I’m sorry to say it, but Twitter gives me the blues. Lots of behavior on social media in general makes me feel sort of sad, particularly the way we use these venues to show “the world” what we’re “all about.” There’s nothing like following someone you know in real life on Tumblr or Instagram to find out that you don’t like that person as much as you thought you did.
Lest you think that I think I’m immune to any of this, I don’t, and I’m not. I do, however, have a hearty fear of making an ass of myself, and since I’m not much for socializing to begin with I have avoided becoming deeply involved with most social networking websites. I am not now and never was on Facebook, for instance. For years that shit creeped me out, and now it just looks boring. I was also very late to the party on Twitter, tried it for half a year, then quickly became irritated and embarrassed by the puffed-up egos on that website—including my own—and deleted the account.
But there are a lot of useful resources on Twitter, at least for someone like me. I recently signed up for and started taking what looks to be an excellent certificate course on editing offered jointly by the American Copy Editors Society and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to journalists. The first class has directed me to a number of useful resources, including reliable ways to keep abreast of updates to style guides, such as following them on Twitter. The Associated Press style guide is on there; so is the Chicago Manual. @APStylebook even hosts live Q&A sessions via hashtag chats. Merriam-Webster has a lively presence there too. The dictionary tweets a word of the day, and regularly interacts with people by answering their questions and appreciating their nerdy puns.
Earlier this week I decided that since I’d like to make use of these resources, I should start a new Twitter account and use it only to access information like this. I’ll maintain a purely professional persona on the website, and not show off how clever or cool I am or get pulled into posting strident, smug commentary on political and social issues. I figured it would be easy for me to carve out an isolated space on there, since I’d only be following dictionaries, style guides, and other copy editors who tweet primarily about industry news and proofreading tips.
But I was wrong. At about 6:00 pm EST on Super Bowl Sunday, Merriam-Webster retweeted a post from one of its staff members, lexicographer Peter Sokolowski:
Then just two days ago, the dictionary tweeted that lookups of the word “impugn” were spiking, then posted this article about Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell accusing Senator Elizabeth Warren of “impugn[ing] the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” Jeff Sessions, in the talk she gave to express her opposition to Sessions’ nomination to Attorney General. People understandably wanted to be sure they understood the meaning of impugn, which is, according to its entry in Merriam-Webster, “to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity <impugned the defendant’s character>.” But the Senate rule that McConnell invoked to stop Warren from continuing to read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Sessions does not use that word; it uses the etymologically unrelated word “impute,” which means “to lay the responsibility or blame for, often falsely or unjustly.” I found this information useful, pertinent, and timely (and I couldn’t help but feel pleased that the person I view as being on the wrong side of this conversation, McConnell, had used the wrong word, like a fool). Later in the week, more light-heartedly and with an attitude of celebration, the dictionary tweeted about the new words it added this year, which include side-eye, face-palm, and the slang usage of the word shade—all fun, trendy things that got people talking and joking and sharing Paris is Burning memes.
I read all this, enjoyed it, and got caught up in thinking about which, if any of these, I would retweet (to find out you can have a look at my Twitter account, and please feel free to “follow” me on there). And then I had to scold myself. Of course I couldn’t use language, or even grammar and usage, as some sort of hideout from the real world. Language isn’t divorced from reality; it’s a reflection of it, a description of the world and everything in it—politics and ego included.
A blurb on the cover of my 1970 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, from the Saturday Review, calls it “a gorgeous little book about books.”
It is a gorgeous little book, the nonfiction account, told through letters, of an American woman’s long-distance friendship with the sellers at an antiquarian bookshop in London, beginning just after World War II. Helene Hanff was a writer from New York who initially wrote to the shop in 1949 after seeing their ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. She sent them a list of the books she most hoped to find (her “most pressing problems,” which included Hazlitt’s Selected Essays and a collection of Leigh Hunt’s) and received a polite reply that they would be sending her two of them and had begun looking for the others. She wrote back, immediately addressing the very polite British bookseller, Frank Doel (pronounced Noel), in a teasing way (“I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here”), sometimes using ALL CAPS on her typewriter. It’s obvious she couldn’t help herself, New Yorker that she was. She wanted to bring out his more human side, and in time he shared it.
