June 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
At long last, my book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out from UBC Press. It is available in hardcover at present, though the paperback is coming in the fall.
I am particularly pleased with the cover and design of the book. The artwork on the cover come from my good friend and co-conspirator in Griff, G. Scott MacLeod. He and I have worked on The Death and Life of Griffintown: 21 Stories over the past few years.
Griffintown has long fascinated me not so much for the history of the neighbourhood, but the conscious effort by a group of former residents to reclaim it, starting in the late 1990s. I identified three men who were central to this process, all of whom have left this mortal coil in recent years: The Rev. Fr. Tom McEntee, Don Pidgeon, and Denis Delaney. These men worked very hard to make the rest of Montreal remember what was then an abandoned, decrepit, sad-sack inner-city neighbourhood. That Griff is known historically for its Irishness is a tribute to these men and many other former residents, most notably Sharon Doyle Driedger and David O’Neill, who worked tirelessly over the late 1990s and 2000s to reclaim their former home. The re-Irishification of Griffintown is the central story in my book. But I also look at the construction of Irish identity there over the 20th century, and the ways in which the Irish there performed every-day memory work to claim and re-claim their Irishness as they confronted their exclusion from Anglo-Montreal due to their poverty and Catholicism.
The Irish of Griffintown were fighters, they were insistent on claiming Home, even as that home disintegrated around them, due to deindustrialization and the infrastructural onslaught wrought by the Ville de Montréal, the Canadian National Railway, and the Corporation for Expo ’67. But, at the same time, they also left, seeking more commodious accommodations in newer neighbourhoods in the sud-ouest of the city, and NDG.
That these former residents could reclaim this abandoned, forgotten neighbourhood as their own speaks to the power of these people. These people were working- and middle- class men and women, ordinary folk from all walks of life, who were determined their Home not be forgotten. They re-cast Griff in their memories without the help of the state, without the help, to a large degree, of institutional Montreal.
I cannot over-state the impressive feat of these ex-Griffintowners. It has been a lot of fun to both study this process and work with and talk with many of those involved in this symbolic re-creation of Griff, drawing on an imagined history of Ireland and their own Irishness in the diaspora. And I am mostly relieved that the book is, finally, out.
January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
I read David Means’ novel, Hystopia, last week. It is an alternative history of the 1960s and 70s in the United States; a novel within a novel. Hystopia, according to the editor’s notes, was actually written by a Vietnam vet named Eugene Allen, shortly before he killed himself in 1973 or 1974. In Hystopia, JFK survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet, and continued on as president and is now in his 3rd term (the scholar in me wonders how he got passed the 27th Amendment, mind you). He oversaw a massive increase in American involvement in Vietnam, much greater than that of his successor in real life, Lyndon Baines Johnson. And, of course, there was no Great Society policy initiatives. He was eventually assassinated in Springfield, IL, in 1970. But this is not the interesting part. The interesting part is what happens to Vietnam vets when they get home: they get enfolded.
A new branch of the government, Psych Corps, has attempted to use drugs to deal with the horrors that the soldiers in Vietnam saw, with a caveat: they only accept men who are not physically disabled by the war. At the Psych Corps HQ, the vets are fed an anti-psychotic drug and ‘enfolded.’ Psych Corps re-creates the source of the trauma and PTSD for soldiers, they are forced to relive it, and in so doing, their memories are essentially wiped. Thus, veterans who have been enfolded don’t remember their experience in the war, such as the ‘hero’ of the novel, a veteran named Singleton. Singleton, we eventually realise was an officer in Vietnam and commanded the unit that also included the other main characters of the book. But he has no recollection of this. The only thing that connects him to Vietnam is a horrible burn scar on his left side. Singleton’s scar comes from a friendly fire caused by a soldier calling in the wrong co-ordinates for a fire bombing, resulting in his own death.
Now employed by Psych Corps, Singleton falls in love (against regulation) with a fellow officer, Wendy, and sets off to Northern Michigan to track down Rake, a former member of his unit and a failed enfold. Rake, meanwhile, has kidnapped the beautiful but deeply troubled, Meg, whose boyfriend and first love was the soldier who got himself killed. Meg is also Eugene Allen’s sister.
Immediately after Hystopia, I picked up Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, for a new researh project I am undertaking. It turns out that Hystopia and The Body Keeps The Score are directly related for my purposes. I am still only about 100 pages into the book, but van der Kolk is talking about his early experiences in the field of psychiatry in the early 1970s (the same period the fictive Eugene Allen was writing his novel, incidentally) and his first clients, including Vietnam vets at the VA in Boston.
