NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Over the next few weeks we're going to hear a lot of stories as we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and the first of Hurricane Katrina. Documentarians set out to record firsthand memories of both events, in part for history and in part because of our ingrained belief that sharing stories of traumatic events can help to diffuse anger and guilt and fear and to help us heal.
Others worry that some people don't want to talk about what happened and that being asked to tell their own story or sometimes even listening to somebody else's will just reopen wounds. We're going to focus on one project that took an unusual approach. They sent hurricane survivors like Sherri Smothers(ph) to interview other survivors.
Ms. SHERRI SMOTHERS (Hurricane Survivor): Immediately, when I got there, you know, I'm telling them what's going on, what the interview is about and things like that, and they wanted to know what I knew about it. And I said, well, it happened to me, too. And that immediately made a difference, particularly with this man that I had never met before.
I think it kind of takes them off the guinea pig table sort of, you know, and they feel more like, okay, I'm a person and you understand that this is a thing that happened to me and not, you know, New Orleans in general. And a lot of times I think that that is what people feel like, part of a whole and not just a person.
CONAN: This hour we'll talk with the co-directors of the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project about telling a story, why it's important, and whether it helps survivors or if it can make them feel worse.
Later in the program, we'll talk about the debate among psychiatrists about the usefulness of debriefing traumatic events and get an update on the evidence behind the terror plot prosecutions in Britain.
But first we want to hear from you. If you're the survivor of a traumatic event, storm, war, or fire, tell us whether or not relating your experiences was helpful. Did you resent strangers' interest, or did you feel it was cathartic? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carl Lindahl is the co-director of the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project as well as a professor of English and folklore at the University of Houston. He joins us from the studios of member station KUHF, also in Houston. Nice to have you on the program today.
Professor CARL LINDAHL (Co-Director, Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project; Professor of English and Folklore, University of Houston): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And he's there with Pat Jasper, also co-director of the project, an independent folklorist. And, Pat, welcome to you as well.
Ms. PAT JASPER (Folklorist and Co-director, Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project): Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: Carl, you were a volunteer when the influx of evacuees hit Houston. Tell us, how did Surviving Katrina and Rita come to be?
Prof. LINDAHL: Well, there are two birthplaces for this story, the first of which is I had earlier done studies of recorded interviews of earlier disasters, including the Dust Bowl, Pearl Harbor, and responses to the September 11th attack. And I noticed when listening to these recordings that the ones that stood out, the ones I remembered most, the ones that other people remembered most, were those that were told not just to a professional like myself but much more often told to a good friend, or in a certain case an individual simply went to the library, found a recorder, and pushed the button.
And it seemed to me as soon as this disaster was developing that the stories needed to come out, and the stories would be best recorded by those who shared that experience, those who were friends by token of having gone through the same thing.
Prof. LINDAHL: That was an intellectual idea, but the weekend after the storm hit, as Houston was filling with evacuees from New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, I did some volunteer work where my job was to sort out clothes and make clothes available to people who obviously needed them very much. And in spite of the fact that they were faced with mountains of relief for these very physical needs, what I found was that the people who were coming for these clothes wanted even much more than the clothes themselves to relate what had happened to them.
There was one particular gentleman who was six-feet-five and he had very long legs, and we looked for some time to find pants that were long enough to fit him. And while we were walking around, he told me this story of how he had been trapped with seven other people on the second floor of a building that was flooded up to the very bottom of the second floor and how every day he would have to swim out of the second floor window - a man in his 50s - and find a store, break into the store, get some water, fix up a harness from coat hangars and rope so that he could swim back to this store - I mean swim back to the house with all this water behind him. He then said, you know, after four days, we made it out with the help of some good people, thank God.
And during this time, he never raised his voice. He spoke quietly, as if he were surprised that this had happened to him. But as I listened to his story, I was overwhelmed by the power, the very simple power of this man reporting something that happened to him. And it occurred to me at that time that in all the years I'd been collecting stories I was never in a situation where it was more important for the people to tell them and more important for them to be heard and most important for them to be heard on their own terms.
CONAN: Hmm. Pat Jasper, Carl said something interesting - when he was talking to a professional like myself, but the - he remembered best the stories that were related to co-survivors or friends or what-not. What is it about it that professionals like yourself bring to this that other people may work better?
