When I was in my mid-twenties, an aspiring writer casting about for material, I made a date with my friend Laura to visit the cadaver she was dissecting for anatomy class. Her professor had invited his first-year medical students to share the rite of passage with a friend or family member, and Laura—who hated anatomy class—had chosen me. “I would never inflict this on anyone else,” she said, “but I thought you might like to write about it.” Implicit in her assumption was the notion, both perverse and correct, that a writer seeking a story will readily, even gladly, undertake the kinds of encounters most others go to great lengths to avoid. And while I had no prior affinity for the subject of human dissection, I was indeed intrigued by Laura’s morbid observations: how cutting into the cadaver’s chest for the first time made her feel guilty, as though she were desecrating the body and causing the woman pain. How, when she put the plastic bag back over the woman’s head, she could not dispel the feeling she was suffocating her, “killing her further.” How she loathed the smell of formaldehyde, which, after two and a half hours in the lab, seeped into her hair and skin, seeming to embalm her. And how, afterward, upon first seeing her boyfriend’s undressed body, there was a moment in which he too had seemed a corpse. “He walked into the bathroom fully clothed,” she said, “and when he came out again, he was naked. And for an instant he was only a body, and his penis, which was unexcited, hanging there, was just dead flesh, a dead thing.”
I wanted to hear more about Laura’s experience, but I noticed that my own attitude toward the visit was one of cynicism. Not only was I treating the cadaver as a mere curiosity, but there was a hint of self-satisfaction in my conviction that its sight would not affect me—I think it derived from a leftover tomboyish belief that invulnerability is always preferable to fear. I envisioned the piece I would write (the organs gleaming like gemstones), as though the visit itself were a formality. Yet such irreverence troubled me. The notion of going to see a cadaver with the prior knowledge I would write about it struck me as manipulative. If I described the lab scene to a trusting reader, but while in the lab had thought only of its literary potential, must a truthful rendering of that scene thus include admission of my mindset? And what of the poor cadaver, whose former occupant had decided to bequeath her body to the medical school, but had likely not foreseen an outcome such as this? Finally I wondered about the repercussions of undergoing certain “significant” experiences simply because they might provide fodder for one’s stories. In Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard asks her students which of them want to be writers, and then she tells them what the decision must mean: “You can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax…” The line had long appealed to me—Dillard’s vision of the artist, whom she later describes as a kind of sacrificial flame, is flattering, particularly if, as she asserts, “the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.” But until I visited Laura’s cadaver, I had always assumed it was one’s past one must attack. It had never occurred to me that one must “go at” one’s present and future as well.
Several days before my trip to the lab, my friend Sarah and I shared a cab uptown; we were on our way to a black-tie birthday party. “Guess what I’m doing on Friday,” I said. “I’m going to see Laura’s cadaver.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to handle it?” she asked. I said I thought that I would.
There was a pause, and then she asked, “Have you ever seen a dead body before?”
“No, never,” I said, just as I remembered that Sarah’s mother had died a few months earlier, and that she was not an appropriate person with whom to be discussing cadavers.
The moment passed quickly, but I was embarrassed. It soon dawned on me that the lightness with which I had been approaching the visit was not a form of strength, but rather a failure to perceive the intrinsic relationship between Laura’s cadaver and Sarah’s mother; and further, a failure to perceive the potential relationship between Laura’s cadaver and my father, who had nearly died three years before. He had been diagnosed with kidney cancer when I was a child; though his kidney was successfully removed, a diagnosis of bladder cancer had followed shortly afterward. His bladder was removed when I was twenty—the doctors were able to fashion a new bladder from his large intestine—but there were complications, and he was confined to the ICU for a stretch of several weeks. “It was touch and go there for a little while,” his surgeon later told me. Nevertheless, my father survived, and, for the first time in nine years, he was cancer-free. That was the same month Sarah’s mother learned that she had colon cancer.
