Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith

by Studs Terkel

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Overview

“IT’S THE UNGUARDED VOICES HE PRESENTS THAT STAY WITH YOU. . . . Terkel’s interviews may not allay fears about death. But reading them certainly encourages life while we have it.”
–The New York Times

Whether it’s Working or The Great War, the legendary oral histories of Studs Terkel have offered indispensable insights into all areas of American life. Now, at eighty-eight, the Pulitzer Prize winner creates his most important work on a subject few can comfortably discuss: death.
Here, in the voices of people both esteemed and unknown, are wise words, meaningful memories, and compassionate predictions about the experience of life’s end–and what may come after. A grad student explains how her two-year coma convinced her of the existence of reincarnation . . . A Hiroshima survivor reconciles her painful memories with the stoicism of her Japanese culture . . . Actress Uta Hagan expresses how her art is her religion and will be her legacy . . . Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler relives his World War II ordeal, after a torpedo left him in a lifeboat among injured and dying comrades . . . An AIDS counselor reveals why healthy gay men may require the most crucial psychological help . . . and a retired firefighter admits he “never felt so alive” as when he was doing his dangerous job.
From the sheer physical facts to the emotional realities to spiritual speculations, all aspects of death are openly expressed in this wonderful work, the stirring culmination of Studs Terkel’s brilliant career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780641759376
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was the bestselling author of twelve books of oral history, including Hope Dies Last, Working, Race, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Good War (all available from The New Press). He was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Presidential National Humanities Medal and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Date of Birth:

May 16, 1912

Date of Death:

October 31, 2008

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Chicago, IL

Education:

J.D., University of Chicago, 1934

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

I’VE COURTED DEATH ever since I was six. I was an asthmatic child. With each labored breath, each wheeze, came a toy whistle obbligato. At my bedside, my eldest brother, to comfort me, would whistle back “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” in cadence with my breathing. It was funny, and pleasing, but not much help.

That plus a couple of bouts with mastoiditis, head swathed in bandages, made my awakening the next morning a matter of touch and go. What troubled me was not that I wouldn’t make it, but that I would no longer enjoy the whimsical care of my father and two brothers. My mother was another matter; her hypertense attention more often than not added to my discomfort.

Death itself was too abstract an idea for me then, though I had, in a cursory fashion, become acquainted with the fact of death. For a week or so, there had been a warning sign on the door of the adjacent house: SCARLET FEVER. CONTAGIOUS. It was taken down the day after the girl inside died. She was my contemporary. Still, near as she was, I felt somewhat detached, only vaguely saddened. My ailments, though serious, were not of epidemic proportions. Nor did the unfortunate girl have two brothers and a gentle father who brought forth phlegmy laughter.

Of course, I had some difficulty, a fear really, of falling asleep. The idea of counting sheep might have worked had I been the child of a Basque shepard in Idaho. I really knew nothing about sheep, not that I had anything against them. I was living in Chicago, where a fair south wind blowing in from the stockyards wafted the aroma of slaughtered cattle toward our roominghouse on Flournoy Street. No, there was really nothing soporific in counting cows.

My brother, an assiduous newspaper bug, suggested counting celebrated names, names that made headlines. Charlie Chaplin. Caruso. The Bambino. Clara Bow, the “It” Girl. Peggy Hopkins Joyce. In an inspired moment, he dropped the names of the celebrated lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, who had just been executed for bopping her husband on the head with a heavy, leaden window sash. Nah. It did nothing for my sleeplessness.

