August 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka, a ravine in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. The literal meaning of Zmievskaya Balka is ‘ravine of snakes.’ It was here on 11-12 August 1942 that the Jewish men of Rostov were marched out to the ravine, just outside the city, and shot. The women, children, and the aged of the Jewish population were gassed, and their bodies dumped at Zmievskaya Balka. Communists and some Red Army soldiers met the same fate, along with their family. All told, 27,000 people were massacred. At least 20,000 of them were Jewish.
This massacre is one of the forgotten ones of World War II and the Nazis. My guess is no one reading this post will have ever heard of it. Soviet and Russian authorities have done their best to make sure the massacre, or at least the Jewish fact of it, is forgotten due to the on-going anti-Semitism of the state.
In 2004, activists managed to get a memorial plaque erected that identified one of the massacre sites and noted the Jewishness of the victims. In 2011, approaching the 70th anniversary of the massacre, this plaque was removed. It was replaced with a more banal commemoration of the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-On-Don and Soviet Prisoners of War.” This erases the primary act of the Nazis in Rostov 75 years ago: the eradication of the city’s Jewish population. And, it obscures the Nazis murderous anti-Semitism.
This morning, organizers held a march to the sites of the massacre in Rostov, to remember this brutal massacre. We owe it to them to hold the memory of these victims in our
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.
May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory. Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans. While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.
Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape. But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war. It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.
Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24. I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga). I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this. We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.
Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background. My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.
The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union. And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many. Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery. And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights. Both are wrong. The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners. But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863. Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.
To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder. This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.
I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it. Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865). But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country. But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.
Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities. That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart. There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.
It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction. And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political. For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact). This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.
Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves. Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men. Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves. In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men. They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.
And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy. It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle. It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.
May 11, 2017 § 18 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
January 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day in Canada. For every Tweet and Instagram post with the hashtag, #BellLetsTalk Bell (a major telecommunications corporation in Canada) will donate $0.05 to to Canadian mental health programs. For every txt and long distance call made on Bell’s cell and land line networks, it will donate $0.05. And for every view of a video about the initiative on Bell’s Facebook page, and every use of the Bell Let’s Talk geofilter on SnapChat, Bell will donate $0.05. See the theme here?
We can debate the fact that this is a corporate-sponsored thing. Personally, I don’t care. I am more interested in the donations to mental health programs and ending the stigma about mental health. I find it shocking and depressing that in 2017, there still exists a stigma surrounding mental health.
As I noted in a previous post, I am reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma for a new research project on childhood, memory, and trauma. Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist and, it would appear, a pretty good one. One thing that has really captured my attention in reading this book is his argument about the power of diagnosis. In particular, he is concerned with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which arose out of his work with Vietnam veterans at the VA in Boston in the late 1970s. Since then, he has worked with probably thousands of children and adults suffering from PTSD and other ramifications of trauma.
I have long been sceptical of diagnoses in mental health, as they can also lead to a stigmatization of the individual in question. This is certainly an issue, and van der Kolk notes it. But he also argues that diagnosis is very important because it allows for a systematic plan to deal with mental health issues. It allows practitioners and patient/clients to draw on a great deal of expertise from researchers, clinicians, and patients/clients and a variety of treatment models that have been theorized and tested. And, he also notes, there’s the question of research and funding. For example, he notes, between 2007 and 2010, the US Department of Defence spent over $2.7 billion USD on treatment and research of PTSD in combat veterans.
In other words, there is something very valuable in the diagnosis of mental health problems. I still have serious problems with the stigmatization of diagnoses. And I still have a serious problem with the ‘disorder’ terminology used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatry Association (APA). The term ‘disorder’ is a dangerous one in mental health precisely because of the stigmatization that comes with it.
Van der Kolk, to be fair, is aware of this and is also leery of what he dismisses as pseudo-scientific diagnoses. In fact, he goes on the attack of DSM-V, which was published in 2013. He recalls how before the likes of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, doctors were limited to treating physical symptoms, that which could be seen. Koch and Pasteur, however, pointed out that bacteria, unseen by the naked eye, caused many diseases. Thus, physicians changed their tactics to treating underlying causes, rather than the symptoms of illness. The problem with DSM-V, he argues is that with over 300 diagnoses in 945 pages, it offers ‘a veritable smorgasbord of possible labels for the problems associated with’ severe early-life trauma. He dismisses many of these labels, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Intermittent Explore Disorder, and Disruptive Mood Regulation Disorder, as ‘pseudo-scientific.’
Fundamentally, he argues that the problem with all of these labels is that they are symptoms, not the actual problem.
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?