Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

Caitlin Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death as a way for people to seek acceptance surrounding death—that of their loved ones, and themselves. She works as a mortician, green funeral advocate, and hosts a YouTube series called Ask a Mortician. But in 2008, Doughty was a hapless twenty-three year-old crematory operator, clumsily pursuing her start in what many would dub an undesirable or morbid industry. Death is a part of life—inevitable and unchanging. Whether or not we have direct experience in witnessing a death or have spent any time with corpses outside of their satin-lined caskets, we see how death profoundly affects and changes those around us, and we will all someday experience it ourselves: When it comes to death, everyone gets a turn.

Caitlin Doughty invites us into her world through this darkly funny memoir, sharing her experiences in her first years in the death business. Grief, gore, and a thin film of “people dust”— they’re all here for the telling. Such is a job not everyone is suited to—clearly, something in Doughty has called her to the world of death, and she has made it a lifelong endeavor. Doughty describes witnessing, at the age of eight, the accidental death of a child. We all have catalyst moments in our lives, where an internal seismic shift occurs and informs the direction our future lives might take. In college, Doughty majored in medieval history with a concentration on death and culture. Her application to Westwind Crematory and Funeral Home was her way of getting closer to her fascination with the death, working directly with the dead as a crematory operator.

To state the obvious: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is not a read for the faint of heart (or stomach). Doughty vividly describes the condition of bodies in various states of decay, the process by which cremation is complete, and a host of other tantalizing morbid tidbits. I myself am somewhat morbid: frequently contemplating my own untimely (or timely) demise, what might be done with my body postmortem, the natural process of decay and the unnatural practice of embalming. When it comes to death, I am all “tell me more;” I’m leaning in, hushed and attentive, hanging on every word.

“The people in the [refrigerated body storage area] would probably not have hung out together in the living world. The elderly black man with a myocardial infection, the middle-aged white mother with ovarian cancer, the young Hispanic man who had been shot just a few blocks from the crematory. Death had brought them all here for a kind of United Nations summit, a round-table discussion on nonexistence” (Doughty, 13).

Modern society has a way of sanitizing death—removing us from it, “protecting”
us from the unsavory sights (and/or smells), whisking the deceased away the moment they pass away for their brief layover at the funeral home for the requisite (or is it?) embalming followed by interment. Why don’t we think about these practices more—question what happens to our loved ones corpses, what might happen to our own? Doughty’s tone is refreshingly absent of the spiritual platitudes that can so often surround death. There are no promises of eternal bliss in the hereafter. Instead, Doughty gently shows us what actually goes on after death, and how it affects the living. She is sincere, yet possesses a dark humor that makes Smoke Gets in Your Eyes a delightfully compelling read. If you fear death (and we all do, on some level), please read this book.



Review: The Keepers (Netflix series)


For true-crime aficionados seeking their next fix, look no further than Netflix’s new docuseries, “The Keepers.” It has compelling qualities akin to “The Jinx” (HBO) and “Making a Murderer” (also Netflix) that may capture viewership. By the second episode, however, “The Keepers” asserts itself with its penetrative firsthand accounts and themes that spread deeper and wider than either of the aforementioned series. At first, “The Keepers” details the disappearance of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November of 1969, followed by the discovery of her body several months later. The docuseries’ “anchors” are Abbie and Gemma, former students at Keough, the Baltimore Catholic girls’ school at which Sister Cathy was a teaching nun. Now in their sixties, these women have become armchair detectives, determined to find out who killed Sister Cathy. Attempting to revive a cold case nearly half a century old is challenging under “normal” circumstances, but the clandestine stonewalling from the Archdiocese of Baltimore along with law enforcement’s indifference, makes it nearly impossible to get answers to a tangled web of crimes, allegations, and cover-ups.

With each episode, the narrative widens—measuredly revealing more voices, more secrets, and more lies. Layers upon layers of secrets and recalled memories intertwine with one another, compounding the myriad intricate tragedies that continued to impact the lives of victims many decades after the incidents occurred. The systemic corruption of the Catholic Church—namely the Archdiocese of Baltimore—remains at the core of the series (the Catholic League has declared the documentary “scurrilous”). In the 1990s, dozens of women, including “Jane Doe” (Jean Hargadon Wehner) brought forth a litany of allegations of heinous abuse at the hands of the Chaplain at Keough, Father Joseph Maskell. The Archdiocese of Baltimore continues to deny prior knowledge of abuse allegations, even though they had been made decades earlier—even blaming victims for not coming forward sooner.

