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The Unresilient

ON THE INADEQUACY OF MEMOIR TO ENCOMPASS THE TRUTH
by Francisco Goldman
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Unresilient

Francisco Goldman
14 Snaps

…And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder. 

—“Encounter,” Czeslaw Milosz

*

My wife, Aura Estrada, died in Mexico City on July 25, 2007, after breaking her neck the day before while bodysurfing at a beach on the Pacific Coast. She was thirty, and we’d been together for four years, married for two. Aura’s mother and an uncle blamed me for the accident, and even threatened me with prison. It is understandable that her mother, having lost her only child, in her unimaginable grief, maybe even maddened by grief, would blame me. But I was close to mad with grief myself.

The day of Aura’s funeral I scribbled a note that I intended to put into her coffin, but then I couldn’t, because the coffin was sealed, a window over her face. In the note I thanked Aura for the happiest years of my life, asked her forgiveness for failing to protect her from that wave that killed her, and promised that instead of killing myself, I would fulfill these promises: I would get a book of her writing published. I would start a literary prize in her name. I also vowed to live each day in a way that would honor her.

I still have that note. It wasn’t until I started writing this, and I looked at it again, that I realized one of the promises I’d remembered making wasn’t, in fact, written there. I’d promised Aura that I was going to write a book about her and about us, a book for her.

Why write a book at all? Because I had no other way of processing what had happened. According to grief experts, if you’ve witnessed the death of your beloved in an unexpected, sudden, and violent way, and if that beloved was what they call “an attachment figure,” the person who really was the greatest source of happiness and meaning in your life, then you are prone to traumatic or complicated grief; if your beloved’s family also blames you for the death, inevitably causing you to internalize that burden of guilt—which you may well have done even without the blame—that will probably complicate matters even more. Neurological imaging reveals the lesions trauma inflicts on the brain’s pathways. That is one reason why traumatic grief, when you are really inside it, harrowing as it is, is so trippy. The wall between night and day, between subconscious and conscious, breaks down. Over a year, I was diagnosed not just with PTSD and situational major depressive disorder, but also with minor psychotic ­episodes. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean I think that you’re schizophrenic,” my therapist reassured me. The key word was situational. It had been brought on by a situation, not by my own predetermined biology. I could get over it.

So that was the mental and emotional state in which I began to write my—our—own libro unico. “What is a libro unico?” asked Roberto Calasso, the Italian writer and editor at the publishing house Adelphi, in an essay about the founding of the ­Libro Unico line of books. I am not sure how to translate libro unico precisely—a unique, a singular, an only or an isolated book, an exception, a book that is a complete departure from a writer’s more aesthetically self-aware books, or in some cases an author’s only book. “Definitely,” wrote Calasso, “a libro unico is one in which it is immediately noted that something has happened to the author, and he has ended up depositing that something in a text.”

“A book that was written from inside a delirium” is how Calasso described Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, the first in the Libro Unico collection. “Nothing like it in the life of Kubin before it,” he wrote, “nothing like it after.”

*

I don’t remember the moment I began to write what became Say Her Name. It was December, six months since Aura’s death. I’d fled Brooklyn for Berlin, a city I’d never been to before, though Aura had. Recently I found an email that I sent to a friend on the day after Christmas.

i’m here in berlin… have actually started writing a bit, am writing a novel about aura, so far its pretty much the way things happened but its rigged up to merge into beautiful fiction i hope, its the first writing i have done since july.  if i am going to feel this sad all the time, i might as well dance with that sadness, and see what comes out of it. its not as if i would be capable of writing anything else.

I especially regret the reprehensible phrase dance with that sadness, but it’s what I wrote. The email is interesting to me in that—unlike the note I had meant to slip into Aura’s coffin—it doesn’t contradict my own memory. I’d thought of the book as a novel from the start. The disgusting jauntiness of dance with that sadness also shows that I had no notion of what lay ahead, and that I might even have believed that, after six months, I was over the worst of grief. Recent experts who’ve written about grief as experienced by so-called “resilient grievers,” who they say constitute the majority of grievers, describe the “resilients” as returning to normalcy relatively quickly, even within six months. But so-called “complicated” grief is a different animal. Little did I know that the second year of grief would be much harder than the first, and the third not much better.

