Finding blame a natural part of grief
June 28, 2007
Twelve hundred firefighters and relief workers aren’t the only ones who’ve been working around the clock since Sunday night. TRPA officials, who’ve received their share of public lambasting over the last 96 hours, have also had nary a chance to shut their eyes and wish for the nightmare that is the Angora fire to disappear.
But theirs is a different tale to tell. While firefighters get standing ovations at community meetings, TRPA executive director John Singlaub gets booed off the stage.
Incline Village-based Andrew Whyman, a board-certified psychiatrist, and his wife, Barbara Perlman Whyman, a clinical psychologist with a degree in critical stress incidents, analyzed the anger and finger-pointing at the agency from a clinical point of view.
“You don’t have any picture of information – there’s a tendency to need to blame, you want someone to be responsible for it,” Perlman Whyman said. “If there’s a car accident, it’s the car’s fault.”
She said when people involved assess a crisis, like a forest fire, emotion distorts the truth.
“Some of the facts may be there, but in most cases it’s not the whole picture,” she said. “When there’s any anger that pre-exists, this is a great time to let it out. If you didn’t like TRPA before – now you’ve got proof.”
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Andy Whyman said genuine psychological trauma caused by natural disasters or events like Sept. 11 spark a set of emotional reactions, including sadness, depression, emotional discontrol and grief, “and that’s aside from the reaction by the culture of the community itself.”
“Some people are going to say it’s the fault of those people who didn’t clean up this forest. Some people are going to say this is a natural disaster. This is like the flood in New Orleans, and yes, man could’ve done more, but forests do their thing, which is they burn – and they’ve done that forever.”
One nasty byproduct of this kind of catastrophe is in the political arena, he said.
“It develops a great opportunity for demagoguery,” he said, “because you have an arena of people looking for leadership. In this culture of entitlement we want to know who caused this? We should be able to go to the moon, live in a flood zone, exist in the middle of the forest, because we’re entitled to have all this – that’s where the blame comes in.”
Both Whymans said the best thing people can do is to come together and search for adaptive solutions, not to blame.