Tainted Objects: A Conversation with Laura Levitt




PART MEMOIR, PART SCHOLARLY work, part true crime narrative, Laura Levitt’s The Objects That Remain begins with the story of Levitt’s rape by a stranger who broke into her home 30 years ago. The book examines her rape’s lifelong aftermath, and her fixation on the objects — in particular, a pair of sweatpants taken into police evidence — that were marked by her trauma. But Levitt’s interest in the material objects that remain after violence does not end with her own experiences; what begins as a personal story slowly becomes an investigation into all kinds of physical remnants of violence and the rituals of care that allow them to persist in spaces as disparate as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, police evidence rooms, and the Venice Biennale. For Levitt, whose rape remains unsolved, encounters with these objects are an occasion for intimacy and justice outside the realm of the juridical.

Levitt is a professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, and Gender at Temple University. Throughout her career, she has incorporated personal narratives into her scholarly work and her writing has long brought together the fields of Jewish studies, feminism, and visual and material culture. For Levitt, the private and public remain inextricably bound; given this, it may be particularly apropos that Levitt is my cousin! We didn’t connect until a few years ago, and it has been wonderful getting to know her in life and through her writing. The Objects That Remain is a haunting foray into autotheory, and I am so glad that she agreed to talk to me about it for LARB.  

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JACQUELYN ARDAM: What made you want to write The Objects That Remain?

LAURA LEVITT: The book began with a chance encounter with Maggie Nelson. I first met her when I was working on a book about Holocaust memory, and I identified with her because we were both writing about ghosts. She had just finished working on a book (Jane: A Murder) about her aunt Jane Mixer, who was killed in the 1960s. As Nelson was finishing the book, there was a break in the cold case, and she found herself in a courtroom for a preliminary hearing about Mixer’s death. She was confronted with a whole cache of material evidence that she had no access to and that she didn’t even know really existed — the clothes Mixer was wearing the night she was murdered, other things that were taken from her apartment by the police.

In all honesty, her story was jarring for me. I had not thought about the clothing that I wore, the things that were taken from my apartment the night that I was raped. What had happened to those things hadn’t even occurred to me, and it’s strange, because I have always cared a lot about clothing. And I was already thinking about photographs and material objects and the Holocaust, and after meeting Nelson, it all seemed to be related somehow. I began to ask questions: What happened to my clothing after my rape? What do the police do with these things? I began getting interested in police property management, and then the book became a wider study into material culture and violence.

Early on in The Objects That Remain, you say that the book operates on an “associative logic.” I’m wondering if you could explain the form of the book and how the different parts are connected.

The book begins with a prelude, which is a little bit about me as a child and clothing and also blood. Then there’s the introduction, which is my way of framing the larger project and talking about my life and afterlives. Then I move into readings of what I think of as my companions — sacred texts, Maggie Nelson’s books, the writing of the potter Edmund de Waal. I figure out how to tell my story by closely reading these others. The whole first part of the book is about the allure of objects and the ways in which they allow us to tell stories.

The second part of the book is about what I call the arts and rites of holding. I wanted to look at police property management on the one hand and museum conservation on the other. I was interested in what goes on behind the scenes. And the last chapter is about this ongoing question of what memory is and how it is made. I wanted to lay claim to the sort of animating power that drove my narrative as a whole. Writing the book was kind of a bizarre process. Things didn’t necessarily make sense in a kind of ordinary way, or a linear narrative but along the way, there were moments where I just kind of got a sign from the universe that I was on the right track.

One moment of surprise was when I first spoke with the head conservator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about my project and she drew connections between what I was doing and the work of the FBI. Suddenly, my work didn’t feel so strange. Another moment was when, just after reading Nelson’s memoir The Red Parts, the book that she would eventually write about the trial, I turned on the TV only to find Maggie Nelson in the episode of 48 Hour Murder Mystery that she had written about. These unexpected moments felt like signs telling me that I was on to something and I should keep going.

For people who haven’t read the book yet, can you talk a little bit about the relationships that you make between the types of evidence that you discuss? What are the connections that you make between criminal evidence that exists in police custody and then the types of evidence that you’re interested in in museums and archives?