I want to stay away from explicit spoilers, since part of the viewing experience of “The Keepers” is absorbing the revelations as they occur over the space of seven roughly hour-long episodes. “The Keepers” is about more than just Father Maskell and the murder of a young nun. So many specters and suspicious characters take shape as Abbie, Gemma, and the filmmakers persistently try to chip away at fraying evidence and doggedly chase after justice for Sister Cathy.

The cinematography is breathtaking, and a haunting piano-heavy intro (composed by Blake Neely) helps to set the tone for the series, shifting from bleak landscapes to photographs of the faces involved in the story. Although compulsively watchable, “The Keepers” is dark, there is no way around that. It does, however, offer rare glimmers of hope and humor, and the tenacity of Abbie and Gemma is inspiring. Most moving of all is the collective courage of the featured victims to share their harrowing experience. In doing so, together they crack open a wall of darkness so that some light can at last shine through.

Other perspectives: The A.V. Club | Variety | The New York Times

Has Anyone Seen My Pants? by Sarah Colonna

51gi8snv83l-_sy344_bo1204203200_I had disproportionately high hopes for this book. I bought it on a Kindle special for 1.99, and I guess for that, I got my money’s worth. I recall enjoying Colonna’s first book Life as I Blow It much better, but I also read that book in my mid twenties when I was doing a lot of what she was doing, and what she continues to do in Pants.

I guess the book’s title and cover should have been a clue-in that this sort of stuff isn’t really for me (anymore). Maybe I really have grown up, and I’m about ten years younger than Colonna. I adored Sex and the City when I was in my early twenties (still do!), but I am, frankly, relieved that I experienced my “singlehood” in my twenties. I also  hope that chapter of my life is over. Pants was like a sad trip down memory lane, reminding me of all the craziness and embarrassment of dating, no matter who you are. For the record, I certainly I don’t condemn Colonna for her promiscuity, I applaud her candor and her owning who she is. I was a slut once, too.

But: I grew up, I guess. My priorities now center around watching critically-acclaimed TV dramas with my boyfriend, working on my undergrad degree and slaving at the 9-5 corporate job that pays my health insurance and for my tattoo and handbag collection. While there’s nothing wrong with being single in one’s thirties, I really think that’s who would best enjoy this book. I was hoping (based on many, many five-star reviews) that it would be laugh-out-loud fantastic, but I only chuckled a couple of times. It’s an easy read and not exactly boring. But it certainly didn’t enrich my life, teach me anything, or really, truly make me “lol.” With a title like “have you seen my pants?” I was hoping for at least that.

Bottom line: C-

Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison

85957303I downloaded Holly Madison’s Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny out of burning curiosity. In 2005, I was an avid watcher of the E! Reality series The Girls Next Door. At the time, I was enthralled by the frilly, frothy lifestyle that Bridget, Kendra, and Holly seemed to have, and their “unique” relationship with Hef. But as we know, reality TV is far from real. Like everyone else, I wanted to know what really went down at the infamous Playboy Mansion. I stopped following the “Girls” years ago, and was intrigued when Holly published this supposed tell-all about her years at the Mansion and as Hugh Hefner’s “number one girlfriend.” With summer in full swing, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to invest in some salacious reading material.

Obvious disclaimer: There is no literary merit in Down the Rabbit Hole. Nor are there epiphanies about human existence or deep self-reflection and introspection. I went “down the rabbit hole” with the hope of being frivolously entertained, and in that aspect I was not disappointed. The writing itself is decent, whether it is Holly’s or aided by a ghost writer, there is a voice of intelligence and reason. It is frustrating to read about Holly’s string of bad decisions, and how her self-worth was solely based on her looks and affirmation (or lack thereof) from one of the world’s shallowest and most misogynistic men ever. I was appalled to learn (but not necessarily surprised) that the pervy grandpa persona we saw on GND couldn’t have been farther from the truth: Hef was manipulative, sexist, and frankly downright boring. His scathing remarks were offensive and hurtful. Even though Holly “made her bed,” I still empathized with the way she was treated during her Mansion years. I was unsurprised with the catty behavior she described from the other girls, but again, in an atmosphere like that, what would one expect?

