Some Legendary Takes on Hurricane Katrina
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Posted by: John Laudun
This essay is a redacted version of the first section of a
much longer article that will appear in
the Spring 2012 Journal of American Folklore. The Review Editors thank both Carl Lindahl
and the JAF Editors for their willingness to allow the Review to publish this excerpt
in advance of the Journal article. The editors and the author thought it
would be interesting to post the first section of the essay, which poses a
problem regarding legends, their reception, and their study that the JAF
article attempts to address with specific methods and proposed solutions, in
hopes of expanding the possibilities for dialogue within and across our
by Carl Lindahl --
How often does some strange truth find you where you
live and in its fierce innocence unknowingly dismantle yours? Judi Rice of San
Antonio was one of thousands of Texans who answered the call of conscience in
September 2005 and opened their doors to New Orleanians uprooted by Hurricane
Katrina. Judi’s stranger was Ruby, a
middle-aged woman who had been plucked from her island house and floated to an
overpass where she went for two days without food in blazing heat and slept for
two nights on ant-infested pavement—all of which was mere prologue to the
inferno of the Superdome.
Five days after the fact, and more than 500 miles
from the New Orleans, Ruby went on to describe the events of Friday, September
2, 2005, when uniformed troops finally reached her: they "put up
barricades around us and we stood in the sun as the National Guard walked past
us into the Superdome. Next they made us go back into the Dome. None of the
guards smiled or looked friendly, and they were all armed with their guns
pointed down. When we went back into the Dome, that was covered with trash,
excrement and dead bodies, they made us all lie on the floor face down like
criminals. They threw bedding, MRE’s, water – and then left us there” (Rice
Listening to Ruby, Judi instantly recalled that she
too had witnessed this same scene, but in her own home, on television, from a
profoundly different angle: "This is what we saw from the media
helicopters. Bush lands in Louisiana. Immediately after he departed for another
area, you could see a Humvee, followed by huge military trucks loaded with
supplies … and everyone watching this thought these people were to be rescued.”
The cameras panned to a fleet of parked buses seemingly marshaled for an
immediate evacuation. But, on the ground, Ruby and her fellow sufferers in the
Dome got no solace from the soldiers, who returned to their trucks while the
buses stood empty. Judi was shaken: "None of the public were aware of
that. We were left with the orchestrated false impression that they were being
As Ruby’s strange truth rent and remade Judi’s,
numberless kitchen-table encounters between survivors and Samaritans throughout
the country were exposing perceptual gulfs even in the act of erasing personal
distance. People formerly secure in the visual evidence projected from their TV
sets were now watching those same TV’s in the company of the survivors who had
recently been pictured on the screens.
Far more often than being struck suddenly by an
uninvited truth, we begin to hear the strangers in the room only when we see
their truths through ours. The varied and opposed truths born in the midst of
disaster will find their expression in legends: stories, told as true, that are
accepted unconditionally as true by some, rejected flatly by others, and half
believed, half doubted by others still. As folklorist Linda Dégh stresses,
legend is by nature a debate about belief, an expression of our warring
convictions concerning what is possible, what is probable, and what is just
(see particularly Dégh 1973 and Dégh 2001: 311-18). I am also a folklorist, and
I was not surprised by the range of conflicting truths that began to take on
story-shape the instant that Katrina’s pinwheel clouds parted. The death of a
city is the ultimate urban legend.
Nothing is more characteristic of legend than the
movement from the vicarious to the visceral. Until you feel it, a legend is no
more than another story, one that seldom sticks without first-person
engagement. True, folklorists define legend as a third-person narrative, and
tend to distinguish it sharply from a personal experience story. But, also by
definition, legend engages belief, and belief is as personalizing a trait as a
story can encompass. Whether we believe them or not, legends tend to affect us
personally; they are made at least part true by the twinge of revulsion that
hits us as we hear them. Those legends that identify human threats to our lives
can become real by feeding on our fear of strangers. A white mother waiting for
her young son outside the men’s room of an urban shopping mall hears screams
and then sees two black men charge out the bathroom door; she runs inside and
finds her child castrated (see, for example, Ridley 1967: 155-56; Dorson 1981:
228; Ellis 1982: 200-201; Ellis 2003: 227-28). A lonely girl swiftly courted by
the stranger of her dreams is sent a package that, she believes, contains an
engagement gift; unwrapping it in the presence of her parents, she finds a tiny
coffin inscribed with the words, "Welcome to the world of AIDS” (Goldstein
1992). Whether such things ever really happened, something acutely real happens
to many of those who listen.
When the visceral is discounted and legends are
depersonalized, their study rapidly devolves into a game of True or False. It
is conceivable to all of us that the urban legend of the customer who finds a
dead rat at the bottom of her coke bottle (or deep-fried among the wings and
thighs in her bucket of fast-food chicken) may have happened once, but
folklorists who hear the same basic plot told a thousand times, each telling
attached to a different locale and set of actors, sometimes grow to doubt the
truth of all and slowly come to understand legends as stories that we know to
be untrue, but which the naive teller does not.
