cover image The Death Class: A True Story About Life

The Death Class: A True Story About Life

Erika Hayasaki. Simon & Schuster, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4516-4285-8

In this brisk, journalistic endeavor, full of case studies of violent death, a Los Angeles Times reporter chronicles her years shadowing Dr. Norma Bowe, the “professor of death” at Kean University in Union, N.J. Bowe’s class, Death in Perspective, had a three-year waiting list. Journalist Hayasaki was drawn to Bowe’s class as a way of making sense of “death’s mercilessness and meaning,” and in memory of her own dear friend who was shot and killed by a jealous boyfriend when they attended high school in the mid-1990s in Lynnwood, Wash. In the course of dogging the professor over the semester, involving visits to cemeteries, a hospice, death row at a state prison, mortuary, and psych hospital, as well as thoughtful writing assignments such as composing a goodbye letter to her dead friend, Hayasaki unearths the wrenching personal stories of these traumatized students—and that of Bowe herself. The product of parents who never wanted her and beat her, Bowe grew up largely in the care of a doting grandmother; she found the career of a psychiatric nurse and teacher enormously therapeutic, and it also suited her compassionate temperament. Hayasaki’s studies of the suicidal and mentally ill seem clinical and unrelenting, and there is an unsettling prurience in these stories of emotional cataclysm; nevertheless, the book helps make possible necessary conversations about death. (Jan.)