Sunday, April 1, 2012

Freud, the Cult of the Personal, & the Trayvon Martin Case

NPR provided the delicious starting morsel: “A woman entered the room.” Viewers were invited to finish the sentence. And there were some good endings and flourishes. The starting point had something to do with it. After all, we were not dealing with a dark and stormy night or the car turning into a driveway.
This is all very human. We like to finish stories and video games. If not finish, we like to concoct. If we do concoct, we sometimes mistake the map for the territory. If we do this at the water cooler, little damage likely done. If we are the captain of the Concordia and miss an island that’s been off the coast of Italy for thousands of years, people die.

Jesse Singal, writing in the Daily Beast about the Trayvon Martin, case says, “We are inherently bothered by an incomplete story.” When we see holes in the narrative, we want to fill in the details. This penchant has more to do with our psychology than running out the grammatical string or finishing someone’s sentence. The subject/object world is straightforward, inviting and insufficient.

With all deference to Freud, we seem hard-wired to write fictions as well. This giant of psychology did not only bless us by putting our fictional in-laws in the room when we have sex, he also gave us a writing style that depends heavily on literature and mythology. Oedipus has occupied a chair in the consulting room for more than a hundred years along with a handful of his mythological friends and enemies. The master acknowledged as early as 1934 that he owed more to fiction writers, including Heine, Zola, and Goethe, than to scientific writing. He was not writing case studies; he was writing fictions. Freud earned the Goethe prize for literature.

We learn early on the difference between report, inference and judgment and how to avoid confusing levels of abstraction. We know from both hard research and the delicious and improbable CSI series that seeing is absolutely not believing. To paraphrase semanticist S.I. Hayakawa, we all have a tendency to see the “little man who wasn’t there.”

We don’t just fake our resumes, we fictionalize our biographies, our lives. The media is full of stories of remembrances of past lives and especially of sexual abuse. The former is a con; the latter more complex but still wide open to our imaginings. It has become a celebrity rite of passage, an affirmation of victimhood. Since the abolition of the draft almost forty years ago, the number of those faking their military resumes—stealing valor—has skyrocketed. Why earn a medal when you can buy one on eBay?

We will have our stories, one way or the other. I am writing a book about my Navy experiences in and around Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf. My fantasy is that it will be a cross between Mr. Roberts and Catch-22. As part of my research, I visited the Naval Archive Center in Washington, DC, and got some of the actual log books from the ships I served on. I was stunned by the mundane entry accounts of setting Condition Yoke, for watertight compartments, of standing down from a simulated atomic blast, and the captain’s mast for Seaman Mixed Hair. Except for Mixed Hair, the other items were routine at sea activities. But what about the typhoon that almost killed us, the on-board arsonist, the dust-ups off Vietnam, the suicide, etc.?

Those sailors weary of documenting their travels across the Atlantic and Pacific will talk about “gun-decking the log.” “The sea is always calm, the moon is high, and the chronometers have been wound and repaired.” Should my memory and imagination play second fiddle either to the facts or to the scribe who is writing his own case study about a private voyage inside his head?

A plot is a narrative of events. A story tells us what happens next, such as after the king dies. We want to nail down the plot; then we want the full story. What should or must happen next? By now this is as much about me as the characters in the drama.

What apparently troubles many of us about the Trayvon Martin case, other than the tragic death itself, is that the narrative lines and graphics keep changing. The first photo of Martin shows him as an angelic teenager. The shooter George Zimmerman appears in a mug shot. Later photos show Martin in a hoodie or with gold teeth. This time Zimmerman is in coat and tie and smiling.

Eye witnesses, videos, and leaks from the media and police come and go, adding to an increasingly complicated narrative thread. We are collectively writing a script and this plot is well on its way to becoming a film, whether we like it or not. That Martin’s mother is reportedly trying to trademark some of the familiar chants offered at rallies for her son, will not change the trajectory of the story.

Some judicial authority will write the official script, as in the OJ Simpson case, but that might not change a lot of minds. This narrative has been too juicy with too many invitations to enter the creative door for us to defer. Why let facts stand in the way? I’m not about to turn my back on that contract.

I haven’t seen or heard much understatement and humility, except from the funeral home director who prepared Martin’s body for burial.

The body showed no signs of a struggle. Just a 9-mm bullet hole in his chest.

End of plot.

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