Gallery Index

Johanna Justin-Jinich 
Unlike Grace Hope-Gill, Johanna Justin-Jinich's death was utterly unexpected. Sociologist Charles Lemert remembers her here and in doing so reminds us that all sociological biographies are not so much set in time, but rather, people's expectations of that time -- including, he points out, our own. 
It is, Lemert shows us, perhaps the only way to think through "the unthinkable" and to know that even in the darkest of moments, we can always turn our faces up towards the sky to try and find some light. 
If there is a here and now, it is neither here nor now. Life goes on in a present that can never be certified. We have only the ghosts of a near past to haunt the life that slips away. 
One day I with others were being led by the guards down a bleak corridor in a near-by maximum-security prison. It was the first day of class. As we passed a group of inmates heading to the classes we would teach, one of them was overheard to say, "They look at us as if we were ghosts." 
Those on the inside saw us seeing them as if they were not real. But who were the ghosts? They whose lives are not real to those on the outside? Or we from the outside whom they see as if we did not see them? In that instant we were each, insiders and outsiders, ghosts. We were absent to them as they to us for reasons that go beyond the confining walls. 
Among those who could have been on the inside but, so far as I know, was not is the young man accused of having murdered a student of mine. Johanna Justin-Jinich was, in a word, brilliant -- truly, in every way possible. One day in May, near the end of school, Johanna was at work on campus, when a ghost stepped out of her past. For reasons that can only be imagined, he shot her down without mercy or warning. 
The police later found evidence that he had known Johanna in earlier years and that he bore a tormented grudge. If the one accused is found guilty, his life will be over as is hers. Whatever his story, whoever he is in fact, whatever he thought he was up to, he too will forever be a phantom of what might have been -- alive perhaps, but not real; less real even than Johanna who will forever haunt us. We will think of her as the shadow of a shining light that came into our nows, only to be taken away before she had time to realize what she was meant to be; so too her murderer. We begrudge him the mercy he begrudged her. 
The night Johanna was killed I heard of her death while boarding a plane for Central Asia. The next day in Kyrgyzstan, college students and faculty boarded a bus for the annual end of the year trip to the mountains. As we left Bishkek for the Ala Archa National Park in the mountains, I was worn down from the journey from one to another unfathomable. But the students were happy with their work and hopeful for their futures. 
Some thirty kilometers out of town, just before the hills begin to rise toward the snow, our bus broke down. In Bishkek, all buses and most cars are themselves ghosts, imported and resold in Kyrgyzstan after years of wear and tear in Turkey or Germany or Argentina. People live with machines that move them about in cities built on the ghosts of the Soviet era. Still the young look for a future. 
As we stood stranded by the road, a few ambled into the fields. Soon most followed. After a while, without a word, the students among us paused amid the poppies. Several started to play a child’s game. They were from Turkic China, but others from Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Korea and Russia, recognized their versions of the game, as did I. We ran about in circles playing, eventually laughing, and singing. None of it made any sense. 
I am way too old to be running like that, still I did and as I fell clumsily in the grass, the phantom of my grief joined the souls of Johanna and all the other children who yesterday were with us but are no more. 
The sun rose. Another bus came. We climbed the mountains. Our lives went on. It is unlikely that any in that field will see each other again. Yet the inexplicable pleasures of that then and there breached the walls that confine. 
We are all prisoners of times we cannot control. The inmates are no different from the outsiders. We are all ghosts of our various unrequited could-have-beens. The present just now disappearing as we let a thought or breathe pass through head and body is the only true reality. There is no here in this now and that is far from the worst that could be. 
Charles Lemert is a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University, as well as a student and teacher of religion and psychoanalysis. Arguably the best sociological storyteller of all time, he has written both short and long biographical sketches of Muhammad Ali, his children, Matthew, Noah and Annie, as well as practically every working sociologist and social theorist since the 1850s. His books include The Race For Time, Dark Thoughts and Social Things.