Helene keeps writing, looking for more books, and at some point she finds out from the British boyfriend of her young neighbor just how severe the food rations in the UK were at that time: 2 ounces of meat per family per month, 1 egg per person per month, he told her, and this was after the war had ended! Shocked, she sends them food she chose from the catalog of a British company that imports things from Denmark, which is how the boyfriend has been sending his mother gifts of food. This is the beginning of the real warmth between Helene and Frank et al, though a true friendship had started—and continued, as she kept asking them to try to find “dear goofy John Henry” and some love poems, but “No Keats or Shelley, send me some poets who can make love without slobbering”—over the love of books, particularly old ones.
“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” Helene reveals, which I found to be a very interesting thing to say. Later, she writes:
I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVRE read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
So yes, this is a book about books, and about reading. It’s also about the romance of bookstores, and the sweet, surprising communities that can form around them. 84, Charing Cross Road is interesting to contemporary readers, too, because it contains so many anecdotal reminders of just how different things were before the internet, and before air travel was as inexpensive and commonplace as it is today. When Helene first wrote to Marks & Co., the UK, still reeling from the war, seemed a very different and far away place. Over the 20 years of their correspondence, we see the gap between the UK and the US begin to close. By the 60s, Frank’s letters report on the hordes of tourists who come through London each summer, many of them Americans making a “pilgrimage” to Carnaby Street. “…I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”
Besides all that, though, this is a book about friendship—friendship of a certain, long-distance, partly-imaginary kind. In Helene’s letters to her “friends at 84, Charing Cross Road” she sometimes imagines out loud what the cramped, dusty, Dickensian bookstall must look like. She romanticizes them like crazy, but invites them to do the same to her, making herself into a charming caricature of the brash New Yorker. But Helene also talks about visiting them one day, and seems to mean it. Frank (as well as his wife Nora, in separate letters) and two of the women who work at the bookshop all invite her many times to come visit them, each offering to put her up in their flat or house for as long as she liked.
Year after year, she didn’t go. Money was always a concern. Though she had it pretty good in comparison to the deprivation the English people were still dealing with, she was living the writer’s life (a “freelancer’s” life, we’d say today), and had an unsteady income. Sometimes someone would like her idea for a TV show and offer to pay her a bundle for the script, but other times, she’d work for months on plays that no one wanted to produce. During the period that she was making good money writing murder mysteries for the TV series Ellery Queen, Helene entertained the idea of going to London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. But then she needed to pay for a lot of expensive dental work, and she didn’t make the trip.
She was there in spirit, though. I love thinking of Helene “crawl[ing] out of bed before dawn on Coronation Day to attend the ceremony by radio…thinking of you all” because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. The idea of setting aside solitary time to “be with” someone else in my thoughts appeals to me deeply, loner that I am. Helene Hanff never married, and when I picture the single-lady’s apartment she describes in her letters, with its battered furniture and steady supply of coffee and books (and cigarettes and gin drinks as well, Helene admits; me too), I’m really picturing my own life, the one I had for years before I was married, and all its solitary pleasures.
Such as letter writing. I have a number of pen-pals, maybe around 20 people who I write letters to regularly, some of them for years now. I collect new pen-pals on a regular basis, too, usually through zines. Someone I’ll meet at a zine fair (or who I’ve sold my zines to, or traded mine for theirs) will write me a letter, and then we’re off and running! When I lived alone, sending and receiving these letters constituted a major part of my social life. Most of it, some years, if I’m honest. I have learned that there is a strong similarity between these kinds of friendships and the kinship you can find in books. A human connection is made, in a very real way, but from a distance, and in solitude. It’s a certain kind of person who seeks out this kind of connection—and who sometimes, at least in some ways, prefers it to time spent in another person’s company. I have been this kind of person; I bet a lot of writers have. It has something to do with the life of the imagination, for sure, but it’s a self-protective thing too. You can have a very close bond with a long-distance friend and still feel safe, intact, yourself.
By 1956, Helene announces that she’s been “socking money” away in a savings account, and if “TV keeps feeding [her]” she’ll make a trip to England the next summer. But then her landlord sells the building and she gets evicted from her apartment. She decides to buy one in a new building that hasn’t been constructed yet, and spends all her “England money” on the place and new furniture for it.
The eviction and the dental work were real, unavoidable drains on Helene’s finances, and besides that, I’m aware that in the 1950s, the average middle class person didn’t hop on planes and take trips whenever they felt like it. But it seemed clear to me, reading Helene’s letters, that she was always reticent about traveling to England, that it was something she liked to think and talk about, but maybe never took that seriously as a plan. You get the feeling—and in one letter, to an American friend, she admits to this possibility—she’d rather keep on dreaming about her English friends than meet them in person and have the fantasy spoiled.
