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People Process Trauma in Words

Storytelling proves our need to find our place within traumatic events

Death. Trauma. Pain

When the terrorist bombings hit Boston last month, I noticed one thing: people process the trauma in words. They tell stories: where they were, what they saw, what they felt.

An author friend writes a tribute to his country on his Facebook page. A stay-at-home mom, guarding her bevy of children, becomes a citizen reporter on the scene in Watertown, tweeting about the view from her backyard of snipers staking out a position on the roof of her garden shed. An otherwise non-aspiring writer is inspired to try his hand at capturing his version of this past week’s dreamy miasma of exhausting, hand-wringing events.

As we Boston-area residents began the recovery process from the Boston Marathon bombings, the lockdown, and from our media hangovers, out gushed the words, like a fresh wound. Not spoken words, which can evaporate as soon as they are voiced. But stories, written down.

Sure, we’ve all experienced the flurry of hastily dashed-off texts, sent to loved ones to check in, to say, “We are safe.” But even before the dust settled on Boylston Street, I’d noticed a burst of blog posts, Facebook posts, and other personal accounts popping up on the Internet. Those longer stories that cannot be contained in a mere tweet.

All these written words prove our need to find our place within the events. To be part of the story, to insert our own heart and mind into this larger narrative. Who doesn’t want to comment, to communicate, to reflect, to engage in some way? Or, as Neil Diamond himself belted out at Fenway Park, to use words as, “Hands, touching hands / Reaching out, touching me, touching you”?

This urge to participate and to tell one’s individual story humanizes pain and makes big, sweeping events human-scaled. The tradition is as old as Homer and the Icelandic Sagas. We cope with trauma by injecting ourselves into the wider story. The gesture says, “I, too, was there.” The gesture also says, “This is how I process grief.” Story helps transform chaos, crisis, and helplessness into something we can retell, and therefore transcend.

It’s the same phenomenon I noticed after the events of September 11. I was living in Paris at the time and my coterie of expat writers, myself included, felt moved to write our version of events — to be part of the story that was unfolding and rippling across the Atlantic. I wanted to document exactly where I stood while the terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I wanted to record what I felt, what I knew, and how I might be changed.

This time, as with 9/11, I had no personal link to the two bombers, or to the blasts. But even for me, I harbor one smidgen of connection: a sort of equation that functions like Six Degrees of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev between me and the events, that makes this all feel more real.

I have a friend whose au pair was down at the marathon finishing line, watching the events from the sideline with his young son. She is Mexican, and they stood under Mexican flag. Then, because the crowd was too much to handle, they left the finish line and were soon long gone from the area. But in that exact location where they stood, 15 minutes later, the first bomb exploded.

I was not there. But this story collapses space and time. This story brings me closer. Closer because I want to bring the terror closer to me, to feel it more deeply.

This past week’s events reinforced, again, this basic truth: In spite of the instantaneous, multi-platform, transmedia multi-verse of imagery and spectacle by which we subsist, the act of storytelling retains its simple and astonishing power.

So, whatever our trauma, let us take up our pens and pixels. Let us get it down. Try, and try again, for the right words. For yourself, for others, for posterity. So that we all may know what it was like for you to be there, the week of April 15, 2013, in Boston, in Massachusetts, in America, at the troubled dawn of the 21st century. And how we persevered.

[A version of this essat originally appeared on WBUR's Cognoscneti]

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, writes for the New York Times, The Boston Globe and