Documentation

Most of the people in Unsolved Mysteries would not have very well-documented lives, were it not for their horrible deaths.

There are often a lot of family photos, and some video, and some family and friends and neighbors—but how quickly do you pass from memory? And Unsolved Mysteries remains in print, so to speak—you can access it; it will be a long time before it is gone, and the websites about it are gone, and all the remains of every person who once watched it are also gone.

Most of the episodes are about people who lived fairly un-noteworthy lives, but became noteworthy at the moments of their deaths by dying in horrible ways. What I mean to say is that, all things being equal, most of us will work and die, our deaths really registering mostly the fact that we kept doing our jobs and did not throw sand in the gears; the flow of global capital continued on our watches. We had feelings; we loved; we were sad; we loved some more; we died, with regionally- and temporally-specific accents that will soon leave the earth. With trite ideas about our families, or not. Unsolved Mysteries documents mostly the working classes, and we are otherwise sparsely documented. That is, the price the working classes can pay to be memorialized is a horrific death.

There is a book called The Art of Memory, written by Frances Yates and published in 1966. Diana came across it when she was preparing to write a review of something else; apparently all the experimental writers and artists of the 60s read this book and loved it.

I get the book, which describes a lost history of using visuals for extreme memorization, and really, for record-keeping before people had easy access to paper and print. The origin story is that a poet, Simonides of Ceos, was at a banquet performing a poem. He complimented not the host, but someone else in the poem and got into a sort of weird altercation with his host about it. Later someone wants to see him; he leaves the banquet; while he’s gone the roof caves in and kills everyone. The bodies are so mangled that they can’t be identified. BUT, Simonides remembers where people had been sitting; he is able to identify the bodies.

Later we get instructions on how to use what is described as the “places and images” method to create a memory system for ideas. You are a lawyer and wish to remember the details of a case and to create a system for it. The prosecutor has said that the defendant killed a man by poison, has charged that the motive of the crime was to gain an inheritance, and declared that there are many witnesses and accessories to this act. You need to create an image to help you begin to store this memory, Yates relays. This image is a sort of file folder, in which you’ll store more files. Your instruction:

We shall imagine the man in question as lying ill in bed, if we know him personally. If we do not know him, we shall yet take someone to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, in his left, tablets, and on the fourth finger, a ram’s testicles. In this way we can have in memory the man who was poisoned, the witnesses, and the inheritance.

The cup, Yates explains, “would remind of the poisoning, the tablets of the will or the inheritance, and the testicles of the ram through verbal similarity with TESTES—of the witnesses. The sick man is to be like the man himself, or like someone else whom we know (though not one of the anonymous lower classes).”

That is to say: the lower classes are hard to remember. In this scenario they’re not considered as a possible object of memory, and, furthermore, we cannot even be used as tools for the reader to remember something else, since the reader, presumably, literally cannot tell them apart. A man of the lower classes cannot come to mind at once.

But at the same time, we are instructed that it is common sense that it is easier to remember things that are “exceptionally base, dishonorable, unusual, great, unbelievable, or ridiculous”; we remember striking scenes from our childhoods more easily; we remember a solar eclipse more than we remember a sunrise or sunset, as those happen every day. So “we ought…to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory.” We can set up images that are exceptional; we can “ornament some of them, as with crowns or purple cloaks” or by disfiguring them, “as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking”; we can bloodstain people when we picture them, and then they are memorable.

In the scene you’re bloodstained, having just been beaten up.

That is, there is a sort of back door: you can become, at least, a metaphor to allow people to think about other things if you are lower class but smeared with blood. You can be remembered.

Better yet if you are covered in a green tarp and pinned to a railroad,

if your foot sticks out from beneath a couch, frozen, at an icy Montana garbage dump,

if you disappear over a cliff and are found impaled on the rocks below,

if you’re later found buried in the neighbor’s back yard.

So we should, I think, invert it and force the rest of the world to be a metaphor for the dead of Unsolved Mysteries: the world as a series of red stains that can help us think about the thousand or so people, I’m guessing, who appeared on the show.

For instance, if we wanted to remember Dottie Caylor, we could think of Jeff Bezos smeared with blood, lying outside of his patrol car, with the lanyard of his handgun wrapped around his ankles, handcuffs on his left wrist, the name “Robert” written on his hand, his unit’s radar cable wrapped around his neck, and a bullet wound to the head. We would picture a wide, open public space, and put this image there. We know nothing about Dottie Caylor’s life beyond her shitty husband’s account of it, so I supposed we’d be using this image of bloodied Jeff Bezos to remember the shitty account on Unsolved Mysteries. But also: Frances Yates is unambitious. If we’re going to create little fetishes for memory, I want this one to tell us more: we picture Bezos marked with red, and what it gives us, the memory it provides, is Dottie Caylor’s desires, her relationship with her pets, the feeling of her skin when she’d just moisturized it, then again when it was dry and in need of exfoliation. And whatever else she wants to tell us.

Likewise, we might construct a garish, memorable image by which to remember Kurt McFall. We picture Beverly Sackler with one part of a sweater tied around her neck and the other tied to a bar three feet above the ground; when we think of Sackler positioned like this, face strained for want of oxygen, what is returned to us are the intricacies of Kurt McFall’s Dungeons and Dragons campaigns—the names of each player-character, their stats, the plot lines he wrote as DM, the jokes he made with his friends when playing.

Or, for instance, we picture the flip-flops, chair, radio, first aid kit, and lunch of Jim Walton of the Walton family sitting on the shore, but no sign of Jim Walton. And when we picture this what is returned to us is Kari Lynn Nixon, the girl who disappeared from her neighborhood, and her crush and the sensation of eating an ice cream, her pencil on the page, and also the scent of her shampoo, grass stains on her jeans, the texture of a burger as she bites it and heat warping the air above the grill, every bit of her life; we can make a 3D printed model of it all as we envision Jim Walton’s abrupt vanishing.

And so instead of the proletariat eking our way into the archive, covered in blood, as mnemonic devices for the historical wealthy to remember the trivialities of their lives, we will use garish images of the wealthy men—not men of the lowest classes, so they will “come to mind at once”—to evoke for us our own dead.

So that, for instance, the thought of a death helps us think of the life of another.