psmagcover-08

Growth after trauma

I wrote the cover story of the latest issue of Pacific Standard on a topic that intrigues me after every mass shooting (as well as every major natural disaster or terror attack). Charitable donations spike up, community spirit swells, and we all declare ourselves united with the victims. The reactions also often include a scramble to make policy changes to fix what’s evidently broken. I’m curious about all these reactions and what good they might do. It’s part of what drives my interest in writing about crime victims and the services we provide to them. For this story, I focused on the personal effects a community’s trauma has on virtual bystanders — those of us witnessing violent trauma via the media. It was no accident that I chose the Christmas Eve attack on volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York. It is, after all, my hometown and my circles of friends and family overlap significantly with the people most affected by one man’s violent rampage.

Like many who watched this tragedy unfold that day and the coming weeks, I “liked” the Prayers and Support for Webster Firefighters Facebook page and followed it closely as it evolved from memorial to action. My hometown’s remarkable outpouring of charity and love after four firefighters were shot, two fatally, made me proud as I saw donors one-up each other to provide free rooms and meals to out-of-town first responders coming to the funerals. And then it made me curious all over again about the need we all have to show we’re good people.

So, in my Pacific Standard story, I tell how the Facebook page happened, the effect it had in accelerating a communal reaction, and the science behind the phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth. I close the story by looking at a few people whose lives, at least for now, have changed for the better because of a tragedy.

Obviously, the bad vastly outweighs the good. But it fascinates me that the good I write about is more than a coping mechanism, more than a return to normal, more than simple resilience (in fact, as I learned, those who are most resilient are least likely to be traumatized enough to springboard into psychological growth). It’s one of the many surprises I have found in my work about the way in which we respond to violent crime. At least this kind of surprise — unlike the shock of seeing how cruel and twisted some of our fellow humans can be — restores some faith in the goodness of men and women.

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