Friday, January 15, 2010

Thoughts On Tragedy...and On Telling the Story

I am torn about blogging tonight. Earlier in the week I had a plan. I was going to recommend three of the movies I saw over the holidays. Suddenly I can't even tell you what they were.

We generally steer the convertible clear of the heavy stuff, but there's nothing else on my mind tonight. The images from Haiti are heartbreaking. We're mostly about storytelling here, and one of the weird things about writers is that we observe almost everything from two perspectives at once--the person we are and the person who might tell this story.

Seeing pictures of a place that has suddenly, only hours ago, been utterly destroyed, and seeing those pictures on the screen that often entertains me with pictures that look much the same, and living as I do at any give time in one quite comfortable real world and one fantasy world that is totally within my control, I am hard-pressed to conceive of all those bodies being real. I've seen that kind of destruction before on this screen. Anything that horrific is done with special effects. Isn't it?

The numbers are inconceivable. The aerial photographs and films are the very definition of unreal. But the faces of the survivors are not. The people walking the streets of Port-au-Prince look dazed. Numb. Clearly the devastation seems no more believable up close than it is from far away. That could be anyone. That woman could be me. That child could be my grandchild. What happened? Where am I? Where everyone and everything I know?

I turn my attention to the reporters and the commentators who are charged with finding a way to tell this story to the world, and I am back in my element. I'm looking for truth. Show me what's happening. Some reporters are better than others, and I have to skip around, get the view from up high and down low, put pieces together so I can get a picture of what's going on, what might be done to help, what might happen in the days ahead.

And then I happen upon the worst kind of storytelling. It's the Big Lie being passed off as a "true story" by someone given access to the airwaves by people who accept him as an expert in his field. Pat Robertson's "true story" is that Haitian slaves made "a pact with the devil" 200 years ago when they rebelled against the French, and that this week's earthquake is just one more disaster that is the ultimate price of freedom and the victory over slavers. Oh. My. God.

Within the last 24 hours many people have condemn Robertson's TV comment. As a storyteller, it's the "true story" claim that bothers me the most. What's happening in Haiti now is real, and it's horrifying, and it's tragic. There are many prayers and promises being made by the survivors. People are offering all kinds of desperate deals, making all manner of curses. This might become the stuff of legend, but it is not the basis of history. Any teacher, reporter, commentator or minister who makes that claim now or 200 years from now should lose his lectern. And I suspect if God were going to punish people for crimes against humanity that their ancestors committed 200 years ago, many of us would be left wondering what hit us.

Storytellers owe us the truth. I write novels. Every book tells the reader right up front that it's a work of fiction, and that's the truth. Within my fiction, I treat legend as legend, and I do not twist history. If a storyteller takes any liberties--fudging on a date or using a real person in a fictitious situation--the storyteller is obliged to say so. Even in a novel!

I commend Rachel Maddow for following up her interview with a Haitian diplomat (who touched on the Robertson comment) with a short history lesson about the Haitian slave uprising and what followed throughout the Western Hemisphere. I remember a little bit about Simon Bolivar, but I was prompted to refresh my memory. Prompted to seek some real knowledge of a neighboring people who are suffering and have been suffering, prompted to point out their country on the map and look up earthquakes with my grandchildren, who ask only, "Who's going to take care of those children?" And since it's almost President's Day, I offer them a bit of American history. "Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own." (JFK)


april said...

Nicely done. I've been a little more sheltered from this event than, say, 9/11, as I'm working through this and have limited media access. However, my mother is at home and is in a similar state of just staring at the television as dispair clouds more and more of her house.

On a lighter note, my husband met Rachel Maddow last week and came back saying that she's wicked smart in both intelligence and the television industry. She was a high of his visit to NYC.

It frustrated me watching the family waiting to adopt the sibling set and waiting 4 years and worrying for their children (who ended up safe). I hope this speeds up the process of adoption and others who are currently waiting. I'm not saying Americans should adopt all the children, but if the children are already adopted, I think the long red-tape waiting is up there with torture.

