On the tangible realities of absence

On July 10, 2010, I presented a paper, “Tangible Reality of Absence: Fan Communities and the Mourning of Fictional Characters,” (which you can now retrieve to read in its entirety at that link) at an academic conference in Bristol in the UK. It’s something of which I’m quite proud; it’s also something that was quite difficult, and was, and remains, complex in ways I could not have anticipated going into it.

I didn’t really think of myself as an independent scholar before Bristol. Sure, I had a (not scholarly) pop culture book out and had presented some papers on the academic tracks at Harry Potter cons, but that was just me enjoying some attention for thinking and talking about stuff I really dig. I didn’t know what to call it or what it said about me or how to integrate it with the fact that I am a fan and I’ve never really understood why I should be ashamed of that.

Submitting a paper to the conference, Desiring the Text, Touching the Past: Towards An Erotics of Reception, felt like something of a moral imperative to me when I read the CFP, which circulated fast and furiously around LiveJournal for its inclusiveness of fan studies and desire. But for me, the magic phrase was, “Many classical and medieval authors recount embodied and highly emotional encounters with religious, fictional or historical characters,” because that was me.

That was me in fourth grade when I spent all my time daydreaming about having tea with Alexander the Great. And it was me every time I’ve had to go on a trip alone, and there was no one there but characters I’d loved and made friends with to hold my hand when the plane took off. And these anecdotes, although largely unspecific and chosen for their romanticism, aren’t just stories to me. Maybe it’s because I’m an actor, because I’m trained to pretend, but I know the feel of all those different hands that have soothed me as we’ve hurtled down the runway.

Because I live in the world with my partner and my friends and my colleagues, I know to say these experiences aren’t real. But because I’ve experienced them, I also know to say they aren’t not real either. And until I read that CFP, I didn’t know that I was really allowed to talk about that, not the love, not the connection, but the embodiment of it that has been with me my whole life, as a type of magic and as a form of ghosts and as an instrument of shame.

What to write about became clear pretty fast. Ianto Jones had just died on Torchwood and everyone I knew kept asking why every once in a while they felt like they had to pop into the bathroom at work just to have a good cry, weeks and months after the fact. I knew I couldn’t answer that question, but I thought maybe I could answer why it was happening about this character and why it always seemed to happen about certain types of characters and yet not others; it wasn’t the degree of fannish love that seemed to generate this mourning, but something else. I’d seen it with Severus Snape, too. I’d heard about ways “the ecstasy of grief” had consumed various Whedon fandoms. And thought I knew, like everyone thinks they know, that people once wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes.

So I submitted an abstract, got a yes, and then began this completely ridiculous journey that I couldn’t possibly have expected at the time, one that involved being a receptacle for other people’s grief, a great deal of defending fannish love, too much anger (on my part and a lot of other people’s), several trips to the UK, and a tattoo. It’s a story I’ve intended to tell since I first started working on this project, but I’m still not sure it’s one I know how.

I first went to the UK in April 2010 with Patty. She was speaking at a conference in London and had business in Cardiff. I would visit the Ianto memorial site while she did that, because it seemed reasonable that I see the thing that was going to account for a full third of the paper. That experience didn’t really turn out how I expected, and then we got stuck in London besides, due to the volcanic ash event. There was a point where I was in tears of frustration, sitting on the Internet, tweeting: “I am stuck in the UK due to a volcano with a non-working vortex manipulator. Doctor stuck in the US. And Ianto’s dead.” It was, frankly, completely hilarious, but the whole situation was also super strange. It’s funnier if you’re a Doctor Who fan.

By the time I touched down in the UK a few months later for the Bristol conference (presenting the paper, I might note, one year and one day after the episode of Torchwood in which Ianto died was aired), I’d already survived a heated panel on character death responses, that was both wonderful and awful, at Gallifrey One. I’d discovered that the act of morning for Ianto which I personally was the most emotionally responsive to was committed by someone with whom I had argued in a mutually ungracious fashion on- and off-line. I’d watched both creators I admire and people I’m friends with endure ongoing harassment and threats over this thing. And I was holding, somewhat unexpectedly, a hell of a lot of secrets.

