Introduction by David Shields
Hegel says, “I know an object only in so far as I know myself and my own determination through it, for whatever I am is also an object of my own consciousness, and I am not just this, that, or the other but only what I know myself to be. I know my object, and I know myself; the two are inseparable.” In the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov mentions a “newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” The observer effect in physics: The perceiver by her very presence alters what’s perceived.
The only serious portraits are also self-portraits. Literary examples: Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception, Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol, Beckett’s Proust, Sebald’s The Emigrants, Hilton Als’s The Women, V.S. Naipaul’s A Way in the World, Nicholson Baker’s U and I. Self-reflexive documentary films that perform the same magic trick: Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect, Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, Steve James’s Stevie, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness.
I’m interested in book-length essays that, through the sheer force of their intelligence, violate their subject, transform what may at first glance appear to be “journalism” or “memoir” or “scholarship” into blistering philosophical investigation. The most exciting “nonfiction” uses its “nonfiction” frame as a sort of existential trampoline off which to bounce into the most serious epistemological questions: What is “true”? What is “real”? What is knowledge? What is memory? What’s a self? How much can one self know about another self? See Lauren Slater’s Lying, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen, Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia, John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile, George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, Didion’s “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” Stendahl’s On Love, Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.
In Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, she talks about attending a funeral of an accomplished doctor whom Gornick didn’t know well. The usual eulogies tell her little about the deceased, then a young woman (the esteemed doctor’s junior colleague) gets up on stage and talks about herself, in vexed relation to the deceased. The arrow pointing outward toward the world and inward toward the perceiver perceiving the world: it begins and ends with nerve. In The Dead Girl, Melanie Thernstrom has the temerity to place herself on the same stage as the deceased, Roberta “Bibi” Lee, her BFF, murdered during their junior years at different colleges. In so doing, Thernstrom transforms a (mesmerizing) murder mystery
“By the way,” asks my friend Jerry one day almost a year [after the murder] later, “whatever happened to Brad?” [Brad, Bibi’s boyfriend and the prime suspect in the murder, confessed to the murder and then retracted the confession.]
“Whatever Happened to Brad indeed,” I say sarcastically. “That’s a very good questionthat ought to be the question of the year. That is, in fact, precisely what I want to know.”
What happened to Brad, I explain, is nothing. The trial keeps being postponed because Brad’s lawyer says he needs more time, and there are endless pretrials to debate what evidence is admissible and whether the confession was forced and that kind of bullshit and it doesn’t matter because nothing is going to happen because people like him don’t get convicted. There’s this New Yorker cartoon which shows a jury foreman standing up to read a verdict, and the caption is: “We find the accused not guilty, but not all that innocent either.” No one thinks it was anyone else, and we’re not about to go back to looking for the Man with the Van [a previous suspect]but they won’t send him to jail. There’s no evidence, they sayother than his own personal extended detailed confession, to be sure.
into not only a meditation on the apparently unbridgeable abyss between men and women
I am having a fight with my father as we are driving. This is a series of threats: he says he is going to make me get out of the car; I say fine. He says he’ll never drive me anyplace again; I say I don’t care. He says he is not going to pay for school and, determined not to feel threatened, I tell him to fuck off, and he roars: “I WILL LOCK YOU IN THE TRUCK OF THE CAR.”
Even as he says it, he realizes how ridiculous it is. The last word is broken by laughter, and the fight ends. I hear thisthat it has disintegrated into a joke before he has even finished saying itbut it has broken a second too late for me not to get upset.
“You frightened me,” I sob violently, bursting into tears.
“It was a joke,” he says, embarrassed now.
“It wasn’t a joke! It wasn’t a joke!”
“Of course it was. Do you think I would literally try to tie you up and lock you in the trunk? You wouldn’t eve fit. You’re too big.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” I scream. “You know where you got that image from? You got it from a murder mystery. And you know what goes in the trunk? The body goes in the trunkthe dead body. It’s when you’ve been murdered.”
“I would never hurt you,” he repeats. “You are so incredibly aggravating and impossible to deal with that I occasionally think I would like to kill you, in fact I would like to strangle you with my bare hands this very minute, but I would never do anything. I haven’t laid a finger on you for years. When was the last time I hit you?
“In fact,” he says, stopping to think about it, “I don’t think I’ve ever hit you.”
“Thinking counts,” I shriek, and start to cry harder because this is so true. “And it doesn’t help to say that it’s a joke. What is a joke? A joke is something that has emotional reality without literal reality, and the discrepancy is supposed to make it ‘funny.’ Well, I take emotional reality pretty fucking seriously, besides which men really do rape and murder women and put them in trunks of cars and beat them and leave them in shallow graves. So that distinctionthat line about which you think I should be so confident as to depend on it for my safety and well-being: the line between psychological and other realitiesis a little thin.”
“Well, I’m sorry, hon,” he says, “but I think you are reading a lot into one remark, and taking the whole thing A LITTLE TOO SERIOUSLY.”
Just to make sure he doesn’t have the last word, I repeat that he did make me feel Unsafe, and he mutters that he is a simple man from Michigan and he can’t imagine how he ended up in a family of such emotional women.”
but also an excavation of her own (our own) spiritual deadness
I woke up in my body this morning, and it was all right then, and it’s been all right for a while nowit’s been all right since the morning after the funeral, in fact, when I was so sick I couldn’t move. And then it went away. There must therefore be a simple connection between the news and the feeling, I think analytically. And therefore, although it feels so powerful and absolute and trueas if it weren’t a feeling but a truthit must, actually be only a consequence of the news. It is a farfetched connection: three months later someone tells me the killer raped the corpse as wellVeronica says that Brad said that he had sex with the body, wrapped it in his blanket and made love to itand I hate myself. Brad committed necrophilia, and I feel fat. Connections are so interesting, I think, so hidden and cunning, like strands of invisible heart-threads, threaded through everything. I stand there distracted and busy, puzzling, and waiting to figure out what it isand forgetting, of course, to keep feeling while I am thinking. I am different this way from other people, not being able to think and feel at the same time.
and a brilliant and extremely nuanced exploration of the fictional nature of the construction of “nonfiction,” the elusiveness of absolutes:
The retrialthe mythical long-awaited fabricated and refabricated trialtakes place in the spring of 1988, three and a half years after the murder. . . .What are you doing here, Melanie? I repeat, overcome by an odd floating sensation of unreality, unlike even the old sense of being in a story. It’s a parody, I think, a curious futile parody of the first search, three and a half years ago, when we didn’t find her. And it is all so really far removed from Roberta: the retrial to discover the truth of the first trial which the first trial could not discover, the truth of the search in which we were searching to discover what happened, but didn’t, and by the time you finish trying to sort out the sentence the word truth has lost all meaning. It’s too many years later, and the “we” is not even the same we, although it is me, after a fashion or some version thereof, and we’re vaguely trying to have the hold conversation, and I’m too really tired even to pretend that it might lead somewhere, that we might learn anything more about what happened to Bibi on November 4th. She’s been dead so long now, I think to myself, wonderingly. So long.
The Dead Girl is a book that I first read when it was published in 1990, it opened up for me the possibilities not of “creative nonfiction” (a term that makes no sense whatsoever) but of destructive nonfiction, and it’s my honor to have hectored Pharos Editions into reissuing this extraordinary work now, nearly a quarter of a century later.