Hey, Dr. Grief: Who Asked You to Tell Us How to Mourn?

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



The vultures
from the Grief Industry have been circling over Manhattan since a certain morning
last September. Their work done in Columbine, in Oklahoma City, in all those
other places stricken by acts of violence or sudden destruction, they flocked
east to New York City, bringing with them their long do-gooder faces and their
pious rhetoric about "healing" and
"bereavement"
and "trauma" and "spirituality" and "recovery."



One of those
vultures landed two Sundays ago in the pages of The New York Times,
offering a nearly pornographically mawkish argument that since Oklahoma City
and New York City have both been sites of terrorist attacks, they are now joined
in "A Sisterhood of Grief."


"Many
in Oklahoma City know too well the new world New Yorkers now live in,"
Edward T. Linenthal intoned. "Family members of the dead and survivors
have traveled from Oklahoma to New York to be at the trade center site with
their new sisters and brothers…"


Their new
sisters and brothers. We are family. And guys like this are our new family counselors.
Oy.


"Nowhere
did the events of Sept. 11 resonate more than in Oklahoma City, New York’s
new sister city. For many in Oklahoma, images of smoking ruins, dazed survivors
and grim rescue workers resurrected the slumbering wounds of April 19, 1995,
when 168 died.


"New
York now belongs to what some in Oklahoma City call ‘the trauma club.’
Both cities are joined at the hip through bereavement. Amid the torrent of words
raining on New York, as we all still try to make sense of Sept. 11, the
wisest thoughts, I think, will come from the Oklahomans.


"Their
words will be firm, honest, gentle… They will help those wounded in mind,
body and spirit, not by talking about lessons, but by helping them navigate
the contours of an alien landscape. Theirs will be voices of experience, seeking
to bring kindness to those no longer just fellow citizens, but soul mates."


Oh my God,
what hideous grief-counselor palaver. You can almost see the author in his deacon’s
weeds, wringing his bony hands and crying big crocodile tears of phony sympathy
for all us poor brothers and sisters in sorrow.


Listen,
if Oklahomans really have become the professional bereavers this guy portrays
them as, and if droves of them really are descending upon New York City with
gentle words of experience to share with their new soul mates, I have some advice
for them: Shut up. And stay home. And keep the trauma club membership cards,
thank you very much.


Linenthal
is "a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh,"
and the author of a book called The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in
American Memory
. (That title is a giveaway: it’s in this guy’s
professional interest to keep Oklahoma City "in American memory.")
I don’t know where he’s from originally, or how much time he’s
ever spent in New York City, but this piece suggested he understands nothing
about New York or New Yorkers.


I’ve
never been to Oklahoma City–I’m as clueless about it as Linenthal
is about New York City. But I bet it has a lot more in common with the many
big-little whitebread Midwest/Western cowtowns I have seen–St. Louis,
Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Denver, etc., etc.,
etc.–than with New York City. The one parallel linking the two cities,
that they’ve both been sites of terrorist attacks, is so obvious and superficial
as to be a useless cliche. Why isn’t Washington, DC, mentioned as a third
sister? (Of course, maybe he’s retooling this piece for The Washington
Post
, with proper find-and-replace substitutions. In fact, from what I’ve
experienced of the cowering mood in DC, the Grief Industry might do well to
shift its focus there.)


What about
London, Paris, Jerusalem, Belfast, all terrorist favorites? What about all the
other cities and towns around this country that have been sites of disastrous
events, with multiple deaths and/or large-scale destruction–earthquakes,
twisters, floods, fires, race riots, mad gunmen, ferries sunk, bridges collapsed,
chemicals spilled? Are they all our sisters-in-grief too? Have we become a Nation
of Grief? (Linenthal specifically indicates that indeed we have.) Is New York
to be invaded by well-meaning Frenchies, West Virginians, Brits and Los Angelenos,
all intent on talking us through these terrible times?


Please,
all of you, if that’s your intent, stay away.


As a representative
of the Grief Industry, Linenthal is, of course, against rebuilding at the World
Trade Center site, preferring an Oklahoma City-style memorial park of some sort.


"To
respond well to the fullness of such events, we cannot forget how they live
on long after the fact," he opines. "In both cities, there were immediate
calls for the reconstruction of the ravaged buildings as an act of defiance
against the terrorism, and a desire to ‘get back to normal.’ In Oklahoma
City, however, many argued that the site was sacred ground. The conviction that
rebuilding would be an offense against the dead won the day…


"Were
I to make an argument for memorialization, the first sentence would be:


"‘An
unprecedented act of terrorism on American soil demands the unprecedented use
of some of the most valuable real estate in New York City as memorial space.’"


