Lessons in Life: Teaching Vonnegut

For the last seven weeks, Vonnegut's been on my mind. With six comp 2 classes focused on reading Slaughterhouse-Five, I've been deeply steeped in all things Vonnegut, in part to provide a thorough examination of Vonnegut the man and Vonnegut the author and how these intersect.

I hope the enrichment material I've provided, the discussions we've had as we've looked at how Vonnegut talks about his Dresden experience over the course of 45 years, from his letter home in 1945, to the novel itself, to a speech he gave in 1990 at the Air and Space Museum, has given insight into how we shape our lives and alter our narratives, and how deceptive we can be to ourselves. In the middle of those 45 years, Vonnegut gave an extended interview in 1973 to Playboy where he denounced the importance of the event of the firebombing of Dresden and his four months of captivity, saying that singular events like that don't have to change a person.

And yet...it's so obvious from the outside, from the vantage point of now, that the 1973 interview is an anomaly, a wish on Vonnegut's part, having finished SL-5 and seen it made into a movie in 1972, to be able to set aside the experience of Dresden and being a prisoner-of-war, to be free of it and all its baggage.

There are more reasons than I can articulate as to why I teach SL-5 every comp 2 course, why after all these years it continues to speak to me, reach me, change me. Vonnegut and the other men who went off to war and lived unspeakable things and sometimes did the unspeakable have much to teach us about the effects of trauma and how writing can be a way of sharing some of that trauma from a safe distance.

His experiences, and the way he instantly connected with fellow veterans over the rest of his life show the importance that singular events can have in rewriting our lives, and how we can find meaning and community in that trauma.

If you are a military veteran, if you served, no matter what branch, despite the rivalry, you have a built in community, a group of people who are yours. The connection is instantaneous, and it is because you are bonded through the singular experience of surviving basic training, which when I went through it in the late 80s was a truly traumatic, deconstructing experience. Of course, I was there for six months, so I had three times the fun of being torn down day after day.

Part of the experience, the immediacy of relationship, is that trauma does bind people together. There's no shame in the trauma that is experienced as part of becoming a soldier, so we can bond over that experience.

There is, though, shame, in trauma like rape, sexual and physical assault, and abuse, and we still, as a society, stigmatize the victims, attempt to blame them for what has happened to them. And yes, nowhere is this more apparent than when this happens to women in the military.

It is an odd dichotomy that we can, across genders and decades, have a common community, a core connection, yet still, as women in the military who have been abused, be denied the right to witness that particular trauma.

Vonnegut resonates with me at such a visceral level because speaking truth to the trauma, sharing the experiences without guilt, without shame, is something we need to get better at doing, regardless of how we have come to experience the trauma.

As a preface to teaching Vonnegut, the class studies PTSD. We watch the movie Heroes, we watch documentaries on PTSD, we discuss it, and whether or not Vonnegut had PTSD. We discuss whether people can overcome that diagnosis, if it ever goes away.

Inevitably, there are students who have PTSD, who have been traumatized, and I hope that there is a sense of shared experience, of community, and of acceptance. I hope that reading Vonnegut and exploring these negative spaces and places helps students build their foundation, what they will stand on as they continue their lives and the reality that trauma of all sorts will indeed find them.

I hope that they recognize that we are all bound together by this experience of living and losing, that we are all a part of the same community.

Is it lofty, idealistic of me, to hope for that level of change in a semester, to hope that the course goes beyond the mere learning of essay writing? I do not think so. I don't think Vonnegut, were he still kicking, would either, despite his moments of denial.

Everything we do has significance, even if we don't recognize it at the time, and every moment can be imbued with significance if we remain in the present moment and experience it fully. We've become a nation of people who want to get through life numbed, and it is a tremendous loss if we allow that to happen.

Life is supposed to hurt just as much as it is supposed to have its transcendent moments. Reading and discussing Vonnegut is a wonderful, perfect way to learn that lesson.

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