Thursday, October 9, 2008

Styling Death—Rachel Zoe

Celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe has a new reality show on Bravo. In this week's episode, she finds out her great uncle has passed away, the week before the Academy Awards, which is her busiest week of the year. Zoe is torn about whether to go to the funeral or whether to stay and fulfill her responsibilities to the clients she is styling for the Oscars.

I know lots of people hate the lifestyle Rachel Zoe has come to represent ... and lots more don't know who she is, but I think her dilemma is one many people can relate to. And if you haven't faced it, chances are, you will face something like it at some point in your life.

Here is a Q&A from her blog on

"You also get some bad news from her in the episode about your uncle's passing. You make the choice not to go to his funeral. How did you make that decision?

"That was one of the worst days of my life. ... My aunt Sylvia and uncle Jerry basically really helped to raise me. ... I had seen my uncle a week before in New York and I kind of had a feeling it would be the last time I saw him. He had gotten very sick. I struggled with going to the funeral and I wanted to be there more than anything.

One of the horrible things about living so far from your family is that when crisis happens, it's not so easy to be there. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, but when I told my aunt I was going to come and cancel everything, she got furious with me. She said that my uncle would never, ever want me to drop everything and give up my responsibilities to be there ... . But as soon as that week ended, I got on a plane and I went and spent several days with my aunt. ..."

Did she make the right decision? I think it's easy enough to say she should have gone to the funeral. And abstractly we can all think we would have done just that.

Here's what's I'd like to highlight. Imagine yourself an independent professional whose career depends on your name, your sole performance. And this is the singular most important week of the year. You just saw the family member and feel like you said goodbye. Would you have gone to the funeral?


exurgency/Spectacularrr said...

I completely agree with your point that it's easy to cast judgment on such a decision, especially when we haven't had to deal with it ourselves. And as such, I'm reluctant to hold an opinion about her personally in this matter.

That said, it's hard for me to understand not going. Doing the "right thing" (to use dangerously vague language) isn't meant to be easy -- or I should say, it's when they're hard that our choices really count for something (good, or bad).

And I acknowledge that paying respects doesn't matter to the dead -- it's for the living. It's for ourselves, and the other loved ones who are there. But that matters. If she and her uncle were truly close, it's hard for me to understand not going; it sounds like she is already established as a fashion success, so even if this would have entailed a financial hit, it's hard to believe that her career or finances hinge on that week.

I guess what I am bothered by is the sense of putting oneself before loved ones, especially when it's your "last chance," so to speak. If your success (in your career, etc) is genuine, there are always other opportunities. Death is permanent, and only happens once.

And I have to acknowledge my own hypocrisy: I was living abroad when my grandfather passed away, and I didn't travel home for the funeral. My rationale at the time was that we weren't terribly close, and I wouldn't have had the money to return; so I stayed abroad. But that decision has never felt right to me. The remainder of that time abroad felt tainted, selfish.

Demonstrations of loyalty and love towards our loved ones are important -- for them, and for ourselves. To badly paraphrase Aristotle, I am reminded of his brilliant insight that the animal, "man," only obtains his / her full humanity in the context of society. In other words, we depend on the society of others to truly be whole as people, to be more than a base animal.

In light of that, I think those we love deserve some loyalty beyond ourselves. Rituals are an important part of how society enables us to obtain our humanity -- it's easy to smirk at them when they're taken for granted, but having those rituals to demarcate the major turning points in our lives is one of the key ways we have to connect with others and reflect on the best in ourselves.

The value that Aristotle recognized in society is that it helps us to learn, practice, and value our expansive, "positive" emotions -- our social impulses. To use an overly simplistic evolutionary analogy, these are the emotional impulses that help perpetuate the species by encouraging us to value the survival of the "the group" along with or above "the self." Thus our social rituals are both an opportunity for the catharsis and practice of those emotions.

If we too often shirk our social rituals, we risk being left only with the animal, perpetuating itself. Succumbing to defensive "negative" emotions -- our selfish impulses.

To repeat my earlier comment, it's like any hard decision -- behaving ethically, bravely, etc. Those choices really only matter when they are hard to make. If we can't make those choices for those we love most at the most critical junctures in their / our lives, then when will we? Loyalty should not bow to convenience.

But again, I am speaking in vague generalities -- this is what I would wish for myself, more than anything, and so my disappointment is personal. I don't presume to know anything about her or the factors in her choice.

And clearly I haven't lived up to my own standard. But the next time I'm confronted with this choice, I hope I shall find the resolve to do so.

Jessica Knapp said...

I can see what you're saying. And you know, I'm the one who's always saying that most ethical situations—medial ethics excluded—are simple, we just complicate them because we don't want to see the reality of what is simply wrong and simply right.

I guess maybe upon further reflection, I just felt compassion for her situation. I do agree that funerals are for the living, not the deceased. It's all about being there for the surviving family. I think, in this episode of this particular show, I saw a situation where it would be easy to judge what she did, and I felt some compassion for the position life put her in.

But I can't disagree with anything you've written.