I spent a couple of years back in the 1990s working for a small tutoring company in Seattle. The job was to help teenagers academically, but some needed more. We found them better schools, scholarships, jobs, and sometimes homes. (I’ve written about it here before: “A Remote Student,” Nov. 2020.)
There was this one girl who wasn’t a client but rather a friend of the boss’s family. She was a senior at a prestigious private school, a painter, a poet, a musician, and she was brilliant, as her career would later prove. I chatted with her whenever she stopped by to reassure myself there was hope for humanity.
So, I was surprised one day when I found her name on my schedule to discuss some schoolwork issue.
She was in this ultra-AP literature seminar where each student not only had to read each book and write essays on them, but also had to lecture and lead discussions on two of the titles. She’d already done that once without a problem but now she was up again, and she was terrified.
The book was “Hiroshima” by John Hersey.
In 1946, The New Yorker commissioned Hersey, a decorated war correspondent and prize-winning novelist, to go to Hiroshima to report on the state of that city one year after it had been destroyed by the first atomic bomb. His book recreates the day by profiling six survivors in what was then the new approach of using classic narrative structure for nonfiction reporting. The magazine had planned to serialize his story over a year but instead devoted a single oversized issue to it. The book was published just two months later, sold more than three million copies, and has never been out of print.
It also must be one of the most studied books in American literature. I read it in high school myself and then again when I wrote about it as part of my thesis on World War II.
I didn’t see the problem. There could be no question of her not getting it.
She did get it. That was the problem.
Her dad was in the middle of months of radiation therapy for a disease still so little understood it’s called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’d already done a year of chemo, which had taken its toll on him and the family. It didn’t help that he was a physician and understood better than most what was happening to him and what was going to happen.
She spoke through long tears about the survivors’ stories in the book, but she knew herself well enough to understand the book was not the issue. She recognized her father’s suffering — and her own — in those stories. His slow diminishment by radiation, the burns, the cancer; the destruction it wrought on her family, the destruction of those other families, all melted into her. She saw herself in those lives ruined in a flash, and in a lost innocence that mirrored her own.
And she felt guilty because of it. How could she compare her pain to the trauma of Hiroshima? How dare she make that event about herself?
She insisted there was no time to find an alternative. Everyone in class had read the book, everyone had been subjected to the stress of lecturing and she would not undergo the indignity of getting out of it. She didn’t know what to do.
“I just wish John Hersey was here to see what a good book he wrote,” I said. “Because you’re supposed to feel this way.”
I’d done my own time on chemo just a few years earlier for a different version of the same disease her father was fighting, followed by the same long stretch of radiation, which left its mark, and I had come through the other side.
She knew that; it’s why she’d come to me. But that’s not what she needed to hear.
She needed to hear about the hidden country in between.
She had let the pain of strangers reach her and that made her eligible — it is the only word — to honor it. That is what survivors do. They protect the living.
“Tell the class what you told me,” I said. “Show them what this book showed you. It will help you and it will help them too.”
I still remember the look she gave me because I couldn’t quite read it. Some combination of acceptance and defiance. Maybe just courage.
I gave her a bunch of Kleenex and we stood up and shook hands. We were fellow travelers on the same unmarked landscape.
She aced her seminar, of course. I saw her once or twice afterward before she graduated and went to the Ivy League on a full ride and earned her Ph.D. Last I heard she was teaching grad students out there.
Her father survived.
Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer. He lives in Vaughn.
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