Astonishingly, it was my first awareness of baseball that turned the trick; at least, for a year or two. The Cleveland Indians had beaten the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series of 1920. Each night, the names of these new celebrities rolled from my tongue as I signed off. Stanley Coveleski, the Indians’ pitcher, who had won three games. Stan-ley Cov-el-es-ki. Six salubrious syllables. The peerless Tris Speaker, who covered center field like a comfortable quilt. (A sports writer’s apt phrase, my brother informed me.) Bill Wambsganns, the second baseman, who pulled off the unassisted triple play. Wambsganns. The name’s slow pronunciation had the pleasant, slumberous effect of a Dutch hot chocolate. Some thirty years later, when a television program with which I was involved, Studs Place, went off the air, I received a scrawled, handwritten letter from Cleveland. I remember a passage: “I am sorry. I enjoyed your program because it gave me a feeling of heimweh, an old Dutch word for homesickness. I was once a baseball player. They called me Wamby.” It was signed Bill Wambsganns. I replied, though I neglected to tell him how he had helped me through my insomnia.

After a few years, when I had recovered from my childhood ailments, the effects of this nocturnal ritual wore off. Once again, I was in the thrall of sleeplessness. Now, a touch of fear that I might indeed die in my sleep distinctly possessed me. It brought forth a habit that still obsesses me. Whenever I’m about to doze off, I deliberately unclasp my hands and remove them from my breast. Every night. Even now.

Was it that photograph I saw on the front page of the morning Hearst newspaper seventy-eight years ago? The late Pope Benedict XV lay in state. On the catafalque, the pontiff’s hands were clasped across his breast. It was the first image I remember of a dead person in a casket. From time to time, my young Catholic friends suggested a prayer. “If I should die before I wake…” No soap. I didn’t want any Lord my soul to take because I obstinately insisted on waking up the next morning.

Fortunately, at the age of thirteen, I had a young English teacher in my freshman class at McKinley High School. With his scraggly mustache and tubercular mien, he bore a remarkable resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson. He had assigned us Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And–bingo!–there was a five-line stanza that did the trick.

Oh sleep, thou art a gentle thing
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen, the praise be given,
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.

For years, I mumbled those lines before sacking out. And it worked–after a fashion. (Ironically, my young Catholic friends had scored a point. They knew who Mary Queen was; I didn’t.)
Now, at eighty-eight, after a quintuple bypass among other medical adventures, those words have lost their charm. Too many of my old friends, contemporaries, have died. Fortunately, I’ve discovered a new way of popping off to sleep. I count down the names of those departed buddies. Unfortunately, the list has grown exponentially during these last few years. Amend that: every month, every week, I spot more familiar names in the obituary columns.

Mordant though it may sound, it’s not an unpleasant way of sacking out. I recall funny stories, jokes, and even imagined amours, especially after a few drinks, say, at Riccardo’s, a favorite watering hole in Chicago, but now transmogrified into an “in” place for Generation X. I have a good number of young friends, who are delightful company, generous-hearted, witty, and all that. Yet, there is that slight ache–heimweh, as Bill Wambsganns put it.

My fellow octogenarian Charlie Andrews explains: “Have you heard the one about the old sport who married a much younger woman? It worked for a couple of years. One day, a mutual friend encounters him. The old boy informs him that they’ve split up. ‘She didn’t know the songs.’” My young friends do my heart good every time I see them, but they don’t know the songs.

Naturally, when I pick up a newspaper these days, the first place I turn to isn’t sports, or arts, or the business of business, or the op-eds. I immediately turn to the obituaries. The old doggerel with which many mature readers may be acquainted has replaced Coleridge as my mantra.

I wake up each morning and gather my wits,
I pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is not in it, I know I’m not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.

* * *
This is the one book I never thought I’d write. It was too big for me; too abstract. It was more in the domain of the metaphysician or the minister. Yet the idea was put forth some thirty years ago.
Was it 1970? ’71? Gore Vidal, at the Ambassador East Hotel bar in Chicago, suggested death as the subject for a book. I stared into my drink. No bells rang. My works had been concerned with life and its uncertainties rather than death and its indubitable certainty.

