Category Archives: Trauma recovery

Spontaneous grace

As yesterday’s remarkable scene in a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom unfolded — family members of some of the nine victims of the church massacre spoke up at accused shooter Dylann Roof’s first court appearance to deliver their anguish directly to him over an in-court video connection, at the same time offering their forgiveness — my first thought was to wonder how a judge ever allowed this.

The answer to that question is hard to come by in news coverage of the hearing (more on that in a moment). But first, some thoughts on victim-offender dialogue and forgiveness — topics I’ve written about here and here, and that I’ll explore in depth in my upcoming series on crime victims.

In my years of reporting on this, reading the research underlying it and talking to dozens of victims and offenders who have been through it, I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing victims benefit from dialogue and forgiveness that I found the victims’ behavior yesterday less surprising than, say, comedian and writer Albert Brooks expressed in this tweet:

The president’s tweet on this topic echoed the sort of admiration we all must feel when we see such grace under horrifying circumstances:

We’re so conditioned to hearing from victims who are consumed with rage and hurt that when we see them behave differently we often act surprised. We shouldn’t be. Victims respond in many ways, usually changing as time goes on. When we let our assumptions about them drive policy — when we confuse accountability with vengeance, and project our own anger onto them — we do victims of all types a disservice. And we make a hash of punishment policies that have grown far out of whack because they’ve been driven by this misguided presumption about what all victims need.

So I should be glad to see conciliatory victims on such prominent display. But yesterday’s rush to confront and forgive comes dangerously close to subjecting the victims’ survivors to a new form of trauma. Without adequate preparation and counseling, this sort of volatile, unplanned meeting could backfire on the victims. Ordinarily, victims get a chance to speak to an offender at sentencing, or later on in mediated dialogue. The latter is especially intense and, when done correctly, requires elaborate, careful preparation. Yesterday’s session, by contrast, seems to have happened spontaneously, carrying with it an added element of possible coercion — when one victim expresses forgiveness, how can others, particularly church people, withhold the same, even if they aren’t ready to give it? I’m not saying the forgiveness wasn’t genuine, but imagine the pressure on those who didn’t speak first, or at all, to follow the prescribed route to righteousness.

How did yesterday’s encounter come about? Most of the reports I read in search of an answer — in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and NPR, among many others — merely described the scene as emotional and unexpected, treating the victim statements as something of an unexplained fluke. The closest anyone comes to explaining it that I saw was the Charleston Post and Courier‘s Andrew Knapp, who writes that Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., who rarely conducts bond hearings, simply opened the floor to the victims’ families by asking if any wanted to speak.

From all indications, Gosnell — whose remarks expressing sympathy for Roof’s family as well as for the victims later drew scorn — turned the routine hearing into something else out of a desire to unite the community at an upsetting time. But at this point there are just hints at his motives, no clear explanations. If it’s true that Gosnell was winging it, someone needs to sit him down and teach him more about proper trauma care.

In her report on the hearing, USA Today‘s Mary Nahorniak quotes defense lawyers not involved in the case who express reservations about the time and place for such victim statements. They’re worried about Roof’s right to a fair trial, as they should be. At the same time, we all should hope that the victims’ families get what they really need for the long haul: trauma care that eases them into a lifelong process of coming to grips with their shocking loss.  

Post-traumatic growth, one year later

psmagcover-08Over the weekend, the organizer of a public-service campaign in my hometown announced that he was shutting it down. That caught my eye because of the significance I had attached to it in this story for Pacific Standard magazine (and related blog post) about the aftermath of a shocking crime in that town, Webster, New York, on Christmas Eve, 2012.

My story used a handful of examples to explain post-traumatic growth, a psychological phenomenon in which the mind — responding, sort of but not quite, in direct contrast with post-traumatic stress — uses trauma to spur positive growth: a changed life mission; a resolve to view the world in a new way. I was careful not to declare that my case examples definitely experienced PTG, or that their new missions would prove long-lasting. The story constituted a early snapshot of the sorts of responses that could, depending on effort and circumstances, ultimately turn into genuine PTG.

