In London, England, I find myself looking at a display case of 16 glass eyes. These eyes show a variation of color. The darkest eye is dark brown, almost black. The lightest is sky blue. These eyes were used as part of a study of eye color, vision, and intelligence in immigrant Jewish children that looked at their eugenic “worth.” This case is a part of a larger exhibit at the Wellcome Collection about the inherent racism and antisemitism embedded in the practice of eugenics, an overlapping practice to phrenology and the creation of many life and death masks.
The problem with statistics is that the numbers can dehumanize the individuals. The problem with the news is that it saturates our minds with distanced trauma while avoiding the harshness of reality. While I write this essay people in Gaza are dying. People aren’t just dying in Gaza; people are being massacred. And people are not just people but individuals. With names. Families. Goals. Problems. Likes. Dislikes. How do we humanize the dead?
In a field, alkaline dusted tombstones are the only markers of Clarion, Utah: a Jewish settlement established in 1911. It “folded” four years later. Rabbi Krauskopf thought the local Mormon settlement of Gunnison, Utah ,would be their allies in returning to a lifestyle of farming. The Mormons, after all, were also historically a persecuted people. But no hope would come. The communities remained separated by their faith, by their differences. Records show that the Jews of Clarion didn’t know how to farm such an inhospitable land. The Mormons never really spent the time to help.
My eye color is between eyes six and seven: hazel brown with flecks of other colors. My son’s eyes would be a sixteen, as blue as a pale summer sky.
With a light knock, the doctor walked into the examination room. With only slight hesitation she told my wife, Elise, that my daughter was obese. My daughter was there in the room too. Talked over, but not unaware. Later she would ask what “obese” meant. This all happened despite the earlier conversation Elise had with the doctor about our family history, despite the fact Elise had asked the doctor to be considerate of our daughter’s body image and her self-confidence; we didn’t feel like we needed to make our daughter feel othered because of her size. Particularly because both our families have a history of huskiness at a young age. The doctor went on to explain that exercise and dieting can help with weight. She didn’t listen when we told her that our daughter was very “active,” that she played tennis and basketball, that our daughter liked to hike and be outside more than anything else. The doctor didn’t listen when we told her that our daughter ate a healthy well-rounded diet. Instead, she handed our daughter a list of things she should eat and things she should avoid; for the doctor, our daughter was just an outlier in the statistics of normality.
The Noel Phrenology collection at The University College of London has history that isn’t so dissimilar to other death mask collections. It was donated to the college by Noel’s descendants. It ended up in the eugenics lab for a while. It was decided that the masks weren’t necessary, so they were then donated to the art school at the college. For years the masks were used as props in still lifes. They were handled and turned and touched and drawn. You can see the years of grime from all the handling on each mask—a coat of hands grasping. Then when the art school tired of the masks, they were thrown away. Someone discovered them in some discard bins, recognized them as not trash, pulled them out and put them in the Object Based Learning Lab at UCL.
It is in the Object Based Learning Lab that I first see the collection. I traveled across the ocean to see these masks, to think about the processes of phrenology. It is in the lab that the director points out that there is an exhibit about eugenics only a short distance away that contains some of the masks from the Noel collection. It is in this same exhibit that I see the glass eyes.
The dark side of phrenology is the way the practice lent itself to bias confirmation; classism and racism are rampant in the evaluation of the head. In the Noel collection, Noel separated each mask into one of two categories: the intellectuals (usually life masks made of people already acknowledged for their brilliance) and the criminals (usually death masks made after the subject had been decapitated for their crimes). The curator of the Object Based learning lab tells me there were only two masks that didn’t fit snuggly in one of the two categories: a woman considered an intellectual—Noel didn’t know where to place her because she was “smart for a woman” but he didn’t consider her on the same level as his other intellectuals; the other mask was a life mask of a known criminal who had spent time in jail, but then, upon release was reformed. He became a monk and served others for the remainder of his life. Neither of these individuals fit with his other conclusions about shapes and bumps and predictions of predilection.
I am drawn to Clarion because of my ancestry. I am related to many people that immigrated across the great plains, often at great sacrifice, for their freedom of religion. And my grandfather is Jewish; his lineage stemmed from Russian Jewish immigrants that arrived in Baltimore near the turn of the 19th century. Because of my grandfather and my faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I have always felt connected to Judaism. So, in many ways, I view Clarion as what could’ve been a mecca, a blending of my ancestry. Yet, for whatever reason—whether it was that the Mormon’s wouldn’t accept or befriend the Jews, or if the Jews kept themselves apart because their ideologies—the settlement failed.
It can be easy to forget the anger that accompanies discrimination, the anger at being othered, and the anger that leads to the othering. It is easy to forget the history that leads to the action. When you are othered, it can be easy to feel like violence is your only defense, especially when your people have faced holocaust after holocaust; I can only trace my Jewish lineage so far before the records disappear from existence, wiped out by discrimination and violent measure. It is also easy to be blinded by anger. Blinded so much that you can’t see that your actions are just repeating the atrocities enacted earlier upon yourself.
The abused can become the abuser.
In September of 1857, a wagon train from Missouri traveled through Utah. It is said that some of those Missourians were part of the violent mobs that drove the Mormons from Missouri. Anger spilled over into violence. Mormon settlers from Cedar City masqueraded as Native Americans and massacred the men and women from Missouri.
How do we break the cycle? How do we acknowledge the past without repeating it in the present. How do the abused heal?
Thousands of miles away from Gaza I find myself conflicted. There is a history behind the violence. Both sides are guilty. But too many of the victims are innocent. Too many of the people being affected by the anger are just trying to live their lives. My distance is part of the problem. My lineage is Jewish, but I am not a Zionist. My people have been erased, but that does not mean we should erase others. But how do we protect ourselves, our beliefs when we are feeling attacked?
All these miles away, I have the luxury of thinking that too often language is used to create emotional distance. Conflict is just a softened way of saying violence and anger are rampant. Even the word violence is a softened way of saying that someone is intentionally causing hurt, injury, and/or death to others. We are so practiced at using language to blur the blows that even now, as I turn toward the problem, I am part of the problem.
Looking at a photograph of the glass eyes, it is easy to see only the color of the glass. The glass is just glass. But what does it mean when we attribute the color of an eye or the shape of a head to inherent qualities. What does it mean when we judge others by numbers and statistics instead of seeing them as a living person?
“Let my people go!”
Moses says this. In The Ten Commandments, in the Bible, in The Prince of Egypt. Let my people go. Now, thousands of miles away from Israel, from Gaza, people are saying something similar to the Israelites about the Palestinians. But the issue isn’t about letting anyone go, or finding a home, really; it is about finding a way to come together, to listen and acknowledge the atrocities of the past, and finding peace for the future. But how do we do that with so much anger? How do we do that when all we see is the other; the colors of the glass eyes reflect only what we want to see and not what needs to be seen.
Zachary Ostraff received his MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University (2016). He has work in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, High Desert Journal, Longridge Review, Hippocampus Magazine and more. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Tech University. This essay is part of manuscript Zachary is developing that uses life and death masks to explore memory and connection. You can follow him on X (Twitter) @ostraffz or view his joint website with his artist partner, Elise, at ostraffworks.com.
This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"