In mid May, a group of women, living in New York and Boston, who have been writing together for the past eight years, chose to sit together and write their responses to the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They found that their passions coalesced around the subject in surprising ways.
Prisoner 2876 enters the classroom of Louisiana’s low security prison. He takes a seat and stares at the instructor. A lady with a bird in her hand is explaining how to comb it clean. He makes sure to look like he’s paying attention; he’s learned it’s the way to get along here, making sure to hide the snicker and thoughts running through his head.
Can you believe it, combing birds? Getting the slick off a stupid bird! People are something. Heck, what’d they do after Katrina for us - shove us into the stadium, no water, nothin’, leaving us to fend for ourselves. And now they got us combing oil off bird feathers.
Prisoner 2876 has a real name but going by his number is just fine with him in this place. Keep your head low, sign up for things like this. Anyway, this might just be the way to get the hell out of here.
It’s his turn to try to hold the pelican. He watches the guard watching him. He’s never held a bird before. Weird, man. Feeling the neck, so thin, right in his hand.
Suddenly 2876 starts seeing things again. Abandoned houses everywhere. The water rising, him sitting on the roof top. His aunt. Just lying there. People running. Cops chasing them. Sticks, shouting.
‘Looting’ is what they called it. ‘Surviving’ is what he calls it.
Holding this damn bird in his hand. Watching the guard out of the corner of his eye watching him. Then suddenly another “flashback” – that’s what the counselor called it - the sound first, then seeing the whole storefront glass shatter. Heck, he was just going to try and sell that TV for food. All that stuff would’ve gotten ruined anyway. Somebody else would’ve got it if he didn’t. Holding that TV, not much bigger than this here bird.
He pushes it out of his mind. Tries to maneuver this thing. Hey, whatever it takes, that’s what Prisoner 2876 will do, to get the hell out of here. For August Lefevre, of Ward 9 City of New Orleans, to finally make it back to the bayou where he belongs.
Liz Goren is a practicing psychotherapist teaching at NYU whose work is dedicated to bringing a psychoanalytic perspective to the major cultural issues of our time. Her book Beyond the Reach of Ladders, coming out for the anniversary of 9/11, is the story of her experience as a therapist with firefighters who survived the World Trade Center. She lives and writes in New York City and Vermont.
LINDA LUZ ALTERMAN
In the summer of 2007 we went to New Orleans to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Two years had passed since Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city and the surrounding area. The news from the Gulf was that not nearly enough was being done to rebuild the city and help the people recover their lives. In the summer of 2007 the damage to New Orleans inflicted by the hurricane was less crushing than the neglect and inaction of our government and its agencies. We wanted to do something more than contribute money – we wanted to show up, face what had happened there and get our hands dirty.
The first thing we did when we arrived was to go on the “Katrina Tour”. This was a sobering bus trip through the city with a local guide, a black man named Jake, born and raised in New Orleans, who had lived through the horror of Katrina. He told us the story – his story and the city’s story.
The tour started in the heart of the city right down by the river. As we drove through the town he showed us the water line, a dark gray band that told how the water rose further and further up the buildings; how long the water had stayed high. Where the watermark rose higher, the neighborhoods became more and more run-down. In some places, the line reached 15 feet. For three hours we drove around the neighborhoods of the city, past the broken levees, out to the Lake Pontchartrain, through wealthy neighborhoods and poor, past dead malls, dead apartment buildings, hospitals that lay abandoned. We saw homes with holes punched out of the roofs where people had escaped their attics. We saw a roof with a picnic table, a bike, branches and other debris still sitting exactly where the water had left them.
Jake pointed out the “tattoos” on the doors – big fluorescent orange X’s painted by the National Guard soldiers who had checked every house and marked the date and time, the number of people found alive in the home, the number of people found dead, and whether or not there were any pets. Everywhere we went, we saw FEMA trailers filled with many generations living cramped together.
I think back to my brief time in New Orleans now as I hear about the latest devastation to befall the area. The city and its people are just beginning to turn around, just beginning to get on their feet again. Last week, I heard Brian Williams interview three brothers, born and raised in New Orleans; they make their living from fishing. The youngest brother had just bought his first boat and was about to start his own business. He told Brian, “We didn’t grow up wanting to be police officers or lawyers. Our daddy was a fisherman and our granddaddy, too - that’s what we always knew we were going to be - we were going to be fishermen.”
Linda Luz-Alterman is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Cambridge, Mass. She is an Instructor in Psychology in the Dept. of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Psychoanalysis; she teaches and writes on unconscious communication and the therapeutic relationship.
Annika’s new kitchen counter
swirls of sand and pink and stone
smooth and oily, oozing and glistening
a fin becomes a sail and then the spine of a dune
Today I heard there is a ten mile long plume
deep, deep under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico
It must be traveling and swelling
where is it going?
