Scraps of Paper: The Oppressive and Liberating Power of a Documented Life

Professor Amy Harris describes the dual natures of written records as a preview of International Cinema’s screening of Murder of a Hatmaker.

Latter-day Saints have always been encouraged to document their lives as a means of providing a record for future generations. These highly personal firsthand accounts offer clarity into the past, but they represent only a small portion of the records we use to understand prior generations. Other records are less illuminating and can actually serve to obscure the actual experiences of those being described. In a lecture prior to an International Cinema screening of Murder of a Hatmaker, history professor Amy Harris explored this idea and the dual nature that a documented life can have on our understanding of the past.

Fanny Berger, the protagonist of Murder of a Hatmaker

Harris opened her lecture by describing the complicated records and documents that have defined her mother’s life. Born Genis Alene Hardy, Harris’s mother was quickly mistaken on a census record as “James.” Later referred to as “Peggy” by her family and listed as “Janice” by her school, Harris’s mother did not discover her actual name until decades later when going through old documents. In this instance, written records seem to detail the lives of several people, some who existed in some capacity and others who never existed at all. These records offer little understanding into the life of Genis Hardy and serve to actually shroud some details of her life.

Harris explained that although we may revere the records of the past, they don’t provide us with a complete account. “Documents shape our lives and the memories of those who come after us,” she said. “We all recognize that memories are fickle, but we use them to memorialize our pasts, our stories, and the stories of those who came before.” Harris then pointed out that, beyond being tenuous, memories and even memorials can present their own limitations as those who are only known through their records are far more complex and nuanced than a simple birthdate, statistic, or written entry.

Similar to many of us, Murder of a Hatmaker is the story of a woman who seeks identity and understanding from the records of her ancestors. The film’s protagonist undergoes a genealogical investigation and using past records and data, learns more about her great-aunt who was killed during the Holocaust. The records used are meticulous and well maintained, but they were also created and compiled by Nazi officials. In this instance, it is the records of the oppressors who we suppose offer understanding into the past. However, no oppressor, whether it be Nazis, slave owners, or any perpetuator of violence gives a full account of atrocities with their own records. Instead, what is offered is a limited perspective that in no way reveals the full truth. Harris, quoting N.B.D. Connolly, explained that people in these situations are instead forced to “[hang] their livelihood and hopes for the future on scraps of paper.”

Many of us, no matter our background, turn to the past to find identity in the present. The answers we find are not always complete, but they do offer us a connection to pieces or ourselves that we never knew existed. “Our ancestors are on the one hand, terribly alien to us, yet we are also profoundly connected to them,” Harris said while quoting author Margaret Bendroth. “Even though they do not literally talk back, it is still possible to learn and to hear their voices clearly.”


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in news media with a minor in political science.