SPEAKING OF SPOILED, THE REST OF THIS ESSAY GIVES AWAY THE BOOK’S ENDING. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!
In the end, Helene never makes the trip she talked about so much. In October of 1969 she receives a letter from Frank, writing animatedly about tourists and Jane Austen and plans for Christmas (“we are all very much alive and kicking,” he begins), and less than three months later she receives one from the secretary at Marks & Co., who has had to write to tell her that Frank died. His appendix ruptured, which gave him the peritonitis that killed him a week later. Anyone who reads the book would find this terribly sad, and I certainly did. Joe caught me crying on the couch after I finished it, as he has many times after I’ve put down a good, touching book.
But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this as an ending to the story. The thing is, I kept wanting Helene and her English friends to meet in person, even though I knew all along that they wouldn’t. (I’ve seen the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, in which they DO meet, and later read about how that never really happened. The movie, incidentally, is also wonderful.) What I don’t understand is why I was wishing for this. Have I lost my capacity for wistfulness? I used to be comprised almost entirely of wist. And anyway, that’s the point of this book. You’re supposed to read it and feel that sense of longing for something that can never be. You’re supposed to enjoy feeling that feeling. It’s like nostalgia—the kind of melancholy that feels good.
I guess what surprises me is that I don’t like that idea as much as I have in the past. I don’t have much capacity these days for enjoying the space between aloneness and closeness, for feeling the pleasure of that friction. I don’t want to want things and not get them. I want the people I love to be with me, and to never lose them. I want to do the things I want to do soon, and not risk missing out on them. I want life to be vibrant, and I want it not to end.
Maybe it’s because everything feels more immediate these days, with every piece of news sounding so dire. Bad people making bad plans. Everyone I know is upset, and at times it seems clear to me that we’re standing on the edge of something huge and dangerous. Like De La Soul sang back in 1996, “Stakes is high.”
I guess I could find it in myself to feel wistful and nostalgic for the times in my life when the world felt LESS scary, come to think of it, but feelings like that seem like luxuries now, and I ought to ration them out.
Yes, there is such a thing as a National Handwriting Day, and it just so happens that I have a short review of a book about handwriting in the current print issue of Utne. Today seems like the perfect day to share it with you. I interviewed the book’s author, Anne Trubek, as well, and Utne plans to post our Q&A on their website, so I’ll link to that once they have.
Trubek and I talked about the history of writing by hand, as well as the demise of this ancient art, which she says is certain but likely to be very drawn out. I don’t have particularly sentimental feelings about handwriting myself, but I am very interested in it (and have been collecting articles on the subject for years now). It’s been fascinating for me to watch the shift from pen to keyboard take place. Though I’m not yet hideously, horribly old, I got an old-fashioned Catholic school education as a kid, and our school had dedicated penmanship classes at a time when that sort of instruction was already falling out of favor. As many, many news outlets have reported in recent years, learning to write by hand has only become more uncommon since then. These days, the majority of adults in the U.S. use keyboards and smartphones for writing far more often than they use paper and ink, and that includes me. That being said, I also have about 20 dear pen-pals who I write handwritten letters to on a regular basis, and I still much prefer to jot down ideas and notes in a small notebook that I carry around in my bag, rather than on my fiddly little phone or my cumbersome laptop. The truth is, I enjoy being able to use all of these tools, new-fangled and time-tested alike, and I think we’re awfully lucky to get to live in a time when we can have our pick.
The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek
As digital supplants print as our default medium and writing by hand goes the way of the dinosaur—whether you remember your penmanship classes from grade school, or were already keyboarding by the time you were ten—chances are good you have an opinion on handwriting. As Anne Trubek shows us in her vigorous new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, it’s a subject people have had strong feelings about for a long time.
Trubek, a former Oberlin professor, acts as an unsentimental tour guide through handwriting’s history, from the earliest impressions in clay to a modern American classroom, where second graders learn both to type on a keyboard and write by hand. At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, she has the pleasure of holding a clay Sumerian cuneiform tablet in her hand, just as the person who wrote on it with a stylus did some 5,000 years ago. (It’s surprisingly small and comfortable to hold, not unlike her smartphone.)
