Next week, I’ll start teaching a Senior Seminar called Life and Death in Early America. In reality, it’s mostly about death. I’ve thrown in some stuff about disease, dirt, starvation, cannibalism, abortion, and contraception, just to keep things lively (so to speak), but the fact is that there is a fascinating new literature on death in my field. Its common themes are: how the afterlife was imagined in different places, times, and cultures; how death was experienced and interpreted; and how the living cared for the dying and the dead.
Another of the key features of this emerging subfield is a focus on commemoration: how different cultures commemorate the dead, and why we remember some deaths and some of our dead and forget others. Thanks to Manti T’eo, his imaginary girlfriend’s imaginary death, a real St. Mary’s College student’s death, and to Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post, I’ve got a terrific contemporary hook for when we talk about the politics of commemoration. Henneberger explains:
So many tears for a fake dead girl, but none for a real one. The death of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s beautiful, brave girlfriend Lennay Kekau – widely reported by Sports Illustrated, CBS and many other media outlets — was all an elaborate hoax. So in response, my alma mater held the kind of emotional press conference for the fake dead girl that they never granted for the real one. As I’ve reported before, evidence that the University of Notre Dame covers up for sexual predators on the football team in hopes of winning some games has been mostly ignored. “Who can know?” my fellow alums asked, on their way to snap up some more “Play Like a Champion Today” tee-shirts ahead of the big game. But evidence that the school kept mum after learning that that the story of Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, who as she lay dying urged him to fight on to victory anyway – gosh, just like the Gipper — was concocted from start to finish? Now that’s a national story, and a real gut-punch to fans, involving important matters like the pursuit of the Heisman Trophy.
. . . . .
But even if [it] turns out that ND officials were in some respects the victims in this weird story, their casual airbrushing of the truth will hurt them more than their quite deliberate disinformation campaign about Lizzy Seeberg, the Saint Mary’s freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault. No, we won’t tolerate having our feelings manipulated, even if outlets like S.I. were so eager for a piece of the mythmaking that their hokum-detectors either never sounded, or were disabled. Seeberg was ignored and threatened in life and purposefully lied about in death, but a story implicating those who run ND was for many of my fellow alums – and fellow journalists, too – just too uncomfortable to want to know about. But the one about auto accident victim and leukemia patient Lennay Kekua was too good to check, even as it just kept getting better.
(Aside: Sports “journalism” sure is having a bad week, what with Lance Armstrong’s “confession” and now this. It only confirms my suspicion that Sports Illustrated and most sports “journalism” is essentially an only slightly more adult version of Tiger Beat–a fanzine, or even fan fiction, not work to be taken seriously.)
Who was Lizzy Seeberg? Henneberger’s second link above explains:
I’ve spent months researching these cases and written thousands of words in the National Catholic Reporter about the whole shameful situation, some of which you’ve likely heard about: Two years ago, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary’s College, across the street from Notre Dame, committed suicide after accusing an ND football player of sexually assaulting her. The friend Lizzy told immediately afterward said she was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing.
Yet after Lizzy went to the police, a friend of the player’s sent her a series of texts that frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player’s dorm room. “Don’t do anything you would regret,” one of them said. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”
At the time of her death, 10 days after reporting the attack to campus police, who have jurisdiction for even the most serious crimes on school property, investigators still had not interviewed the accused. It took them five more days after she died to get around to that, though they investigated Lizzy herself quite thoroughly, even debriefing a former roommate at another school with whom she’d clashed.
Henneberger says that not only did Notre Dame help give life to Lennay Kekua story, it perpetrated a hoax on Charlie Rose and CBS news even after it learned that Lennay Kekua never existed. She concludes yesterday’s blog post thus:
I will leave it to others to sort through the particulars of a culture in which it’s easier to have a nonexistent girlfriend than a real one, easier to go along with a heartwarming lie than come to terms with an unpleasant truth. . . . I’m sincerely sorry for all my Notre Dame friends who told me they were looking past the way our school treated Lizzy Seeberg and other women in no small measure because Manti was “the real deal,” and represented “what Notre Dame is really all about.” Turns out, they were right.
