How We Write About Dead Smart Young People

What angels should properly look like.
What angels should properly look like.

My mother regularly threatens me with writing a really terrible obituary if I die before my time.

“It’ll be full of puppies and rainbows,” she says. “It’ll go on about how sweet and kind and inspirational you were. A little angel sent down from a sunbeam to live among us.”

She knows this would wound me to the core. This is a clever way to ensure against my early demise, or at least to ensure that I look both ways when crossing the street.

My utter revulsion towards this often-repeated, happy narrative about nice young white girls cut down against their time also gets me thinking. How do we eulogize the young and dead unfortunately? Why do we do such a sugary job of it, most of the time?

Marina Keegan was the latest example. Struck down in 2012 at the age of 22, on the way to Cape Cod, after graduating from Yale with the love of her peers and professors alike. Already tapped for a coveted New Yorker gig. Full of potential. Her essays now are seeing the light of day, republished on the New Yorker and blasted across the Internet.

Keegan’s brief life is being heralded as an inspiration, the sort of thing meant to make you weep with the Joy of Life over your computer keyboard. We’ve seen this before. Keegan is being re-purposed, posthumously. A sort of passionate Deepak Chopra figure, here to give us life lessons from her lovely young life — reaped before its time.

To be quite frank, this post-death exultation makes me a little ill. And it is not because of her, or her writing, which is perfectly good from the snippets I’ve read. It is because I would like to talk to her and see what she made of it. Part of me wonders if she would despise being re-purposed in such a way, rendered an inspirational figure — eulogized in USA Today, a Sad But Gentle Soul.

It brings me back to a greater observation. How often do we conclude about a young woman smacked down by fate about her time that she was not only brilliant but also at times difficult, snarky, complicated?

Truth. Young men and boys dead early are also portrayed through rose-colored glasses. But their naughtiness is also (at least more often) exposed. A lazy Google search for “obituary mischievous young boy” reveals dozens upon dozens of hits. Such a search substituting “girl” receives nothing of the sort. Young women are, more often, portrayed as magical angels come to live among us, here to blow the fairy dust of hope amidst us sad, earthbound beings.

This is, of course, bullshit.

The Whore of Babylon is dressed down by an angel.
The Whore of Babylon is dressed down by an angel.

Young women, especially the kind that are very good at writing, are usually just as cynical and wretched as their male counterparts. I believe this very strongly. Yet this is not how we honor them. We honor them by taking away the peculiar bits of their existences that defined them, denuding them of complexity, of blemish. We render early-dead young women eternally grinning, pretty little positive dolls. The reality of the young woman herself is irrelevant.

I don’t like Christopher Hitchens much. I liked Gore Vidal more. Both died relatively recently. Both their eulogies, on the whole, captured their intractable, loathsome asshole sides. To reiterate: I am not saying that Keegan, or any other Cut Down Before Her Time woman, was a secret curmudgeon. These are extreme cases.

But all of humanity, and especially those who are particularly creative, have their strange and ambiguous traits. These made them human. Perhaps it’s simply much harder to eulogize the dark and weird sides of young people who are not terribly famous, who do not have an immense body of work, whose grieving families are more able to take the wheel of such remembrances.  But why is this so?

I am young, and thus a terrible, malevolent idiot.  So too are many of my peers, or at least the ones I really like. Must you possess a certain gravitas (so often denied women of any age) to be remembered as both brilliant and as a miserable asshole? Does the flower of youth automatically disqualify you as being seen as a terrible curmudgeon? Should we let these early flowerings of cynicism and holy rage go unnoticed, even if they were the primary concerns of the young and early-dead?

death be not proudThere is one book I have read that did a good job of eulogizing a very young and very clever man. It is John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud,” which I picked up in a used bookstore the day after a friend and colleague died. Johnny Gunther died from a brain tumor when he was 17, a preternaturally sharp high-schooler who corresponded once with Einstein on a mathematical problem. Gunther documents his son’s more inspirational utterances, that is true: “God is what’s good in me,” for example.

But he also documents Johnny’s decline, the details of his suffering. He describes it when Johnny grows angry at his affliction, when he is exasperated, when he succumbs to his own humanity. And so, with these details, the obituary suddenly becomes more complete than any other I’ve come across. I read this memoir — published in 1949 — and feel the same sort of thump in the chest: both John Gunther and Johnny Gunther are dead now, and yet I feel them keenly. That’s how it’s done.

I do not know a thing about Marina, beyond the somewhat inadequate descriptions of what she was like that are being shuffled about the Internet. Perhaps she would have happily agreed to this sort of lurching inspiration machine generated around her death. That is her right.

But I also concern myself with the posthumous notions of the young and horrid. Call it self-preservation. I do not feel there is much in my story that anyone in their right mind could deem Inspirational, but — and but – perhaps with some airbrushing some Story of Triumph and Adversity could be re-animated, voodoo-like, from beyond my personal veil. The beer truck hits, and I am transfigured.

Should we attach a rider to our wills, that states that our obituaries be brutal and truthful? That no one describe us as “Full of Love And Life,” or we come back and haunt their closets, and permanently tie their shoes together, and attract moths to their underthings?

I think I will. I shall make it legal, or at least scribble a note in the margins of my legal documentation, or something.  If you’re going to make the effort at all, don’t remember me as an Angel of Love, or a Gentle Beacon of Light. Remember me as a frightened, smallish, oft-difficult human, trying at times to make a legitimate effort.

PS: My friend Heather Houlahan wrote a very good essay on approximately this same topic: Angels and Daemons – Raised by Wolves

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *