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Death and Life Writing: Reflections on My Morbid Career

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1The editors of this special issue honored me greatly by citing early work of mine in their call for papers: “The Embodied Self,” my introduction to a 1991 special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies on “Illness, Disability, and Life writing”; and “The Shape of Death in American Autobiography,” which appeared in the Hudson Review in 1978. Their doing so has prompted me to reflect on my long-term interest in the complex relations between life writing and death.

2When I published the Hudson Review essay, I was in my early thirties, a recently minted PhD in American Studies and a beginning professor of English. The essay grew out of my dissertation, American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode, which traced a distinctive mode of autobiography from the Puritans to (then) contemporary life writers like Norman Mailer and Malcolm X. Although it discussed many of the same texts as the dissertation, the essay’s focus was different; it explored the vexed relation between the limits of autobiography as a form of life writing and the limits of life itself—i.e., a relation between a medium and mortality.

3The sole distinction, by definition, between (allo)biography and autobiography is that the former can be written by anyone other than the subject, while the latter is written only by the subject. That distinction entails another: autobiography is inherently incomplete. No matter how long or comprehensive, an autobiography can never contain the whole chronological extent of a life: it cannot include the death of its subject, much less conclude with it, as biography often does.

4But the fact that autobiography cannot “contain” the death of the author literally, as its final event, does not mean that it is not shaped by death--not “about” the death of the subject in some way. Indeed, one might argue that thoughtful, reflective autobiography (or memoir) is often haunted, even impelled, by the authors’ awareness of the inevitability of their own deaths and of the genre’s inherent incompleteness. Even when it is not written in the expectation of imminent demise, then, it may be written in the (fore)shadow of death. To demonstrate this in my essay, I explored ways in which a selection of well-known American writers—Jonathan Edwards, John Woolman, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Henry Adams, and Malcolm X--addressed their own deaths in one fashion or another in their life writing: rehearsing it (as Edwards did, by seeking to be “swallowed up in God”), substituting for it (as Woolman did, by using the death of another Friend to stand in for his own), embracing it (as Franklin did, by playfully characterizing writing his life as re-living it), transcending it (as Thoreau and Whitman did, by dissolving themselves in nature and others, respectively), pre-empting it (as Adams did, by narrating his story in the third person as history), and memorializing himself (as Malcolm X did, by accelerating his narrative to register a Muslim persona to survive him). To probe beneath the surface of a serious autobiography, I argued, is to expose the author’s recognition of mortality.

5As I wrote at the time,

Many classic American autobiographies betray the pressure of a profound concern with death. The expectation of death may impel the writer, as though the composition of an autobiography might help him to compose himself in the face of death. Or he may hope that the finished narrative will endow him with a kind of immortality. More importantly, the form and content of the narratives are often significantly shaped by the writer’s preoccupation with death, even though the vent itself eludes direct treatment. Two problems overlap here in an interesting way. As a mortal, the writer may seek to come to terms with death. As an autobiographer, he may want to write a conclusion which, in its finality and significance, will somehow be equivalent to his own death. (53)

6Rather than reexamining those texts further here, I wish to reflect on the preoccupation with death that seems to pervade my academic writing. The origin of this preoccupation is not far to seek, and I was certainly aware of it when I composed my Hudson Review essay; what remained obscure to me for a long time was its lasting effect. Looking back now, however, I can see that my scholarly corpus (pun intended) may seem quite morbid. And I am struck by the fact that over the course of my career, without setting out to do so I have explored how a number of life-writing genres stand in different relations to death and thus offer quite different responses to what may be the most important of the so-called “facts of life”—that we all die.

7The genesis of this morbidity was the successive deaths of my parents in a short period of time: my mother’s, in the fall of 1974; my father’s, the following spring. I was in my late twenties. My mother had “survived” breast cancer in her fifties only to be diagnosed ten years later with the ovarian cancer that took her life within a year. Though far from painless, her dying was a gradual, graceful decline during which the family had time to say our goodbyes and to grieve in advance. My father’s dying was of a different order. He had become deeply and chronically depressed in his early sixties; one way he coped was to drink secretly and self-destructively—behavior that is known, euphemistically and paradoxically, as “self-medicating.” No treatment, not even electroshock administered at Boston’s acclaimed McLean Hospital, alleviated his pain. His death was the shocking, but not surprising, denouement to his binges.

8I found the circumstances of his death not only distressing but shameful. As far as I knew, his drinking had been a closely held secret: how was I to explain to extended family, colleagues, and friends the seemingly sudden death of an otherwise fit and youthful sixty-nine-year old? More than distress and shame, I felt some responsibility—I lived not far away and thought I should have interceded. Worse, I felt guilty: I feared that a frank letter I had written him as an epistolary “intervention” had sent him into a downward spiral. He had told my mother that if I ever found out about his drinking, it would “destroy” him. I did find out; I confronted him, and our relationship was never the same.

