The event that changed Bill Benson’s life revealed itself in his Twitter feed early last Christmas Eve morning. It started, as so many episodes of mass violence do, with a plot so fiendish that ordinary people like Benson couldn’t immediately comprehend it. In the town of Webster, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario, someone had set a row of houses ablaze and then lain in wait with a rifle to ambush the firefighters.
Three of them, all volunteers, lay in the road—two dead, one grievously wounded and pinned down by gunfire. A fourth took cover in the bullet-riddled fire truck, using a radio to broadcast warnings and a heartbreakingly cool-headed plea: “I am struck in the lower back and lower leg, both of which I know can be deadly. So I need EMS.” Benson stared as the news tweets unspooled on his screen for 90 agonizing minutes, until police confirmed the shooter’s suicide and rescued the survivors. By then, seven homes had turned to smoldering heaps, and the media’s attention was shifting to the basic questions: Who? Why?
Benson wasn’t anywhere near the scene. He had never heard of Webster before and didn’t know any of the victims. The lanky, gray-haired 48-year-old, a part-time window washer, photojournalist, and social-media producer, was watching the news from his fiancee’s apartment in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. But by mid-morning, before the smoke cleared in Webster, Benson had created a Facebook page called Prayers and Support for Webster Firefighters.
Bill Benson has never heard of Webster, but before the smoke cleared, he had created a Facebook page called Prayers and Support for Webster Firefighters.
He had done something similar once before as a Red Cross volunteer, running an official Facebook page for victims of the 2011 tornado that ravaged nearby Joplin, Missouri. But this time he was functioning under nobody’s auspices but his own. Benson struggles to articulate what exactly prompted him to start the page for Webster. But there’s no mistaking the wonder in his soft drawl as he remarks on what happened next: “For some reason it had some magic to it, and it grewwww.”
At first, the page covered familiar ground for social-media mourning: muted grief and shock, basic news updates, occasional flare-ups of rage as the shooter’s background emerged. William Spengler Jr., 62, had armed himself with a pistol, a shotgun, and a semiautomatic rifle with 30-round magazines, weaponry he was barred from owning because of the prison stint he had served for bludgeoning his aged grandmother to death with a hammer. With every revelation, including the discovery in one of the charred houses of another body, believed to be Spengler’s estranged sister, raw emotion spilled over on the page’s timeline. “God Damn it!!!!” one early commenter wrote. “These pieces of shit need to be put up against a wall and shot!!” An exchange about the National Rifle Association featured the two-word retort, “Suck ass.” When the names of the dead firemen were announced—a baby-faced 19-year-old and a 43-year-old devoted dad volunteering in his off hours from the town police force—a post to the Facebook page promptly captured the pitch-dark reality: “Are we in hell?”
As the page’s momentum picked up throughout the day, Benson scrambled to keep up with fresh updates and photos amid the bombardment of private messages. One in particular stood out to him, from a woman who worked at Webster’s local Hampton Inn. Earlier in the day she had looked for a way to donate free rooms to the people burned out of their homes. Now, in approaching Benson, she wondered about providing rooms to the firefighters’ families from out of town. “Just not sure how to get the information to them,” she wrote.
A few minutes later, Benson was taking a break in his kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee, mulling an idea. The exchange with the woman in Webster made him think back to a funeral he had attended as a teenager for his uncle—a father figure and a former police captain. Benson remembered being astounded at the sea of blue uniforms in attendance. First responders, he learned that day, come out in force to bury their dead.
The memory gave Benson a premonition of what was bound to happen in Webster. So he decided to channel the energy on his Facebook page—which was threatening to devolve into another flame war over gun control and prison sentencing—toward a narrow, concrete mission: finding a way to arrange free hotel rooms and meals for the thousands of firefighters and police who would flock to the funerals.
This simple shift in emphasis would have spectacular effects. Owing perhaps to the fluke of timing and circumstance (an attack on small-town volunteers 10 days after the Sandy Hook massacre, and on a holiday devoted to giving), Benson’s page quickly sprouted to reach 28,000 followers. It triggered a cascade of positive reactions, one that began with donated hotel rooms but ended with—well, that’s the thing: For a handful of people, it hasn’t ended.
