I am obsessed with survival stories. In some ways, I always have been, but my obsession has morphed as I’ve gotten older and people I’ve known and loved have died. I used to wonder about the How, the gritty details of what made continuing to breathe possible in an extenuating and difficult circumstance; now, I just want to know Why. Why do some people live while others don’t? Why do some people get a second chance? Why is it often so unfair, who’s “chosen” by happenstance or by God to keep on living and who is not? Why why why?
It is with this question that I approached Jesmyn Ward’s amazing and painful memoir, Men We Reaped. It is in some ways a survival story and in other ways a war story. Although it is not an easy book to read, it is a necessary one. She tells us multiple stories, but ostensibly this book is about the deaths of five young Black men, her friends and cousin and brother, in four years. They die due to murder, suicide, car accidents, and an overdose, and she interweaves their tales with her own and with those of her family and the cities – DeLisle and Gulfport, Mississippi, and New Orleans – where they all grew up. She talks of poverty and racism and family problems, of leaving home and then returning because you just can’t stay away. It is a masterful book of person and of place as well as a way to honor the men who died: Roger, Demond, C J, Ronald, and Josh.
Although my stories are quite different, I have also lost friends and family to overdose and murder, and this book called to me in part because I have no idea how to write about such things. Everything I want to say gets repeatedly tangled up in everything I feel, in not being sure how much grief I can claim, in not wanting to tell other people’s stories for them in some cases. Ward has no such trouble and writes about her subjects beautifully, though the pain that it caused her to do so is evident. But the other major reason I tore through her book is because I had to see what answers, if any, Ward found in her recounting of each of these individual and horrible losses, in her telling of this “rotten fucking story.” She probes the complex issues of class and racism that underlie these men’s deaths, and those issues are certainly a large part of the Why. But the deeper scream of why these men, why at these times, that remains impossible to determine. Maybe that is an obvious thing to state, except that it is a terrifying thing to admit: if there is no answer, it means that we could, each of us, be next.
I loved this book because it says things about sudden loss that resonate in the pit of your stomach. It is a beautiful elegy for people who deserve one even though, as Ward suggests, a large part of society may think that they don’t. It is a realistic depiction of grief, of what it feels like to sort through it in your own way, of the fact that on some level it is never over. And there are no answers, except maybe for this, which I think comes as close as anything can to the truth of what happens when someone you adored leaves life too soon:
“What I meant to say was this: You will always love him. He will always love you. Even though he is not here, he was here, and no one can change that. No one can take that away from you. If energy is neither created nor destroyed, and if your brother was here with his, his humor, his kindness, his hopes, doesn’t this mean that what he was still exists somewhere, even if it’s not here?” p.39
Sometimes, this is all that we can have: an energy that remains as part of the universe and gives us some comfort with its connection to our dead. And though I may always be looking for answers as so many people are, as Ward says at the end of her book, “We who still live do what we must….We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.” (p.250) Also, we remember. And when we’re lucky, we have the beauty of a book like this to help us get through it all.