“The Problem with Perfection”

March 8, 2014   •   By Jessica Gross

The Death Class

Erika Hayasaki

ABOUT THREE WEEKS before you die, your circulatory system will stop sending blood all the way out to the tips of your fingers and toes and concentrate on your internal organs, as it does in the cold. You will begin to feel chilly. Your hands and feet will “take on the frigid feel of refrigerated poultry,” as Erika Hayasaki writes in her new book, The Death Class. The skin of your limbs will “begin to look pasty, draped over bones like pie dough.” Your sight will begin to go.

About a week before, your blood will concentrate even further, pulling away from your digestive system. You won’t feel so hungry. Your family will try to get you to eat, but it’ll be for their sake, not yours. You won’t want it.

A few days before, your liver will start to fail. The toxic buildup will give your eyes a yellow tint. With hours to go, your breathing will become “rapid and shallow, up to fifty breaths per minute, mostly through an open, drooling mouth.” Then it will become uneven; saliva will gather in your throat because you will no longer be able to swallow it. Breathing through this pool will create a sound known as a “death rattle.”

Right before death, your levels of seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine will surge, creating a sense of euphoria, obliterating your pain.

All this information comes early in Hayasaki’s book, which chronicles “Death in Perspective,” a course at New Jersey’s Kean University with a three-year waiting list. Hayasaki reported for the Los Angeles Times for nine years, and the book showcases her obvious skill as a reporter. In moments such as these, the richness of detail and the beauty of the language are breathtaking. The text is the kind of absorbing that prompts margin notes like “!!”

The gripping portrayal of what happens to a dying body comes a few pages into the book’s first chapter, when Norma Bowe relays this information to her students in a class held in a cemetery. Just before, in the prologue, Hayasaki explains her project and its motivations. When she was 16, her friend Sangeeta was murdered. Hayasaki’s portrayal of the event is compelling; as with nearly every brutal scene in this book, of which there are several, she reconstructs what happened with utmost precision and grace. She writes of Sangeeta’s mother:

I heard her bone-searing screams during the wake, as Sangeeta lay in a coffin, her body draped in a shimmering gown, a bindi dot on her forehead, the corners of her mouth turned upward. I heard her mother’s delirium again at the funeral, especially before they took her Sangeeta to be cremated. She followed her daughter’s casket out, as if she wanted to climb inside with her. I never forgot the image or the sound.

Hayasaki wrote about Sangeeta’s death for her high school newspaper, The Royal Gazette, and then for a regional teen paper. “Sangeeta was the first person I had known and cared about who died violently, and hers was the first death I ever covered as a reporter,” she writes. In the next dozen years, she wrote hundreds of obituaries, talked to survivors of atrocities, and interviewed people about deceased family members and friends. In 2007, she covered the Virginia Tech shooting for the Los Angeles Times. Again, in her book, she recounts that event with masterful and moving language.

But beginning with the prologue, whenever Hayasaki moves away from the facts into more emotional territory, she seems to falter. “I had become a journalist to try to explain and interpret the world and its stories,” she writes. “But death’s mercilessness and meaning, I could not figure out, no matter how many stories I wrote.” When she returned from Virginia, an item came across her transom: a student had written about a popular teacher. “The headline read, ‘Gaining a Little Life Perspective: Capture each moment of your life in Death in Perspective, an amazing class offered at Kean,’” Hayasaki writes. “A professor of death. Maybe I could write an article about her class? Who knew, maybe I would even learn something in the process.” This sentence — that “Who knew?” — can be read as glib, even as defensive, as though she intended to keep herself at a remove.


Norma Bowe only agreed that Hayasaki could shadow the class as a journalist on the condition that she participate as a student. Hayasaki ended up spending four years in “Death in Perspective,” although her personal discoveries in the class rarely make it into these pages — a missed opportunity. Instead, she focuses on Norma, and on the stories of Caitlin and Israel, two of Norma’s students; Jonathan, Caitlin’s boyfriend; Carl, a man Norma teaches in a prison class; Isis, a young woman Norma mentors at a shelter; and Jerzy, whose wife had been a Virginia Tech victim, and who hosts the “Death in Perspective” students at a conference. The main connection between these people is that they know Norma in some way, and that their stories involve varying levels of death-related horror, which they eventually overcome. Jonathan’s father murdered his mother; Caitlin, his on-and-off girlfriend, has a mother who is suicidal; Israel narrowly averted murdering someone in his former life in a gang; Carl is a murderer; Isis was physically abused by her mother; Jerzy’s wife was murdered.