Ms. JASPER: Well, as folklorists I think one of the things we're really aware of is that the voices of communities that have gone unrepresented and gone unspoken are incredibly important, and this project takes that another step further. It not only gives voice via, say, a documentarian like myself putting a microphone in front of someone and saying tell me your story.
Ms. JASPER: It gives voice via the survivors themselves, that peer-to-peer relationship which encourages the level of empathy that exists between the speaker and the hearer.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Because it's not always easy to get that empathy if you're in a more sterile environment than the one Carl was just describing.
Ms. JASPER: Absolutely. And it is true, you know, one of the things that we do with this project, as you're aware, is we do very intensive field schools to train survivors so that they are prepared for the process and the project. And so there's a kind of funny juggling act because we're giving them lots of skills and lots of new training, but they are most encouraged as they go into people's homes and into their living rooms and into their kitchens; to elicit these stories they have to find a way to create that connection.
In other words, take all those skills that you and I as documentarians and journalists think are important but also be able to relate very immediately. And one of the things we like to say in the training schools is that what we're seeking here is kitchen-table stories…
Ms. JASPER: …the kinds of stories that are exchanged among family and friends, and there really is world of difference between that kind of story and, say, a standard journalistic or oral historian approach.
CONAN: Well, don't you find that people tend to have, you know, two or three levels of story? Once they've experience something, I mean there might be one level where they can explain to their mother-in-law over the phone what happened to them in 45 seconds or so. There's another level of story where you meet an acquaintance and they say what happened, and you sit down for five or 10 minutes and tell them what happened. And then there's that third level of story where you might tell a very close friend, maybe after a couple of drinks or something like that, the real story about what happened, which may not take - which could take a long time.
Prof. LINDAHL: It's the real story we're looking for. We begin by telling them that they are the leading experts in their own experience of this disaster and that nothing we know as professionals can equal that.
We also say that you've already heard these stories and that you have with you the wherewithal to know when the situation is right, to know when there's a story like that in the making. You will be going in there with the tape recorder, you'll be asking people who've had to sign too many forms to sign yet another one, but we're relying on your personal rapport with this person, your identity as a fellow survivor to be able to sit down with that person and listen.
We teach the art of listening. It's far harder I think to get a story from someone else than to tell one until you set the mood, and we wait for them to open up. We encourage that breakthrough moment where this stops being an interview and the flow of energy comes from the other side of the mic.
When we have a good interview, we know it, and the interviewers know it because essentially they will be asking a question and maybe waiting 40 or 50 minutes to ask another one because they have turned loose that impulse and they've gotten that third level of story that you were talking about.
Ms. JASPER: I think sometimes the greatest joy that the people who participate in this project have is when they experience the one-question interview, the question that leads to the story within the story. Because you're absolutely right, Neal, there are many levels of story, and all of these people have very, very big stories.
This project doesn't just seek the stories of the storm, although those are clearly the most dramatic and clearly what people are prepared to share. But we also ask our interviewers, our participants in the project, to also seek stories about communities left behind and, in many instances, communities lost. Because no matter what, no matter how New Orleans or Bay St. Louis, Mississippi or any of the other communities that were so substantially affected by Katrina rebuild, they will never be the communities that they once were. So part of this project is also about capturing those stories of community lost.
And a third part of this project is about telling stories about communities regained. It's the reason why the project is called Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, because people are rebuilding communities for themselves here.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers on the line, 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. E-mail is email@example.com. Carol is on the line with us from Traverse City in Michigan.
CAROL (Caller): Hi, Neal.
CAROL: I can hardly hear you.
CONAN: I'm here.
CAROL: Okay. I was a survivor of the Bel-Air fire in Los Angeles in 1962, and we - I was in the convent at the time, and we were told that we couldn't talk about what our experiences were. So for 25 years I never talked about it until I - and I'm a therapist. I was going through crisis intervention training, and we had to write about a crisis in our lives, and I had wrote about it. And all the emotions of 25 years came flowing to the surface, and it was tremendously helpful for me to tell my story.
CONAN: At long last.
