Like millions of other Americans, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot: sitting on the backseat of my mother’s blue Ford station wagon while she drove my brothers and me home from our Seattle-area grade school. I was six years old — a few months older than Caroline Kennedy, who turned six on November 27. Which means I am among the youngest people in the country who can vividly recall the assassination.
Not that I really want to. The shooting and its aftermath overshadowed the rest of my childhood in quietly destructive ways.
The murder of President Kennedy is my earliest memory of an event outside my home, school, and neighborhood. “You won’t be able to watch cartoons today,” my mother said as she swung the car onto our street. “The president of the United States was shot, and it’s on every channel.”
Looking back to that cold Seattle afternoon, fifty years ago, I realize my mother wanted to keep her three young children — aged five, six, and seven — calm. But the manner in which she relayed the information about JFK’s murder made presidential killing seem kind of ordinary — not something to get too excited about. The president was shot, huh? What’s for dinner?
The reactions of my parents over the next few days made me realize how upset they actually were, especially after my 32-year-old mother saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live television.
People who grew up in the five increasingly coarse decades since that terrible televised moment can scarcely fathom how shocking it was. My parents belonged to the World War II generation, so they were hardly innocent about the world’s evils. But seeing murder committed before her eyes, on top of the shock of JFK’s slaying, so traumatized my mother that my father packed up his young family that very night and drove us into the Cascade mountains for a few days of camping, far from televisions, radios, and newspaper headlines. He planned to bring us home in a few days, when it was all over.
My parents could not have foreseen that “it” would never be over — not in their lifetimes, nor the lifetimes of their children. They had no way of knowing that the journalist friends and Camelot colleagues who idolized Kennedy would never let him go, nor allow us to let him go, either. They were traumatized by his loss, and they made darn sure the rest of us stayed traumatized, too. They worshiped “Jack,” and they determined that the rest of us would forever worship him, too. Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot . . .
How could we possibly forget, given the endless books and articles they wrote, the weepy interviews they gave, the poignant Kennedy home movies they aired every November anniversary, until nearly all of these sad-eyed mourners finally died themselves?
They evidently did not realize that their public obsession with Kennedy delayed the ability of Americans to heal from the horror of his death. They prevented children like me, who had the assassination and its aftermath driven deep and hard into our young minds, from fully healing for decades, if ever. Their obsession with Kennedy led to my own youthful obsession — which is why, at age 16, I was reading Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, by Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell, and Jim Bishop’s The Day Kennedy Was Shot instead of Jaws and The Princess Bride, as normal teenagers did.
Kennedy hagiographers not only reminded us, incessantly, of their martyred hero long after we should have moved on, they also — in the manner of 1940-era Communists blasting propaganda on loudspeakers set up across China — shaped an enduring vision of JFK’s life and legacy, one that is, to put it mildly, deeply inaccurate. (I was well into my teens before I discovered that the handsome, heroic JFK was far from perfect . . . really, really far. It took a few more years before I overcame, through exposure to more balanced biography, the massive brainwashing I’d undergone since the age of six, and concluded that Kennedy was no great shakes as a president, either.)
The conspiracy theorists did their damage, too. Certainly, it was necessary to attempt to get to the truth regarding who killed the president, and why. But did so many people have to make their living coming up with one outlandish theory after another (It was Castro! It was the CIA! It was the KGB! It was the Mafia!) about who “really” killed Kennedy? Or was JFK actually still alive, living on machines in some secret location? Yes, he was, according to a creepy story I read when I was about ten. (Whoever wrote that piece, thanks for traumatizing me all over again.) Like most children, I craved stability and certainty in all things, and I sure wasn’t getting it reading stuff like that.
As the 50th anniversary of the assassination approached, I asked friends who also turned six in 1963 what they remembered about that November day. Some recall hysterical teachers, or being sent home early from school. One friend recollects seeing crossing guards crying their eyes out as he walked home. Alarmed, he ran into his house and searched for his mother, who normally greeted him as he arrived. He finally located her in her bedroom, sobbing in front of her television set.
Reactions like these might be filed under “How to Traumatize Children without Really Trying.” If we love our kids, we need to do better than this, because the traumas and tragedies will never end.
