Friday, September 16, 2011

In memoriam: Lauren Felton - March 5th 1989-September 15th 2011

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.


  1. Thank you for writing what my heart feels. I was a huge fan of Lauren's work, she just took my breath away, so much so that I found myself awkwardly saying hello to her when I'd see her around campus. I am heart broken for your loss, our community's loss. Sending you love and deep appreciation for your work.

  2. What a beautifully written tribute to Lauren. As her computer teacher, once upon a long time ago and a renewed friend via Facebook, my words have been abstract and brief. Yours were material and comprehensive. Thank you.

  3. It's so nice to see someone so close to Lauren write something that truly captures the essence of Lauren. I think what you said in particular about "presence" truly resonated with me. I never knew what to make of her self-portraits, either. There was something ghostly and intimate about them, but she was infamous for them.

    There's so much I want to say, too, about her. The quote about Onion also sat with me. I read it the other day while sifting through her blog. It's true. We never question the ones who have a hard time expressing negative emotion. I think that was a hard thing for Lauren to do, and honestly, a hard thing for a lot of us intellectuals to do at all.

    Through her writing, photography, and passionate work can we truly get an idea about her presence. She made a large impact on our world at only 22-years-of-age.

    I was thinking of writing a piece on her, too. I owe it to her. She would write about us. Thank you for being the first I've read thus far.

    Take care Kate, and I hope to see you on Sunday for the memorial.


  4. Thank you for sharing your very poignant thoughts of Lauren.

  5. Fatima SidiqeeSeptember 19, 2011

    Hi Professor,

    I first met Lauren in sixth grade when the elementary schools of our home town merged into one middle school. Even then, she was very aware of who she was and often told her friends that she believed herself to be bisexual, and possibly a lesbian. Being so young, not many of us believed her, and before we grew more used to our own skin, Lauren left for private school at Rutgers Prep.
    It was in your British literature class that we reconnected, where we spoke and I learned that she had grown into an activist of some sort, speaking for all who needed a voice, including gays and lesbians. I was happy to see that she was a part of a community that readily accepted her for what she was. After your class, we kept in touch via facebook, where I was able to learn more about her views and the battles she fought for others. I did not have the pleasure of sharing a close relationship that you both seem to have shared, and I wanted to thank you for sharing an in depth account of a piece of how Lauren was.
    It is disturbing to think of her quotes concerning Onion, and how many other Rutgers might fall between the cracks like Lauren and Tyler Clementi...but I hope that they have all found peace wherever they might be.
    Thanks again for sharing. Maybe one day I'll see you on campus.

    Very sincerely,

    Fatima Sidiqee

  6. Robert T. O'BrienSeptember 20, 2011

    Thank you, Kate.
    Not only for your words, but for allowing Lauren room to express her complexity and to know that it was appreciated.

  7. I am not a religious person at all, but Lauren's death makes me wish for an afterlife. Someone like her can't just be gone. The problem is that she was too kind and beautiful to fit into this fucked up world, and also too intelligent--she saw the problems in society that most people do not care about. I honestly wouldn't care if any 1 amongst the majority of my classmates and teachers at Prep died. Why did it have to be the person who made my experience there not pure torment...

  8. why did she do this?

  9. Dear friends,

    I so wish that I could have been at today's memorial service. Being 3,000 miles away (some of you may not know that I've moved to USC, in Los Angeles, this semester), and with an institutionally busy weekend (running a large workshop yesterday with outside visitors; a meeting with potential large donors first thing in the morning), flying back at very short notice for a few hours was an option that I looked into, but that just simply wasn't feasible.

    Nonetheless, I've quietly been celebrating Lauren's life all week, as well as continuing to grieve for her and to miss her. It still seems completely unbelievable that she's no longer with us, and that, in its turn, is testimony to the strength of her presence and personality. She was an utterly lovely human being, with all her talents, empathy, and complexity, and I'll carry her in my heart, always.