Down the Rabbit Hole was a page-swiping read (I have the Kindle version) for the first half of the book. However, once Holly (finally) leaves the Mansion and “breaks up” with Hef, she winds up in Vegas dating Criss Angel, despite his being an obvious douchebag. I suppose I should not be surprised for someone who “dated” Hugh Hefner to have poor taste in men, but it was a little on the annoying side nonetheless. Like many of us though, Holly learns her most important life lessons the hard way, and those mistakes are glaringly obvious to those on the observing end. I was less interested with the Peepshow storyline and how Madison was “taking Vegas by storm,” and developing her own identity as I was with the juicy details of Mansion life. Sadly, it seems that no matter how much Holly wants to dissociate from the Playboy empire, that alone is what forged her identity and made her “famous” in the first place. And let’s be perfectly honest: A sexy, scantily-clad Vegas showgirl isn’t much different from a Playboy Bunny, Playmate, or “girlfriend,” after all. It isn’t as if Madison made a complete life turnaround by volunteering in third world countries or going back to school (although she isn’t as dumb as you’d think!). Her life still centers around working her looks; she just no longer is “kept” by Hefner.

Holly’s journey “down the rabbit hole” and onto the Las Vegas Strip makes for a fluffy summer beach read, but that’s about it. There were a few juicy anecdotes, but by the tail end (another bunny reference!) of the book, it was heavily focused on how determined she was to step out of the Playboy spotlight and forge her own path. (She makes multiple self-comparisons to Marilyn Monroe…As likeable as Holly is, Marilyn Monroe doppelganger she is not.) While it seems that Holly has done well for herself post-Playboy and has found happiness in marriage and with a child (Rainbow!) life at the Playboy Mansion is about what you would expect: one of servitude and misogyny masquerading as luxury and a stepping stone to something “better.”

Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

7937843Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room is earning more attention after the reception of its critically-heralded film adaptation, for which actress Bree Larson won an Oscar for her portrayal of “Ma.” As a young college student, Ma was kidnapped, duped into getting into a truck with what turned out to be a terrible man, referred to in the novel as “Old Nick.” Jack is the product of one of the many rapes Ma endures. Room is their prison, yes, but for Jack, it is his whole world. Everything he knows is shaped by its confines and limitations. Ordinary objects take on lives of their own. The world that you and I know is “only TV” to Jack. (Donoghue’s decision to grant the characters TV during their imprisonment is a good one, at least it gives Jack some frame of reference and idea of the world.) Donoghue does  remarkably well given the narrow scope of Room’s dimensional limitations; through Jack’s eyes, everything is larger than it seems to the reader, particularly when he discovers “outside.”

Despite the horrific nature that is the novel’s premise, Room is still not what I would categorize as an upsetting or depressing read. Because the novel is narrated with Jack’s voice, it takes on an optimistic tone that can only come from a child’s perspective. It is not a spoiler to reveal that Jack and Ma do escape Room alive, as the second half of the book documents their recovery and attempts to acclimate to the world (Ma the world she knew and mournes during her capture; Jack a world of firsts and brand new everything). There is plenty of evil in Room, but it is for the most part cushioned by Jack’s characteristic innocence and endless curiosity.

I did have some difficulty with a couple of things: Jack’s level of understanding of some things seemed overly advanced (words like vomit, agonizing, disgusting, and understanding the employment of sarcasm) and at others very deficient (“hotted” instead of “heated”, etc.). Those disparities were hard for me to reconcile, but I tried not to be too critical. One can never really know what is going on in a 5 year-old’s mind, and Donoghue’s interpretation (inspired by her own son) does seems to accurately represent language aquisition patterns of a young child with limited exposure to language, outside of TV and his mother, of course.

