When Miriam got out of jail, she was “no longer human.” For a year and a half, she’d been verbally abused by guards, dragged by her hair, and forced to work in a sweatshop. Her days started at 4:30 am. She became so neurotic and paranoid during her time in jail that, years later, she would still become afraid when other people—even her own husband, Charlie—made sudden movements.
Miriam’s time in jail is dehumanizing—she’s treated as a mere object whose only purpose is to work in a factory, producing goods for the state. Miriam remains anxious and paranoid for decades to come, an apt example of how the legacy of East German tyranny is still a vivid reality for many.
Miriam was released from prison in 1970, shortly before her 18th birthday. She began dating her future husband, Charlie—whose real name was Karl-Heinz Weber—and shortly afterwards they got married. Charlie was an athletic coach. At the time, athletics were hugely important in East Germany—to the point where promising athletes were given growth hormones so that they could bring “glory to the nation.” Charlie had been arrested on suspicion of trying to leave the country. Afterwards, he began writing for an underground satirical paper, and published a critique of the East German government that was published in West Germany.
It’s probably inevitable that Miriam began dating another “subversive” after she was released from prison—it’s unlikely that anybody with a completely clean record would have wanted to marry her, for fear of being menaced by the Stasi. From a liberal, Western perspective, Charlie is only exercising his freedom of speech when he criticizes the government; however, criticizing the government was considered a serious offense in East Germany in the 1970s.
The Webers were under a lot of suspicion due to Miriam’s police record and Charlie’s journalism. Miriam found it almost impossible to get a job—the Stasi ensured that she was rejected from everything. In 1979, Miriam’s sister tried to sneak into Western Germany with Charlie’s help—after she was caught, she was sent to jail and Charlie was put on probation. Later, Charlie and Miriam were imprisoned during the visit of the West German chancellor, as the police feared that “subversives” like the Webers would try to embarrass East Germany during this period. Then, later in 1980, Charlie was sent to jail again. In October, Miriam was informed that Charlie was dead.
Ultimately, Charlie is arrested for helping someone leave the state—an act that, like denouncing the government in print, wouldn’t even be considered a crime in West Germany, just a few miles away from his home. Charlie’s untimely death is a mystery that Miriam has been trying to solve for forty years—the timing would suggest foul play, as if the Stasi were trying to silence Charlie for fear that he’d continue to cause trouble for them.
East Germany was, at least on paper, a democracy—there were district attorneys, opposition parties, and a small amount of subversive journalism. But in reality, the Communist Party was all-powerful, and the press, the academy, and the legal system toed the party line on all issues. So when Miriam tried to find a lawyer to investigate her husband’s death, she was told that Charlie had hanged himself, and couldn’t find out anything else. She tried to talk to Charlie’s former lawyer, who gave her conflicting accounts of how Charlie had hanged himself, and at one point told her, “Why don’t you tell me what you know.”
Miriam was faced with the Kafkaesque nightmare of an entire society that had been forbidden from discussing the facts of Charlie’s death—whether she went to lawyers, Stasi officers, or government officials, she got the same confusing, clearly untrue story. Even more maddeningly, Miriam herself was gaslighted and made to feel unreasonable—here, the lawyer’s question suggests that Miriam, not the East German state, is the unreliable one.
Later, the Stasi informed Miriam that Charlie’s body was ready for burial. At the funeral parlor, a man told her the body would be cremated. When Miriam refused, he told her there was no way to bury the body, as there were no coffins. When Miriam claimed that she had her own coffin, the man told her that it would be impossible to display the body before the burial. Miriam promised to make “the kind of ruckus you have never seen” unless the man displayed the body. During the funeral, Miriam was allowed to see Charlie’s corpse. His neck was unmarked, suggesting that he didn’t hang himself. Stasi guards photographed everyone who attended the funeral. After the coffin was buried, Miriam began to doubt that it held a body.
The funeral proceedings confirmed what Miriam already knew: the government was hiding something about Charlie’s death. Clearly, the authorities didn’t want Miriam to view her husband’s body, presumably because she’d see that he didn’t have marks on his neck. It’s interesting that, with a little complaining and prodding, Miriam was able to view Charlie’s body at all. The East German state, while repressive, may not have been as tyrannical as other dictatorships. (And indeed, this kind of official obfuscation of police violence is still common even in more “liberal” societies today.)
Miriam applied to leave East Germany. This was uncommon, but not unheard of in the 1980s: East Germany had an incentive to get rid of subversives, most of whom were granted automatic citizenship when they reached West Berlin. She also applied to have her husband’s coffin moved with her. Strangely, the Stasi phoned her to tell her, “There will be nothing left in the coffin. You won’t be able to prove anything.” Miriam interpreted this to mean that Charlie’s body was never placed in the coffin.
In this passage, as in others, Funder contrasts the perceived power and professionalism of the Stasi with their sometimes-surprising incompetence. The Stasi here seem to have inadvertently signaled to Miriam that foul play was involved in Charlie’s death. Considering the size and scope of the Stasi, it seems inevitable that internal confusion and discrepancies would be relatively common.
In May 1989, the Stasi summoned Miriam to their headquarters, with her identity papers. They informed her that she’d be placed on a train and deported to West Berlin. Confused, Miriam had no choice but to board the train. She had no idea that, only six months later, the Berlin Wall would fall, leading to the reunification of East and West Germany.
It’s unclear, both to Miriam and to readers, why the Stasi finally gave in to Miriam’s request to leave the country—whether it had anything to go with Miriam’s persistent questioning of her husband’s death, or whether it was symptomatic of a time when the East German state was weakening.
Back in 1996, Funder asks Miriam why she returned to Leipzig. Miriam explains that Leipzig is the best place from which to mount an investigation into Charlie’s disappearance. She’s trying to have Charlie’s body exhumed so that she can learn how he really died; she doubts that he killed himself. The authorities have been looking into Charlie’s death, but the investigation was suspended until the owner of the cemetery where Charlie was “buried” could confirm that something “untoward” happened. Miriam has spoken to various officials who were probably involved in Charlie’s arrest, but none of them have given her information. From time to time, Miriam thinks about the Stasi headquarters—once a terrifying symbol of East German power, and now a museum. Sometimes she drives by the building and feels a sense of triumph.
Years after Charlie’s death, Miriam is still invested in learning the truth about how he died—whether he hanged himself or the Stasi murdered him, and if so, why. Miriam is pleased with the collapse of the Stasi and the East German state, both of which caused her a lot of misery. And yet, as Funder portrays her here, Miriam is still desperate for closure. The death of Charlie was clearly a catastrophic event for Miriam—she loved and trusted her husband. Perhaps, by learning the truth about Charlie’s death, Miriam will be able to come to terms with her troubled past.