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Disaster Falls

Cover of Disaster Falls

Disaster Falls

A Family Story
Borrow Borrow
A haunting chronicle of what endures when the world we know is swept away

On a day like any other, on a rafting trip down Utah's Green River, Stéphane Gerson's eight-year-old son, Owen, drowned in a spot known as Disaster Falls. That night, as darkness fell, Stéphane huddled in a tent with his wife, Alison, and their older son, Julian, trying to understand what seemed inconceivable. "It's just the three of us now," Alison said over the sounds of a light rain and, nearby, the rushing river. "We cannot do it alone. We have to stick together."
Disaster Falls chronicles the aftermath of that day and their shared determination to stay true to Alison's resolution. At the heart of the book is an unflinching portrait of a marriage tested. Husband and wife grieve in radically different ways that threaten to isolate each of them in their post-Owen worlds. ("He feels so far," Stéphane says when Alison shows him a selfie Owen had taken. "He feels so close," she says.) With beautiful specificity, Stéphane shows how they resist that isolation and reconfigure their marriage from within.
As Stéphane navigates his grief, the memoir expands to explore how society reacts to the death of a child. He depicts the "good death" of his father, which reveals an altogther different perspective on mortality. He excavates the history of the Green River—rife with hazards not mentioned in the rafting company's brochures. He explores how stories can both memorialize and obscure a person's life—and how they can rescue us.
Disaster Falls is a powerful account of a life cleaved in two—raw, truthful, and unexpectedly consoling.
A haunting chronicle of what endures when the world we know is swept away

On a day like any other, on a rafting trip down Utah's Green River, Stéphane Gerson's eight-year-old son, Owen, drowned in a spot known as Disaster Falls. That night, as darkness fell, Stéphane huddled in a tent with his wife, Alison, and their older son, Julian, trying to understand what seemed inconceivable. "It's just the three of us now," Alison said over the sounds of a light rain and, nearby, the rushing river. "We cannot do it alone. We have to stick together."
Disaster Falls chronicles the aftermath of that day and their shared determination to stay true to Alison's resolution. At the heart of the book is an unflinching portrait of a marriage tested. Husband and wife grieve in radically different ways that threaten to isolate each of them in their post-Owen worlds. ("He feels so far," Stéphane says when Alison shows him a selfie Owen had taken. "He feels so close," she says.) With beautiful specificity, Stéphane shows how they resist that isolation and reconfigure their marriage from within.
As Stéphane navigates his grief, the memoir expands to explore how society reacts to the death of a child. He depicts the "good death" of his father, which reveals an altogther different perspective on mortality. He excavates the history of the Green River—rife with hazards not mentioned in the rafting company's brochures. He explores how stories can both memorialize and obscure a person's life—and how they can rescue us.
Disaster Falls is a powerful account of a life cleaved in two—raw, truthful, and unexpectedly consoling.
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  • From the book 9781101906699|excerpt

    Gerson / DISASTER FALLS

    One

    Drew: Just a quick question: What is it like at home?

    Owen's former classmates—­Drew and the others—­sometimes asked us about the accident. More often, they recounted where they had been when they found out. This is how they told us his death had turned their lives upside down. Adults were not different, but most doubted that we wanted to know or else they feared saying the wrong thing so they tended to remain quiet. The few friends who took us back to that moment did so gingerly. They watched for our cues.

    With Alison, they saw a distant gaze and hard features. She did not want to know what others were doing or what they had felt when we called with the news because such stories were not about Owen. They were solely about these people and the pain they had felt when the accident entered their lives. This was excruciating for Alison, who felt responsible for their suffering.

    The signals I gave out were more conflicted. Throw it my way, they said. Give me another vantage point on this catastrophe so I can grasp its enormity. Owen's death is too large to remain a private affair. I want this knowledge and I want this closeness. But do not tell me too much. Do not turn this death into a spectacle or a collective trial that taught us something and brought us closer together, even if that is true. Do not suggest that your grief resembles mine.

    These were unreasonable expectations, I knew that.

    One friend recalled that, during her first phone call, Alison had asked how she would go on living. Another told us she was in her car when her husband, who was standing outside, answered his cell phone. She watched him speak and then sob, though she did not know why. These are the kinds of recollections Alison sought to avoid. But I listened because our lives tipped over at that exact moment and I wanted to understand the world into which we had tumbled.

    One day, a friend began describing the nervous anticipation that had filled our home in Woodstock, New York, as we made our way back from Utah, but she stopped midsentence because of Alison's obvious lack of interest. I was disappointed. Though I never asked, I would have liked to hear what happened when friends and relatives converged upon our home the day after the accident. They had to respond to a situation they barely fathomed and at the same time handle practical matters. Someone had to drive to the Albany airport and find the courage to face us and say those initial words. Something else: what should the house look like when we arrived? I imagine that this entailed many decisions: where people would position themselves, whether food would be laid out, how bright to set the lights. There was a scene to compose.

    I was only dimly attuned to all of this but did realize that people were stepping in and making decisions—­they were making decisions for us. This was one of the mental notes I kept during the early days, tabulating as best I could the widening gulf between the old reality and the new.

    Two friends made the hour-­long drive to Albany. It was dark, I think, when we left the airport. I sat in the backseat, feeling already like a passenger in my own life. I do not think that we discussed anything substantive during the ride, though I could be wrong. A haze surrounds these days, with random moments of clarity etched into my memory.

    Among these moments: the sight of my mother, the first person whom I saw as we pulled into our garage. She shuffled across the dusty concrete floor with tiny penguin-­like steps, ashen-­faced, arms half-­open. Though she moved...
About the Author-
  • Stéphane Gerson is a cultural historian and a professor of French studies at New York University. He has won several awards, including the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies. He lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York with his family.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 14, 2016
    In this wrenching memoir, Gerson, a historian and professor at New York University, grapples with unthinkable loss. He and his eight-year old son, Owen, were on a family rafting trip to Utah when father and son were thrown out of a small “duck boat” while navigating rapids on the Green River; Owen drowned. As he tries to find relief without dimming memory, Gerson turns to support groups, new routines, literature, history, and mysticism. Only with the death of his father two years later, and his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, does Gerson begin to achieve a tentative acceptance of the unacceptable. Gerson writes honestly of his grief and guilt with an analytic distance that doesn’t mask his suffering. Chapters narrating the events around Owen’s death provide a counterpoint to those examining the accident’s effects on Gerson’s marriage, family, community, and his own sense of identity. The experience of 9/11 and a visit with his father to Belarus—where family members were murdered in the Holocaust—allow Gerson to contextualize his personal tragedy within the overwhelming history of human catastrophe. While asserting that one can never recover from the death of a child, Gerson evocatively describes the process of a struggle that allows him to continue living.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH, author of Gabriel: A Poem "Disaster Falls is a father's grief-stricken book, a work of expiation, homage, and remembrance, and it moved me, as it will move many others, because it is authentic, resonant and true, deeply thoughtful, utterly real."
  • ANN HOOD, author of Comfort: A Journey Through Grief and The Knitting Circle "In 2002 I lost my five-year-old daughter Grace to a virulent form of strep. In the aftermath of that enormous loss, I sought books that talked about the grief parents feel when their child dies. Not just grief, but anger and guilt and love and mysticism and yes, even hope. Stéphane Gerson has written such a book. Disaster Falls is brutally honest and unflappable, brave and vulnerable. Read it."
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A Family Story
Stephane Gerson
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