Friday, October 14, 2011

Peter Trachtenberg on Suffering and Meaning

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger on October 10, 2008)

In "The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning" (Little, Brown, $24), writer Peter Trachtenberg interviews survivors of the Rwandan genocide and the Southeast Asia tsunami, as well as parents of a Sept. 11th victim, to explore the raw, searing nature of suffering. He attempts to find meaning in the senseless slaughter of war and natural disasters that wipe whole villages off the map.

In his enthralling book, Trachtenberg's five questions on suffering move from "Why me?" to "What do I owe those who suffer?" He explores the Biblical tortures of Job, the martyrdom of Catholic saints and the Buddhist doctrines on suffering. In this beautifully written, intricately woven work, Trachtenberg follows people like Sally Goodrich, who uses compensation money from her son's death on Sept. 11 to help build schools in Afghanistan. Sally gains some solace, but no closure. "The Book of Calamities" is a subtle mixture of reporting, history and philosophy that addresses some of life's most difficult questions.

Trachtenberg, 55, is the author of "Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh." He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Wilmington, N.C., where he teaches writing at the University of North Carolina.

Q. When did you decide you were going to write a massive book on suffering?

A. The project started in 2003. I didn't think that the book was going to be as monumental as it turned out to be. I didn't think that I'd go into certain things in such detail, like the background of the (1994) Rwandan genocide. I didn't think that I'd do such a close analysis of martyrdom narrative.

Q. What were your personal motivations behind the book?

A. In 1999, my friend Linda died. I had a very visceral, childish response to her death. I was shocked and outraged by it, even though she had been sick for a long time. An important strand to the book was also my ongoing perplexity to the responses over Sept. 11. It was actually my horror at the outraged narcissism that arose afterward. I understand that people were shocked, particularly those that had been directly affected and devastated by grief, but I didn't understand what was going on around the country. There were Midwestern women on "Oprah" talking about how afraid they were to go to the mall. People were responding as if they were the ones suffering.

Q. You use your autobiography in the book as a recovering heroin addict and alcoholic. Was this difficult material to use?

A. I really hesitated using the material because I'd already written a memoir. I've taught courses on memoir and am very ambivalent about it because it is such a narcissistic art form. I had no credentials to be writing "Book of Calamities," except for whatever proximity I had to suffering. I had to write about myself to a certain extent, and I made an attempt to write candidly.

Q. Did you find meaning in your own suffering?

A. For the purposes of the book, I treated my own suffering as "I courted this." I subscribe to the disease idea of addiction and alcoholism. I may have been born with it or acquired it early in life, but I think that everything that ensued from my drug use and drinking was something that I courted. To a certain extent, I chose to suffer. I would not say that about the people I wrote about. I made a shambles of my personal life and came close to dying a few times, but if you really look at it, I came away unscathed.

Q. A practical question -- how does one go about finding meaning in suffering?

A. The one commonality I found among everyone I spoke with -- and the people I admired -- was that they remained conscious of what was happening to them and around them. (Concentration camp survivor) Victor Frankl was a great example. The way he observed what was going on with such detachment was an instrument of survival. Sally Goodrich, in the midst of what was going on, also observed what was going on inside herself.

This is what I hope for myself: When it is my turn to suffer really acutely, I hope I remain conscious and keep knowing what is going on inside me and outside me, and to keep interpreting it.

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