Trauma Narrative

All sorrows can be borne, if you put them into a story.

-- Isak Dinesen

Chances are, few people will remember the sinking of the Doña Paz in 100 years. Never heard of the Doña Paz? The passenger ferry’s collision with a tanker in the Philippines was the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history, killing 4,341 people – nearly three times the number who perished on the Titanic. The tanker was carrying 8,000 barrels of gasoline, which exploded and engulfed both vessels. Yet the 1987 tragedy is largely forgotten after a few decades, while the sinking of the Titanic continues to capture the public’s imagination after more than a century. Why should this be so?

The RMS Titanic was the largest ship afloat when it launched, and in many ways it was Edwardian society in miniature. The first-class accommodations were sumptuous, with a gymnasium, swimming pool, libraries, restaurants and luxurious staterooms. The ship also carried more than a thousand immigrants from Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia seeking a better life in America. Did the owners tempt fate by boasting that their ship was unsinkable? Although they touted the Titanic’s many safety features, including its 16 watertight compartments, the White Star Line never claimed the vessel was unsinkable. Yet there were only one third the number of lifeboats needed to accommodate everyone on board, and the ship’s captain never bothered to slow down when warned of icebergs in the vicinity. Consequently, only one-third of the passengers and crew survived the Titanic’s maiden voyage, with many third-class passengers locked below deck until it was too late to leave the ship. Yet the tragedy still demonstrated that death is no respecter of persons. Among many notable individuals who went down with the ship was John Jacob Astor IV, whose body was later recovered with the equivalent of $3,000 in U.S. and British currency in his pocket – a princely sum in those days.

Aristotle’s definition of tragedy may provide some clue as to why certain calamities continue to command public attention after many decades while others are quickly lost to history. In his Poetics, Aristotle wrote that the role of tragedy is to arouse feelings of pity and terror in order to achieve an emotional catharsis. In the case of Greek drama, the tragedy unfolds as a consequence of some flaw in the protagonist. With the sinking of the Titanic, all the main elements of tragedy were at work: pity for the innocent victims, terror at their fate and flaws in the design of the ship and the actions of the crew. To the extent the White Star Line believed their ship was unsinkable, whether they said so or not, they were guilty of hubris as well – always an invitation to retribution by the gods.

I am old enough to have lived through two national traumas that will undoubtedly outlive all those who remember them first-hand. The first was President Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred when I was in high school; the second the terrorist attacks on 9/ll and the destruction of the World Trade Center. These were events where those who lived through them will always remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about them. I was struck each time by the extent to which these events were obsessively replayed in the media in their immediate aftermath, as if to burn them into our psyche. There were no cable TV outlets or Internet when Kennedy was shot, yet the news coverage went on nearly around the clock for days. It would be decades before the Zapruder film of the assassination was made available for broadcast, but the subsequent shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald was captured on live television and rebroadcast endlessly, much as the collapse of the Twin Towers would be almost 40 years later.

One of the symptoms of psychic trauma is an obsessive replaying of memories or nightmares related to the event. Victims of trauma have a profound need to make sense of what has happened to them, and therapists may urge them to develop a “trauma narrative” as a coping mechanism. Reliving the events and emotions associated with a trauma might appear to make things worse but in fact have been shown to speed recovery. Conversely, failure to do so may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and delay or block a return to normal functioning. In effect, those who have been traumatized must craft their own tragic narrative, arousing terror and pity to achieve an emotional catharsis in themselves.

Making sense of national traumas often begins with formal proceedings to determine causes and to propose solutions. The United States Senate launched an inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic less than a week after the ship went down, followed in short order by a separate investigation undertaken by the British Board of Trade. The Kennedy assassination was scrutinized by the Warren Commission, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 led to the appointment of the 9/11 Commission the following year. Although the purpose of such study commissions is ostensibly to find causes and cures, their unstated goal is to make people feel safe again. Failure to do so, for whatever reason, may result in counter-narratives that rely on conspiracy theories to explain traumatic events.

Some traumas are of such magnitude, either individually or collectively, that a deeper explanation is sought, even if the proximate causes are well understood. The Jewish elders at Auschwitz certainly knew the Nazis were directly responsible for the Holocaust, yet they convened a rabbinical court to call God to account for allowing it to happen. Insurers sometimes refer to natural disasters as “acts of God,” meaning there is no one else to blame. Rather than blame God, some choose to blame the victims, who are presumed to deserve whatever misfortunes befall them. Thus, Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for licentious behavior in New Orleans. There are long precedents for this kind of thinking, notably those Greek dramatists who linked fatal flaws in their protagonists to the retribution of the gods. Similarly, the ancient Hebrews attributed Israel’s defeats to God’s vengeance for the sins of a wayward nation. We tend to take a more benign view of God’s disposition these days, which makes it all the harder to account for the agony and destruction of some great calamity. Clearly, for some, the notion that God is to blame for our suffering is preferable to the thought that he is indifferent to our fate.

© Copyright 2004-2019 by Eric Rennie
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