MAY 2, 2014
GRIEF has seemingly endless permutations; therefore, there are seemingly endless permutations of the grief memoir. At its core, the story is always the same: one moment someone loved is here, the next moment that person is gone forever. Wives lose their husbands (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story); husbands lose their wives (C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life); daughters lose their mothers (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye); a brother loses his sister (Jon Pineda’s Sleep in Me); a son loses both his parents (Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius); parents lose their children (Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, Aleksandar Hemon’s heartbreaking “The Aquarium” in The Book of My Lives); a woman loses her parents, husband, and two children in the 2004 tsunami (Sonali Deraniyagala’s extraordinary memoir Wave).
And then there is Young Widower by John Evans, whose young wife, Katie, was mauled to death by a bear while Evans watched, helpless to save her.
In her 1992 landmark work, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman asserts that any attempt to compare horrors is “meaningless” — such weighing of grief would be simplistic and insulting — so I won’t try to convince you that Deraniyagala’s sudden loss of her entire family is worse than O’Rourke’s loss of her mother to cancer, or that Rapp’s loss of her young son to a rare genetic disorder is worse than Didion’s loss of her husband to a heart attack at the age of 71. But I will say that the trauma Evans recounts in his memoir is exceptionally horrific. Bad enough that his wife died young, worse that she died suddenly, worse still that she died violently as he looked on, and perhaps worst of all that Evans could not save her.
“There are no words for your loss, John,” a friend writes in an email. And this is true — there are no words, no way to respond to an event such as this. Yet one must try.
Herman writes, “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” Shaping the trauma into “coherent narrative, linked with feeling” is an essential step in the process of recovery. In talk therapy, when a patient tries to find the courage to “speak the unspeakable,” Herman writes quoting Jessica Wolfe, what matters is that the story be told “in great detail […] and with all the senses included.” Such narratives, whether spoken or written, neither strive for nor achieve artistic merit.
In grief memoirs, however, writers have chosen to proclaim and publish their traumas as works of art, and thus invite us to judge them as such. In Young Widower, Evans speaks the unspeakable as directly as possible on page two: “My wife’s death was violent and sensational. She was killed by a wild bear, while we were hiking in the Carpathian Mountains outside of Bucharest, where we had lived and worked for the last year of her life. She was thirty years old.” Then, like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, Evans circles around the trauma, inevitably returning to it, often using the same words and phrases like mantras, building on what he has previously described. One gets the sense of a storyteller testing the waters of what he is capable of, then backing away to describe other moments during his life with Katie and after her death — how they met, his failed attempts to propose, the year after her death when he lived with her family in Indiana — before returning again to what he must eventually tell in every detail he can remember. As Evans writes, “A therapist said to think of Katie’s death as a story. Name the parts that are too difficult, and then leave them out. Tell the story again and again, until those difficult parts come back.”
Evans often uses a dry-eyed listing of facts — another O’Brien technique — that is all the more devastating for the emotion it omits. I imagine that some of his most straightforward sentences were among the most torturous to write. This one, for example:
The bear that killed Katie had white fur on its paws and muzzle, and for a little less than an hour it flashed white across the path of my flashlight, making a deliberate measure of her body and slowly, without pretense, pressing her chest into the ground until it made no sound and did not return the force.
Or the moment he recognizes that she is dead:
And then I saw it, and I understood. We shined the light onto her face, into her eyes. The Israeli doctor was there with her husband. She performed a few simple tests. Katie’s pupils, she explained, were dilated and black. They did not shine back as they should. The doctor found an irregular pulse, then no feeling. It was Katie’s body. It was cold.
Or one of the book’s most chilling sentences, describing the morning after the attack when physicians, who have arrived only to confirm what is obvious, narrate their every move in broken English: “We will pull the sheet now back from Kathryn Evans’s body, attach the heartbeat machine, and confirm no heart.”
Evans remembers the bear flashing in and out of his vision, its muzzle dipping and lifting over his wife’s body; hearing her warning: “Don’t come closer. Find a gun. Get back quickly”; then her screams, and after “the sound of her making noise, no longer a voice but something deep, rasped, and loud that seemed to continue out of habit, long after it might have stopped”; later, the doctors taking turns compressing her chest to confirm her death; the sound of her ribs cracking; the first night without her, which he spends awake, afraid of the body.
