though she were both the star and director of a one woman show.
Earlier, an X-ray had confirmed that Sadie had fractured her pelvis, but we were waiting for an MRI to see how bad the damage was. At ninety, Sadie was in fairly good shape; she hadn’t been in the hospital since giving birth to my aunt in the mid-1950s, but she had chronic pain in her right knee and had lost much of her vision to macular degeneration. More often than not, she was her ordinary astute and thoughtful self, but there were also moments of confusion and repetition, and resentment about growing old. Just a few weeks before she fell, she told me she wanted to do something, anything. She suggested to my grandfather that they volunteer in the neonatal unit of a hospital; to cradle abandoned infants in their soft, creased arms.
I sat on the edge of her gurney and smoothed my fingers against her wrist, which seemed newly delicate. My brother arrived and read her poetry from the most recent New Yorker. He has the most beautiful voice, Sadie whispered. Hours passed. I played her a guided meditation on my phone. We closed our eyes together and tried to just be, but after a few minutes we were both restless and I shut it off.
“What if I have to stay over at the hospital and Grandpa never forgives me?” she asked.
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is one of those books people collect in multiples, saving extra copies to give to friends. I used to joke about handing it out in place of Halloween candy. Fortunately, Johnson wrote so much more: two collections of plays, three books of poetry, two short story collections, nine novels, a novella, and a book of reportage. He was dedicated to his vision of the writing life and embraced the mystery of the creative process with his students. After his death on May 24, there was an outpouring of appreciation for Johnson’s life and work from readers and writers, students and friends. We’ve asked for further thoughts from some of the people he reached through his books, his friendship, and the classes he led at various universities. We hope this collection adds further warmth and insight into the extraordinary work Denis Johnson gave to the world. —Aaron Gilbreath
Denis Johnson’s editor, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In the end, for me at least, Denis was unknowable. We worked together in two different phases on a lot of books, but somehow I always felt he was over there and I was over here. It didn’t seem personal, more existential. He had a genial surface, a sunniness and generosity and humor that were joyful to experience. Who wouldn’t have loved basking in that warmth? But other waters were always running in Denis, and I don’t think many people, except his wife Cindy, got a look into them
Our work together was usually easy. Denis wasn’t interested in editorial intervention, nor did he need it. But I learned that he could take what might have been an offhand remark much too deeply to heart. I believe Denis was greatly vulnerable always, and I suspect this was part of why he kept his distance from the saturnalia of literary life.
Denis told his students at Iowa that they should want to be Shakespeare, the only thing for a writer to want. That he certainly wanted it for himself and his work — not only in fiction and poetry, but in journalism and drama — shows the relentless drive of his ambition. Ambition is the noblest quality a writer can have. Fighting all the impediments to it, internal and outward, is the writer’s daily task. Jesus’ Son is about the force of addiction and the only thing that can overmaster it: the ecstatic experience of God. Train Dreams is about solitude. I think it’s arguable that these books, which are among his great achievements, speak to two poles of his experience. Readers will keep coming to them always, which tells you that here, as elsewhere, he hit the nail on the head.
Novelist, essayist, cultural critic
Denis was gentle, funny, good-hearted; a sweet, impish, and concerned man. You wanted to be around him. Maybe because in his early years he lost time to drugs, he felt life was precious. You felt that reading him, felt it being near him.
I was fortunate to meet Denis in 2011 in Kyoto. We were doing a week-long gig together. Riyo Niimoto, a writer and journalist, was teaching at the Kyoto University for Art and Design where he had recently started the first MFA writing program in Japan. He wanted Denis and me to discuss our writing with Japanese novelists and our experiences teaching in MFA programs. Denis hadn’t visited Japan since he was eight or nine, when his family lived there for a few years. He was full of joy retrieving Japanese words, pieces of his childhood. He was writing about it in his mind, you could see that. Denis embraced every experience, he was always observing life, and his beautiful sentences rose and fell with its rhythms.
Writing was everything to Denis. Writing and his wife, Cindy, his children, his close friends, they were his life. He had no time for bullshit. Award-winning, acclaimed, sure, but Denis was resolutely straight ahead. Writing was a calling, not a career.
I didn’t know Denis’s cancer had come back. We were talking by email about friends’ dying. His last sentences to me, sent on April 10: “Another day this side of the grass — I’ll take it. And it’s the only day there ever was — today. Every breath is sweet. Love, DJ.” It kills me — this glorious, graceful man gone from our world. A magnificent American writer. One of our best, ever. Denis Johnson had it all, and he took it to the limit.
