Challenges to Care: Familial Response to Displacement and Trauma

By Jenna Lawson, Clio Lieberman, Helen Warfle

The progression of disaster narratives culminating in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One brought us to reflect on what we know of families in disaster scenarios from our “Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse” course with Dr. Kirsh. In light of this connection, we challenged ourselves to examine how familial ties and affective bonds are explored in the course materials. Earlier in the course, we mentioned how children can often be conscripted into performances of victimhood, especially in the context of nationally covered disasters. Particularly, the case of Jackson Shepherd during Hurricane Sandy exemplified how even infants, who are obviously unable to consent, are brought into these conversations to provoke sympathy. On the other hand, black children are disproportionately seen as older than their age, provoking stronger consequence from government forces or even their own communities instead of a gentler consideration.

These factors led us to examine the implications of children whose psychological development is impacted by disruptive, potentially violent circumstances like hurricanes, and how those who don’t survive the encounter enter the cycle of memory and forgetting. We know that affective ties and emotional bonds provide some of the most secure attachments for children to form their worldviews and survival strategies as they begin to navigate their surroundings. In the texts Zone One and Superstorm, as well as the documentary When the Levees Broke, dead children are lauded as symbols of mishandling, wrongdoing, or coldheartedness from the state or humanity more generally.

Glenda Moore, in the poignant example presented by both Superstorm and Tavia N’yongo’s “Black Survival in the Uchromatic Dark,” the loss of her children’s lives were coded to shape narratives ranging from social critiques against implicit racism to encouraging such impulses through categorizing Moore as an absentee or lazy mother. This extends to N’yongo’s evaluation that Moore and her children’s lives were conscripted into the “utter imbrication of wealth and poverty, security and neglect, that is the urban ecology of the New York region,” both confirming and challenging the assumption that nonwhite bodies are “destined to be oppressed by intemperate weather.” This “passing of the buck” suggests that nonwhite families’ tragedies are unavoidable (and therefore excusable), an idea which ignores the systemic structuring of places like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to bear the brunt of flooding and erosive forces resulting from the redirection of the Mississippi River.

In the context of living children, displacement and the breaking of affective ties and emotional bonds is a common outcome of traumatic situations, such as hurricanes and a zombie apocalypse. In Zone One, the Simons are a “rare thing in the wasteland, an intact family unit. Or they pretended to be” (319). The children, “Harold and Jennie[, who are] eleven and thirteen respectively… rarely spoke” (319). When posing for the family photo, they “arrang[e] themselves into what [Mark Spitz] took to be their standard post, not smiling but not put out or melancholic, either” (320). Photography is a way of depicting “reality” in processes of memory and forgetting– and the family chooses to have their memory as a neutral stare. However, the family only “pretend[s] to be” (319) intact, and the children do not communicate outwardly.

The displacement of the family due to the apocalypse means that affective ties and emotional bonds are broken, thus leading to a potentially abnormal adolescent development. The neutral stare is reminiscent of mannequins, which lack humanity but are in the form of humans. This evokes a depiction of a shell of the former human– with the human substance being lost or removed. Building a barricade to keep oneself from the outside world can be a way to cope with trauma, and prevents the future formation of bonds with others. This relates to When the Levees Broke, where families were ripped apart, displaced, and forced to migrate to other cities in the U.S. Many families from New Orleans found that their relatives had moved to Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, etc., and some family members chose to stay in the new cities instead of reconvening with the rest of their family back in their autochthonous New Orleans.  

Of course, no discussion of the role of children in disaster narratives would be complete without a discussion of the symbolic meaning children often hold in these stories: hope for the future, and there is no better example of this than the Tromanhauser Triplets in Zone One. As Whitehead writes, “To pheenies, these babies were localized hope, and they needed the Triplets to pull through. Buffalo could announce a vaccine tomorrow, or a process for reversing the tortures of the plague, and they’d still be talking Tromanhauser Triplets” (52). These three “miracle babies” are a better symbol for the future than anything else: children mean the continued survival of humanity, and beyond that, they are a symbol of innocence in a world that seems to no longer have any. Every other person has killed, every other person has had to do things that they view as morally wrong, but not these infants.

However, it is important to remember that these are simply infants who are being conscripted into this role. They don’t have any effect on the reality of the situation; they are only a symbol. Like Jackson Shepherd, they have no control over their role as an icon for the “American Phoenix.” In the end, they have no effect whatsoever on the physical events: the barriers still fall. They do have an important role in the creation of hope, which is no small thing, but it also folly to give them the importance as the sole hope for humanity. As seen at the end of the novel, the “American Phoenix” still falls despite their survival. As such, it is important to consider the humanity and mortality of children when putting them in roles of hope. Yes, they can be an important inspiration, but it is also a performance they cannot consent to, nor do they have any real effect on a disaster situation.

As is standard with this course, we find ourselves left with more questions than answers (but important ones at that). How do we ethically depict children in narratives, especially if they cannot consent to this participation? During natural disasters, what measures can we put in place to protect, and avoid the exploitation of, children? As Jenna wrote in a previous blog post, how can we be ethical consumers in the face of an uncontrollable and seemingly infinite media production? In processes of memory and forgetting, how do we ethically remember children without conscripting them into performance?

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