9Clearing out my family home after my father’s death, I discovered a cache, a trove, of documents stored in a closet behind his bed; mostly personal correspondence from friends and romantic partners, they shed light on aspects of his life that I had not been aware of—e.g., he had romantic friendships with several gay male friends--or gave me intimate access to aspects of his life of which I had been aware, like his service in the Navy during WWII and a stint as a missionary-teacher in Aleppo in the 1930s. This discovery, a consequence of my father’s death, gave me access to his life, through his and others’ life writing. I had unexpected posthumous access to my father’s life through this legacy of life writing documents. (The archive, an accumulation of documents, some official—marriage licenses and passports—most not, itself constitutes an ill-defined “genre” of life writing—not quite a scrapbook but a consciously chosen and retained set of documents.) At the time, I was too traumatized by his death to explore them in depth; I was not ready to plunge into his life at the time. I sorted them, boxed them, and stored them, knowing that the time would come for me to reckon with them.

10In the next academic year I wrote my dissertation, which gave rise in turn to my essay. Occurring just at the outset of my career as a scholar of life writing, then, my parents’ deaths, particularly my father’s, profoundly affected my approach to life writing, first by prompting my thoughts on “the shape of death” in American autobiography. For the next decade, however, the only evidence of a thanatological orientation in my work was the Hudson Review essay. That changed in the early 1990s, when I began to focus on the representation of embodiment in contemporary life writing. On the conscious level, this turn was a response to an upsurge in memoirs of illness and disability, which foregrounded the body. No one I knew of was studying this phenomenon, and I set out to do so primarily (or so I thought) out of intellectual curiosity: what does it mean that this kind of life writing is appearing now? What are its sources, its implications?

11If I had been asked at the time, then, whether this turn to pathology and pathography had a source in my own family, I would have denied it. This despite that the fact that my mother’s diabetic sister had died of insulin shock in her thirties, when I was a child, causing my parents to take in her daughter temporarily; this despite the fact that my father’s mother had been an invalid, due to Parkinson’s disease, nearly as long as I knew her; this despite the fact that my mother needed to use a wheelchair during her terminal illness; this despite the fact that both my father and my sister had been hospitalized for depression. And this despite the fact that my wife and I had recently failed to conceive a child through in-vitro fertilization. I was deep in denial of the pathology permeating my immediate family. That was largely, I suppose, a matter of categorizing and of resisting stigma: I didn’t think of these conditions as disabilities or think of these people as “other.”

12One of the somatic conditions I focused on in Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (1997), was breast cancer, to which I devoted a long chapter: “Self-Reconstruction: Personal Narratives of Breast Cancer.” Such narratives are always written in the shadow of death--most obviously, those by bereaved partners, or children: these are posthumous and elegiac. But even those written by “survivors” are informed by a sense of mortality. After all, survival (really, remission) is defined by years without recurrence; it is never definitive—until the survivor dies of something else. So survivors write in the knowledge that the disease may return to claim them.

13When writing that chapter, I was certainly aware of my personal stake in the topic: my mother had had a radical mastectomy in the 1960s, when it was unheard of for a woman to narrate her illness experience, and a cousin to whom I was quite close died of breast cancer in 1990. The only explicit acknowledgment of this in the book was its dedication to my dead cousin. I suppressed my own sense of involvement and loss, but I was evidently engaged by the contemporary expression of a story that had gone untold in my own family.

14In America in the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS was a major stimulus to thanatological life. No one I was very close to had had AIDS and I was not at risk; I had no personal stake in the topic. But the epidemic inevitably manifested itself in life writing, as well as in more literary genres, and I devoted a chapter of Recovering Bodies to “HIV/AIDS and its Stories.” The course of the epidemic can be traced in the succession of life-writing genres that registered it. First, there was the obituary, one of the most common and widely read of life writing genres. In the Anglophone world, obituaries typically provide the age at, and cause of, death up front. In the case of closeted gay men, however, to name AIDS as their cause of death would have been to out them, which survivors and news media were reluctant to do. As a result, early in the epidemic, AIDS was often concealed under the vague rubric “a long illness.” That changed, of course, and the outing of many gay men by AIDS had a significant impact on public awareness of both homosexuality and AIDS. Thus, a most commonplace life-writing genre played a role in the gay rights movement.

15Other life-writing genres also registered the epidemic. Early on, when AIDS was not survivable, first-person narratives were limited to the diary (and there were not many of those) and the memoir by a grieving relative or partner. Eventually, however, new treatments made possible first-person narratives by survivors. With AIDS, as with breast cancer, then, autopathography played a powerful role in a minority rights movement. Prompted by death, or by life-threatening illness, memoir was revitalized by marginalized groups. So death by disease powerfully shaped American life writing in the last decades of the twentieth century.