Painter, professor at the Yale School of Art
FEAR NOT are the words inscribed across the pinnacle of James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. In 1982, DJ and I drove from Florida to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC to see the throne. DJ had become obsessed with Hampton’s work after hearing me describe it as one man’s visionary sculpture of his dialogue with God, and he insisted we stop in Eloree, South Carolina, the artist’s birthplace. At the Stop-n-Go on the corner of Hampton Street, DJ asked everyone in the store if they had ever heard of the artist, but no one had. When we arrived at the Smithsonian and DJ finally saw the throne, he said, “I couldn’t take it all in, and I was a little frightened.” Hampton’s lifelong work about redemption, a whale-sized gold and silver tinfoil sculpture created all alone in his garage, brought DJ to his knees. That night in the motel DJ began writing a poem in the bathtub. Later, he bolted up in bed. “I have to go home right now,” he said. “It was too much for me.” So I drove him to the airport. As he got out of the car he snapped his fingers and said, “Fear not.” Five years later he finished the poem.
Poet, author of Magdalene and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time
When Denis Johnson came out with The Incognito Lounge in 1982, the world of poetry trembled. In that extraordinary collection is the poem titled “Now,” which is as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever read, and the central poem of my writing life.
The poem is an experience. It’s happening to the poet as he writes it ─ not a record of an experience, not a memory ─ the experience is occurring to him word by word ─ a stepping into space without a rope. A waking awareness, a contradiction of his own impulse (Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson), and a series of urgent questions lead him and us to the very brink of radical transformation.
Denis was the first sober writer I had ever met. He was almost bursting out of his skin with aliveness. I watched him in wonder. How could someone so alive walk into rooms without holding something in front of his face? The poem “Now” suggests how.
Author of the novels The Missing Person and Inside
When I learned as a graduate student that I could take a workshop with Denis Johnson at the Michener Center, I was nervous to meet him and also electrified. Few books meant more to me at that time than Jesus’ Son and Angels. I loved his work because he didn’t write like anyone else — he was gritty and lyrical, sacred and profane. I guess it’s not surprising he didn’t teach like anyone else either. I think his process was intuitive, mysterious perhaps even to him. He was shambling, unguarded, and had no prepared speeches. He didn’t line edit your work or give lectures on structure, or whatever conventional workshop leaders might do — but a lot of the things he said have never left me.
Once, a young person in our workshop handed in a seemingly autobiographical story about a child. It wasn’t, to be honest, very accomplished. Denis’ main comment was “It’s good you’re writing about your childhood now, because when you’re older, you won’t be able to remember it the same way,” which struck me as both generous and nakedly sad.
When I went to his office to ask for advice on the novel I was just starting to write, Denis more or less shrugged at the impossibility of offering advice. “You have to learn to write this novel, and anything you learn won’t teach you how to write the next one.” It was infuriating to hear and also, I now realize, true. In class he talked about Raymond Carver, about what it meant to him to study with Carver at Iowa; how as a young writer, an undergraduate, he just wanted to be in the library where Carver had been, to sit in the same chair. He wept as he said this. Later that semester a friend of mine, a literary agent, came to town and wanted me to arrange lunch with Denis. When I asked him about it, he blanched. “Do I owe her money?” “No, you’re one of her idols” I said stubbornly, and insisted they meet. (This makes me cringe in retrospect — I wonder how often he must have heard that, and what a burden it must have been.) We took him to lunch. He ordered a cheeseburger, and when it arrived it was not done the way he ordered it. He wept a little at this too. It made me smile, and now it amazes me to remember it — how little armor he had, how he chose to live without it.
Fiction writer, author of Pull Me Under
I was lucky to be in Denis Johnson’s workshop at the Michener Center two years ago. He was an unorthodox and beloved teacher. That first day, he told us he was a crier. But we shouldn’t worry, it usually passed quick. He cried three times that semester: One over Mavis Gallant’s “The Latehomecomer,” one over how hard writing is, always, but how beautiful to get it right, and one I forget.
