Krista Tippett, host
I’m often asked about our process for choosing people and topics. The answer goes something like this. We are always juggling a number of priorities — responding to what is happening in the world; getting to subjects of enduring interest that we feel we can draw out in a distinctive way; bringing important voices on to the show, some of them famous, but more often people who, though captivating and wise, remain below the radar of headlines and hype. Their names find their way to a long list of possible guests that we add to all the time, either from our own reading and conversations or from the many ideas our listeners send in.
At some point, our online editor surfaced Mercedes Doretti’s name, which landed on that long list. She is a leading force in the field of global forensic anthropology and winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” though she is not by far a household name. We knew that she works at a deeply human level on atrocities that usually come to us by way of gruesome news stories — the kind that leave me, at least, more despairing than reflective.
Doretti grew up, in fact, in one of these “stories” — the period of Argentina’s so-called “dirty war.” The military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983 maintained control by terrorizing its own citizens. Over 10,000 people, many of them young, were “disappeared” — kidnapped, tortured, and killed. For their families they were, from one day to the next, simply gone without a trace. Some of their bodies were dropped into the ocean. Others were buried in unmarked graves.
As the “dirty war” ended, at the invitation of a group of grandmothers who stubbornly sought to know what had happened to their children and their children’s children, an American forensic anthropologist named Clyde Snow came to Argentina. He is the world expert in a field called osteobiography, which I found evocatively described as “the art and science of reading a person’s life story from their bones.” He would shape the course of Mercedes Doretti’s life.
Under Clyde Snow’s mentorship, she and a group of other anthropology students went in search of the bodies, and the stories, of the grandmothers’ lost loved ones. They became experts in all the forensic sciences — including genetics, ballistics, osteology, and radiology. They became archeologists of political crimes — archeologists not of ancient history but of the contemporary past. And over the past three decades, they’ve taken this work to over 30 countries — from El Salvador to Bosnia, from East Timor to Ethiopia — places where civilians have been caught in civil unrest, often kidnapped and murdered by their own governments.
Mercedes Doretti illuminates a rich, human, global landscape that gives me a sense of the nature of real-world forensics and archeology that I could never gain from CSI or Indiana Jones. Unlike those news stories I can barely read to the end, I am riveted and comforted by Mercedes Doretti’s presence. She is a scientist through and through — she loves solving the puzzles that bones hold as much as she loves the fact that this labor of hers becomes a crucial form of reparation for the living. She is not a religious person, but she has much to teach about some enduring, mysterious human experience with profound religious implications — our need to bury our dead, to reconcile ourselves to terrible events, to find justice on many levels.
The poetry of Alicia Partnoy seemed to us a necessary and beautiful complement to Mercedes Doretti’s insights. Partnoy was one of the few who survived her detention in a secret prison during the “dirty war.” Her poems, and the experiences of suffering and life chosen beyond it that comes through Partnoy’s voice alone, are also a testament to the mysterious vigor and transcendence of the human spirit. "Laying the Dead to Rest" makes my world a bit bigger. It adds both a knowledge of science and of a redemptive softness at some of the world’s most treacherous edges.
by Alanna Shaikh, guest contributor
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. I am losing him in inches and pieces. It hurts. He is my hero and my mentor, and now I help him remember how to put on his clothes every morning.
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. There is a powerful genetic component to the disease, and I share a lot of my father’s risk factors, including bad triglycerides, a viral infection, and elevated cholesterol unaffected by diet. The odds are frighteningly high that I will someday get Alzheimer’s too. In 25 or 30 years, when it comes for me, maybe there will be a cure — but I can’t count on that.
My dad taught me how to learn from everything I see, no matter how hard it was. He was a professor of Human Anatomy and Physiology, and told me once that he was present when his mother died. He held her hand and told her how much he loved her. As she died, he catalogued her body’s shutdown, comparing it to what he’d read — because he was a scientist.
And so, now, I am learning from my father. It’s what he taught me to do. And what he’s teaching me now — his last lesson for me — is what it means to live with Alzheimer’s, and by extension, what I can do to get ready.
First, I am getting new hobbies. My dad is an intellectual. All his hobbies were brain hobbies — reading, chess, poker, bridge. Now he can’t follow them. He recognizes his beloved chess pieces, but he doesn’t remember how to play. Reading is too slow and too hard to be enjoyable, and he can’t play cards at all. He has no way to keep busy. So I’m learning hobbies that use my hands. I spend more time drawing, and I’m learning to knit. I want to teach my hands, so that when my mind can’t do it, my fingers still can.
Second, I’m living my life as fully as possible. Dad got knocked out of his game too soon, but he had achieved enough for a long, long life. The work he loved, and the impact he had on his students — it was more than most people do in their lives. His contribution to our world does not fall short, even if he ran out of time. I am trying to do the same thing — to give as much as I can to the people around me, to work and think and create and contribute as much as I possibly can, in case my time ends early.
The most important thing I’ve learned from my father: love. My father built his life around the people he cared about. Me, my mom, and my brother were the center of his world. For his birthday, he’d tell us to get things for ourselves because he liked seeing us happy — and he actually meant it. But we weren’t the only ones he loved. He loved the students he taught, he loved his friends, and he loved our extended family — both his own and my mother’s.
Now, with so little left of him, my father still has his love. Seeing his wife, his children, and his grandson brings him joy. He can sit just watching my son read a book. Simply living with his family, my dad can find happiness.
The people he cared about through his life still remember my father. We get postcards, letters, the occasional package. And he is still finding new people to care about; he hasn’t lost his love for people. He likes it when we have guests over. He still flirts with all my female friends. He loves his aide and the omelets she makes him every morning.
I have never loved people like my dad did. He had patience and affection for everyone — for people who told boring stories repeatedly, for people I thought were stupid, for people who were afraid of everything, for people totally full of themselves or so shy they could hardly talk. Dad loved people I could barely stand to talk to. He used to ask me to show patience, tolerance, compassion — and I’d promise to try — with no real sincerity.
So now I am trying to learn my biggest lesson from my dad, the lesson I am trying to live every single day. I’m finding people to love; I’m finding things to love in people. I am trying to love people like my dad always did. I am building my capacity for love now, so it can sustain me later.
And if, in the end, like my father, there is nothing left of me but my love, that won’t be a tragedy. It will be my victory.