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.