February 02, 2009
In Nutshell Code
Don’t give me anything, one sign says. Gifts are unacceptable and will be disposed of, asserts another. Pay no attention! The signs are held by a homeless woman on the subway, a heavily bundled figure who appears as interested in warding off charity as she is the cold, and the severity of her warnings are such that every vowel snarls at the nearest onlooker. She’s a person that's uniquely difficult for me to ignore, partly because I’ve been instructed to do exactly that. The subway car hushes as she takes her position at the doors and glares at those who glance. This is the second time I’ve seen her.
I’m afraid that just by looking I’ve already given her the attention she doesn’t want--or claims not to want--but I hope that she might forgive me, because I recognize my offense, and feel a fair measure of guilt along with my fascination. Still, considering her wishes, I wonder if turning away would even be enough. Not thinking of her whatsoever might be all that would suffice, and because it’s so hard to simply stop a thought mid-track, I decide that the only way to deal with future encounters would be to develop a system, some sort of code, so that the thoughts of her are translated into a careful arrangement of substitutions, knick-knacks on a brain that requires distraction.
And so it goes that:
Whenever I slide into wondering if she would accept a coat, I should think instead of how seasons affect the re-telling of certain stories in the news, how cold winters keep narratives about the poor humming along at a pace far different than in spring, or even summer.
Whenever I want to speculate about how she might view her circumstances, I should switch instead to a scene in The Tramp, to that moment when our silent hero’s sandwich is stolen and he resorts to eating a handful of grass, salting it as if it were a genuine meal, and delivering every gesture with the attitude of a fine-dining gentlemen whose routine has never been disturbed.
But when I want to think of where she’s coming from, what home she might have lost, long ago, or not long ago at all--I’m not sure what to think, where to go--origins should be mappable, but the only directions that make sense sometimes are dictated by the volume of a repo-man’s knock or the resonant fallout of natural and financial disasters. And in this case, thoughts turn to miniatures that are more manageable, structures that house different rules and tragedies, or to be more specific, to the consideration of nineteen scenes, as captured by Corrine May Botz in the series “ The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”.
As was expected of many society matrons in the 1940’s, Frances Glessner Lee’s life was devoted to maintaining a level of domestic comfort that was near-mythical in its perfection, but her obsession with color schemes and decor didn’t end at her own residence. Instead, she extended these interests to the development of forensic dollhouses, dioramas intended to determine whether a death was due to foul play or suicide, accident or natural cause. The irregular millionaires--who just so happened to earn the honorary title of New Hampshire police captain--was said to have a compulsion to engage her hands, to exhaust a creative urge, and couldn’t help but look past her own doilies to murderous scenes of criminality. As the founder of Harvard’s department of legal medicine, Glessner Lee drew on authentic crime scenes and shrank them to one-foot-to-one-inch scale replicas, a series of models she referred to as The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. No detail was left unattended: bullets were miniaturized, magazines composed with the finest of prints, and the garb of victims knit with straight pins and thread. With the material elements of a crime scene distilled in such a painstaking and tiny manner, she reasoned, a greater truth about the nature of the crime could be exposed to any who cared to take an exacting look.
While the deaths and window treatments contained in each nutshell vary greatly in fabrication, there is a lingering impression of the lurid and the bawdy amongst the kitchens and living rooms, all of which were patterned and textured to follow the artist's design whims, rather than real-life schemes. Through her work, she repeatedly chose to visit places thick with dark domesticity and shady characters; there are cheap rooms and boarding houses and woodsy cabins, atmospheres of a kind that she herself could never gain entrance to as a female investigator. This was her trespass, one mode of travel into landscapes traditionally withheld from others of her gender and background, a way of committing her own crime, while righting another.
In admiring Glessner Lee’s interest in defying these boundaries, I still have to recognize the limits of her imagination, because one wall can be seen in the fact that the violent scenes she chose to represent are utterly free of any hallmarks of wealth or ease, pivoting entirely around the unchecked impulses and bloody premeditations of the lower classes. There is no mansion interrupted by violence, no estate marked by struggle. It’s in this respect alone, that nutshell deaths may be called uncomplicated.
The models currently reside at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, where they're still put to use in forensic seminars. Complete and lively little structures, they’re fit with moving doors, workable lights, clocks set to notable times. And there are details made moving, almost ghostly, by the miniscule proportions; in one kitchen nutshell the calendar continues through December, even as the death portrayed occurred in April.
Inspecting the handwriting on the woman’s signs feels as intrusive as looking at her face, but studying it seems like all I can do, even as it orders me to ignore her. Frances Glessner Lee would have certainly had something to say about the handwriting, which varies from sign to sign, skittering from capital to lowercase, pencil to ink. A follower of slippery detail, I'm sure she would have plucked some item of interest from the lettering, pointed out a peculiar curlicue of motive, and rounded up all the usual hesitation marks.
Considering the woman's strident confrontation of the subway car, I try to entertain the possibility that she’s performing some social experiment, that when the day’s done she’s just going to go home to write a movie about her experience, some smartly scored blockbuster that will entertain and convict us all, even as we remain suspicious of plot twists and casting choices. But then I see her glower at a girl who has moved aside to free a seat, and it seems more likely that she truly doesn’t wish to be noticed, that she just wants her ride like all the rest of us, she just wants to get wherever she wants to go, and I don’t doubt that she wouldn’t want me to follow her, but it’s hard not to, hard enough that the thought of following her has to be replaced with another thought, a new thought, one less interested in solving the unsolvable than it is in curling up to rest beside what won’t be known.
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