Tragedy, individualism and the extended family
By MIKE McGRAW
It’s been several weeks now since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Commentaries from journalists, politicians and interest groups have searched for nuggets of truth to help explain how something so terrible can happen. There must be a pattern that can be analyzed, some character flaw in our society that makes the United States susceptible to repeated episodes of mass shooting. Inadequate help for the mentally ill, gun culture and video games are put forth as plausible reasons to explain, at least in part, why we have seemingly become unhinged as a country.
I think we’re looking too closely for flaws, perceived weaknesses in the system that some would say is a result of too much personal liberty or from freedoms we can’t handle. The dissecting scope needs to be pulled back. A larger perspective revealed on what it means to be an American.
The U.S. or Western Culture is not inherently more violent. It’s too easy to point to Cambodia, Rwanda, or any number of developing countries for instances of violence on a genocidal scale. However, the type of violence we experience as a nation, I believe, does have an origin — a fertile, and nurturing condition different from what most people on the planet experience.
For two years, in the beginning of the 1990s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, an extremely poor country in southeastern Africa. I lived in a rural area adjacent to a fishing village and maize fields helping to develop a new national park. My life was integrated with the Malawians I worked and socialized with. I was simultaneously part and apart of the community, giving me an informed outsider’s perspective of a culture very different from the one I left in California.
Village life had joys, jealousies, squabbles, good-natured folks, alcoholics, Good Samaritans, avarice, and all the self-serving conditions and characters you’d find in a town like Winters. The difference, though, in a Malawian village, and communities rural or urban in most developing nations, is the strength of the extended family and the subjugation of individualism for group cohesion, a condition receding fast in the fabric of American life. Basically, American families are now geographically fractured, no longer providing a check on the excesses of individual autonomy.
I say this knowing that individual freedom is a strength we should be rightly proud of as Americans. It leads to entrepreneurship on a grand scale, dominance in science and technology, and wonderful artistic expression; a very comfortable life. But for some people, individualism leads to alienation, and aberrant feelings becoming destructive behaviors.
The Jeffrey Dahmer horror unfolded when I was in Malawi. This nightmare — from my home country — became newsworthy in a small African nation. Malawians were perplexed. As an American living in their country, perhaps I would have insight into what a “serial killing” was all about. I couldn’t explain it, — not within the context of anything relatable to a Malawian’s life. How could an individual, over so many years, commit such grisly crimes without anyone knowing? In village life, after all, everyone knows what everyone else is up to. Privacy is a rare commodity — something I found difficult to adjust to as a Peace Corps volunteer. Dahmer’s depravity would not go beyond the first victim in a Malawian village. People with psychological disorders are watched.
Troubled souls with broken nuclear families in this country are too often cut adrift, left to stew alone in a morass of mental illness. In Malawi, the immediate family can “break down” (dad’s physically absent and mom emotionally vacant) but usually a grandparent or an Aunt Sally is available. The extended family becomes the strength. A person couldn’t live out their life in a hut, unchallenged, in the same way they can in an apartment in Davis. Even though serial killing is not analogous to what happened in Connecticut, it is an act of violence stitched in America.
Years ago, Hillary Clinton received some grief when she said “It takes a village to raise a family.” The statement is true. Between the nation state and the immediate family is the village, the extended family, a watchful perimeter beyond the individual that maintains societal sanity.
(Mike McGraw is a resident of Winters, where he lives with his wife Kelly and two great kids, Laurel and Will. He works as a park ranger with the Bureau of Reclamation at Lake Berryessa.)