Always so ready to analyze a movie or a book, my father and I never spoke of what it might mean that I insisted on posing before him as a corpse, again and again, the victim of a car crash, a fall, an assault. I didn’t plan the pictures ahead of time. They were incidental, the result of my happening upon a usable prop or scene. From the vantage of 30 years it seems incredible that neither my father nor I acknowledged the meaning of our collaboration. Maybe the camera itself obscured his vision. He aimed and shot at a subject already dead. I’d say I’d been playing dead had the message been more artful and less desperate.
“Look at me, Father, now that I’ve given you what you asked.”
Look at what we have done.
The medical examiner arrives on the crime scene and ducks under the yellow tape. He takes the dead girl’s temperature to estimate the hour of her death and looks at her wounds to see if they’ve bled, or didn’t bleed because she was already dead when he stabbed her. Or the killer has left bruises in the shape of his hands squeezing her neck, and tiny capillaries burst, and bleeding red against the whites of her blind eyes tell the ME she was choked; back at the forensics lab, a broken hyoid bone will confirm strangulation as the cause of death. Before the examiner bags the whole of her, he bags each of the dead girl’s hands to preserve what evidence might remain under her nails, perhaps a few of her murderer’s skin cells with the signature of his DNA to feed into a national database of serial killers’ genetic profiles.
The examiner will know more when he has her body where he can cut it open. Then he’ll see what she had for dinner or if she was already dead when her murderer drowned her. As much as the homicide detective wants the killer’s skin cells, he doesn’t want the dead girl to have fought for them. He wants to tell her family he has evidence that it had been fast, and if not fast, then insensate. That the killer had drugged her before he mauled and raped her, or that she’d missed being mauled and raped because he’d slit her throat beforehand. Anything was better than a torn fingernail, evidence of a struggle.
“Fuck you,”I said. I don’t remember why. We were at Bright Angel Point, on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. “I keep hoping,” my father said. I don’t know what happened next. I held him off for months before I let him have what he wanted, afraid of losing what he called love. But I always lay inert, like a corpse, so he’d know I hadn’t given my body to him, only let him take it. What point was there in running away, he said, when I’d never find anyone who would tolerate what he’d made of me? I wasn’t five or 10 or 15. I was 20, old enough to condemn and forever bar myself from huddling among the innocent.
My mother’s parents thought they’d done my father a favor by releasing him from his shotgun marriage to their daughter, pregnant when they were both just 17. As long as he’d go away and not come back, they’d relieve him of responsibilities he couldn’t shoulder and payments he couldn’t make—alimony, child support. They reassured each other that a boy his age didn’t have to start over; he’d yet to begin.
My grandparents steeled themselves to my teenage father’s humiliation at having his wife and firstborn taken from him. They didn’t foresee that so grave an insult to his manhood would warp the person he became; they failed to imagine the magnitude of his pride or how, over years, it would inspire a rage that demanded retaliation.
Neither they, nor my mostly absent young mother, nor I recognized the girl I became, the one who would do anything for what anyone called love. The only person who saw her was my father.