How does narrative help us process tragedy?
That’s one of the questions I’ve been asking myself since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As details about the shooting trickled out on Friday afternoon, I was glued to social media and other online news sources trying to gather information. I needed to start putting the events of the day in an order, to understand what had happened.
As I was getting ready for bed on Friday night, it became clear that there wasn’t going to be any more new information emerging until the next morning. Like nearly everyone else, I was sad and frustrated and worried about what would happen next. I also had this impulse to read Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen’s definitive account of the school shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
At the time (and truthfully, even now) it seemed strange. I figured I’d start the book, decide it wasn’t really what I needed, and move on. Instead, I read almost straight through, starting with about 100 pages on Friday night and finishing it up with a long morning marathon read on Saturday morning.
Reading a book on one school shooting in the middle of another, on some level, doesn’t make any sense. But for me, I think reading Columbine helped give me a narrative that I was looking for, even if the narrative had nothing to do with what was actually going on in the world.
In The Storytelling Animal, English professor Jonathan Gottschall argues that human beings are wired for stories, that our brains need narrative as an evolutionary imperative. Stories help us navigate the world. And while Gottschall mostly focuses on the role of fiction in storytelling, I think many of his arguments can be used to think about the way we build narratives in times of crisis like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In the days since, I’ve run across a number of posts around the literary (and non-literary) Internet about “bibliotherapy” by people who also have the same impulse to bury themselves in books in a time of grief or crisis. I’ve also seen a number of recommendations for Columbine and other books that can provide narratives – fiction and nonfiction – at this time.
The best, so far, is a piece by Nina Sankovitch, author of the memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, on the Huffington Post. Sankovitch argues that,
Books of all kinds reaffirm what life is: a cycle of joy and sorrow, over and over. We are not alone in our sorrows or our joys. From books we can learn the importance of remembering – we will never forget the twenty children killed on Friday or the adults who had dedicated their careers to care for them – and of looking forward, to a future of greater safety for children and dedication to our families. From books we learn the importance of kindness, empathy, and commitment.
I love the piece because Sankovitch is uniquely situated to write about this tragedy. In her memoir, Sankovitch recounts a time after her sister’s unexpected death when she backed away from the world and into books, reading a book a day for a full year. She has experienced what comfort books can bring, even in a time of crisis. Sankovitch also lives close to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and so is part of that mourning community in her own way too.
Other pieces have been more explicit in recommending specific books. Carolyn Kellog praised Columbine in a piece over at Jacket Copy, and notes that like the Columbine shooting, the story at Sandy Hook Elementary School will likely be written, rewritten, and rewritten again as information comes out. Part of what Cullen explores in Columbine is the way the narrative of that tragedy has changed over time, and how many of the stories we thought we knew ended up being wrong (well before an age of rampant social media use).
Culture and television critic Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote about re-reading Columbine, as well as Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. From those books, she learns,
… there is no possibility of understanding what’s about to happen, there’s no way to truly comprehend it. And that inability to comprehend the kind of tragedy that overtook Newtown, our inability to simply understand—it’s not a sign of our failure to gather and process all the information available to us. It’s a reminder of our common decency.
When I mentioned wanting to write about this topic to other Book Riot contributors, Cassandra Neace suggested books she had been thinking about that feature children who go through tragedy – Irish author John Boyne’s Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example, Another contributor, Rachel Manwill, mentioned the power of poetry (as did Sankovitch), although reading poetry is too far outside my reading life to think of any suggestions.
To be sure, some grief is too overwhelming to be tempered or alleviated by books. When my grandpa passed away this summer, I couldn’t really bring myself to read much of anything or find comfort in other stories, other than the process of sharing and remembering family stories. I can’t imagine that books will provide much solace for the families and community most directly by this tragedy. But for those of us on the outside, struggling to process what has happened and what it will mean going forward, the narratives in books may help until the narratives of this tragedy – the why and the how and the what happens next – become the stories we need to hear.