Matters of Life and Death

Studs Terkel


Studs Terkel is fingering a bratwurst-sized stogie with one hand and adjusting his hearing aid with the other, while somehow still managing to gesticulate with both. Despite his efforts, the hearing aid continues to emit caustic squeaks and squawks, finally forcing Terkel to abandon—at least temporarily—the point he was trying to make. “I earn my living as a listener,” he says with a chuckle. “The trouble is, I can barely hear anything anymore.”

At 89, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of oral histories such as Working and The Good War is increasingly aware of his own mortality. Five years ago, he survived a quintuple bypass operation. Then, in 1999, his wife Ida died at age 87, leaving Terkel alone for the first time in 60 years. Instead of allowing grief to paralyze him, he chose to seek out other people who had been forced, in one way or another, to confront death. The result is Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, which he describes as “the most alive book I’ve ever done.”

Terkel spoke to Mother Jones at his Chicago home, surrounded by mementos of his late wife, correspondence from young admirers, piles of books and papers, and a tape recorder that needed to be fixed so he could get back to his next project.

Mother Jones: You’ve said this is the book you never thought you’d write.

Studs Terkel: About 25 years ago, when Working came out, I was sitting with Gore Vidal at the bar of the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago. I’d just finished interviewing him, and he said, “Have you thought of doing a book about death?” And I thought, “Is this guy out of his mind or what? What the hell is he talking about?” I’m looking at my martini, you know, and all I see is an olive. And so, 25 years later it comes back to me, and I said, “Yeah. Yeah.” I’m 89 now, right? And because I’m getting older, my friends are thinning out. And then, of course, my wife died; we were together for 60 years. I had this book in mind before she died, but her death no doubt added something to it. An urgency, I suppose.

MJ: Did her death make it harder to work on the project?

ST: On the contrary. It was a palliative for me—therapy, if anything. I realized that there’s just something here—it’s on everybody’s mind. People would say to me, “A book about death? Who wants to talk about that?” Well, everybody does. That’s the remarkable thing: People are crazy to talk about it. I chose people who had experience with it one way or another: those who’ve had close shaves or out-of-body experiences, as well as skeptics about an afterlife. I’ve touched on religion in other books, but never was it a mainspring as it is here. That’s why the subtitle is Reßections on Death, Rebirth, and—the big one—Hunger for a Faith. I happen to be an agnostic, which, by my definition, is a cowardly atheist. But I envy those who have another kind of faith. I know this personally: There’s a hunger to believe that you haven’t quite lost whoever it is you’ve lost.

MJ: I found it interesting how eager people were to talk about death, especially given how shuttered off it is in our society.

ST: Well, that’s just it. How can we even talk about life unless we recognize that it’s finite? This book is about the preciousness of life. A lot of people in the baby boom generation haven’t thought much about death. But as they start to take care of their aging parents, they’re beginning to. The cold wind is starting to reach them.

MJ: I noticed that several people from earlier books reappear in this one.

ST: I keep going back to some of the same people because they’re so rich in different aspects of their lives. There are about half a dozen such people in the book. Quinn Brisben, a white retired public-school teacher who taught four generations of black kids, is very eloquent about immortality. He tells this story about how, when he was getting out of jail during the civil rights movement in 1964, he said to this black guy, “They’ll never know about us. They’ll know about Martin Luther King.” And the black guy says, “Of course they’ll know about us. Our name is Martin Luther King.” So what is immortality? Immortality is when you touch a person. You leave something, no matter who you are or what you do.

MJ: The epilogue interested me. It’s about two lesbians who were artificially inseminated by a gay activist named Ron Sable, who later succumbed to AIDS.

ST: As soon as I met those two women, Kathy Fagan and Linda Gagnon, I knew I wanted to end the book with them. Here were two lesbian women, and each of them wanted a child. And then, in 1982, this marvelous guy, Ron Sable, said, “I’ll give you my sperm.” So they each had a baby thanks to him, but they didn’t know each other. Then in 1993, a few months before he died, he brought the two women and their sons together at a house on Lake Michigan. Kathy and Linda fell in love, and they eventually became a family. Ron got to watch his kids play. So that’s how I end this book—that moment of heaven. I also wanted to get a lick in on those bastards who talk about family values. What’s the greatest of all the family values? Love.

MJ: There’s a curious omission in this book. Everybody offers their views of an afterlife except you.

ST: Well, I think that when we go, we go. See, those are my wife’s ashes over there on the windowsill. And those daisies—well, she loved daisies. I want to have my ashes mixed with hers and spread over Bughouse Square [a legendary forum for freedom of speech in Chicago]. The hotel where I lived in my formative years, 1927 to 1938, was near the square. So in evenings I’d walk over there. The square was full of people, and the orators were there. It was wonderful. So I want my ashes there. But as far as an afterlife, there’s no there there. Nada. This life, here on earth, is what it’s about. Is there a hell? Well, there are many hells on earth, you see. Heaven? Well, certain moments, they look kind of good.

MJ: What are your hopes for the future?

ST: Well, I want my son to be happy. And as for the world, I wish we would think more about the value of each life. Christ Almighty, who the fuck do we think we are in the United States of America? Everything we do, it’s never our fault. We bomb the shit out of Iraq, even though we know it’s not going to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Jesus Christ, we haven’t learned from Vietnam at all. That’s what worries me. We’ve become conditioned. The goddamned budget—now I’m getting political, see?—the goddamned budget: Think what it could do as far as starvation in the world or our own national health insurance. This crazy, goofy Star Wars—we know it’s not going to work. But we just accept it. We’re behaving like the Roman Empire did. The big difference is, they didn’t pretend toward innocence.

MJ: Did writing this book change your own views about death?

ST: I don’t know if it did, but I’m ready. I’ll kick off when I kick off. Maybe at the typewriter, maybe chasing the bus. I’m not courting it—but it’s courting me. In the meantime, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. I’ll have my two martinis a day; I’ll have a couple of cigars. And I’m working on two books. I’ve been working on one, but then I got another idea. It’s a book about hope.

MJ: What about Studs Terkel’s epitaph?

ST: It’s simple enough: Curiosity did not kill this cat.

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