Writing about the dead*

By Laura Smith

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oświęcim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. The sun filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Snyitan—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: after all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation.

A very different decision was made with another photograph from World War II. It is a picture of five sisters and a brother, ages four to 12, lying side by side. The girls wear nightgowns, ribbons are strung in their hair, and they are all apparently asleep. Except they are not asleep—they are dead. They are Joseph Goebbels’ children. Their parents killed them with cyanide capsules in the Führerbunker at the end of the war. The Soviets arrived at the Führerbunker the next day, took the picture, and then held onto it. What to do with a picture like this? It presents a narrative without a clear message: the poster children of the Third Reich and the Aryan race reconfigured in a morbid death tableau that is, at first glance, beautiful. The children are nestled together, tranquil. What sense is there to make of this scene, what “truth” are we supposed to draw from this event? For a long time, the Soviets did not release the picture. They were even more flummoxed by what to do with the children’s bodies. They kept their graves’ whereabouts unknown for years, apparently exhuming them several times until the 70s, when they cremated them and cast their ashes in Biederitz River. The photograph of the dead children, like their bodies, was powerful and secret worthy.

People who write about the dead face a similar conundrum: not only whether but also how should we portray the dead? There seems to be an unspoken code but it is vague, nothing more than an urging to tread carefully. The code, if it exists at all, is an acknowledgement that those who write about the dead wield tremendous power—power that is largely uncontested. The dead can’t call up and contradict you; they can offer no alternate story. There is only interpretation and the potential to mangle. The people who write about the dead are playing with the only thing the dead have left—the stories we tell about them. Ours is the power of the last word.

Legally speaking, the dead have no rights. In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s book about the handling and mishandling of the various Sylvia Plath biographies, Malcolm writes, “the dead cannot be libeled or slandered.” But while this may be true in a court of law, in the court of the conscience we are more conflicted. We care deeply about the narrative fates of the dead. The tombstone engraved “Sylvia Plath Hughes,” was defaced three times to remove the name Hughes in the 80s, likely by feminist activists who blamed her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, for her suicide. It was a wresting back of the Plath-Hughes narrative, a demand that everyone see the story on the activist defacers’ terms.

But to imagine that the activists did what they did for Plath is absurd. The stories we tell about the dead are not told for their sake—we tell stories for the living. Perhaps the activists meant their actions as a message to Hughes, who was alive and the head of Plath’s estate. He was the arbiter of her narrative and they didn’t like the story he was telling. Maybe they had larger reasons too: a message to the public about patriarchy. Plath, in a way, is irrelevant because anything she suffered is over. There is no fixing of marriages, rescuing of bereft housewives, or however the story goes.

The deceased’s lack of rights has frightening implications for anyone who is living. One day we will all be absent, have no control over our stories—regardless of whether they are told by granddaughters, biographers, or no one. We have spent our entire lives constructing the story of ourselves; the thought of someone dismantling our version is disturbing.

When we are anxious about our portrayal of the dead, whether it’s through the writing of Sylvia Plath biographies or by displaying pictures of men before their executions, it is because we believe they see what we are doing and might disapprove. It is as though, somehow, the naked Jews standing in the field in Snityan could come back, feel ashamed, and ask us to look away.


The novelist Barbara Newhall Follett. (Wikimedia Commons)

I am thinking about how we should portray the dead for personal reasons. I am writing a book about a woman, Barbara Newhall Follett, who vanished in 1939. If she were alive, she would be 101 years old—so chances are that if she lived beyond 1939, she is now dead. Still, I find myself somehow held back by the knowledge that she could, technically, be alive. One night I had a dream that I woke up and found her standing by my bed watching me while I slept. In the dream, she is the age she was when she vanished—just shy of 26. I look away for a moment and then she is gone. Left where she had been standing are two perfect white circles that appear to be fading. I don’t believe dreams have complex meanings, but I can’t help but try to tease this one out. The dream represents the conundrum of writing about the dead. In her vanishing, she is as silent as the dead are—just as ephemeral and hard to grab onto. I am asleep and vulnerable, she is watching me, judging me, and when I try to see her, I can’t. The white circles are truth—perfect—impossible and fading fast.


Some childlike part of me does not believe in death, cannot comprehend the idea that anyone is ever really gone. This unnerving feeling of being watched by the dead comes from the sense that this picture belongs to them—that we each own the representations of ourselves. But Malcolm writes, “[W]e do not own the facts of our lives at all. The ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed.” There is something elegant, egalitarian and even liberating about this: the story of us belongs to no one, least of all ourselves.

The people who portray the dead are ultimately choosing which details are worthy of exposition, which are the ones that when omitted would leave the tableau incomplete. But this is a doomed venture—comprehensiveness does not exist. Plath had so many “selves” that she warranted several biographies and counting. Goebbels’ children were not just the children of the Nazi propaganda minister, one of the 20th century’s most hated criminals, but they were also just children. Right before they were led to their final sleep, one of the daughters, 4-year-old Heide, stopped in the doorway and said, giggling, to Rhocus Misch, the bunker switchboard operator, Misch, Misch du bist ein fisch, “Misch, Misch you are a fish.” The naked men in the Nazi photograph led entire lives in which their humiliating walk to their deaths was just a moment. People do not conform easily to the stories we put them in. The stories the living tell about the dead are shadows and partial glimpses, white circles fading fast.

* A version of this article appeared in The Paris Review on July 16, 2015.


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