He said that if we didn’t feel like submitting stories to workshop, we didn’t have to. “What’s best is to just sit around and talk.” One day he brought in two metal balls and made us all hold them and decide which was heavier. The difference in weight was very tiny but we found we could usually tell the heavier one if we didn’t think about it too hard. Denis was DELIGHTED by this. We spent an hour holding the balls; he was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement at how much more our minds knew than our brains. And he never said, “This is like writing,” or anything like that. He was just awestruck. We left class early that day and walked over to Crown & Anchor where he ordered a burger and gave the name “Elvis.”
I submitted two stories to workshop that semester. One was previously published, but I wasn’t happy with it anymore and unsure why. He knew. It was the ending. Who knows more about endings than DJ? “This sounds very END-Y,” he said of the final paragraph. “But it’s not really an ending.” But he liked the story in general, which was good, because he HATED the next story I put up. It’s one of my most memorable Michener moments.
The second story was a shitty first draft with magic in it. I volunteered because no one else had anything. I thought I was being gracious. Denis hated that fucking story so much, it was shocking and, in retrospect, just as delightful as the metal balls. He hated it so much he gesticulated wildly with the pages, yelling “Is this your best work?” He knocked his Red Bull off the grand old table onto the blue carpet. I said, “It’s a first draft?” and blacked out. Afterward I tried to flee but fell off my bike in the road in front of everyone.
Another time he told us about going on a weeklong silent retreat. He thought he and his roommate liked one another and looked forward to talking. When the week was up, he eagerly greeted his roommate. His roommate quietly said, “I had a very expensive watch, and it’s gone.”
His joy and sorrow were on the surface. He didn’t give a shit about hiding them. So many of us hide them in public and call them back when we write. As if they will continue to respond!
Now I remember the third time Denis cried. He was talking about what makes a story interesting; how it’s the little things, how all the tricks we try as writers are often bullshit. And he wells up with tears and says, “There’s nothing more fascinating than watching a guy trying to untie a knot from his shoelace. Nothing.”
There’s something wonderful about a teacher who insists he knows as little, or less than you. It makes you feel like maybe you can write.
Author of The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh
In the spring of 1994, Denis Johnson was my workshop teacher and thesis adviser at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember he had the sort of charisma that is impossible to imitate or fake — everyone was either in love with him, or for the few who were not, annoyed that everyone was in love with him. He told stories of when he was a student there in poetry — of how this or that famous writer was not so beloved, he assured us, in workshop. But he made it more than gossip: “You don’t know what someone can do just from what they show you here,” he said of one poet who used to drive him crazy and was now one of his favorites. In that little anecdote was a story about the long game of writing, and the false intensity of a present that feels so permanent.
For me, he was important in several different ways. He was a poet who also wrote fiction, which I was too at the time—this was not so common then. I remember with one of my stories he said, “This has the feeling of a lit match carried through a storm.” He then spoke of the importance of guarding one’s original inspiration all the way to the end. That story was an experiment in writing about the queer punk scene in San Francisco in the early 1990s. (The writing of certain stories in the beginning of your career has the feeling of something that makes you as you make it — this was one of those for me.) It was not easy to present that kind of work in 1994, and so to be greeted like this by him alerted me to my own powers. It conferred the feeling of graduating from that place as nothing else did.
Emily Rapp Black
Author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World
I met Denis Johnson as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin where I was a student in fiction in the early 2000s. On the first day of class we were nervous and star struck, but Denis was friendly, chatty, kind, and more than anything else, he was open. Within the first hour, Denis read aloud from J.D. Salinger’s APerfect Day for Bananafish. In the middle of the story he stopped and wiped his eyes, his voice cracking with emotion. “Isn’t that a beautiful line?” he asked. I wish now that I could remember which one.
He could have entered the space of eager graduate students arrogantly, even cruelly, and we likely would have accepted it. Certainly his epic reputation made many of us assume he would be anything but kind, least of all so emotional. Instead he read aloud from one of his favorite stories and burst into tears, as he continued to do throughout the semester. His great empathy and willingness to be vulnerable, not venerated and worshiped, made him a terrific leader of workshop. It is a model, I believe, of how to remain an artist — even when one becomes a kind of cult figure.
I also credit Johnson with giving me the greatest editorial gift, although at first it felt less like a gift and more like a massive moment of embarrassment. One day he announced he had hired actors to read aloud our stories for workshop. Hearing my overly long, overly lyrical story go on and on and on for more than an hour (Four metaphors per page! Overkill!) while I slashed phrases and lines taught me an invaluable lesson: The best way to edit is to read aloud. To this day, I read everything aloud, from short stories to essays to entire book-length manuscripts. So thanks, Denis. You are missed, and you will be remembered.
