I don’t want to talk about the historicity of The Dustbowl or the view of the events of the ’20s and ’30s that it presented or why Burns talked to Survivor X instead of Survivor Y.
If you watched the documentary, you probably remember somewhere in the…third hour, I believe, when the discussion turned to the subsidies offered to farmers who were willing to have their stock destroyed or do the destroying themselves. I’m not interested in the correctness or not of this particular political choice; if nothing else, if you have nothing to feed the animals and they can’t find enough food for themselves, keeping them alive might well be considered a form of drawn-out cruelty.
What I’m interested in, though, are the stories the survivor interviewees told about watching their family’s stock be destroyed. Burns spoke to his usual dozen to fifteen folks, including historians and survivors, and many of the survivors told vivid stories of being children and remembering seeing their stock — often representing the major part of the capital of the family — rounded up and shot. Stock were driven into pits or near shallow trenches so that burial would be easy for those who could not be taken to slaughterhouses. If you’ve ever seen HUD, you’ve probably got a pretty vivid vision of what this looks like already from the killing of the cattle with foot and mouth without even seeing the pictures and film Burns’ crew unearthed.
Each interviewee spoke of being made ‘sick’ or ‘horrified’ or ‘terrified’ by the cattle being driven into the pits, or driven together, and killed, sometimes by men with shotguns which must have made a noise you’d have to hear to believe.
And what fascinates me about this is that I anticipated — knowing what was coming next and knowing that most of the interviewees would have been children or young teenagers at the time — that they’d say, ‘Oh, I ran away’ or ‘I hid under the bed’ or ‘My sister and I went in the cellar’ or ‘My mother made us stay in the house.’ But not one person said this. They all remembered standing and watching, recounting the numb horror of the experience vividly for the camera decades later. Most even had larger context to offer: “I remember it broke my father’s heart” or “They wouldn’t even let us keep a calf for food.”
This thing was happening right in front of them, something that was not only intrinsically horrible — the noise, the dust, the blood must have been incredible — but meant a sea change in their lives, the way their family would live — or fail to live — from that point on, and they didn’t look away.
This is amazing to me on a number of levels. Most germane here is that this is something awful to watch and what do we all do with something horrible? We flinch. We duck or close our eyes or cover our eyes or look away. At least for a minute, sometimes for the entire event. How many of us have turned off the news or not clicked into a news story online because there’s coverage of one of the wars or a shooting or something ‘just too horrible to watch,’ or some picture that will be too terrible to look at. These kids didn’t — or at least their self-reporting indicates that they didn’t. Given that Burns and his crew didn’t look for corroborating narratives, that’s all we really have to go on: they say they watched, so we have to believe them. Personal memory or memory in general is a contested thing among historians; check out Alison Winter’s excellent Memory for more, but that’s not my point here.
So the question that arises for me here is what makes the dividing line between something so awful you have to look away and something so awful you have to watch? As a historian, yogini, and horror geek, I make a practice of watching. If there’s something that bothers me, I seek it out; I watch it more to watch my own reactions to it and explore them. And I’ve gotten totally blindsided by things, sometimes visual, sometimes textual.
There are things I can’t or won’t watch — well-done eye trauma, for example, is a deal-breaker for me — and I wonder what effect this kind of experience early on had on the dividing line for these folks.
I don’t think I have any particularly deep insight as a concluding thought for this but the question keeps recurring to me: What makes the difference between what you can’t watch and what you have to watch?