These secrets were told to me along the route of this project by people of all genders, ages and sexual orientations. It happened more often in person, confessions over drinks, than online, but it happened a lot. It included fans, people who hadn’t thought to characterize themselves as fans, and professional creators who in some cases had at least distant ties to the property in question. It included people I knew well and people who were essentially strangers to me.

The secrets fell into two clear and simple categories. The first, “When Ianto died, it felt like I’d been the one that had been killed off.” The second, “It felt like I’d lost my lover.” And lest you think I am in any way outside of this experience, let me be clear in that my response was only ever two things: “I know,” and “Me too.”

That’s not really something I’ve wanted to admit, but not because of the stigma associated with fannishness in the general world, or the stigma associated with this type of transgressive, embodied fannishness amongst fandom itself (see the paper for a discussion of Snape’s Wives), nor even because acafen are suspect enough for the love we bring to the table of our scholarship. Rather, it was an experience I’d had that was agonizing and private, and lacking beautiful words for it, I did not wish instead to offer words that were merely adequate, or worse, inadequate. That overall feeling, while now a gentle and passing regret as if for a joy I once had, remains.

It’s not something I think I have much else to say on, but the reason I’m saying it at all is important. One of the themes that emerged out of the Bristol conference was that of exile and secrets. It was very powerful to me as a human being and as a scholar and as a fan. It was very powerful to me as a queer person. And when I got back to my hotel that night, I posted to LiveJournal and asked people to keep fewer secrets about their experiences of the world. Which is why I think I owe this conversation this particular, arguably absurdist, truth, regardless of what it makes you think of me.

Long before Russell T. Davies killed off Ianto, I did. Well, Kali and I did in a 200,000+ word fanfiction epic, I Had No Idea I Had Been Traveling. I’m sure you can Google and find it on the Internet with great ease. I’ll warn you that it’s chock full of porn, has a very narrow doorway and will absolutely, positively make you cry. But, because it’s important to me not to value original work differently from transformative work, because I believe they are two deeply distinct exercises, I want you to know that I’m really damn proud of this story and that I reread it sometimes, in part because we learned a lot of stuff, some of it about life, while writing it.

One of the things I think we learned, looking back, is that death is often about despair, but it can also be about hope. This isn’t about heaven or any codified spirituality, but rather, about a way of facing the world, a world that, necessarily, eventually, leaves us all behind. And I suspect that mourning is one way we attempt, as humans, to try to reinject hope into that experience of despair.

The last two words of the story come in a sign off to a letter. They are, Be grand. Kali and I, on principle, will rarely say who wrote what part of our stories and often we can’t remember ourselves, but this was mine, something I’d written jokingly about halfway through the project, that then became our focus and our target point. When Ianto died months later on Children of Earth, I told her I was going to get those two final words of our story tattooed on me and that it would cause fandom drama and that I didn’t care, because it wasn’t about Ianto, it was about me.

So when I landed in the UK for the Bristol conference, on July 8, having (in a case of the worst timing ever) spent the previous day in the emergency room with a kidney stone, I thought maybe it was time to get that tattoo. It was about so many other things by then — being in the UK, becoming a scholar, and the very way that I’ve really always chosen to live my life, the costs be damned — that, combined with the source narrative anniversary and the conference, made it seem like the timing was perfect. It was perfect. But the truth was, I also wasn’t sure.

I looked up Into You, one of the most well-regarded and difficult to get an appointment at tattoo shops in London. I knew it could sometimes take months to get an appointment there, but I decided that if they could squeeze me in, in some fluke during my 36 non-consecutive hours in London, I would get the tattoo.

