Talking Trauma: A Candid Look at Paramedics Through Their Tradition of Tale-Telling

July 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

Last spring I enrolled in an American Folklore class, an all-undergrad all the time 4/5 split (ugh) that mostly presented information I already knew by virtue of being American and nearly a thousand years old. The whole term was mostly meh, but one day we got to watch pretty much the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen — the film version of Talking Trauma. Not that much actually happens over the hour-long doc, it’s basically a bunch of guys with early 90s Jerry Seinfeld mullets giggling their balls off whilst telling the most fucked-up medical horror stories you could imagine. Still, it’s some funny (and seriously nasty) shit; 95% of the class would go into mode every time a medic would liken an accident victim’s brain to a pile of chewed-up bubble gum, or when someone would talk about humming their favorite tune and spinning some dead guy’s eyeball –still attached to the optic nerve– around their finger like a yo-yo. In almost every case, the women in the class were the most sensitive, at least, were the most vested in appearing sensitive. I, along with a handful of guys (not the dudebros — the guys I knew to be internet people/trolls) couldn’t stop laughing. Because it was just so wrong, and anyway, the medics were seriously giddy. And right or wrong, usually irregardless of what is being mocked, other people’s laughter makes me laugh. Hence my interest in placing this selection on my Folklore list. It was a pretty trollish film, after all.

Surprisingly, the book is even more interesting than the movie — though you do miss out on the contagious (in my case) giggles of the medics whose stories these are. The difference of course is the analysis, which Tangherlini handles adeptly and with (seemingly) genuine interest. The basic idea is that these stories perform a series of important social functions: they provide an outlet for narrative one-upsmanship, create and maintain social hierarchies (both within and without the medic community), subvert authority and, perhaps most importantly, allow medics –whose jobs otherwise are never finished– to create for themselves discrete endings (and therefore closure) for particularly difficult or otherwise jarring experiences.

Unsurprisingly, a significant percentage of medics’ stories are infused with a kind of gristly, dark humor. As Tangherlini argues, such humor allows medics to work through a whole slew of anxieties by creating performative distance between the observer and that which has been observed, thus allowing the medic to do his or her job with a minimum of psychic trauma — placing Tangherlini’s analysis squarely in the “transgressive humor as coping strategy” camp. Not exactly the world’s most groundbreaking conclusion, but one which allows the reader/audience to place this sort of gallows humor in a context other than sociopathy. Plus it’s fun to read and made me laugh. Also squirm. And then laugh harder. Humor! How does it work


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