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Voices of Mourning

What do we owe the dead?

It takes Robert Glück thirty pages to introduce Ed. Until then, he appears only in passing: once as the source of a theory, then as a cause for concern. “You know, I’m worried about Ed.” It takes another fifteen pages for Ed to really enter, when he asks for company to collect his HIV test results—it is not good news. It takes me time to reach Ed too because, as Ed’s death unfolds across the pages, other deaths surround me.

Soon after the galley of About Ed arrives, I stand on a chair in a windowless college classroom, and I introduce a unit on mourning, whose timing I will quickly come to regret. I begin the unit the first week of October, which means over the month it takes me to teach it, over ten thousand Palestinians and Israelis are killed. For two back-to-back class sessions biweekly, a PowerPoint presentation lights my shoulder—I stand on the chair so the students, gathered around a long wooden table, as if for a meal, can see me by the slides. We read texts on mourning by Sigmund Freud, Douglas Crimp, David Eng, Shinhee Han, and Hannah Black. I try to embolden students to join in the “scholarly conversation,” but the omissions from our own discussion are becoming increasingly obvious—we keep quiet as our phones buzz constantly to announce more bombings by the Israeli military, a hospital gone, now a university, a genocide unfolding, funded in part by our own tax dollars. As an adjunct professor, I worry that even careful wording will endanger my job. Unspoken, too, is my private grief: in early October, an acquaintance of mine is killed on the street in Brooklyn—I teach less than an hour after hearing the news. My grandmother, who I am very close to, is in hospice care, sliding out of this world. Mourning overtakes October, then November, the way wildfire smoke did last summer, clinging and dizzying. 

With all the grief in the air, I hardly read, but I carry About Ed with me everywhere—to a protest in Washington, D.C., to a graveside, into the bath and classroom and park. Robert Glück has written this novel, which veers very near to memoir, nearly thirty years after Ed Aulerich-Sugai’s death. Glück, known in the book as Bob, was a mentor, then boyfriend, then dear friend, of Ed’s. The loss is not sudden; Ed knows he is dying, has watched AIDS deaths in the years leading up to his own. Ed passes more than halfway through, so much of the book is preparation. This includes Bob’s deliberate effort to preserve Ed before losing him: “Between us a tape recorder internally rotates. His memory is the archive of many pages of my experience.” The next few pages are the fruits of this labor: pure transcript, the two chatting about a trip to Mexico, Bob’s late dog Lily, fights the two have had.

But Ed takes the lead in the choreography of his death. Most concretely, Ed, an artist, creates a diorama for the niche he purchases in a columbarium. His ashes will be stored there, in a ceramic vase. For the diorama, Ed paints a skyscape—the walls and ceiling are clouds over blue. Bob is queasy over the whole project, from the clouds to the ashes the niche will contain to the long-lasting supplies Ed is using, to ensure the installation holds up in perpetuity. “Memorial art supposedly looks backward—old gardens and weathered cenotaphs—but actually it looks ahead, believing in a future audience and in the value of the world to come,” Bob thinks, and the logic seems to apply to his belief in his future readers.

I have the feeling that this novel is a second niche, that Glück is carving a space in each reader for Ed. Later in the book, this suspicion will be made explicit: “Reader, allow me to erect a monument inside you. Life can’t last forever but memory can.” There’s an urgency now, as an elderly Bob speaks to us from the near present: “It’s April 2023, and the greatest difference between us—he’s dead and I’m alive—has an expiration date.” If Bob can no longer carry Ed, he needs to pass him along, and we’re as good a home as any.

First, my students read Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia.” The father of psychoanalysis creates a binary of healthy and pathological grieving. If the bereaved is not wholly aware of their loss, and therefore cannot directly process it, this leads to a state Freud calls melancholia, resulting in “profoundly painful dejection, loss of the ability to love,” and other miserable and enduring consequences. In contrast, there is healthy mourning: the bereaved consciously knows their loss, and shuts out the world to grieve it, eventually returning to a state of normalcy, which Freud describes as a kind of equilibrium.

What does a witness offer the dead? What does the witnessed death lose?

