Today dawned cold and grey, but I had no idea that I was going to be writing an obituary for one of the most special and wonderful students that I've ever taught.
Lauren took three classes with me at Rutgers - Writing and Photography, Memory, and Changing Britain 1900-2010. She was a knock-out student in each of them. I can see her so easily - sitting in the front row of the raked classroom in which the W&P course was held, her hand invariably one of the very first to go up with a response; or sitting next to me, in the other two classes, down in one of the lovely hospitable classrooms in Writers House. I could always tell how well prepared she was - her books were covered with personal notes, and she carefully planned out her days, in minute detail, in her small black notebooks. Lauren was someone who liked to feel in control - but not in a bad sense. Indeed, she was one of the most spontaneous people imaginable when it came to issues of social justice.
But back to the classroom, where she could always be relied on for an apposite and intelligent comment. I was so pleased when she asked me to be her honors dissertation director, and she wrote a wonderfully original, scholarly, and heartfelt dissertation on Queer Comics (including not only the right kind of relevant illustrations, but also a picture of Alison Bechdel with her cat. She knew how to make me happy). She knew what would make so many people happy - she was an extremely astute reader of affect. Did I wail to a class of undergraduates about the travails of being department chair? Of course not. Did Lauren know that what I needed was someone to drop into my office from time to time and bring me bars of high quality plain chocolate? Of course she did.
I knew that wherever I'd bump into Lauren on campus - outside Murray Hall, at an LGBT event, at a Writers House reading - she'd give me a big grin and a huge hug. I knew (because some of the writing that she'd done for me in classes was of a trusting and personal nature) that she had her troubles, and that she was a fragile person at some levels. But she was also brave. Lauren would speak out for what mattered. She cared deeply, deeply for other people, and for their feelings. She was passionate - the word comes up again and again in the tributes that her many friends have left for her on FaceBook - about what she believed in - about fairness, about queer politics, about racial equality. She lit up a room when she entered it with her smile. Of course I'm haunted by the sentence that she wrote in the middle of her remembrance of her friend Onion, who took his life some eighteen months ago: "We always question the people who look more upset and more depressed than usual, and never think to worry about the people who don’t seem capable of expressing any sort of negative emotion at all."
And Lauren was an extraordinarily talented photographer. She had a quirky eye, and could take a picture of something quite ordinary so that one saw it entirely freshly - sunsets, bare branches, christmas tree decorations. We shared an appreciation of iPhone photo apps as well as of Nikons. She loved using herself as a model - and many of her most extraordinary images are in fact composite ones. But she also used mirrors, and Photoshop simulations of double exposures. And she'd photograph herself disappearing out of the frame, or truncated or invisible in some way. I admired her work hugely for its beauty and its careful technique, but I never quite knew what to make of all these versions of herself. Now, though, I think I have a little bit more of an insight into the way that she consistently presented herself as a complex, multiple whole; someone who was both strongly present and yet not always sure about presence. Hers are a remarkable set of images, but it's too painful, for now, to look at them without tearing up with loss.
These photographs remind me, too, that I can only lay claim to having known a couple of facets of Lauren. But I loved her for her integrity, her compassion, her thoughtfulness, and her righteous anger. To say that I'll miss her, and miss seeing her grow into her future, barely scratches the surface of my sadness at her passing.