When I wrote that my book was “rigged-up to merge into beautiful fiction,” I meant that I was aiming to merge our story (in which “I,” or a version of me, was the narrator) with the novel Aura had been working on during the last year of her life. While working toward her PhD in Latin American literature, at Columbia, Aura was secretly, so as not to put her Columbia scholarships at risk, enrolled in the Hunter College MFA program. Her novel—the “beautiful fiction” I was referring to—was tentatively titled Memoirs of a Grad Student.

From the beginning of Say Her Name, my plan was for my narrative, about two-thirds in, to merge with Aura’s unfinished manuscript, which I was going to try to carry forward for her. Novels, however, rarely turn out the way originally intended. In the end, only the last chapter of Say Her Name is set in La Ferte, where part of Aura’s novel is set. Only for a moment, on almost the last page, does my narrator step into Aura’s novel and become Marcelo Díaz Michaux, one of her characters, but then my narrator steps out again, back into “myself.”

For more than three years, until October 2010, the book was with me every day. I used every writerly tool I knew how to use, and some that I’d never tried before. I wanted, in Say Her Name, not only but most of all, to write about Aura. I wanted to tell her whole short life story, and to make a portrait of her, and to bring that portrait “to life.” To do all that, I needed both memory and imagination. I wanted to find Aura’s voice, and somehow make, from language, from her words and mine, a place where we could surprise each other and love each other again. I will give one tiny example. In the novel, I wrote:

…fifteen months later I still hadn’t gone back to Café le Roy, the neighborhood restaurant Aura and I went to most often, especially on weekends for brunch. Aura was sure the name must be a reference to the Triste-le-Roy of the Borges story “Death and the Compass,” but no, it turned out the owner’s name was Leroy.

Café le Roy is a fictional place. So Aura, in real life, could not have thought the café’s name must be a Borges reference. Aura could easily have said of herself what Roberto Bolaño said of himself, that she could happily “live under a table reading Borges,” so it was definitely the kind of thing Aura might have said had she come across a Café le Roy. When I wrote it, I laughed out loud, and I could hear perfectly how Aura would have laughed at herself when she found out about Leroy.

A novel is a search—to paraphrase Adorno—for a form that overtakes what is expressed, and changes it. The book, I eventually realized—after I was finished, actually—had found the form of a wave. It builds and builds, tracking both of our lives, until that moment when Aura and I are in the ocean together and the wave that will kill her rises to meet her. Everything we were led to that wave. I found no other way to see it. Everything led up to that one inexplicable, freakish, hideous catastrophe of chance.

I did not submit or sell Say Her Name to my publisher until I’d finished it, though later, working with my agent and editors, I did do some revising. That was when I was first confronted with the why-isn’t-this-a-memoir question. Memoirs supposedly sell better than novels. But I’d never even considered calling it a memoir. Why can’t I just call it “prose,” I finally said, citing Sebald’s dismissal of genre as strictly defined by the book business. “My medium is prose, not the novel,” Sebald told an interviewer, yet his prose books were published as novels nonetheless. Book-length prose works have to be categorized as either “fiction” or “nonfiction,” they can’t just be “prose” or “a book.” With my editors, we kicked around such hybrid tags as memoir novel or novelized memoir before rejecting what seemed like a straining toward self-justification. Novel is a very capacious term, after all. It can include almost anything. “The word novel, when it entered the languages of Europe, had the vaguest of meanings; it meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along.” That is J. M. Coetzee, as quoted in David Shields’s Reality Hunger, which argues for a renewed embrace of such roots. We decided that Say Her Name would be published as a novel, but in such a way that readers would know it was about a real person, and about what had happened. There were myriad ways for a potential reader to know or discover that the book was about something that had happened to real people. We would simply state it in the flap and back-cover copy and in everything sent to the media. What readers then made of it would be a matter of the persuasiveness of the book itself.

*

When Say Her Name was published, in April of 2011, most readers and reviewers accepted my calling it a novel. But a few, though only in the United States, were bewildered that I’d called it a novel. I had done a disservice to my readers, one argued. Another, the New York Times daily reviewer Dwight Garner, wrote that I had made a “puzzling” choice in calling my book a novel. He was bothered that he had no way of knowing what was factual and what wasn’t. “By robbing this version of its grainy authenticity,” Garner wrote, “he’s robbed it of something essential. You’re too busy wondering which details and dialogue are real—the scenes from her childhood? from the early days of her parents’ marriage?—to submit to the spell being cast.” If this book had been a memoir, would it have relieved Garner’s suspicions of inauthenticity?