The author shows us how medieval scribes copied out manuscripts by hand, and tells us what happened when the printing press came along to make their work obsolete: Interestingly, the new technology didn’t immediately replace the old one, and “scores” of manuscript books were made after the production of printed books began. We also learn that by the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans had a variety of scripts that denoted social class, gender, and profession. In fact, the few English women who were taught during the 16-19th centuries learned a special script called Italian hand, “a simpler script for the simpler sex.”
In looking toward handwriting’s “uncertain future,” Trubek seems to decide it’s not all that uncertain: It’s on its way out, though it will probably take a very long time to go. Many people find this time of flux disturbing, and long for the human-ness of handwriting, a fact Trubek reports without scorn—though she’s dismissive of recent research that has come out from several universities suggesting that handwriting is cognitively superior to typing in various ways, calling the science “fuzzy.”
Though much has changed, all of the concerns Trubek touches on in her history of handwriting—class and gender, culture and tradition—have resonance for us today. Even the desire to return to the warmth and authenticity of handwriting has a recent historical precedent, she writes. One hundred years ago, William Morris and friends revived medieval calligraphy methods as a response to the industrial revolution, “with its machines and smog and printed letters.” Just as letterpress printing is considered an art form today, those revivalists called their illuminated pages artworks, preserving their beauty for a world that no longer needed them for communication.
Happy New Year, everyone! This might be my favorite time of the year to be alive, this week right here. True, being cold (and getting colds) is kind of a drag, but I like taking stock and I like making plans, and I feel that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the right time to do both. I’ve spent the last few days working on my year-end review, and yesterday, by happenstance, I discovered the writer Ksenia Anske and her beautiful website. I was inspired by her year-in-review blog post—and its accompanying photo grid!—to share my own, so here goes: a list of things I did and learned in 2016.
I wrote and completed edits on my book Cats I’ve Known, to be published in 2017. Completing this work was my biggest accomplishment of the year—that and surviving the appendicitis that tried to strike me down just a few weeks after I finished the first draft. Nice try, body! I’m still winning, for now.
I completed Magical Thinking, the zine my pal Mardou and I made by emailing back and forth with each other on topics including gemstones, herbal healing, and dreams. We then published our dialogue, accompanied by the illustrations Mardou drew. (She is a talented comics artist whose work I really enjoy.) I brought the zine with me to the NYC Feminist Zine Fest at Barnard College, an annual event that I tabled at for the first time. It was a long, hectic day, but I had a few interesting and memorable conversations with visitors to my table, which is the measure I use to judge all zine fests. Frequency and quality of chats.
I also tabled with my zines at the Scranton Zine Fest, the Philly Zine Fest, and a Winter Market at the Germantown Kitchen Garden, and all three events were fun and very rewarding.
I continued to benefit from keeping this blog. Having a place where I can explore my thoughts about the things I’m reading has been good for me. I like writing about books, but I don’t always like books-writing jobs, if ya feel me. In this space, I can write what I want, at whatever length suits me. So thank you for taking an interest in my blog, gang; it means a lot to me.
I finally visited Haegele’s Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. As far as I know these folks are not my relations, but they have operated a German bakery in the same city that I’m from for nearly 90 years—and I never got around to visiting it until last month. Whatta jerk! Joe and I went there with friends on the damp, chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it made me so happy to see how pretty and old-fashioned the shop is, sitting right there on the corner of a residential street just a few blocks away from the one where my mother lived when she was a teenager. I ate a Stollen AND a Bienenstich, and they were both gorgeous. Planning on getting myself a Grosse Neujahrsbrezel on New Year’s Eve, too.
I got two new jobs this year, contract gigs doing editing work, which is just a mundane thing that I needed to do to make more money and wouldn’t ordinarily mention. But my job slog has had an unexpected and happy result (besides the more—but still not enough!—money): I discovered that I love editing other people’s writing. What’s more, I’m not bad at it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of writing and making it tighter, cleaner, smoother, and better all around, while preserving its original spirit and without imposing my own voice or attitude onto it. It’s like being a tailor, an invisible mender: I leave things looking better than I found them, and if I do my work really well, you won’t be able to tell I was ever there.
