wanna go HOME now...

The Private Life of Kathy Nguyen

The New York Times, November 8, 2001


The authorities want three weeks of Kathy Nguyen's life. What they want from those three weeks is everything, every step, every breath, every contact with the material world, no matter how slight. It would be trouble enough for anyone to rebuild three weeks in that kind of detail, to remember, for instance, the almost unnoticeable variations in a workday commute so familiar that it feels entirely automatic. But in Kathy Nguyen's case, there is no one to help with the reconstruction, no one to look back over the narrative of her life. She died on Oct. 31 of inhalation anthrax at the age of 61. By the time the superintendent of her apartment building brought her to Lenox Hill Hospital, she was too sick to do anything but perish.

Hers is the outlying instance in the anthrax mystery, the case that fits none of the obvious patterns that have interconnected the other victims. No traces of anthrax spores have turned up at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, where Ms. Nguyen worked for the past 10 years, or in her apartment on Freeman Street near the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx, where she lived for the past 20. And if you imagine three weeks of Ms. Nguyen's life - roughly the incubation period for anthrax spores - divided into segments just long enough for her to have picked up the spores from somewhere, anywhere, you have an idea of how intricate the puzzle of her death, which is listed as a homicide, really is.

Within that puzzle, there is something even more profound, a sense of the deep privacy, the day-to-day solitude in which this woman lived, a solitude that many New Yorkers share. The outer shell of her life comes together quickly enough - her work, the subway route she took there and home again, the church she attended. Neighbors and co-workers offer tantalizing glimpses of Ms. Nguyen as she was, friendly, neighborly and yet still alone. Even some sense of her past materializes, but a past too far gone to be relevant within the brief narrative that anthrax defines. What's missing is almost everything else. She doesn't appear to have cherished privacy unduly. It simply accumulated around her, a little more each day and each night.

Ms. Nguyen's death has made investigators curious about one small segment of her life. If they discover how she contracted anthrax, their attention will instantly veer off in that new direction. The rest of us have heard the end of the immediate story - the way Ms. Nguyen died - but we also know enough now to realize that the actual mystery is how she lived. It suddenly seems important to understand what she thought about her life, how she connected the hospital storeroom where she worked to the Vietnam she left in 1977.

She would have been 28 in the year of the Tet offensive. Perhaps she had already lost that life several times over by the time she died. There's no knowing whether she lived as though she had already been forcibly detached from what mattered to her or whether what mattered to her was still the day to come.

Ms. Nguyen might not have known what to say about the shape of her life. Most of us don't, whether we live alone or not. But in the immeasurable gap between what investigators and neighbors know about her and what she knew about herself, there's an emotional resonance that we instinctively recognize, even if it can't be named. It's tempting to say that she has been gathered against her will into a much bigger story. But that accounts only for the way she died. The way she lived, even within herself, may have been far larger than we can ever know.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company