One of the examples was Joe Harmon, a young father and IT professional who took a crazed sniper’s ambush attack on volunteer firefighters (in which two were killed and two wounded) and turned that into, a site meant to foster a closer sense of community by organizing public-service projects. Though Harmon had no experience as a community organizer, his natural reaction to try to make sense of a nearby mass shooting was to make peace, and use the tragedy as a springboard into something positive. The site never really gained much traction, however, and Harmon — busy with work, school, and family — announced he will pull the plug on July 1.

I emailed Harmon to ask for details. He explained that he still cares as deeply about the victims and survivors of the attack, and he still wants the same for Webster: to get to know each other and look out for each other. After realizing the project would take more time and money than he can afford, Harmon reluctantly gave up on his original plan for a site to organize volunteer projects and to bring neighbors together. But, he reasoned — perfectly in tune with my story, which reported on psychology and sociology research into PTG — the site “was also my way to grieve along with everyone in our community — only this was the way I felt I could show it.” It’s more than grief, though. It’s a sign that Harmon’s response to trauma was to search for good, rather than rage at the bad. The search turned into the goal.

Another of the folks I wrote about, Michelle Vercruysse, started a pair of Facebook pages to remember the victims and promote acts of kindness in their memory. Both continued well into 2013, but by late in the year when I last emailed with her, Michelle’s efforts had largely shrunk from public to private. She had lost none of her passion to turn tragedy into growth, but had not been able to pull very many of her fellow townspeople along with her.

Both Harmon and Vercruysse exhibited behavior consistent with the research I had found. That their public organizing proved short-lived matters less than that their own lives were changed. I might say the same about myself. I put my work on a book about the tragedy on hold last year because I needed to make a living doing other projects in the near term. Then, when I won a Soros Justice Media Fellowship that requires full-time work for a year starting last month, I told my West Webster Fire Department and Webster Police Department contacts that I would not be able to resume work on it for at least a year. I still hope and plan to. But, for now, the residual effects on me remain strictly personal. I’m not the praying kind, but every time I visit Webster or see volunteer firefighters, I think about the survivors for whom the crimes of 12/24/12 remain a central feature of their lives.

The primary character in my story, Bill Benson, whose Facebook page served as a hub for pro-social campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, transitioned to to continue his efforts to raise money for first responders’ memorials after line-of-duty deaths. He told me in a Facebook message this morning that he remains involved “more so every day.”

Three tales about blame and forgiveness


Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 11.10.29 AMThanks to a former student’s tweet, I discovered this absolutely fascinating and illuminating RadioLab trio of stories on blame: all stories, in the host’s words, that “make you judge how you judge” others and “ask what blame does for us — why do we need it, when isn’t it enough, and what happens when we try to push past it with forgiveness and mercy?” They concentrate on criminal justice (which is why you’re reading about that here) from three angles:

  • The story of Kevin, whose brain-surgery treatment for epileptic seizures triggers awful obsessions with child pornography that land him in prison and test his marriage. The story intelligently and evenhandedly examines the medically based argument on his behalf that he shouldn’t be held fully responsible because of his brain malfunction and the prosecution’s counterargument that his loss of neurological control was too selective to be genuine. Kevin does not demand absolution, just understanding.
  • That leads to the middle segment, a battle of experts led by the master of simplified (but not simplistic) explanation of science and big ideas, Robert Krulwich. His three-way conversation with Duke neurolaw expert Nita Farahanay and neuroscientist David Eagleman ultimately questions why personal blameworthiness matters so much in law if we’re ultimately just creatures of brain wiring that can go haywire. Like the first story, this one explains and questions while leaving the ultimate answers (if they exist) to the listener. 
  • The final and most moving of the three stories, by reporter Bianca Giaever, features an elderly man, Hector Black, whose daughter is raped and murdered by a crackhead burglar, Ivan Simpson. We accompany Black as he moves from fury (“At first, I yelled out ‘Kill the bastard'”) to turning away from hate to, finally, forgiveness — even, to his own discomfort and wonderment, a friendship with Simpson. Black calls their bond “absolutely crazy” — “People don’t do that” — and comes to life in the story through the letters Black exchanges with Simpson, who’s serving life without parole. The relationship reaches its most wrenching moments in the exchange the two men have well into their time together, when Black asks for the details of his daughter’s final hours. Motivated to move away from revenge at first by his need to find peace, Black discovers that human understanding and love can coexist with holding offenders accountable.

