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April 15, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

The Disappearance: A Primer on Loss – Genevieve Jurgensen

It’s human nature to keep one’s eyes fixed on disaster. An entire industry of continuous news cycles is predicated on this indulgence. What’s less clear, however, is at what point we are bound to avert our gaze. Our collective attention span is short, but as Genevieve Jurgensen demonstrates in her 1994 memoir, the aftermath of disaster, though unfolding laboriously, is often more compelling than disaster itself.

The memoir begins in 1991, 11 years after the death of her two young daughters. Written as a series of letters to a friend, the prose is intimate and unnerving. The form provides a kind of mitigation between her disinclination to write and her striving to reconcile with
the events. The subject is fraught, but Jurgensen carries it with the clarity and distance provided by more than a decade of consideration, writing of “excavating… deeply-buried relics of before”. It’s a book that goes beyond catharsis and mourning and into a territory that would, a decade later, be traversed by Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking and again in The Blue Hour.

We learn specifics of what took place in the early hours of 30 April 1980 anachronistically, Jurgensen allowing us only glimpses. A palpable sense of wariness pervades the book, Jurgensen is conscious of the need to avoid presenting her daughters as names, as characters in a book; fearing that the reader “will believe more readily in their death than in their lives”. While she goes out of her way to draw a distinction between Before and After, she slips into Before as a means of justifying why writing about After is necessary.

Jurgensen shifts constantly between writing as a means of posterity, and chastising herself for making a commodity of her own tragedy. There is a sense of disease: as readers we are complicit in the very thing she is so fervently striving to avoid. We are forced to ask ourselves why we are reading, which is perhaps why the memoir is so striking; rarely does anyone speak of loss with such wrenching honesty. Like disaster, we are both compelled to watch and to be repelled by ourselves for any gratification we may find.


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