Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vanishing from the archive, deleting from memory

While she was chronicling her mother's descent into dementia, the poet Susan Schultz received an official letter politely demanding that she stop saying names. "Frequently," said the letter, "our patients and families blog about their stay at our centers. However, we must comply with HIPAA regulations. When we notice that other patient's names are mentioned, we ask that you edit any identifiable information out of your blog. That can include names, their hometowns, etc."

A legal guide for writers told Schultz a hypothetical anecdote about a waitress named Linda who could sue someone who referred to her as Linda, and Schultz complied with the demand and changed the patients' names.

But that turned out to be painful. Thinking about the pain, Schultz wonders now:

. . . why my stubbornness about names? Yes, the waitress named Linda might easily be transposed to the waitress at a similar restaurant with another ordinary, mid-20th century name. If the writer is out to defame Linda, who yelled at her child when the child spilled her ice water, then perhaps the writer needs some protection from the Linda who has not protected herself with due patience. But if Linda is in an Alzheimer's home, where her sole possessions are a few family photographs, some clothes, a handbag and her name? Easy enough to change the name, but I would argue that there are good reasons also for keeping it. To change a name is to create a secret, open or shut. To change a name is to change an identity (when I see a Linda in my mind's eye, she's not a Cynthia). When I hear the name Susan addressed to someone other than myself, I know I'm in the neighborhood of another woman born in the mid-50s to the mid-60s; our name is a generational marker. Maybe if I changed that name to Janet or Ruth, it would have a similar resonance. But maybe leaving the name alone, in the context of the Alzheimer's home, is an assertion that something of this person remains as it was. And, that if that person is now unrecognizable as "herself," she is still related to that earlier person in ways stronger than just the body.

Here's a photographic corollary.

In 1980, Howell Raines of the New York Times revisited the three poor Alabama families of whose lives James Agee and Walker Evans made immortal art forty years earlier in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Those forty years, it turned out, had reduced Agee's gusty prose to sentimental fiction. The pathetic little girl whose imminent death Agee movingly predicted, for example, was still alive in 1980 -- and a high school graduate, and six feet tall, and full of hatred for the artists who had once, long ago, picked up her tiny body, made it into a specimen, and then dropped it back into the dirt of Hale County, Alabama, and driven away.

As of 1980, too, Evans's photographs were gold on the exchanges of the art world, but that busy creation of wealth yielded the Woodses and Rickettses and Gudgers (or, to speak their unremembered "real" names, the Fieldses and Tingles and Burrroughses) not a nickel. About that conversion of life to exchange value, Raines was accurately ironic.

Four months before her death, Allie Mae struggled from bed to satisfy the British film maker who arrived in Alabama desperate for footage of her famous face. But when a Harvard senior showed up in her hospital room in Tuscaloosa, eager to complete his thesis on what it was like when James Agee came among the poor people, Allie Mae declined to say.

But reader: which work of art are you likelier to remember a year from now -- Raines's piece of prose or its pretext, this image? What happened to your decent reticence before this face?

That question could be terrible, I suppose. Fortunately, however, the archive has spared you. Its technology hints at terrible thoughts, but then it helps you delete them from your memory.

In my university's library, the microfilm archive of The New York Times has deteriorated to the point where some print is no longer legible, and the microfilm readers never could print images in any usable detail. When Nicholson Baker wrote a book about the scope and significance of losses like these, some optimistic librarians reminded him that the Web is all memory -- memory permanent and undying, inhumanly incapable of letting us humans forget.

But if you go to the online archive now in search of Howell Raines's essay, this is what you will find.

To read the words where image once was,
click to enlarge.


Sources and related reading:

James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families. 1940; rpt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Reading. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men": James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1990. Print.

Howell Raines, "Let Us Now Revisit Famous Folk." New York Times Magazine 25 May 1980.