40 years ago today our family's boat capsized in the waters between the Dry Tortugas and Key West. We spent 26 hours on the overturned hull -- falling off and scrambling back up -- in pretty dangerous, shark-friendly waters and throughout an overnight storm. We made it. Yes, there's a whole lotta story I've left out, complete with mirages, my pleas to let me swim to a channel marker my child's mind saw as a radio outpost, man-o-war stings (poor Mom), and more. But so yeah. We made it. Later, we did an ad for Igloo coolers -- one of which helped keep our boat afloat. The memories linger, rising and swelling up into view, blushing in affective intensity from time to time (as they did when I wrote this post back in 2007).
Some friends responding to a public post about the matter suggested that I write about this event. I dug up a brief passage from an article I'd been writing a few years ago (the article neared publication but just *neared* it, and I am from today's perspective kind of glad about that). So but here's a little clip, beginning after the subheader that follows the article's contextualizing intro:
So, then, . . . a few months after our boat wreck, I thought I’d write a book about it. I figured that I could even be one of those “child prodigies” you see sitting next to Carson—adorable, frilly-frocked, enchanting Johnny, Ed, the audience, and millions of viewers with my charm and wit. I actually started writing it shortly after the incident occurred on July 10, 1973. I was 10, yet I believed along with Michel de Montaigne (of whom I had as yet no knowledge whatsoever) that I had within me “the entire human condition” (qtd in Lopate xxiii). At the very least, I had met John D. McDonald, a family friend, who had made me sense that I needed to live a Big Life; I imagined that I could do so by writing about our tragedy. I used a number 2 pencil and an aqua-blue colored notebook, the kind with really fat lines. I believe I managed to compose an entire page and a half. And I remember being especially proud of a particular phrase; it was constructed so stiffly and awkwardly that should I read such a phrase today I would be incapable of keeping my eye stalks from shooting instinctively upward, crablike, undulating madly about in search of intelligent life somewhere in the text. It’s the sort of phrase you read often from novice writers, say, in first year composition classes, the kind of writing that says, “See! I am college material!” It is the sort of phrase that is constructed by deploying as an adjective some verb with an “ing” ending and then, tacking on a prepositional phrase beginning with “of.” Perhaps there is some particular name for this structure; I don’t know. I do remember what I wrote, and how I saw, in my mind’s eye, me, swaddled inAt this point in the process of creating my narrative, I was so assured of my prodigy status that I simply stopped writing. I was certain that I would be discovered. But, like all sad media fantasies, this one did not survive the passage to reality. Sure, the newspapers came to photograph us. We were featured in The Enquirer. We even did an ad for Igloo Coolers because my dad had written the company to tell them about how our giant picnic sized cooler had helped to buoy the boat through the night (we were in the water for about 26 consistently storming hours). It just so happened that Igloo was at that time running a campaign that went: “IGLOO: BUILT TO SURVIVE THE REAL WORLD.” So, while we were on our vacation in
’s Plush Red Velvet
guest chair. Johnny would read a bit from my book, including the passage where
I recalled a sort of hallucination involving a small piece of fiberglass that
was nearly detached from the broken hull of our boat; it swung threateningly
back and forth with the waves, just near my big toe which had a small cut on it
and was pinking up but not actually oozing anything of consequence. Anyhow, I
remember thinking that this piece of gray fiberglass was a small shark—I was
young, but our many years of fishing and diving in the Keys, along with the
dock lore that attended it—had taught me this much about aquatic life: sharks
were drawn to blood. And I imagined that this piece of fiberglass was hanging
about for the right moment to strike. I watched in the detached manner of the
doomed . . . waiting. When I wrote of it, I wrote: . . . “[something] . . .
[something] . . . [about the shark] . . .” who was sniffing at “ . . . THIS BLEEDING
TOE OF MINE!” Carson
So I suppose we gained some local and national notoriety, but my great book never materialized. In fact, I have always found it profoundly difficult to write about trauma. And when I do write about it, it is usually with some exploitative motivation. I suppose I fancied the notion—just as many students perhaps believe that they will be rewarded with “A’s” for their disclosure—that in divulging the severity of my suffering I would be karmically reciprocated with fame and fortune. It is likely that this is because we live a culture that values fame above any other virtue, thus making it difficult for us to write about our trauma without conjuring images of made-for-T.V.-movies, guest appearances, presidential medals, what have you. Perhaps this is because “mass produced images guide our presentation of the self in everyday life, our ways of relating to others, and the creation of our social values and goals” (Kellner 18). Hopefully, my inability to write about trauma is encouraged by some inherent morality or transcendent intelligence I have yet to realize, despite the fact that I watch a lot of TV (especially HBO). As well, I like to believe that I have subconsciously resisted transcribing the events of my various traumas because I do not wish to exploit them in the name of fame or prosperity. Do I avoid writing about trauma because “the pace, the extension, and complexity of modern societies [have] accelerate[d], [so that my] identity becomes more and more unstable, more and more fragile” (Kellner 233) similar to the postmodern identity Douglas Kellner imagines? Do I imagine my identity as so “fragile” and “unstable” that I will have nothing of consequence to say? Will this fragility give way to total fragmentation in the writing of my identity and its trauma? Is it simply that “subjective identity is itself a myth, a construct of language and society, an overdetermined illusion that one is really a substantial subject” (Kellner 233)? Or, more hopefully, am I so invested in postmodern ethics that I don’t trust my “self” and its motivations? For you see, I have never been able to truly inhabit that clichéd sensibility we hear of from Great Writers, you know, the claim that they are writing in order to share their difficult experience for the sake of educating others and improving the human condition. For one thing, I never bought it. The personal stories-cum-E! Specials; the tabloid universe; the self-promotional biographies . . . all just leave me with a sort of edgy feeling I can’t adequately describe without recourse to foul, excremental, or otherwise lowbrow discourse. Something fairly sleazy in the business of it. Something more humanely dignified, perhaps even something usefully meditative and generative in silence, as Cheryl Glenn and Pat Belanoff have recently suggested. And, well, I see that I am here positioning myself in superior relation to those who would articulate their trauma; am I sincere? Do I believe what I am saying here? Or is all of this simply the familiar nature of writing about our own lives . . . the white lies, the obfuscation, the ostensibly earnest cultural critique?
On the first day of school following the (boat wreck) summer of 1973, my fifth grade English teacher, Mrs. H____, asked me to stand up in front of the class in order that I might narrate the events of July 10th. I had no idea that she would do this. But, being an obedient student, I stood and began to tell our story. Within seconds, I was fighting tears, and soon I could not fight. I was hysterical, standing alone with my trauma and exquisitely unable to speak; I made those throaty dry-heave noises one makes when one is nauseated but unable to express the sickness. Mrs. H____ waited patiently, hoping perhaps that I might compose myself so as to facilitate a happy ending. None would come. She soon told me to please go to the bathroom and freshen up. Since the time I wrote of “this bleeding toe of mine,” I have written on only one other occasion of our boat wreck. As a graduate student, I was required to engage in ethnographic research as part of a course in Research Methods. I chose to study a growing poetry subculture in
As I write this now, I realize that this is the most I have ever written about any of the traumatic events that have shaped my life. It has been both enjoyable and only nostalgically tragic. I feel ready. But I can claim this readiness only for myself. As a teacher, then, this writing has been instructive, although I’m not sure that I can say exactly what I have learned. Will I return to assigning personal essays? If so, will I enact a caveat? If not, should I continue to promote the values of writing (about) trauma even as I neglect to engage them pedagogically as part of my curriculum?