I'll end on a positive note that it makes me happy to see so many countries doing everything they can and right away. I hope it lasts. The hardships are difficult but necessary to watch, but the stories with positive messages are the ones that always resonate with me.

Terry Odell said...

Very well said.

Kathleen Eagle said...

And well said, April. It's so encouraging to see the help pouring in even as they struggle to clear the way to receive it.

Wow--I'd love to meet Rachel Maddow. Her intelligence shines--in what she knows, what she admits she doesn't know (but will try to find out) and in the way she expresses it. She's such a good interviewer--a rare talent, it seems. She asks great questions and lets people answer.

Helen Brenna said...

Generally speaking I'm not a big fan of the media, but in situations like this they play such a crucial role in rousing response. And I think they've had a big and positive impact on this crisis. Robertson, on the other hand, is pathetic.

Kathleen O said...

I would think not even God would not be that vindicitve, but then again I question God everyday.. Why would he inflict that devestation on all those people, when all they have done is lived the best life they could.. Work, put a roof over there heads, feed their children, get medical care. Only to have it wiped out by some curse.. Please... I never listen to those TV preachers. I don't think they are in it for the word of God, but only if he comes up the with the word of MONEY!!
My heart goes out to the people of Haiti. I am doing my part by donating to local charities with money and cloths.. And if God wanted to do something he would take my mother, who suffers terrible pain 24/7 and who is ready to go. Not wipe out a whole country.. This was an act of envioroment not GOD.. So take that Pat Robertson and stick it where you sit...
Sorry.. I'll get down off my soap box now..

lois greiman said...

Thanks, Kathy.

It's truly devastating and frightening. I can't help wondering if, instead of being caused by a vindictive god, if this has something to do with an unconcerned mankind that has messed with mother nature for too many years.

Indigo said...

My heart goes out to Haiti. I was angered by Pat Robertson's assumption that it was God's will these people suffer. No man in himself is God enough to know truly...

Sigh. To me this man was no different than the thrill seekers, opting to use tragedy for attention. How dare he think of his own selfish means, when so many more are suffering. I hope he is judged just as harshly by creator when his time comes.

I know this isn't a religious debacle...Pat Robertson tried to make it one and that in itself to me is unforgivable. (Hugs)Indigo

Debra Dixon said...

Kathleen-- You are such a good hearted person and you do have an affinity for the history of a people. Obviously.

It's not an event that you can really wrap a brain around. I have limited my viewing of the disaster. Don't know if that's good or bad.

Cindy Gerard said...

Thank you for this post, Kathy
Like you, my prayers are with the victims.
and I'm utterly appalled by the Robertson comments. Just ... speechless, actually.

We all want to help. There are many sites accepting donations. Please be cautious where you send money and make certain it's not a scam. Visit your favorite on- line cable or network news website for lists of reputable charitable organizations.

Michele Hauf said...

I agree with Lois. God gave us this earth. We're the ones messing it up.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Good point, Cindy. I saw an interview with a guy who was on site from Partners In Health, an organization that was already in place because they've been serving Haiti. They're based in Boston, and they work with Doctors Without Borders. The web site is

Christie Ridgway said...

Coming from California, the images of earthquake damage is especially frightening. But it's wonderful how we're using technology to raise money, and I hope the help and prayer and good thoughts we all are contributing can help unite us as one world.

"That could be my child," really brings it home, yes? I recently heard a diplomat say that he thought all kinds of negotiations would go better if everyone brought a baby with them to the table. Imagine!

Betina Krahn said...

Thanks, Kathy for a post that challenges, informs, and teaches us. I could not believe a man of God would use his pulpit to say such awful things. . . senility, pure and simple. With a healthy dash of ignorance thrown in. And the one whose name rhymes with "flush". . . deserves to be, well, flushed.

Thanks, Kathy for reminding us what storytelling is all about.