Writing Right with Dmitri: Ghosts of Traumas Past
The other evening, a made-for-TV movie from 1990, of all things, just blew me away. I wasn't expecting it to. A television docudrama about the 1986 Challenger disaster should be informative about the causes of the shuttle accident, which it was. It should be true to its time, and it did that. It should probably tell the stories of the astronauts who died during that ill-fated launch, and the filmmaker and actors accomplished that, too. It's what else they did that astonished me.
Throughout the film, the audience is shown two threads of action: the personal stories of the crew, their plans and hopes for the mission and after – and the growing frustration of an engineer for Morton Thiokol as he tried to alert NASA officials to what he believes is a serious problem with the rocket booster. As the moment of launch nears, the stories begin to converge, and you as an audience member experience a growing sense of dread. Every time an astronaut says, 'I'll take a vacation/get my degree/change my life when I get back,' you groan inwardly, thinking, 'but you won't get back, ever. And I'm so sorry.'
Unusually, though, none of that is in the film. It's in your mind, though, while you're watching, becoming absorbed in these people's narratives. You get lost in wondering whether the astronaut will find more time for his family, go back to South Carolina to teach, design a successful experiment... In fact, as the astronauts are suiting up for the launch, you glance at the film counter and realise with a shock that they aren't even going to show the explosion. What you're seeing is excitement and anticipation, planning and scientific curiosity. And that's when it hit me.
In the next few minutes, I thought, this film is going to do something to surprise me. And then it's going to make me want to cry. And it did.
Go and watch the film, if you can. (It's on Amazon Prime in the US.) Watch the seven astronauts snap their helmet covers in place, looking solemn, joyful, anticipatory. Then listen to the voiceover...…as the actors share the lines of the poem 'High Flight':
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew...
We hear this stirring poem about flight as we witness the first minute of the Challenger's journey; watch while it climbs into a blue, chilly Florida sky...and then the film ends. We get it: yes, you know what's going to happen. But they don't. The people in this drama don't know it's all going to change in the next ten seconds. They're on a hopeful ride into space. The tragedy? It's in your head. What they were doing was living their lives. Now, that is a brilliant piece of storytelling.
How do you raise the ghosts of traumas past? Do you get a 100-year-old woman out of bed in the middle of the night to throw a jewel over the side of a ship, while haunting music plays in the background? That might help us grab a corner of the world that was Titanic.
How do you approach the Holocaust? Respectfully, cautiously, like someone tiptoeing through a graveyard? Or loudly, raucously, proclaiming that Life Is Beautiful? Do you play sad violins, like Schindler's List, or crack dry jokes, like To Be or Not to Be? The subject is huge, and the horror very real. But there isn't only one way to talk about it.
Humans hurt each other, on purpose and accidentally. They make mistakes. They build great big ships and fragile spacecraft, and sometimes those vehicles malfunction and kill people. They erect giant towers to show off their power and wealth, and somebody else flies planes into them and knocks them down to show their contempt. The world goes crash, in spite of all our hopes and dreams. How do you tell the stories?
When we think of 'strange but true', our first thoughts are usually about the uncanny, the liminal experiences out on the edge of meaning. Things like ghosts and voices and things hiding in the darkness. But the traumatic events of our own history are even harder to face sometimes than our worst imaginings. There is something almost supernatural about those times when the order of the world breaks down. As participants, even as witnesses, we often find ourselves on that raw edge between bafflement and meaning, even when the causes of the suffering are perfectly within the normal range of our understanding. So how do you talk about them?
Think about the audience. Like you, the writer, they're witnesses. What do you think they need to know? What do you want to show them? What details are key to their understanding? And how can you get them to feel empathy with those who lived or died because of the strange event?
Can you manage to surprise them, and then make them want to cry?