Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Caryl explains: Why I Read the Obits

If you're like me, you read the obituaries in your daily paper or maybe online. Most people look at the ages first. Nobody likes to read about a young death . . . but we do. Older (than us) deaths are consoling. Maryl looks at the causes of death. Not me. The first thing I check on the obituary page is gender, and most days --at least in the New York Times--the dead are men. Surely women died in this same time period too but their lives did not have accomplishments enough for inclusion in the paper of record. They weren't captains of industry, war heroes, politicans (though politicians' wives have a shot), inventors, athletes or rock stars. (Save the tragic deaths. Witness Amy Winehouse whose obit started on the front page.). Obituaries tend to reflect the inequalities of the past: fewer people of color and fewer still women make the cut. So I am always cheered (I know an odd emotion given the subject) when the daily obits include women. Obits, after all, give credit for living, not just dying. 

Last week was a good week. Two women--and get this, from science and medicine no less--were featured in the New York Times: Agnes Varis, 81, founder of a drug company, and Hanna Segal, 92, a psychoanalyst. Varis, the eighth child of Greek immigrants and the only one to attend college, turned her chemistry degree and $50,000 into a multi-million dollar drug company. Her profits allowed her in her second life to become a gadfly and philanthropist. Among the causes she promoted were generic drugs, opera and jazz, and Democratic politics. Several years ago, Varis sent a favorite book to some of the 200 drug industry executives she had antagonized with her endorsement of generic pharmaceuticals. It was a signed copy of Hillary Rodham Clinton's "It Takes a Village."

Segal, on the other hand, was a daughter of privilege. She was born into a cultured, well-to-do family in Poland in 1918. Her father was a lawyer, art critic and newspaper critic. (This being the Times, her mother wasn't mentioned.) She studied psychiatry and literature in Warsaw and when the Germans invaded Poland, she moved with her family to London to finish her studies. Segal wrote five books and numerous papers herself but she is best known for translating her mentor Dr. Melanie Klein's studies on play therapy for a wider audience. Unlike Anna Freud, who used dolls and other toys to help children understand their conscious behavoirs, Klein found the tools useful in reaching deeper, unconscious feelings, particularly in exploring the mother-infant bond. In a rare 1999 interview, Segal described the foundation of her life's intersts: "I read Proust first, before Freud. And I simply realized that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, more fascinating than human nature."

This week, to my surprise, I hit the jackpot in Times obits: A Woman of Color! The headline read: "Jane White--Actress Who Found Racial Attitudes To Be An Obstacle, Dies at 88. White was an actress in Shakespearean and Greek plays who never achieved the stardom she deserved--at least in her opinion. She attributed her failure to her skin color which was too dark for white roles and too light for blacks roles. Like President Obama, she was the child of mixed race parents. White's mother was of black, white and Cherokee origin; her father identified himself as black but by his calculation was only 1/64 African-American. He was a civil rights advocate and executive secretary of NAACP. White herself used have to wear "white face" to play such Broadway roles as the queen in Once Upon a Mattress with Carol Burnett as the princess. Her shame in denying her race led her to retire prematurely to Italy--she had Mediterrean coloring--but returned to her acting career in her 60s. A graduate of Smith College, she explained in an essay for the college's women's history archive: "I'm only 69. There's still time, if my legs hold out. And, if nothing else, bringing humanity to the stage makes a difference in the world."

Why am I drawn to obituaries? In the chronicles of the dead, I often find life affirming lessons and uplifting messages. There is joy in reading about a life well-lived. Sometimes there is also humor, often pathos, but always a sense of community. Remember 9/11's portraits of grief? They put human faces to a mind-numbing terrorist attack. They made it real. If for no other reason, I read obits because they are, in fact, a good read. The other day, while I visiting friends in Rhinebeck, N.Y, I happened to walk through an old cemetary right in the center of town and took the pictures that accompany this post. Many of the dead had served in the Revolutionary war, many were the family members of the fallen. I was struck by the simplicity of the worn stones with only the names, the dates , and perhaps their primary role in life: wife, mother, widow, husband, son, soldier. I was struck that in this cemetary from hundreds of years earlier there was an equality in the modest slabs that marked their graves, an equality that these men and women never knew in life. I read obituaries because they mark our progress as a culture and a civilization, and they renew my hope that we are headed in the right direction where every death--like every life--matters. 

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