CAROL: And I am a therapist. I work with traumatized women, and that's the core of my work with them, is telling your story and valuing your story for it being your own story and nobody else's.
CONAN: Hmm. Carol, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
CAROL: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: And good luck to you.
CAROL: Thank you.
CONAN: We're going to continue taking your calls after we come back from a short break. Again, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Does sharing your story help you heal or does it reopen old wounds? I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston oral history project with its co-directors, Carl Lindahl and Pat Jasper. Here's a clip from their work. This is woman named Glenda Harris talking about her experience in Houston.
Ms. GLENDA HARRIS (Katrina Coordinator, Children's Defense Fund, Houston): The people out of their hearts in Houston reached out their arm and reached out their hands to say I understand. If it's not but by the grace of God, it could have been us rather than you all. So we're grateful, and we're going to do all we can to help you.
I witnessed in a lifetime some things I never saw. I've always saw people in Louisiana show love because we're focused people. But I never - it was amazing to me to see whole families - I saw a young couple out of Spring Tabernacle Church take another young couple that I referred to them and brought them to Gallery Furniture Store and bought them every room and piece of furniture that they needed. And I know that had to be very expensive. It was amazing to me.
I stood in the middle of Gallery Furniture Store crying, and no one I guess could understand. But I realize now that I don't cry about what I lost because I cry about the miracles that I saw. Because when we get all the houses and land that we have to get, our legacies ought to be about how we touched the lives of people, how we make a difference.
CONAN: Glenda Harris is one of the survivors that participated in the project. She's former director of the Advocacy Center in the lower Ninth Ward before Katrina hit. Now she's the Katrina coordinator for the Children's Defense Fund in Houston, Texas, and joins us by phone from there. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. HARRIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Why did you choose to get involved in this project?
Ms. HARRIS: I think it was important as we begin to heal that people are able to tell their story because the stories are varied. Some of us evacuated early and saw the miracles that happened as I said - as you shared earlier - here in Houston.
And some of the New Orleans citizens went through the trauma that we saw in the Superdome, that were there when the flood waters came in, so our experiences are varied. And many of us were first responders and medical providers that had to stay back, even couldn't leave till weeks later. So our experiences are varied, and they're different. They're diverse. And so I thought this would allow citizens an opportunity to tell their story.
CONAN: And what was it like for you to become the interviewer?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, for me it helped me to understand that even all that we have lost and all that we've been through, there is someone who has went through worse things than you've been through...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HARRIS: ...that it could have been worse. It could have been - there were people that I interviewed who lost family members, and fortunately in my family, in our immediate family, we had no deaths. There were people who were stuck on rooftops. Fortunately for my immediate family, we evacuated early. There was none of us that were on rooftops. So it was important for me to talk with these families, to hear their experience. And it helped me to really get a focus on priorities, that, Glenda, you know, God has really been good, and it has not been as bad as you thought it's been.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. I...
Ms. HARRIS: Those were just material things you lost.
CONAN: Sure. Did you encounter any difficulties, any people who were reluctant to talk?
Ms. HARRIS: No, most of the people that I interviewed were people that either knew me or knew someone else who knew me, and through my discussions with the persons who knew them, they talked about how they shared their experience with them. And so that was someone who was already talking about their experience, so I just called to ask them would they share it with me, and they were comfortable with that.
CONAN: Did you ever ask questions that got into areas people didn't want to talk about?
Ms. HARRIS: Well, I think that there was one lady - because she didn't want to - you know, much of the looting that happened, she observed some of it in New Orleans because she was evacuated. And she didn't - that Winn-Dixie store in the uptown area of New Orleans - and she didn't want to discuss it much about what she really observed there because she felt she didn't want to involve anyone else if she conveyed names or a situation that happened, that someone else might get in trouble.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. So not an irrational problem there.
Ms. HARRIS: No.
Ms. HARRIS: No.
CONAN: I wonder, have you put the field training you got and the experience you got as an interviewer - the job you have now, it seems to me that there might be some opportunities to put those skills to good use.
Ms. HARRIS: Yeah, we had a wonderful opportunity. The one thing that happened -when I was in the middle of the field school, Children's Defense Fund was calling me to recruit me as a case manager. One, because one of the principals that were involved knew of my work in lower Ninth Ward and knew that a lot of the evacuee community came from the district that I resided in and did work in in the lower Ninth Ward in eastern New Orleans. So they knew that I had a good connection with those families.