No matter your assumptions and beliefs, this package of stories presents a profound set of questions about morality, law, crime, and blame.

“Successful suffering” for Newtown

In a thoughtful and illuminating interview on NPR’s Here & Now show, Newtown, Connecticut, psychiatrist John Woodall shares insights into why the town opted out of a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the school massacre. Without using the term “post-traumatic growth,” he’s taking about a similar phenomenon to the one I wrote about last summer in Pacific Standard magazine: that trauma, including the kind that affects a small town after a violent attack, can be used as a force for positive change in a person.

Rather than simply running from the pain, Woodall says:

We really felt that the town experienced this as a town. There are concentric circles that radiate out from this horror, obviously in the center of that circle are the families themselves. So our thought also is that we don’t look at grief as something you heal from like it’s an illness, like it’s a cold for instance. We use that language a lot, you know ‘have you recovered’ or ‘have you healed from your grief?’ And we thought, really, what grief is is a form of love, but with the loved one gone, so it’s really the heartbreak of separation from the loved one. So the work of grief is to find a new form for that love, to find a new expression for it, a new commitment, a way to honor the love. And so, again, we came back to this idea that a commitment to transform that anguish into a commitment to compassion and kindness, that’s where we wanted to keep the focus. And that’s something that goes beyond a day. It’s something that we want to be part of the culture of the town….

There’s a ‘26 days of kindness’ going on right now, actually, in the run-up to the anniversary where people are posting on Facebook and different social media acts of kindness. So I think it’s kind of a race, actually, to make sure these positive forces win in the end—that we have successfully suffered.”

As I noted at some length in my story, the research into post-traumatic growth supports this approach. It’s something we’ve seen in the activism some parents have engaged in since last December, as they promote positive change as a response to the loss they’ve suffered. It’s unclear from the Here & Now interview if Woodall et al. are aware of this field of study or just came to it intuitively. Either way, they deserve encouragement on their journey.

Beware “the rush to normal”

An op-ed in today’s New York Times serves as an apt postscript to my recent Pacific Standard story on post-traumatic growth (which I blogged about here and here). Psychiatrist Mark Epstein, author of the forthcoming book The Trauma of Everyday Life, writes:

Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay. The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

Trauma, he points out, comes at us far more often than just in the wake of a mass tragedy. True healing comes when we face our traumas — understand them, wrestle with them, even embrace them. It’s not considered “normal.” But it may be the best way back to normal.

Why I wrote about my town’s tragedy

Some local press for my Pacific Standard cover story, which I blogged about here. Messenger Post newspapers, publisher of the daily in the town where I live (Canandaigua) and a weekly in the town where the Christmas Eve mass shooting occurred (Webster), ran this story by freelancer Leah Stacy. She did a good job explaining why, as a writer and Webster native, I’m working to tell the story of the Christmas Eve tragedy and to understand it in a broader context. And yes, she got her facts straight: I did indeed, at one point, want to be a Webster cop.

NHPR interview on post-traumatic growth

A New Hampshire Public Radio show, Word of Mouth, features a story today on my Pacific Standard magazine cover story that I explain here. It’s a succinct summary of the story on the aftermath of the Christmas Eve attack on West Webster Fire Department volunteers, and on a psychological effect known as post-traumatic growth: how some can use exposure to traumatic violence to grow and improve psychologically.

Here’s a page with the 10-minute audio clip.

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.