I raised a black swallowtail butterfly, which was an incredibly beautiful experience that happened half by accident. In September I attended a meeting of the garden club I used to belong to, and a friend there gave me a bunch of cuttings from her herb garden. I put them in a vase on the kitchen table and enjoyed them for a week or two before Joe noticed two minuscule caterpillars on their leaves. We watched them both get bigger fairly rapidly, then put them inside a small aquarium to keep them safe. Over the next week one of the caterpillars kept escaping, so we released it into the wilds of our backyard and wished it well. The other we kept, feeding it carrot greens from our garden because we read that’s what they like to eat. This guy went to TOWN eating them and got bigger and fatter by the day, until he made his chrysalis. Then that gnarly looking thing lived in our kitchen for 2 more weeks before it burst open, behind us on the kitchen counter while we sat at the table one morning, talking and drinking coffee. We were lucky to see the creature’s black wings when they were still all wet and soft and crumpled; the whole event happened so fast, if we’d been in another room for even an hour we would have missed it. We brought the new butterfly outside, and Joe went into work late that day so that we could sit in our yard and watch it spread and flap and dry out its wings in the sun and fresh air, carefully but quickly, before it flew away.
My good friend Nadine Schneider and I made a zine together, and I’ve been selling it at the Wooden Shoe. She wrote about making and using herbal body care products, and I wrote about how you can clean your house without nasty neurotoxins. We called it Kytchyn Witche and spelled it that way because that’s the way it’s spelled in an account we read about the good luck “poppet” that English people kept in their homes during the Tudor period. And because it looks cool.
I street-protested the Trump presidency and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, and I plan to keep on doing so because these people are really bad news, and protesting is democracy in action.
I saw a fuckton of bands play. I celebrated a significant birthday this year and while I don’t really want to tell you my age, I will tell you that in honor of it, I set a goal to see 40 live shows this year. I achieved the goal and had a lot of fun doing it. Highlights include: discovering the industrial/punk band Uniform when they opened for somebody else, then seeing them again later in the year (are you familiar with the phrase WALL OF SOUND); seeing another act on the Sacred Bones label, Blanck Mass, who turned the tiny space at Johnny Brenda’s into a cathedral with his majestic noise; enjoying the heck out of ourselves at RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons, which had about 100 clever acts packed into one show (plus Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon LIVE AND IN PERSON!); watching Philly band Remote Control (pictured above) channel Peter Murphy; being transfixed by the sight of weirdo genius Jenny Hval bopping around the room; and Shopping. We got right up in front of the stage and danced at them, and they danced back. Such a good-natured, high-energy band, and those post-punk melodies do something really nice to my brain chemistry. If they don’t get big I’ll be a little surprised.
Joe and I hosted three shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room this year, which wasn’t as many as last year. They were good shows though, featuring the chiptune musician Sloopygoop, folk singers Potential Gospel, video artist Cory Kram, postpunk band Rabbits to Riches, loony tunesters Yoga Dad, and memoirist Ashton Yount.
Joe and I also toured twice, up north during the summer and down south in the fall. In New England we did readings at the Papercut Zine Library in Boston, a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, and one in Woodstock, New York. On our Southern tour, I was pleased and frankly really proud to perform with our friends Kishibashi, his wife Mocha, and their daughter Sola (all three of them on violin) at a wonderful bookstore called Avid in Athens, Georgia. The artist and adorable human Missy Kulik read from her comics at that show, too. We also performed with the one-man band who is Tall Tall Trees, at a fine bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina called Downtown Books & News. Then we went to Savannah and did a show at Starlandia, a charming creative reuse shop, with the inimitable Dame Darcy, a comics artist whose work I have admired for a long time. (She read from her books and, accompanied by her friend Skippy on guitar, she played sea shanties on the banjo. It was a special night.)
I participated in Fun-a-Day last January, and even though I was lazy about it I managed to write a little something almost every day that month, which was an undertaking I took to treating like a diary. At the end of the project I made a handmade book collecting the month’s meditations and exhibited it in the group show. I plan to participate again this year—just one more day till it starts!—and I’ve got my idea ready and my pencils sharpened. They are metaphorical pencils.
I hosted a Pop-Up Zine Reading Room at Amalgam Comics in the Kensington neighborhood Philadelphia, which means that I took a bunch of zines and books from the collection at The Soapbox and sat at the bookstore with a sign inviting people to join me and read them. It was sweet. I also ran a zine workshop for the high school students in the after-school program at the Lutheran Settlement House, also in Kenzo, and in November I cohosted a letterpress printing and book-binding workshop for some undergraduate writing students. Those events were sweet, too.