This conscious mourning can take the form of ritual. After Ed’s death, Bob and Ed’s partner Daniel disrobe and wash his body before it is taken away to be cremated. Glück writes, “Daniel and I unfold him and try to lift out one arm but it won’t be guided. It’s so like Ed, I have to laugh. Trying to steer him was always a challenge, like pushing a shopping cart with one bad wheel.” After the two have successfully removed Ed’s blue and white kimono, Bob focuses on a single leg, which “splays outward, then his knee falls inward, loose-jointed as a broken umbrella.” It’s an incredibly tender scene—more intimate than the sex scenes that populate the book with piss, come, an asshole “bubblegum pink, so clean it twinkled.” The scene of the washing is a kind of inventory, and the final body part recorded is Ed’s cock, from the tip of which a single drop of blood emerges. “The drop of blood is the only indication of the pandemonium that occurred within this body,” Glück writes, “Here to present itself for a bow, Ed’s murderous blood.”

The uncanniness of Ed’s being dead, even if it’s long expected, repeatedly has an air of the theatrical to Bob: “It’s a weird kind of play, someone’s death, that pressures the actors.” Everyone has their part. Still, these stilted roles, these practices, are meant to help the bereaved, to give shape to their mourning.

After Ed’s death, Bob thinks through mourning again and again. “Mourning is the fear of losing Ed combined with the fact of losing Ed,” he offers in one of several definitions. He even names Freud explicitly, and “Mourning and Melancholia” more referentially, using the words in close proximity. In a passage about the grief of time carrying us onward, he asks: “What is mourning? The will bends back, nailing me to the awareness of time. I spend days staring at a bright spot on the wall that moves with the sun, so I become a sundial, the melancholy motto is the self.”

As I read on the uptown-bound train, Bob is washing Ed’s corpse; I check the time on my phone, then see that my Twitter feed is mostly Palestinian corpses covered in blood and ash. I cannot disconnect the two images. I struggle to write this, concerned that it is offensive—I’m not sure to which dead, perhaps both—to hold these deaths near each other. But how can the two not blur? I read of a beloved, too-young body tended to, of intentional and ritualized goodbyes, and I see people blown apart. Dead Palestinians are wrapped in white plastic, or cloth, still dirtied. There are bags of limbs and parts. The next deaths will come before these bodies can be cared for. The tenderness of About Ed emphasizes the cruelty of the Israeli military’s bombardment—in some cases, there isn’t even water for washing dust and blood from the skin of the dead.

Glück asks us to hold his memories, and to inherit his affection—an alchemy that will offer Ed a kind of immortality. And the book holds so much of Ed—his dream journals, his art, his sexual preferences, his dishware—that he is not reduced to his death. Even the death itself, this scene of broken-umbrella joints, is filtered through language, distancing a reader from the private immediacy of Ed’s literal body. But what does it mean to witness the violent deaths, and the corporeal aftermaths of those deaths, through videos and photographs online, out of loving context? What if these videos are their only obituaries?

When I arrive to class, we speak about witnessing and mourning. Some of my students haven’t heard of Emmett Till, and I explain how the teenager’s mother had wanted the image of his brutalized face, post lynching, printed in newspapers, forcing readers to witness the violence done to her child by a white mob. I ask my students what one owes the dead, when we are obliged to look and when, if ever, it is more respectful to look away. I place an asterisk by the we I’ve spoken, naming my whiteness in a mixed race room; the races of the dead, we agree, are also relevant, as are other factors in the deaths, but it seems difficult, with any example, to delineate clear ethical guidelines. What do we offer and risk by looking? I’m really asking, I say, I don’t know. We speak about the video of Eric Garner’s murder, its viral spread to each of our phones. I do not mention the CCTV video, published by New York Post (hell is not hot enough), of the man I knew being murdered, which began to autoplay on my Twitter feed after our last class; how it pained me to recognize him before I could close the app. How strongly I feel that no one, ever, should watch the video, out of respect to him, especially not strangers on their phones.

Neither do we discuss the new stream of horrifying videos I have seen on the train, which I am sure my students have also encountered: children screaming next to their dead parents, parents holding their dead children, people under rubble, Israel’s bombs flashing and sparkling in the dark. LOOK, my feed commands, SOUND ON. “We never share graphic videos,” writes the Jewish activist group IfNotNow, but they are making an exception. They assert that it’s a moral obligation: “We must, if we can, bear witness.”

What does a witness offer the dead? What does the witnessed death lose? I’m really asking.

