I had only been in Brazil a few hours when I heard this most astonishing story about the power of language to transform a life. Eating lunch overlooking this beautiful little bird sanctuary, I met Susan McKenna, now a firefighter, who told me an unforgettable story from her time as a lawyer working in the juvenile justice system.
What prompted the story was a chat about "Restorative Justice" practices used to help the accused reintegrate and, at times even allow for exchanges between them and the victims. At the very least, these conversations allow for more emotional processing than typical justice processes.
Susan told the story of two young kids, teenagers, who on a dare harassed a woman. The harassment got out of control and the teenagers ended up shooting and killing the woman.
Decades later, the woman's mother met with one of the teenagers who had been imprisoned during this time. She forgave him and then he told her the most astonishing story about her daughter.
When two boys had the woman on her knees with the gun to her head, her daughter said right before they pulled the trigger, "I forgive you and Jesus will too."
The now adult man never forgot the woman's words. He had felt terrible about what he had done and remained haunted by her kindness.
The daughter's words did not save her life, but they seem to have touched the man's heart and arguably saved his.
Had the mother not agreed to meet and forgive this man, she likely would never had heard about the beautiful forgiveness offered by her daughter. And neither would we.
I was one of the few folks in Washington D.C. bouncing back from the holidays eager for the year to start. I was eager to get back because I was about to meet with this winter’s Common Bond participants.
Common Bond was born out of Tuesday’s Children, an organization started to support the kids who lost a parent in 9-11. The organization grew and folks found a way to expand it to meet the needs of young people all around the world who have lost a parent to terrorism. Now they have a summer camp held at Bryn Mawr College. Young people come together, often from “opposing” sides of a conflict, discuss their losses and how to move forward.
Common Bond meets Conflict Resolution
A group of twenty 18-25-year-olds from this program came to the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University because they want to prevent cycles of violence.
This special group not only wants to thrive in spite of their tragic losses, they want to contribute to the world around them.
4 Day Crash Course on Conflict Resolution
My colleagues and I (Alex Cromwell, Nawal Rajeh, Leslie Dwyer, and Joseph Green) taught them conflict resolution basics as well as how to use theatre and poetry to work through issues of loss and oppression.
It was a whirlwind. (What’s great about working with 18-25 year-olds is that they can stay up until 4am talking to each other and show up in the morning ready to roll! I don’t think I was ever able to do that…it’s incredible.)
Responding to Mass Atrocity
Having never lost a parent to terrorism or lived in a conflict zone, it seemed in appropriate to tell them about loss. So, I shared with them what I learned spending thousands of hours with 80 Holocaust survivors during my doctoral research.
Today’s survivors almost all were children during World War II, meaning many lost their parents around the same age. They also had a great deal in common with our students from Haiti, Palestine, Sri Lanka who are living in active conflict zones.
I shared with the Common Bond participants firstly, that I know 90-year-olds still struggling with the murder of their parents. This issues last and affect them differently over the many decades of their long lives.
I also shared with them the myriad of ways Holocaust survivors have responded. Luckily, they had just spent a day at the museum so had an idea of the scope and nature of the atrocity.
From my research on the multi-decade French National Railways (SNCF) conflict (about a train company who transported Jews towards death camps and still exists today), I learned that survivors varied in their social and political responses.
The public responses to mass violence and atrocity are often addressed under the title of ‘transitional justice.’ This includes issues of financial compensation, apologies, commemoration, transparency (the opening of archives), trials (lawsuits) and truth commissions.
We talked about how certain political events can make any of these more or less difficult. In the case of the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall, created the space for much discussion about events of World War II. The Cold War had effectively frozen discussions. In their cases, many still live under corrupt regimes, so archives, apologies, compensation, etc. will likely not come for many years.
Those from Ireland explained that certain archives have been locked for 100 years – effectively making sure they only open when everyone responsible has died, all the victims, as well as all of their children.
We talked about how new information will likely surface throughout their lives creating new opportunities to participate in lawsuits, commemorative spaces, etc. One participant who lost a parent in 9-11, for example, says she has just joined the lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. She talked about her mixed feelings about this.
Holocaust survivors I interviewed also had mixed feelings about lawsuits, even when they participated. The seminar gave us time to start to talk about these complicated feelings.
Not Everyone Wants to Fight
I also shared stories from people who did not want to fight, they chose to share their stories with high school students, write memoirs, help people currently fleeing persecution. There are many ways to contribute.
I warned them that they might feel pressure to respond in certain ways. Holocaust survivors sometimes pressured and judged one another about how their counterparts responded or did not.