Yowza! Well, that’s where I come in–as one of those people who can “sort through the particulars of a culture in which it’s easier to have a nonexistent girlfriend than a real one.” In other words, why do we commemorate some of our dead, and ignore others? I think in this case it’s because Lennay Kekua conformed to a script that Notre Dame (and its fans, and many Americans) approve of for young women: she was chaste and silent. Not only was Lizzy Seeberg not necessarily chaste, she wouldn’t shut up when she was told to shut up.
The problem with real girlfriends and Notre Dame trying to live up to its own reputation is that real girlfriends–even those who attend Catholic universities like Notre Dame and St. Mary’s–might be sexually active and even use contraception. Real women might sometimes speak up when they’re groped or raped at a party. Real women have real ladyparts, ladyparts that are no part of what Notre Dame football or its servant-administrators want to talk about. And we all know that the most terrifying ladypart of all is a mouth that tells a truth that Notre Dame football doesn’t want to hear or deal with.
In sum: real girlfriends and real women complicate the story of virtuous manhood on the gridiron and integrity in and out of the classroom that Notre Dame wants sports writers to write about. Real women expose the stories about false masculinity that football and Notre Dame want to perpetrate.
Now, dead girlfriends, especially dead imaginary girlfriends with whom football players must necessarily have had only entirely chaste relationships (because they’re imaginary!)–now that’s the ticket! Lannay Kekua was literally too good to be true–a girl who could never consent to sex, who also could never complain about rape, and who offers NDU a death as theatrically corny as Little Eva’s in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Sports “journalism” and NDU publicity gold, babies!
Pardon me if it seems like I’m enjoying this fake death a little too much. It’s so convenient for my own professional timing too, as I explained above. Americans love sentimental stories about uncomplicated virtue and devotion, and people who run Catholic universities can’t get enough stories about chaste virtue and devotion. Americans do not love stories that interfere with their hero worship of certain sports teams, and they don’t love to hear the more complicated and sometimes disturbing stories of real women’s lives. And we especially don’t want to hear about it when these stories intersect, as they did in Lizzy Seeberg’s life and death.
I wish Lizzy Seeberg were still alive–for her sake and for her family’s sake, of course–but also for the sake of being a burr under the saddle of the Notre Dame football team and the administrators who enable it. Unfortunately, by ending her life, she ended up conforming to that old and very much approved-of script for young women: in taking her life, she silenced herself.
Like most victims of sexual assault, she probably wouldn’t have found justice in the courts, but she might have attained some measure of justice in the court of public opinion. She might have finished college to become a beat reporter or a writer who tries to write about the truth of college football’s power to corrode everything and everyone it touches. She might have become a compassionate paramedic or ER physician who helped other rape victims, or perhaps an Assistant District Attorney who helped prosecute rapists. She might have become a therapist, or a teacher, or a high school guidance counselor. Or, she might have chosen not to let her attacker define her for the rest of her life, and just gotten on with her life. You might have liked her. You would have respected her, regardless of whether or not you knew about something that happened to her in her freshman year.
Lizzy Seeberg’s all-too young and very real death diminishes us all.
* * * * *
For those of you interested in my syllabus on death, here are the books and articles we’ll be reading:
- Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009)
- Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008)
- Philip R.P. Coelho and Robert A. McGuire, “African and European Bound Labor in the British New World: The Biological Consequences of Economic Choices,” Journal of Economic History 57:1 (March 1997), 83-115.
- Alfred W. Crosby, “Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation of America,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 33: 2 (April 1976), 289-99.
- Cornelia Hughes Dayton, “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 48:1 (January 1991), 19-49.
- Matthew Dennis, “Death and Memory in Early America,” History Compass 4:2 (2006), 384-401
- Drew Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008)
- Katherine A. Grandjean, “New World Tempests: Environment, Scarcity, and the Coming of the Pequot War,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 68:1 (2011), 75-100.
- Rachel B. Herrmann, “The ‘tragicall historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestowne,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 68:1 (2011), 47-74.
- David S. Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 60:4 (October 2003), 703-39.
- Susan Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
- Eric Seeman, Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)
- Terri L. Snyder, “Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America,” Journal of American History 97:1 (2010), 39-62.
25 Responses to “Why the fictional death of an imaginary girl is a better story than the actual death of a real young woman”