My father’s death had held enormous power for me the whole time I was growing up. When I thought of what it felt like, the glaring fact of his impermanence, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf on losing her mother at fifteen: “To have that protection removed, to be tumbled out of the family shelter, to see the cracks and gashes in that fabric, to be cut by them, to see beyond them…” The prospect of that violence loomed for years. But by the time I stepped into the cab that night, the fabric had repaired itself, and the realm beyond the fabric was obscured. The loss of those closest to me had once again become something that wouldn’t actually happen. Death would intrude tangentially, killing friends’ pets, their grandfathers and even their mothers, but from me it would always remain one step removed.
The door to the lab was stainless steel, inlaid with a panel of opaque glass that blazed a blinding white. When Laura opened the door to a room full of sunlight, the space seemed—in that first instant—cheerful and fresh. The far wall was a wall of windows, showing a near bird’s eye view of the dorms across the street, and three large, leafy plants hung from the ceiling. There were heavily marked blackboards on the two end walls; two skeletons with blood-red pelvises dangled in the corner. The room itself was long and thin. Eight stainless steel tables were arranged lengthwise in rows of four, and on these tables were eight bulky shapes, concealed by sheets of neon green plastic. The only disconcerting aspect was the smell, which was not as overpowering as I’d imagined, but cloying and faintly vile nonetheless. And I was surprised that the bodies were simply lying there—I had assumed they would be put away when not in use.
Laura’s cadaver was in the near left-hand corner, next to her dissection tools and the bowl in which she placed the organs during class. She prepared to lift the sheet and paused: “Are you ready?”
“I’m nervous!” I said. I knew that the woman had died at 87, and that her name was Nancy. But that I had no vision of what the sheet would reveal was incredibly disconcerting. I didn’t know whether to look away and see the body all at once, or to watch as Laura pulled back the plastic. I ended up watching with half-closed eyes, but the cadaver—which needed to stay wet—remained partly masked by several layers of clear plastic. When Laura folded these back, my first reaction was not horror but surprise: Nancy didn’t look human at all.
I know,” said Laura. “Some look a lot more alive than others. I think she’s been dead a long time.” The cadaver’s skin was a light beige color, and her body was misshapen, wrinkled and hard—she resembled a deflated, human-shaped balloon. Her limbs and torso lacked the curves of a live body, but her hands, still wrapped in plastic, were perfectly formed and cemented into loose fists. I touched them through the bag, at the bottom of which pooled clear yellow liquid. I had read that medical students usually cite seeing their cadaver’s hands as the most emotional part of the process—the moment when they are able to connect their cadaver to the living person he or she once was—but the hands didn’t bother me. “They don’t bother me either,” Laura said. “I think because I was expecting that they would.”
What did bother me was the cadaver’s face, which was still covered by a plastic bag and stiffened into an expression of disapproval. Her eyes were closed; her stringy, reddish hair was plastered to her skull. She had been lying on her face when she was stored, and as a result her nose was flattened and angled to one side. Most disturbing was her wiry black mustache, the kind of mustache that repels me even when I see it on old women who are still alive. Later I asked Laura if she felt any fondness toward her cadaver. She admitted that while she was abstractly thankful to Nancy for donating her body, she did not feel bonded to her in any way. “I’m not attracted to her as a human being. Maybe I would have felt a connection to another cadaver. There’s one who still has nail polish on her hands. Or if it had been a child, god forbid. But I don’t know. The mustache…” She trailed off.
Laura had started dissecting the thorax several weeks before, and there was a large incision down the middle of the cadaver’s chest, and through one of her breasts. Parting the skin, Laura revealed a layer of muscle that was fibrous and looked like canned tuna fish. (“A lot of students have become vegetarians since this began,” she said.) Opening the chest made the fetid smell much stronger; it became difficult to breathe through my nose. Laura removed the ribs, and then picked up a dense brownish lump the size of an apple. It was the heart. I peered into the hole the missing heart had made; I could see a few circular valves, but that was all. The formaldehyde had colored everything—skin, muscles, heart, and bones—the same light dull brown, and it was difficult to distinguish the body’s various parts. There was no trace of the plump and variegated organs I had imagined describing before. Laura returned the heart and repositioned the ribs, and I helped her fold back the flaps of skin, which felt tough and rubbery. I studied the face one last time before replacing the plastic.