My cell phone number never changed, so people were still calling my cell phone number for help, guidance and assistance. And so they thought that I might be the best person here in Houston to help families move forward and get some appropriate focus and direction.
And so it became very natural for me. And in doing that, when I talked with Dr. Edelman - who is the founding president of CDF - about my experience with the American folk-life training, surviving Katrina survivors' stories, she was very pleased to understand that I'd gotten that training, and she wanted me to do a similar project with children. She said enough wasn't said about the children's stories.
And so we did do interviews with Deborah Mathis, who is a renowned publicist and writer. She was the assistant press secretary for President Bill Clinton. She went with me as we interviewed eight of the children here in Houston that were evacuees, and that was published in the Katrina Children's Report right now in CDF, and it's gone over now nationwide. That report is being utilized throughout the nation to talk about the needs of children in the Gulf Coast.
CONAN: Carl Lindahl, you're spawning competition at this point.
Prof. LINDAHL: No, we welcome everything that Glenda's done, and we're so grateful for what she has worked with: working with us, working with the individuals she talked to, and working with the Children's Defense Fund. We're - we couldn't be prouder of what she's doing.
Ms. JASPER: Well, we like to think that what we're doing is spawning a model, and what the Children's Defense Fund did was encourage one survivor to speak with another, and that's exactly what this project's about.
CONAN: Glenda Harris, thanks very much for being with us. Good luck.
Ms. HARRIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Glenda Harris, now the Katrina coordinator for the Children's Defense Fund in Houston took the time today to join us by phone from there. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Laura(ph). Laura's with us from Walla Walla in Washington.
LAURA (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
LAURA: In February, my husband returned from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.
LAURA: And he's a helicopter pilot. And in September of 2005, he watched a helicopter with five of his good friends get shot down. He was flying directly behind it. And he's actually a member of the National Guard, which is a really small, tight-knit community.
LAURA: And it's just interesting hearing you talking about people telling their stories because he never really just came out and told me the whole story. But he's been home for a few months now, and every once in awhile he'll just kind of get in the mood to talk about the guys that were on the helicopter or talk about what happened, and I just - I find that interesting...
CONAN: The military has a whole regime. I mean people like him are offered counseling, and people do talk to them.
LAURA: Actually, he was never really offered any sort of counseling. I suppose he could have sought it out.
CONAN: Maybe, yes. I could be wrong.
LAURA: And then the other thing that was interesting to me is you mentioned debriefing, and I wondered is it possible while they're in that situation -they had to go back out and fly the very next day.
LAURA: And I guess I just wondered how do they process those sorts of things when they have to go back out and continue doing difficult things, and I wondered if your guests maybe had a comment on how they...
CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're having a psychologist come on later in the program, and that might...
CONAN: ...that part of your question might be more appropriate to him. So hang in there and we'll try to get to that in a little bit. But I wonder, Carl, as a - well, as a professional story listener, I guess, a folklorist, there are so many experiences like Laura's and her husband's, and we've read of so many veterans of the Second World War, for example, who were very reluctant to discuss their experiences with their families, sometimes until very late in life and sometimes never.
Prof. LINDAHL: Well, we've been seeking counseling in our project through Dr. Mary Armsworth, who's a specialist in trauma here at the University of Houston. And it's been my experience simply as a non-psychologist and her professional, informed experience that you never push someone to tell a story when that person doesn't want to. And what we found in this particular project is that people will sometimes want to tell the story. They know in some ways that they want to and need to, but they also know they're not ready. And we encourage our people who go forward and ask for these interviews to be alert for those cues.
If somebody doesn't want to tell that story or someone starts and then decides they cannot continue, our motto is the interviewee is always right. We do exactly what they say about this. We trust in inner wisdom on their part, a readiness and a comfort level for telling this story.
And what we found is that some people will get very emotional, but they'll want to tell the story and it will come off their chest and they'll be relieved. We've had individuals who've told the interviewers beforehand I'm going to cry, I know I'm going to cry, but I want you to hear the whole thing. I want you to bear with me. I don't want you to turn off the machine because I'm crying, because I know I need to tell this story.