In the aftermath of pretty much any modern, media-saturated atrocity, a few things tend to happen. First, there are displays of intense community spirit: the Boston marathoners who kept running past the finish line to donate blood; the New Yorkers who flocked to Ground Zero to volunteer after 9/11. Expressions of shock, sadness, and solidarity pour in from all points (“We are all New Yorkers now”). So do donations of money, clothing, and food, buoyed along by what social scientists call “the helper’s high”: the buzz that comes from countering a sense of powerlessness with pro-social action.
Typically, the buzz and the sadness do not last. After a tragedy, most of us have a remarkable capacity to return to normal. Indeed, slogans that crop up after major acts of violence, like the chants of “We are Boston Strong” that rang out in April, effectively make a rallying cry of this resilience—as if to say, “We will not be changed.”
The fierceness of this response may have something to do with what we perceive as the alternative: post-traumatic stress. In recent years, PTSD has gone from a diagnosis mainly reserved for combat veterans to a stock part of the media script surrounding catastrophic events. “If 9/11 is any indication,” said a Fox News medical commentator after the Boston bombings, “post-traumatic stress disorder is going to affect the majority of people who were in the area, as well as some of us who were watching on TV. There’s a high risk of anxiety and depression. The time to start treatment is now.”
These, then, are the options sketched out for us: From trauma, there is nowhere to go but temporarily up, permanently down, or simply straight ahead, course unaltered.
In recent years, however, a small branch of positive psychology has explored another possibility. The idea that adversity can be a source of strength, or that wisdom can come from great loss, is at least as old as the ancient concepts of tragedy and catharsis. Next to sobering pronouncements about the toll of traumatic stress on the brain, these can seem like saccharine clichés. But in fact a growing psychological literature supports these old notions, or something close to them. In numerous studies canvassing a great variety of traumas, researchers have found that many people, when confronted by events powerful enough to shake their core sense of the world, do indeed gain from the ordeal. In a process that is relatively normal, if easily derailed, they engage in a struggle for psychological survival that reroutes the direction of their lives in a way they ultimately acknowledge is for the better. The name psychologists have given this phenomenon is post-traumatic growth.
AS NIGHT FELL ON Christmas Eve last year, I was driving across the Irondequoit Bay Bridge from Rochester into Webster, overlooking the red and blue emergency lights still blinking on the lakeshore. I was there not to report on the scene, but to spend Christmas with my mother. Webster happens to be my hometown.
The Webster of my youth in the 1960s and ’70s—working-class homes, patches of farmland, suburbia in its infancy—has long since blended into the greater Rochester metropolitan area, swallowed by traffic jams, tracts of McMansions, and strip malls. Just since 1990, its population has ballooned by more than a third to about 43,000.
So Webster wasn’t quite the close-knit, coherent community that media reports made it out to be. But the shootings arguably made it one. When a local tragedy in a small town makes national news, it can become what sociologists have called a “defining event,” something that alters the identity of a place and everyone in it. In examining the aftermaths of different disasters—one study from 1997 contrasts a restaurant shooting in Killeen, Texas, with a big-city plane crash—psychologists have found that people in smaller communities may feel the impact of a local trauma more deeply. But they are also more likely to perceive, later on, that they have somehow benefited from the ordeal.
It’s too soon for researchers to say whether the same is true of groups that form through social media—virtual communities that may not only be defined by trauma but actually created in response to it. But what’s fairly safe to say is that trauma is a social experience.
After the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, two sociologists at the university, John Ryan and James Hawdon, used the campus massacre as a case study of how people in unimaginable circumstances watch others for cues on how to react. “Behind the question, ‘What is this?’” they wrote, “was the fundamental question, ‘What should I be doing?’” Whether a community descends into conflict or rises in solidarity, they went on, depends in part on whether its members see those around them behaving as “a moral community” and responding with dignity.
Were it not for Benson’s kitchen-table premonition, then, the response to the Webster shootings might never have moved beyond aimless grief and anger.
