A Unique Perspective on Traumatic Shock

It was just another late autumn Friday afternoon. A New England autumn. A lovely time to be in Boston. Warm enough, with a high in the 50s.

The greatest shocks never warn.

Matinee symphony concerts, such as those of the Boston Symphony, are attended by more ladies than men. Surely, in the November audience, many from high society – the scions of colonial days – occupied the best seats. Old money, as they say.

The intermission concluded and Erich Leinsdorf, the orchestra’s Viennese Music Director, came on stage. His hands stilled the applause.

Leinsdorf had an announcement to make.

Relive the moment if you are courageous enough: the 53-word report of the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, more remarkable, the audience’s reaction.

Countless TV and radio interruptions like this occurred, all with the same terrible news. None of the recordings of those broadcasts, however, carry the shock of Leinsdorf’s, because none allow us to hear a traumatized, horrified audience.

Some of the concert-goers knew Kennedy personally. Many had seen him close up. He was a son of their soil and their soul.

Before saying more, I will give you the opportunity to listen. Additional description, context, and analysis follow. Should you be afraid of the shock, however, you may want to read on first. One further word: I’ve included over a minute of the Boston Symphony broadcast before Leinsdorf speaks. I did this to put you in the mind of a Boston listener of the time, unprepared for the unimaginable. Leinsdorf begins to talk about a minute-and-a-half in:

Erich Leinsdorf gave two messages simultaneously, unwittingly. He was convinced Kennedy was dead, but conveyed uncertainty. The audience gasped. Then, before they could process the news – before they could admit to themselves that the President was gone – the orchestra began the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, a piece dedicated to the memory of a fallen hero. Music of consolation served, in this instance, to kill hope.

Perhaps those of you too young to remember the day cannot understand how Americans then felt, despite the more recent shocks you have known. No President had been murdered since William McKinley in 1901, 62-years before Kennedy. The closest previous U.S.A. horror was the Pearl Harbor invasion of December 7, 1941, 22-years before: before my generation, the Post WWII Baby Boomers, were born.

We were – we middle class white kids – yet untouched by national tragedy; a condition now lost in the wave of gun-related domestic massacres, the terrorist catastrophe of September 11, 2001; and subsequent (almost routine) calamities of so many kinds. By 1968, five years later, the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had deflowered the virgin sensibilities of my age group. No wonder smoking marijuana became almost as common among us as saying hello.

On the other hand, if you grapple with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the inside, the audience reaction in Symphony Hall is within the range of your experience. And for those lucky enough not to have suffered such a blow, perhaps listening to this broadcast excerpt will bring you an inch closer to understanding what personal trauma is like.

At least, how it sounded 54-years ago.

23 thoughts on “A Unique Perspective on Traumatic Shock

    • I’ve heard it several times and the emotion has not been worn away by the repetition.

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      • Thank you so much for writing this amazing window into our youths. I went right back, but this time with a new perspective. I had never thought of it that way! Thank you for opening my mind!

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      • I was inclined to write “my pleasure,” but it is hardly that. You are welcome.

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  1. You know you are going to get a lot of responses like mine but here goes. Yes, I remember the day too well. I was only ten years old and my fifth grade phonics test was interrupted by the school secretary who was going from classroom to classroom to make this announcement. I can actually still feel the shock of that day. I attended Catholic schools and, of course, Kennedy was our man. As a child It was frightening to observe the adults around me. Many staff members were crying and this, in and of itself, was scary. The stunned expressions of parents and teachers on that day shocked me and the only response recommended was to pray. Confusing and very unsettling for a child. We had a small black and white TV at home and – here’s another first in American history- do you remember how that weekend was covered on TV? Non stop coverage of all events, including Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald on Sunday. My parents were actually watching it when it happened. Schools were closed on Monday and we watched the entire funeral procession. Every year still on Nov 22 I recall that anniversary. And Dallas is known for the knoll and the Texas Book Depository.

    I also still remember well the events of April 4, 1968 and my dad emphasizing at dinner that evening that America had lost a great man in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr. June 5/6 , 1968 were memorable as well b/c I was old enough by then to care about politics and Bobby Kennedy was my man. My family lived in East Los Angele at that time and that he was killed close to our home embarrassed and angered me. That he was taken down at all deeply shocked me and I could not stop thinking about his family. I believe his last child was born after his death and that was huge to my 15 year old self. We watched that funeral as well and I can never hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic and not think of that funeral train.

