Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl: a personal response

Reactor 4, Chernobyl, under its protective sarcophagus

“With every lie we tell, we incur a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt will be paid.”

These lines are spoken by Valery Legasov, in Craig Mazin’s five-part series Chernobyl. Legasov was the nuclear scientist, who was instrumental in saving the world from the nuclear holocaust that the meltdown of reactor 4 on April 26, 1986 could have been. In doing so, he exposed himself to doses of radiation that would have eventually proven fatal if he had not killed himself on the second anniversary of the disaster. He left behind an oral account, which circulated among scientists and revealed the lies that caused the explosion and the ensuing coverup.

As it turned out penny-pinching, ambition and fear of humiliation were the root causes, but none of these would have endangered Europe or cost so many lives – as many as 100,000 – if not for the lies.

We are living in an age of lies. As of the end of April 2019, Trump is reported to have lied over 10,000 times . His staunch supporters don’t care. Even now, that Fox News is beginning to admit the fact, they don’t care. This week, he has denied knowing E. Jean Carroll, who writes that he sexually assaulted her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, even though a picture has been published showing them talking together.

Hitler followed Joseph Goebbel’s advice that if you told a big enough lie often enough, everyone would believe it. Thus he was able to resettle six million Jews.

I remember. But that may be because I am so old that I was alive while he was doing it. A friend of mine, who is even older, on the other hand, does not. Or only partly. She voted for Trump, but may be having slight second thoughts now, at least about his sexually morality. Still, what does sexual morality have to do with GDP?

I also remember learning from George Orwell’s 1984 that it is possible to hold two contradictory ideas to be true at the same time. This he called doublethink, a key principle of government in Oceana.

I was glad to discover there was a name for that kind of thinking. Doublethink was the default mode of the Family. My family – lower case – belonged to the Family. In the great tradition of other arch Families like the Mafia, we were more or less owned by the Family and stepped out of line at our peril. And no, we didn’t live in a walled off commune, we lived where everybody else did. We were indistinguishable. We didn’t wear red robes – except at night, but only if we were high up on the hierarchy. Initially, the goals of the Family were quite admirable. Or at least, some of its members, most of them women, believed in a higher purpose and even eventual enlightenment. Unfortunately, others believed that children were sexual beings and that kidnapping and murder were justifiable instruments of order.

Our father, who had been nurtured in the bosom of this cult, turned out to be a sociopath of considerable stature, who helped himself to cult power for status and extra cash. His alliance with the actual Mafia was helpful in both regards. He was a dab hand at body disposal and much worse criminal mayhem, seemingly unhindered by empathy. He was considerably ahead of the CIA or even the KGB when it came to torture techniques and he practiced on his children and grandchildren.

So why did I keep returning to the family home for family celebrations, thus enabling such abuse.

In my day to day life, I carried around the idea of my family as respectable, hardworking and honest. A little raucous, noisy, prone to shouting matches, but fundamentally good, even God-fearing. We didn’t even speed or run red lights. We became teachers. We served the community.

And because…

My father had threatened the life of one of my children and offered convincing evidence that it was no idle threat. And, of course, he had violently abused me to the point of near-death.

Terror initiates trauma, a feeling of helplessness -“There’s nothing I can do. I’m done for.” The connections in the brain get ‘messed up’. Adrenaline and cortisol release into the body. Adrenaline helps to formulate memories, but cortisol prevents the integration of them because the hippocampus  responds to cortisol by shutting down. And the hippocampus is the part of the brain that links ‘separated areas of implicit memory” and integrates experience. The wires are down between the the conscious and the unconscious. (Quotes from NICABM “Treating Trauma Master Series, session 1, The Neurobiology of Trauma.)

Traumatic memory gets locked there as Dr. Ford said at Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter”.

After my father died, flashes of memory and dreams began to release these bits, along with the original terror. My sister and I both had to stop teaching for several months. I shook visibly, which wasn’t a good look at the front of a classroom. We went to lawyers, psychologists and the police. We learned that it was not a crime to witness a crime. We learned that none of our allegations could be proved. We learned that telling the truth could cost financially and socially. We learned that our family was split into truth-tellers and deniers.

And that was that.

But no. As time went on, other hippocampuses flashed information into higher brains and other people, who had stood aside from our truth, found themselves dragged into it by their own dysfunctioning minds, their own despair and rage.

We had a rule. Don’t tell until the other person remembers. But after a certain number of close calls, we broke even that rule. It turned out to be a good thing.

If you can ever say that letting a person understand the hidden horror in her past is a good thing. It’s not as if we can replace the graphite tips of the control rods in the brain or replace the AZ 5 emergency shutdown device. The Soviets eventually did both.

So that is what I’ve learned about the truth. I can’t even swear to its exact nature. I know only that it cannot be denied. It catches up to you and its interest rates are astronomical.

On the other hand, partial though it may be, it heals like love.




Paris, Terrorism and Little Canoes

eiffel tower pictureYears ago, my European brother translated a French joke into English for me.

Three explorers, an Englishman, A Frenchman and a Belgian are captured by cannibals. The head cannibal says, “We are going to cook you and eat you, but first, we are going to remove your skin and make it into little canoes. You can have anything you want as a last meal.” The Englishman says, “Can you do roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?” “Of course,” says the headman. “Do you think we are uncivilized?” The Frenchman wants to begin with escargot and go on to an omelette and salad. He is too upset to eat more. The Belgian says, “Give me a fork.” “Is that all you want?” asks the headman. “We do a nice patates frites.” “That’s all,” says the Belgian. “Just a fork.” So they sit down to wait silently.  In a surprisingly short time, the meals  are presented to the Englishman and the Frenchman, and they begin to eat. The Belgian picks up his fork and begins stabbing himself all over his body. When he is covered with bleeding holes he cries, triumphantly, “That for your little canoe.”

Terrorists are nothing new to my brother and me. Our father was one domestically and socially. Keeping us in constant fear would ensure our obedience and turn us into helpers for his nefarious schemes. Oddly enough, we didn’t obey. We contradicted him and took the blows. Then we escaped him. Two of us became teachers, one a minister and my brother, the funniest, kindest oddball in Belgium.

ISIS has miscalculated as all terrorists do. Paris is now the focus of the world’s love. If you’re into it, tune in and see it in your mind-a grid of golden contrails from every corner of civilization. Spiritual help is pouring in from both realms. People are heartbroken and stricken with fear, and, yet, there is more light than darkness even now.

“Out of this nettle danger,” Shakespeare said, “we pluck this flower..” He named the flower “safety”. It suited his purpose. But it is more than that. Empathy is growing by leaps and bounds.

Terrorists always make the same mistake, and they never win. The human spirit was not built for sustained terror. We rise above. We march on.Terrorists actually accomplish the opposite of what they intended. More darkness calls in more light.

That for your little canoe!