Working With Death: The Experience of Feeling in the Archive

tags: gender, historiography, violence, research, archives, womens history, history of sexuality

Ruth Lawlor is a junior research fellow in history at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge. She tweets @lawlor_ruth.

Editor’s Note: This article discusses sexual assault and violence.

All historians confront death. For most of us, the historical subjects we write about have expired long before we encounter them; like their lives, their deaths are facts of the past—an act completed, a chapter closed. Some deaths haunt the archive by their absence—the violence not recorded, the fates unknown—while others are replayed over and over again in spectacles of repeated humiliation. The structure of the archive can make it seem as though some lives in the past are spent merely dying. Such lives come briefly into archival view only in moments of violence, state surveillance, punishment, and death. Historians who write about these historical subjects take on a difficult labor. The archive they face is one of intense feeling and, often, trauma preserved and rearticulated in the present. 

In the course of my research, I reckon constantly with this archive of feeling. In 2016, I spent a summer in the National Archives in Washington, DC, researching the experiences of women who had been raped by American GIs in World War II. In many of the books I had read about these women, rape was the center-point of their lives; nothing before this moment mattered, and nothing after it was ever told. I thought I could go beyond such portrayals to find these women’s “voices,” to glimpse their lives beyond what had happened to them. Yet combing through the mostly legal documents of the US Army in Europe made clear the monumental challenge of this approach. The women I encountered in these records spoke only about rape; official documents and reports left them little room to articulate anything other than the facts of the violence that had befallen them. There were no “voices” here at all. 

I hoped that these women’s complex histories would become clearer in local archives in the European cities where they had lived. In September 2017, I visited the Archives of the Prefecture of Police in Paris, and it was there that I found a document that seemed like it might yield something different. I began reading about Henriette, a young woman who came to Paris in November 1944. I learned that she had family in the city but broke off ties with them soon after her arrival. In October 1945, an American soldier solicited her for sex, then assaulted her with a knife, leaving her for dead. 

Henriette lived. She told her story to the police from her hospital bed; her fight for her life had produced the record I now held in my hand. She tried to explain what had happened to her: “I was probably dealing with a madman,” she said. I turned these pages quickly, desperate to know more about this young woman’s life. She pleaded with the police not to tell her relatives about her ordeal. What would become of her? What was life like after such hideous encounters with violence? 

The historian Arlette Farge, in her meditation on 18th-century police records, talks about what happens when the trail goes cold. All historians face this problem at one time or another. Traces of the past disappear as our subjects wander in and out of archival view. But Henriette disappeared because, four days after her assault, she died. She was 20 years old.

In the archive, we work with death all the time, whether we realize it or not; most of our historical subjects are already dead. But it feels different to relive that death with them, to be present for it. To witness their final exit from life and, often, from the archival record, not because they vanished into the vast landscape of history, but because they have been wrenched from it. On the page in front of me, I read the words, over and over: “Mlle . . . (Henriette) est décédée . . . le 14 Octobre 1945.” And then nothing. Though time stretched out between my life and hers, emotions rushed to fill that temporal distance. Her loss stayed with me. For a long time, I stared at the blank page at the end of the police report, a space in which her future might have been inscribed.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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