This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in a historical writing workshop with the impressive Charles Strozier at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, MA. There, I heard a little bit about his latest book on 9/11 survivors, his interviewing protocol and writing process. Earlier this month, he read from the recently published Until the Fires Stopped Burning at a bookstore in Brooklyn.
I was particularly interested in the chapter where he discussed traumasong:
“a deeply psychological state that evoked poetic forms of language, a kind of ‘melodious tear’ as Milton says in ‘Lycidas.'”
During my MFA program at Hunter College, I took a craft course with Meena Alexander,and we read a number of narratives of migration, dislocation and trauma. I became interested in the impact of trauma on stories and story telling.
There is a loss and forgetting associated with the trauma. Fragmentation occurs. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery writes:
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”
Pattrice Jones, author of Aftershock, Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, further notes that Broca’s area, the region of the brain devoted to language production and comprehension, is partially and even sometimes totally disabled during traumatic experience. Jones writes,
“Traumatic memories tend to stand alone, disconnected from their contexts and from other memories. Traumatic memories also tend to be experienced differently than other memories. They are more strongly sensory and much more difficult to express accurately in words.”
Jones cites Susan Brison who writes “ Saying something about a memory does something to it.” Jones adds:
“when we find words for traumatic memories that are stored as somatic sensations, we move the memories from one place to another in our brains. The traumatic sensory fragments may still persist, but they will be increasingly linked to the more coherent story of the event that emerges as the tale is told over and over again. In this way, fragmented memories literally become linked to their surrounding life stories.”
During the process of listening to his recorded interviews, Charles Strozier noticed something with some of the survivors—a certain cadence in their stories, a certain poetry. He further analyzes that language and notes:
“There is no question that trauma can destroy language, as well as the cohesive self, but death encounters seem equally capable of bringing out a language of witness that is highly rhythmic and sometimes metrical, often stanzaic and quite beautiful.”