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The Healing Power of Dead Baby Jokes

By Wil Forbis
October 1st, 2001

One night in 1993, in the town of Seattle, Washington, an event occurred that shook the local music scene to its core. Mia Zapata, the singer and guitarist for a popular grunge band called the Gits, was raped and killed while walking home from a bar. I was living in Seattle at that time and saw first hand the response her death created. Dozens of people responded by sending letters to the local newspaper (a show of affection for a local celebrity that I saw duplicated only once other time, when Kurt Cobain committed suicide.) Other people responded with more purpose, creating an organization called Home Alive dedicated towards empowering women with self-defense techniques and street survival skills. The surviving members of the Gits responded by keeping Mia's music and spirit alive by forming an offshoot band called Evil Stig ("Live Gits" spelled backwards) that was fronted by Joan Jett.

I responded by getting out my stencil set and making a T-shirt that said "I Raped and Killed Mia Zapata and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."

I never wore it of course, since in those days Seattle was a hotbed of politically correct activism and to wear the shirt would have required balls the size of pineapples (and I've always pretty much been a pussy.) I think I eventually threw it out in one of the many moves I made while in Seattle, fearful that I'd one day have a heart attack and some friend or relative would come across the shirt and be unclear as to its intention.

Now, if you're still with me, you might be wondering, "Why Wil? Why would you do such a horrible, tasteless, cruel thing?" Well, basically, I was a young obnoxious punk* back then, and I thought it was funny. And to be honest, years later as a much older and wizened obnoxious punk... I still think it's funny. But perhaps not for the reasons you think.

*Please note that I mean punk in the original and best sense - that of a callow brute along the lines of Eddie Haskell or Dennis the Menace. I've never been a "punk rocker."

I certainly never had anything against Mia Zapata. If it had been any other of the numerous post punk riot girls in Seattle that had been raped and murdered that night, then it would've been their name that had ended up on that T-shirt. The target of the joke was never Mia... it was simply that the T-shirt represented that worst possible thing you could say at that moment. It was the thing hanging in the air, the thing that dared not be spoken. (In truth, even I couldn't say it, since very few people actually saw the shirt.) And breaking the tension created by taboos often results in humor.

Right now, there are a lot of "worst possible things" hanging in the air, and a lot of people praying they go unsaid. Because in times of trauma, in times of horror, this sort of black comedy is often living on the sidelines, quietly uttered in bars or late night poker games. Sometimes we refer to these jokes as "gallows humor" because they are so blasphemous that it's assumed that only someone with nothing left to fear could find humor in them. And we're fools if we think we'll not hear some gallows humor now... in the aftermath of 6500 people killed in a flaming cauldron that was once the World Trade Center. A tragedy that took a little piece of us away, and left us with that much less to lose.

Remember the Holocaust? It was a little something that resulted in 12 million dead, a number that mountainously overshadows the death toll in the World Trade Center attack. Yet, most of us at some time or another have heard (or said) a joke at the expense of those who died in the Holocaust. (If you don't believe me, do a search for "Holocaust Jokes" on the net.) Even the Jews themselves were reported[1] to have used gallows humor to steel themselves against the hell they were living in, include the following little gag I kind of got a kick out of: "Two Jews meet in Warsaw and one of them is eating perfumed soap. The other asks: 'Moyshe, why are you eating soap with such a scent'? He answers: 'If they turn me into soap, I might as well smell nice'. "

[1] Humor as a Defense Mechanism in the Holocaust, Chaya Ostrower, January 2000 -

So what is the point of it all? Is humor at the expense of the dead, the suffering and the weak simply the worst side of humanity showing itself? Are practitioners of such jests as loathsome as the agents of the crimes they mock? After all, the Nazis probably had a good laugh as they buried people alive or carted them off to the ovens. Perhaps one of the suicidal terrorists who flew their planeloads of hostages into the World Trade Center got off a well timed witticism before meeting their God. Something along the lines of, "Anyone got a light?" or "This isn't my floor!" Is there any difference between the perpetrators of a tragedy making a joke and those unconnected observers who do so in the tragedy's aftermath?

Many would say no. They would say that making light of such things is the worst disrespect you could commit and they would do their damndest to stop people from saying such things. But I think they're wrong. Because gallows humor grabs on to one basic concept: When you have nothing left to lose, you become the strongest person alive. And in the face of a tragedy, strength becomes something in high demand. Some people look for it in their family, some people look for it in their God, and some people look for it the very act of appearing to not give a fuck. It's clearly a faulty proposition, in fact, it might be true that's that it's these people who are most wounded by the events, that their callous remarks are a doomed and misguided attempt to escape the same fears every human being has. They are the archetypical bully who is at heart a frightened little boy. Everyone, at one time or another has wanted, no, needed the strength to laugh in the face of death. And that's what gallows humor is all about.

Now of course, I'm not going to try and fool you into believing that's what I was doing with my Mia Zapata shirt. I'm not claiming that constructing such a humorous atrocity was part of my grieving process for a woman I was barely aware of. I'll officially state right now that I make no claims for some sort of moral high ground with this column. But whether it's one person dying right next to you, or thousands dying far away, each human passing is a small reminder that one day it's going to be us. And we'd all like to face death with a smile.

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.