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Reviewed by:
  • Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor
  • Gaynell Gavin
Jennifer Sinor, Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 2017. 279 pp. Paper, $19.95.

In a Texas hospital, a young Vietnam veteran was told to choose between the lives of his wife and baby. One would have to be sacrificed to save the other. He chose to save his wife. The baby’s body was disposed of in a bucket after being extracted from the mother, a procedure expected to kill the infant. However, a doctor noticed the baby breathing, and Jennifer Sinor was saved.

Hawaii was the place where Sinor’s conscious memory appears to have formed. Sinor’s father, after graduating from law school at the University of Nebraska, was stationed at Pearl Harbor as a naval attorney. Although there were no visible physical scars from her near-death experience at birth, even as a three-year-old she was at least “dimly aware that the oily black water . . . concealed an unknown number of bodies and sunken ships” from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a historic national trauma (8). There was Hawaii’s vibrant beauty, while the family’s backyard offered both a tire swing and a bomb shelter, a juxtaposition paradoxically emblematic of the Cold War, unremarkably normalizing the threat of actual war.

Children born into the Cold War absorbed its collective national anxiety, and those years were almost certainly harsher for military families, acutely aware of the threat and of “risks those in the military took” (188). But as a child and “daughter of the military,” Sinor “believes order and regulation will defeat evil and disarray” (64). Ordinary Trauma is a layered, complex, elegantly written memoir of individual and collective trauma.

Despite its title, for me part of the conundrum of Sinor’s gripping book became untangling extraordinary from ordinary trauma, while wondering if this endeavor served any purpose. Sinor’s seems a memoir not only of ordinary but extraordinary trauma as well. Most American children born into the Cold War were not almost killed at birth to save their mothers, and repeated instances of extraordinary trauma punctuated Sinor’s life: a serious injury while in the care of a negligent babysitter, a baby brother scalded by a nurse at birth, another who nearly drowned.

Surely the landscape of most family life, if probed, would reveal [End Page 134] reservoirs of sorrow beneath the surface, which seems particularly true for Sinor’s Nebraskan paternal lineage. Her father’s father, a farmer, sadistically mistreated his animals and his children, including sexually abusing a daughter and at least one granddaughter. These events raise the vexed question of ordinary versus extraordinary trauma again, although sexual abuse and other family violence remain far too widespread. Perhaps trauma is normalized into ordinariness for most people who experience it.

As major forces in her life, Sinor’s parents are important characters in her memoir. Whatever his weaknesses as a parent, her father offered considerable strengths and gave incomparably better fathering than he received. Sinor notes that the same hands that were forced to drown farm kittens when her father was a child, “rocked me to sleep as a baby, held me when I skinned my knee” (37). It is impossible to imagine her abusive paternal grandfather comforting a child with a skinned knee or rocking a baby to sleep. Her own father advised Sinor to shut bad memories in a dresser drawer and not reopen it.

In addition to experiencing frequent military transfers, instilling a lack of a sense of home, Sinor presents the military child as riding “the backs of deactivated missiles” and ingesting “mutually assured destruction with her breakfast cereal.” Such ordinary moments may have passed “unnoticed” but “undid you nonetheless,” leading to the eventual realization that “the peace we experience in the United States is one achieved by force” (69–70, 195). At fourteen she wrote in her Holly Hobbie diary, “I think there may be a nuclear war which we will deserve because the world is falling apart” (197). Such moments seem slightly offset by the Star Wars trilogy, paralleling Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program in Sinor’s teen years and...


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pp. 134-136
Launched on MUSE
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