Monday, February 20, 2012

Remembering and Reenacting Trauma

As she discusses Ralli’s performance of Antígona, Taylor points out how Ralli was able to use embodied symbols to connect lived  memory to the dramatic memory of the story of Antigone: “In the performance, she included the gestures she associated with the women as a way of signaling the continuity of cultural gestures and behaviors.” (207-208)  This immediately brought to mind an amazing project called Dark Elegy(  Dark Elegy is a sculpture garden by a woman named Suse Lowenstein that commemorates the attack on Pan Am 103 on Dec. 21, 1988.  The plane was coming from Heathrow bound for JFK, and was destroyed by a bomb over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland.  Until September 11, 2001, this was the largest foreign attack on American civilians.  Lowenstein’s 21-year-old son was one of the victims.  In order to cope with her grief, she sculpted herself at the moment when she received the news, and then began sculpting other women connected to other passengers.  Each sculpture is a frozen gesture, an encapsulation of the trauma of the moment captured in stone.  This sculpture project later inspired playwright Deborah Brevoort to write the play The Women of Lockerbie, based on the event.  I found a strong connection in this play both to the gestural nature of embodied memory in Taylor’s repertoire, but also in her discussion of her experience of September 11.  The layers of performance involved in capturing that trauma – from memory, to sculpture to play – marry the repertoire and the archive in an interesting way.  There is a moment in the play when Madeline, the grieving mother of a 21-year-old son lost in the attack, recounts the moment when she heard about the explosion:
                I was in the kitchen.
                I was baking a pie for Adam.
                A pumpkin pie, to welcome him home.
                The TV was on.
                I listen to it when I’m cooking…
                I sprinkle flour on the counter
                and roll out the pie dough.
                I roll it once in each direction.
                Like this…
                (She rolls)
                The way my mother taught me.
                And then
                Ted Koppel comes on the air.
                I know immediately that something is wrong.
                You only hear Ted Koppel’s voice at night
                never in the day.
                He said:
                “We interrupt this program…
                Pan Am 103 was last seen in a fireball over Scotland.”
                I double over.
                I sink onto the kitchen counter.
                My face presses into the pie dough.
                It is cold on my nose and cheek.
                I cannot stand up.
                I grope the counter
                for something to hold on to.
                My arm hits the flour bin.
                It crashes to the floor.
                My feet are covered with flour.
                I reach for the handle
                on the refrigerator.
                I pull myself up.
                And there
                in front of me
                is a note
                held by a magnet
                that says
                “Adam. 7pm. JFK. Pan Am 103.”
                I live in New Jersey!
                I have two cars in the driveway!
                This was not supposed to happen to me!

She relives the private moment of her trauma in a detailed and physical way, making of herself a perpetual statue.  As we put that performance of grief into statue and scripted form, it becomes a part of the archive, but since the memory is inherently housed in gesture, it remains actively in the repertoire as well. 
There is something so inherently visceral about the way we process extreme trauma like Pan Am 103, the Dirty War or September 11 that the archive doesn’t seem quite enough to hold these memories.  In many cases, we the survivors are the only physical remains left to testify to the event.  While Diana’s body was there to be paraded through London, many of the bodies could not be recovered from Pan Am or the World Trade Center, and certainly most of the desaparecidos were never retrieved.  In the absence of that kind of archival finality, we are left to rely on the memory that has taken root in the bones of the witnesses.  And we really are all witnesses.  Whether we were in New York or thousands of miles away, we were all witnesses to the events of September 11.  Even though the women represented in Dark Elegywere not in Scotland watching the plane fall, they are witnesses.  As Taylor points out in chapter 9, there is more to the record than the officially sanctioned photos (archive).  The moment of trauma is burned on the body and the mind and the way in which that trauma is relived and re-felt and retold requires a distinctly performative approach to history and memory.
As of 2008, Suse Lowenstein had sculpted 76 women connected with Pan Am 103.  In each piece, the last thing she adds is a small personal trinket or remembrance that she places just behind the heart – which seems to me a sort of perfect illustration of the marriage of the archive and the repertoire.  There is a personal element to the memory recorded in this sculpted archive that we may never see, but that embodied element is what completes it.

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