On June 15, 2008, the Washington Post Magazine published an article “The Escape Artist” by Laura Wexler recounting the life of Jody Arlington and reviewing a book on her life by Kathryn Harrison. Jody, as a teenager, was in the house when her 18-year old brother killed her parents and her younger sister. Today, Jody is 40 years old and, by her own account, living a well-adjusted life. (She did not contribute to the WPM article.)
I had no issue with the article which was written in a neutral and respectful fashion without making judgments about Jody’s traumatic grief reactions nor expressing any expectations of how a traumatized survivor should act, think and feel. The references to the book (which I have not read) indicated the same approach.
But I had an issue with Tom Shroder and his Editor’s Note: for three-quarters of his introduction to the above article, he talks about how he lost weight. Then he concludes that Ms. Arlington’s ability to live with her grief and trauma is due to an act of will – just as his decision to lose weight. I quote: “How can some people beat the astronomical odds against them, seemingly through a sheer act of will?” He even traced this act back to a particular moment – when Ms. Arlington entered Georgetown University.
One of my bereavement support group members once hit the nail on the head when she said that “People assume that coping with grief is like losing weight – eat less, exercise more and you will lose weight!” So here it was in writing, and in the Washington Post Magazine! Unfortunately, this is not the way it works as those of you reading this and who have experienced traumatic grief or are in the middle of it right now are well aware of.
The day after publication, I did something I had never done before – I tuned into the on-line discussion of this article with both authors. With the intent to correct any misperceptions about grief which may be expressed during the discussion. There were none as the contributors focused on the horrifying events and not on grief. I finally sent a message which read:
“As a peer of traumatic death survivors and as a mental health professional, I think that you and Ms. Harrison were respectful of Ms. Arlington. I just wish that others – such as Mr. Shroder – would take the time to do likewise. Death is a complex and frightening issue, and even only commenting on it appropriately takes the effort that you and Ms. Harrison clearly invested in your protagonist.
So I wish that other authors would do their best not to inadvertently propagate stereotypes which add to the hurt experienced by survivors of traumatic death. You aptly described the lurid notions Ms. Arlington’s environment had about her “collusion” in this horrible tragedy.
Assuming that someone such as Ms. Arlington can just decide to “leave the crippling events of the past behind” (quoting Mr. Shroder) adds to the survivors’ sense of “being crazy.” Which, of course, survivors are not. They have normal reactions to an abnormal experience. But it adds injury to insult. And continues to traumatize them. I hope that Mr. Shroder hears me.”
Mr. Shroder had the decency to get back to me. This is what he wrote:
“I hear you. I think that you misread me. Just because I believe that some human beings are capable, through an act of will (emphasis added), of transcending even the most traumatic circumstances, does not meant that I am denigrating those who can not achieve the same near-miraculous result.”
Here it was again! The act of will! I had sent Mr. Shroder a lengthy message in response to his Editor’s Note but I think he had not yet read it at the time of his reply to my on-line chat comment. Perhaps then he would have had a different reaction to it.
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Tomorrow: If it is not an act of will, what is it?