I looked at a second cadaver before we left. It was not against the rules, but it made Laura uncomfortable, and she made me pull back the sheet myself. Later she explained her uneasiness: “Whenever I feel like my actions are not strictly for the sake of science, I start feeling disrespectful. When I first started, I was more curious about their private parts than other parts, and it made me feel awful.” This cadaver had been a large man, and looked slightly more lifelike and kindly than the first. His eyes were partly open, but though I bent down to try and see his eyeballs, I couldn’t make them out. He had short black bristles on his face, as though he hadn’t shaved in a few days, and I thought how hair— which is dead to begin with and looks no different on them than on us—was the most difficult part to see. Before covering him up, I could not help looking at his penis, the base of which another student had already started to dissect. The pubic bone of the first cadaver had repulsed and shamed me slightly. It had been covered in long, sparse hair, and seemed, indecently, to rise higher than the rest of her. But looking at this man’s penis gave me a weird feeling of comfort. It lay between his legs, and fat and muscle erupted from a few diagonal cuts around its base. For the first time since entering the lab, I felt pleased by the mass of fat and muscle that must lie behind my own skin. For the first time, the concept of possessing an extraordinary but fallible body made perfect sense.
“Let’s go,” Laura said. “I hate it here.” I could have stayed longer, but hurriedly covered the second cadaver and dumped my gloves and apron in the hazardous waste container by the door. I walked to the subway through cold, bright air; I felt dazed, and wholly distinct from those I passed. The scent of formaldehyde came and went in waves, and though I’d scrubbed my hands, my fingers still smelt sweet. Once on the train, I started to imagine my fellow passengers in bags—slimy and sickening, stretched out on stainless steel tables. I was not particularly upset, but now that I had seen the cadavers, I never wanted to think of them again. They struck me as ghoulish and distasteful. The thought of Nancy in particular—of how repellant I had found her mustache—made me feel guilty. I remembered what Laura had said about her professor’s emphasis on respecting the bodies: “I feel like it’s impossible to respect them. We’re cutting them up, looking at them in places they didn’t want to be seen when they were alive. How can they be respected when they’re so vulnerable?” But Laura was dissecting Nancy for the sake of medicine. What was my excuse?
I was exhausted when I got home and immediately curled up in bed. I napped for five hours, and when I woke up, it was dark. Before falling asleep, I had hugged my own body to me—it suddenly seemed delicious. Earlier I’d asked Laura if she had become any less attracted to her boyfriend since anatomy class began. “No, not at all,” she said. “If anything, I’m more attracted to him. I feel lucky to be touching a body that’s healthy and warm.” I knew what she meant. I thought of the bodies I had touched, imagined their insides—soft, pulsing, bloody, and alive. And I remember, as I drifted off, reconciling myself to the day’s events: death was simply not something I had to worry about for a while.
“Every journalist,” Janet Malcolm wrote in 1989, “who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” These are the opening lines to The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm’s extended meditation on the journalist-subject relationship, a relationship, she contends, that is “invariably and inescapably” unequal. Malcolm takes as her exhibit the lawsuit of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against the writer Joe McGinniss, arguing that their predicament (McGinniss allegedly feigned belief in MacDonald’s innocence in order to retain his trust), can be seen as “a grotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter.” In particular, Malcolm is troubled by what she calls “the dire theme of Promethean theft, of transgression in the service of creativity, of stealing as the foundation of making.” Although she acknowledges that a subject may occasionally accept what has been written about him, “this doesn’t make the writer any less a thief.”
