To insist, as the journalist John Gunther did, that Death Be Not Proud deserved to be published was to insist that the boy it memorialized deserved to be remembered, not only by his family but by the world. As his 17-year-old son, Johnny, died of cancer, Gunther drafted a candid portrait of his grief. When it was published, in 1949, his level of disclosure was still considered uncouth, and Gunther knew it. But Death Be Not Proud was a success, resonating with a United States shocked by the tragedy of the Second World War. By moving his anguish from the private sphere to the public one, Gunther inaugurated an enduring genre: the grief memoir.
The United States is grieving, again, as it reckons with both the acute tragedies of more mass shootings and the extended trauma of a pandemic that has left millions unable to properly mourn. With funerals for 19 children and two teachers under way in Uvalde, Texas, perhaps books like Gunther’s can offer Americans a lesson in grieving in public, together, instead of shouldering the burden alone.
Years after the death of Johnny Gunther, a falling brick struck and killed Jayson Greene’s daughter. Literature helped him find words to describe losing a child, culminating in his memoir, Once More We Saw Stars. Clemantine Wamariya puts an entire community’s loss on the page in The Girl Who Smiled Beads, a memoir of the Rwandan genocide (written together with Elizabeth Weil) that resists leaving readers with a facile sense of uplift. Grief, it suggests, isn’t made easier by survival. On this point, Philippe Lançon, a journalist wounded in the 2015 shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, agrees. Laced with humor, Le Lambeau recounts Lançon’s recovery and his effort to reclaim his life.
These narratives resonate, the author Deborah Cohen argues, because they move beyond the “celebration of the ‘I’” commonly associated with memoir and “attempt to heal the collective ‘we.’” Not all writers manage to bring that “we” together, to be sure. Joyce Maynard’s The Best of Us, for example, misses the mark: Caitlin Flanagan writes that the memoir fails to escape the shadow of its author’s narcissism. (In a response to The Atlantic, Maynard disagreed.) But the genre can offer readers connection—and instruction. “Thank God there are people like you who still realize the infinite value of one soul when the world is devising new means of mass killing,” one reader wrote to Johnny’s mother. The best grief memoirs remind us of that value.
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What We’re Reading
Photograph by Irving Penn | John Gunther, New York, 1947 | © The Irving Penn Foundation
The book that unleashed American grief
“The battle between Johnny’s fine mind and the savagery of the tumor was like the fight [Gunther had] witnessed in fascist Vienna and Berlin: ‘A primitive to-the-death struggle of reason against violence, reason against disruption, reason against brute unthinking force.’ To insist on the value of a single existence was to strike back at that shocking disregard for human life.”
The purgatory that comes after losing a child
“You slowly learn to believe in your child’s ongoing existence. Their future begins to take shape in your mind ... [But] what happens to this sense when your child is swiftly killed by a runaway piece of your everyday environment, at the exact moment you had given up thinking that something could take all of this away at any moment?”
The Girl Who Smiled Beads defies easy uplift
“Forget raw and pure: Wamariya’s quest is to create some semblance of moral and emotional coherence out of a life that too often feels like a self-corroding performance.”
Sebastien Micke / ‘Paris Match’ / Getty
The queen of oversharing
“Fredelle Maynard once published a book about parenting in which she averred that the most important gift to give a child was the certainty that ‘never since the beginning of time has there been anybody just like you.’ It is this lesson (perhaps the ultimate Boomer credo) that animates Joyce’s collected essays and memoirs.”
+ Read Maynard’s response to Flanagan’s review.
Fred Lancelot / Reuters
What the November 13 attacks taught Paris
“Of all these books that touch on the attacks of 2015, the one that is most affecting—for the beauty of its prose, the complexity of its emotions, its sense of irony and humor and pain, its ability to exist in the moment and to transcend it as a universal testimony—is Le Lambeau.”