And afterwards that person would hug the interviewer and it would be quite clear that things worked for that person. Other individuals will not come forward, and it is those people who I think are much more likely to need counseling. And that is a question I'd much rather refer to the expert who will come on later in this program.
CONAN: Okay. And Laura, I wonder, have you asked your husband to tell this story, or have you just been the recipient as the stories have come out?
LAURA: I'll ask him, because I knew the people as well because it's such a small community. You know, they're members of our local community and their family members, you know, were people that we know. And so I'll ask him questions once in a while, and sometimes it leads to a long conversation and sometimes it doesn't, you know. Sometimes he'll just be brief and, so.
CONAN: Anyway, good luck to you Laura and to your husband as well.
LAURA: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the phone call. I just wanted to ask Pat Jasper - I mean, there's a feeling amongst some people that, you know, yeah, I've got this story, but if you weren't there you wouldn't understand. You can't understand.
Ms. JASPER: I think some people feel that way. And I certainly think this project attempts to address that issue. And interestingly, your point leads to something we've discovered very early in this project, and that is you'll notice that we use the terminology evacuee and survivor.
Within the community of survivors writ large in Houston, evacuees are clearly people who left before the storm, and survivors are people who stayed and went through not just the storm itself but the aftermath of the storm.
And there are times when the intensity of that experience clearly expresses itself. But that's one reason why we were lucky in all the field schools that we've done to have individuals who had a range of experiences. Because as Glenda said, everybody's experience of this storm was diverse and varied. And there are many, many different narratives that need to get out there.
I mean, one of the dilemmas that I think everyone who's either witnessed the effects of the two storms - Katrina or Rita - or experienced them know is that we've had a very narrowed sense of what actually happened via the media. And what we're trying to do is give survivors themselves the opportunity to create that very big picture of how this was experienced, how it exists in their memory, and how they continue to live with it.
CONAN: We're talking with Pat Jasper and Carl Lindahl of the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Al on the line. Al's calling from Atlanta.
AL (CALLER): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Al.
AL: How are you?
CONAN: I'm good.
AL: I'd like to comment on one aspect of what your guests have been talking about. If I may personalize for just a moment, growing up I lost (unintelligible) and...
CONAN: I'm sorry Al, you lost what?
AL: Three siblings.
CONAN: Go ahead.
AL: And they were kind of at different times of my life. And they were different events. And they were all handled in three different ways. In one case, people wanted to more or less force themselves upon us. Oh, you must talk about this. You must do this, you must do that - very offensive.
Later in life I became an attorney and an advisor to a rape crisis and family abuse line, actually manned the line many times myself. And one of the things we found - and then in my own experience came in quite handy - was that, and let me echo what one of your guests said, is that the person must be allowed to tell the story in their own way and on their own terms. And quite often that means at their own time.
To have somebody who's available and a phone number, you can say call me if you want to talk. Well, that may or may not be helpful. I have found a good friend that has often been the best person, somebody who's available at any time, because you never can tell when that's going to come up. It may be the smell of an aftershave, a song on the radio or something. In my own case, it was a young lady. It was a very, very dear friend and just listened - just listened, allowed me to tell on my own terms and shared the experience with me.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Carl Lindahl, that kind of immersion, I don't think it's possible in a project like yours. You're giving people an opportunity to tell their stories, but not around the clock counseling.
Prof. LINDAHL: Well, not exactly, but we do come very close to what Al was talking about. We definitely urge people to allow the storyteller to tell this experience on their own terms and in their own way. And we fight for the non-directed interview. Again, that breakthrough moment when they don't have to ask the question and the individual who's got something to say has complete control over what is said.
In terms of their own times, no we're not exactly on call but we have reached situations in which someone who's given an interview before has come up to the interviewer and say I've got something else I need to say about this experience. It's deepening inside me. It's troubling me in different ways. Will you record me? And what we urge our people to do is to go and get that again. We're very, very interested in keeping that contact. Although, you're absolutely right, Neal. We cannot be on-call 24 hours a day.
CONAN: Al, thank you - do you have something more? If you could keep it quick.
