Photo: Mark Ittleman

Women We Read This Week

Jeannie Vanasco’s “What’s in a Necronym?” in The Believer

In “What’s in a Necronym?” Jeannie Vanasco writes about how she was named after her father’s previous daughter who died at the age of 16, 23 years before Vanasco was born. Her parents added an “i” to her name, changing it from Jeanne to Jeannie. Having “a name shared with a dead sibling” is called a necronym and it used to be much more common. Salvador Dali was named after his brother who died when he was 21 months old and Ludwig van Beethoven was named after his brother who lived for six days, Ludwig Maria.

Vanasco was obsessed with her sister. Having never seen even a photograph of her, she imagined what she must have looked like and painted portraits of her when she was 8. She wrote a story about her in junior high and won an award for it. “I told myself Jeanne won,” she writes. When she was in her late twenties she found Jeanne’s photograph online and tracked down some of her old friends, one of whom told her how much she looked like Jeanne.

She talks about how she had a great relationship with her father, but that being named after his dead daughter confused her. She writes of her father, “I tried not to hear her name when he said my own.” Vanasco was hospitalized multiple times for psychiatric issue, the first time in her senior year of college, and she relates those hospitalizations to her struggle to separate her life from Jeanne’s. She says that she’s stopped obsessing over Jeanne—“for now.”

Vanasco does a beautiful job of weaving together her narrative and the story of other famous people who were named after dead siblings, as well as psychologists who talk about the impact this has on a person—especially how hard it is for them to find a true sense of self. At the end Vanasco asks, “Is that why my father added an i to my name? To remind me that I was my own person?”

Rachel

Jean Kim’s “The Case for Motherhood” in The American Scholar

I just reviewed another piece about postpartum depression last week, but I couldn’t pass up this essay that’s written from the perspective of a psychiatrist working at an all-female inpatient psychiatric unit. The essay weaves the story of a patient with severe postpartum depression—verging on postpartum psychosis—with the author’s story of growing up with a doting mother and a father who often flew into rages. The author, Jean Kim, weighs the societal expectations of mothers and of motherhood itself with the realities of how difficult and lonely new parenthood can be. Though not a mother herself (yet), Kim describes how her maternal desire to care for others leads her to mother her mentally ill boyfriend and each of her patients. She talks about her continued efforts to remain empathetic and understanding while working in a field where many have become jaded, or view women as hysterical. It’s unique to hear from someone who doesn’t have kids, but who has spent years treating mothers for postpartum depression and other mental health issues. Kim is an observant and gripping storyteller, adept at choosing important scenes and exchanges to illustrate bigger-picture ideas and ideals. The piece is an important addition to the ongoing conversation about motherhood in modern society.

The intensity of fury seems partly irrational, driven by her psychosis. But I wonder if there is also some underlying truth to her anger. Did her parents, like so many, pressure her with the usual expectation of having children that is drilled into many young girls’ minds from an early age? Did she fall for the idea, the fantasy, the duty of having children, while now being confronted with the tough reality: the responsibility, the anxiety, the endless chores and sleeplessness, the feeling that one’s life no longer belongs to oneself? And has she now become furious at her parents for that subtle and expected insistence, that she fell for it, only to find herself shattered?

Olivia

Megan Michelson’s “A Ghost Among Us” in Backpacker

Megan Michelson tells the story of “Anish,” a hiker who attempted to set a new speed record on the 2500-mile Pacific Crest Trail back in 2013. Extreme endurance athletes can be inscrutable, but Michelson brings Anish alive, delving into her backstory and how she came to be on the PCT, alone, walking and walking and walking. The end result is a portrait of a woman I can understand, and relate to, even as she accomplished something that I can’t imagine ever tackling.

Eva

Robyn K. Coggins’ ”What’s the Best Way to Die?” in The Wilson Quarterly

When I was in college, my great-grandmother died. She wasn’t the first person I knew to die, or even the first relative; what made her death different was that I was there when it happened. Much of our family was there, too, all together in the hospice when she took her last breath. She had lived into her nineties, had accomplished remarkable things, like immigrating to a new country in adulthood and learning a new language. Her life had been full of love; her passing seemed peaceful. Her cause of death was kidney failure.

According to Robyn K. Coggins’ latest from The Wilson Quarterly, kidney failure is one of the best ways to go. At least, that’s what a bevy of nurses has said. In her story, “What is the Best Way to Die?” Coggins interviews people whom death surrounds on a daily basis—people you’d expect, like doctors, but also others: an “end-of-life doula,” a philosopher. She steers us into the realm of patient choice and bioethics, all the while maintaining a no-nonsense attitude, one that unnerves yet somehow comforts.

Sometimes I think getting sniped while walking down the street is the best way to go. Short, sweet, surprising; no worries, no time for pain. Sure, it’d be traumatic as hell for the people nearby, but who knows — your death might spark a social movement, a yearlong news story that launches media, legal, and criminal justice careers.

Maybe the comfort I found in her matter-of-factness about the whole thing. I’ve always been a little morbid. But talking about death and dying—which is ultimate and inevitable for each and every one of us—is the only way to normalize an event that American culture so deeply fears.

I like, too, that Coggins ends with an appeal to her readers, even if it’s a difficult one. Consider your own answers to her titular question, if you’re willing. What, indeed, is the best way to die?

Sara

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