Category: Proceedings

Jerzy Nowak’s Story III: We Started Dreaming Together

Thirty-two dead at Virginia Tech, resulting from a damaged mind. Nearly 3,000 dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania resulting from twisted religious fanaticism. Another 1,700, possibly more, in Hurricane Katrina, resulting from wind, water and human carelessness. Uncounted more deaths in tragic events every year in the United States and across the world. Nothing can erase the grief those losses left, or make sense of their senselessness. But humans do sometimes find a way to create something positive from their pain. At Virginia Tech, Jerzy Nowak closed his personal account of the 4-16 tragedy by recounting the creation of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which now occupies the space in Norris Hall where the shootings, including that of his wife, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, occurred:

Remember Francine [his stepdaughter] who was handling the media? She was giving interviews in both French and English, and the French BBC asked her what do you think should be done with Norris Hall? And she said, you know, there should be a peace center there. And the media took it on and it was all over Canadian newspapers and some here. And then she came to me and said I hope it’s okay that I suggested there should be a peace center in Norris Hall. And that’s where the concept started.

There was an announcement made that Norris Hall will not be used for classes. There will be offices. A few weeks later the faculty members who lost their spouses had a gathering and one of them said well, what will happen with Norris Hall and how about this peace center we’ve heard of through the media? So then on a visit with the provost who was introducing a new employee and who came to my house, I said, I have this concept of violence prevention and promotion of peace, and I said I don’t mind competing for this space if there was a competition. And he said the space has been allocated but people are refusing to move in. So, long story short, the competition was announced and it was overwhelming to me that without announcing or advertising that we were developing this concept, we had close to 20 people around the table during our first meetings. Literally it was spontaneous. This was the positive outcome of this tragedy.

A few people had PTSD but a large group of people became dynamic. People started communicating with each other. Different disciplines were coming together. I worked with engineers and everybody from across the campus. And we started dreaming together. The program is student-centered. The mission is research, education and leadership to prevent violence, promote peace and enhance human security, to provide opportunities for student engagement in prevention of violence and contribution to peacemaking. An immediate outcome of creating the center was a contribution to the post-traumatic healing process, with primarily the families but also the entire community, the community who interact with us and who heard about us.

To fulfill this primary goal of student-centered mission, I spoke to the students who started the Teach for Madame program. My wife was called Madame by her students. Some of them spontaneously came to me and said they had this idea to teach French culture and language in the Harding Elementary School. I talked to them about the teaching philosophy of my wife, and her contribution to early childhood education. I actually had a suitcase of props of hers and I had put it in the garage so I could think later what to do with it. So the next day I brought this trash bag and said here are these props. She made them all — she was a really passionate teacher. The students started a 501c(3) charter organization raising money and building a community around it.

We’re trying to develop two concentration areas, violence prevention and conflict resolution, and peace studies. We’ll be developing a minor. The fundamental approach to this is the students will do it, and it will be multi-disciplinary. We will also try new approaches to develop leadership skills — not teaching about leadership but actually developing leadership skills. The first thing we’re going to organize is a program working in the high school. My daughter is planning to organize a studies for peace movement, affiliated with the students for nonviolence club, in her school as a branch. In the longer term we are aiming at the development of an effective student support network that includes evolution of self-governance, developing responsive protocols for safety and security plans, awareness of post-traumatic stress symptoms, enhancing recovery. Unless students are part of it will never work. Students have to take responsibility. There’s a violence prevention committee which has members from the campus and the town.

We plan to have 32 peace fellowships supported by 32 endowments, which is symbolic. Interest from the endowment will be used to foster the student activities we’re talking about.

The major challenge in this society, I believe, is securing a safe school environment as a key obligation. We hear about school violence over and over again. This society is destroying itself. We live in a gun culture with media violence and too much crime and guns too readily available. Thus the process of creating a safe schools  is  more important than ever before in ensuring stress free learning environment.


The word “memorial” entered our language more than 600 years ago, Gerard Fromm told the ACIA gathering, with the same meaning it has today. It has a common root with “monument” — both are from an ancient base word meaning “to think.” Traditionally, memorials have been monuments, made of stone, usually on a heroic scale and created by official authority for heroic purposes.  In recent years, a new tradition of spontaneous memorials, more varied in design and materials, has emerged: homemade, often (but not always) temporary shrines that are constructed quickly and without official sanction or procedure on the site of a tragic event. Fromm, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, found complex paradoxes in contemporary practices of memorialization:

Memorial processes are at bottom about facing grief, with a minimum of heroic or sentimental defenses.  They are as much about recovering one’s own mind as they are about recovering the memory of a loved one. Both are essential to moving forward and living one’s life.   One purpose of a memorial is the ancient, essential function of burying the dead. In the Iliad, the most terrible thing that happens to the King of Troy is that his son is dragged through the battlefield after he is killed; the ultimate Greek revenge is to refuse his burial.  Burials mark the place of the dead, and marking this place allows remembering the lost loved one because it allows forgetting them.  If there’s no place to go back to, no place to re-find the other, it’s extremely hard to let go; the loss is always on your mind.

