December 2018

Thinking About the Pittsburgh Mass Shooting: Elana Newman

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue this week with a post from Elana Newman. Elana is McFarlin Professor of Psychology in Henry Kendall College of Arts & Sciences at The University of Tulsa. Her major area of work focuses upon assessing, understanding, and treating maladaptive responses to traumatic life events. She has authored numerous articles based on her trauma research and is a co-editor of the book Trauma therapy in context: The science and craft of evidence-based practice. With respect to memory, she is interested in how individual and collective memories are represented in news.

 

Thinking about the Pittsburgh Mass Shooting: By Elana Newman

When I sat down on to write my blog, the terrible shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue had just occurred.  That morning, a man shot eleven people in a synagogue, and injured six others, including four first responders. In response, two colleagues and I immediately created a tip sheet on how to talk to children about hate, violence and anti-Semitism.  It was published later that week in Forward and adapted for use by the National Child Traumatic Stress NetworkInstead of writing about about PTSD and memory as I planned, I found myself instead wanting to know the victims, the survivors, and the community.  I was consistently checking my online newsfeed.  Here, I think aloud about what my behavior says about collective memory. 

Eleven people slaughtered this morning at a synagogue. Eleven deaths of people I do not know but imagine.  So far I know it is Saturday morning service, which usually means only the most dedicated regular congregants attended.  If it was on the earlier side, it means the leaders were there.  A baby naming was scheduled, so imagine lots of families milling about as well: joyful families, friends, and congregants rejoicing to celebrate the newest birth.  Happiness and faith curtailed.  Eleven dead.

Eleven dead for practicing their faith. For no reason.  Why target a house of worship?  Schools, houses of worship and hospitals are off limits for wars. The rules of normal warfare make them sacrosanct, but not anymore. These chilling and shocking acts are becoming all too familiar: the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ of Tennessee, the Al-Fuquan Jame Masjid Mosque in New York and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Billage Shalom, Kansas to name a few.  We have seen this in schools – too many school shootings to name.  We have seen this in the streets too. Too many meaningless deaths to name again. Now, another eleven dead.

Eleven deaths and lives that I fiercely want to honor, but how can I honor people that I do not know.  Why am I searching for honor in the dishonorable act of meaningless murder?   It makes no sense to me, my search to know these eleven people.  I know that I simply cannot write academically about memory today. Instead, I want to understand my fierce need to preserve the memory of these people I do not know.  Yet how can I preserve a memory that is not my own?  A memory I do not have?  I have no memory of them – no information to process, encode, store, or retrieve.  Yet I seek such information to become a memory. This makes no sense.

Last week  in the Oklahoma Center for Humanities seminar, I asked each of my colleagues to define memory.  We come from a variety of disciplines, professions, and backgrounds.  Nearly all of us defined memory as an individual phenomenon from lived experience – something we experienced.  Although memory was defined individually, when asked  what types of memory each person was most interested in,  most individuals clearly focused on collective memory.  However, none of us could specify how individual memory became part of collective memory.  We realized a lack of connection of how private accounts become public accounts  existed in our own theorizing and readings thus far.

Today as I experience the desire to learn about people I do not know nor will I ever have the opportunity to know, the connection between personal and collective becomes very clear.  In order to make sense of  mass violence,  I need to access publically available information,to create memories from knowledge about events outside my direct experience. In this case, I seek out information curated  and collected by journalists on the scence.  Hence journalists typically serve as the mediator to  my viacarious  memory.  I seek out journalists’ Twitter feeds when news is unfolding and then I seek news on the event and its impact.  I look to obituaries to help me understand those who die during the event or the aftermath. I study trauma and disaster mental health, so there are times when my collective memory comes from interacting with direct witnesses, family members of those injured or killed, emergency responders, and others at the scene.  Most often, however, journalists are the cultural mediators who help me turn vicarious experiences of violence into  memory.