16My interest in “vulnerable subjects” led me to scrutinize other genres of life narrative. Vulnerable subjects are individuals who are liable to harmful representation to which they are unable to respond. For the most part, these are people with disabilities that prevent or impede self-representation—such as severely autistic children, whose parents may represent them in memoir; or parents with dementia, whose children may assume authority over their life narratives. But my concern with vulnerable subjects prompted a critique of another type of life writing, narratives of assisted suicide, which is illegal in most of the United States and controversial throughout the States. These are typically written by family members who accept the decisions of their loved ones to end their lives and may even have collaborated or assisted in the suicides. As a result, such narratives belong to the genre of the apologia: they defend and justify an act or course of action taken by the author. In chapter 6 of Vulnerable Subjects, “Life Writing as Death Writing: Disability and Euthanography,” my objection is not to assisted suicide as such. Rather, what I find problematic about the narratives is the message of the medium: that death is better than disability. While these narratives honor choices of the deceased, they are inimical to the interests of people with serious disabilities, a very vulnerable population, by reinforcing the all-too-common assumption that they’d be better off dead. As assisted suicide gains more adherents and becomes legal in some jurisdictions, the significance of such narratives is all the greater.

17In my estimation, the dead also qualify as vulnerable subjects; they are susceptible to harm insofar as they have an interest in their posthumous legacies. A case in point is the New York Times obituary of Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face, an account of growing up with a face disfigured by treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma. Grealy died in 2002 of a heroin overdose, a cause of death that is often elided or disguised behind the phrase “died unexpectedly” or hinted at by reference to “a struggle with addiction.” Instead of either formulation, the Times obituary stated that Grealy had “died at a friend’s house . . . . She was 39. No cause of death was announced. Friends said she had been despondent over operations she underwent two years ago” (Lehmann-Haupt B7).

18Presumably, the editors thought they were doing her and her family a favor by not mentioning the cause of death. But by linking her death at such a young age to despondency over cosmetic surgeries, the obituary hints at suicide (another stigmatized and often concealed cause of death) impelled by shame about her appearance. In the U.S. today there is a trend toward candor about deaths from overdose, in the face of an epidemic of opioid abuse, and from suicide, at a time of troubling frequency among young and middle-aged people. Absent a suicide note, deaths by overdose are inherently ambiguous: unless the dosage is grossly excessive, it is impossible to know whether it was intended to kill. In Grealy’s case, she had resumed using heroin after a period of abstinence; at such times, it is common for users to overestimate their tolerance, so her death was almost certainly an accident.

19Although Grealy was in some sense a public figure, by virtue of the success of her memoir, the cause of her death is not really a matter of public interest. In this case, however, editorial media restraint about her drug use led to the implication of suicide. This is highly problematic because it conflicts with the thrust of her autobiography, which was that Grealy had come to terms with her face. That is not to say that she was content with her appearance—hence the repeated operations—but rather that she did not consider it a measure of her worth. In “Lucy Grealy and the Some Body Obituary,” (chapter 8 of Signifying Bodies) I argued that her obituary overwrote her self-authored narrative when she had no opportunity to respond. In writing her death the way it did, the obituary contradicted her own “life.”

20The issue is larger than Grealy. Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disabled lawyer, activist, and advocate, suffered a similar injury. She had publicly debated the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, challenging his view that it is permissible for parents to kill a disabled infant, and in her memoir Too Old to Die Young, she had written lyrically of the special pleasures of her disabled life—for example, being bathed by her care-giver. Yet when she died, the New York Times commissioned Singer to write her obituary, which was titled “Happy Nevertheless.” As Elizabeth Barnes points out, in The Minority Body, “McBryde went to great lengths . . . during her life to explain that she was not happy nevertheless. She was just happy, like so many other flourishing disabled people. But she wasn’t believed just as she predicted—in the very same paper—she wouldn’t be believed” (Barnes 138). Barnes refers to this conventional discounting of disabled individuals’ claims of good quality of life as a form of “testimonial injustice.” It is exacerbated in the case of obituaries: as post-mortem life-writing, obituaries are always at risk of violating the principles and values of those they presume to honor.

21Like the obituary, another thanatological life writing subgenre has been mostly overlooked by academics. This last death-related genre is far less common (thankfully) than the death notice, and it rarely appears in print. I am referring to the suicide note--the ultimate form, I suppose, of autothanatography and the closest that autobiography comes to including the death of the author. Like the narrative of assisted suicide, the suicide note defends and justifies the act; it, too, constitutes an apologia. Unlike the assisted-suicide narrative, however, the suicide note may also function as an apology to survivors, such as family and friends--expressing regret for causing them pain. Here again, life writing, understood inclusively, contains an overlooked subgenre focused on the death of its author.