These stories are beautifully told. They seem to be structured like the course itself, each chapter preceded by a snippet of an assignment that Norma has given her students. Sometimes, it is partially filled out by one of the characters, and sometimes it’s left blank. In theory, these assignments relate to the chapter to come, but in some cases, the connection is not apparent at all, or feels superficial, gimmicky.

In other sections, the material appears to be organized by a timeline of sorts: some of the chapter headings list a month and year, from 2008 through 2011. But in between, Hayasaki moves into her subjects’ backstories, and continues following those students even after they’ve left Bowe’s class, so that the book is never anchored firmly in either the course or the timeline. It’s difficult to get one’s bearings.

The book also gains some structure from the research of Erik Erikson, the famous psychological theorist with a painful past and a model of human development to which Bowe subscribes. Hayasaki gives us the first four elements of Erikson’s eight-stage theory near the beginning — but abruptly, the lesson drops away, and explanations of the last four stages are delivered piecemeal, in conjunction with various characters’ stories, throughout the rest of the text.

These structural confusions perhaps spring from the uncertainty of Hayasaki’s own involvement in her story. She turns the volume up and down on her literal presence as a character, which can be disorienting. In Hayasaki’s presentation of Erikson’s theories, she offers little appraisal, but rather quotes from or paraphrases both his texts and Bowe’s interpretations. Are Erikson’s conclusions generally accepted today? By whom? More importantly, does Hayasaki herself buy Erikson’s model? Why? In the book’s postscript, Hayasaki writes,

I read nearly a hundred books and articles on the subjects of death, dying, and mental health — from psychology to philosophy to science — and interviewed experts in the field, but most of that scholarly research did not make it into this book. Rather, it informed the writing of each narrative, for this is first and foremost a story about people.

This comes as a surprise: Hayasaki’s prose concerning matters of intellectual theory does not feel authoritative or evaluative, as if to imply that Bowe’s endorsement is reason enough for the reader to sign on.

Hayasaki’s reporting on events, including those for which she was not present, is often impressive, and at times her description is wondrous, but occasionally it is not immediately clear how it serves the story. On Bowe’s Mazda minivan, which the students jokingly call the “party bus”: “its floors and seats were littered with pink highlighters, an unopened Doritos bag, a dozen stuffed purple bunnies, a Celtic Thunder CD, the sound track of Hairspray, and clusters of straws sealed in paper wrapping.” What light this sheds on Bowe’s character is up to us to decide. “Her heavy key chain jangled as she walked, containing more keys than any one person could possibly need, along with membership cards for places such as Petco Pals, Borders, Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, Vermont, and Curves health club for women.” In one part of the book, Caitlin (one of Bowe’s students) punches glass, and Hayasaki relays the following sartorial information:

The next day, Caitlin came to school with her long blond hair looped through the back of a baseball cap, its front emblazoned with a symbol of a hand with its middle and ring finger raised, thumb, index and pinky curled down; her favorite comedian, Dane Cook, called it a ‘superfinger.’ Caitlin’s own fingers were wrapped in white bandages like a boxer’s wrap.

Is this a study in contrasts? Is it meant to reveal some larger truth? In another section, Hayasaki accompanies Bowe on a weekend trip and interrupts the narrative to share that “a powerful hurricane was headed for the Northeast,” such that when “Norma returned to Highland Park the next week, her home would be flooded.” This is not a detail that she returns to or that has significance in the story.

Hayasaki’s scant participation as our narrative guide is most confounding when it comes to examining her characters’ inner lives. Here she is on Isis, the new shelter arrival with whom Bowe ends up developing a relationship:

[Isis] survived that beating, but her mom hurt her on other days too. Isis had a habit of sucking her teeth. One day, her mother kicked her in the ribs for it. Isis fell off the bed and onto the floor, and her mother got on top of her, punched her in the eye, wrapped her hands around her neck, and began to squeeze. Isis didn’t fight back. She never fought back. Even after all of that, she loved her mother.

