“Every time she saw a videotape of the planes she moved a finger toward the power button on the remote. Then she kept on watching. The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin, the fleeting sprint that carried lives and histories, theirs and hers, everyone’s, into some distance, out beyond the towers.”
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
I am thinking a lot about trauma this week.
I’m reading Falling Man by Don DeLillo. It’s a novel that deals with the aftermath of 9/11. The title comes from the photo of a man in a business suit falling to his death from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
You’ve probably seen it.
In the novel, there is a street artist who went around Manhattan hanging upside down to simulate this falling man. It might seem a little appalling at first; the bystanders in the novel certainly felt that way.
But it provokes a deeper question—does sharing our grief, or even performing it, take away from its authenticity?
You see, the novel explores many different ways to deal with tragedy, a tragedy that is as public as 9/11.
Writing groups, individual counseling, running clubs, among a slew of others. Is any one way better than another?
A central theme in the book, and from my own experience, is that there is one common thread that sews together both public and private tragedy: language.
Speaking the words of tragedy, communicating the pain, the confusion, the kaleidoscope of different emotions, is so vital to coming out on the other side.
That’s what it means to “work through” something. We yearn to understand it and need it to mean something—anything.
It’s from language that we make meaning.
We search for truth amidst our words.
It’s not just a matter of giving trauma life in telling your story once, though.
Trauma demands repetition.
“You have to break through the structure of your own stonework habit just to make yourself listen.”
It requires us to refine the narrative and tell it over and over. To people we trust, to strangers we just met, to anyone who will listen.
Our stories define us, and we’d give anything to be known. We manufacture our memories and decide how our lives will mean.
I suspect that the most disturbing part of the street artist performing the falling man is the stillness.
The performance was silent, and silence is scary. We don’t trust silence or the keepers of it. Silence is not communal. Silence is hard.
When we keep our tragedy to ourselves, we don’t get to tell our story, and our memories get hijacked. People will impose their narratives on you if you let them, but language, language brings peace and comfort.
Language brings us together.
There is a moment in the novel where a character compares two kinds of language when discussing trauma:
People read poems. People I know, they read poetry to ease the shock and pain, give them a kind of space, something beautiful in language, to bring comfort or composure. I don’t read poems. I read newspapers. I put my head in the pages and get angry and crazy.”
Let me tell you a little secret – the medium is not the message.
It’s not about the differences between fiction and non-fiction. It’s about your relationship with language and the way you choose to negotiate that relationship.
As you work through the collective trauma of 9/11 or your own personal trauma, seek refuge in the power of words to lead you to truth, to meaning, and to a narrative that might bring clarity to you.
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