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.

 

 

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Zero Dark Thirty: lessons in self-love

“If you lie to me, I will hurt you,” so says Dan, the CIA interrogator.

There has been much debate about whether Zero Dark Thirty was right to depict torture as the way that the U.S. got the initial information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Either it wasn’t or the powers that be want us to believe it wasn’t, but that is not what I want to talk about.

The early scenes of the torture of detainee, Ammar, in a black op detention centre got me thinking about the nature of abuse. Jason Clarke portrays Dan, the torturer brilliantly. His Dan is bearded, exudes vitality and, of course, incites terror. The viewer readily understands his determination to uncover bin Laden’s hideout. Then the torture starts. It is, as ever, deeply personal, an intimate experience. Hands on. Ammar is naked, utterly exposed, totally isolated.  He is kept awake for 96 hours. (Is that even possible?) Or he is left in total darkness, his ears bombarded with loud rock and roll. His handlers wear black ski masks – except for Dan. He presents himself as Ammar’s friend. If Ammar tells the truth. If not, he will string him up by his arms, waterboard him, or stuff him into a box much too small and leave him there for hours. It is all up to Ammar. Eventually, Dan moves on to a friendlier phase with a cleaned up Ammar sitting down to a delicious meal and convinces him that he has already given Dan most of the information he asked for, so he might as well fill in the details.

Presumably, Dan learned these techniques in torture class and may well have practised them and been practised on. Others come by them without such training. Growing up with one presents challenges both then and afterwards.

Abusers tell you that they don’t want to hurt you. They have to because you deserve it. It is in your nature. It is punishment for what you have done. It’s because you think bad thoughts. It’s because of what you won’t do. If you stand up to the abuser, if the pain inflicted on you doesn’t bend you to his (could be her, but I’m going with his) will, others may be drawn in, smaller, perhaps, or just more vulnerable. But the abuser insists, he is really your friend, your best friend, your only friend. How could anyone else like you since you are —— (fill in the blank).

While this may be character building in the short run, it has some long term negative results. Your abuser may have fallen silent years ago. It may, in fact, be the 25th anniversary of his death and yet, he has taught you so well that you can now run the script yourself, even though you are not aware of it. So whatever happens, you find that you have not quite measured up. You’re just a bit slimy, not very nice, socially undesirable. You have, in point of fact, failed many times and in important ways.

Not only that, you are permanently pissed off. It was all grossly unfair. It was unjust. Nobody should be treated that way. Years later, you watch a movie called Death of the Maiden and identify deeply with the rage of the torture victim.

What is the answer to this self-perpetuating abuse?

Perhaps it can start simply with the idea that you have always been well-intentioned, no matter how things turned out. Perhaps it can go on to note that you have done your best and that effort needs to be respected. You have respected and even cherished others for these virtues. Why not yourself? Your love has flowed out to others, why not let it flow through you as well? There may be a hiccup of grief at the beginning, but once the furnace of self-love is stoked, it will begin to heat and heal the body so that it lets go of pain, so that it relaxes and unfolds.