Fiction writer and reporter
It was my first fiction teacher, Michael Parker, who turned me onto Denis Johnson in undergrad workshops in Greensboro, North Carolina. Jesus’ Son was the gateway, the pocket-sized paperback with the blackboard cover that I read behind the counter at the bookstore where I worked, a place where I shelved serial romance novels and saved copies of Shotgun News and Hustler for regulars. Reading Jesus’ Son, I felt as I had when I’d first heard the Velvet Underground, from whose lyrics Denis had stolen his title. These were perfect sentences that sliced straight through to the core. Here was a writer acknowledging the things I’d suspected to be true of human beings and the world, confirmed and transformed into bleak, electric language. The words were simultaneously blistering and healing; they stayed with me like scars.
A few years later I was on a plane to Austin, Texas, a place I had never been. We whipped through dense clouds, landed with a sickening thump, and hurtled along the tarmac. I was disoriented and green when I arrived at the Michener Center for Writers as a prospective student. Down the stairs came Denis, whose sentences I knew by heart. He introduced himself, as if he had to, and said, “I was thinking about making a pot of coffee. Want some?” We stood and talked in the kitchen and that day felt like a beautiful augur. In Austin, he was the first person who helped me.
Denis later returned as a visiting writer and I was a student in his fiction workshop. I had not expected the writer of Angels to wear Hawaiian shirts and drive a cherry-red convertible, but who was I to judge? I decided to think of it as a character he was maybe trying out, the Denis Johnson who lived in Austin. I knew that back in Idaho he lived in a remote part of the state near a place named for a local bar, the Good Grief. In class, he was grand and occasionally admonishing, prone to laughter and tears. He hired student actors to read our stories back to us, which I hated at the time. Sometimes he alluded to his past in a far-off way, or spoke of the war-torn places he reported from in Seek, or mentioned his teacher Raymond Carver. In private, talking over stories, he was serious, rigorous, and generous. We sat in his office at Michener and talked about language, the kind of words that exist between people thrown together in certain circumstances of place or misfortune; the kind of language that is never spoken aloud.
A few days after I first met him, Denis invited his students and the visiting prospective fellows over to dinner at his rental in South Austin. Denis and Cindy’s kids drifted in and out of the house, there were plates of spaghetti and salad, and there was a sort of languidness about everything. Off to the side of the kitchen, normally a pantry or a laundry room, was the place Denis wrote. The door had been left slightly open. When you are a young writer you are always looking for clues not only in how to write, but how to be. I remember seeing a small plain table, a stiff uncomfortable-looking chair, a pad of yellow paper, and a typewriter with an index card taped on the wall above. On it, I imagined the three rules he frequently dictated (“Write naked. Write in blood. Write from exile.”) or a quote from Whitman he often recited, though I didn’t let myself look long enough to tell. Some dirty clothes were tossed on the side of a washing machine. I saw Denis just a couple times after our workshop — the years in which he published Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke — and I still try to square the image of that red convertible with the idea of that stark, demanding little room.
Fiction writer, author of Spectacle
In the early 1990s I lived in Boston and worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square. There was a night I went to a talk by T.C. Boyle, and during the Q & A someone asked what we should be reading. Boyle said Jesus’ Son. The bookstore I worked in was about to close down for good, so we didn’t carry Jesus’ Son. I couldn’t find it anywhere else and eventually I forgot about it. A few months later I was in Seattle helping my brother move and I was staying with a friend from college. There was a day my friend was at work and my brother and I were fighting, so I went for a long walk.
This moment is now personally significant, marking the first time I had walked alone aimlessly through a city I didn’t know. I ended up in a bookstore that had one copy of Jesus’ Son that I found while looking for something else. The next day I was in the Seattle airport. I was feeling bad about leaving my brother after our fight, I was feeling bad about a lot of things, so I started Jesus’ Son in a dark mood and read it in its entirety, sitting there, waiting. I’ve heard people say reading something great makes them feel less alone. But reading something great often has the opposite effect on me. With Jesus’ Son, I was acutely aware of my aloneness, even in that crowded airport. Coming out of the book, I remember looking up at the strangers around me. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I’m thinking of a line from the first story in the collection: “…he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Something like frustration. Some beautiful awareness of our limitations. I still can feel it.