It’s this conflation of fact with authenticity, and of nonfact with inauthenticity, that Maggie ­Nelson ­explores in her book The Art of Cruelty. She cites daily Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s piece, called “Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways,” about James Frey’s discredited memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Frey had indeed been dishonest, and Kakutani, writes Nelson, ascribed Frey’s lies “to our ‘relativistic culture,’” which she faulted for a variety of ills, ranging from reality TV, historians who argue that history depends on who is writing the history, the Bush administration’s lies, and creative nonfiction. Nelson concludes that as long as people “keep using ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ as interchangeable terms that need no definition or clarification, and so long as they continue to smear out the differences between dishonesty and relativism, or between political lies aimed to bring us into an unjust war and, say, the art of creative non-fiction, no clarity of thought is likely to emerge.”

A naive or impressionable reader might draw the conclusion that publishing a fact-based personal narrative as fiction and lying in a memoir are equivalent crimes. The problem, however, resides in the “fact” that memoirs are considered factual at all. Given that subjective memory itself can be the most inventive of fictionalizers without even trying, some argue that all memoirs should be classified as fiction. (The influential Mexican writer Luigi Amara recently argued that all personal essays should be published as fiction, as well.) In the Mexican poet Julián Herbert’s autobiographical prose account of the life and death of his prostitute mother, he explained that he was calling the book fiction because parts of it were written in the present tense, “a voluntary suspension of grammatical credibility.” As for creative nonfiction, something Tobias Wolff said last spring turned up in my Twitter feed: “There’s just fiction and nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is what we used to call fiction.”

In other countries, the memoir doesn’t have the same privileged stature as personal-truth-conveyor that it has in the U.S. Roberto Bolaño was harsh about memoirs, harsher than I wish to be. In an essay on the subject, he wrote: “Of all books, memoirs are the most deceitful because the pretense in which they engage often goes undetected and their authors are usually only looking to justify themselves. Self-congratulation and memoirs tend to go together. Lies and memoirs get along swimmingly.” You don’t have to make things up to commit what feels like a lie. The grieving me in Say Her Name doesn’t have all that much in common outwardly with the real-life griever others saw. Imagine my narrator writing such words as “I kept my promises! I started a prize in Aura’s name… I compiled a book of her writings and got it published!” Oh, what a noble widower! I’d done those things in real life, but had I written about them in Say Her Name, they would have felt to me like the kinds of smarmy lies Bolaño was referring to. My narrator, the fictionalized me, quits his job to live off Aura’s savings, as, in reality, I did not. Why did I write about myself in this way? Why did I want to demean myself with lies? Because sometimes—in the context of an autobiographical novel, especially—lies tell the truth, and the “truth” (as in factuality) doesn’t.

Everywhere I went in the U.S. on my Say Her Name book tour, there was not a single public event or media interview in which I was not asked, “Why did you call it a novel?” or “Why isn’t this a memoir?” People asked out of curiosity and sometimes, I’m sure, confusion. I really hadn’t anticipated that it was going to be such an issue. When I went abroad to do events for the book, I was hardly ever asked why it wasn’t a memoir; nor did the foreign reviews, so far as I know, question my genre choice.

“Why would you make into fiction a true story that has a very accepted and widely manifested form?” wrote an editor, meaning to prod my thinking on this matter. The “rise of the memoir” as a literary form, the thriving existence of a “memoir movement,” are, I now understand, fixtures of U.S. literary culture. This imperative that if you are going to write about your own life it should be in a memoir exists nowhere else but in the U.S. We have critics who police writers’ compliance with the genre’s presumed rules, which apparently are routinely, even comically, violated. Many readers here now feel mistrustful or confused when an autobiographical book is published as a novel instead of as a memoir. Where did this really come from? Like so much else in our particular culture, it seems rooted in capitalist economics. An executive at a major publishing house recently explained to me that in the 1980s, publishers realized that the rise of daytime television talk shows offered a great platform for promoting authors who’d written about their lives and who could go on the shows and talk about their lives some more, and “the rise of the memoir” was born. I’ve heard stories about writers who wanted to publish personal narratives as novels but were forced by their publishers to publish them as memoirs. Other editors told my editor that they would have insisted I publish Say Her Name as a memoir, and congratulated her on her “courage.” Obviously, writers who’ve done spectacular and innovative work in the memoir form in recent decades have helped to give the form its current literary legitimacy. But the American insistence on a division between genres, as if to insure clarity in product placement, seems related in spirit—I know this is a stretch, but it’s not a violation of essay rules to stretch—to the conservative mania for privatization: privatized education, privatized prisons, privatized health care, privatized life stories. (We own the way you’re to write these now.)

