Monday, July 23, 2018

My First Time: Dawn Raffel



The First Time I Dug Up History

I had already published four books (three fiction, one memoir) when I dove into a historical project and found myself in over my head. And while I generally hate the word “project” when referring to a book, writing The Strange Case of Dr. Couney was indeed a project.

I thought I was researching a period novel. Then I stumbled onto the true story of a mysterious showman who saved thousands of premature babies in the early 20th Century—by placing them in incubator sideshows on the midway, right next to the “freaks” and the strippers. People would pay a quarter to gawk at them. This went on for 40 years. How was that even possible?

The fact that a technology with the potential to save millions of children existed but was unavailable in most American hospitals had never occurred to me, nor did I understand that there was a raging eugenics movement dimming the prospects of anyone deemed imperfect. Instead, I was struck by the combination of carnival voyeurism/commodification of children, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I had no idea what lay ahead: Missing records, conflicting reports, the flim-flam of the midway, and a subject who’d falsified his own story. Four years and 600 archival end-notes later, my book is making its way into the world.

Here are half a dozen things I learned from writing historical nonfiction:

1.  Some information is simply unavailable. Often, it feels as if all the facts in the world can be had with a few clicks of a mouse. Indeed, Google is a marvel, bringing us Worldcat, earth’s most comprehensive library catalogue, and Google books, which allows us to find the one existing copy of a magazine that went defunct in, say, 1896. But much of our history lies only in handwritten documents in musty archives and microfiche. And sadly, much more has been discarded, or was never written down.

2.  The records are sometimes wrong. My subject, Martin Couney, was famous during his lifetime. Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles were written about him during his lifetime. Assessments of him in peer-reviewed medical journals and books about neonatology followed. Every source said that Dr. Couney was educated in Leipzig and Berlin, served as an intern for a world-renowned physician in Paris, and first came to the U.S. in 1898. Some of the peer-reviewed items had footnotes up the wazoo. But when I followed the trail back to the source, all of the information came from Martin Couney himself—and he had fabricated everything. All those articles and interpretations of his work reminded me of a seed pearl: An error lay at the center and everything else had calcified around it.

3.  Probate records are fascinating. Every “last will and testament” tells you where the money went, which in itself is intriguing. But after you wade through the legalese in triplicate, you might also discover family feuds and love affairs, nestled amid the possessions. These documents, along with birth certificates, marriage licenses, immigration and naturalization certificates, census records, and property deeds are public record. Just be prepared for inconsistencies. Almost any time people can fib, they will.

4.  It’s worth it to do your own footwork. Again and again, well-meaning friends suggested I hire a researcher. I’m glad now that I couldn’t afford one. While looking for one needle in the haystack, I often found an unexpected nugget of gold—an adjacent story about something else going on at the same time that provided context and color, and deepened my understanding.


5.  Eye-witness reports are highly subjective. I knew that already, but it was hammered home when reading competing newspaper reports of the exact same event—say, the infamous execution of an elephant at Coney Island. What really happened? People who were there had very different versions. (As an aside, that’s a good reason to get rid of the death penalty, where convictions are too often based on witness testimony.) Even when we believe we are telling the God’s honest truth, we human beings see what we’re looking for.

6.  Our deepest motivations are ultimately unknowable. With thousands of pages of documents in hand, and after hundreds of hours of original reporting, I can tell you many things Martin Couney did and said, and I can make an educated guess as to what he might have thought. But I can’t presume to fully know what was in his heart, which might have been different from one beat to the next. I can only approach my subject with a kind of wonderment, as I would with any living person.


Photo by Claire Holt
Dawn Raffel is the author of several books, including The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, out this summer from Blue Rider Press (a division of Penguin Random House). Her illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Previous books include a critically acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body, and two story collections— Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division.  She was a fiction editor for many years, helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she served as Executive Articles Editor for seven years, and subsequently held senior-level “at-large” positions at More magazine and Reader’s Digest. In addition, she served as the Center for Fiction’s web editor. She has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University, the Center for Fiction, and at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia; Montreal; and Vilnius, Lithuania. She currently works as an independent editor for individuals and creative organizations, specializing in memoir, short stories, and narrative nonfiction. Click here to visit her website.


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


1 comment:

  1. How could hospitals let the technology go for so long?

    ReplyDelete