Publication Date

May 11, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Research & Publications


  • United States


Cultural, Social

I was writing a book, during COVID, about death.

A sign with a line drawing of two butcher’s cleavers and the text “abattoir.” White paint on rusting metal.

Even those not directly involved in a traumatic event can still be affected by it. catharticflux/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the face of COVID-19, many of us spent months and years retreating to our most basic functions both in work and with our families. I did; we all know stories of so many who were frozen in the face of a world that had become more dangerous.

Yet in regard to my book project, weirdly, my experience went the other way: I was as productive on the project in 2020 and 2021 as in any other years I was working on it. I was at a stage when writing—rewriting, really—was my task, so no archival interruptions affected me. And perhaps there was something of a “what else will I do?” element to it all: caged in for a summer with my files and my laptop.

In addition to the general ways the pandemic harrowed and agitated us all, the disease also hurt me and my family directly and repeatedly. Everyone in our household has had the virus at least twice; one family member had an operation delayed by four months, creating stress for us all; another has long COVID, lost their sense of smell, and has new respiratory challenges.

We are constantly around death, but it is in another room.

But my book? Oddly, each COVID summer, I rolled along from May to August, in roughly 70-day stretches before screeching to a halt. For the majority of academic historians, teaching restricts their scholarly work almost exclusively to this period, with perhaps another two-week stretch in late December and early January. In a typical year, these professors have around 98 days to devote to their scholarship; more like 70 days if you are one of those weird academics who believes in the concepts of weekends or families. More important still, this very limited time is forever discontinuous. Most professors have months of teaching—with no thought given to scholarship—then a big transition in mid-May, when the first question is (this is not hyperbole): “where was I?” or even “what was I working on?”

Different projects put different pressures upon all of us; in my case, the additional pressure was its focus on death. My book, The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South, is about capital punishment after the Civil War. Add to that, real life: each of my parents passed away (before COVID) while I was at work on it. In the years surrounding my parents’ deaths, I could only tinker with this project. Death was simply too much with me. The subject was interesting, with thought-provoking issues for me to chew on throughout, such as how religion at the scaffold transformed my understanding of just what these executions meant in the history of the South’s racial regime. Finding something new that could be a contribution to the field was exciting intellectually. But I was also investigating thoroughly the racism of the Jim Crow era and lynching as a context for the legal executions I was studying. And what was the heart of my source material? More than 1,300 newspaper stories of execution experiences in the South.

Imagine the moment when I remembered a scene from an execution—say, the Tennessee hanging that featured an advertisement for “Perry Davis’s Pain Killer” nailed prominently to the public gallows (not making this up: Nashville Daily American, February 21, 1880). To find it, I had to turn from my computer to my file cabinet, pull out a file filled with photocopies of reports of Tennessee executions for murder and another file of executions for the crime of rape and thumb through them, execution after execution, to find my underlining and exclamation points on the correct page. That was a lot of suffering and death.

And yet it was death at a distance: over there, flat on the photocopy paper, and 100 years ago.

Witnesses of trauma, as with victims themselves, can have visceral images seared into their memories. But there is another—perhaps milder—form of trauma that is more banal, but in its ever-presence, it too leaves a mark. A soldier on the front line is himself wounded by shrapnel; a doctor and nurse experience that trauma as they treat them; yet also there are attendants in the hospital units washing the floors, cleaning the blood-stained sheets, and seeing the haunted looks of the doctors, nurses, and healing (and dead) soldiers. These workers never touch death themselves and are rarely in the room when it comes, yet they are surrounded by it nonetheless.

The best characterization of this mild-but-debilitating condition is “being a person in the early 2020s.”

A historian studying death is something like that hospital attendant or an accountant at a slaughterhouse. We are constantly around death, but it is in another room. We look at the shadows of it flitting by on microfilm or leafing through photocopies of reports of executions, a twice-removed horror. Historians can be witnesses of trauma, but quite often we are attendants in another room as others—the historical actors we study—experience and treat it.

It is not just those studying death who have been in this position in the COVID era. Some of us were in the hospital on oxygen, know those who died or who now have long COVID, or were “essential workers” kept in at-risk positions while others (including most academics) retreated into their homes and behind screens. This is direct trauma.

But all of us have spent whole seasons counting the deaths, charting the upswings and downswings of contagion and hospital admissions, managing our habits, controlling our disease vectors, while knowing that, over there somewhere in another room, death is haunting families all around us and all around the world.

Perhaps there is a name for this sort of low-grade, persistent trauma. Perhaps we will have to invent one. Perhaps we will simply need to acknowledge that, after the last three years, the best characterization of this mild-but-debilitating condition is “being a person in the early 2020s,” and we should strive to treat those around us who are afflicted with this condition (that is, all of us) with the care and consideration it requires for recovery.

Michael Trotti is a professor of history at Ithaca College. His latest book is The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South.

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