Editor at Rolling Stone, author of Searching for John Hughes
A few minutes after I saw the news that Denis Johnson had passed away, I took down Angels, his first novel, off my shelf and started to read it for the first time in over a decade. This is something I find myself doing whenever somebody whose art I appreciate passes. A few days earlier, I found myself revisiting Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger after Chris Cornell died, and I binged on more than a few of Nora Ephron’s films after her passing in 2012. This is how I cope.
Johnson’s books are scattered around my apartment. Like so many others, I read the stories in Jesus’ Son at the moment in my life when I found fiction really starting to impact my thinking. I’ve always kept a copy the way some people always have a Bible or specific bottle of Scotch in the house, but this night I decided to go back to the start of his career after reading a few of his poems to get warmed up. I reread the entire book in one sitting.
Angels was a novel that, when I read it at around 24 or 25, I told myself I had to read. Today, I realize maybe I was reading it the wrong way. I was under the influence of Jesus’ Son, and the idea that Johnson — like Lou Reed, who wrote the song the book gets its name from — was sketching a certain kind of person he had observed and wanted to write about; people living on the fringes, messed up people, criminals, junkies, and “weirdos,” as Matt Bell writes in his moving eulogy. I’d thought Johnson was commenting on those people, and nothing else. Like many other things in my twenties, I was so wrong. While he writes about people who are messed up, what becomes clear is that Johnson didn’t necessarily believe we were born sinners, his characters didn’t come out screwed up and weird. They’re victims of America, its weirdness and dysfunction; American dreams turned into nightmares.
Poet, author of Dearest Creature and Scattered at Sea
When I first read Denis Johnson, his poetry and prose knocked the wind out of me in the best way, and his writing has never failed, upon frequent re-readings, to leave me breathless. On every level I love his work: the mind behind it, individual sentences or lines, how he humanizes “twistedness” and all that seethes within his characters, his dark grace in dealing with insane behavior and suffering (including the self-induced variety), his intensity on the page, his gift for making the strange relatable and the relatable strange, and the weird humor that gleams beneath.
I began with the prose. When Jesus Son came out in 1992, I was stunned by the stories’ mix of beauty and harshness, and the way he wielded images. Then I backtracked to the poems. After that, I had to ask myself, how the hell was this guy so good at both genres? Had anybody ever written about being high, caught the glory, hilarity and crazy desolation better than him? When I read his work, I re-learn that writing about extreme states or violence or being under the influence never need be limited to just that, but can be a deep dive into the hallucinatorily human, into our wildest capacities. His fiction goes way beyond ‘poetic prose’ for me. Car Crash While Hitchhiking and Emergency are two of my favorite stories, ever. I’ve never read a poem of his that didn’t give me a wonderful shiver.
Novelist, author of The Animals
I’ve been looking over my friend Denis Johnson’s writing in the silence after his demise, marveling anew at the moments of grace in his work, the way he turns toward the spirit, the divine, just when it seems that to do so would be, is, utterly impossible. Yet is it not true that whenever we reach those moments in his books and stories and poems and plays, what we come to understand is that he has been quietly, deftly, directing us toward our own souls with every scene, with every sentence, with every word? So that when the great surprise comes and we stand face to face with that bright light that is — what? God? the universe? our very selves? — there is no great surprise at all. He has been telling us all along that it is coming: a reckoning which is, in the end, deliverance itself. Oh how he hands you the great gift you think is a bullet, a feather, a small smooth pile of pills like tiny blue stones, a whole collection of objects which, when you look later, is only your own heart held wild and beating in your hands. What a marvel you were, my friend. And so what a marvel you will ever be. Godspeed. In those darkest of nights I will forever think of your light. You saved me. God knows you saved us all.
Is dying alone the worst possible thing that can happen? At The Baffler, Ann Neumann reports that with the onset of death doulas, you need not impose on friends and relatives in your inevitable decline or suffer the shame of kodokushi, the Japanese term for ‘“lonely death,” meaning the quiet but messy end of a solitary life.’
Need someone to “be present” for your final hours? Need music, aromatherapy, reiki? A death doula will, for a fee, swoop into your home and help you navigate the end of your life, from your spiritual needs to the arrangement of the furniture in your sickroom. Awkward, Americanized, consumer-focused forms of Buddhism have long since taken over our exercise (yoga), our offices (mindfulness), and our homes (feng shui). Now, with doula programs popping up like mantras in the mind, they’ve come for our deaths.