The Journalist and the Murderer gave rise to much controversy when it was originally published, not least because of Malcolm’s failure to acknowledge her own role in an ongoing libel lawsuit that involved several of the kinds of journalistic improprieties of which she had accused McGinniss. “Malcolm appears to have created a snake swallowing its own tail,” Albert Scardino wrote in the New York Times. “She attacks the ethics of all journalists, including herself, and then fails to disclose just how far she has gone in the past in acting the role of the journalistic confidence man.” Gratifying as it may be to witness the deflation of a writer as smug as Janet Malcolm, however, any condemnation of The Journalist and the Murderer that rests upon its author’s own duplicity is an evasion of the central issue. Errol Morris levels a more compelling criticism when he argues, in his book A Wilderness of Error, that Malcolm’s transformation of the association between MacDonald and McGinniss into “a generic problem of journalism” is “like creating a general theory of relationships based on Iago’s relationship with Othello.” Then, too, there is the matter of the work’s self-righteousness and maddening rejection of nuance: Why include the phrase “without remorse” at the end of that second sentence, for instance, unless you are more interested in riling up your reader than you are in making a good faith argument? And yet, legitimate though these objections are, they do not diminish the potency of the ethical dilemma Malcolm describes. Indeed, The Journalist and the Murderer remains our best articulation of the tension that arises whenever we sit down to write about real people—a tension, I would suggest, that is even more problematic for the personal essayist or memoirist than it is for the journalist.
Implicit in Malcolm’s contention that the relationship between a journalist and his subject is “lopsided” is that their contract (spoken or unspoken) is lopsided. But at least there is usually a contract. In the case of MacDonald and McGinniss, it was agreed that MacDonald would neither share his story with another writer nor sue for libel; in return, he would be given 26.5 percent of McGinniss’s advance and 33 percent of his royalties. Heretical as these terms may seem—“I think Joe should be ashamed of himself,” David Halberstam said of the arrangement—they would likely appeal to the subject of a memoir who has agreed to nothing at all. (This is assuming, of course, that you don’t call befriending, associating with, or giving birth to a nonfiction writer an indication of consent.) The lack of rights afforded such a subject is no doubt why some memoirists attempt—or say they attempt—to put in place a contract of their own, one that goes far beyond the terms to which most journalists commit themselves. “I showed my manuscript to the people I was writing about and let them say whether it was appropriate or not,” writes Jill Ker Conway in “Points of Departure.” “I think it’s an invasion of privacy not to.” Ian Frazier says some- thing similar: “I told almost everybody who is in my book what I wrote about them; I asked their permission.” Annie Dillard did the same, “promis[ing] to take out anything that anyone objects to—anything at all. I don’t believe in a writer’s kicking around people who don’t have access to a printing press. They can’t defend themselves.” I imagine such solicitude is the exception; the majority of writers I know wait until their final galleys to reveal what they have written, precisely so as to avoid making the kinds of changes that their subjects might demand—changes, it is worth noting, that would likely lessen the value of the work even as they absolve the writer ethically. But would they absolve the writer ethically? We already know how Malcolm would respond: a subject’s endorsement does not change the fact of a writer’s thievery.
At the same time, many nonfiction writers, including those who extend extraordinary protections to the living, do not feel the same accountability to the dead. “I couldn’t have written The Road from Coorain while my mother was living,” says Conway. “She would have struck me dead.” Says Dillard: “I tried to leave out anything that might trouble my family. … Everybody I’m writing about is alive and well”—the implication being that those who are not alive and well need not be granted the same consideration. But why should writing about a corpse relieve the writer of moral responsibility? Who is less capable of “defending himself” than a dead man? Moreover, doesn’t this illogicality suggest that the impulse on the part of the nonfiction writer to assuage his living subjects, far from being the principled gesture he would have us (and himself) believe, is rather an attempt to shield himself from blame? To his credit, Frazier seems to acknowledge something similar when he says that guilt—the “headwind that you sail into” when writing memoir—“is a form of narcissism.” Describing the experience of writing about his great-grandfather, he imagines the “outrage” the old man might have felt had someone pointed at Frazier in childhood and said, “This little kid… is going to tell a lot of people what your life meant, he’s going to be the sole repository of your good name.” And yet Frazier’s solution, messy and refreshingly cynical, is not a solution at all: “give all your money to charity,” he says, “or whatever makes you feel less guilty, and then you can work, because the reader doesn’t care how guilty you feel.”