Sure enough, as soon as the funeral plans for Webster’s fallen firefighters were announced on Christmas, out-of-town first responders inundated local hotels with calls for reservations. Benson was ready. Giving up some of his Oz-like role in a faraway tragedy, he joined forces with two local women in New York who had gotten in touch through private messages on Facebook: Jaime Dengal-Story, the Hampton Inn sales director whose question about room donations had sparked Benson’s Christmas Eve brainstorm, and Laurel Zarnosky, a professional fund-raiser for Rochester-area non-profits, who volunteered to help manage the Facebook page.
Zarnosky took over much of the minute-to-minute posting and moderating. And Dengal-Story set about devising a system with the regional visitors’ bureau to pool donations among more than two dozen hotels. She had no idea how many guests or donations to expect, but she was clear on one point: “No fireman is to pay for a room in Rochester.”
With the pieces in place, Benson’s Facebook page—with shares and “likes,” it now reached an estimated audience of two million, according to Benson—made a simple announcement: that one local company had donated a block of 10 hotel rooms for visiting firefighters. Zarnosky added a gentle prod to followers to “match or exceed that gift.”
A shift in the nature of the page quickly followed. Politics and the shooter no longer preoccupied the crowd. Passive posts of “RIP” faded, replaced with calls for merchants to step up with donations, then with a question that was repeated again and again: How can we donate rooms? “Simply contact an area hotel,” Zarnosky replied, “and we will recognize your gift here.”
Callers swamped the Hampton Inn’s phones. Local companies started one-upping each other, buying 20, 30, 50 rooms at a pop. Each donation garnered a mention on the Facebook page— as much a challenge to other potential givers as an attaboy. “Our phones were literally 10-deep on hold,” Dengal-Story says.
Since the morning of the shootings, locals had been making pilgrimages to the West Webster Fire Department clutching cash and checks for the families. Now they started showing up at the Hampton and other hotels. Says Dengal-Story, “People were giving us hundred-dollar bills.” And food. And restaurant gift cards. After the Hampton announced that it would host receptions for visiting first responders, it was buried in a mountain of pizza, subs, wings, and salads.
Visitors from out of town started showing up in Webster on December 27. Veterans of past funerals for first responders say they’ve never seen anything like what greeted them. Bill Biondi helped organize a 21-firefighter delegation to the funerals from Mastic Beach, Long Island. When he got a call telling him his reservations had been comped, he did a double take. “We went up there just to pay our respects,” he says, not expecting the respects to flow in the opposite direction. Another Long Islander, Alan Jacoby of Nassau County Firefighters Pipes & Drums, brought an 18-person crew that shared seven free rooms. They gratefully spent $400 in restaurant gift cards, but ran up another $350 on their tab. (“Guys unwinding, there’s drinks flowing,” Jacoby explains.) When he tried to pay, however, the waitress handed his credit card back to him. The balance had been paid by an anonymous donor, she said. “Whaddya mean?” a stunned Jacoby asked.
One afternoon, Dengal-Story brought a Toronto fire crew to a grocery store. “They’re waiting in line with their beer to check out,” she recalls, and “people from the community are throwing twenties at them because they do not want them to have to pay.” Firefighter money was no good in this town.
Just a few days into the campaign, Dengal-Story took a moment to tally the donations that had rolled in for rooms at her hotel. She messaged Benson with the number. “I had to take a second,” he recalls. He asked her, “You sure you didn’t add a zero to that?” The total was $40,000. It outstripped the demand fourfold. Eventually, the hotel called each donor back and, without fail, got permission to divert the surplus to the fire department and the victims’ families—adding to a pot of money from countless fund-raisers and direct donations that would eventually top $700,000.
But the money was only part of the story. For days, a contagion of good works coursed through Webster. Neighbors’ snowy sidewalks got shoveled. Strangers’ breakfasts got bought. At drive-through windows, customers insisted on paying for the car behind them, in some cases leading to hours-long chain reactions.