In the 1920s, at the dawn of fieldwork-based legend
studies, Friedrich Ranke made the gullibility of the folk a defining criterion
of legend: "Folk legends are popular stories with fantastic, objectively
untrue contents, told as factual event, in the form of a simple report” (Dégh
2001: 37, translating Ranke 1925: 14). In the past half-century, folklorists
have progressively repudiated the old characterization. Fieldwork revealed
that, although legends embrace belief as an issue, they are not told solely by
believers; hence it is not only scholars who disbelieve them (Dégh 1971: 66-67;
Georges 1971: 15-18). With this perception, grew its twin: we, as folklorists,
do not have the capacity to define legends as objectively untrue for we are, as
often as not, incapable of such determinations. By the dawn of the twenty-first
century folklorists’ scholarly stance had entirely reversed the earlier
formulations: today, "The truth of a story neither qualifies nor
disqualifies it as a legend”; it is right to "call extranormal stories legends,
whether they are objectively true or not” (Dégh 2001: 4).
Nevertheless, the old definition persists as the
default position of the world at large: "Widespread coffee-table parlance
based on a dated folkloristic definition identifies the legend as an objectively
untrue story that is believed to be true” (Dégh 2001:4). And, largely because
all human scientists still inhabit their own vernacular selves, folklorists
from time to time continue to feed the vernacular perception that "legend”
and "false story” are synonyms. Even as they assert the factual nature of
some legends, even the finest folklorists rely on the old resonances: William
A. Wilson’s major article, "Folklore and History: Fact amid the Legends”
says it all; in this piece, Wilson argues cogently and persuasively for the
objective truth of many legendary narratives at the very moment that his title
contrasts "legend” with "fact” (Wilson 1973). Similarly, the title of
Paul Smith’s "Contemporary Legend: A Legendary Genre?” (1989) plays upon
the lay perception that legends are by nature false. Most famously, Jan H.
Brunvand, whose bestselling books, newspaper columns, and talk show appearances
made him the legend scholar with the greatest influence on twentieth-century
media, used the older definitions to introduce the urban legend to mass
audiences: "The storytellers assume that the true facts of each case lie
just one or two informants down the line with a reliable witness,” but
"urban legends are folklore, not history” (1980: xii-xiii), "true-sounding
but utterly false stories that pass from person to person even in this modern
day” (1986: 9). Brunvand’s close readings are more nuanced than these sample
quotes suggest: for example, he also argues that "part of every legend is
true” (1984: xii). Yet popularizers who build upon Brunvand tend to take the
easiest, most reductionist route: websites like Snopes.com present these
broadly circulating scare-stories and then purport to sift the facts from the
Because popularizers have figured the legend as a
false report, they cannot allow it to be accepted as an authentic personal
experience. If the legend is essentially a lie, the only people who would
report it as personal experience are either liars or lunatics. Our truth is
news, theirs legend. Through this definition, a legend becomes in effect a joke
on its teller, evidence of a naiveté that no enlightened person would share.
We report the story that the abandoned citizens of New Orleans are shooting
at helicopters—that is not legend, but news; but they are deluded by the
legend—the lie—that the government intentionally dynamited the levees and left
the Lower Ninth Ward a wasteland.
Just as Katrina survivors are marginalized by the
construction of legend as lie, they are further distanced by having almost no
voice in media representations of their disaster. In legend panics emerging
from urban meltdowns, stories circulating about one group or another are
summarily validated or discredited, depending on the identity of the actors.
Rumors become fear’s messengers. This perception is not new; it’s been studied
by, among others, historian Carl Smith, who in his book, Urban Disorder and
the Shape of Belief, states, "the occurrences that people consider
most disruptive are those which seem to offer the greatest challenge to their
ideas of order.” We engage in a "struggle of imagination”— and I would
add, a struggle of the heart—"to explain what is inexplicable, troubling,
or threatening. The imagining of disorder” does not have to be accurate—and
"is often most interesting and revealing when it is most obviously
inaccurate” (Smith 1995: 6-7). The role of these imaginings is to create
stories that enact and begin to account for events that defy our sense of
justice and normalcy. Disaster legends may not report the facts, but they are
our means of talking about the way we feel, and starting to find ways of making
the event square with our convictions.
Smith’s book focuses on nineteenth-century disasters
like the Chicago Fire of 1871. But his perceptions apply equally to
twenty-first century New Orleans, because in both contexts, chaos becomes an
occasion for considering what a society is really made of. Smith identifies an
"appeal” in "the idea of disorder, not just to those dissatisfied with
the status quo, but also to those of power and privilege within it.” No one may
"want” such urban disasters, but many of us use them "to justify as
well as to question the order of things” (Smith 1995: 8-9). The perceivable
facts of an urban apocalypse are more than sufficient to capture any
imagination, but those who need to find instruction or vindication in these
events will magnify or invent their horrors in order to explain, or even to
provoke, inadequate and inhumane acts of response.