For most of the ’80s I lived outside the United States, in Central America, mainly, and in Spain. I’ve existed somewhat outside American literary culture, and wasn’t all that aware of the memoir phenomenon. When I began Say Her Name, I wrote the way I wanted to write. Still, I’m not averse to the idea that I should now take responsibility for the choice I made to “reject” the memoir form. When, as an undergrad in the mid-’70s, I took creative-writing classes at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, conventional realist fiction seemed to be under universal assault. Writers such as Gaddis, Gass, Barthelme, Pynchon, and, of course, Nabokov, were the era’s American heroes of narrative-complacency demolition and of ambitious experimentation. They, and their Latin American and Eastern European contemporaries, Grass, Calvino, and a few others, were the writers
I learned to admire. I holed up in the library, seeking out such precursors as Raymond Roussel and the Oulipo writers. It seemed to me, back then, that it was embarrassing for a young person to aspire to write realist fiction. But then I read Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a narrative reflection on his mother’s life, written only seven weeks after her suicide. I’d had no personal experience of loss, but was devastated by the book, and thought it so beautiful that I brought it into my creative-writing class to read out loud. I think one of my reasons for doing this was to give my classmates (yes, I was pretty obnoxious) an ­example of the kind of innovative writing that was still possible in the realist mode: a fragmented, spare, at times abstract and speculative, reticent yet so emotionally powerful, autobiographical realism. Beginning my own writing career, I saw myself as tussling with all those colliding influences of unforgettably intense reading, searching for my own way.

If I had published Say Her Name twenty years ago as a novel, would my not calling it a memoir have been an issue for anyone? Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, in its recent reissue by New York Review Books Classics, is described as a memoir, but in fact it was originally published, in German, as a novella, a semi-autobiographical novella. In the NYRB Classics catalog’s product details for A Sorrow ­Beyond Dreams, I found, hidden in tiny print: “Subject: Personal Memoirs; Subject: General Fiction.” Does that offer a clue?

In 1992, Leonard Michaels published Sylvia, his 126-page autobiographical account of his ­harrowing relationship and marriage, in the early ’60s, to a violently unstable though riveting woman who finally, in her early twenties, committed suicide. Michaels had first written about the relationship in a personal essay for Vanity Fair, which he’d afterward expanded into a short memoir. But Sylvia was published as a novel. From the few reviews from 1992 that I’ve been able to find, Michaels’s calling it a novel was uncontroversial. But one reviewer, the poet Tom Clark, in the Los Angeles Times, did wonder about the choice:

In styling his “fictional memoir,” Michaels seems to be trying to touch a fact-based, occasionally journalistic reminiscence with the novelist’s magic wand—a curious stroke considering that Michaels makes no bones about the verisimilitude of his tale to an ill-starred personal relationship conducted in the turbid hipster depths of 1960s Greenwich Village. This brief, sad story (advertised in the publicity copy as a rewrite of an autobiographical memoir published in Michaels’ 1990 collection “Shuffle”), delivered in a detached, dispassionate and spare first-person recounting, has a palpable ring of truth. Indeed, that’s the best thing about it.