Does it swell like those long balloons as they are blown up?
Unconstrained by a membrane, it might actually be morphing
in three dimensions, from a manatee to a camel,
amoebic pseudopods pinching off as giant globules of oil
to end up on a Molokai beach as a tide of tar edged with lacy chartreuse algae
on the feet of children to be scraped off by patient parents,
followed by a scrubbing with benzene-soaked rags
the children all the while mesmerized by the crust
of sand on the shiny tar, the yellowish brown stain
on the scraped heel, and the magic of erasing
it all with a pungent solvent made of oil.
Where does it come from they ask
from the sea? From an ancient forest?
Torn open by man’s digging, seeking, sucking the juice out
from this earth.
Annabella Bushra teaches psychoanalysis, writes, and practices psychology in New York City. She is particularly interested in issues of diversity, and is active in working toward a better understanding of our obstacles to accepting Otherness.
How can it be that tens of thousands of scientists and inventors are unable to cap this flow? Today on a morning news show, one anchor cajoles another to share with the viewers her father’s idea for stopping it. After a moment’s hesitation, mimicking her father’s thick Italian accent, she describes a huge underwater blowtorch. The first anchor laughs, and then in a subtly mocking tone, narrates a series of video clips offering homemade inventions for collecting the oil. A middle school class experiments with Metamucil; a group of mothers demonstrates the absorbency of diapers.
In special centers, volunteers carefully clean birds’ oil-soaked feathers. Despite such efforts, many of these rescued birds will die. Nearby, a dead bird washes ashore, already suffocated. Years ago boat people migrated to the Gulf coast, settled into the beautiful delta region that reminded them of home and became fishermen. Now, their livelihoods in jeopardy, they are urged to help with cleanup efforts.
“Ridiculous to compare the Deepwater well explosion with the Valdez disaster,” an op-ed piece proclaims, noting that the 1989 spill involved millions of gallons! But that article was written only a couple of weeks after the explosion, and for over a month now nothing has worked to close the well. The enormity becomes unimaginable, as the newest estimates of oil pouring into the ocean range from hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons.
The ocean is so huge, so deep, we demand it absorb all waste, absorb it all with no impact. Early last summer for a few weeks, black patches appeared on the normally white New Jersey beach I’ve enjoyed for 60 years. For years now the ocean has come closer and closer to the dunes, significantly reducing the span of beach, as the barrier island shifts shape according to its natural rhythm. The once high dunes are eroding rapidly these days, no longer providing certain protection. “Beach replenishment” has been the township’s effort to thwart the ocean currents and fierce winter storms, to protect the properties of homeowners who’ve insisted on building just feet from the edge of fragile dunes.
Was the black film somehow related to the earth and sand poured onto the shrinking dunes? Garden residue from those beachfront homes? Or oil, leaking from unknown sources?
Anita Herron is a psychoanalyst in private practice in NYC. She supervises at New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and teaches and supervises at the Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. As often as possible, she plays cello in chamber music groups with friends.
I am at dinner with my sister and her partner. It is a long time since I have come to visit. My sister has found in her medicine cabinet some powerful medication, which she hopes will dull one of the many migraines that have washed over the last fifteen years of her life. “It’s bad now, but these old pills may help. And they’re so strong that I can’t go to the Emergency Room for another 24 hours anyway. So, I’ll be here; come on up. I’d like to see you,” she says softly.
My nephew and niece are out at parties. Jim has made dinner. As we sit down to tilapia, baby potatoes and slim green beans, Jim starts joking around. He’s imitating teenagers hunching over their Blackberries, doing a two fingered tap dance. “Hi”, “Hi”; “How are you?” “Great.” “Wachadoin?” “Nothing. You?” He captures our bemusement. We are laughing and laughing. My sister’s once familiar giggle turns to tears. Jim says quietly, “It’s tension release…it’s the medication.” Our tempo slows.
Jim shifts course. “I was watching a program last night on Public TV. One of those old guys from Harvard or Yale was talking with that kind of voice where you just know he’s telling the truth.”
Jim is not given to taking anyone’s word for things. I wonder where he’s going with this.
”The man said that the oil spill will never be cleaned up. Never. And the people at BP know that. It’s a joke.”
We are way beyond the range of our usual topics.
I reply, “People in New Orleans are saying the air is starting to smell bad.”
My sister is acutely aware of lights, and tastes and smells; the wrong sensation can tip her into days of paralyzing pain. She quietly says, “That’s terrible.”
We talk briefly about the safety measures that were neglected or broken. The great concrete lid that merely stirred up the ocean floor. The people mailing packets of human and animal hair to sop up the oil.