AL: Well, I'll tell you very quick. I'm not suggesting somebody necessarily be on-call 24 hours a day. However, the professional who's seeking to intervene, one of the most important things I think they can focus on is whether the person they're speaking with has a good friend, somebody who's available like I had and make sure they have a good, loving, sensitive, support structure.
CONAN: Al, thanks for the advice, thanks for the phone call. Appreciate it.
AL: Thank you.
CONAN: We're going to continue this conversation when we come back from a short break. Again, if you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. E-mail us - email@example.com. Plus the evidence against the accused terrorists in London and your letters. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. Israel's prime minister says Israeli forces will lift their air and sea blockade of Lebanon as soon as an international peacekeeping force movies in. Ehud Olmert spelled out Israel's position during a meeting with a U.N. envoy who told Olmert that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to visit the Middle East next week.
And Western diplomats are now looking at Iran's hand delivered response to demands that it stop its nuclear program. The Iranians say they want to have serious negotiations. And the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton says he hopes so. Bolton also says the Iranians need to convince the world their intentions are peaceful. Tehran faces U.N. sanctions at the end of this month.
You can hear those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, when parents can't care for themselves anymore, sometimes the children need to take legal control. It can lead to some bitter custody disputes and fights over homes, medical care, and money. Guarding the elderly and how to protect yourself, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Thursday at this time, we continue our summer movie festival with a look at the best road movies of all time. You can e-mail us with you candidate for best road movie. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you would please put movies in the subject line.
In a few minutes, we'll get an update on charges against accused terrorist plotters in London and what evidence they face against them. But we've been talking earlier this hour about telling stories and its value. As we've heard, a traumatic event can completely alter your life and so for some people talking about it is therapeutic, but not for everybody. There's considerable debate about the psychological value of reliving your survivor story.
Richard Gist is a psychologist and leading authority on responses to trauma. He's also principal assistant to the Director of the Kansas City, Missouri Fire Department. He joins us now from Kansas City. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
Dr. RICHARD GIST (Psychologist, Principle Assistant to Director of Kansas City Fire Department): Thanks for asking me.
CONAN: We've been talking with some survivors about sharing their stories of some traumatic events. Can talking about these things - we tend to believe almost as a matter of belief that these can help by just talking.
Dr. GIST: For most of us that's true. When we are given the opportunity to tell our story to the people we want to speak in the time and in the place and in the fashion that we want to construct it, that narrative can be very valuable. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas, Austin, for example, has an excellent track of research demonstrating the value of written narratives in promoting health and allowing people an opportunity to frame their experiences.
There's another line of research, several, that tell us that this opportunity to give meaning and structure to things can be very valuable. And again, to most people it is. But it's highly dependent on their ability to choose the time and the place and the forum. And time, for one thing, may be particularly important.
CONAN: That's what our folklorists were talking about earlier. That they say in their business - not quite in mine - but in theirs the interviewee is always right. Yet there's a circumstance that is sometimes used called a debriefing which can happen after a catastrophic event. What is that?
Dr. GIST: Well, this is a sort of an ersatz psychological technique that became very popular based upon the seemingly logical assumption that if you told the story early and had an emotional catharsis along with it, this would help you work through it. The problem is, first of all, that for many people, immediately after the event is just too soon. I remember explaining to another NPR reporter once that if your next door neighbor has a massive heart attack and dies during the dining room supper, as a friend you'll come over, you'll feel awkward, you'll listen to whatever anybody wants to say, but you won't push them. You'll try to do something helpful like bring food maybe later on. But mostly you'll just do that awkward thing of being there and making yourself available to hear.
But on the other hand, if we come in the next morning, push all the furniture out of the living room, put the living-room chairs in a circle and ask people to recount in systematic detail how dad turned blue, choked, fell on the floor, began to convulse, medics came, shot stuff in the air, talked to grandparents on the phone, pulled a sheet over his head - you don't feel better.
You know, the timing and the context is really important, and in the debriefing, the notion was to have people systematically review the details of the event, sometimes less than 24 or 72 hours after it happened. For many people that's coming back to a situation way before they're ready to try to think through.
Our telling of stories and tales helps us in many ways re-frame the event. It helps us put it in a context where it's more comfortable to visit and see and feel, and we make it different as we do that.