My friend Bruce Shapiro, an investigative reporter, always talks about journalism as the circulatory system of democracy.  In times of tragedy, news circulates knowledge and memories about collective violence and particular deaths.  Once I have that knowledge it becomes a memory that I can manipulate and use.  For me, it typically involves the personal act of memoralization: recognizing a deceased individual in their totality, their humanity – their goodness and weaknesses – as a memory to be preserved.  That is a personal moral act, I suppose, of accepting that a person can live on with the memory of those living. Then I move on to interpreting the event, its meaning and implications for myself and my communities.  Typically in my work this means understanding, preparing for the aftermath, and hoping to prevent other such events.

Although it does not always occur, my memory may become more collective as I share it with others or look for cultural interpretations.  Typically, after I learn about the survivors and the event itself, I turn to social media, friends, and rituals. In this case, I attended a memorial service for victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue held at B’nai Emnuah Congregation, led by multiple faith leaders.  At least 1,500 people were there—seats and benches from all corners of the building were brought in and it was standing room only. I heard clergy discuss the events generally and specifically.  For example, Reverend Alexis Carter of Metropolitan Baptist Church spoke about the frequency of which we have to mourn acts of violence and that while we cannot stop evil, we can “interrupt it ” by confronting bigotry. Rev. Carter stated that the Jewish community and the African American community have a lot of wisdom and experience to share about how to “sing in the darkness.”

Reverend Marlin Lavanhar of All Soul’s Unitarian Church suggested that trauma and wounds of the soul can only heal in community. I watched a photographer take pictures of hands held together and will remember those images – clasped hands of all different faiths, sizes, and colors. The Mayor of Tulsa thanked the city’s Jewish community for its role as a peacemaker and an advocate for the disenfranchised in our city. Eleven candles were lit as we heard of the dead.  Then, the  the Mourners Kaddish was chanted and the Shofar sounded.  Together, the Tulsa community made sense of the Pittsburgh attack and its national and local implications and became part of a collective memory of traumatic loss. The community allows us to create collective memories.

Thus as I reflect on my process of grappling with creating memories after the Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, I realize that for  me, in times of mass tragedy, journalism and community are the transformative agents that turn information first into a personal memory and then a collective one.  Together, these essential elements help me personally create memories and meaning in times of mass violence.

 

 

Past Resistance: Mark de Silva

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post from Mark de Silva. Mark is the author of the novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016). He holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). After six years on the editorial staff of the New York Times, first with its opinion pages and then with its Sunday magazine, he is now a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine and an editor at large for The ScofieldFor 2018, he is a Tulsa Artist Fellow and a lecturer in the philosophy department at Oklahoma State University.

 

Past Resistance

By Mark de Silva

Here are a few platitudes about memory. It’s subjective. It’s plastic. It’s often self-servingly selective, when it’s not simply fiction. Naturally, memoir, by which I mean that recounting of a human life in which protagonist and author are one, can’t help but inherit these liabilities. They once would have counted as such, anyway. In many quarters—in humanities departments, for some time now, and more recently and troublingly, in American politics and popular culture—acknowledging the frailty of memory and narrative history, whether personal or collective, seems to have brought with it a kind of relief from the age-old demands for objectivity (or even intersubjectivity). In many spheres of life, and especially online, we are now asked to admit to the looseness of memory’s grip, and the tallness of every tale. It’s what authenticity and honesty require, we are told: a frank reckoning with human finitude. But the news isn’t all bad (or is it?). For we are also invited to celebrate a newfound power over our pasts, and our presents too, through a curious form of autonomy that would have come as a surprise to a philosopher like Immanuel Kant: freedom from the tyranny of fact. Subjectivity, partiality, the fragment and the shard have all become refuges from the fraught, anxiety-making project of assembling wholes.