    Interesting that you would make that comment about smoking weed. I do think that between these tragic events and the Vietnam War, young people really were taking refuge in something. By the time I was 18 I had dropped Catholicism and became one of those question authority college kids. I never regretted that but I do think that cynicism had found its way into my mind and my world view. And weed was an escape and yet also a connection to my own inner world. I had experience with peyote and LSD as well and I think that was about trying to find something real, something to hold on to. Oddly, along with the shock and the subsequent self medicating there was a strong voice that said, “But, hey, you can make a difference. You can learn from them, you can change the world.” I admired those three men. JFK was too remote for me to access as a ten year old. I just followed the parents on that one. But, by 15, I had a more developed consciousness and had elevated MLKJr and RFK to hero like status. And their ideals continued to influence me all my life. I think I made the career choice that I made b/c I wanted to make a difference. Those were disturbing times in which to come of age but, oddly, I’m glad they were my years. Does that make sense?

    Something about this also makes me think of the music of that time, especially late 60’s early 70’s. There were some powerful songwriters and musicians who were able to influence and move the culture in ways that I don’t think have happened since then (but I suppose it’s not fair of me to say that since I lost touch with contemporary music by the mid 1980’s).

    And, yes, September 11, 2001 had shades of Nov 22, 1963. By that time I was working with children in public schools and I remember consciously thinking about how it was to be a child in the aftermath of assassination. I was able to use that experience to help the kids under my care make it through those scary times.

    My personal motto recently has become “Stay curious. Everything changes.” To that I would add, use your own experiences to soften tragedy for others.

    Thanks for an interesting reminder. I listened to the whole video though I knew the outcome.

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    • Thanks, JT. You make perfect sense. The power of that moment, like almost all “firsts,” continues to resonate; but a “first” like no other for us, not to be repeated, really. Taking your inspiration from those lost surely was an adaptive response.

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  2. Hearing the crowd in that video said it all. Wow. I experienced the shock of 911 via television (not the same as living in NYC though), and another shock on television regarding the seven NASA astronauts in the 1980s. Everything else I hear about now on the Internet via news or FB feeds. It’s sad and traumatic. The initial shock feels like it is the most powerful – until you start re-experiencing those cumulative shock factors every time you hear of a new shock. Having PTSD makes the shock factor even more potent, though still manageable if the proximity to the origin is great enough. When you have that on top of natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, and/or tornadoes, I can’t imagine how one lives without fearing that the sky is going to fall at any moment. Is there a way we can (or even ethically should) desensitize ourselves from all of this? For the natural disasters, I can prep and desensitize – but not without great effort first. For the manmade disastrous events and terror, I don’t know that my heart will allow desensitization when I think about all the casualties, though as a veteran, I can imagine how one must temporarily desensitize in order to get a job done during acts of war or for the need to fulfill a first responder’s duties. For those first responders, I can imagine the brief shock followed by compartmentalization followed by residual latent shock once the dust has settled. It’s kind of like having painful contractions during childbirth, but only in your head.

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    • I think you are right to question too great a desensitization. One would then lose touch with what is good in life. That said, the Holocaust literature suggests that self-numbing was necessary (but not sufficient) to survive the death camps ; those who did not do so (probably unconsciously) quickly despaired and died. It has been said that many of the survivors returned to life, but did not “live.” I think your comment about the military is important too, especially because the USA’s volunteer army repeatedly deploys young people in combat with great personal cost beyond the physical.

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  3. I was a child when he was assassinated and I recall my mother whispering about his death in hushed, grief stricken tones with tears streaming down her face. We were Irish and Catholic and JFK was revered within our home…I almost felt he was a lost family member. I become very emotional even now when seeing news clips of his funeral march, with the same haunting drum beat they used for President Lincoln’s funeral procession and I weep when seeing John John saluting his father’s casket. Yes, 9/11 was horrific, Princess Diana’s death held most people’s attention, and the massacre in Newtown, CT for those of us within proximity of the area suffered immense grief also.

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  4. Yes, too much, Nancy. Plus the daily rage outbursts of alleged leaders who gin-up hatred, foment incivility, and worse.

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  5. Wow, so poignant! Even though I was only 3 yrs old I remember that day. I remember MLK and Bobby Kennedy too. Now things happen and it is merely a blip on the news cycle. Tragedies brought to our attention and then swept away with tweets of buffoonery.
    For me, the way things are reported and then ignored is extremely difficult when living with PTSD. It hits that confusing, that happened, but lets not talk about it, we’ll just bury it as if its no big deal response. (If that makes sense) I try to balance knowing whats happening in the world.

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    • The balance is as difficult, as you say. If we think about our ancestors, they knew more of death on a daily basis – shorter lives, people dying in their homes rather than out of sight in hospitals. I’ve often thought that the “hardness” of those ancestors (less open to feelings) was necessary. Now, we seem to be returning to a time of shocks, but without the armor provided by their habitual distance from feelings. You might be aware that Holocaust survivors hardly ever talked about it in detail after they returned to “civilization,” though some, as they aged, felt the need to tell (and record) the story. Indeed, the world was so closed to telling and listening to post-WWII stories, that the name “Holocaust,” didn’t turn up until over a quarter-century after the war ended. I can only offer abstractions and stories, however, not what you are living. Best wishes.

