Book Review: “Narratives of Crisis; Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal”

Review of Narratives Of Crisis: Telling Stories Of Ruin And Renewal, by Matthew W. Seeger and Timothy L. Sellnow. Publisher : Stanford Business Books.ISBN: 9780804788922 (cloth); ISBN 9780804799515 (pbk); ISBN9780804799522 (e-book); 216 pps; from $29.95; June 2016.

Reviewed by NancyKay Sullivan Wessman, who is the author of Katrina, Mississippi: Voices From Ground Zero (Triton 2015)

Songwriter-singer Fred Neil and performer Harry Nilsson shared the message in 1966 and 1969: “Everybody’s talking at me. I don’t hear a word they’re saying. Only the echoes of my mind.” Their form of storytelling reflects every human’s method of trying to make sense of and understand daily life, especially crisis.

In Narratives Of Crisis: Telling Stories Of Ruin And Renewal, communications researchers Matthew Seeger and Timothy Sellnow focus on their fascination of crises as transformational, “powerful forces of change.” They particularly emphasize how and why words-become-stories before, during, and after a crisis event help individuals, organizations, and communities shape ensuing change. They identify many different disasters and what they call “resulting consequences. . . the social, political, economic, demographic, physical, and technological changes that follow a crisis.”

Heavy on theory, definitions, exploration of events over time as “deeply disruptive and abnormal,” the authors discuss narratives of blame, renewal, victims and heroes, and memorial tributes. Different storytellers approach the narrative from their own perspective and for their own reasons, and the resulting stories interact or compete, “answering questions focused on three general categories: evidence, intent, and responsibility,” they affirm.

The book’s first four chapters explain “narratives of crises,” expose “humans as storytellers,” reveal “how stories disrupt our sense of meaning,” and discuss how accounts of disaster events simply relate what happened. Reading the pages through to Chapter 10, “How Narratives of Crisis Compete and Converge,” seemed plodding and repetitive, but the authors finally present convergence – the” development of a coherent, unifying story that subsumes many other stories, themes, perspectives, and pieces of information.” The life-length of a narrative increases the prospect that associated stories will persist and that the converged narrative will endure to inform, reveal lessons learned, and enable individuals and communities to  protect themselves from known risks. Stories “shape understanding and action.”

Through relating stories of many news-worthy crises – the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and Super Storm Sandy, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the sinking of Titanic, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the Fukushima Daiichi crisis after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina – Seeger and Sellnow show how communications fill the void in often conflicting progressions to become narratives that instigate change and shape beliefs, actions, and culture. They insist that “crisis narratives must be understood as stories with limitations inherent in the narrator and the storytelling form,” and that the change becomes the consequence – often in socially-, politically-, economically-, demographically-, and technologically-visible ways.

On page two, the authors erroneously had Hurricane Katrina slam into New Orleans on August 27, 2005, and on page 37, they mistakenly associate the same storm with 2006. Correctly, Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Bay Saint Louis – Waveland on August 29, 2005.

Despite that error of fact, the book – particularly in the less academic and more practically-parsed later chapters – can help emergency management professionals understand both why and how storytelling can help make sense of crises and then lead individuals, organizations, and communities to recognize the need for and take action for better preparedness and response. As Seeger and Sellnow conclude, narratives can and do “promote the ethics of resilience, cooperation, and, ultimately, renewal.”


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