Which is, we’re told, a good thing, since a death without warm bodies is practically taboo. On my trips to various end-of-life care facilities as a reporter or a volunteer, I have heard the same belief over and over again, breathed into my ear by the cooing, pastel-wearing do-gooders who have taken on grieving as their life’s salvational work. What they say is, “No one should have to die alone.” What they mean is that dying alone is a character flaw—an imperfection growing somewhere deep inside of you that, provided it is caught in time, can be rooted out or zapped away.
A doula-assisted death is a bespoke affair. Through made-to-order rituals, your death can be propelled into the realm of the unique, just like everyone else’s.
Hanya Yanagihara’s parents bought a pet tortoise, Fred — cold-blooded, beady-eyed, and surprisingly particular. (“He liked only red hibiscus, not pink.”) Fred is 15 years old, and will likely live another hundred years. He’s part pet, part rejection of death, and part claim on filial devotion, all under one neat shell.
In a post-industrialized country and era, there are fewer and fewer practical reasons for a family to stay together once its children are grown. We do so out of tradition, but tradition isn’t an imperative. Fred, however, was his own imperative, a difficulty that demanded a response, a legacy that, unlike a car or a house, needed a caretaker, an animal who was both a repository of a surplus of parental love and an announcement of parental need: Come home. See what we’ve taken on. When you see him, will you remember us? Fred was a way of requesting devotion without having to literally ask.
I wish I could say that we had decided what to do with Fred by the time I left Hawaii, but we hadn’t. Instead, we watched Fred circle the yard, speaking of him with the same affectionate bewilderment we would a precocious child. I had already told my parents that I wouldn’t take Fred when they died; my brother said he wouldn’t, either. Our refusal seemed to provide them with a curious, even paradoxical contentment — my brother and I might not need them to stay alive (we would like them to, but like is not the same as need), but Fred did, or so they could believe. And so, for him, they would. If one of pets’ great gifts is their ability to make us feel loved, their greater gift is how they make us feel necessary.
When she was 12 years old, Kate Daloz learned that her grandmother had died not from a household accident, as she had been told by her mother, but from a “criminal abortion,” which is how it was described on her death certificate. Now in her thirties, Daloz wanted to unravel the family secret that had left her mother without her mother. It was a story that could only be told after she found an essential archive of material—and it was also a story that could be told when her mother was ready for her to tell it.
“My Grandmother’s Desperate Choice” was published on the New Yorker‘s website on Mother’s Day, and for the next 48 hours it topped the magazine’s “Most Popular” list until it was unseated by breaking news about the president. I spoke with Kate about the response to the essay, and why it felt urgent to tell her grandmother’s story in the Trump era.
In the beginning of the piece you describe the moment your mother finally revealed to you that your grandmother had died of a self-induced abortion. How did this family secret reveal itself over the years, and when did you know it was time to write about it?
That last question is the easiest to answer: November 8, 2016. Within a week or two of Donald Trump and Mike Pence gaining office—as soon as it became clear that access to safe, legal abortion was in serious jeopardy—I called my mom and asked her if it was time to go public with Win’s story. She said yes immediately.
As I was growing up, Win’s death wasn’t something we talked about often, though it was always somehow present. From the moment my mom first told me the story, it has always felt both personal and political. The facts of her death make the contours of the abortion debate so stark—if my grandmother had just been able to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood she would not have died the way she did, and her children would not have grown up without their mother. It’s really that simple. That’s why, after the election, my mom and I both felt strongly that Win’s story could be a way for others to understand the stakes as urgently as we do.
I realized that I knew almost nothing about Win except the circumstances of her death. Almost all the details that appear in the piece are things I learned only when I began researching—from the letters and documents my mother carefully collected as an adult, along with the others I found on my own.
Within my mom’s immediate family there was near-total silence on this subject. Decades after she died, any mention of Win was still incredibly fraught. My aunt put it really well: My grandfather’s refusal to talk about Win with their children turned her death into the only memorable event of her life. That kind of silence was a common response for someone of his generation, but it was a terrible disservice, both to his children and to Win herself.
What family material was available to you as you wrote the story?
I used letters, photographs, and conversations with older cousins and family friends. At a certain point in my research I realized the taboo that had kept everyone from sharing information with Win’s children might not be as strong for other branches of the family—and in fact I was right. My mother’s cousins knew details of the story I’d never heard, and I was able to fill in major gaps in my understanding.