To read Room is in a way, to rediscover the world. It offers the reader fresh perspective and insight into things that we accept without question, most importantly, the value of personal freedom. As many other reviewers have noted, Room is sharply illustrative of the impermeable bond between a mother and her child. For every fear or ache, Donoghue provides the reader winks of hope through Jack’s unique introduction to our beautiful and confusing world.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2002)

Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a nice book. It is a story about being a mother, but it does not comfort, nor does it evoke feelings of warmth or maternal love. It was never meant to. Nothing about Kevin is “nice,” but it is a great novel because it engages the reader: For better or worse, it would be nearly impossible to read it without some sort of visceral reaction. Lionel Shriver (an unapologetic feminist) does not shy away from exploring the dark, uncomfortable areas of human existence. And that is what makes her such a powerful writer, and what makes We Need to Talk About Kevin a unique literary achievement.

The novel is narrated through a series of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin. Eva is a pretentious, privileged New Yorker who has founded her own series of travel guides for the penny-pinching, jet-setting bourgeoisie. Some readers took issue with Eva’s absurdly flowery language. It is important to distinguish the voice of the protagonist from the voice of the author: They are Eva’s words, not Lionel Shriver’s. Eva is not particularly likable or even sympathetic. Her formerly unencumbered lifestyle filled with exotic global adventures has been demoted to not only the mundane tasks of domestic life and motherhood, but to being a parent to a child who could only be described as evil incarnate. With that, the reader is able to produce a kernel of sympathy for Eva’s burden–a burden named Kevin.

Some reviewers say they had trouble getting through the novel; I’m of the opposite opinion. I could hardly stop reading, even delaying work on my finals to finish it. Eva’s misery was simultaneously riveting and horrifying. For someone who shares Eva’s ambivalence about the possibility of motherhood, Kevin reads as a nightmarish embodiment of all the reasons not to procreate, the ultimate cautionary tale. Becoming a parent is a tremendous sacrifice even with the most angelic of children; with a child like Kevin, it was clearly a choice that brought Eva nothing but despair and grief, exacerbated by her optimistic and infuriatingly oblivious husband, Franklin. While I had to suspend my belief that anyone (even someone condescending and pretentious as Eva) would write so many verbose letters and expect the recipient to actually read them, the format of the letters to Franklin serves as a distinct literary device that Shriver employs to unfold the story from Eva’s perspective. Shriver’s use of the second person helps to drive home all the bitterness and resentment she holds against Franklin, rooted in that fateful decision for her to become pregnant.

The true horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t in its face-value tragedy: The sudden and brutal slaying of a dozen or so students along with a well-meaning faculty member in a high school. What is truly, deeply chilling is the unthinkable notion that it is possible not to love our children. This is a daring theme to address, and perhaps it is Shriver’s childlessness that enabled her to build the character of Kevin without inhibition. I watched an interview with her where she talks about how some people thought that since Shriver didn’t have children, she had no “right” to write about such a controversial topic. As she explains in the interview, it is precisely that circumstance that allowed her to freely explore this dark emotional universe. Such is also the beauty of fiction writing: We can be whoever we want to be.

Some readers might feel compelled to wonder: Was Kevin born evil? Or was it Eva’s failing as a mother that made him so? The classic nature vs. nurture debate. For me, there was never much of a question: There was something malevolent about Kevin from the moment Eva holds him after delivering him. She describes the unsettling behavior displayed in Kevin’s childhood, revealing the breadth of Kevin’s malice with each searing letter. There is an admirable honesty about Eva. She struggles with her decisions, her position in the world, and the shadow Kevin’s actions leave on the remainder of her life. Eva is smart, worldly, and before Kevin, had an incredibly strong sense of who she was. Motherhood robbed her of that. She tries to take it back at various points throughout the novel, perhaps most memorably when she papers the walls of the study in the new house with maps–symbolic of her attempting to make her life her own again. And Kevin, just a toddler, sprays over it with his squirt gun filled with Eva’s India ink, as if to say: I’ve taken your life, and I will always be a stain on it.

As much as I would love to discuss the plot twists that make the novel even more compelling and disturbing, I am reluctant to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read the novel (or seen the film) and wants to. Suffice it to say, many moments in We Need to Talk About Kevin left me aghast and breathless. I marveled not only at the shocking, unsettling events or Kevin’s creepy mannerisms, but at Shriver’s ability to so eloquently capture the complexity of emotions in a single character; that she renders Eva so dimensionally human. For me, that was where the novel hit home–in its conveyance of human authenticity.