The statement “Even after all of that, she loved her mother” betrays a psychological opacity. Is it a surprise that the child of an abuser still loves her parent, or is it part of what makes the relationship so tenacious? What does abuse by a loved one do to one’s psyche? Why might Isis still love her mother? Is it a matter of curiosity, as Hayasaki suggests? Is it because of the specificity of the mother-child connection? Or could it be, as has been noted in numerous fictional and nonfictional accounts, because there is something in the abuse itself that perversely draws the beaten to the aggressor?

Not every writer needs to be psychologically incisive. But for a book that is about humans’ relationship to their own mortality, going as deeply as possible into characters’ psyches would seem to be a prerequisite. Hayasaki does give us a clear and detailed view of Bowe’s life story, which is both sordid and heartbreaking and goes partway toward explaining her character. Her mother became pregnant with her as a teenager and tried unsuccessfully to abort; her parents’ relationship was extremely volatile; they abused Norma; her younger brother had a serious health disorder. “Norma had no idea who among the family members would die first, whether from violence or illness,” Hayasaki writes.

Death, it seemed, taunted her like some kind of bedroom monster lurking in the closet. She learned how to be a very good girl, always tiptoeing around her parents’ tempers, hiding in her bedroom reading Nancy Drew novels, throwing herself into science class at school.

So how did the young Norma Bowe avoid becoming an angry and abusive adult herself? Why didn’t she grow up to be frightened and withdrawn? How, instead, did she become a confident, outgoing, magnanimous woman? Hayasaki on Bowe in her teens:

Her sense of self-assurance came about as subtly as physical maturation. For months there were hints, but then all of a sudden there she was, practically full grown. Somewhere along the way she just stopped being afraid — afraid of her parents, afraid of her life, afraid of death.

The full-grown Bowe, as portrayed in the book, is incredible in both the colloquial and the literal senses of the word. That is, the depth and breadth of what she does for others is truly amazing. But Hayasaki idealizes her to the point that she is not quite believable as a person. It is evident that Bowe connects deeply with students at Kean, girls at the homeless shelter, and men at the prison; clearly she utterly devotes herself to the cause of helping others. But Hayasaki does not analyze Bowe’s almost manic drive to help.

She emerged like a fairy godmother before her students, hopping out of the van and hurrying into the graveyard with all eyes on her, walking with a side-to-side wag, a slight stoop of the shoulders, her feet nudged outward like a pair of wings.

And: “Norma Bowe to the rescue. Again.”

Hayasaki at times offers up potentially unsavory aspects of Bowe’s character, only to strike them down immediately, as if there is no room for anything distasteful in her portrayal. Here’s Hayasaki on Bowe’s father:

His daughter, he went on, for all her virtues, “has to be the one in control.”

“That,” he said, “is an insight into Dr. Death over there.”

He added with all seriousness and cluelessness, “I don’t know if it’s something about the way she was raised in her life.”

A critical interpretation of Bowe’s behavior — that she can be controlling — is quickly dismissed by calling her father clueless. But there is beauty in complexity. Perhaps Norma is controlling. Perhaps that trait did arise out of her upbringing. Perhaps it allows for her enormous feats. Perhaps it is also a fault. These possibilities can all be simultaneously true.

Later, Hayasaki writes, “Norma had been trying to convince Jonathan to visit her death class and share his experiences with his mother’s, father’s, and brother’s deaths with them when he was ready. He wasn’t yet.” After a time, he is, and describes his past to a group of people for the first time. Ultimately, Jonathan ends up traveling the country as a financial coach and “sharing his life story with thousands of people.” The implication is that Norma’s encouragement helped Jonathan find his true calling, that she helped him to help others. That is likely true, and her pushing him to open up was valuable. But Hayasaki’s idealized version of Norma feels a bit like watching a movie scene overlaid with music designed to up the ante.

To present Bowe as a superhero is not to do her any favors. It is imperfection that makes us human, and it’s hard to feel invested in the story of a character who does not read as a human being. Undoubtedly, Bowe has done something remarkable with her life, especially given the terrors she’s survived. But even the best among us are riddled with imperfections and faults. It’s these faults that make characters — people — not simply sympathetic, but credible. Characters who hew too closely to perfection begin to take on the frigid feel of refrigerated poultry.


Jessica Gross is a freelance writer based in New York City.