As a novelist, I have watched closely and with some dismay as this phenomenon has manifested in literary circles. Lately, mainstream critics and readers appear besotted by a shrunken, self-pitying strain of autobiographical fiction, one you could call with some fairness Facebook fiction, to distinguish it from the far thornier versions of the past, like Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire Of London, the first book in a notoriously vexing six-volume cycle of memoirs. Novels by Geoff Dyer, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose own memoir cycle, My Struggle, might be usefully compared to Roubaud’s, if only to measure the diminution in ambition, seem premised on the notion that if it is our fate to embroider and even fabricate our pasts, insulating our preferred identities from the sharp edges of actuality, we ought to openly acknowledge our fraudulence and fantasize with purpose, even panache. (The current White House has taken note.)

For my part, I’ve never found this particular conscription of the imagination, whether in literature, electoral politics, or daily life, especially appealing. Some liberties aren’t worth taking. Reading these authors, one feels that if they had more conviction, they would exercise their imaginations properly in the invention of characters, plots, and settings, without simply lifting them from their own lives; or else they would get down to the painstaking work of research and corroboration that’s involved in any plausible (authentic, if you like) history, including autobiography. Instead, they’ve settled on a middling path, both creatively (why struggle to invent from whole cloth, when you can just use your life, your memories to fill in your novel?) and intellectually (why sift and weigh the facts when you can just make up what suits the tale you you’d like to tell, the person you’d like to be, whenever reality doesn’t oblige?).

This fall, I’ve been examining problems for the autobiographical self in our research seminar here at the University of Tulsa. I’ve also been teaching a course in the philosophy of art at Oklahoma State University. The combination has been revelatory. My aesthetics course has me thinking that the deepest difficulty attending the autobiographical self is one that afflicts art too: sentimentality. Nostalgia, its most obvious form, is hardly the end of it. For the tint of the glasses needn’t be rose. The red of self-lacerating shame, say, or of righteous indignation, will do just as well. As will the gray of ironic ennui.

Do just as well for what, though? Evasion—frequently of the self- variety. This, I think, is what binds the various forms of sentimentality together: the desire to feel a certain way about oneself or the world perverts the desire to know. Fantasy comes first. Yes, memory is malleable and subject to all sorts of failings, no one can seriously deny this, and no one should want to. But why treat these banal faults as insuperable, a limiting horizon of our humanness? When it comes to memory and personal testimony, we nearly always have some form of corroborating evidence to aid us—written records, videotape, artifacts of various sorts, and of course other people’s memories—which we can check our memories against, if we genuinely interested in the truth.

Now, the significance of events may be impossible to settle definitively, no matter how much checking and rechecking we do. But this fault cannot be accounted a failure of memory or narrative; it’s simply a consequence of events almost always being able to bear multiple interpretations. That lends no credence to the more extreme claims we now hear, for instance, that all narrative or memoir is really fiction. This claim is of just the same order as that all news is really fake, even if the people making these two assertions tend to belong to different political parties.

So here’s my provisional conclusion: rather than any intrinsic limitation on the faculty of memory or the practice of storytelling, it is sentimentality—ginned-up outrage at political goings-on that barely touch our lives, say, or tender melancholia about what America used to be like—that stands in the way good autobiography, good politics, and good fiction. That sounds like something we can work on, though, if not exactly master. Nothing like fate.

Making Memoirs with Anna Badkhen

 

We are delighted to welcome author and Tulsa Artist Fellow Anna Badkhen to the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities tomorrow as part of our exploration of memory. This talented memoirist will read from her own work and then welcome readings from some of the students who have just completed her creative writing course. Please join us on Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m. in Tyrrell Hall for this free event.

We recently chatted with Anna and her students Rae, Ethan, and Emily about their experiences with memoir writing–and what surprised them most this semester.

Anna Badkhen

I consider storytelling a kind of a curatorship, an invitation to encourage compassion and to challenge the dominant, reductive narrative of the world. For more than twenty years I have been documenting the human condition in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, using high art to expose the world’s iniquities.

