Creating Family Anew
Amidst Unending Sorrow
by Fran Withrow
In 2008, when Owen Gerson was eight years old, his family went on a river trip in Utah. His mother, father and older brother made it back home, but Owen did not. He drowned in the Green River at a place called Disaster Falls.
Owen’s father, Stephane Gerson, a cultural historian and professor of French studies at New York University, wrote a haunting memoir about how his family journeyed through this most devastating of losses. Gerson’s account is filled with understated grief, written with unabashed honesty in a way that is moving without being maudlin.
This beautifully written book goes far beyond the expected heartache, giving us a real life, no-holds-barred picture of Gerson’s new life. With clarity and insight, Gerson writes not only about himself, but his wife Alison and older son Julian. He maintains a compassionate respect for his family, including Owen, even questioning whether sharing this story is an appropriate response and not an exploitation of Owen’s life.
Slowly, gradually, Gerson reveals how the accident happened. Each glimpse is followed by Gerson’s astute observations of life without Owen, and the inevitable questions a parent might face in this situation. Is there any way he could have saved Owen? Is it okay to acknowledge that Owen was not a perfect child, and is it okay to laugh again? How does a marriage, a family, survive when the unthinkable becomes reality?
Gerson is also objective in his descriptions of the very different ways he and his wife Alison came to terms—as best one can—with the loss of their son. Gerson turned to writing (“I write because there are no words,” he says, though he acknowledges it is more than that), while his wife “could not stop moving.” Alison jogged, worked out, and took long walks. He explains her thinking: “If she remained immobile, she would plunge to the depths of the river.”
Every parent understands that feeling.
Yet this lyrical book is more than a chronicle of Owen’s accident and the immediate aftermath. Gerson, born and raised in Belgium, deftly weaves his family history into the narrative: from his Jewish grandparents’ experiences during World War II to his troubled relationship with his father. As his father and he delve into an exploration of the past, Gerson gains further insight into the life he now leads. When his father and he visit their Belarus homeland, he is able to look into the past as well as the future. His father “had brought me to a land in which those who had failed to save loved ones did not necessarily live in shame or guilt.” That is no small thing.
“Disaster Falls,” coming out in January, is a story of reclaiming hope, of finding comfort, and of creating a family anew amidst unending sorrow. It is a carefully crafted treasure. Read it slowly, in part because of the subject, but also to savor the loving way Gerson honors Owen while finding a path back to peace.
by Stephane Gerson