Clark, as did the New York Times reviewer, focused much of his attention on the book as a (“journalistic”) documenting of the early-’60s counterculture in New York—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Lenny Bruce have cameos. Clark considered Sylvia part of a “reactionary backlash” against ’60s nostalgia, and wrote that Michaels was implying in his book that the “moral chaos and social confusion” of the times—when “R. D. Laing and others sang praises to the condition of being nuts…”—was to blame for Sylvia’s tragically “wasted life.” My own recollection of Sylvia was that it immersed the reader, with face-burning immediacy, in the young narrator’s bewildered, helpless, and lacerating love for a woman seemingly possessed by demons but also sometimes by angels, and who was seriously mentally ill, though the narrator, up to his neck in it, doesn’t, can’t, comprehend that. The book certainly does, appallingly and heartbreakingly, have “a palpable ring of truth.” When Sylvia, after Michaels’s death, was reissued, in 2007, mostly to praise, ­reviewers were now less interested in its documentary value. A new concern was in the air. “Written in 1990, before the current vogue in memoirs…” (Paul Wilner, the San Francisco Chronicle); “Michaels had a broader, more inclusive idea of genre. He insisted on calling Sylvia first ‘a fictional memoir,’ then ‘a novel,’ though it was, from what I gather,
entirely factual. In any case, I read it as a memoir” (Phillip Lopate, the Nation); “What does it mean to write a ‘fictional memoir’—or a ‘memoir,’ or ‘fiction’—anyway? Does the answer determine whether this is a cowardly book or a brave one?… And, of course, who cares?” (Alex Abramovich, Bookforum); “Though finally not as realized as Peter Handke’s great memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, about his mother’s suicide, Sylvia nonetheless resonates with the grim misery… of incomprehensible loss” (Mona Simpson, the New York Times); “Sylvia: a novel was first ‘Sylvia,’ the story-length memoir… Where publicists seek ways to pitch books to readers, Michaels transgressed serially against every manner of classification” (Garth Risk Hallberg, the Millions). In ­Harper’s, Wyatt Mason, after describing Sylvia’s previous incarnations, wrote, “The facts do not change from version to version, but Michaels’s fictional account tells them best.”

It was now impossible to write about Sylvia without at least mentioning its not being a memoir. Though some reviewers seemed unsettled by that choice, they resisted policing it. (“Who cares anyway.”) Some of the reviews do reveal, perhaps, a touch of that well-known American zeal for classification, compartmentalization. The one reviewer who raised the cowardice issue did so equivocally, raising and quickly dismissing it. (Who or what is it, anyway, that the writer supposedly so fears that can also be, presumably, so easily evaded merely by calling a book a novel? I don’t doubt that Michaels faced fears, but  I also feel pretty certain that none were dispelled by his genre choice.) Some, like Lopate, insisted on reading Sylvia as a memoir anyway. (I got used to seeing Say Her Name described as a memoir in the ­media, and resigned myself to it. I understood that readers responded that way because they knew or sensed or believed that the story was “factual.”) Finally, Michaels’s celebrated skill and Sylvia’s emotional force provided their own self-justification. Wyatt Mason’s response was spot-on. In the end, the facts, even when there is fidelity to the facts, matter less than what the writer has made of them.

In the U.K.—or the non–U.S. English-language countries, i.e., the Booker territories—very well-known authors have long been blurring barriers between fiction and nonfiction, especially autobiographically, including V. S. Naipaul (The Enigma of Arrival) and, in his later writings, J. M. Coetzee (Youth, Diary of a Bad Year, Summertime). The Enigma of ­Arrival, published as a novel, seemed as straightforwardly autobiographical as could be, except that Naipaul decided not to mention his wife even once, though she was apparently with him during the English countryside sojourn that much of the book evokes. When Coetzee gave the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, in 1997 and 1998, his lectures on “The Lives of Animals” were delivered in the voice of a fictional stand-in, an Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello. Princeton University Press published the lectures as a book with commentary by Princeton faculty members. “Not surprisingly,” wrote David Lodge in the New York Review of Books, “most of the commentators felt somewhat stymied by Coetzee’s meta-lectures, by the veils of fiction behind which he had concealed his own position from scrutiny. There was a feeling… that he was putting forward an extreme, intolerant, and accusatory argument without taking full intellectual responsibility for it.” Coetzee incorporated the lectures into his novel Elizabeth Costello. In their enriched, fictional context, according to Lodge, “‘The Lives of Animals’ no longer seems vulnerable to such criticism.”