I have my students read Freud as a foundation, but I’m more interested in what comes next: “Mourning and Militancy,” a response to “Mourning and Melancholia,” written by the critic and activist Douglas Crimp as AIDS devastated New York City’s gay community. Crimp, writing in 1989, quotes ACT UP founder Larry Kramer’s disbelief that large numbers of people would attend candlelit vigils for those who had died of AIDS but then didn’t make the jump “between these deaths and going out to fight” against more loss. Crimp illustrates that according to Freud, activism is a clear antagonist of proper mourning, since his definition requires “turning away from every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead,” which “leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests.” But in the context of the AIDS crisis, the deaths were ongoing, requiring intervention. The mounting loss was compounded by other violence—that of homophobia, governmental neglect, and silence. “Because this violence also desecrates the memory of our dead, we rise in anger to vindicate them,” Crimp writes. ACT UP’s secondary slogan, besides SILENCE=DEATH, was United in Anger. “Mourning,” Crimp explains, “feels too much like capitulation.” It was necessary to take to the streets, to become not just mourners but militants. How else could one honor the dead, and prevent further deaths?

I show my students images from the militancy ACT UP organized: die-ins, kiss-ins, disrupting the stock exchange and mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then the political funerals, in which the activists would carry actual caskets through the streets, half-memorial half-protest, forcing the public to witness their losses.

Robert Glück refuses to make an opportunity out of Ed, refuses to instrumentalize or politicize his death. This guards Ed’s humanity, his intrinsic value.

The week my students submit their first drafts for our mourning unit, nearly four hundred Jews and allies are arrested in Grand Central, calling for a ceasefire. The action is directly inspired by an ACT UP demonstration from their Days of Desperation. In 1991, AIDS activists climbed above the ticket windows, holding a banner ahead of the board announcing train arrivals and departures that read: “One AIDS death every 8 minutes.” A mirroring: I stand below Jewish Voice for Peace activists on the same narrow edge with their own signs reading, in all caps, “Palestinians should be free” and “Never again for anyone.” The ACT UPers released a banner, lifted by pink balloons; I see the cops roughly tackle away fellow demonstrators’ tribute banner. People around me scream as red balloons rise to the celestial ceiling of the station. I have not volunteered for arrest—in part, I fear that my grandma’s health will decline in the hours I don’t have access to my phone, and what if I miss my chance to say goodbye? Instead, into the night, I wait outside the jail as a part of a support team, cheering for the arrestees as they exit, offering them, among other snacks, challah and grape juice—it is Friday night, Shabbat. My grandmother responds to the images I send her, saying she is “so proud” of the “impressive numbers filling Grand Central Station for peace.” She will share the pictures with her tablemates in the dining hall at her assisted living center. “Love and blessings to everyone.” It is the third to last message I will receive from her.

Later I show my photographs of this demonstration, alongside those of the original ACT UP action, in class, “just to show that there’s a direct lineage.” I don’t tell my students I was there, that I am the source of the photos. I actually say, “I present this without political comment.” I pause for a moment and hope they hear through the silence—my own capitulation.

One morning before teaching, I go for a walk with a friend in Prospect Park. He is in a combative mood, feeling distraught over the latest news in Gaza, the cowardice of Bernie Sanders’s platitudes, the dehumanization of Palestinians in President Biden’s latest speech. When we round the corner of Dog Beach a few minutes later, partially to lift our moods, I tell him about Glück’s book, how it engages very little with the context of the era—no marches, no naming of activist groups, no indexing of drugs, available or not. My friend calls the book a missed opportunity; historical framing might educate readers, might inspire them to act, when some of the same forces that allowed for Ed’s death continue to kill others. I reply that Glück refuses to make an opportunity out of Ed, refuses to instrumentalize or politicize his death. This guards Ed’s humanity, his intrinsic value. Ed is not a lesson. He is missed and loved. My friend is not interested. He says things I know he doesn’t mean about what literature ought to owe us—a militant mindset.

It’s not that Robert Glück isn’t politically inclined—he was an activist with Enola Gay; he once spent two weeks in jail due to his civil disobedience. It’s not that he isn’t aware of the urgency in combating homophobia—he’s been queer bashed, he’s lost friends to AIDS. But his loyalty here is to Ed, and maybe to his own grief. Glück honors Ed’s life without insisting on the context, or perhaps retrieves Ed’s memory from its context, asking, in one of the few moments he names Ed’s death as one among many: “Was Ed’s death a trauma that replaced his life? Was he thrown into the mass grave of HIV? In mass death, recovery occurs in the collective mind over time. It may take a generation to reacquaint ourselves with the dead, for their rich complexity to be apparent once more.”

