My husband and I watched a documentary last night about the Chowchilla Kidnapping of 1976. I had never heard of Chowchilla, California, nor had I heard about the 26 children, aged 5-14, and their school bus driver, who were hijacked at gunpoint one summer from the local swimming pool.
Now, I wasn’t born until 1977, but I consider myself a true crime junky. This felt like a big one for me to miss. 48 Hours, Inside Edition, IDTV all did specials on it. In fairness, there is no Dateline about it. I feel like if Keith Morrison had covered it, I would be familiar. But I digress…
The gist of the story is that three men hijacked a school bus with 26 children and a driver. They forced the bus out to a rock quarry, where they were basically buried in a truck trailer. After 16ish hours, they managed to escape. The kidnappers were caught, and sent to prison.
Now here’s the thing…all the kids suffered post traumatic stress syndrome. Shocker, right? No, it’s not a shocker! Children were kidnapped and forced into an underground prison for 16ish hours, where they had to devise their own escape! Of course, they were traumatized!
But in 1976, people didn’t really understand PTSD. They mostly thought it was for soldiers and people who had been to war. And people really didn’t understand children’s feelings in 1976. The overarching thought was, “None of them broke any bones; they’re fine. Let’s get them back to the playground.”
So they threw a parade, did a few television interviews, Robert Goulet wrote and sang a ballad about Chowchilla (obviously), and everyone went back to “normal.”
Except there wasn’t any “normal” to go back to. In the first 25 years after the kidnapping, it was discovered all the children suffered panic attacks. Many developed fear of the dark, loud noises, wind, and small spaces. Several developed drug and alcohol dependency to deal with their fears, and a few of them were imprisoned for causing harm to someone else. Eventually, this case was used as an example of what not to do when children experience trauma. Basically, don’t Chowchilla it. Don’t just send everyone back to the playground. Don’t try to pretend everything is fine. Chowchilla was studied at length, so they did the opposite at the school shooting in Columbine. Counselors were sent in by the dozens. Kids were cared for at every traumatic event following in a healthier way because of the studies done on the kids from Chowchilla.
So lately I’ve been thinking about how sucky 2020 was. But also 2021. It sucked, too. Almost as much as 2020. We all readily admit the pandemic was bad. We all talked about how the sickness was terrible, the politics of the time were terrible, the toilet paper hoarding was terrible…all the things. Then there were the fires in Australia, the murder hornets, the aliens…it was a lot! But I have to say, for me, above all, the most traumatizing thing I experienced was splitting.
Splitting is generally reserved for conversations around mental health and personality disorders. Splitting is a defense mechanism that prevents someone from feeling overwhelmed by too many emotions, or allows them to tolerate difficult feelings. Everything becomes “good” or “bad”; “yes” or “no”, and there are no longer any gray areas.
I don’t know about you and your friends, but I rang in 2020 with a bunch of friends dressed like flappers. We sipped champagne and discussed how the decade would roar! In a few short months, most of us were isolated. The splitting began. Masks. Good. Shut downs. Bad. Cure. Good. Vaccine Cards. Bad. Supply Chain shortages. Bad. Death. Bad. Masks. Shots. Openings. Shut downs. Death. Good. Bad. Good. Bad. Good. Bad.
If something was good, it was ideal. If something was bad, it was devalued. But if I didn’t agree with you, where did that leave me? When we are in survival mode, we are using our defense mechanisms, and black is black and white is white. We can occasionally make room for gray, but we will not make room for pink. Or green. Or any other color. Empathy rarely exists in survival mode. And the crazy thing is, everyone on the entire planet went into survival mode at the same time. None of us alive can say we have experienced something like this before. No one knew how to guide us through it. Our world leaders were also splitting!
So now here we are in 2024, in what people call “the new normal.” But isn’t that what the future always is? I feel like to call it “the new normal” and just move on, devalues what we went through. I feel like we are Chowchilla-ing it.
We can’t just send kids back to school, tell them to pick up their books and state exams, and pretend they didn’t spend a couple years learning to do online school.
We can’t just move on, like families didn’t bury loved-ones without funerals, because we weren’t allowed to gather. Or pretend we weren’t gaslit about gathering for funerals while politicians gathered freely.
We can’t pretend there hasn’t been a mass exodus from our schools and hospitals by burned out employees forced to carry far too heavy of a burden for far too long.
We can’t pretend that when some would say “I don’t agree with %&#$,” people you thought were your friends, or better yet – your family, would say you deserved to die.
And so on, and so on, and so on…
All these things happened. All these relationships were damaged. The world around us changed in ways it will never return to again. Politics became more polarizing. The job market adjusted.
We were all traumatized. Every single one of us.
None of this means there isn’t hope for tomorrow, though. God is still on his throne, and Jesus still saves. Isaiah 40:31 says, “But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” We have limited patience and strength for this world around us, but God is faithful and blesses us when we trust and seek him.
I don’t think God wants us to be in denial. We can speak our weary truth to him. I believe it’s important to take time to acknowledge the change in relationships, in our own personal values, in the wisdom we gained, and to grieve what is lost. Until we grieve what is lost, we can’t move on to a healthier tomorrow. We can thank him for walking with us in the hard. Validating what we experienced will help us to adjust to “the new normal,” or as I like to call it, “today.”