Sunday, January 07, 2007

For Helen Hill

Helen Hill chose to be good.

Helen was good naturally also, being good came easily to her as a matter of temperament, but it would be a mistake to think that Helen lived the life she did because she was just made that way. It was a choice. That amazing childlike innocence that she and Paul have practiced all these years has to be considered very much as a practice—like any other form of self-discipline worth striving for.

Helen knew as much or more as anybody else about the darker sides of human nature. Rather than despairing in the face of evil, though, or of compromising her own virtue in the way that most of us do as we let right things and wrong things intermingle in our lives and actions, she found a way of living well that spoke quietly and strongly against evil in all its forms.

My favorite memory of Helen: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993-94. My beloved cat Blackie: still rather kittenish and hyperactive, but considerably smaller than he is these days. Paul and Helen were in town for a visit, one important component of which was the ritual trip to the thrift-store shopping experience known simply as Dollar-a-Pound.

(I am a great hater of shopping and also not a natural early riser, so I never went with any of my dear friends to Dollar-a-Pound early on Saturday mornings, but I remember some of the prizes they brought back, and a number of those memories involve Helen also: do you remember, for instance, the time that Dave Gammons found a whole set of weird white jump-suits, the kind of thing you picture the nuclear power-plant clean-up workers wearing in a postapocalyptic landscape, and got everyone to wear them for days? And Paul and Helen and Elijah were of course exactly who you’d enlist for a cheerful and demented performance-art-leaning project of that sort.)* [IMPORTANT CORRECTION APPENDED!]

In any case Paul and Helen brought back a great haul of stuff to our Inman Street apartment, and Helen with the gleeful and mischievous look that I have seen many a time rummaged around in the bag of clothes and took out a pretty little blue-and-white-with-yellow-flowers dress, the kind of thing that you snap on down the front of your little baby girl once you’ve squeezed her arms into the sleeves. She hauled up poor unsuspecting Blackie and deftly tucked his little arms into the sleeves and snapped the dress up around him and I really cannot even tell you how awful and funny it was watching the poor little guy run around the room in this adorable little dress. Of course she only let it happen for a minute, then she rescued him from his awful plight; and I will sound heartless when I say that it was one of the funniest and most delightful things I have ever seen. I can picture right now that look of mischief on Helen’s face as she set the whole thing into motion.

I read a lot of books—I love books more than almost anything else in the world—but once or twice a year among those many hundreds of books I read something that strikes me dumb with amazement and awe. The philosopher John Passmore’s The Perfectibility of Man is one of those books. It’s a history of the idea that human beings can be perfected, a chronicle of perfectibility’s vicissitudes from the ancient world to the present.

One version of that idea is the thing called the Pelagian heresy, the assertion (contra Augustine, who believed that man could be redeemed only by God’s grace) that man could perfect himself by the exercise of free will. A less attractive version would be the idea of genetic perfectibility, which came to be very strongly associated with eugenics and Nazi ideology; another morally loathsome idea of perfectibility is associated with the large-scale social reengineering projects of Stalinism or the Cultural Revolution.

Across all critiques of perfectibility runs the idea that perfectibilism is itself inherently dehumanizing: that to become perfect we would have to cease to be human. Yet this is Passmore’s conclusion:

In spite of these reflections, which might lead us to reject perfectibilism in any of its forms, it is very hard to shake off the feeling that man is capable of becoming something much superior to what he now is. This feeling, if it is interpreted in the manner of the more commonsensical Enlighteners, is not in itself irrational. There is certainly no guarantee that men will ever be any better than they now are; their future is not, as it were, underwritten by Nature. Nor is there any device, whether skilful government, or education, which is certain to ensure the improvement of man’s condition. To that extent the hopes of the developmentalists or the governmentalists or the educators must certainly be abandoned. There is not the slightest ground for believing, either, with the anarchist, that if only the State could be destroyed and men could start afresh, all would be well. But we know from our own experience, as teachers or parents, that individual human beings can come to be better than they once were, given care, and that wholly to despair of a child or a pupil is to abdicate what is one’s proper responsibility. We know, too, that in the past men have made advances, in science, in art, in affection. Men, almost certainly, are capable of more than they have ever so far achieved. But what they achieve, or so I have suggested, will be a consequence of their remaining anxious, passionate, discontented human beings.