Work: Has it not been curiously absent from this discussion, a discussion that hinges, after all, on the question of whether subject or creation is more deserving of the writer’s loyalty? This void is partly the fault of Malcolm, who preempts all inquiry on the matter in her first paragraph. “Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments,” she writes. “The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.” Perhaps Malcolm is suggesting an impregnable divide between art and journalism, or perhaps she is merely making the point that artistry is an invalid justification for journalistic source betrayal; regardless, her implication is that “transgression in the service of creativity” is—for the journalist—at all times unethical. Less clear, however, is her attitude toward the responsibilities of the memoirist or personal essayist. Although Malcolm draws a sharp distinction between the writer of fiction and nonfiction, arguing that the former is “entitled to more privileges” than his fact-bound counterpart, she tends to use the terms “journalist” and “nonfiction writer” interchangeably, and never acknowledges that the genre of nonfiction comprises many more subsets than journalism alone. Is this an oversight on Malcolm’s part, or does she mean to imply that the literary nonfiction writer is as treacherous—and as culpable—as his journalistic colleague? Might Annie Dillard cite the prospect of a “world without light” as a legitimate excuse for writing about family, or is she no more justified than Joe McGinniss in “talking about Art”? The answers to these questions, problematically elusive, are also immaterial to the nonfiction writer who is seeking Malcolm’s approbation: the quandary at the heart of The Journalist and the Murderer goes unresolved, and Malcolm’s continuing career as a journalist suggests that she, like all nonfiction writers who recognize their perfidies and even so refuse to relinquish their pens, has also chosen work. “There is an infinite variety of ways in which journalists struggle with the moral impasse that is the subject of this book,” she concludes. “The wisest know that the best they can do … is still not good enough.”
The day after my visit to the lab, I received a call from the vet: my cat Thomas had tested “equivocal” for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, the feline equivalent to HIV. “What does ‘equivocal’ mean?” I asked.
“It means he’s somewhere between positive and negative.”
“But what does that mean?”
“We don’t know yet,” she said, and recommended I bring him in for a more definitive blood test. She told me that some FIV-positive cats live long, happy lives, and that others die quickly. My mother told me worrying wouldn’t help. “Think of Grammy Jean,” she said. “She was alone for five years while my father was at war. I remember asking her once if she was worried all the time. ‘You just can’t live your life like that,’ she said.”
The next week I woke early to take Thomas to the vet. I was already dressed when I noticed the dead mouse. It was on its back, its little teeth bared; its grey fur was matted, as though chewed on, and one of its hind legs was bloody. I yelped, and that night dreamed that the walls and windowsills of my childhood home were swarming with rats.
My parents arrived from Boston the following morning; British and Australian immigrants, they had expressed an uncharacteristic interest in joining me for Thanksgiving. My father carried up the bags and promptly stepped on a second dead mouse that was lying on the carpet. “Ah—a nest!” he exclaimed. We put the turkey in the fridge, went for a walk along the river, and then sat in my living room waiting for the kettle to boil. When there was a lull in the conversation, my mother looked at my father and then at me. “We have some bad news, I’m afraid.”
I looked at my father. “You’re sick.”
“Yes,” he said.
Several weeks before, his routine CAT scan had revealed black spots on his lungs. There were three possibilities: it could be lung cancer, which was untreatable. It could be kidney cancer, which was untreatable. Or it could be bladder cancer, which was more often than not contained with chemotherapy. Because my father’s oncologist had recently retired, it took nearly a month to schedule and receive the results of a biopsy. My parents had learned only the day before that the black spots were bladder cancer.
“Oh darling, it’s been awful,” my mother said. “You can imagine—while you were worrying about Thomas, I was worrying about Dad. But there was no point in telling you until we knew something ourselves.”