In all my books, my informants–mostly the uncelebrated, heroes of the “ordinary”–had recounted, in their own words, the lives they had lived, the epochs they had survived. How did it feel to be a certain person in a certain circumstance at a certain time in our country’s twentieth century? During the Great American Depression, what was it like to be that twelve-year-old boy seeing his father trudge home at eleven in the morning with his toolchest over his shoulder only to become an idler for the next ten years? During World War II, what was it like to be a mama’s boy sitting tight in that landing craft crossing the English Channel, heading for Normandy? What was daily worklife like for the schoolteacher, the waitress, the spotwelder or the storekeeper? What did the blacks in our society really think of whites or the other way around? How did the elders feel as they grew even more so in a society where their power ebbed as their span increased?

These were challenges I could handle, for better or worse–something I could put my hands on. In recalling actual experiences, my colleagues, the true authors of these works, found their own eloquence and poetry. Words from the seemingly inarticulate flowed like wine. At times they were as astonished as I was.
Consider the young mother in the public project. It was an integrated complex of the poor. I can’t recall whether she was white or black. The conversation took place in the sixties. The tape recorder had not yet become the household tool it is today. Her three little kids were hopping around, demanding to hear Mama’s voice on tape. I played it back. As she caught her words, she gasped. Hand touching mouth, she murmured: “I never knew I felt that way…” Bingo! A score for me as well as for her. An experience recounted, a revelation to oneself.

But what about the one experience none of us has had, yet all of us will have: death? Now in my late eighties, Gore Vidal’s challenge of some thirty years ago had come back to haunt me. What is there to remember of a time and place at which none of us has yet arrived? Boy–what a challenge! I no longer stared at my drink. I downed the martini and the bells began to ring.

In what follows, you may be astonished as I was, while scrounging around, to discover that we reflect on death like crazy much of our lives. The storytellers here, once started on the subject, can’t stop. They want to talk about it; whether it be grief or guilt or a fusing of both on the part of the survivors; or thoughts about the hereafter–is it is or is it ain’t? You’ll hear voices offering all sorts of opinions: some are believers, others put forth the challenge, “show me.”

For so many there’s a recurring refrain, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” as though they sought separation from the institution, yet, as individuals, truly believed.

Invariably, those who have a faith, whether it is called religious or spiritual, have an easier time with loss. They find solace in believing there is a something after–that they will in some way, in some form, again meet or even merge with the departed one. Nonbelievers have no such comfort. They go with Gertrude Stein’s observation in another context: “There is no there there.” Nada.

All of the doctors I have come to know and respect, including my cardiologist, my surgeon, and my internist, Quentin Young has been our family doctor for the last forty years. I’m certain that his ebullience, his spirit of bonhomie, and his skills have been key factors in my living beyond my traditionally allotted span. have urged me to undertake this project. We, as a matter of course, reflect on death, voice hope and fear, only when a dear one is near death, or out of it. Why not speak of it while we’re in the flower of good health? How can we envision our life, the one we now experience, unless we recognize that it is finite?

It is sweet a irony that my first book of the twenty-first century (possibly my last) is about death. Yet these testimonies are also about life and its pricelessness, offering visions, inchoate though they be, of a better one down here–and, possibly, up there.