I like this passage partly because I hear a very human doubt in that qualification “almost certainly”: “Men, almost certainly, are capable of more than they have ever so far achieved.” We wouldn’t be sensible if we didn’t doubt it at least a little bit, at least sometimes (and perhaps particularly at a time like this). But when I think of Helen I think of someone who believed in the idea that individual human beings can come to be better than they were before, and that it’s our proper responsibility to care for those around us (not just children) in a kind of husbandry that means cultivating even the smallest and frailest germs of goodness.

*The historical record has been corrected by Elijah Aron:

As I recall, Helen, Paul, some other friends and I were at Dollar-a-Pound when we found about 12 white jumpsuits. We washed them and then I (Elijah!) came up with the idea to spraypaint numbers on the back of the suits and have 12 people wear the suits for an entire week. It was an experimental art piece.

The only important rule was that you couldn't take off the numbered suits except in private (people were allowed to go to the restroom and shower, contrary to some rumors).

David Gammons (I still called him Avatar at the time) was enthusiastic about the project. He never claimed credit but a lot of people thought he was responsible since he was always doing crazy art pieces and was far more popular than me.

The only other people I definitely remember donning the suits were Thomas Lauderdale, Arik Grier and Victor Ortiz de Montellano. Our best friend at the time, Jane Yeh, refused to wear a white suit as she was dedicated to a personal fashion philosophy that involved only wearing bright colors.

I chose to spray paint the number one on my suit, thinking it would clearly delegate me as the leader. But I let the other participants choose whichever number they wanted. Three choices I recall were 0, 13, and the infiinity symbol.

Some of the white suit wearers gave up after a day or two. I can't remember who, but I consider those people to be small-minded conformist cowards. But most people managed to wear the suit the entire week.

People who didn't know each other previously felt an intense bond with their fellow white-suit wearers. At least one Harvard sociology class discussed the project while it was happening. In Adams House, a lot of people felt jealous and excluded from the white suit brigade. Most of the rest of the campus just thought we were weird nerds.


  1. Thanks, Jenny.

  2. A post that makes me wish I'd known Helen Hill. A post that makes me wish to be a better person. A humbling and truly human post. Thank you.

  3. After coming to your page today I ended up spending the last three hours reading every eulogy and memorial for her that I could find. The tragedy and sadness of it all is overwhelming. But I think you've hit it very well in this post: we make choices about where we direct our energy and place our thoughts, and all that work ends up dramatically shaping our selves. And in Helen's case her positive, sweet, and energetic nature also dramatically shaped those around her, leaving a lasting impression. Last week I basically resolved to be more like her, without even knowing her.

  4. woops, that last sentence sounds a little arrogant. I didn't mean that. All I mean is that I feel like I connected with what she seems to personify, and I find inspiration in her.

  5. No, no, not arrogant at all.

    There is something cheap and sentimental about the way we often talk about the dead, but in this case it is no more or less than the truth to say that it would be a very good thing if we were all considerably more like Helen Hill.

  6. Thanks, Jenny.

    I do remember those white jumpsuits. Your post also brought back Helen's mischievous smile in full technicolor. And most of all, it helped me to untangle from a general feeling of loss and sadness (which as you point out, often leads us into cheap sentiment) what is so specifically sad about losing Helen, along with her unique way of seeing the world.

  7. thank you, you brought the first smile to my face all day, picturing Helen putting the dress on your cat. She tried to dress my cat when she stayed at our house in Los Angeles last year.

    I'm going to miss her very much.

  8. I first met Helen in 6th grade and we graduated from high school together. I can tell you, she has ALWAYS been the same person. My sadness and anger cannot be adequately expressed, but I thank you for allowing people an opportunity

  9. You know, I don't remember the white suit experiment at all (perhaps I wasn't leaving my room that particular week), but it's making me smile just to think of all those white-suit wearers. Weird nerds? Oh no. I suspect that the rest of campus felt the same way I did: they were the students who made this college business look fun.