I started a zine about Christmas, which I have historically hated, with my friend, the talented artist Nicholas Beckett. His witty, warm, and sweetly grouchy drawings helped me hate Christmas just a little bit less.
I started a new writing collaboration with Eliza, a lovely new friend I met at the Philly Zine Fest. I look forward to seeing where this project takes us in the new year.
Happy happy, everybody! My dear friend, the artist Nicholas Beckett, and I have been working on a zine about Christmas. It’s a bunch of my terrible recollections about the holiday, accompanied by his incredibly charming drawings. Here’s one for you now. Consider it a gift. I’ll let you know when the zine is available. Until then, best wishes for getting through whatever you have to get through today—and maybe even enjoying it.
I find that there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the right time to take down one’s Christmas tree, including the idea that there is a right time. I see people’s frizzled trees lying on the curb as late as February, which gives me the willies. I have inherited my mother’s fussy, snobbish belief that the only acceptable time to take down the tree is on the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas. I can’t believe I care about this, but I do.
My review of Elizabeth Greenwood’s nonfiction book, Playing Dead: Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. My editor shortened it a bit, so for your reading pleasure I offer you the full-length version here:
We’ve all felt it, the desire to run away from the tedium of our own lives. Some days you can’t help but notice that the train you ride to work could just as easily take you someplace else. When I was a kid my dad would, on occasion, get a faraway look and claim he’d always intended to join the merchant marines.
As Playing Dead author Elizabeth Greenwood speculates, we may be even more inclined to dream of disappearing now, in the age of trackable smartphones and constant surveillance. “We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data sets that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder,” she writes, and she has a point.
But what about leaving for real? Faking your own death – the closest thing to suicide without actually dying? It’s a funny thought, but who would try it?
Greenwood, that’s who. In her introduction, the young journalist explains the reason she first got fixated on the subject: She was drowning in some $100,000 worth of student loans. She had no hope of paying off her debt in this lifetime – so why not “die”? The idea came up in a jokey conversation with a similarly stretched-thin friend, who one imagines forgot the conversation moments later. Greenwood, who began researching death fraud that evening at home, did not.
She sets out to learn how she might fake her own death by seeing how others have done it. Or rather, how they’ve tried and failed, since as she points out, it’s impossible to prove a negative – anyone who has successfully faked their death is not available for an interview because, well, we think they’re dead.
She meets the folks who get paid to investigate insurance fraud, which remains one of the most popular reasons for pulling a fakey: simple greed. Steve Rambam is a no-nonsense, classically hard-boiled detective who maintains that simply disappearing is easier to do than faking your death, and vastly preferable. Pretending to die is not strictly illegal, but fraudulently claiming a life insurance policy certainly is, as is using a fake identity, which is the only way you could do anything after you “died.”
By the book’s end, Greenwood makes her way to the Philippines, where corrupt government agencies make faking your death easy and fairly commonplace, on a quest for her very own death certificate. For those familiar with gonzo journalist Jon Ronson, this is a Ronsonesque stunt, and though Greenwood is an entertaining writer she doesn’t quite have his genius for dry understatement. She knows how to tell a good story—and there are lots of them here—but when she writes about herself, her prose can be a bit overcooked. “In the crepuscular light of early winter, I was bemoaning my self-imposed financial plight…” she tells us.( Translation: Girl was broke.)
Still though, the stories. We meet John Darwin, the U.K. man and his wife who lied to everyone, including their grown sons, by pretending he had died in a boating accident when he was actually living in his own rental property next door, in disguise, for nearly six years. His motive was a mortgage insurance policy, and he eventually turned himself in. But the suffering he caused his family was, in Greenwood’s words, the “collateral damage” that he doesn’t ever quite own up to.
She also introduces us to the Believers, the utterly devoted contingent of people within the Michael Jackson fandom who believe that the King of Pop faked his death and is sending them messages from beyond the fake grave via lyrics in his posthumously-released songs. Greenwood doesn’t share their beliefs, but she doesn’t make fun of them either. That would be “…taking a cheap and dreadfully obvious shot. … It takes a lot more courage to believe doggedly in something so outlandish and weird. The believing itself is the point more than the outcome. It’s faith.”
In the end, it’s this largeness of imagination that makes Greenwood’s book a success. Whether these death fraudsters strike you as clever schemers or fascinating in a fringe-weirdo sort of way, Greenwood makes them human, which has a lovely way of showing us how expansive life is—even in death.