Stephane Gerson, who will read from his haunting memoir Disaster Falls at Golden Notebook on Saturday, January 28, is an award-winning historian. His thinking is clear, logical; his analysis, methodical. His specialty is cultural history, and in particular French cultural history. His previous books have included The Pride Of Place, Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth Century France, which looked into the reasons behind, and effects of, a specific surge in historical self-examination; and a well-received work about Nostradamus’ legacy over time, include post 9/11.
Disaster Falls is memoir. It delves into an area usually plumbed by women authors, as several note within Gerson’s story; it’s about grief and what we learn from it, how we feel. To be more exact, it’s about the loss of the author’s eight year old son on a rafting trip in Utah, one of those tragedies that reverberated beyond family and approach the realm of nightmares.
Gerson and his wife Alison have kept a home in Woodstock since the early 2000s. The service for Owen was held at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Many in the community still feel the awkwardness at facing the family’s loss.
Yet there’s much more than personal or even a community’s catharsis in Disaster Falls. The book Gerson has written feels dry at first, missing the sort of lyrical detail one’s grown used to in this specific genre, or most modern memoir. It builds not only as a narrative, with bits and pieces of information — such as the accident that took Owen from the inflated “ducky” raft he was sharing with his father on a western river — used for suspense, but also as an inner journey of understanding through revealed vulnerabilities.
“It seems unseemly and almost ungrateful to say so, but the constant presence of others soon overwhelmed me, too. Our home had become a kibbutz, a Soviet kolkhoz, a collective with sounds and rhythms and rituals that were no longer ours,” Gerson writes, after describing the physicality of loss that he, his wife and Owen’s older brother had to go through.
We delve into the ways people try and help, the social aspects of loss…and expectation of grief (and guilt). Condolence letters and emails are quoted. The activities and readings undertaken to reposition one back into a “normal” life. Couples therapy, glimpses into the paranormal for assurances, suggested studies, and mounting disappointments all get examined. But so do the small moments where strengths can play through, including the Gersons’ commitment to each other.
Ever so slowly, the actual moments of what happened on the Green River during the summer of 2008 become clearer. The exact feeling of reaction, as well as what did not occur: “The light did not grow dim; the air did not dry up. If I uttered any words, I do not recall what they were.” Moreover, as the family comes close to the one year anniversary of Owen’s death, some new elements provide insight. Gerson visits a relative who survived the Holocaust. He starts to study the history of the Green River on which his son perished, fallen from the boat they shared.
Which is where Disaster Falls becomes something different from other memoirs, and in the end a truly great work of art and human understanding.
“I could not figure out what story to tell, or if it was all right to turn Owen’s death into a story, or whether I could write about it with requisite honesty,” Gerson writes, summoning the lessons he’d learned as a historian from a Warsaw Ghetto poet’s work. “Shun metaphors, avoid innuendo, refuse flowery language. Cut close to the bone, as close as possible to the substance of things.”
The specifics of the fateful day on the river start to shine as if under summer light; not warm but very clear. In that clarity a sort of poetry rises, albeit one based less on any kinship with dreaminess than on something grander, almost epic.
Gerson takes his father back to his family’s homeland in Belarus, with his surviving son in tow. Then his father grows ill. Living in Belgium, he can ask for and received euthanasia. The author crosses new thresholds, addressing unsaid things with his father while still questioning his own role as a dad. Another death occurs (no, these are not giveaways, but a sense of the vastness of what this book achieves).
I won’t share the book’s final section, “End Stories,” except to say that within it, Stephane Gerson the academic is able to find something universal in his particulars. He reaches into both the river of history and the chill stream of personal experience to uncover old truths in new relevance. As well as something more, something about modernity and the human soul…and how we can all move forward.
There’s even one of those movie-perfect flashes of what some could call providence, and others pure coincidence. Or life. As well as an evaluation of the politics of risk, and what we owe each other in assessing such things.
Disaster Falls, from Crown Publishing, took eight years to write, much of it in the late Owen Gerson’s bedroom. It was all time beautifully spent. I can’t imagine this work without so much care having gone into it.
Stephane Gerson reads from Disaster Falls at Golden Notebook in Woodstock at 6 p.m. Saturday, January 28. He will also be a part of this year’s Memoir panel at the Woodstock Bookfest, taking place around town from April 27-30. Visit www.goldennotebook.com or www.woodstockbookfest.com for more information.