As an immigrant writer whose work focuses on human rights and social justice I look forward to the opportunity to encourage and cultivate a new generation of storytellers whose voices are necessary to keep our world accountable.

Teaching, to me, is another aspect of my work of inquiry into what matters most in human life. I see teaching as a way to more fully extend ethical concern and moral witness, another part of my being a human in the world who strives to help cultivate empathy and keep from cynicism and despair.

Memoir is experiential nonfiction: a storytelling tool that combines the empirical and the remembered with the researched to create, hopefully, a narrative that addresses injustice and offers another way of looking at the world. Not to be confused with autobiography (as my colleague Beth Kephart suggests, leave autobiography to the celebrities–or simply leave it, period), memoir requires rigorous research and a level of introspection and honesty. Though I suspect that if I taught any other creative nonfiction class, or poetry class, I would demand of my students the same: to write with dedication, to use language with precision and love sentences, to cultivate curiosity and to strive to use high art to expose the world’s iniquities. For a semester I tried to teach my class to pay attention, challenge preconceptions, and to intend compassion. To see them get it, to see them break out of their comfort zones and broaden their ethical and literary inquiries into how the world works and doesn’t–that has been, to me, the most rewarding aspect of the class.

Rae Riggs

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

I was most surprised about how much research goes into writing a memoir, it wasn’t simply the recollection of thoughts that made our stories “real”, it was the supporting evidence that justified why we were writing and demanding the reader’s attention. I was also surprised by how much can be said in so few words. This class never had a minimum word count. It was actually preferred that we stay under a certain word limit, unlike most classes where a writer is filling with “fluff,” we were encouraged to cut to the most basic, additive language, making our pieces much clearer and more concise.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

I was reluctant to admit how much my final project still effected my everyday life. I’ve rewritten it many times while still only scratching the surface. Every time I read that piece, I find ways to connect that trauma to disruptive behaviors that are still present. That surprised me. I thought I overcame so much, but I am still growing. Through writing this memoir, I may finally start to heal.

Ethan Veenker

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

One week after reading one of my pieces to the class I got nervous, as I always do in workshop scenarios. Before anyone could say anything I said, “So, I know this isn’t really memoir,” but Anna cut me off, asking, “Why not?” I responded that because the piece I had just read dealt mostly with another person, and hardly at all with myself, that I didn’t consider it memoir. If I could paraphrase what she said in response, it was something like, “No, this is fine. If you’d written about yourself that would have been autobiography. This is memoir. They are different things.”

It’s a small thing, but that interaction opened a larger understanding into memoir for me, both as something to read and something to write. It’s an incredibly versatile genre, and there’s a misunderstanding out there from people who don’t read it. Memoir doesn’t have to just be writing about oneself; it can be writing about anything, situated in a personal or cultural way.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

The essay has always interested me as an art form, but I have always been intimidated in writing it, as I’ve felt my life simply lacks “interesting content.” While memoir doesn’t necessarily have to be about myself, I’ve learned in crafting the pieces for this semester that, should I choose to write about myself, I can do it, and I can create a compelling essay. Writing about one’s life isn’t writing about what happened, but looking at it through a different lens, and analyzing and commenting on what did or didn’t happen, and that definition isn’t exhaustive. No one is incapable of having an examined life.

Emily Every

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

More than anything else, I’ve learned that truth rings throughout successful memoir. As much as it is easier to write memoir that treats complex subjects with simplicity of emotion and theme, neither the author nor their audience are satisfied with those sort of answers. If something is complex, allow yourself to speak to that complexity without feeling compelled to sterilize the subject matter.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

I struggle(d) with a tendency to view my own experiences as less weighty or impactful than the experiences of those around me. Spending this semester sharing my life and own point of view with my peers through memoir has, in a lot of ways, strengthened my confidence in my own voice as a writer, cliche as it may sound.

For more information about this event, please visit our Facebook event page here.