He writes about what trauma does to the brain, using a vet as an illustration. This guy was a high functioning, and very successful criminal lawyer in Boston. But, he was completely empty inside. He went through the motions at home, with his family, at work. He felt violent impulses and thus recused himself from his family, spending weekends at a time drinking heavily in an attempt to get his war experiences out of his head. He had been a platoon leader, and watched helplessly as he lead his men into an ambush. They were all killed or wounded. He was not. The next day, he took his wrath out on a Vietnamese village, killed at least one child and raped a woman.
As I read this story, and others, I couldn’t help think of Hystopia, and the vets being drugged to forget stories such as this veteran’s. In the late 1980s, van der Kolk began experimenting with PET scans and, ultimately, fMRIs, by which the traumatising event is re-created, according to a script, in order to discover which parts of the brain are triggered. It turns out it is exactly the same parts of the brain that one would expect to be triggered during a traumatic event. More to the point, the participants in these experiments reported feeling exactly as they did during the original event. And thus, van der Kolk notes, his colleagues began to wonder about how to use drugs to treat PTSD patients, using the information from the PET and fMRI scans to learn which parts of the brain neeed to be treated. Or, in other words, exactly what happens in Hystopia when the soldiers are enfolded upon return from Vietnam. The difference, of course, is that enfolding works for the majority of patients. There is no cure-all for PTSD for us in the real world.
Nonetheless, van der Kolk notes that we tend to respond to deeply traumatising events, whether something as graphic and terrifying and terrible as his Vietnam vet, or other traumas such as sexual assault, rape, being beaten as a child, etc.. And I found myself wondering about how our brains work to incorporate these memories and recast them in terms of society, how our memories and our traumas are never ours alone, but also belong to our wider society. Our memories are formed, re-formed, and re-fined in light of our interaction with society, of course. And it is difficult to tell where our individual experiences end and our societal imports begin, or vice versa.
And as I embark on a this project, I am wondering where that dividing line is between our own personal traumas and where society intervenes in the reconstructions of the narratives we tell ourselves about our experience. What makes our traumas unique and what makes them like other victims of traumatising experiences?
November 9, 2015 § 15 Comments
My wife and I are watching the BBC show Indian Summers. It’s about the British Raj in 1930s India and its summer retreat at Simla, in the foothills of the Himilayas. The show centres around Ralph Whelan, an orphan who has risen in the British civil service in India to become the Personal Secretary to the viceroy, as well as his sister, Alice who has mysteriously shown up in Simla, leaving behind some murkiness. Alice, you see, was married, and she claimed her husband is dead. However, it turns out he is not. I don’t know how this turns out yet, we’re only 5 episodes in.
But what interests me is the relationship between siblings. Ralph is the elder child, though it’s not entirely clear how big a difference in age there is between he and Alice. Nevertheless, it is big enough to make a huge difference in their upbringing. It’s also not clear when their parents died. Both Ralph and Alice were born in India, but Alice was sent back to England when she was 8, presumably when their parents died. She has only recently returned to the colony. Ralph, it appears, has spent most of his life in India.
The memories of Ralph and Alice of their childhood are radically different. In the first episode, Ralph manages to have dug out a rocking horse that Alice apparently loved as a child. She has no recollection of it. And this sets the pattern. Every time Ralph recalls something from their childhood, Alice responds with a blank look. At one point, she says “I didn’t have the same upbringing” as Ralph did.
I found myself thinking about the relationship between siblings and memory. Halbwachs notes the social aspect of memory, how we actually form our memories in society, not individually. In her acknowledgements to her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel provides a hint to the disparate memories of siblings when she thanks her family for not objecting to her publishing the book. In Fun Home, Bechdel ponders her father’s death against the discovery that he was closeted, all the while she figures out her own sexuality and comes out. Her memory of the events, and the way it is told, is carefully curated. She controls the entire story, obviously, as its her story. But, clearly, the hint is that her siblings (to say nothing of her mother) might remember things differently.
Even in my own family, largely due to the 5 1/2 years separating me from my younger sister and the 12 1/2 years between my brother and I, it often feels like we grew up in three different families. I remember things differently than my sister, and we both remember events differently than our brother does. Even events all three of us clearly remember, there are wide disparities in how we remember things go down.
As the experiences of the fictitious Whelan siblings, the real Bechdels, and me and my siblings, the existence and function of memory in a family counters Halbwachs’ claims about the formation of a collective memory. Indeed, given the strife that tends to exist in almost all families, it is clear that perhaps the formation of memories and narratives in families works differently tan in wider society.