“I hear they’re planning to plug the hole with golf balls.” We snort, and stand up to clear the dishes. My sister is looking tired. It is time to move to something else.
The earth is hemorrhaging. Dark gouts are spewing out of a pipe. They mix with hazy ocean water, diffusing, spreading. I have watched the video many times. Orange-red swaths fan the water’s surface for miles. Fisherman across the entire Gulf are pulling in their boats. Just last week, I learned that most of the oil-soaked birds cleaned after Exxon-Valdez did not survive. No images to comfort us, no relief.
Alexandra Woods practices psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in New York City. She is also concerned with the relationships between built and unbuilt environments. Her consulting firm, Green ResNYC, promotes energy efficiency in residential buildings. She is an avid kayaker.
I am driving with my son along Rt. 120, a road that runs through the center of the town and was always known prior as Quaker Road, no doubt, because the early Quaker settlers had built their Meeting House, still in use, along this road. My son notices an odd machine alongside the road. He hadn’t seen a weed mower angled like this before; I comment that, with all the rain and perhaps more carbon dioxide in the air, weeds are growing quite wild and will very soon climb onto the overhead power lines. He concurs and drives on. How is it that we imagine that nature, in whatever manner we imagine nature to be, will be subdued by what we have wrought?
I have an appointment in June to have the roof of my house shampooed. It sounds so silly, so girly almost, like the people who pride themselves on their “manicured” lawns. But my roof has become part of a growing trend in Westchester County of roofs that have fallen prey to the polluted air, heavy rains and whatever else is causing things to start growing on shingles. Moss and lichens have taken off on the roof’s shady side, and there is a small but nonetheless growing weed-type tree near the skylight in my kitchen.
Last week I read a review in the New York Times of a book that states that we’ve altered the environment of this earth beyond the point of reparable damage. We have permanently changed and broken a unique balancing of eco-systems, always in flux, sometimes in harmony but mostly abundant for human and animal needs. I gasp silently inside myself as I realize how vigorously I defend against knowing this. Often on the margins of my awareness, it remains a steady anxious presence. I am angered by our hubris, by scientific grandiosity that believes our ingenuity will always produce the fix, the cure that is needed in any eleventh hour.
And yet, I find my own comfort in swallows that return to their nest in an eave above my front door, a nest I refuse to dislodge despite the mess that lands on my front porch. I am delighted to see my lilacs bloom, notwithstanding the oddness of this spring, the flowers arriving a month too early. The bees have returned and are busy at work in the garden. All this pleases me – all the while that my allergies have returned with a vengeance, crippling me and forcing medications that barely help keep my airways open. I am often awakened at night by spasmodic coughing fits, desperate to breathe some air.
Jill Salberg in private practice in Manhattan and also teaches and supervises at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Her published writings have been on Freud's Jewish identity, gender roles as protest, and on ending treatment. Her newly released book is: GOOD ENOUGH ENDINGS: Breaks, Interruptions and Terminations from Contemporary Relational Perspectives.
“My brain shattered” she said to me “there were pieces of my brain floating around and I couldn’t tell if they were inside my brain or not. I didn’t know what was real and what was not. I had to take the pieces and find a way to put them together.”
Juniper was 6 years old. She was walking home from kindergarten, alone, as she had insisted; a man, a nice looking man, in a car, asked her if she wanted a ride home. She knew she should not accept. She said no. He talked some more to her. He said to her that her mother had told him to come and find her; he wanted to take her on an exciting adventure. No one had said anything to her about not accepting adventures. What if she missed something that could change her whole life? She got into the car.
“I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on. I was scared he would come back to get me. I didn’t know if my parents were part of it, if they did know him and maybe they had sent him. I was so scared that the garden hose was a device to spy on me. I couldn’t walk by it; I thought it would attack me.”
He had locked the doors immediately. He forced her down. She did not know what was happening. Was this part of the adventure? Then there was something large in her mouth and it was gushing. Stuff was spilling over, pouring into her and onto her. He had his head back. She knew this would be her only chance to get out. She moved her face near the door handle. She pulled it with all her might and flung herself out. Her two library books fell out of the little satchel still attached to her back. She felt terror that her mother would ask her where the books were and why had she not gone back to get them?
“I spent so much time putting the pieces together. Watching what other people did, how they did things with each other so that I could create a system that worked. I was simulating a brain. I was an engineer, figuring out how each part fitted with another, how to stop the flooding, to make sense of the world, to feel safe again.”
Melanie Suchet practices and teaches psychoanalysis in New York City. She is particularly interested in new ways of writing creative nonfiction. Her psychoanalytic pursuits cover the areas of race, gender, sexuality and diversity. She is also committed to activism and social justice.