Gerry Flahive is a writer and consultant based in Toronto.
A scratched black-and-white snapshot of a smiling boy in a striped T-shirt.
A woman sitting alone in the back of a convertible outside a hospital, her fur coat draped over the front seat.
A man accompanied by two women, strolling down a bucolic tree-lined lane, smiling at the camera on a summer’s day.
A hand-drawn sketch of the back of a limousine, with some scribbles indicating the position of a scattered bouquet of chrysanthemums, and of some blood.
Among the thousands of archival images collected and shared by John F. Kennedy assassination researchers, these are among the most moving, and the least likely to solve the mysteries of the assassination itself. These particular images depict, in order, a middle-school-aged Lee Harvey Oswald; the wife of the mayor of Dallas outside Parkland Hospital (where an already dead JFK was surrounded by desperate doctors); Oswald during his years in Russia pre-1963; and the condition of the back seat of the limousine that President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline rode in that day.
Out of context, they are mostly banal, affecting a kind of intimacy and innocence, an artistic quality that often seems to accrue to archival images, given enough historical distance. But in context they now resonate with meaning and feeling, as if we could but strain our eyes to see the truth of what was to come, or what might have just happened, off-camera.
Sixty years after the shooting on Nov. 22, 1963, the collective hunt for and study of evidence, clues, reasons and answers continue to be among the most exhaustive of any event in history. While often tagged as conspiracy buffs, or even nuts, many of the assassination researchers are sincere, thorough and accomplished, applying the tools of historians and forensic analysts to the evidence and to its absence.
These include facts photographic and cinematic, testimonial and architectural, mechanical and procedural. And conspiratorial and political. Bullet and skull fragments. Footprints near the grassy knoll. A rifle disguised in a paper bag as curtain rods. A motorcycle cop’s Dictabelt recording. The identification of the person whose hand appears as a shadow waving at the president. The wind speed and ambient air density at Dealey Plaza at the time the fatal shot was fired. The relative possible culpability of the Soviets, the CIA, the mob or Fidel Castro.
Sessions at an assassination conference this month at Duquesne University include “The Oswald Letter: An Analysis of Dyslexia and How It Changes our Understanding of the Assassination” and “Converging Lines of Evidence in the Case for Two Headshots.”
But the entire sweep of such work since the first doubts about the conclusions of the Warren Commission in 1964 (which declared that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone gunman,” a term now applied with derision by many) sometimes feel like the application of sheer brute force, willing the past to reappear, to explain itself, to settle things.
If we can’t clearly observe the truth about that day, can we reconstruct it?
The continuing work of JFK assassination theorists, analysts and historians has always resonated with me, tied to a personal connection to that tragic event. It’s also suggested to me the ways in which I might better understand my own past.
If I can’t remember much about my childhood, can I reconstruct it?
My father, a subway mechanic, took my older brother and me out of school for a few days for a pilgrimage. Along with our mother we drove from Toronto to see JFK’s grave, almost one year after the assassination. Like most Irish Catholics, my parents revered Kennedy. I still have the garish but stolid golden plaster bust of JFK’s head that sat in our living room for years. The only book in the house (other than Harlequin romances) was a clearly unread paperback copy of the Warren Commission report, published the month after we visited the grave. It served for my dad, I think, as a totem of explanation and proof. It didn’t need to be read to do that.
The only thing I remember about that trip to Washington was my mistaking iced tea for Coke in the Pentagon cafeteria.
That same year – I was 7 – I somehow managed to fly off my bicycle, hitting my head on a tree. I spent a week in the Hospital for Sick Children, enduring an electro-encephalograph (it felt like a crown of needles was placed on my head), but simply don’t remember any conclusions from that medical incident. My parents and brother are gone now, and my medical records from that time were destroyed years ago. But I’ve always felt that my piecemeal memory of my childhood, and my inability to recall so many of the prosaic details of my life since, stem from that accident.
We live in a time when seemingly every scrap of information about our lives, whether compiled by ourselves, an app, or the oceanic sweep of our digital experiences, is being assembled, if not readily available for our observation. In the future, when “all” personal information is captured, will we be better able to understand who we are?
My analog past – my family took and kept only a handful of snapshots, and discarded virtually every piece of childhood ephemera, from report cards to drawings to artifacts of experience – can only be assembled through the shadows and scraps of whatever I might be able to gather. Hopefully I can do so without seeming flippant by applying some of the methodologies used to try to solve the assassination. I’m drawn to the researchers’ optimism.
I’ve started to try to piece together evidence from my childhood, any fragment of my memories and those others might have about me. I’ll add to these seemingly extraneous but potentially meaningful data from the world of our small semi-detached house on a perfectly square city block in central Toronto. Could the facts about a particularly brutal snowstorm in the early sixties, the kinds of vegetation in our back lane, or the after-midnight freelance worm pickers who harvested our front lawn on hot summers’ nights tell me anything? Would snippets of archived television voices, an MRI of my brain, or smells (if reproducible) of a favourite cookie help?
What will trigger a memory, no matter how tiny? How much do most people remember from their childhoods?
Immersing oneself in the JFK theories and debates, it can feel as if a gigantic multiscreen assassination explanation film has been created over the past decades, one with patches out of focus, missing audio, characters misidentified and pieces of physical evidence that could, together, weave the fragments of history into a revealing story. Or like a CERN accelerator, smashing all the facts together in the hope that something new will emerge to explain it all, a narrative that makes sense.
But here’s where things get tricky. Can story really serve a purpose when elements of it will always be out of reach? Are we striving for neat and tidy conclusions by smoothing over or ignoring what’s missing? There is an impulse to impose a narrative on the assassination.
Thinking about it this way (and considering the deep shock and sadness that followed the assassination) evokes a sense of what might have been, what could have been. If only.
This counterfactual instinct comes naturally to us all – regrets, second thoughts, newly conceived scenarios for events in one’s own life, all thought of far too late, of course, the past unreachable, unfixable, tantalizingly so.
Unreliable eyewitnesses to our own lives, we also apply narratives to our memories, which, neurologically, are reconstructed slightly differently every time we summon them.
Eight small colour snapshots survive from our Washington trip. On their own, no matter how much I stare at them, they don’t trigger any memories for me. Is there something there in plain sight about us that I’m not seeing?
They capture our visit to the Kennedy grave at Arlington Cemetery, surrounded by a white picket fence, some of the sod having turned brown in the summer sun. Unchanged since the day of his funeral, it looks like it could be in our backyard.
There are tourists staring off in all directions, as tourists do, with no sense of solemnity or drama. In one shot, a man seems to be shooting a home movie of my father’s ear. Perhaps in some ideal universe I could track him down, JFK researcher-style, to see if we are in his footage.
If I could see that footage (and all the snapshots or home movies taken that day that might include us in the background), would I glean something about how my family looked at each other, or how we walked? Get a sense of our moods? Could someone read our lips?
The truth is that this and all the other imagery from that day we visited the grave might end up in a researcher’s hands one day, open to interpretation, and subject to misunderstanding. Eventually, we’ll all be archival.