The lost art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.
By David Goldberg
On the second season of Amazon’s Transparent, the youngest daughter of the Pfefferman clan, Ali, embarks on a quest to discover the familial origins of her “inherited trauma,” the physical and psychological tremors that seem to consume every relative she has. As the season progresses to an epic culmination, we learn that Maura, Ali’s trans parent, may not be the first branch of her family tree to diverge. Maura’s tanta Gittel identified as a woman and thrived in Weimar Berlin, but when the family fled Nazi persecution, she was left behind to a bleak fate. The season ends with three generations of Pfefferman women standing in silence, bound by blood-deep similarities that even they cannot fully understand.
As we head toward an age in which coming out becomes easier, should our next step in the journey of self-identification be to find our spiritual forbears, our queer ancestors, and come out in their place? Everyone has a great uncle who is said to be a little different, or a cousin that nobody in the family likes to talk about. With the rise of pop genealogy, LGBTQ individuals have a chance to find the origins of difference in their bloodlines, and hopefully vindicate ancestors who were forever silenced.
In Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, writer/director Jane Anderson (who recently penned the HBO adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge) tries to close a lifelong obsession with her great-aunt Edith, a lesbian artist who was mysteriously committed to an asylum in 1924 and never heard from again. Edith’s vast collection of painted works were stashed away and shared among family members, but she never gained any public glory as a painter.
During their two years of filming, the chipper Anderson and her spouse, Tess, seek to consolidate Edith’s works, learn about her decades-long romance with her companion, Fanny, and uncover why such a prolific artist was locked away. They peek around attics in West Virginia, tearfully remember Edith’s life with relatives in California, and visit galleries in New York. Some of the film’s most pivotal realizations come in Provincetown, Rhode Island, where Anderson learns that not only did her great-aunt find blissful sanctuary in the perennial gay oasis, but that she actually played a pivotal role in the city’s art movement.
In more harrowing scenes, Anderson visits the facility where her aunt was cruelly condemned to die in demented loneliness; and during a chilling encounter with a medium, both Edith and Fanny make themselves known. In its best moments, Packed in a Trunk delivers satisfying resolution to a life lost in the annals of homophobia and female oppression, and shows that with every piece of Wilkinson that is discovered, Anderson attains a fuller, more complete sense of self.
Unfortunately, the writer/director makes for a pushy subject who often narrates her feelings in the moment, as if she’s worried that her viewers won’t be smart enough to beat her to the cathartic punch. The movie clicks a duel narrative of two women finding each other through time, but Anderson and director Michelle Boyaner throw the balance off far too often, forcing some interactions to feel contrived. The hokey, Lilith Fair-like soundtrack doesn’t help keep the tone serious.
As the film comes to a close and Anderson earns triumphant restitution for her great-aunt Edith, she tearfully says, “This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to people.” But in all likelihood, it could. There’s no limit to how far back our gay genealogy goes, and in vindicating our formerly shamed ancestors, we fill in the gaps of our own identities. We’ve already come out to the world once: how hard can it be to do it a second time?
David Goldberg is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.