Shelley Taylor and her associates at UCLA have done a series over the years of excellent studies with newly diagnosed cancer patients in which they look at how relating that event and to whom you relate it, your experiences and your feelings causes things to change for you, and they referred to it as mobilization and minimization.
In the beginning we must mobilize all our resources to deal with the thing in front of us, but we adjust to it over time as it passes by being able to even minimize parts of that experience as we retell it. So when we look several weeks and months down the line as people are telling their stories, they're likely to be focused on things like how I got through it, how I succeeded, what pulled me through. But in the debriefing exercise, we kind of jump on people immediately after the event and ask them questions like what is the worst part of this for you? What are you unable to do? And you can see how those two things have a very different flavor in what they do for folks.
CONAN: Well, we got an e-mail. I would like to get your reaction to it, and also Carl and Pat, the co-directors of this project. I'd like to hear from them, as well. “My partner and I were vacationing,” writes Danny from San Francisco. “My partner and I were vacationing in New Orleans when Katrina hit last year. We stayed in our French Quarter hotel, weathered the storm and barely got out of town when the levees started breaking the following day.
“Seeing the aftermath in the next few days threw me into a depression and survivor's guilt that I had not expected. Talking about it, telling my story, was all I wanted to do. My partner had the very opposite reaction. His coping was not to want to talk about it, to move past it quickly and put it behind us. This difference in coping nearly broke us up.”
And I wonder - I think from what I'm hearing you say, Richard Gist, is that both of those reactions are entirely valid.
Mr. GIST: Absolutely right. In fact, one of the things that - and I will say up front that most of us in the business were surprised that debriefing worked out the way that it did, that it was actually counterproductive for some. And the reason is in part that some people do cope with things in that sort of repressive way, and for them that's very helpful.
In fact, we have several studies with myocardial, with heart-attack patients that have told us that these people do well unless we try to get them to handle it the way the rest of us might feel more comfortable, that is being expressive about it, in which case their condition actually deteriorates. So the point is we have to respect that there's no one right way to do this.
CONAN: And Pat Jasper, I guess in your experience you were talking about there are times you just have to accept that - let sleeping dogs lie.
Mr. JASPER: Absolutely. I mean, one of the big discussions around the telling of stories and this event and the way in which evacuees and survivors have managed it is the issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome versus resiliency.
And one of the things we have discovered, and it follows really right out of what your last caller said and our fellow guest is speaking to, and that is that telling the story can be a way to start re-creating, particularly for these people who have been displaced, redeveloping social networks that they lost, that they left behind. And the next step from that is creating community. But that's a process that has to happen entirely naturally. You can't push people towards this until they're ready to do it, but once they are ready and if they are ready, they can begin to build those bigger networks that they lost in the situation of the hurricane.
CONAN: Thank you very much. And Richard Gist, one more question before you leave, and that was a caller we had earlier from Walla Walla, Washington, whose husband was a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan and saw one of his very close - a helicopter flown by some of his close friends in the same unit destroyed in Afghanistan. She was asking what counseling people get when they have to go back out on the line the very next day. You work for the fire department. It's not dissimilar.
Mr. GIST: No it's not. And again the key in all of this is recognizing the situation and the individuality of it. What we've taken to telling folks and the information we give them about things like this are two points kind of married together. One is to talk when you need to and listen when you can. But the second is you don't have to talk when you don't need to.
In many cases it's a matter of looking at how that individual is faring at the moment, making sure that they have an opportunity to assess their own ability to perform and respecting that assessment, being responsive to what may change in it as it goes along. Probably our big mistake early on was trying to establish hard and fast rules as if everyone would respond the same way, and what we've had to acknowledge and pay careful attention to now is that there are strong individual differences and there are strong situational differences and those are the parameters we have to work within.
CONAN: Richard Gist, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. GIST: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: Richard Gist, principal assistant to the director of the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department and professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, joined us by phone from Kansas City, Missouri.
Our thanks, too, to Carl Lindahl, co-director of the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project along with Pat Jasper. And they joined us today from the studios of our member station in Houston, KUHF. Thank you.
Mr. LINDAHL: Thank you.
Ms. JASPER: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.