I’m really interested in tainted objects, objects that have been brushed by violence. I was looking particularly at the Holocaust Museum, and the conservators working there. They had to adapt the practices of conservation for objects from the concentration camps — shoes, hair, clothing — which are in many ways criminal evidence. They testify to the crimes of genocide, some more intimately than others. I am particularly interested in clothing — in Jane Mixer’s clothing, in my own clothing that was taken from my crime scene, and which I hoped was in police storage somewhere. I think these tainted objects have a lot in common, but what’s different is that the objects that are in police storage are not accessible to the public. Occasionally, criminal evidence can become available, but in most cases it is not. And so we have only our imaginations. We remember those objects but we don’t physically see them.

I’d like to shift gears a bit and ask you some more personal questions. We are cousins, though we didn’t meet until fairly recently. For years the only thing I knew about you was that you were a professor. When I started wanting to go to get a PhD, my mom would always say, “You know your cousin Laura Levitt is a professor.” And after we connected via Facebook and got to know each other, my mom wanted to tell me that you were raped when you were a graduate student. And my reaction to that was: Why are you telling me this? I’m a woman, I have a lot of friends who are women, I know a lot of people who have been victims of sexual violence. Not to sound cavalier, but this is the world we live in. I didn’t want your rape to somehow frame my understanding of you as a human being. And so I never brought it up. But now that you have written a book about your rape and the intellectual and emotional paths that it brought you down: What has it been like for you, making that part of your life experience public?

I mean, well, it’s still strange. I had written about the rape before in an academic book, but it’s not like everybody reads your academic book. Telling people about the rape is iterative; you’re always coming out again and again. The book was called Jews and Feminism, and that’s what I teach, but I can’t really teach my book because it’s just too upsetting for my students. But this new book is more writerly, and pitched to a broader audience, and the publisher encouraged me to write my own story. It feels like a kind of a relief at this point. What I want is for this book to speak to other people who have been harmed so that they might feel less lonely. I want it to provide for other people the sort of companionship I found in the writings of Maggie Nelson and Edmund de Waal.

In the introduction, I say that the euphoria that I experienced in my life after my rape is really important to me. It is somewhat embarrassing to say it, but it is true. I thought I was going to die, but then I just got to have all of these things that I wanted. I got to inhabit my life. At times it did feel like I was a dead person who was having a beautiful dream. But the material objects remind me that it’s not a dream and I didn’t die. I’m still here because the objects are still here.

Given your euphoria — and your career — something that I found curious was your discussion of political activism at the end of your book. You write, “It is hard to feel hopeful. Part of what was taken away from me is outrage, political outrage. Outrage is fueled by a kind of hope that I no longer have.” I don’t find your book to be hopeful necessarily — nor do I think it needs to be — but I do find it to be very tender, which is not apolitical. I wonder if you can expand on that.

My parents were very socially active and politically engaged; I was a child who grew up going to protests. We had access to politicians in Delaware. It’s a small place and you don’t have to be wealthy; you can be a schoolteacher and work for the Social Security Administration and know the senator. That’s the activism that I grew up with. And I appreciate so much how many people have been out in the streets these past few years. But being in that kind of crowd is just really hard for me. It’s been something that I’ve really struggled with, certainly since the Women’s March, and thinking: Well, why is it this is just so hard for me to do, to go to protests? But I have been jarred by the ways the system doesn’t work, the way that the criminal justice system in particular doesn’t work. I’m a white woman who is educated and middle class and I have plenty of privilege. I was a victim of a stranger rape — what some people call “real rape” — and still it just didn’t matter. The system disappointed me and it has disappointed so many others. My rape sobered me. And so I think I just can’t muster the kind of confidence it takes to be shouting in the streets. I just feel really alienated in that environment.

But because of this book, people write to me, they get in touch with me to tell me about their lives. That’s hopeful. I mean, recognition and acknowledgment is what matters. It is a kind of diasporic intimacy where having lost everything, there is still the surprise of tenderness, as critic Svetlana Boym explains. I don’t know but perhaps in some altered universe, I may have been somebody else who was on the streets, but I don’t have access to her. She’s not with me now. But I believe that sharing intimacy is possible. And that when you’ve lost everything, that’s when you can be surprised.

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Jacquelyn Ardam’s writing has appeared in venues such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, Bookforum, LitHub, and The Rambling, as well as in a number of academic journals.

 

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