It turns they’d had a cancellation and they could. So I took the tube to Angel and put a 40 quid deposit on the work that day, fresh off the plane. I left for Bristol the next morning, did the conference the day after, and then returned to London the day after that. The next day, with just hours before my flight, I had the words Be grand carved into my back in black ink, before boarding a flight from Heathrow to JFK. Some days, I hate that I can’t see it without a mirror, but it remains fundamental to this narrative and important to me that people see it when I am going.

Later that year, at the opening night party of the 2010 New York Musical Theater Festival, a stranger asked me if the tattoo was a command to others or a reminder to myself. I was there on a fluke, one related to another strange and risky international pilgrimage from another time in my life, and I smiled, knew the world was right, and simply said, Yes.

Other than giving a related presentation specifically on illustrated media (comics, manga, anime, etc.) at the 3rd Annual Comics & Popular Arts Conference at Dragon*Con in September 2010, I’ve taken a bit of time off from working on the death and mourning stuff since Bristol. I needed the break. It was hard. I didn’t realize how much it meant I was holding, but my desire to continue and broaden this work is immense.

Since the initial paper, which you should really go up to the first link in this thing and read if you haven’t because this post is kind of a box set with that, I’ve stumbled on some more criteria that seem to inspire this mourning response to the loss of fictional characters. I’ve also become acutely interested in people’s personal stories about the intersection of grief and fiction — mourning acts they engaged in secret and as children; mourning for fiction happening, or not happening, contemporaneously with non-fictional loss, etc. There’s so much here on both a scholarly level and on a level that speaks to personal essay and anthology about these very strange, supposedly secret, embodied and emotional experiences of love and loss.

So I don’t know where all this goes next, although I’ve clearly got some ideas. And I don’t know when it goes there, because I do have my own joyful and grand life to be living. But I know that it does. I’ve got two words carved into my back that say so, and everything’s already happened anyway.

Be grand.

21 thoughts on “On the tangible realities of absence”

  1. I have been looking forwards to reading this since you first started talking about it, and I will run off there and consume it when I’ve finished this comment.

    I don’t really know who or what I’m mourning for still, but I still am. As far as I can recall (and my memory’s not that reliable…) I’ve not cried for Ianto. I have cried for Torchwood and the fact that I will probably never watch a new episode of Torchwood again – someone posted the summaries of the new audiobooks the other day and I wanted to 1) burst into tears because I just didn’t care about them and 2) ask them to put it behind a cut, because I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who gets upset when they get reminded about the way things have happened.

    Ianto and I have moved on though. I have one version of him who seems to be trying to balance running the world with a long distance relationship, and one who seems to be trying to balance running the world with parenthood. We have fun, I get to see exactly the stories I want, and I’m not confined to an hour a week.

    But if I became global dictator (this happened to me in a dream…) the first thing I’d do would be to order RTD to bring back Torchwood and give me more Ianto.

    1. Fantastic paper! I’ve been looking forward to reading about it for a really long time, and it was exceptionally clear and lucid.

      To be honest, my first reaction upon reading about the paper cranes thing in your paper (I wasn’t around in fandom then) was to get pissed off. It’s a cultural gesture linked to an atrocity that affected part of my family deeply, and I don’t like being reminded of it in such a radically different context. But it’s also not the sort of thing I believe in asserting ownership over, or attempting to regulate in any way, so if people find it meaningful for their context, then I’m glad for them.

      I’m also glad to hear you’re interested in returning to the subject, because the approach you’re using in the paper and post — passion fitting seamlessly with logic — is so compelling to read and gives me so much to think about.

      1. Thank you! I really wanted to make it readable and human and not as tortured as my sentences can often be. What was really harder was including my own perspective, while also avoiding my own judgments, because I know this is is stuff people are judge-y about, and I really, really didn’t want to encourage that for the idea of this mourning overall.

