Memory and Narrative

The consequences of an event, and the meaning we give it, arise not just from the event itself, but from how it is remembered. Journalist and author Arnold R. Isaacs discussed the importance of narrative and how it evolves:

For critical incident study we need to establish the facts of what happened, but it’s just as important to analyze the story, or the conflicting stories, that we made out of those facts. Was it a healing, unifying story or a divisive and damaging one? Did it move toward some kind of coming to terms, or did it keep painful feelings alive? Who shapes the narrative — another way of asking who controls the memory of the event, the language we use to describe it, how it’s depicted in popular culture and so forth?

Incident narratives go through stages. First is the instant narrative, the one that used to be created mainly by the news coverage, but now lags behind an even more instantaneous narrative composed of tweets and texts and cell phone videos, etc. Next comes what could be called the short-term consensus narrative — a consensus that may or may not last.  This emerges after the first few news cycles when the identifiable event is over, coverage is shifting to reactions and consequences, and news media and public have usually reached some kind of common version of what happened and adopted a phrase or tag to describe it.

Another variant is the institutional or official narrative, designed to defend the actions and protect the image of political leadership or some official body. There’s also the advocacy narrative, that exists to promote the issues or interests or ideas of some group or cause or ideology. Both of these come into being very quickly nowadays. One form of advocacy narrative is the victim narrative, meant to get maximum recognition and sympathy for the victims and often to dramatize their pain and suffering to promote some cause or policy position. And last is the enduring narrative, the one that gets into the history books if the memory of the event lasts that long.

Some further observations: Do advocacy narratives, including the victim narratives, sometimes intentionally or unintentionally keep a story alive and keep fueling the emotions that the event created? And if so, how does that affect recovery and the effort to return to normal life? Another thing to note about the advocacy and official narratives is that these so often turn on issues of blame, on showing that someone is at fault in an event — in many cases not the actual perpetrator, but someone who should have been able to prevent the incident from happening or keep it from getting as bad as it got.

In the Virginia Tech story, it’s striking how quickly the blame narrative got started. The early AP coverage quoted several students criticizing the lack of an earlier warning, including one kid who said university officials had blood on their hands. One newspaper made that its main headline: “Blood on their hands.” You might think that on the first day, if they were going to talk about anybody with blood on his hands, it would be Seung Hui Cho rather than the university, but there it is. I found a bunch of similar headlines: “Warning came too late to save lives” (San Francisco Chronicle), “Bloodied campus asks where were the warnings?” (Chicago Tribune), “Could the massacre have been stopped?” (Detroit Free Press). The headline is supposed to tell you the most important thing, so these tell readers that the most important issue was why didn’t the university stop this from happening? There’s no way to know if anything would have been different if the early coverage had been different. But the way it unfolded put the university on the defensive from the first hours, maybe the first moments. And this kind of coverage must have helped promote the demands for financial, emotional and legal redress in the aftermath.

Victim narratives also tell us quite clearly that all victims are not the same. Think about the attention and deference, not to mention the money, that was given to the 9-11 survivors, along with the great concern and vast funds spent on their memorial. And then think about the Hurricane Katrina victims who got not even remotely similar recognition. I discovered there’s no memorial with the names of Katrina victims. There was never even a plan for such a memorial. There are some local ones, I think the city of Biloxi has one, with the names of those who died in a particular town or parish. But no authority that I could find attempted to keep track of all the victims. The only list I know of was made by a scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. It  was there on the Internet, but hard to find.* And then you go to the website for the 9-11 memorial, and right away you’re looking at very elaborate displays of photographs and tributary paragraphs. I believe that’s a function of social, racial and economic differences that ought to get a lot more attention than they do. I hope ACIA will keep that in mind as we move forward.

Narratives, like events, have consequences. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg observed:

As I listened I thought, from a physician’s point of view, after a trauma or an infection, there’s a body response and that body’s response isn’t always good. It could involve too many white cells, or an immune response that’s awry, or an allergic reaction. All of that at the individual physiological level is part of what we need to study. Writ large, the way the noise emerges is something we have to learn to appreciate, measure and consider a part of a critical incident. A narrative emerges that may be right or wrong but ends up having a great amount of power to proclaim what occurred and sometimes to divide us on pre-existing fault lines in a terrible way into antagonistic human groups. That often does happen. Rarely do we come out of a catastrophic incident in the long run stronger at the broken places and coherent and united. A lot of us hope that we can impose that, make that happen.

* At the end of 2009, the site still exists at, but the list itself has apparently been removed.