Copyright© 2002 by Studs Terkel

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Foreword Jane Gross xv

Introduction xxi

Prologue: Brothers

Tom Gates, a retired fireman 3

Bob Gates, a retired police officer 11

Part I

Doctors

Dr. Joseph Messer 17

Dr. Sharon Sandell 24

ER

Dr. John Barrett 29

Marc and Noreen Levison, a paramedic and a nurse 39

Lloyd (Pete) Haywood, a former gangbanger 45

Claire Hellstern, a nurse 53

Ed Reardon, a paramedic 58

Law and Order

Robert Soreghan, a homicide detective 64

Delbert Lee Tibbs, a former death-row inmate 67

War

Dr. Frank Raila 80

Haskell Wexler, a cinematographer 89

Tammy Snider, a Hiroshima survivor (hibakusha) 96

Mothers and Sons

V.I.M. (Victor Israel Marquez), a Vietnam vet 105

Angelina Rossi, his mother 115

Guadalupe Reyes, a mother 119

God's Shepherds

Rev. Willie T. Barrow 124

Father Leonard Dubi 129

Rabbi Robert Marx 134

Pastor Tom Kok 140

Rev. Ed Townley 149

The Stranger

Rick Rundle, a city sanitation worker 155

Part II

Seeing Things

Randy Buescher, an associate architect 163

Chaz Ebert, a lawyer 174

Antoinette Korotko-Hatch, a church worker 179

Karen Thompson, a student 187

Dimitri Mihalas, an astronomer and physicist 194

A View from the Bridge

Hank Oettinger, a retired printer 202

Ira Glass, a radio journalist 207

Kid Pharaoh, a retired "collector" 210

Quinn Brisben, a retired teacher 216

Kurt Vonnegut, a writer 221

The Boomer

Bruce Bendinger, an advertising executive and writer 228

Part III

Fathers and Sons

Doc Watson, a folksinger 235

Vernon Jarrett, a journalist 242

Country Women

Peggy Terry, a retired mountain woman 252

Bessie Jones, a Georgia Sea Island Singer (1972) 260

Rosalie Sorrels, a traveling Folksinger 266

The Plague I

Tico Yalle, a young man 274

Lori Cannon, "curator" of the Open Hand Society 279

Brian Matthews, an ex-bartender, writer for a gay weekly 287

Jewell Jenkins, a hospital aide 291

Justin Hayford, a journalist, musician 295

Malta Kelly, a case manager 305

The Old Guy

Jim Hapgood 314

The Plague II

Nancy Lanoue 317

Out There

Dr. Gary Slutkin 324

Part IV

Vissi d'Arte

William Warfield, a singer and teacher 333

Uta Hagen, an actress 339

The Comedian

Mick Betancourt 345

Day of the Dead

Carlos Cortez, a painter and poet 352

Vine Deloria, a writer and teacher 356

Helen Selair, a cemetery familiar 363

The Other Son

Steve Young, a father 366

Maurine Young, a mother 372

The job

William Herdegen, an undertaker 379

Rory Moina, a hospice nurse 385

The End and the Beginning

Mamie Mobley, a mother 393

Dr. Marvin Jackson, a son 397

Epilogue: Kathy Fagan and Linda Gagnon, mothers 401

Reading Group Guide

“IT’S THE UNGUARDED VOICES HE PRESENTS THAT STAY WITH YOU. . . . Terkel’s interviews may not allay fears about death. But reading them certainly encourages life while we have it.”
–The New York Times

Whether it’s Working or The Great War, the legendary oral histories of Studs Terkel have offered indispensable insights into all areas of American life. Now, at eighty-eight, the Pulitzer Prize winner creates his most important work on a subject few can comfortably discuss: death.

Here, in the voices of people both esteemed and unknown, are wise words, meaningful memories, and compassionate predictions about the experience of life’s end–and what may come after. A grad student explains how her two-year coma convinced her of the existence of reincarnation . . . A Hiroshima survivor reconciles her painful memories with the stoicism of her Japanese culture . . . Actress Uta Hagan expresses how her art is her religion and will be her legacy . . . Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler relives his World War II ordeal, after a torpedo left him in a lifeboat among injured and dying comrades . . . An AIDS counselor reveals why healthy gay men may require the most crucial psychological help . . . and a retired firefighter admits he “never felt so alive” as when he was doing his dangerous job.

From the sheer physical facts to the emotional realities to spiritual speculations, all aspects of death are openly expressed in this wonderful work, the stirring culmination of Studs Terkel’s brilliant career.

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Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a rare find. It uses oral history as a framework to understand a broad array of attitudes and feelings about death and life. Simple interviews with outstanding (and often heroic) individuals are transcribed for the reader to consume. Compelling, this book is a masterpiece and essential to anyone studying philosophy, psychology, history, healthcare, sociology, or history. Most of these heroic interviews are from individuals who live in Chicago. Easy-to-read, and a triumph.