        Regarding the cranes, I suspect, honestly, that there’s a vast amount of work that could be done on this (and I should mention it to the woman who is doing work on the memorial from an anthropology perspective; although this has probably already occurred to her), on where people are getting/appropriating their mourning actions from in these types of circumstances (and I’d love to know if that sort of appropriation happens with as much frequency in memorials for non-fictional people). Thank you for chiming in on that item in particular; it’s always stuck out to me as a place for other lines of inquiry in a situation where I, or someone, has more than 20 – 25 pages to play with.

    2. have cried for Torchwood and the fact that I will probably never watch a new episode of Torchwood again

      Yes, exactly. I liked Tosh and Ianto. Now I have no reason to watch the show anymore and what am I supposed to do with that hour block of time in my life? Well, I have attempted to take up needlepoint. (Really! I got a beginner’s set on clearance at Hancock’s.)

      It’s sort like when Stargate, Life and Numb3rs ended. I missed not sitting in front of the TV/computer and watching that weekly episode.

  2. I haven’t even read your paper yet (though I’ve bookmarked it for when I have time), but this entry alone started the tears a-flowing. That tattoo is so beautiful, and even more so because of the story behind it.

  3. Excellent work on the paper! I feel like I’ve read over a year’s worth of backstage stories of this paper, and it’s a treat to get to actually read it.

    VERY interesting points on the character traits and narrative conditions that tend to create these desirable/mournable bodies. I’d love to read anything expanding on those, as you mentioned toward the end of the paper.

    Reading all this also reminded me of this short CNN video piece on the 2009 Baker Street Irregulars weekend, where one fan states that Sherlock Holmes never died because The Times never ran his obituary. I remember thinking that I’d never heard that one before, and being utterly charmed by the idea. (Link: http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/showbiz/2010/01/21/walmsley.ny.sherlock.holmes.cnn?iref=allsearch)

    1. Thank you! I really did drag everyone along on this thing with me, didn’t I? I don’t really know how I would have gotten it done otherwise, but it was super weird to try to explain it all in a single narrative here.

      The other character trait I’m sort of peering at now, is this idea that the people we grieve for aren’t fully adults. There’s a real man-child argument to be made about Holmes, Snape, and Ianto (that doesn’t apply to Wash, dinosaur toys aside — he has a wife, he’s a definite grownup), that I’m sort of peering at now. In my head. For whatever I do with this ting next.

      The obituary thing is super interesting. It sort of speaks to the temporality of death in fiction too (which I get into in passing in the Whedonistas piece regarding Joyce, actually) — does it happen once (at the time for first publication), whenever the story is consumed, or constantly and forever because in fiction all moments represent a now?

      1. I’ve always felt that because Holmes was resurrected in his original timeline by Doyle, there is this feeling in the fandom like Holmes can never die….or if he does, it isn’t for very long. So in a very practical way, Holmes death in any current or future media will never equal the emotional punch of someone like Ianto’s, because the fandom that is alive today has grown up assured that Holmes will always live and – even more importantly – will be reunited with Watson.

        So I feel that the only fans for whom Holmes ever *really* died were reading the original stories as they were published in the 1890s. (They of the invisible armbands. 🙂 )

        That, plus Sherlock Holmes has been around so long and has been reinterpreted so many times is that it’s become almost avataristic. Holmes fans talk about the original Doyle-written Holmes, or the Jeremy Brett portrayal, or the Basil Rathbone portrayal, or now Cumberbatch, and call one of them “my Holmes,” the way I’ve heard Whovians refer to “___ was/is my Doctor.”

  4. It was such a pleasure and so satisfying to finally read the paper as you delivered it (and visualizing to myself just how you would have performed it). Also glad to have a link to the other papers besides yours and Kali’s, to read at leisure.

    Your timing is also impeccable, after Christian’s post on the buttons — this week, I’m sure I’m not the only one reflecting on the collective fannish journey post-CoE. You’ve both spoken eloquently about how we occupy complicated, hybrid, in-between spaces of loving stories, and that’s been a real boon to read and reflect on.