Well over a century after the Chicago Fire, Smith
unearthed much legendary material reflecting the stereotypes harbored by the
elite and middle classes – the principal creators, controllers, and consumers
of the commercial media of the time. The central images, like the most enduring,
of a poor Irish woman, Mrs. O’Leary, and her cow causing the blaze—cast blame
on the lower classes. Other legends assert the guilt of German immigrants as
well. Yet even from such a relatively recent event, Smith produces no legendry
reflecting the views of the poor immigrants generally blamed for the
conflagration. For folklorists like myself, the extent to which we are able to
mine such stories may be the best measure of how well we are doing our job. In
Chicago, in 1871, no one was doing it. With Katrina in 2009, too few are. We
continue to rely too strongly on the standard channels. The darkness of ground
zero becomes the blank screen upon which to project the legend debate—the worst
fears of those who are allowed to speak. But in the case of the media, the poor
have played no substantial part in the image-making.
An outsider bias is at work in even the most
seemingly sympathetic treatments of Katrina survivors. In Douglas Brinkley’s
Katrina chronicle, The Great Deluge, one African American Katrina
survivor, Charmaine Neville, a member of the famous musical family, is admitted
to the discourse only to be dismissed:
Traumatized in the darkness, she claimed she saw an
alligator thrashing about, pulling an old man into the murky water. She said,
in fact, she saw many alligators. It’s a doubtful claim. Traumatized, her mind
was playing tricks on her. Evil shadows were lurking all over Bywater. You’d
see alligators too if you had been raped on a dark roof. (Brinkley 2006: 265)
In the same book, Brinkley interviews medical
personnel who reported hearing sniper fire during the evacuation of Charity
Their profound SOS was heard around the world. But in
coming days, when it became clear that reports of gunshots and violence in New
Orleans were overdrawn, some press questioned whether the sniper story was
apocryphal, a creation of histrionic doctors…. But there was no reason to
dismiss the claims of Charity and Tulane doctors…. They were credible
eyewitnesses. (Brinkley 2006: 489-90)
When these lines were written, months after the
events described, Brinkley cited no more verification for one report than for
the other—but the white doctors were shoe-horned into evidence while the black
musician was an object of disbelief.
Thus absolutist scholars and the mainstream media
have both played their parts in causing us to doubt Katrina’s victims. A third,
and most intimate, level at which we have distanced ourselves from the
survivors is through our own revulsion at what they have experienced. As much
as we sympathize with them, we really do not want to feel their pain.
Psychologist Rebecca Campbell and other trauma specialists decry ways in which
interviewers regularly create emotional cushions to insulate themselves from
their interviewees. Campbell demonstrates how "we” social scientists and
reporters "are ghostwriters for our own work,” burying our feelings in
impersonal methods so strained that they filter out the emotional truth of the
narrators—even as they reify our own worldviews (Campbell 2002: 14).
Until recently, researchers have been trained to
cultivate distance as part of their posture of scientific objectivity. One of
the many problems with this stance is that such objectivity is impossible; a
second is that the mask of objectivity works against the emotional engagement
essential to living legend. To record a legend in vivo, researchers do better
to reveal their humanity and to be ready to volunteer emotionally at the same
level that they solicit. A third flaw is the researcher’s impulse of self-preservation.
Interviewers tend to feel threatened by people who have suffered intense
trauma. In order to continue to believe in the security or justice of their own
world, those who experience trauma vicariously through interviews tend to find
fault with the victims—if they had evacuated when told or had not shot
at helicopters, such things would never have happened to them. An
objective stance typically serves to increase the distance of the interviewer
from the narrator and to intensify feelings of alienation on both sides of the
Many have cast blame on the news media for the failed
response to Katrina, but in fact the biases of the media do not differ
substantially from those that social scientists bring to their interviews.
Absolutist researchers tend to treat Katrina survivors’ legends as delusions;
media culture repudiates their voices or simply ignores them altogether; and
interviewers unwilling to sacrifice their sense of safety blame them for their
misfortunes. These three mutually reinforcing frames deny the speakers’ reality
even when we quote them word for word.
The chaos of Katrina was all too real, but for the
vast majority of us looking on, those who pictured and purveyed it were the
mainstream news media, who reported a remarkable combination of images
projected not from the events that unfolded before us, but ultimately and
thoroughly from our pre-existing fears. The horrors on the ground and
under water were so pervasive that no embellishment was needed to conjure
ineradicable images—but the embellishment came, nonetheless. Every one of my
vicarious experiences of the drowned city was infected with this embellishment,
until I had the chance to hear directly from those who had been there.
: Melvin Lerner is credited with the concept of
the "just-world” hypothesis, which can be simply stated as a general tendency
to believe that people generally "get what they deserve”: if they are
victimized by disaster, they did something to bring it on (Lerner and Miller
1978). Ronnie Janoff-Bullman (1989, 1992) applied the concept particularly to
the ways in which trauma victims experience despair through experiencing the
world’s injustice. Rebecca Campbell (2002: 41-64) masterfully applies the
"just world hypothesis” to the interview situations in which interviewers,
despite their conscious intent, tend to blame the victims. [back to main text]
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