August 18, 2017

Memorializing

The Memorial at Virginia Tech

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.