NiteTalk: Taking a Look Up from the Down with Peter Trachtenberg

Book of Calamities Resized

At some time or another, everybody suffers. It's how we handle said suffering that tells us who we are -- and what we're capable of. In Peter Trachtenberg's The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning (Little, Brown $23.99), we learn that while the world sees suffering from many different angles, everyone has the capacity to transcend it. Take a look up from the down Monday night at Books and Books.

Wanna tell us a quick bit about The Book of Calamities? The Book of Calamities is an exploration of suffering and the ways individuals and societies try to make sense of it. The book combines journalism, moral, philosophy and personal essay and includes reporting from Rwanda's genocide tribunals, refugee camps in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, and post 9/11 New York.

How'd you come to wanna tackle the subject?
What brought me to this book was a friend's death from breast cancer in 1999. She was still in her 40s, terribly young to die. But, looking back, I was struck by my reaction to her death, not the grief I felt, but the shock and disbelief and indignation. I couldn't believe that this had happened. And that disbelief suggested that on some level I hadn't come to terms with something that most human beings understand by the time they're in their 40s: that people -- even good people -- die before their time or suffer horribly for no apparent reason.

Devoting an entire book to suffering seems rather depressing, how'd you keep from being dragged down in the sadness?
In the beginning, I had a journalist's typical response to the material: I was getting a story -- stories, plural -- and that gave me a degree of detachment. Looking back, that detachment seems a little shameful to me. But over the four years in which I researched and wrote The Book of Calamities, I became more involved with the folks I was writing about, sometimes quite close to them, and involved in their struggles. During the last year, I could barely write, every word I typed felt wrong, and the only thing that kept me going was the sense of obligation I felt to my sources and subject matter. (And, running a distant third, my publisher.) Sometimes I thought that the only way out would be to have a heart attack -- I mean a fatal one -- except I could imagine people shaking their heads at the funeral and saying, "He never finished that book."

Were you able to find any bright side to suffering?
I'm not going to make claims for the therapeutic value of suffering: It would be obscene to. But I met people whose response to it was so courageous and openhearted -- and so deeply sane -- that they became my heroes.

I'm thinking of Sally and Donald Goodrich, who after their son was killed in  the attacks of 9/11 helped build a girls' school in Afghanistan. Sally used to say that she loved Afghanistan because it was the only place in the world where she didn't feel like a freak: Because everyone there had known suffering worse than hers. And I think of twin sisters named Kate and Kelly Daley, who were born with a rare, agonizing skin disease called recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. Someone once compared having EB to getting a third-degree burn every day of your life. But their mother Nancy was determined that the girls have as full and normal a life as possible, and so Kate and Kelly went to public school. They went away to college, had friends, dated, wrote wonderful precocious essays, even sang backup for Natalie Merchant. When they died at the age of 27, Nancy said, "Our children taught us what they needed. And they taught us how to live. I was so grateful to have had them as long as I did. I was so grateful to be able to be with them at the end. Missing that would've been like missing a meteor shower. How awful to miss a meteor shower because I forgot to look up."

When you meet people like the Goodriches or the Daleys, it has a deep and powerful effect on you. It shows you the best that human beings are capable of. And it gives you a standard of humanness to live up to.

Peter Trachtenberg reads from and discusses The Book of Calamities Monday October 10, 8pm at Books and Books 265 Aragon Avenue Coral Gables. For more information call (305) 442-4408 or log on here.

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