Herman writes, in Trauma and Recovery, that a set of indelible images like these often “crystalizes” a traumatic experience. But even when every detail of his wife’s death seems to have been recorded, there is more: his guilt about what he did not do to save her, and his fantasies about how things could have gone otherwise. If the description of Katie’s death is the most powerful section of Young Widower, then perhaps the most complex aspect of this moving story is Evans’s guilt — his belief that he is a coward who should have done more. From a distance of 15 to 20 yards he tries to startle the bear by yelling, waving his arms, and throwing rocks at it, but thinks: “A husband who loves his wife would have charged the bear already.” He was, he admits, frightened for his life. And his belief in his own cowardice is the burden he carries long after Katie’s death, and perhaps, if his memoir is any indication, to this day.
When Evans returns over and over to the scene of Katie’s death, we relate not to Katie, dying beneath the bear, but to John Evans, watching, powerless. The compelling precision of Evans’s writing is such that it is impossible not to imagine your own spouse or child — someone beloved — under the bear, and wonder: What would I do? Would I throw rocks? Or would I put my own life at risk? Would I rather die believing that I saved the life of someone I loved, or live knowing that I might have done more? There is no way to determine how one would behave in such a situation. Even in one’s imagination, it’s a terrifying position to find oneself in — the stuff of our worst nightmares.
Evans’s guilt — the question of whether he was witness or coward — manifests as a deliberate self-consciousness in the writing. He alternates between remembering and questioning how he is remembering. He writes, “I could say it another, less careful way.” And: “Let me revisit that failure again.” And: “Do I have that wrong now?” And: “No, that is not quite right.” This meta-narrative conveys his palpable desire to get to the truth — not to resurrect Katie or even elegize her, but to make the story of their marriage and her death “something fixed and remote” that he could “stand at a distance from.” As Herman suggests, “To imagine that one could have done better may be more tolerable than to face the reality of utter helplessness.”
Evans is aware that with his telling of this story he will leave more of Katie behind; he cannot carry all of her forward into the rest of his life and expect to live. And he cannot help but want to survive his grief, just as he could not help but want to survive when faced with the bear. As he puts it, “The healthy body does not grieve forever. […] It is a highly adaptable organism.” With the passing of time — from the first anniversary of Katie’s death and beyond — Evans increasingly finds that he needs to “will the emotion,” triggering his grief with songs. He must grieve, too, the gradual passing of his grief.
This book is no shrine. Katie is no saint. She is presented in all her humanness — a young woman “restless with the long-term picture” and “uncertain about the institution of marriage.” She and Evans fight, as all couples do. In fact, moments before Katie’s death, Evans is angry with her because she sprains her ankle, a recurring injury he believes she has not sufficiently cared for. He leaves her behind: “Suit yourself, ” he thinks, and he keeps going on that fateful hike, compounding his subsequent sense of guilt.
In this honest depiction of his deceased wife and their loving but complicated marriage, and in his willingness to end his story without easy redemption, Evans avoids the predictable arc of many memoirs, especially those with aims at commercial success. In some memoirs the redemption is authentic; in others it may be manufactured by the writer or publisher. Either way, it can be difficult for readers not to be influenced by this formula — the desire not just for the traumatized to survive, but to find happiness. Readers of Young Widower might be waiting for the moment when Evans finds love again, but that story (Evans has remarried, his website tells me) is deliberately not part of this one.
Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery that a sense of commonality is “the strongest antidote to traumatic experience.” The “discovery that one is not alone,” she says, is the result of sharing our stories. “I am Job’s messenger,” Evans writes. “I escaped Katie’s death in order to relay its fact […]. Everyone is Job.” Indeed, Evans is one in a long line of such messengers, from Lewis to Didion to Deraniyagala. And we need them: it is too easy to forget that what we have, we will lose — that brown bears come in many guises, and that we are all powerless in one way or another. But thanks to honest and sadly beautiful books like Young Widower, we are at the very least helpless together. We can’t go on, we’ll go on.