In my second year of PhD work, my father died. The loss was crippling. I didn't know how to function in the world, no less to go on with my work. My dad had believed I was intelligent, capable of anything, but I didn't know how to be these things once he was gone. Yet I simply returned to my courses and my work and tried to understand how to exist in a world without my father. I had been writing a seminar paper on a 15th century play, the Digby Mary Magdalene, and, though I forced myself to continue with my coursework, I couldn't return to that paper right away. I took an incomplete (something I would warn other grad students to avoid at all costs), and focused on my other work. When I came back to that paper, I saw it in a new way. Near the play's opening, Mary's father dies suddenly. I had previously seen this plot point as a clumsy bit of writing. Right after a perfectly nice conversation with his children, the father is struck down by death with no warning and no explanation. Before, this seemed far-fetched. But after my own father's death, I suddenly understood. Death is sudden, inexplicable, and terrible. Even in cases of lingering illness, death itself rarely feels anything but shocking. The timing is seldom right. I had been writing vaguely about the positive way in which Mary Magdalene is depicted in the play, but I was now able to understand what was so different about this depiction of the saint.
Though Mary Magdalene is meant to represent the redemption possible to every sinner, many medieval sermons discussed her early life in a decidedly misogynist way. Her early sins (completely fabricated, by the way -- there's no mention in the Bible that she was a prostitute) were represented as evidence of female weakness and wickedness. Fathers and brothers and husbands were warned not to give their daughters and sisters and wives too much freedom. If the Magdalene was any example, an unchaperoned woman couldn't help but turn to sin. (For more information on these sermons, see The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages by Katherine Ludwig Jansen.) But that's not how it was depicted in this play. In the Digby play, Mary's a sweet but naive young woman, a dutiful daughter. She grows lost not because of female weakness but because of human grief. The playwright never denigrates Mary, something that I'd noticed in my initial readings of the play. Yet now I saw something more. Mary says that grief has wounded her. She's struck down by the loss of her father and no longer knows how to exist in the world. Most everyone in the audience would have experienced some kind of grief. Her heartache would have made sense, particularly at a time when the infant mortality rate was high and the Black Death was still in recent memory. Mary's fumbling to recover from her loss and reclaim her identity, perhaps making a few mistakes along the way, would have evoked sympathy, not derision. Her mistakes are not those of a wicked woman, but a grieving human. What I had written off as an awkward side note turned out to be the key to Mary's positive characterization. Anyone who has experienced any kind of heartache can recognize a bit of him or herself in Mary, a point I find crucial for the play's message.
This is not to discount rigorous research or careful examination of the evidence in the play, but rather to demonstrate how I could see important aspects of the play better when I approached it as a human who had experienced loss as well. My attempt at critical distance had blinded me to those features of the play meant for a very human audience. Combining my own personal response to my research and analysis brought me a much fuller picture of the play, and allowed me to clear up my incomplete. That paper has turned into several presentations, an article, and a dissertation chapter. I had discovered a new way to engage with my sources, and people seemed to be responding to it as well. I used a similar tactic when writing about Joan of Arc. My own horror at the sight of my father's ashes turned into an examination of the symbolism of Joan's execution. Joan was burned twice, and her ashes were thrown in the river, and I wondered what to make of this horrifying spectacle. I found a great deal to say about the way in which Joan's enemies attempted to annihilate Joan's body and keep peasants from making relics out of her. More to the point, I found a great deal of fascinating evidence. By the time I finished, I felt better about my father's ashes, and about my research. Joan was a real human who lived and who died, and it seemed right to take her death seriously (and even a bit emotionally). Instead of keeping me from doing careful scholarship, my human response to Joan aided me once again.
I am not saying that I have any real answers. I'm still sometimes overwhelmed, confused, scared, sad. I'm still not sure how to write a dissertation. And I am not saying that my father died so that I could learn something or so that I could write better papers, but rather that the only way for me to survive the rush of emotion that flooded me in the wake of my father's death was to allow it to flow into my work. The texts I read were written by humans for other humans. I am, after all, in the humanities, and admitting that I was a human with all of my faults and feelings was a relief. Pretending to a kind of objectivity which I simply cannot (and don't really want to) have is neither honest nor productive. It's scary to admit my emotional connection to my work, but it feels right, too. It is not necessarily narcissistic to focus on one's own experiences. It may be self-centered to wallow indefinitely (though a little wallowing can be quite helpful), but I think that bringing personal emotions and experiences and traumas into a larger conversation is quite the opposite. It's a way that we can all connect and gain a greater understanding. We can't say that people or literature were just the same in the Middle Ages as they are now. We can't say that people around the world or even in our own neighborhoods experience anything in the same way as we do. Grief is particular, to be sure. Neither can traumas be compared. One child experiences war or genocide while another loses a beloved family pet. No, these situations cannot be equated. Yet anyone who has experienced heartache of any kind, from a first break-up to the death of a parent, has a share in human suffering. Such heartaches are soul-crushing, and yet they contain within them a gift: human empathy. All grief is different, and yet those who have experienced any grief can understand the depth of human emotion and therefore feel for others who suffer. Not everyone can accept this gift. Some turn inward and never look back out. Nor does this gift bring any final answers. But there's a beauty in caring for others. There's a beauty in bringing our own human vulnerabilities and offering them up to others and accepting their vulnerabilities in return. There's a beauty in caring about one's work enough to let it be emotional, imperfect, human.