Though I write in English, I read about as many books and magazines in Spanish as I do in English. In Spanish, the two most celebrated autobiographical works of recent years have been Héctor Abad Faciolince’s memoir, El olvido que seremos, about his father, an activist physician killed by an assassin, and the poet Julián Herbert’s Canción de tumba, about the life and death of his prostitute mother. Abad Faciolince, in his book, evokes his father’s life and death in the context of a diligently reported history of the Colombian politician situation and the violence that ­entangled his father. It seems the obvious choice to publish a book as nonfiction when its personal story also aims to provide an authoritative account of a specific time and place, of historic events and of prominent people. (Patti Smith’s wonderful Just Kids is another example of that kind of book.) Herbert’s novel, on the other hand, is obsessively personal, subjective; it is a portrayal of twin deliriums: his mother’s on her deathbed, and his own, often drug-fueled. “What’s important,” he meta-reflects in the book, “is not that the acts be true, but that the illness or madness be.” The writer is trying to write about a time when his grasp of the world was unstable, when his usual sense of self was unreliable,
or absent.

Aura and I talked about books and about writing constantly, but never about memoirs. The only memoir I can recall Aura ever mentioning or buying was Bob Dylan’s. Before Aura’s death, the few memoirs I’d read were mostly by famous writers: books about their upbringings and how they became writers. There is The Life of Henri Brulard, of course, which opens with Stendhal’s recollection of being an infant suckling at his mother’s breast. Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival could be counted as one of those books. (I, too, read parts of it, anyway, as a “memoir,” which did not seem to contradict its being a novel.) I also enjoyed Martin Amis’s Experience, García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Nabokov, in that book’s publication history, also ignored boundaries: at least one of its chapters, “Mademoiselle O,” was published separately as a short story, and is included in his collected stories. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes about his life, from 1903 until his immigration to the U.S., in 1940. His biographer Andrew Field wrote that in the parts about his life with his wife Vera and their child, he wrote with absolute fidelity, while giving reign to “a puppet show of memories” in other, at least partly fictionalized, chapters. In Say Her Name, I also wrote with absolute fidelity about my life with Aura, apart from a few playful instances like the one I mentioned earlier (Café le Roy).  But I fictionalized elsewhere, including in the “before Aura and I,” where, drawing on a remembered fragment of something Aura had told me, or a few lines in her childhood diaries, I would imagine an episode.

Nabokov called his book a memoir, but published at least one chapter as fiction. I called mine a novel and published one chapter, in the New Yorker, as “Personal History,” or memoir. That was the magazine’s decision. The excerpt centered on Aura’s accident in the waves at Mazunte, and on her death. Among other things, it is a journalistic investigation and reconstruction of her death. It turns up the fact that the waves at Mazunte were more dangerous than I’d thought they were, which I’ll never forgive myself for not having known, and includes other extremely painful moments and revelations. Those are the most difficult pages I’ve ever had to write. I had no objection to publishing those pages as nonfiction in a magazine, because that was what they were. I never insisted that Say Her Name was strictly nonfiction, or strictly fiction. It was because it included both that it seemed correct to publish it as a novel, while also wishing, like Sebald, that I could just call it prose.

*

During the second year after Aura’s death, I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Columbia University to take part in an experiment headed by the clinical psychologist George Bonanno, who has conducted the most prominent “resilient griever” studies. It was an encounter between the world of scientific fact and the other, of absence and delirium. I was carrying a mood of heavy sadness that day. While an assistant observed from behind a one-way window, I sat alone in a room at a computer, watching a stream of blotchy, Rorschach-like images, trying to discern a pattern, obediently clicking on the images I recognized as recurring. But I couldn’t concentrate on the images. I fell asleep at the keyboard. Later, the assistant explained that the experiment’s hypothesis was that grievers would click on happy images, those that suggested smiles and such, a sign of optimism, hope, and resilience.

I was to be paid two hundred dollars for participating. The assistant held up a brand new Columbia University coffee mug. If I wanted to buy it, I could offer whatever amount I wanted, and it would be deducted from my pay. I offered twenty-five dollars. He explained, after I asked, that my desire to purchase the mug and pay that amount was a sign of a practical and optimistic outlook, of resiliency.

I felt bewildered. When he’d held the coffee mug up, I’d known I had to have it. I thought later that I would have been willing to pay any amount for it. How could it be, I’d thought, that Aura, though a Columbia student, had never bought a Columbia mug? And how could I not have realized that until now? It seemed like something that belonged to her and that she’d left behind, or that I had to retrieve for her, and for myself. It seemed like one more sacred relic, one more piece of her to hold on to. 

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