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Disaster Falls: A Family Story, Stephane Gerson.

December 11, 2016

Disaster Falls: A Family Story, Stephane Gerson.  Crown (2017), 272 pages.  FORTHCOMING.

5 stars

A haunting account of a man trying to make sense of the death of his eight-year-old son who was drowned in a boating accident.

A couple and their two sons took a float trip on Utah’s Green River.  They knew little about running rivers or the American west, but the trip was said to be safe for children.   The unthinkable happened.  Their younger son drowned in the rapids.  Over the next three years, the boy’s father struggled to make sense of what had taken place as the family tried to move on.  This book is his narrative of that struggle.

Stephane Gerson is a cultural historian who teaches at New York University.  Cultural historians are an emerging subset of historians who focus on understanding cultural adaptations and how they change.  In his prize-winning scholarly work, Gerson has focused on topics like memories and geographical place.  For example, he has looked at the impact of tumultuous events like the French Revolution on individuals and culture rather than its concrete political  affect. Unlike traditional intellectual historians who have studied “great men and great ideas,” cultural historians look at the attitudes that pervade groups of people.  They are sensitive to the stories that people construct to explain their lives. They are aware that such stories may differ widely and be contradictory.   Instead of absolute factual accuracy, they are interested in the shape and textures of the stories.  Gerson’s account of accepting his son’s death grows out of the assumptions of his field, although he shuns the jargon that too often makes cultural history difficult to read.

What happened to eight-year-old Owen was incomprehensible to his father, and Gerson needed to find a means of coping with it.  Although he had no hope that would find a definite answer to his literal or metaphysical questions, his response was to write, to craft words that could allow him to negotiate the path ahead. At first he wrote in his journal and later he composed this book.

Gerson writes with skill and insight.  He brings readers into his numbness and sense of isolation without becoming voyeuristic or smothering them in his emotions.  He is fully aware of what words can and cannot do.  Deliberately refusing to get caught up in anger and blame, he experiences deep guilt as a parent who failed at any parent’s chief task, keeping his child safe.  Because he wants to honor and remember his son, he continues to look for the words to express the unthinkable.

As Gerson makes clear, he has not written an advice book but an account of his own introspective journey.  His wife and his surviving son took different paths, but the family deliberately decided not to allow the tragedy to destroy their family bonds.  Theirs was a Jewish family, but not a particularly observant one.  At times traditional Jewish words and practices resonated, but family did not find a solution to their grief in religion.  Gerson’s parents had escaped Nazi Germany and continued to live in Belgium.  After Owen’s death, Gerson pondered his own identity as both a father and a son.  His father’s death, three years after Owen’s, brought him a sense of his ongoing relationship to both.

Disaster Falls is the name of the book and the place where Owen died.  It also identifies the devastating loss of meaning that can occur in our lives.  As such I recommend this book to all who are dealing such losses themselves.  Reading Gerson can provide a sense that those who grieve are not as alone as they often feel.  Another person has been through the darkness been able to find words for it, inadequate as they may be.  The book also can provide insight and permission to follow one’s path because there is no one required way to grieve.

In addition, Gerson offers an example what it means to “construct our own stories.”  Such an idea is commonplace among some academics, but some within and without academia, find it disturbing and overly relativistic.  Gerson displays how stories are not simply things we “make up” but can be grounded in the objective physical realities of life.  The fact Owen died is about as real as anything can be.  So are the swirling contradictions that Gerson experiences.  The story is literally a way to bring order to what is unthinkable.  The story does not claim to be perfectly objectively true, although it must include that sort of truth.  It is not the only valid story; other valid stories can be told from other perspectives.  The story’s power is that an acceptable narrative can allow us to survive extreme loss.  As my nation moves into an unthinkable future, I long for words to make bearable.  Perhaps we all need to find new stories to deal with our new realities.

I sincerely recommend this book to a variety of readers who are curious about creating stories that face reality and steady us as we live through turbulent times.

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