Saturday, October 13, 2007

Naming the Perpetrator

While on vacation I read the book "A Random Act" by Cindi Broddus. The story is her true account of a horrific crime - some person tossed a gallon of sulphuric acid off an overpass in the wee hours of the morning just as she and a friend were driving by on the freeway below. The bottle of acid came hurling through the windshield, splashed all over Cindi's face, arms and torso, burning her beyond recognition. She required many surgeries and years of recovery therapy and remains physically disfigured. How she coped with those events and the meaning she gave to it is the focus of her book.

I've been mentally comparing this book to Terri Jent'z account of her late night attack in an Oregon campground. For no apparent reason, an unknown assailant drove his truck up on top of the pup tent Terri and her roommate were sleeping in, then got out of the truck and proceeded to attack them both with an ax. Miraculously, both girls survived, even though their injuries were severe. Terri's book Strange Piece of Paradise tells of her years of investigation to identify the perpetrator who so brutally harmed her.

In BOTH cases it was a random act by a stranger that brought unimaginable damage to these women who seemed to have done nothing to bring them into harm's way more than merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In both cases, the perpetrators were never arrested or held accountable for their crimes. The similarities stop there.

Without question, Jent'z book is better written. Strange Piece of Paradise is filled with striking word images and powerful prose that give evidence to her Yale training. Broddus, on the other hand, is not a writer by profession. In fact, she parnters with someone else to get her story laid out. Evenso, at times her book comes off as too sappy. I acknowledge that from the outset the intent of the two books are entirely different. Jentz aims to speak the truth of what happened to her in the face of a social and political climate that seemed determined to look the other way and sweep all that unpleasantness under the rug. Broddus, on the other hand, deliberately sets out to be inspirational/ uplifting. Her message is of forgiveness and choosing to focus on the kindnesses of those who supported her through the nightmare rather than on the horror or the pain.

Broddus states in several passages that catching the criminal or knowing his specific identity were never a priority for her. Instead, she focuses on "pay it forward" style efforts to make something good come out of the terrible. Jentz, on the other hand, describes feeling driven to find out who did this bad thing. Naming the perpetrator takes on almost a compulsion for her and seems to be a catalyst for her healing (although she uses a pseudonym in the book for the man she is convinced did the assault, she has discussed his real identity with law enforcement officials and given information which substantially incriminates him - if not entirely proves he did the crime. They chose not to follow up because he could not be prosecuted due to expiration of statute of limitations.)

What reading both of these books has got me wondering about is what I believe is the most healthy or most appropriate response to trauma and harm.

While most people will never have to face events of this magnitude, EVERY one of us will face some bad in this world. It is the nature of our mortal existence. When the bad comes, how will I respond? What meaning will I give to the utterly wrong, unfair heartaches that come my way?

Does it matter what the context is?

In the book Too Scared to Cry by Dr. Lenore Terr comparison is made between the effects of ONE isolated terrible awful event that happens to the consequences of enduring prolonged, ongoing trauma. I heard Dr. Terr speak at a conference once shortly after the book came out. She described her research comparing a group of school children who had been kidnapped and buried in their school bus, a young girl who was attacked by a lion at a zoo, and several other "ONE time harmed kids" with a group of young people who had lived in war zones or endured years of abuse. It was a fascinating study of the long-term consequences of what happens when children are forced to live in fear.

But I can't help but wonder what different outcomes might be if we could somehow measure the variable of how individuals DEFINE the bad things that happened to them rather than how much or how long those bad things had to be endured.

The meaning we give to the events of our life has tremendous power. What meaning will I give to my blessings? What meaning will I give to my harms?

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