Disaster Falls by Stephane Gerson
Published by Crown/Archetype on January 24th 2017
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Family & Relationships, Parenting, Fatherhood
Format: Print ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers, Penguin Random House
Buy on Amazon
True horror can prove so quiet that one almost believes nothing is happening.
A harrowing memoir about a father’s grief. During a white water rafting trip with his parents and brother, eight-year-old Owen drowned in an area of Green River known as Disaster Falls. There was no way to transport the family back to town, so they had to camp overnight with the rest of the rafting group. That evening, the family of three huddled in a tent and made a pact to stick together. In Disaster Falls, Stéphane Gerson charts the course of his grief.
You wake up one morning without knowing that disaster will take place that day. You do everything right, you plan ahead, chart the course, ask the necessary questions, examine the situation from all sides. You do what parents are expected to do, and yet things still break down, they come undone, they slip away, an eight-year-old slips aways and dies. There is no destiny at play. This death comes at the end of a string of decisions small and large, steps taken or not, resolutions made too long ago to leave visible traces, and behavioral patterns that, like canyons in forsaken lands, sediment so slowly that they seem eternal.
The tone of contemplative sadness
reminded me of When Breath Becomes Air
Gerson’s background is in academia. He is a professor and historian. He seeks companionship in literature from writers who walked the same path. He attempts to place the accident in the context of history, looking into the past to form a better understanding of the tragedy. There’s something deeply emotional about reading the words of a man whose entire career is to find answers trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
Disaster Falls is divided into three parts. “Part One” chronicles the fog of the first year after Owen’s death. Each member of the family lost Owen, but they each grieve differently: the father who witnessed everything, the mother who maintains a spiritual connection to her son, and the boy who lost a brother and part of his parents. Their relationships are irrevocably altered by Owen’s death and they each had to adapt in order not to lose each other in the fog of grief. He discusses the impossibility of helping others grieve when you have your own grief to process. He also writes about the reactions of people outside of their immediate family: the support, the well-meaning comments, the judgments, and the instant camaraderie with others who have been touched by tragedy.
The death of one’s child, of an eight-year-old even is as infinitely sad [in Belarus] as it is elsewhere. But it finds its place within a universe in which stability, control, and justice are not rights or expectations but aspirations perhaps even delusions, In the universe, bereaved parents are not culpable in crimes against nature or civilization. They do not have to allay the fears of others or their own by huddling in underground bunkers.
The details of the accident that led to Owen’s death aren’t shared until “Part Two,” two-thirds of the way through. He writes about the thin line between keeping children safe and over-protection. His anguish is palpable here, as he struggles with his doubts and self-recrimination. His wife never assigned blame, but he honestly acknowledges how different his reaction would’ve been if their roles had been reversed. He also uses “Part Two” to explore death in a larger context. The second year was no better than the first, but he starts reacquainting himself with the outside world. He accompanies his father Berl on an ancestral voyage to Belarus, where notices the differences in grieving in other cultures. In Belarus, they live alongside death rather than hidden from it. He also has to deal with the death of his father. Four months after the trip, Berl is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and Gerson is forced to confront their complicated relationship. When Berl passes away, he ponders the difference between a “good death” and “bad death.”
Owen went so fast and violently, Berl so slowly and deliberately—in slow motion—almost—that, in both cases, it was impossible to register what was happening until it was over.
Despite a determination to not be consumed by rage, anger is a necessary stage of the grieving process. In “Part 3,” Gerson addresses the lawsuit against the rafting company. After the details of the accident, this was the second hardest section to read. It’s frustrating to read the excerpts from the deposition because it’s so hard to read about a child’s life reduced to objective legal terms. It also made me more skeptical of the adventure tourism industry’s claims. The marketing materials implied a level of safety for younger children that couldn’t be guaranteed. While ultimately each guest makes their own choices, I would’ve expected more guidance from the employees–those who have day-to-day experience with the river and its dangers–in helping their guests make educated decisions.
Worlds can come undone in infinitesimal increments.
I’ve never been white water rafting before and probably never will, so I watched a few videos of people rafting Disaster Falls to better visualize what I was reading. A video of a family on the nearby Triplet Falls
gave me a sense of the challenges that rocks can present and how quickly a pleasant rafting trip can spiral out of control. A whole life can change in an instant. The Gerson family is confronted with the unimaginable and must learn to live around a constant ache, while also keeping space for a beloved son who was lost too soon. Disaster Falls
is a painfully honest, haunting, and beautifully written glimpse into the grieving process.