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