Exiting the Extraordinary
By Gerald R. Gioglio (reviewer)
Exiting the Extraordinary: Returning to the Ordinary World after War, Prison, and Other Extraordinary Experiences
by Frances V. Moulder
(Lexington Books, 2015)
So, let's talk about "past lives." No, not the once trendy, new-age "past lives regression" stuff where you try to get in touch with a "you" from a bygone era. But your existing you — the one that had a life before you were drafted or enlisted, before you trained to "be all you can be," before you went to war, immigrated to escape the war and/or spent years trying to end one. Or, addressing a larger audience perhaps before you went to prison, escaped from a cult or commune, survived a natural disaster or other traumatic event. That's you, with those past lives. Ever get that former life back? You just "built a bridge and got over it," right? Right? I didn't think so.
In "Exiting the Extraordinary" Frances Moulder suggests that you are not alone. Her book goes beyond helping survivors of traumatic events reflect on what happened to former selves to a concern for the larger cultural context; that is, how vast numbers of people in the modern world attempt to return to normal life after living through what she calls "extraordinary experiences."
Moulder points out that at any given time, millions experience wars, holocausts and genocide, revolutions, terrorism, natural disasters and more. Despite the ubiquity of all this misery the author suggests that we do not know enough, nor do we do enough, to help people navigate a return to normality. More, we really do not know what the impact is on those societies that have "large numbers of people facing the struggles of returning to an ordinary life."
Writing from a sociological perspective, Moulder believes that having deeply traumatic experiences and attempting to return from them shapes a person's life much in the same way that we are shaped by other social and cultural structures and forces. She encourages us to use what we are learning about combat related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to explore the "commonalities" in extraordinary experiences and to strive for a deeper understanding of the process of returning to the ordinary world.
Folks who suffer from PTSD understand when Moulder explains: "Many people who return to the ordinary world after an extraordinary experience... feel they have been forever changed. Many even exit extraordinary experiences only to find that their ordinary world is gone...they endeavor to resume an ordinary life in an unfamiliar milieu. While some returnees grow and thrive... it is not unusual for returnees to live lives that are deeply trying and unfulfilling."
Moulder's compact and meticulously organized work is geared mainly toward academic readers and students in the social sciences, social service and medical providers, policymakers, and of course, those who themselves have exited an extraordinary life experience and their families. Be assured that it is far from a highly technical read, but rather a gentle, enlightening piece of work accessible for all interested in this topic.
"Exiting the Extraordinary" includes six chapters in two parts that define and discuss extraordinary experiences and why people are transformed by them; also included are sections on challenges and strategies for "returning to the ordinary world" along with implications for public policy. With a nod toward accessibility, methodology and theoretical treatments are set aside as appendices along with a valuable and helpful list of References.
The author admits that this book is an exploratory work. That means it looks into a topic that is under-investigated and identifies areas that would benefit from further examination. In doing this Moulder used several research techniques. For starters, she read a variety of published material (memoirs, oral histories, etc.) from people who had a wide range of extraordinary experiences. Here she looked for things that people and their varying experiences had in common and discovered that there is a dearth of material on the ways returnees navigate the return process. The author also reviewed a variety of scholarly works from varying disciplines that looked at specific categories of unusual experiences. In addition, Moulder interviewed nine people who had gone through some sort of extraordinary experience including: four veterans of various wars, two survivors of the Holocaust, an undercover police agent, aid workers with experience in war zones, and a former Catholic nun who left the church before it liberalized conventions within religious orders.
Along the way we encounter some familiar names including Ron Kovic, Eli Weisel, and the spiritual author, Karen Armstrong. Other contributors, named and unnamed, provide additional testimony. Here we find stories about civil rights activism, surviving a horrific plane crash and more. These examples enrich the narrative and underscore ways in which people cope with the experiences, how they are changed by them and how they attempt a return to normal life.
It was exciting and refreshing to see Moulder recognize peace and other social justice work as extraordinary experiences. Let's face it, that work changes people—the drive to see immediate changes, the pressures, frustrations and politics can wear people down — we have seen activists come undone, leave the cause or worse lose their commitment to nonviolence, sometimes becoming what they hate. As uplifting as peace and social justice work can be—"blessed are the peacemakers"and all that—let us recognize that such work can take a toll on emotional and psychological health, relationships and families. Frances Moulder does us all a favor by pointing to the extraordinary nature of this work and by recognizing that there can indeed be dues to pay for doing it.
Moulder also points to problems associated with mass incarcerations in America. Here she discusses the multitude of challenges confronted by former prisoners and their families. Importantly, she considers implications for a society that continues to punish prisoners long after the returnee has served time in jail through discrimination in employment, loss of voting rights, and the dearth of quality programs to assist in reentry.
Her chapter, "Implications for Public Policy," gives an overview of public policies or programs that now exist as well as suggestions for programs needed to assist people returning from extraordinary events. These would include recognizing the broad array of returnees that might need assistance, advancing policies that reduce stigma, providing basic benefits (housing, health care, etc.) during periods of transition and improving programs to help returnees reconstruct self and identity.
Reading these policy suggestions made me think of the nobility of giving people a "hand-up, not just a handout." If only we could find the heart and political will to do so. A dream perhaps, but also a noble one. I would argue that the best sociologists not only help us find meaning in data and in patterns they discover, but they also help us to dream and challenge us to act. In exploring the extraordinary experiences of others and promoting better outcomes for those returning from extraordinary events Frances Moulder helps us advance that noble dream.
One last note. Full disclosure: your reviewer met Professor Moulder a number of times in the 1970s while a student at Livingston College at Rutgers University. I feel privileged to become reacquainted with her work and grateful for the opportunity to introduce you to this noteworthy title.
Gerald R. Gioglio is a VVAW member, Secular Franciscan, and author of "Days of Decision: an Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War." He was discharged from the army in 1969 as a Catholic Conscientious Objector.