On the Facebook page, Zarnosky encouraged people to step forward and report their good deeds, and she countered negative comments that accused people of bragging about their altruism. These tactics fostered an atmosphere that turned downright giddy. “I am so impressed to read of all the efforts across this country in honor of some very great heroes,” one woman wrote. “Let’s keep this going for a very long time.” On New Year’s Eve, after the memorial services and funerals had concluded, followers rang in 2013 at their keyboards, thanking the Facebook page’s largely unknown managers for restoring hope. “Because of you, we are united,” one wrote. Another gushed, “The outpouring of love, gratitude, and giving I have witnessed on this page over the last few days have left a mark on me that will never be erased.
POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH AS an object of study grew out of psychologist Richard Tedeschi’s curiosity about a common but lofty human quality: wisdom. After he observed a kind of heightened wisdom among the bereaved and people suffering from physical handicaps, he began to ask: How exactly did people come by this change? Why did only certain people sustain it? What defines such psychological growth, and can it be measured? Out of those questions, Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, his research partner at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, developed a series of studies that became their life’s work and the beginning of a subfield in positive psychology.
The most common forms of trauma have enjoyed the bulk of researchers’ attention. An unexpected death in the family. A struggle with potentially fatal cancer. Direct involvement in a life-threatening car crash or violent crime. What psychologists and sociologists have variously described as “perceived benefit,” “positive psychological changes,” or “the survivor mission”—as trauma authority Judith Herman termed it—shares a starting point with PTSD: trauma deep enough to shake basic assumptions about life’s fairness, human goodness, and survival itself. But while PTSD is characterized by a spiral of excessive rumination, anxiety, and depression, post-traumatic growth is characterized by a renewed appreciation for loved ones and the preciousness of life, and even improved physical health. While PTSD is as heavily studied as it is obsessed over on cable news, the evidence that people benefit from trauma is likewise, to quote the oft-used word in papers on the topic, “overwhelming.”
The science grows less certain and less voluminous where mediated, collectively experienced trauma is concerned. Informed by post-9/11 studies on the effects of watching the twin towers fall on television and research on other media-delivered traumas, some scholars suggest that virtual bystanders are indeed susceptible to survivor missions. The same yardstick for measuring post-traumatic growth applies—one that Tedeschi and Calhoun articulated first in 1996 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
The assessment tool, which has since become standard, lists five factors researchers look for when judging whether post-traumatic growth has occurred: greater appreciation of life and changed priorities; more-intimate personal relationships; a greater sense of personal strength; recognition of “new possibilities or paths for one’s life”; and spiritual growth. The degree to which any or all of these might appear has less to do with the negation of PTSD symptoms—which, Tedeschi stresses, may coexist with, or even form the launch pad for post-traumatic growth—and more to do with sheer persistence.
That’s the point he drives home to me as we discuss the people I met in the wake of the Webster tragedy. When I describe the altruistic frenzy on Benson’s Facebook page and what it inspired afterward, he’s intrigued but cautious. After the initial outburst, he says, “I think it’s just hard to tell which of these individuals will move in that direction and which will sort of just go back to normal life.” Unlike resilience, post-traumatic growth doesn’t involve bouncing back so much as finding and sticking with a new direction.
In his research and clinical practice, Tedeschi says, patients have told him how they yearn to keep the “edge” that trauma gave them. “How are they going to remind themselves of what’s important, and how are they going to act on that in their daily lives in some way?” he says. “How are they going to make these things a priority? They have to create a system for themselves for doing this.”
MONTHS AFTER THE SHOOTINGS, the people in Webster who still hurt the most, other than the victims’ immediate families, can be found in the ranks of local firefighters and police. Ironically, their grief has in many cases been compounded by the intensity of the town’s sympathies. There are only so many memorial ceremonies and fund-raisers they can stand. “It’s emotionally wrecking a lot of us,” says Ken Smith, the president of the West Webster Volunteer Firemen’s Association. “We want to move on.”
The town’s elected supervisor, Ron Nesbitt, feels the same. He wrestled with the thought of stepping down at the end of his term this year. But out of a sense of obligation, he can’t bring himself to do it. When I ask if he will run again, the gruff-talking retired grocer reaches for a tissue and yanks off his glasses, his eyes brimming. “I got to,” he says. “This isn’t over.”
