Goodness Is Our Default Mode

When Upton Sinclair published his novel The Jungle, the reaction was different from what he’d imagined. He had hoped to expose the deplorable working conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, but most readers, instead of championing the workers, came away flinching at the depictions of all the unsanitary ways meat was produced. Of his readers’ response, Upton famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This reaction captures something of how I felt after reading The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels, a deeply compelling, utterly original account of all those whose bodies lie unclaimed in a Los Angeles morgue. Written by two sociologists, Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans, this book aims for outrage and instead left me feeling, well, pretty darn hopeful. I’m overstating a little here in comparing it to The Jungle, because the word hope is in the book’s subtitle, but when I picked up The Unclaimed—which advertises itself as a book about death and abandonment—I didn’t expect to come away feeling so sanguine about humanity.

A number of years back, Pricket and Timmermans took note of the large number of unclaimed bodies buried in potters’ fields across the United States. By their estimate, that number has reached 114,000 people annually who don’t have family to bury them. In Los Angeles County, the unclaimed used to make up 1.2 percent of adult deaths. By the turn of the century, the proportion was 3 percent; it spiked even more during the coronavirus pandemic. And so, these two sociologists set out to gather the stories of those who in death go unclaimed. “As we immersed ourselves in this world,” the authors write near the beginning, “the book morphed into a quest to better understand what we owe one another in death and in life (the italics are mine).

By Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans

The authors focused on Los Angeles, where one of them teaches, and, in a moving opening scene, introduce us to a county employee named Albert Gaskin, whose job it is to cremate and bury the unclaimed, once referred to as “the indigent.” He and his colleague are pouring 1,461 boxes and envelopes of ash into a mass grave, a year’s worth. Gaskin is the first of many people we meet in this narrative, and we come to learn that although it is the county’s policy to store ashes for three years just in case a loved one shows up to retrieve them, Gaskin sometimes holds them longer, hoping that someone will eventually emerge to claim the remains. “Albert thought lives should be remembered and death should be witnessed,” the authors write. “It was the least a community could do.”

Prickett and Timmermans teach, respectively, at the University of Amsterdam and at UCLA. They spent eight years conducting more than 200 interviews to profile four individuals whose bodies went unclaimed, who seem to have died alone. In impressive detail, Prickett and Timmermans tell these people’s life stories so that we might come to learn “what the county’s unclaimed meant for how some human deaths are valued less than others.”

These intimate profiles read like short stories, the writing both deeply empathic and unflinchingly honest. There’s Bobby Hanna, a Vietnam veteran, who enters a drug-rehab center and becomes a part of a choir that travels the country. Lena Brown is a recluse who doesn’t have a lock on her door and so sleeps with a hammer by her pillow. David Grafton Spencer finds refuge in the Church of Scientology and, of the four, seems the most comfortable in his solitude. Midge Gonzales sleeps in her van, and claims not to have any family left. These four people make up the core of the book, and in unfurling their lives, the authors hope to help illuminate “the secret dead, invisible in life and forgotten in death.”

Here’s the thing: What is so remarkable about the lives of these people is how, despite their personal quirks and injuries, others took them in, embraced them, made them feel a part of a community. It’s what I found most surprising about their stories. Indeed, although each struggled with personal demons and each struggled with the absence of immediate family in their life, each also found unexpected connections—connections that underscore how, at its best, this country is marked by decency and compassion for those who stagger by in the shadows of America’s prosperity. When a woman reaches out to assist Lena, the recluse, Lena asks, “Why do you want to deal with an old lady like me?” The woman replies, “Because you’re a human being.”

As the authors interviewed people and sifted through records and personal writings, what they found were people who stepped forward, who opened up their hearts and homes. Consider the story of Midge Gonzales. When we meet Midge, who is 61, she’s sleeping in her van with her two cats. She keeps the van in the parking lot of a small church she once belonged to. She has diabetes and eventually has to undergo dialysis at least once a week. She’s quite generous, often giving her clothes to other unhoused individuals, but she can be difficult, stubborn, and argumentative. Nevertheless, the church secretary, Nora Spring, gives Midge a key to her apartment so she can come and go as she pleases; Midge stops by to watch television or help Nora’s children with their homework. Then a couple in the church, Lynne and Mike Patti, convert half their garage so that Midge has a place to stay. At one point, Midge gets into an argument with Lynne and announces that she’s leaving. “You can run away from us,” Lynne tells her. “I will always stand on the front step and wait for you to come back.”

Moments like this occur again and again in these pages. In fact, the people in this book go unclaimed in death not because they necessarily lacked friends or community but rather because, more often than not, they were estranged from their family—the county will turn bodies over only to immediate family members. The authors conclude that the rising numbers of unclaimed is the result of a singular factor: “social isolation caused by eroding family ties.” This was the case for Midge, who had been adopted by a woman who mistreated her, locking her up or withholding food. At 16, Midge fled, riding off on a stolen motorcycle.

But in the absence of immediate relatives, others have stepped in. There are those we meet in these pages who organize funerals for the unclaimed. One woman raises money for a burial ground for the bodies of unclaimed children. A group of motorcyclists organize funerals for veterans. And, of course, there’s Gaskin, who, speaking about the unclaimed bodies he buries, tells the authors, “I don’t think I could sleep at night if I didn’t honor these individuals.”

I was particularly touched by the story of Bobby Hanna, an Air Force veteran in his 50s. Bobby grew up in Gary, Indiana, a classmate of Michael Jackson. Bobby always wanted to become a professional musician, and his ex-wife, Clara, helps get him off the street and into a treatment facility, where Bobby becomes a part of a choir that competes on America’s Got Talent. Soon, his health declines precipitously; shortly before he succumbs to lung cancer, he connects with his long-lost son—too late to build a deep relationship, but enough time to forge a connection.

When Bobby dies, New Directions, the treatment center, holds a memorial service to which, somewhat astonishingly, a few hundred people show up. Prickett and Timmermans write that veterans stood to share their memories of Bobby: “More than one of the men disclosed that when they threatened to leave the program, usually after an altercation that bruised their egos, Bobby would seek them out. He wouldn’t tell them they shouldn’t go. Instead, he would sit on their bed and watch them pack … He would remind them why they joined the program. ‘You came here for one thing and somebody hurts your feelings and now you going to show them you’re going to hurt yourself more?’ … Many of them decided it might not be bad to stay a little longer.” Clara learns that Bobby had given his guitars to a young man at New Directions who also held ambitions of becoming a professional musician. In Bobby’s death, we come to know his full and rich and complicated life. The very act of telling the story of someone like Bobby feels like an act of affirmation.

This is a book that speaks to the power of narrative. Hearing stories makes us feel less alone. Hearing stories pushes us to ask hard questions of ourselves. This book has landed at just the right moment, when much of the country has lost its way. The ugliness and hate and scorn is despair-inducing. I don’t want to be Pollyannaish here, but goodness, I would argue, is our default mode. It takes real effort—soul-killing effort—to be unkind, to be unforgiving, to be vengeful. That belief may be painfully naive, but I need to hold on to it if I’m to move forward. Otherwise, why tell stories of people like Bobby Hanna and Midge Gonzales?

While I digested their stories, and those of Lena and David—and of all those, including the two authors, who extended a hand, who acknowledged their humanity—I found myself humming Mavis Staples’s affecting song “You Are Not Alone,” which was written by Jeff Tweedy. The chorus goes like this:

A broken home
A broken heart
Isolated and afraid
Open up this is a raid
I wanna get it through to you
You’re not alone

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