Spring 2003

America in Autumn

Elvis’s hair and the Baader-Meinhof brains

Gregory Whitehead

Elvis Aaron Presley died on 16 August 1977 at his Memphis home, Graceland. His funeral offered a spectacle befitting the King of Rock and Roll, and was attended by one Caroline Kennedy, who reported in the pages of Rolling Stone that “Winslow ‘Buddy’ Chapman, the director of police who looked like the advance man from Nashville, invited me into the house, where a scarlet carpeted hall led into a large room with gold and white folding chairs. At the far end of the room was the gleaming copper coffin that contained the body of Elvis Presley. His face seemed swollen and his sideburns reached his chin.” Many mourners later commented that the corpse in the coffin could not have been Elvis. It was too bloated, too horribly unsexy. The real Elvis must be somewhere else.

Thorwald Proll, Horst Söhnlein, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin at their arson trial in October 1968. Photo Horst Winkler.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the Federal Republic of Germany, second-generation members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, had launched a series of actions intended to secure the release of members then incarcerated in the Stammheim high-security prison. These actions included the ruthless execution of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer and the hijacking (by four Palestinian associates) of a Lufthansa Boeing 737, eventually terminated by a German special forces raid while the plane idled on a runway in Mogadishu. That same night, three members of the RAF (Andreas Baader, Gudren Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe) committed suicide in their cells under circumstances that remain open to dispute.

After a solemn state funeral, Herr Schleyer was buried on 25 October. By contrast, the three RAF bodies were unceremoniously stacked in a group grave two days later, then covered over by two tons of lead, purportedly to prevent tampering with the bodies. The emotional riptides of both funerals are well documented by the masterful, group-directed (Kluge, Fassbinder et al.) film Germany in Autumn, and by Gerhard Richter’s provocative cycle of extrapolated photographs, October 17, 1977, now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art: Youth portrait; Arrest 1; Arrest 2; Confrontation 1; Confrontation 2; Confrontation 3; Hanged; Cell; Record Player; Man Shot Down 1; Man Shot Down 2; Dead 1; Dead 2; Dead 3; Funeral.

Twenty-five years later, during our own American Autumn, marked by real and imagined terror threats, economic fragility, and fits of high security, the King of Rock and Roll finds himself once again chronographically linked with the RAF, but now as part of the forensic theater whose uncanny players perform so much of our present; memory theaters everywhere, but in pieces, often hard to fathom and always hard to name.

Jar containing locks of Elvis’s hair for auction.

Over the course of several weeks in October and November of 2002, Elvis fans and professional dealers in the world of celebrity memorabilia bid competitively, via Internet auction, for some snippets of the King’s hair. The hair had been saved by Homer “Gill” Gilleland, Elvis’s personal barber for more than twenty years, and the keeper of many secrets, including the precise formula used to maintain a jet-black polish to Elvis’s naturally sandy-blond locks.

It seems that shortly before his own death in 1995, Gilleland passed the bag to his friend, a Memphis municipal employee named Tom Morgan. Requiring funds for his retirement, Mr. Morgan decided to auction the hair as a single clump, together with letters of authentication from Mr. Morgan, Elvis expert John Heath, and forensic specialist John Reznikoff. “Short of a DNA test, any relic associated with a famous person requires somewhat of a leap of faith,” said Reznikoff, though he also noted that the hair was an exact match with other strands of hair obtained as gifts either from Homer Gilleland, or from Elvis himself. After a spirited series of thirty-two bids, the electronic gavel finally came down at $100,105.

At roughly the same time, back in the Federal Republic of Germany, controversy boiled around another relic, a brain belonging to none other than Ulrike Meinhof, founding member of the RAF. In 1997, a Tübingen pathologist named Jürgen Peiffer had passed Meinhof’s brain to a psychiatrist named Bernhard Bogerts, from the University of Magdeberg. Dr. Bogerts conducted an intensive study over the next five years, comparing Meinhof’s tissue to the brain of a serial killer, eventually concluding that an operation performed on Meinhof in 1962 to stem an engorged blood vessel had precipitated certain “pathological modifications” that may well have been responsible for Meinhof’s transformation from a well-behaved journalist into an ultra-left psychokiller. Therefore, she may not have been competent to stand trial.

Dr. Bogerts’s examination was not the first time Meinhof’s brain had been subjected to involuntary scrutiny. When Meinhof was first arrested in Hanover on 15 June 1974, the police were uncertain of her identity, as there were no recorded fingerprints to confirm. They did, however, possess an x-ray of Meinhof’s brain taken at the time of her surgery, distinguished by the presence of a tiny metallic capillary clamp. After forcibly anesthetizing her, they took another x-ray, revealing the presence of the telltale device.

