Wylene Dunbar
My Life with Corpses

First Person: The Origin of My Life with Corpses

My Life with Corpses began with a search for baby books. It was 1990 and I was practicing law then. I was writing briefs and law journal articles, and hadn’t thought of writing fiction for a long time before. But my legal secretary was about to give birth to her first child and was very young. I thought she could use some guidance and, one evening while working late, I strolled across the Oxford, Mississippi square to Square Books to browse its extensive collection of books on childcare. I had selected several standard texts for my secretary, when I saw a slender volume titled The Drama of the Gifted Child, by famed Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller. I bought it. I had both enjoyed and endured being a precocious child and the title intrigued me.

When I returned to my office that night, I read Miller’s book in less than an hour. I was especially struck by her observations on gifted children raised by a narcissistic parent or family. I thought it seemed exactly like being raised by dead people. That reminded me of the boy raised by wolves. I typed the story’s title--My Life with Corpses--and wrote the introductory pages, none of which has been significantly altered since.

The completed story was published by The South Dakota Review in its Winter, 1991-92 issue, under my pen name, “W. W. Michaud.” I used an alias for several very good reasons, none of which seems so important now, however, as then.

A few years later, I was working on my first novel, Margaret Cape (Harcourt Brace, 1997) when Helen Sheehy, a longtime friend and herself a writer and biographer, suggested that my earlier story could be extended into a novel. I resisted the notion for a while but the seed had been planted—or, perhaps, Pandora’s Box opened—and two years later, I began work on My Life with Corpses, the novel, even before I finished Margaret Cape.

The novel took time. I had no preconceived notion of where Oz’s story led after her childhood with corpses and I had to be patient to find and follow her path. I wanted, as much as she, to know how to avoid corpsedom, how to live life alive. The answers that eventually came, however, did not appear in the psychological or religious terms I half expected. Rather, they came in constructs that are more familiar to physics and philosophy, revealing our lives subject to more hazards than we might think along with rich resources we have learned not to see. There is a famous experiment where kittens were raised in an environment containing only horizontal lines and none that was vertical. When they were eventually released, they interacted with the world around them as if vertical lines were not there, colliding with chair legs, e.g. In writing Corpses, I came to believe that we are much like those kittens. The boundaries on what we are able to experience are boundaries on being alive and, to our loss, we live limitations that we have been taught rather than limitations that are really there.

Copyright © 2004 Wylene Dunbar

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Wylene Dunbar
Author of My Life with Corpses
Copyright © 2004-2022 Wylene Dunbar