- Perishability and Desolation:Disaster and the Racialization of Suffering in the Neoliberal Therapeutic Memoir
As a photographer and filmmaker, Gerard Thomas Straub realized that, although he had traveled to Haiti immediately after its catastrophic 2010 earthquake, he had no particular skills to use to help victims. "I was already feeling useless and unneeded," he writes about his visit; "Everyone else was saving lives. I was filming." Although he professes that he exhibited the "utmost sensitivity and sympathy" as he filmed, he soon "enraged" a medical doctor and his patient, who expelled him from a recovery room. Dejected, Straub reflects, "I questioned my reasons for being there. Was I helping the people of Haiti?" (Straub 67, 68).
Scholars of humanitarian accounts of suffering have sometimes suggested that witness testimony like Straub's can, indeed, engender meaningful intervention in such crises. Didier Fassin, for instance, insists, "[T]he sympathy felt for the misfortune of one's neighbors generates the moral indignation that can prompt action to end it" (Fassin 1). The dissemination of moving stories and images builds what Fassin calls "humanitarian reason"—a "morally driven, politically ambiguous, and deeply paradoxical strength of the weak" (xii). This sentiment, in turn, legitimizes interventions from the state, from nongovernmental organizations, and from individuals. In fact, argues Fassin, testimony [End Page 93] becomes viewed as equally important to aid itself. Likewise, in their study of human rights memoirs, Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith argue that since the 1980s, "life narratives have become one of the most potent vehicles for advancing human rights claims" (1) and that these narratives include not only those of the victims, but also of the witnesses, who play "a central role in the formulation of new rights protections" (16).
Yet narratives like Straub's call these assertions into question. While Straub's narrative is clearly one of a witness—he is, after all, a photographer and videographer—he is unable to point to any particular course of ameliorative action for the earthquake victims in Haiti. Although Straub confronts profound questions about the utility of documenting the suffering of victims, his story quickly resolves this tension over witnessing. Reeling from his expulsion from the recovery room, Straub first collects himself. He then encounters another doctor, a volunteer in Haiti. This second doctor relates a story about a friend who had come to serve the Haitian people and who became disheartened when he failed the first two patients he encountered. Straub remembers, "After finishing the story, the doctor looked at me and said, '… Normal conventions don't apply in postearthquake Haiti. Don't let being tossed out of the recovery room bother you'" (70). Cheered, Straub abandons his self-questioning in favor of describing, sometimes in graphic detail, the physical and material suffering of Haitians. It is unclear in his text what humanitarian work he undertakes, and he does not reflect again on the voyeuristic nature of his stay. Indeed, Straub's text acknowledges but quickly banishes any uncomfortable feelings related to suffering in favor of comforting self-reassurance and maintenance of the geopolitical status quo. He brushes aside any concerns that might undercut his authority with an argument that Haiti is so fundamentally flawed that any action taken there with good intentions is morally justifiable. Haiti thus becomes framed as a site of inevitable hopelessness and simultaneously as a therapeutic moral landscape through which authors can work out personal problems, project their own virtues, or feel connected to humanity in ways that often seem inaccessible to them within the privileged site of the United States.
This essay argues that this is typical of first-person, book-length texts penned by Americans who traveled to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake or to Japan after its 2011 tsunami. Despite significant differences—memoirs about Haiti are numerous, written by nonprofessional writers, [End Page 94] and tend to be self-published or published with very small houses, while the most significant memoir of postdisaster Japan is by noted travel writer Gretel Ehrlich—the narratives featured here replicate what communications scholar Dana L. Cloud calls "rhetorics of therapy," which "encourage identification with therapeutic values: individualism, familism, self-help, and self-absorption" in order to...