“A man derives his inspiration from his daily experience, so it was quite natural that I would write about death,” says Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, head of pathology at Children’s Memorial Hospital. “But I do not intend to write about death only.” He wants to set the record straight. The last interviewer he talked to hammered the death thing into the ground.
So did the BBC in a 1992 episode on Gonzalez-Crussi for its series on writers called Bookmark. The piece was inspired by the author’s Notes of an Anatomist, a collection of essays on death-related topics published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1985. The BBC and Gonzalez-Crussi “visited cemeteries in two countries, shot scenes of dying patients, interviewed embalmers, recorded burials, and paced, undaunted, the gloomy haunts of coroners, undertakers, and morgue attendants,” the pathologist writes in the preface to his latest book of essays, The Day of the Dead and Other Mortal Reflections. In a review of the book for Newsday, essayist Phillip Lopate wrote, “Gonzalez-Crussi, with wry irony, alternately resists and embraces this invasion of his sacred domain, gently mocking the crew’s need to concretize the mysterious abstractions of death.”
Elsewhere in the book Gonzalez-Crussi proves that he does indeed have other subjects in his repertoire. He works history and politics into his essay “A Visit to the Embalmer,” in which he interviews a west-side mortician who had a hand in the John Dillinger embalming and wrote a definitive work on the tribulations of Eva Peron’s remains. In “Lights, Camera, Stillness! Death and the Visual Arts,” the filming of a mass burial of unclaimed bodies from the chief medical examiner’s office sparks a tract on art history that segues from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to 15th-century French murals and Greco-Roman sculpture. And he’s written two previous books on other subjects: On the Nature of Things Erotic (1988) and The Five Senses (1989).
Born in Mexico to poor and uneducated parents, Gonzalez-Crussi was put through private school by his struggling, widowed mother. In third grade his class was invited on a field trip to view the dead body of a child. Gonzalez-Crussi was the only one to sign up. It sounds like a dream, but he swears it’s not, and he describes it in “Two Unrecorded Scenes,” an essay excerpted in the New Yorker. Gonzalez-Crussi stood alone before the unembalmed boy, whose face was “green and bloated. . . . The enervating, moldy, indescribable foulness revealed to me an unknown face of death. Until then, the visage of death had been a quiet, placid one, barely discernible from sleep.” That experience foreshadowed things to come.
Gonzalez-Crussi, a solitary man, chose pathology so he could practice medicine in the laboratory, without having to deal with patients. Also, his pathology professors were “cultured, polished, eloquent and one was young and handsome; so I said I want to be like him.” His wife, Wei Hsueh, is also a pathologist at Children’s.
Trained as a clinician, Gonzalez-Crussi, 58, taught himself to write by reading a lot, mostly French and 18th-century English literature, and cultivating an ear for “the musicality of words,” he says. Chinese literature interests him too, and he’s currently studying Chinese so he can eventually read original texts. To house his library of 15,000 books–none of them medical texts–he had to buy the studio apartment next door to his Lincoln Park condo.
A spokeswoman from Harcourt Brace says Gonzalez-Crussi is developing a cult following, though the author claims not to realize it. He has gotten some strange letters from fans, however. “I had a guy write me from prison one time,” he says. “He had been accused of killing his wife with a hatchet and needed a good pathologist to defend him.” Gonzalez-Crussi does not practice forensic pathology, but referred the guy to someone who does.
Harcourt Brace, seizing on the death angle, has scheduled Gonzalez-Crussi to read from his new book on dates near Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Friday at 7:30 he’ll be at Borders, 1500 16th St. in Oak Brook (708-574-0800). Tuesday at 7:30 he appears at the Barbara’s Bookstore at 3130 N. Broadway (477-0411).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michelle Litvin.