“But bladder cancer is good?” I asked.
They hesitated. In the past few weeks, my father had also been complaining of back pain, and his new doctor thought the disease may have already spread to his bones. A bone scan scheduled for the following week would decide the matter definitively.
“What does it mean if it’s in your bones?” I asked, remembering that Sarah’s mother had died very soon after the cancer had shown up in her vertebrae.
“We just don’t know,” my mother said.
“It’s bad,” my father said.
I could feel tears rising in the back of my throat, but they rose no further. I was not surprised. It seemed inevitable, as though I had been distrustful of my father’s health all along—as though part of me had never stopped believing he would die while I was still slightly too young to be fatherless.
That night we rented March of the Penguins—eggs cracking in the cold and fluffy chicks being carried off by vultures. We were still watching the opening credits when there was a scrabbling sound in the kitchen: Oscar, my other cat, had caught a third mouse. He held it tightly in his mouth and ran in excited circles around a kitchen chair. The mouse was only a baby; still trapped between Oscar’s jaws, it waved its little legs and a minute later died. My father scooped it up and dropped it down the garbage chute like the rest, and we continued with the film. But the incident had made me anxious, and I was unable to concentrate. When Oscar later sat on my lap, I was repulsed—I could not dispel the image of the mouse struggling inside his jaws.
My parents left as soon as the movie ended. I was brushing my teeth and Oscar hovering by the stove when he suddenly lunged at something underneath it. He emerged with a fourth mouse that was very dark grey and even smaller than the third. “Okay, Oscar, drop it,” I said, assuming he would kill it as quickly as he had the one before. But instead he carried it into the bathroom, and when Thomas and I followed him, he turned on us, crouched low, and hissed. I was frightened—I had never heard him make such a sound before. “Please, Oscar, just kill it,” I pleaded. “Please just kill it, please.” I watched as again and again he let the mouse run alongside the bathtub, only to attack it when it reached the wall. In its brief moments of freedom, the mouse sat motionless on hind legs, front paws raised. It was already wounded, but I lacked the courage to kill it myself. “Please just kill it,” I repeated, crying now. “Please, Oscar, just kill it.”
The mouse refused to die. It made a break for the living room, skirting the contours of the wall, and there Oscar caught it again and batted it across the wooden floor; he caught it again, and this time succeeded at lifting it into the air with his two front paws. When he finally dropped it, the mouse ran into the closet and inside one of my boots. I became hysterical. “Oscar, please just kill it,” I wailed. The words had become comfortable, a kind of prayer. “Please, Oscar, just kill it. Goddamnit, Oscar, kill it!” I sat on the floor and sobbed. There were so many times that my father had slipped past death—how could he possibly do it again? I tried to perceive the world without him; it seemed insufferably dark. And yet the longer I sat sobbing, watching Oscar claw at my boot, the more conscious I became of the thematic promise of my situation. One half of me was utterly consumed by grief. But the other half was plotting, arranging the events of the past week into a coherent narrative of death: I was writing the story of the cadavers and my father and the mice even as it happened. I understood that this severing of myself from myself was the very violence Dillard had described, but I was still appalled by my elation, by the fact that even on this first day I could not protect my father from the ruthlessness of a writing mind.
Oscar eventually retrieved the mouse and carried it back to the bathroom. It had grown weak; now when he dropped it on the floor, it simply lay there. It was still alive when, 45 minutes after the initial pounce, I could stand the game no longer and swept it into a dustpan. Once inside, the mouse curled up with its eyes closed. Its wounds were hidden, and it looked peaceful, as though it were sleeping. I was still crying when I took it out into the hall.
I called my father soon afterward to say that Oscar had caught mouse number four. “Tomorrow we’ll block up the mouse hole,” he said. I told him I felt sorry for it. “Oh, Katharine,” he said. “Your heart’s too large. You saw the movie—nature’s cruel.”