Robert Glück cofounded the New Narrative school in the Small Press Traffic Bookstore in San Francisco, through writing classes open to the public. The school of writers included transgressive icons like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. New Narrative writing is identifiable by its careful observance of dailiness, including chat, sex, and sensory descriptions—rich complexity. One motivation, Glück writes in his essay “Long Note on New Narrative,” was to see if the writers “could come up with a better representation—not in order to satisfy movement pieties or to be political, but in order to be.” Queer people were among those not afforded unpolitical lives. Crimp paraphrases Michael Moon in arguing that the “normalcy” Freud expects a healthy griever to return to does not exist for gay men in a homophobic culture. Cultural production reflected this; the daily lives of queer people were hugely underrepresented in mainstream art in the 1970s. Yes, the personal is political, but perhaps there could be personal lives captured without the burden of political messaging. Glück asks, in his same essay on New Narrative, “What kind of representation least deforms its subject?” Perhaps one that refuses to instruct.

New Narrative began in the 1970s, predating the AIDS crisis, predating Ed’s death. I have spent years studying ACT UP, which began in New York in 1987 and was active in San Francisco in the final years of Ed’s life. I know well the context in which Ed is dying, at least as well as someone of my generation can. Ed died in 1994, near the end of the worst of the crisis: in 1995 the FDA approved the first protease inhibitors, and the following year saw effective combination therapy become the standard of care. Had Ed gotten sick just a bit later, maybe he’d still be alive today. Perhaps I am ruining Glück’s project, in a way, by stitching the story back into the political context. Near the end of his essay, Crimp suggests that militancy busies the hands of the bereaved, and this work, while vital, distracts from adequate mourning. “Militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.” I should let Ed rest, I think, and allow Glück to mourn.

Who is afforded a non-politicized death? Who is afforded a non-politicized life?

The murder of my acquaintance is nearly immediately instrumentalized by the right wing. He’d been a dedicated harm reduction activist—we’d helped to lead a Narcan training two weeks before his death—and the worst of the internet emerges to callously pronounce that the leftist got what was coming, given what he’d advocated for: dangerous streets. (He was killed by a stranger at a bus stop.) I find myself, perhaps naively, astounded by the cruelty—the online posts have the gleeful tone of cartoon villains, when the loss is unspeakable, impossible, devastating. Those who loved the man interrupt their mourning to insist publicly that the circumstances of his death would not have changed his political and moral convictions.

As sick as this makes me, I find myself strategizing elsewhere, sourcing material in the stories of others: a friend and I exchange articles, asking which newly published think piece or war diary will be the most likely to politically move people in our lives. The relatable Jewish Brooklynite, reflecting on their morphing relationship to the Jewish State, through statistic- and history-heavy analysis? Or will the first person account from Gaza, tragedy stylized in prose, persuade a reader that Palestinians deserve to live in safety and dignity? It feels dirty to plot like this, to utilize the real and present grief of others. But in this moment of urgency, it seems we are not above it. Maybe in a generation, I think, these dead will be able to rest.

By the time I finish reading About Ed, my grandmother has died. I find it much easier to read now, because I am not wondering how her death will happen, if it will happen now or now or now or now. This enormous threshold of her life, and of mine, has moved into the past tense. I can finish the book, I can even read it again. I find company and recognition in Glück’s grief—death as a collapse in logic, sobbing to the point of illness, looking for signs, failures of language, even the offense of tenses: “Until this chapter Ed occurred in the present tense. The past tense is an affront. It’s hammering nails through him.” I ran into a friend in the park earlier today. “Is your grandma . . .” she asked, trailing off. “She’s gone,” I said, still finding a way to speak in the present tense, avoiding nails through the both of us.

I learn so much from my students, and I wish I could ask them to think through this moment with me. But there isn’t room, apparently, for this conversation on our campus.

