Dancing with skeletons and sleeping with ghosts

Early in my academic career as I was trying to figure out how to go about publishing Lindneux’s memoir, I was referred to the director of the Scholarly Publishing Program in the History Department at the University where I worked as a receptionist. I was also working on finishing my undergrad degree at the time. She suggested that I sign up for an independent study course with her and that I sit in on one of her graduate level documentary editing classes. It was an amazing opportunity and a truly life changing experience for me. I naively went into this class thinking that the hardest part of this publishing project was going to be creating an index. I quickly realized that there was a whole lot more to it.

One part of that class that I remember very fondly was the discussion of a book she had asked the class to read; The Archivist by Martha Cooley. This fictional story is about an archivist who had access to letters written by T. S. Elliot to his friend Emily Hale. These letters were donated to this library by Hale with the condition they be kept sealed until the year 2020. Pardon me as I spoil the ending… the archivist finds out that T. S. Elliot actually wanted these letters destroyed, and decides to honor that request. (Remember, this is fictional – however, the letters are real, quite intact and still sealed up.)

After reading the book the class was asked to consider a question; what will you do when you discover certain “skeletons” in the closet of a person you are researching, and further, what will you do when ghosts from the past come to you in the night and ask you to keep those skeletons hidden? The other students, all die hard history students to the last, agreed they would readily tell the world about those skeletons and would ignore pleas from any ghost no matter who they were. I on the other hand hesitated.

When it comes down to it, skeletons are just dry bones, they may startle the researcher at first, but once the shock has faded, they are actually quite fascinating. They do tend to get in the way though; they are awkward and ugly, hard to cleanup and always in the way. It is not always easy to figure out how to present skeletons in the mist of other more modest contexts. Interestingly enough though, the researcher soon realizes that bones are integral to the human structure and a life story falls flat without those supporting elements.

Then there are the ghosts… aberrant manifestations that wake you in the night and deprive you of any sense of blamelessness or incorruptibility… not to mention sound sleep. The researcher inevitably must summon these ghosts to ask why and how and where and when. Only then is it understood that ghosts have an annoying habit of silence. This silence brings an agonizing sense of regret and loss for the time squandered with the living. As the search is reduced to an act of observation the only answer given by a ghost is an agonizing moan of regret and a firm redirection to the closet where you found the skeleton sleeping. A skeleton, which is now dancing over every attempt at sharing a reputable life story of this person. A skeleton, which you alone are responsible for revealing or repressing.

For me, it is one of the difficult parts of this being a family project, and one of the most important reasons why the idea of a family member editing a memoir, especially in the context of a scholarly publication, is frowned upon. The idea of respecting ones elders and family has been deeply ingrained into my psyche from birth and so I must admit that this question isn’t so easy for me. It is interesting to me that as I would share certain surprises from our research with other members of my family I found that they were just as disconnected as those fellow history students. Perhaps we are indeed delivered from the sins of our fathers. So if I must don the facade of a historian and share the skeletons uncovered by research into the past, perhaps I can at least find a way to benignly and civilly dance with them in the open? That seems like a bit much to ask of a skeleton though.