Hierarchies of Suffering
Survivor groups are far from homogenous. There are pressures and there are judgements. There are also, I discovered, hierarchies of suffering. For example, some believe only those who went to the death camps really suffered whereas others claim being a hidden child was no picnic either. Many hidden children were physically or sexually abused. Others I met nearly starved to death.
As Brigittine French observes, “not all participants enter into the contest over memory as equals; some actors have lost more than others.”
I shared this as a way to preempt repetition of this hierarchy within their group. There is no need to compare suffering and loss. The issue, of course, comes when financial compensation is involved. How much is your father worth? Why are some people paid for their losses and others are not? Who decides?
It ultimately just is not fair. Someone who lost a parent to violence in Haiti will simply not receive nearly the compensation and support of someone who lost a parent in 9-11.
In spite of these tremendous differences, these young people came together and supported one another.
I am starting 2017 with such a tremendous optimism. The masters’ students I met this fall teaching at SciencesPo Lille in France as well as at the University of Malta were all astonishing, eager, intelligent and ready to make their contribution.
Much light still shines…made even more apparent by a dark room.
…We’re all in this together…
 French BM (2012) The Semiotics of Collective Memories. Annual Review of Anthropology 41, no. 1: 343.
When people learn my doctorate is in Conflict Resolution, many understandably ask something like,
“Do you mean the conflicts between couples, within organizations, or the more like the conflict in Israel?”
In a sense, they are asking do people hire me to work with individuals, groups and/or contested spaces. It turns out, all three.
Curiously, over the holidays, one of the most contested spaces I studied was the Kitchen!
Yes, the Kitchen. Capital "K."
You’ll find many wonderful books and trainings about dealing with difficult people and having difficult conversations with loved ones, but you will find fewer about contested spaces, unless – of course – you’re reading about Israel.
There are certain places in our daily lives where issues of power, domination, recognition, security, belonging, dignity, and even competition show up more than others. It’s important to know where these spaces are so that when you’re in them, you’re thinking more carefully about the games afoot -- I wouldn't want you to caught in any crossfire.
Think for a second about any kitchen near you during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Chanukah. Hopefully it was filled with laughter, creativity, wonderful smells, tasty treats strewn about...and, perhaps some crazy weird tensions over, say, whether canned cranberry sauce is selling out?
Who Runs the Kitchen?
Usually, one person – often the host or hostess is the kitchen’s King or Queen. When visitors accidentally upset the hierarchy, or break invisible rules, tensions can soar. When loving folks arrive with half-baked recipes and need ovens, spoons, and dishes, their presence – welcomed a first—can also cause a bit of a kerfuffle for the hosts.
Kitchen tensions are not always spoken. Yet, what you feel and witness often tells you about power dynamics in family. Social order is often negotiated here. I heard from a colleague about his mom and his aunt having a battle two weeks before Thanksgiving about the kitchen. After a recent divorce, the Aunt, he suspected, was feeling insecure about her place in the family and tried to claim the kitchen (via her recipes) to reassert her place.
Sometimes a younger family member will want to demonstrate adulthood by cooking a new dish or a family favorite. This can cause upsets in the ranks. Elders may become afraid of the “children” cooking – even if said children are 50. Older ranks may also feel they are being replaced. Younger folks may judge the elders for their “rules.” Rank and social position is constantly negotiated – what makes holidays fun for an anthropologist is watching that negotiation play out over pecan pie and oven temperatures for turkey.
Who Avoids the Kitchen?
Some folks skillfully avoid the kitchen. It’s like they intuitively know that they should stay away. Of course, during extended stays this is hard. But even during short stays figuring out kitchen etiquette isn’t always clear. Trying to help with the dishes, for example, is usually a double-bind (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).
Learning About Your Family by Studying Kitchen Subtleties
Many of the family’s patterns and tensions will become more visible in this space. Because kitchens store our food our brain might be anchored to register as a site of primal importance. It represents security and often, comfort.
For this reason, the kitchen can be a site of vulnerability. We are mortal, we can live without sharing our political opinions over the holidays, but panic without food we are often at the mercy of others during this time.
Then there is the common equation of food with love or comfort. You may come to the kitchen looking for love in the form of a sugar cookie and find yourself caught between two folks quibbling over whether to run the dishwasher.
Couples and Kitchens
Couples know about kitchens. Just ask them. All kinds of dynamics play out – I think three boyfriends have left me over kitchen issues; one over how I cut avocados, another other because I didn’t cut the individual sections of the grapefruit for him and the third because my pot cleaning did not show significant respect for his mother’s home.
In each case, the kitchen felony I committed symbolized something much greater to them.
So, I trust no kitchen.
What happened in your holiday kitchens this past year and what’s happening in your home now?
Now I say, have fun, play anthropologist and study the domestic dynamic.
You may find the bedroom a less contested space than the kitchen.