My own kids grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. On September 11, 2001, after the Pentagon went up in flames, they were sent home from school early. They endured heavy security at the same school a year later after the Beltway snipers shot a 13-year-old child on a school campus. They absorbed, into their small, vulnerable bodies, the shock waves of multiple school slaughters from Columbine onward.
My husband (aged six years and two months on November 22, 1963) and I both had a pretty good idea what our sons were going through, even when they didn’t much want to talk about it. We did our best to help them through these various horrors with minimal damage, although I admit it was extremely hard to turn off the TV, especially on 9/11. We prayed for the victims and the families.
However unpleasant, parents of small children need to prepare to keep the next national atrocity from becoming a terrible day for their offspring — especially those events journalists seem to have a hard time letting go of, either because their personal feelings are involved or because (the needs of children be damned) it simply makes for great television.
For starters, consider keeping your children home from school for a day or two, until their teachers calm down and get their act together. In the wake of one of America’s worst school slaughters, my younger son, then about seven years old, had nightmares about a gunman coming to his school and killing him, even though I’d kept the television turned off and didn’t discuss the graphic details with him. Unfortunately, his teacher did. Yes, it’s natural to want to talk out one’s feelings at such a time, but the audience should not be a classroom of vulnerable children.
And then there are places of worship — natural spaces in which to talk about why God allows the murder of innocents to happen. But if you have young children, call up your priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam and ask if he or she plans to address the latest tragedy, and how much detail he or she plans to employ. If you think it may be too much for your kids, keep them home that week.
Even when we successfully shield our children from the worst of the “breaking news,” graphic Internet images, and newspaper headlines, we have to assume they will eventually hear the gory details — or worse, wildly inaccurate rumors — from other kids. Parents need to learn what ideas are floating around their heads, find out who put them there, and figure out how to discuss national traumas in a way which will provide comfort and put the tragedy in a larger context. Gently bring up the tragic event a few more times over the coming weeks, months, even years later (especially on the anniversary of the event), to find out if your children are still thinking and worrying about it, or absorbing inaccurate ideas about what happened and what it means. If you find it hard to talk about traumatic subjects with your kids — or if they don’t want to hear about them from you — ask a thoughtful friend or relative to talk with them instead.
Oh, and pay attention to what you bring into the house. My own parents never fully realized that, from a very young age, I was devouring not merely Dr. Seuss and Just So Stories but also newspapers and magazine articles that described (for example) how much of President Kennedy’s skull had been blown off, and where chunks of his brain had landed. Had they known, they would certainly have kept these articles out of my hands, or at least helped me evaluate some of the more bizarre assassination conspiracy theories.
Fifty years ago, my parents had the right idea: To yank their children away from the frightening journalistic maelstrom until it had subsided somewhat. And they stayed as calm as they could — a good thing because, according to the experts, the less upset parents are when a trauma occurs, the less likely children are to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
How sad, then, that even when parents did everything right, thoughtless, grieving journalists spent the next decade pounding the trauma of Kennedy’s murder into the psyches of America’s children, creating heaven knows how many scars. (It left a scar on my mother’s psyche, as well. Now 82, bed-bound, and unable to speak, when she spotted a magazine cover last week featuring JFK, and words recalling that dark and violent week, she became agitated.)
Wandering through a local bookstore a few days ago, I counted something like forty books about President Kennedy, along with many magazines covers featuring his image. Old photographs and old memories. New biographies and new conspiracy theories (LBJ did it!). Books being sold by clerks born decades after the Kennedy administration abruptly ended in Dallas.
I couldn’t help but sigh as I scanned the names of the authors, still so eager to share their anguish and their love for this man, ripping open, once again, the wounds of that awful day — in effect, digging up JFK year after year. I think, “Yes, I understand you were his friend, or the Secret Service agent who tried to save him, or the doctor who who labored over his wounded body, or the teenager who worshiped him from afar. But . . . it’s been fifty years. Can we please, finally, let President Kennedy rest in peace, and truly begin to heal?”
— Anne Morse is a writer living in Brookeville, Maryland.