After Ed dies, the novel really falls apart. You can see it in the alignment of the words on the page, in the jagged tenses, in the repetition of chapter titles and nearly identical sentences recurring pages apart, which seem to represent—or be—the many replicated files on Bob’s computer as he attempts to write this book. It required decades of transcribing text from one notebook into another, or computer documents growing so old they were no longer compatible with the latest software. Even the point of view stumbles, and suddenly it’s Ed who Bob is speaking to: “Oh Ed, can I find my way to you,” he asks. “Is finding you my goal?—to make love last forever? You have been gone twenty-five years and I will die before long.” Then, Bob composes himself, moving his gaze from Ed to the reader—he’s broken his own vow, he admits; he’d promised himself not to address Ed in the second person. “Maybe I am not prepared to talk to Ed in public,” he explains, as if thinking through this in real time with his reader. “I’ll make myself naked when company comes, but I am reluctant to talk to Ed in your presence.”

It seems that Bob can only finish the project now, because he is old, nearing eighty. “I started this book two decades ago,” he writes, “so now it has turned into a ritual to prepare for death, and an obsession to put between death and myself.” But, he worries, “Do I write to remain in contact?—when I’m finished will he be truly buried?”

Then, Bob removes himself entirely. The third of the book’s three sections, titled “Inside” (“Reader, allow me to erect a monument inside you”), is written in Ed’s voice. To write this final section, Glück copied down around three hundred pages of Ed’s dream journals, and “boiled that down to forty-five.” At the end of each passage, and at the start of just about every paragraph, a new dream is introduced with the phrase “Before that”—“Before that a girl laughs” or “Before that I bounce gently from wall to wall” or “Before that I choose a mesh bikini that ties twice on each side, otherwise is open to the wind.” As the reprising phrase implies, the dreams are presented in reverse chronology: first, they feature Ed’s last boyfriend Daniel in the leading role, then they fall backwards through the years, until Bob’s partnership is the dailiness refracted through Ed’s dreamscape. Sometimes I recognize a sentence, and realize Glück has incorporated it elsewhere in the book. The two share authorship, a final collaboration.

Personally, I have a very low tolerance for reading about dreams. More than forty pages is a lot to ask. I make a concerted effort to read every sentence, rereading when I lose focus. Visions of dragons, frozen corpses, and cameos of Lily the dog. I commit to this concentrated read because I have agreed to a contract with Bob: he has spent his novel imploring me to hold Ed with him, and here is Ed, finally, in his own words, so I allow him a place inside my mind for safe keeping.

When I finish this draft, I will open a new tab, and I will begin my grandmother’s obituary, which she asked me to write in our final phone call. It will contain, I imagine, a list of her best attributes, of which there were many, and her descendants, of which I am one. Mostly, the obituary will be plot points. Unlike so many of the other dead on my mind, my grandmother lived a full life; it is almost her eighty-seventh birthday. She passed away comfortably, at home, with her daughters by her side, and she told me she was at peace. Everyone deserves a death like this. I would say more, but the grief is new.

I will toggle between the obituary and my students’ final drafts of their mourning papers, which I have so far found myself unable to engage with. The hardest part of the assignment, for my students, is to select a site of contemporary mourning, and to connect it to the texts at hand. This is not something most of them have been asked to do before: not just understand the logic of others, but present their own thinking, applying what they’ve read to the world around them, filling in gaps in the scholarly conversation. Perhaps I would feel better able to instruct them if I could illustrate this kind of application in real time, asking my classes about the militant calls for a ceasefire in the streets of our city, and around the world, nearly every day now; condemning the weaponization of Jewish and Israeli grief; listing the ways mourning has been caused and interrupted. I learn so much from my students, and I wish I could ask them to think through this moment with me. But there isn’t room, apparently, for this conversation on our campus—just a few days ago, multiple student groups were suspended as punishment for their peaceful protests in solidarity with Palestine. We speak instead in silences: they know I was in D.C., and those who are paying attention will know why. I wrestle: My dependence on the income aside, isn’t it worth speaking sideways, in order to stay in the room? Can I teach them the values, the history, and trust them to apply the lessons to the world around them?

I stand on my chair, in my PowerPoint spotlight, and ask instead: What does their chosen example teach us about grief? I have assigned myself, in my own mourning essay, About Ed, where grieving is captured, not utilized. In this instance, I’d prefer not to pull political lessons from the pages. I’d rather let Ed rest; I’d rather let Glück grieve. I’m asked by my friend, the one who doubted Glück’s project: “Is that sufficient?” I touch my grandmother’s watch, tight on my wrist, and I wonder: Is anything? What—short of the beloved dead’s return—will feel like enough for the mourner? But, as a reader, the answer is yes; the book is sufficient, and then some. This time, mourning is plenty.