Yes, Dr.
Grief, no doubt you would write that. Who asked you?


"It
was astonishing and painful one month after Sept. 11 to hear people proclaim
that it was time to ‘move on,’ that we needed to put mourning and
grieving ‘behind us,’" Linenthal declares. "What disrespect
for the enormity of the event. What disrespect to think that a month’s
pause in the work of the everyday was considered enough before consigning the
thousands of the dead to the anonymity of a cultural body count. Before there
is any talk of healing, there must be reflection, an awe-filled accounting of
what was lost. Too often the rhetoric of healing seeks not to bind spiritual
wounds, but aims to resolve them too quickly."


What is
this? Do I detect a rift between the competing Grief Industry and Healing Industry?
Does Dr. Grief think the Healing Industry is muscling in on his turf too soon?


And anyway,
who is this Oshkosh professor to tell any New Yorkers they’re showing disrespect?
New Yorkers have in fact shown tremendous respect for "the enormity
of the event," and for all its victims, and for all those involved in rescue
and recovery efforts. We’ve been grieving in our own way, pal. We’ve
been holding our funerals and memorial services and concerts; we volunteered
to overcapacity and raised millions of dollars in aid; we’ve been having
the most subdued and contemplative holiday season in memory. It’s an insult–an
astonishing and painful one–to have this Hickville academic tell us we’re
not grieving the right way, like the good survivors of Oklahoma City. And so
typical of the olympians at The New York Times, our make-believe
hometown daily, to have printed this ignorant contumely, this self-serving insensitivity
hiding under the mourning rags of false empathy.


We’re
New Yorkers. We’re not Oklahomans, and this ain’t Oshkosh. We know
how to grieve. We also believe in picking ourselves up and moving on. That’s
how we deal. This city isn’t anywhere near having bounced back yet, but
it will, because that’s what New York City is all about. If we recover
too fast for you, Dr. Grief, stay in Oshkosh and promote your book in Columbine.




The same
"The City" section of that same Sunday New York Times offered
a partial antidote to treacly Pastor Linenthal in a little history lesson on
how New Yorkers tend to remember–that is, forget–their disasters.
In a "Soapbox" piece hedded "The Forgotten," Michael Miscione
(NB: a local writer) observed:


"Soon
after the Sept. 11 attacks, much was made of an overripe bronze sculpture that
a well-meaning company in Pittsburgh donated in tribute to New York’s fallen
firefighters. It stands on Eighth Avenue near 44th Street.


"Few
New Yorkers realized that we already had our own Firemen’s Memorial, a
dignified stone and metal monument–with a separate plaque to honor the
Fire Department’s faithful fire horses–that was built at 100th Street
and Riverside Drive by ‘the people of a grateful city’ 88 years ago.


"New
Yorkers have a shamefully short collective memory. We treat our memorials, no
matter how grand or worthy, as though they were built just so we’d have
a place to meet friends on our way to lunch. The Maine Monument at the southwest
corner of Central Park, for example, is little more than a mournful, glorified
park bench. The planners, survivors and philosophers who contemplate the monument
that will certainly be built to mark the trade center disaster would do well
to realize that not a single memorial has successfully held the attention and
affection of New Yorkers for more than a generation or two.


"This
one will be different, some argue. The disaster took place here, not on some
foreign battlefield; the victims were all New Yorkers, in spirit if not literally.
Then there’s the scale of the thing: close to 3,000 dead. Surely our city
has never known such a calamity.


"Yes,
it has. And we built memorials. And they were forgotten."


I don’t
know how "shameful" it is that New Yorkers are universally unmindful
of the terrible events or great heroics memorialized in the public edifices
Miscione goes on to cite, from the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort
Greene Park to Grant’s Tomb. We live with and around these things, eat
our hotdogs on them, tag the hell out of them, vandalize them, piss on them
in an emergency or simply ignore them. In short, we treat them as we do all
the rest of our crowded, busy built environment. We’re assholes. And proud
of it.


Still, Miscione
makes a good point when he notes:


"Survivors
will die or move away, neighborhoods will sour, sensibilities will change and
modern events will eclipse bygone ones. These social forces work faster in New
York than anyplace else… Now we are swept up in the same passions that drove
our ancestors to build the memorials our generation has chosen to ignore."


And whatever
memorial is erected at Ground Zero, it is destined to lose its "awe-filled"
resonance for New Yorkers over time. That’s just how we are. That’s
how New York City is, and probably how it copes. We’re not in Kansas, Dr.
Grief.


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