While Nesbitt and the firemen would clearly move on if they could, there are other folks in Webster who are holding onto their memories of the tragedy, and the ways it changed them, as if for dear life.
Michelle Vercruysse has lived all her 40 years within a short walk of the West Webster Fire Department. She didn’t know any of the firefighters, but she did frequent a little picnic area on the lakeshore that now leaves her feeling tied to them. “In the summer, that’s where we love to just hang out,” she says of her husband and three boys. After that very spot served as William Spengler’s sniper perch, the sense of tragic connection overwhelmed Vercruysse. She cried for days. Someone asked her if she knew the victims. “No,” she said, “but this is my town.”
It was Benson’s Facebook page that inspired Vercruysse to mobilize herself and her kids. They bought and gave out hand warmers to some of the many thousand mourners who lined up in a snowstorm; donated a hotel room and restaurant gift cards; held a fund-raiser. Her heart broke for the dead and wounded and their families, but she had her own family in mind, too: “You just think, ‘Well, this is the time where I could be an example to my children.’”
A self-described “organizaholic” with a background as an event planner for the American Cancer Society, Vercruysse keeps an elaborate Pinterest page broken down under headings like “craft ideas” and “favorite recipes.” After Sandy Hook, she wore green and white in remembrance. On the weekend of the Webster funerals, she started a campaign to wear fire-engine red. It attracted a following that now exceeds 900 on Facebook, so she’s kept it going as an event on the 24th of every month. When she saw the traffic on Benson’s Facebook page begin to settle down, she started another, called Webster Random Acts of Kindness. It has a modest following of a couple hundred people and consists mostly of Vercruysse’s unanswered posts encouraging good deeds. When I ask if she’s disappointed in the response, she answers emphatically: “No. No. Not disappointed at all.” The act of devotion helps her, whether others emulate it or not.
Until Christmas Eve, Joe Harmon was a typically disengaged, busy commuter, a transplant to Webster with a computer-networking job in a distant suburb, a kindergartner, and a full-time college course load. Then came the events of December 24 and Benson’s Facebook campaign. “That was amazing to me,” he says. “People were saying, ‘What can I do? What can we do as a community?’” On his own, Harmon started a website, wearewebster.com, through which he plans to assemble teams of volunteers for projects—cleaning up a park, maintaining a museum, other odd jobs—and to push community-building activities like “invite your neighbor to dinner month.” This is all new to him. “I’m not a community organizer,” Harmon admits. But he still feels compelled to carry the torch, worried that his adopted home will revert to its self-involved suburban norm or, worse, succumb to a false sense of danger from violent crime.
Laurel Zarnosky and Jaime Dengal-Story became good friends in the whirlwind days between Christmas and New Years. But they never got to know Benson, and they didn’t hear much from him after the crisis passed.
That doesn’t mean Benson has moved on. Despite still never having visited the town or met anyone from there, he has tried to replicate the Webster Facebook experience in close to 20 social-media campaigns for firefighters and police killed in the line of duty over the first several months of 2013. The pages, operating under a largely unseen umbrella called Operation 12.24, spring up quickly, acting as memorials and information hubs—and maybe something more.
As of this writing, none of the campaigns has taken off quite like Webster’s. After the April 17 fertilizer-plant explosion in West, Texas, in which 12 first responders perished, Benson created a pair of Facebook pages that zoomed to 80,000 and 60,000 followers, respectively. Activity on the pages was robust and, judging from comments, therapeutic, but area hotels didn’t heed his pleas for coordination.
Two months into his rollout, Benson started trying to raise funds for himself, hoping to turn Operation 12.24 into a self-sufficient non-profit that banks hotel-room donations to speed and streamline the process that happened organically in Webster. In his first 11 weeks he raised a grand total of $135. He laughs ruefully: “I seem to be a lot more talented at raising funds for other causes than I do, you know, my own.”
Benson is still working multiple day jobs, facing uncertain financial prospects and sometimes flagging morale. Some days, he says, he thinks maybe it’s time to move on. But then another tragedy occurs, and he answers an inner call that only he can hear.