    And of course the space between the scholar and the engaged fan is the one that interests me the most. I think you’ve complicated and extended that too, both at the level of language and rhetoric and that of content. Not that I really expected anything else, but ain’t easy hitting the sweet spot on readability and “rigor” (problematic term, but useful as shorthand). If I ever offer my “Internet Writing Culture” course again, this is one essay I’d love to include. Thanks so much for making it available.

    1. Thank you so much. One of the more generic forms of stress in this process has been, of course, the I-am-not-trained-in-this-shit and everyone-I-know-is-an-academic. That my work both held up and remained its own animal is just such a relief. And that it extends the conversation… this was the tip of so many icebergs. And part of me is all “Mine! Must do more!” and I will, but I’m also dying (*snerk*) for other people to pick up corners and edges of this and wander off in their own directions with it.

      With that whole fan/academic thing — I get why secrets are necessary. And I get, also, on this particular topic, why they’re sweet and why they’re sexy, but damn, if people could be less confessional and worried about these sorts of responses, maybe all this anger that came along with the CoE thing would have played itself out differently? A little? Maybe? I can dream I suppose.

      Anyway, I think I felt like, after Gally, knowing I wasn’t going to have to have any face-to-faces with fandom I’m not personally acquainted with for a while, felt like I could get the thing up. I’d been meaning to do it for a while, and Gally made me so in love with Torchwood again, it felt easy to just take a deep breath and do it now, which it just pretty much hadn’t, at all, until then. I’m so glad to have it out there finally, although, I’m predictably waiting for whatever the next punchline is in this whole thing.

  5. I really, really loved this essay. It is excellently crafted and argued, but I must admit that the part that spoke to me most was your comment on the innate sense of fannish longing, “having a friend who helps them through difficult times, and yet can never be called to thank.” That whole paragraph was incredibly beautiful and poignant, and I admit, it brought tears to my eyes. One of the most powerful fannish experiences I’ve ever had was reading anaross’s Stay about a year and a half ago; I have read it at least three times and have never made it through without sobbing. I think the way it tapped into that constant yearning and absence was part of the reason it hit me so hard.

    (Did you know there’s Sherlock/Dollhouse crossover with immortality goodness? I suspect it might be of interest. No Dollhouse background needed to appreciate.)

    1. Thank you. Had you not seen an in progress version? I thought you had, but I guess you hadn’t, since you weren’t like here during all of that.

      I really need to watch Dollhouse if only for more Alexis Denisof. Also, conceptually, I am all over the series concept. We’ll see. First I need time. Still finishing Sherlock article.

  6. I wonder if part fannish angry/grief is that the death of a fictional character is like the death of a pet; you’re not really supposed to mourn either.

    I remember my uncle’s ex-wife attempting to comfort my cousin upset over her dead pet by telling her it was “only an animal.” That said, my aunt had grown up ‘real Mexican(?)’ (in San Antonio) and they didn’t have pets. Only chickens, out of which one pried as many eggs as possible, then when they couldn’t lay anymore, they became chicken pot pies. You don’t form a relationship to something you are going to eat.

    I remember back in high school hearing scathing words about people who buried their pets in cemeteries. Now I can’t remember the words only the feeling that people who mourned their pets were somehow ‘odd’.

    Fictional characters are ‘not real’, therefore one might assume they shouldn’t be mourned.

    1. Alas, the site’s been down for a bit; I need to come up with a plan b for that. I’ll drop another note where when I figure it out.

      Thanks for your interest!

  7. I’m late to the TW series. I finished all 4 series within the last 3 months and read your “I had no idea I had been traveling” ravenously. Like Alice, I really want to read your “tangible realities of absence”. But I think that link is no longer working. Is there anyway you could upload it again or email it to me?

    Thanks so much for all of your wonderful writing!

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