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  6. I could not hold back the tears when the orchestra began the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Indeed, given the historical perspective you described, it must’ve been a traumatic blow for Americans who, like Nancy’s family, revered President Kennedy.

    As a teenager at the time, living in the backyard of the USA, I knew very little about the American president. We were facing our own trauma in our struggle for independence from Great Britain. JFK was not popular among the leadership of the then leftist socialist party who were friends of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

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    • Amazing, isn’t it Rosaliene, that something like this can reach through time to touch us still. And Beethoven, who wrote his Symphony #3 (his own favorite among the nine symphonies) over 200-years ago, reaches even further.

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  7. Greetings Dr G – isn’t it ironic that grief is acceptable when it’s a public figure, a hero, a tragic princess, a national disaster – we are so eager to grab our share of the grief and to participate in the hype and to show off our emotions, sometimes to the extent that we actually take what isn’t ours to take and to rob the person/s at the core of the disaster of their right to grieve, we as Joe and Jane Public take ownership of that person, the disaster, whether we are directly involved or not, we feel it is our right, yes it is devastating as a nation to see a leader fall, a nation brought to her knees by war and terror, and in that national grief we are brought together, to stand stronger, and so much healing and building is achieved within this public reaching out of humanity, but you have to ask yourself in this national involvement of whatever tragedy, with all the public announcements and TV coverage and lately social media, what are we taking away from those people directly involved, those loved ones trying to grieve for a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a friend, do we as a nation really have the right to take away, to claim ownership of this grief and pain, yes the person willingly placed themselves in the public domain and accepted they would be judged by the vast unwashed masses, but does that privilege extend to the very private right to grieve, we defend so savagely our right to grieve in private but this seems to fall away when the tragedy is made public, and yet when it comes to personal grief and tragedy we are expected by that same public face to be stoical, not to show any emotion, to sweep our griefs under the rug, not to make public what we are feeling, so what does this say about us as a public nation, that it is acceptable to lay claim, to adopt another’s grief and pain and suffering, to take what isn’t ours, yet in the quiet depths of our souls we are forbidden to grieve for our own personal tragedies, what does that say about us as loving caring human beings, that we are only capable of showing our emotions when we are far removed from the tragedy, that we shy away and run for the hills when that tragedy comes knocking on our door and it involves one of our intimate loved ones, are we only capable of bringing out our feelings when like sheep we are swept up and herded into a national tragedy and we cry in public and we place flowers as tribute and we wrap our arms about and hug and talk to total strangers about our adopted pain, yet in the dark at home we sit in our cold emptiness of our own personal tragedies and we grieve alone

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    • Yes, we do tend to appropriate tragedies, Rosie, but our history as a species has fixed attachment to leaders pretty strongly in our DNA. As to the Kennedy assassination reaction heard here, people reacted instinctively. As to the stoicism you describe, we do seem to be expected by the world to bounce back perhaps more rapidly than is reasonable. Ideally, however, there are some around us who show more consideration than that – more patience with the time it takes, the anniversary effects, the traumatic reminders – and hold our hand in the difficult moments. At least, those of us who are lucky, have such people in our lives.

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  8. I was born in 1969 and in Australia so was untouched at the time, but in adult years world history and social history has helped me to understand the significance of events and the way the world was for my parents and grandparents, and how they were influenced and the impact on my childhood. It has appeared that the fifties particularly and the sixties very much had a veneer of innocence and ‘happy families’ like the Cleaver family in “Leave it to Beaver” and no one wanted to talk about the corruption and social injustices that were behind it all. I think when John Kennedy was killed, the veneer stared to crumble and the subsequent cover-up made people loose faith in institutions like the government and media. It really pushed the world past a point of no return. I watched a series on YouTube a while back called ‘ The Men Who Killed Kennedy’ very interesting. The truths that have come out since makes you wonder if there is anyone you can trust. The Kennedy’s weren’t always that innocent either, they seemed to be well intended, but who knows. There were so many hidden agendas happening from all sorts of areas. Politics is a dangerous game.

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    • To the best of my knowledge, Claire, there is no credible evidence that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy to kill him, rather than having been murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald. The conspiracy-mongers play on the vulnerability of humans to believe in conspiracies, part of the inheritance from our ancient ancestors who needed to be on the watch for dangers of all kinds. The Kennedy assassination left room for lots of people to speculate and lots of money and sensationalism to be created by the speculators. Today we see that some people, like the US President, play on this same vulnerability. Institutions and our leaders should not be worshiped blindly, but we must support those remaining credible, expert, and hard working journalists, who do their best to cut through the propaganda that often passes for truth, as George Orwell predicted.

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  9. This gave me chills.

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