In November 2002, one of Meinhof’s daughters, Bettina Roehl, already well known for having disclosed photographs documenting the participation of Green Party foreign minister Joschka Fischer at a violent 1970s anti-war demonstration, submitted an Op-Ed essay to the Magdeburger Volksstimme, stating that “a dead terrorist has a right to be treated fairly and the right to a decent burial.” At the same time, Meinhof’s other daughter, Regine, filed a criminal complaint against Peiffer for “illegally disturbing the peace of the dead.” Since a subsequent investigation confirmed that Meinhof had indeed not granted permission for her body to be used for scientific purposes, her brain was subsequently released into the custody of the Roehl sisters, and on 20 December was finally interred with the rest of Meinhof’s remains, after a private ceremony in a Berlin cemetery.

Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader in a Paris cafe, November 1969. Photo Astrid Proll.

Catalyzed by the media heat released during the Meinhof affair, the Institute for Brain Research at the University of Tübingen divulged that three other brains had mysteriously disappeared from its archive, brains that had been removed at autopsy from the bodies of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe and sent to Tübingen for pathological evaluation. (Apparently, the bodies had been tampered with prior to their protection by the massive load of lead.) “When I took over the institute in 1990, the brains were not there, although they were still listed in our files,” Dr. Richard Meyermann, director of the institute, told Reuters in mid-November. He speculated that they may have been incinerated to make room for more timely specimens. 

Inside this curious confluence of histories between the hair of Elvis—America’s first globalized cultural icon—and the top brains of the German urban guerilla movement, which some have suggested provided an early prototype for Al Qaeda, it is hard not to reflect upon the treatment of yet another dead body, belonging to a figure who achieved both pop celebrity status and revolutionary notoriety: Che Guevara.

Like Meinhof’s, Che’s body was subjected to abuse while in possession of the state. Indeed, purportedly under direct instructions from the CIA, his hands and head were severed like common hunters’ trophies under the pretense of acquiring positive identification. The rest of his remains were discarded in a secret grave beneath the airstrip at Vallegrande until their recovery by a team of forensic anthropologists in 1997. They were returned to Guevara’s widow in Havana, who was already in possession of the hands, which had been saved from destruction by Bolivian Interior Minister Antonio Arguedas, at great risk, and smuggled to Cuba in 1969.

In his remarkable film essay, El Día Que Me Quieras, Leandro Katz resurrects the haunted dramaturgy of Che’s autopsy as recorded in the famous photographs taken by Freddy Alborta, and transmitted by newswire around the world. Through a subtle interweaving of photographic documentation, Borgesian text, and footage from a local Bolivian event commemorating Che, Katz discloses and critiques the eroticized thrill exuded by the predators in the carnal presence of their defeated prey.

Left: Disappeared logo for Total Information Awareness. Right: Prisoners caught in Afghanistan being transported to an unknown destination.

Returning to the United States, November 2002 saw the release of one other disembodied organ into the public realm, this time as part of a graphic logo for a comprehensive system of citizen surveillance and control named Total Information Awareness: A single eye (the eye of Horus, with its twin engraved on every US one dollar bill), floating above a brick pyramid, “illuminating” the whole world above the motto: scientia est potentia, knowledge is power.

Under the direction of yet another spook from the Reagan days, John Poindexter, the Total Information Office, a program within the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, would aim to consolidate all public and private records belonging to each American into a vast centralized database, which would then be constantly “mined” for deviant patterns, and range across everything from email to body language, endlessly sifting brain-damaged revolutionaries from pelvicly talented entertainers: An eye whose nerves may well be rooted in the German Autumn of 1977, which precipitated multiple innovations in the technology of citizen surveillance and control; an all-seeing eye that, in the name of defending what was once the world’s greatest democracy, will someday look inside its own governing brain and find that the vital blood vessels have been clamped shut. 

Exhibit A: On 8 November, radio host Art Bell published a photograph on his website that I submit as the emblematic image for America in Autumn. The photograph depicts the interior of a cargo container. The presence of men in uniforms seems to suggest that the cargo is of a military nature. The walls of the container are padded; the light, dim.

On the floor, an assortment of figures—humans?—are arranged in rows, bound by straps affixed to the walls. The figures wear garments that look like hospital smocks. Their feet are shackled together, and each head is covered by a black hood of the kind used for executions. Above the hoods hangs Old Glory, in all her quiet majesty. One might imagine these figures prisoners of war, but surely it is not possible that prisoners of the United States would be “packaged” in this way, in such flagrant violation of provisions governing the rights of prisoners as established by the Geneva Convention.

America in Autumn: a season with no end in sight. The real Elvis must be somewhere else.

Note: Sometime toward the turn of the New Year, the floating eye logo disappeared from the webpage of the Total Information Office, as did the motto scientia est potentia, and the biographical information on key personnel. Apparently, some things are best left out of sight. The original pages can still be viewed by accessing www.thememoryhole.org [link defunct—Eds.]. Congress subsequently rejected the application of TIA to US citizens, though it is unlikely the Eye will be entirely blinded.

Gregory Whitehead is the author of numerous broadcast essays and earplays, and is presently at work on a new play, Resurrection Ranch.

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