As we were putting this issue of the magazine together, I was repeatedly reminded that during these months 10 years ago, I endured the biggest trauma of my life: the deaths—within eight weeks of each other—of my father and my best friend.
As I read drafts of our cover story, I flashed to the day after my father died—the same day my friend was told by doctors that they could do nothing more to battle her ovarian cancer. I went into the big backyard at my parents’ house and began a deliberate and intense campaign to stamp out every weed and overgrown hedge that had taken advantage of years of neglect. I worked until it was too dark, making sure that each wild onion and spiky dandelion was gone. Then I went to bed too exhausted to let the nightmares in. But I didn’t stop. For the next year, I spent hours dragging bags of fertilizer to the yard, wrestling old roots from the ground, making space for the carloads of lavender, chamomile, datura, rosemary from the nursery. I built a pathway of stones, planted grass. Watered and watered. Nurtured. It’s a fine garden now.
As Mark Obbie writes in his cover story, our stock healing narrative basically says we should brace for post-traumatic stress disorder, but hope that we are resilient.
It feels treacherous to talk about the good that could come from soul-shaking bad—the Boston bombing, the Newtown shooting, the Oklahoma tornado, or the sniper bait-and-attack on volunteer firemen in Webster, New York. Nothing positive, it seems, should come from the death of a 19-year-old volunteer firefighter.
That we can rattle off such a long list of traumatic events that have scarred the past year is difficult enough. It means there have been too many families, neighborhoods, cities that have been devastated—and now have to recover. And with the news of tragedies blanketing not only the airwaves but our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, trauma seems to be having an increasingly profound effect on people who never knew a single victim, or felt the heat of a bomb blast.
As Mark Obbie writes in his cover story, “The Upside of Trauma,” our stock healing narrative basically says we should brace for post-traumatic stress disorder, but hope that we are resilient. But that doesn’t feel like an adequate summary of our options. Obbie writes about how Bill Benson, a somewhat hapless social-media producer who had never even heard of Webster, New York, helped steer an entire town toward a positive aftermath—and a few individuals toward a long-term redirection of their lives. What if it was post-traumatic growth that some people experience?
What Obbie’s story makes clear is that how we respond to an event depends heavily on the cultural cues we receive. This is also a theme in Ethan Watters’ essay, “Mad Fashion.” In it, he reminds us that the symptoms of mental illness are real, but also molded by culture. Provocatively, he argues that if the authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders were transported back to 1880, they would have to include hysteria in their volume, for the same reasons that PTSD is in the manual now: thousands of people clearly exhibited the telltale symptoms, and clinicians could reliably distinguish it from other ailments. “From a distance, we can see how the flawed certainties of Victorian-era healers created a sense of inevitability around the symptoms of hysteria,” he writes. “There is no reason to believe that the same isn’t happening today.”
Perhaps we at the magazine have manifested a different kind of psychological tic: In these pages you’ll find three different stories about our shifting notions of mental health, two about firefighters, two about oddball film companies, two that touch on the Boston bombing, two about policy-making, and one about something called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon—a name for how, when you start looking, you see the same themes everywhere.