During his sole conversation with Janet Malcolm, Joe McGinniss quoted her a passage from a Thomas Mann essay:
The look that one directs at things, both outward and inward, as an artist, is not the same as that with which one would regard the same as a man, but at once colder and more passionate. As a man, you might be well-disposed, patient, loving, positive, and have a wholly uncritical inclination to look upon everything as all right, but as an artist your daemon constrains you to “observe,” to take note, lightning fast and with hurtful malice, of every detail that in the literary sense would be characteristic, distinctive, significant, opening insights, typifying the race, the social or the psychological mode, recording all as mercilessly as though you had no human relationship to the observed object whatsoever.
As well as lamenting the fact that an unlearned jury would likely not be swayed by this defense, McGinniss spoke of “compartmentalizing” the feelings of friendship he held for Jeffrey MacDonald. While ever mindful of his status as “the author,” “the first letter I got from the guy, written eighteen hours after his conviction, brought tears to my eyes. I felt genuine sorrow.” McGinniss’s predicament is admittedly extreme—I don’t think anyone would challenge the notion that he crossed an ethical line—but his description of an internal divide between his author self and his human self is uncannily familiar. “I am of an indefensible order of the human,” says Wiley Silenowicz, the alter ego of fiction writer and memoirist Harold Brodkey, reflecting upon the fraudulence of his position. “It is cheap and special to be like me: you never have to live, or know how people live: you never have to feel except as notes for scenes.” In addition to highlighting the layer of invulnerability with which a writer approaches his own life—the same invulnerability I first noticed in my attitude toward the lab visit—Brodkey is uneasy about the moral implications of the artist’s role. But while “indefensible” is also Malcolm’s word, the suggestion here—one with which Mann would almost certainly agree—is that the very duplicity that is indefensible for the human is, for the artist, a requirement.
Almost exactly one year after the events I have described, my father died of bladder cancer in his lungs and spine. I was not with him at the time, but I boarded a train for Boston that same hour, and I remember so vividly the experience of sitting in the quiet car, trying to wrap my mind around his death, while at the same time watching myself in the quiet car try to wrap my mind around his death. By then I was accustomed to this doubleness, this hovering daemon—I had embarked months ago on a book about my father’s life, and the daemon’s frequent appearance, not wholly unpleasant, struck me as both necessary and forgivable. I was equally unconcerned by the kinds of ethical questions that had once seemed pressing and now seemed naïve, so that when I opened the door to my parents’ living room—the body lay in a hospital bed where the dining table had been, a white sheet drawn to its shoulders—it did not occur to me that my father, my subject, was now more vulnerable than he had ever been; or that my book, thick with his transgressions, was not now more acceptable, but less.
Nearly seven years have passed since then, and in that time—during which the writing life and its requirements have ceased to be a novelty—the urgency of these moral concerns has only continued to diminish. My book is complete; I am nervous when I imagine the reaction of its living characters, but I don’t plan on showing it to them until it is too late. (Thomas, by the way, is fine—his sec- ond blood test came back negative.) And yet, as I write this, it occurs to me that the way in which the ethical ambiguities of this profession receded from view has a similar feel to the way in which death receded from view; and I wonder whether—in the same manner that the child who saw with terror what lay be- yond the fabric was in some respects wiser than the woman I would become by 21—the aspiring writer who was for several weeks consumed by the brazenness of her betrayal might not have a message that is equally worth keeping in mind.
Your father is no different from that cadaver, she would say. Look at him. Look at him: from the threshold he is himself, but when you move closer, you will see that his face morphs into something other, something fantastic, something so simultaneously like and unlike the person he was the day before. He is not embalmed, of course: if you dissect him—and you will dissect him—he will bleed. But he is pale, and, though his skin is slack, he, too, will give the impression of being immensely hard all over, as if that skin were made of wax. And then, when you move closer still and see the top of his head, you will notice that his hair is matted and oily, thinner than you remember it, and suddenly you won’t want to touch him; you will hate being in that room with him, and you will flee without looking back.