Another function is dedication for the living. The Institute for Peace Studies at Virginia Tech is an example. So is the VT Engage program.* Both of these illustrate the essential partnership between individual leadership and institutional response.

Memorialization can re-traumatize. But if  a group’s effort to make the unbearable bearable is painful, it also makes that  painful experience available for psychological work — on one’s relationship to lost loved ones, on overcoming helplessness and despair in order to live again actively, on managing intense, irrational reactions, on dealing with our whole relationship to the world, on re-discovering purpose, and on overcoming isolation and reconnecting to others.

This work requires company. So a major function of memorials is that they create space or an environment that is safe enough and yet evocative enough to allow the re-experiencing of pain in a contained, collective way.  Even if they are “things”, like monuments, memorials are also events.  Walking down, then up the path of the Vietnam Memorial is an emotional event that takes you into, through and out of an emotional letting-go process.   Each memorial goes about that process in specific ways, which may well be worth analyzing for their effectiveness and for what they say about the state of the recovery process in those who planned them.

At this conference, we heard about concentric circles of traumatized groups; I think effective memorials can offer help to all of them. And to play with the word “remember”, we also re-member through memorials; we recover the memory of the lost love one as a member of our society, and we become members again ourselves through the work of mourning.

Building memorials is intended to heal, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Designers, officials, survivors, advocates and commentators may have conflicting concepts of how an event and its victims should be remembered and memorialized, and that can lead to disputes instead of healing. The development of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site is an example. Glenn Corbett, professor of fire science at John Jay College, has been technical advisor to the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, one of several organizations of 9-11 families. He reviewed some of the emotionally painful arguments about the memorial:

I’m not just an observer but a participant and an advocate. So you’ll have to understand that this presentation comes primarily from my involvement with the firefighters’ families and family groups in general.

Let me run through some memorials that have been the subject of controversies. The Custer battlefield, as it was formally known until relatively recently, has been renamed the Little Bighorn memorial site, particularly because of the Native American movement. Chicago’s Haymarket Square.* There was a monument dedicated to the Chicago police, and the memorial itself was defaced, the statue was destroyed twice. All you find today is the platform and it’s actually in police headquarters now because they could never leave it at the site without it getting defaced. The Flight 93 memorial. One of the family members was refusing to have his son’s name put on the memorial because of an issue with the design. I don’t think it was intentional but it was essentially a crescent and the connection to Islam was a major issue here.

Some of you may remember all the discussions about what’s going on at the World Trade Center site. How much is memorial? How much is commercial? There are all sorts of competing interests here, unlike at Virginia Tech where you don’t have something competing for what’s going on at the site. Key elements are two pools, which are the footprints of the twin towers at street level. There are waterfalls, which drop down to about 27 feet below grade. Originally the victims’ names were on a parapet knee wall at the 30-foot-below-grade level, so that is where you’d see the names. The names were a big issue as well.

Construction began in March 2006. Protestors were on the site already because a lot of people were unhappy with the design. A couple of months later it was revealed that the cost of this memorial was going to be one billion dollars. That forced the mayor, who also serves as the head of the foundation that’s raising money for the memorial, to order the memorial committee to bring it in under $500 million. And that is the first time the families I work with got involved.

The families felt they were never included in the development process and in my estimation they were not. The names issue was particularly galling. You would have to climb down to see your loved ones. People went berserk over that and they created another organization: put it above ground .org. And they rejected the way the names were to be arranged. The architect always used the word random, and the families keep saying this was not a random event, it was planned over time and there was nothing random about it. We had a rally in February, 2006. Our signs said things like “Raise the memorial” and “Our sons are not random names.” Today as we speak the names are still random, though they are grouped according to “meaningful adjacencies” — for example if you were in the north tower, you end up in the north tower area. But if you’re looking for someone like a friend from high school, you would still have to go to a kiosk or a person with a book, just like at the Vietnam memorial, to find this person. A better example is a memorial in the firehouse across the street. On that memorial every one of the firefighters is listed by rank and in alphabetical order so you can find them very easily.

Another dispute concerns a senior member of the power company, a man high up in the Con Ed power structure, who showed up at Ground Zero to assist in the emergency response. He showed up down there on 9-11 and he was killed. They found him next to the chief of the fire department. Guess how they have him categorized? He was a visitor. That is the category they put him in. His family, as you can understand, was very upset about this. There’s probably going to be litigation on this issue, saying they want their loved one’s name off the memorial. That’s how bad this process is right now. This speaks to the point about whose story is being told here.

* A Virginia Tech organization founded after the April 16 shootings that promotes community service and volunteer work by the university’s students, faculty and staff.

* Site of an 1886 bombing, attributed to anarchists, that killed eight Chicago policemen and a number of civilians.