Among one of the small stories that I remember hearing, or reading after the monster tsunami that struck South-East Asia on the day after Christmas several years ago was the one about the clouds of mental-health professionals, breathlessly hurrying in to offer grief and trauma counseling to the understandably traumatized survivors – only to discover that – well, most of them were getting along fine. And if not fine, at least reasonably OK, Yes, they were grieving, they were traumatized by all sorts of losses, their lives and livelihoods, their communities and their families had been brutally ripped apart, but a large number of the survivors seemed inclined to be rather stoic about it all. They seemed to be more interested in pulling up their socks, metaphorically speaking, and getting on with it. It appeared that, according to the story, their culture and religion predisposed them to a mind-set that said: the incomprehensible does indeed happen, wheel of life, turn of fate and all that, and when it happens, pull up your socks and get on with it.
The peripatetic grief counselors seemed a little at a loss, that their services were in so little demand in the face of (to them) such obvious need. I was also left wondering if wall-to-wall counseling was somewhat akin to taking a ton of over-the-counter remedies for a case of the flu or a cold. In most cases, you’re gonna get over it, anyway.
When my parents lost their house, lock stock and contents in the Paradise Mountain/Valley Center fire in 2003, my daughter Blondie and I were monitoring the whole situation from a distance. This was the house that my parents had built together, after owning the land for nearly twenty-five years previously. It had everything in it that I remember growing up with, from the spiky Danish Moderne teak dining room set, to a complete run of American Heritage magazines from the days when it was in hard-cover and without advertisements, and every shred of mementoes and furniture inherited from our grandparents and Great-Aunt Nan – everything that had not been diverted to my sister Pip, my brothers and I. My parents were left with two vehicles, the clothes they stood up in, their pets, and a small number of things my mother put into her pockets when she did a final sweep through the house as the fire roared up the hill, or that the firemen grabbed off the walls when the heat of it began exploding the windows inwards.
They were rocked – for about a day. And then they borrowed a camper, and moved right back onto their hill, and began planning to rebuild the house. As my mother philosophically explained many times to us, their friends, and those members of the disaster-relief community offering counseling and therapy, she and my father had gotten off rather lucky in comparison to others. They were retired, and did not have to rebuild a business, they had escaped the fire with their pets and themselves physically unscathed, and they were completely insured. All they had lost were things. And one more thing: they had lived in fire country for many years, and always in the back of their mind was this very possibility. They knew the risks and accepted them willingly. The odds caught up with them at last – but they pulled up their socks and got on with it.
I own to being quite proud of my parents for being so stoical about the whole thing – really, it harks back to my current obsession, the 19th Century. For researching Adelsverein, I read a lot of memoirs, and accounts of fairly shattering events, and yet the people writing them afterwards seem remarkably un-traumatized and quite grounded, following upon events that by twentieth-century mental health practice would have justified a life-time valium prescription and a couple of decades of survivor-support meetings. As I told Mom and Dad about Carl Becker, one of my leading characters and a survivor of the infamous Goliad Massacre, “Today, he’d be in therapy for post-traumatic stress – but he’s a Victorian, so he’s only a little haunted.”
I have to admit to a sneaking affection for the Victorians; at once terribly sentimental and operatic in their emotions, but at the same time fully aware that bad things could and indeed happen fairly often. Husbands buried wives with depressing frequency, wives burying husbands ditto, and parents burying small children and vice versa; accidents of industry, transportation and war occurred with similarly discouraging frequency. Victorian death rituals are infamous for what we considered, during the enlightened century just past, to be terribly over-wrought, self-indulgent and – well, just too morbid. But I do wonder, if maybe they might have been better able to cope, and were able to function after catastrophic tragedies, knowing that the possibility of such experiences was always out there. Sure, there were people back then who were entirely shattered by various traumatic experiences, and self-medication with a variety of interesting substances was not a recent invention — opiate addiction positively soared among injured Civil War veterans — but still and all, one does wonder.