Communal Grief

Murdering Amish schoolgirls is an almost unimaginable, a vile, indeed, an evil act. And passivity in the face of evil is seldom all that virtuous. I have great respect for Dr. Helen’s blog – she clearly sees through our culture’s current & destructive attitude toward men; she sees herself (and others) as responsible, active, even aggressive about defending rights; she is neither soft nor sentimental. That is bracing: her positive, forthright attitude is admirable & a nice antidote to modern feminist victimology.

Nonetheless, a cookie cutter ideological approach can be more than insensitive, it can misunderstand. Her first response was “Is Passivity and Forgiveness an Aphrodisiac for Murderers?” and asks in her second

So now that the murderer has been forgiven and the school demolished, I wonder if that will help erase the memory of the five murdered girls from their minds? If it is true that the Amish think that the girls are better off than their survivors, why knock down the school house at all–shouldn’t it stand as a symbol of these girls going to a better place?

I’m sure her dramatic professional exposure to a side of human nature we seldom (thankfully) see has led to a tough, set firm boundaries approach; she values self-defense, self-assertion because she knows well how vulnerable passivity can be. She shares with her husband a confidence in confidence, takes delight in the Army of Davids. This is part of what makes the view they share so attractive – resilient, striding cheerfully through life, open & frank.

And she was quite understandably set off by some idiotic responses to the tragedy: “If America had only forgiven the high-jackers” or that greater gun control would have saved the children. These angered me; for someone who has seen what she has seen, it must be really infuriating. Certainly the incident seems hijacked by ideologues who create misleading analogies & murky sentiment.

Still, her criticism seems more snarky than thoughtful. She implies that the Amish tore down the schoolhouse to forget the children; I suspect it was more a desire to not further traumatize the others. She is sarcastic – apparently irritated by the calm belief that the children have been taken to a “better place.” Well, this might not comfort me, either, but in both life and literature I’ve noticed how firmly some believe this. It offers consolation but is also consistent with widely held, coherent and consistent belief systems. This is not mawkish.

Besides, this seems a remarkable place to be judgemental. The Amish customs of grief are different than most of ours, but it is hard to believe that is because they feel in a transient or superficial way. After all, I know of no one in my acquaintance who will wear black for a year after the death of a close relative – a sign of mourning long lost in the more main stream culture. The depth of the community’s affection and sorrow leads to actions that our culture may misread – but I doubt that is because our feelings run deeper than theirs.

I’m perhaps more sensitive about this than some because both my husband and I grew up in communities much more worldly than the Amish one and much more diverse in beliefs and life styles. Still, they were small towns and lines of descent were clear; family histories went back generations. My grandparents, looking at grave markers, would mention a particularly chilling narrative from an earlier generation. These were not violent communities, although we all knew many suicides. Both my siblings and my husband were quite close to people who chose that way, although full of potential; they’d spent many a night talking into the late hours with people who later chose death. Intervention might be something those like Dr. Helen understand, but my family hadn’t seen it coming in their friends. Forgiveness for suicides, too, may ignore the real pain they leave behind (the scar that never heals and often beckons at moments in the middle of the night). Still, the old way – burying them at the crossroads or in unconsecrated ground – doesn’t seem all that strong a deterrent to me, nor very helpful for the remaining family. Some level of forgiveness is necessary to be able to come to terms (and treasure) memories. A life is not just one act – and erasing the memories of the other acts is neither possible nor good.

Perhaps intervention would have been a better solution for the father of one of my husband’s friends; that bully (known for his violence and oil wells) might have profited from Dr. Helen’s toughness – some kind of shaming of him might at least have helped his beaten wives & children.

But people are more various than she implies. The father of another friend, a decorated, honorable & courageous war veteran, may have signaled trouble as his drinking increased, but in the mid-sixties the town was shocked at the anger he revealed in killing the local judge (one still warmly respected for his integrity & honesty) and then turning the gun on himself. The sons of both were among my husband’s closest friends. They would, ten years later, occasionally cross paths at our house. The tragedy was no less and the judge no less mourned because the community saw the murderer’s widow’s plight as difficult; the town was no more superficial because it went on with a communal life that included both widows and both sons as central to its somewhat insulated world.

This certainly didn’t encourage other murderers to stand on the courthouse steps and take aim at the vulnerable. I don’t understand how such a man thinks, but suspect that if he had been a sociopath that would long ago have been evident in the tightly-knit village in which he lived. Something snapped, we say.

The sorrows were not easily assuaged – twenty and now even forty years later, both sons bear scars. Nonetheless, little good would have come from, say, ostracizing the murderer’s family.

And, I am also sure the community would have been a worse place if some level of forgiveness and sympathy for both families had not been a part of that reaction. This is not because of a gross and disproportionate sentimentality. (This is Texas, remember; this is not a community averse to the death penalty.) Rather, the townspeople recognized the breadth of this tragedy – and their responsibility as a community. Both men had gone to work each day in the county courthouse – like the one Faulkner so richly describes in Requiem for a Nun. In both fiction & reality, such rural towns are often built around these square, solid buildings. In that town’s center, the courthouse contains its history, its tragedy, its daily business. (It reflects the nature of human communities; our communal life recognizess evil but also the mundane nature of our commitments to one another – it houses the court, the county assessor – taxes & probate court, marriage licenses & jail.) And in that community, while one man was a martyr and the other a murderer, both were remembered in terms of many other moments as well – they had lived whole lifetimes there. Their roots went deep – back generations in the community. And now their grandchildren come back to see their grandmothers.

1 thought on “Communal Grief”

  1. This is a consistently rewarding and stimulating blog. Thanks for all the work. It’s interesting reading the post here and the ones at Dr. Helen’s; the apparently various color-tones of world-views and experiences explain much. IMO, in many ways you’re both right in what you describe and honor. Like so many things, the actuality of this event is tragic, instructive, touching, inspiring. Once it becomes publis discussion, the purity of the actual is compromised with presuppositions, assumptions, everyone’s dirty fingerprints, including mine.

    In Dr. Helen’s defense, much of the discussion praising the Amish response “goes off” in wierd and agenda’d directions, seizing the idea of the Amish for sentimental ends. Further, it can be observed that bent people often have particularly complicated relationships with the issue of forgiveness. In group-probationer settings, there is a good deal of complaining (unforgivingly) “they should have forgiven me already.” And a self-aware and rather perverse individual well-known to me confessed that he mistreats and offends people to re-enact questions of his forgiveability.

    Incidentally, intensifying my own bias that religious ritual and even provisional belief serve for many an important human purpose. Sacramental institutionalized forgiveness takes the drama off the shoulders of the individuals around us.

    Also, as you observe, close-knit communities cannot enshrine anything that would poison the polity indefinitely. Custom consoles, counting for much when life turns hard and the choice is collapse or survival.

Comments are closed.