A few years ago, when I was working on my book about communal life in 1970s Vermont, I noticed that as they age, people are often willing to share more intimate details about their lives and to admit to greater ambiguity and vulnerability than when they were younger. Shame, fear, and all the other things that stop us from feeling free to tell the whole truth can sometimes drop away over time. It’s one reason I think younger generations should always go back and keep asking and re-asking questions—even about subjects older generations might think of as firmly settled.
Was there a key piece of archival information that allowed you to finally tell your grandmother’s story?
Win’s mother, Nyesie, saved every single letter Win wrote from when she went to college until two weeks before she died at 31. Her grandson, my mother’s cousin, transcribed and shared them with me. It was an incredible gift. Poring through those letters was one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve ever had. Win went from a ghost, known only to me by the horrible way she died, and the hole she left in my mother’s life, to a full person. She was an amazing writer—funny, witty, observant—and her letters are so full of love and affection, first for her mother and later for her husband and children. When I finished reading them, I felt like I’d been hanging out with her for weeks.
The other extraordinary resource I had available were the near-daily letters written by Win’s friend and neighbor, Katrina, to her husband who was in London during the war. Katrina was the person my grandfather called when he came home and found Win dead; afterwards, she also arranged childcare and offered them a place to stay. She recorded all of this, including dialogue, in letters that her husband later brought home with him and which remain carefully preserved, 70 years later. It’s making me wonder if historians of the future will have access to our digital communications in the same way. For their sake, I hope so.
When did you let your mother read a draft of the piece? What were her thoughts?
I was always talking to my mother about the research—in a way it felt like a collaboration. By coincidence, she was visiting my home when I finished the first full draft. Instead of giving it to her to read, she asked me to read it aloud to her. It was intense, but by that point we were both really ready for the story to be in the world. I keep telling her she’s brave but it doesn’t feel that way to her.
You have to remember that the worst parts of this story—that her mother died, horribly and unnecessarily—was, for most of her life, the only thing she knew. The details that the piece uncovered were the commonplace details of a life lost—that Win was a wonderful writer, that her parents had been madly in love, that her mother had written about her as a baby with total joy and affection.
What has the response been to the piece, both from your family and from strangers?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive to a degree I would never have dared expect. For my family, I think they felt a lot like I did. There was a sense of relief at finally speaking openly about a long-held secret and joy at gaining a fuller picture of this woman we’ve all wondered about for so long.
What surprised me is how many people outside the family have also expressed a kind of gratitude for this story being told—in particular, women my mother’s age who still remember illegal abortions.
What do you understand about your grandmother after writing this piece? What do you think you’ll never understand?
I feel like I finally have a sense of her as a real person. I’m older now than she was when she died, which is an interesting perspective; having two children myself also helps me empathize with some of the pressures she might have felt when she found herself pregnant again and unequipped to raise three small children during wartime.
But I have to keep reminding myself that getting to know someone through letters is not the same thing as really getting to know her. Of course I wonder how my mom’s life would have been different if she hadn’t lost her mother so young. I also would love to know how Win would have changed over the course of her life. She seemed to enjoy some parts of being a housewife, and was impatient with others. How would she have responded to the 1950s? Would she have become a feminist in the ’70s? Would she have continued writing in any formal way?
I keep thinking about Win’s last hours. When she died, her children were asleep in the next room. The fact that she didn’t even arrange childcare for them as she attempted to self-abort to me says there’s no way she really comprehended the danger of what she was doing. I’m not sure anyone observing from the outside can truly understand what goes through another person’s mind when they make this kind of decision.
What I do feel like I understand, though, is how personal the choice to end a pregnancy is, and how urgent. I feel like this story has showed me a lot about the lengths to which a person can be driven by desperation.
Seventeen years ago, Nina Martin’s sister almost died in childbirth. “I remember the trauma of that experience really, really, really well,” recalled Martin. “The disorientation of it and then also, the silencing of it afterwards.”
Over the next several months, Martin and Montagne will release more stories about maternal care in America which will focus on a host of issues surrounding maternal mortality, including racial disparity in care and women with near misses. Every mother has her own story of birth, and all too often these stories go unnoticed, or are buried under platitudes that focus on the health of the baby. Together, Martin and Montagne want to move the conversation back to the mother, and ask why America is the only developed nation where maternal death rates are rising.
Longreads spoke to both journalists about the process of reporting the story, their passion behind the project, and the impact they hope it will have.