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I was parking my car to go to work as an Assistant Director of the Rutgers Writing Program when I first heard about the planes hitting the towers on September 11, 2001. I recall it quite clearly because it was 8:58—traffic on the eights on news radio—and they were making a report about it as it happened. I remember the numbness that crept over me as that day unfolded, that haunting sense that my world had irrevocably changed.
Katrina was a nasty tropical storm when it passed over us here in South Florida but Wilma was a different story. It devastated the region and I was without electricity for weeks. Our school was closed for ten days. I was dealing with so much here that I didn’t quite realize that Katrina was painting a bullseye on my hometown of New Orleans until after the damage had been done.
Trauma was very much on my mind when I first started assembling the readings for Emerging. I wanted a collection of very contemporary readings to reflect the fact that important conversations had changed in the wake of massive tragedies like 9/11 and Katrina. I also wanted to provide students tools for dealing with a world in which bad things happened, even though those bad things might feel very far away to invincible youth. For the first edition, we included Joan Didion’s “After Life” about the sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
“After Life” didn’t last past the first edition; it just was too thin on ideas. But in this edition we’re returning to the notion of trauma with two readings, Sarah Stillman’s “The Atomic Bomb and the Genetics of Trauma” and Sharon Moalem’s “Changing Our Genes: How Trauma, Bullying, and Royal Jelly Alter Our Genetic Destiny.” Both of these essays sequence well with entirely different readings. Stillman examines the continuing aftereffects of the bombing of Hiroshima by looking at the lives of hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombing. It’s great for any sequence on war and conflict. Moalem instead is studying epigenetics, the ways in which environmental factors impact the expression of our genetic code. It’s great in sequences on science and technology. And yet both make the argument that trauma can be inherited, that its impact is so great that it can change our genetic code.
These readings both feel so very relevant to me. I’m writing this just after the terrorist attacks in Belgium but there’s a good chance I can check the news any day of the week to find some trauma or other, not to mention the epidemic of bullying that continues to plague our schools. I hope that readings like these will help students to engage these issues. For many students trauma might feel very far away, but it never really is.
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