22I can’t claim to have studied this subgenre. But I have some personal experience with an instance of it. When my father died, in addition to the cache of documents I discovered in his closet, I found a number of notes written on scraps of paper scattered around the house. When I finally worked up the courage, thirty years after he died, to review the documents and use them as the basis for a memoir, these texts were most resistant to interpretation. They were obviously written by my father; his handwriting is unmistakable. But unlike the correspondence in his closet, they lack any addressee: evidently he wrote them to and for himself alone. They were undated and so sketchy in their references that I cannot construct a sequence out of them, the way I can with his letters. Some consist only of lists—for example, of people he had admired; others contain quotations he found comforting. So they defy incorporation in a narrative. But they are distinctly autothanatological in two senses--or directions: some look backward, reflecting on my mother’s recent death; others look forward, reflecting on my father’s anticipated demise. There is no single “suicide note” here. But I read the scraps collectively as notes toward a suicide—an expression of what I describe as a slow-motion suicide with plausible deniability. That is, the notes confirm to me that my father knew that his drinking would end his life and he had resigned himself to that outcome, without quite admitting that he was actively committing suicide—not because he considered it a sin but because it would have amounted to giving up. Reading them as acknowledging his desire to die makes them painful for me to read. But there is some comfort in them, as well: insofar as he takes some responsibility for his death, he absolves me of my own responsibility, my guilt.

23My work, as reviewed here, has touched repeatedly, perhaps obsessively, on death; it would appear that my career has indeed been morbid. Though I never intended to focus on mortality, I cannot deny that there is a mortiferous thread running through my work. But there is another way to understand this preoccupation with death, other than as a way of my working through personal issues by intellectualizing: as a function of a more conscious concern for what I call the “work” of life writing. I address this most explicitly in “The Work of Memoir,” the final chapter of my last book, Memoir: An Introduction. The notion of “the work” of life writing has to do with my sense that, as non-fiction, life writing has a different relation to reality than fiction. I like to say that it exerts a kind of leverage, or traction, on the world that fiction lacks. Americanists who study life writing may be particularly attuned to work it does because of the importance of genres like the slave narrative in our literary tradition and our history. The project of slave narrative was simply to bring about the abolition of slavery. Once that “work” was done after the Civil War, the genre lost its raison d’être and dwindled to extinction, even though, ironically, all ex-slaves were at liberty to write their stories: the genre’s fulfillment was also its own annihilation.

24But life writing has continued to perform important cultural and political work. Although narratives of breast cancer and of HIV/AIDS illnesses were prompted in part by the authors’ awareness of mortality, they also were concerned with practices that marginalized women and gay people, respectively. Most, then, constitute what we call counter-discourse, and collectively these narratives helped to destigmatize the illnesses that provoked them. Memoirs have also been vital to other rights movements, such as the Civil Rights movement and the Disability Rights movements.

25Much, if not all, of my death-related work, then, can also be looked at in terms of the work that the life writing does—from “prophecy” in my dissertation, to defying death (in “The Shape of Death”), to harming the dead (in the case of Grealy’s obituary), and reinforcing ableism (in the case of euthanography). It is not always the case, then, that I endorse the work of life writing. But I have long been arguing convinced that it is crucial to understand what American life writing is doing. Often, and ideally, it is advocating for minority rights and human rights more generally.

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Barnes, Elizabeth. The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

Couser, G. Thomas. American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1979. Print.

-----. "Introduction: The Embodied Self." Special Issue. "Illness, Disability, and Life-Writing." a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 6.1 (Spring 1991): 1-7. Print.

-----. Memoir: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

-----. “The Shape of Death in American Autobiography.” The Hudson Review 31.1 (Spring 1978): 53‑66. Print.

-----. Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2009. Print.

-----. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997. Print.

-----. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004. Print.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Lucy Grealy, 39, Who Wrote a Memoir on Her Disfigurement.” New York Times, 21 December 2002: B7. Print.

Singer, Peter. “Happy Nevertheless.” New York Times Magazine, 24 December 2008. 34. Print.

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Référence électronique

Thomas COUSER, « Foreword », E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6020

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Thomas Couser is Professor of English Emeritus and Founding Director of Disability Studies Program at Hofstra University, New York, USA. He is an eminent specialist of the fields of autobiography and disability studies. His publications include six books, about fifty articles and book chapters and many personal essays. In 2012, he published Memoir: An introduction (OUP) and he is about to publish a memoir of his own father.

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