Saturday, May 14, 2016

Kim Phuc in Perspective: Reflection #6 on Perspective-Taking

Screen Shot of Top Half of Unicef Invitation Flyer
So already, recently I heard Kim Phuc talk about her life and her work as part of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF's 2015-2016 Children First Speaker Series.* Like so many people of my generation, I'd known who Kim was for years without knowing her name: she is and was the little girl running naked and burning from her napalm-bombed village in South Vietnam in Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of June 1972. 

I was sixteen years old when I seemed to see that photograph** of Kim everywhere I looked; she was nine years old. I am almost certain that my adolescent self assumed that Kim's desperate flight must be leading her either to death or to an unimaginably painful future. And my adult self, satisfied with those adolescent assumptions, never went looking for the truth about what happened to Kim.

The Power of Certain Images
Some images brand us forever, inscribe themselves upon us so deeply that they become part of our ways of seeing and ordering the world. In his poem entitled "In the Garden (2)," Karl Kirchwey describes being in the garden of his family's summer place when his sunlit, water-drenched daughter rushes toward him, having just been sprayed with a garden hose as part of an intense yard game with visiting friends. Though her intent is to share with him her giddy elation at having been "gotten," the momentary combination of the shape of her body in motion and the expression on her face causes that image of the terror-stricken Kim to rear up before his mind's eye and to interpose itself between his daughter and himself:
and in the moment space
her joy should occupy,
what comes to mind instead

is a photograph
in which a naked girl,
her clothes burned off by napalm,

runs down a country road,
GIs walking behind her.
I cannot hear her scream.***
I know Karl, I know his daughter, I've known his wife since college, I've read much of his poetry (which I highly recommend!****), and I even know the spot where the garden hose assault happened: it's just a half hour's drive from the cabin where my husband and I go to get away from it all. But until I read this poem, I didn't know--and maybe Karl didn't know--how alive and active that image of Kim was inside of him--so much so that Kim and his daughter could change places in a moment, reminding us that during the first part of her childhood, Kim too busied herself playing yard games with siblings, cousins, and friends.

Encountering the Kim of Today
These days, Kim raises consciousness and raises funds, primarily for The Kim Foundation International, which exists to heal and help the children of war. At this point in her life, she’s a humble but savvy speaker who first impresses as gentle, pretty, and--yes--emphatically, inspiringly alive--and who then impresses as strongly committed and intent on garnering as much attention and support for the children of war as we can possibly give to them. While her English identifies her as a non-native English speaker, her confidence in her own storytelling and in her other communication methods flows like a steady, shining stream beneath her carefully annunciated words and her warm smile. She’s on a mission because she has survived and thrived, and so must other children of war.

Some of those present at the luncheon cried as Kim recounted her journey from Vietnam to the speaker's podium at the Hampshire House. But as someone who hadn't seen her since 1972, all I could do was smile with relief to see her standing before me with her smile of quiet triumph and purpose. Her happy presence felt miraculous, even though I had known I was coming to see her. 

It also felt reassuring: on that same day, a college friend of mine in Baltimore was scheduled to have a procedure to address a heart problem he's had for his entire adult life. He'd been on my mind as I'd walked through the Public Garden in all its spring loveliness; how different his day was being from mine, I'd thought. At that moment, he was probably undergoing yet again the somewhat invasive procedure that's usually done to patients whose hearts chronically beat at extremely high rates. If it didn't work this time, his doctors would resort in the near future to a more drastic procedure that might create new health problems for him. My friend, a doctor himself, understands all too well the risks and possibilities; his scars remind him of his own history of alternating crisis and survival.

So on a day that I was on the look-out for survivors of medical and emotional long hauls, here was Kim standing before me--close enough for me to be able to see the scars on her upper arms, to which she drew attention in her comments, even though most of the time they were concealed beneath a lightweight knitted turquoise shawl. For Kim, they are constant reminder not just of that day in June so many years ago but of her many days in hospital rooms over the years since then. 

Frankly, I could imagine Kim's living with that daily encounter with her scars. What I couldn't imagine was was what it’s like to live with that omnipresent photograph, to be forever seeing oneself as injured, terrified, suffering, completely uncertain if the next moment would mean life or death. I've had comparable thoughts about the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings, who might feel similarly defined by the ubiquitous images and video clips of the the bomb blasts and the aftermaths of them. At what point--and how--does one stop being defined by images embedded and interpreted in the consciousnesses of so many other people? 

The Power of the Visual, Imagined or Actual
Kim's story answers this question. It's a long story of anger, faith, reconciliation, love, courage, and initiative. It’s almost as if by force of her personality, her spirit, and her imagination, Kim, herself the subject of a powerful visual image, has recognized and harnessed the power of all things visual as tools for communicating with others, transforming one's own life, and potentially transforming the lives of others.

The logo***** of the Kim Foundation, which I didn't see until I visited the foundation's web site, includes a silhouetted version of the photographic image of Kim--that iconic shape that ripped Karl Kirchwey so completely out of the summer moment in his garden with his daughter. Based on her realization that to remind people of that horrifying image of herself is to galvanize them, Kim has beaten the sword of that image into a ploughshare for the sake of children of war.

But Kim doesn't rely on the visual power of that photograph alone to engage people. When during the question-and-answer period following her speech  a member of the audience asked her to elaborate on her brief assertion that in her very late teens she’d managed to let go of her rage and to forgive those who had wronged her, she spoke at length about her conversion to Christianity, describing how she’d used visualization to empty herself of toxic emotion. Kim described how she'd imagined holding a large black coffee cup****** that was filled to the brim with hatred and rage. Each day, she emptied a small amount of it. During the first phase of her efforts, the cup refilled itself to the brim every day. But at some point, she noticed that the cup was no longer filled to the brim. And then the day came that she realized the cup was empty. As Kim spoke of this cup, she went through the motions of holding the cup in her right hand and tipping it.

In Boston, we don't talk much about faith at fundraisers for secular organizations--even when those organizations have values that easily align with multiple religious traditions and have goals that depend on the engagement of people's heads and hearts. But Kim spoke about faith, and we were all moved--I think because that image of the slowly emptying cup, reinforced by her hand motions, resonated with our individual personal experiences of wanting, trying to empty ourselves of feelings that were affecting our lives negatively.

For me personally, it felt more than coincidental that she was talking about visualizing so concretely: the day before, the priest of my friend with the heart problems had written to a number of us asking us to visualize on behalf of our common friend. In his email, the priest--my friend has recently returned to the Episcopal church--recommended that, regardless of our spiritual beliefs and practices, we "imagin[e] . . . holding . . . [our mutual friend] in a field of light and love - a place of healing, a state of lowered anxiety." I regularly ask G-d to keep people safe and make them well, but I generally do so without imagining them in a particular place. As I read his priest's words, though, I immediately saw my friend in that "field of light and love" and felt like I was doing something more for him.

Visualization transports people into other ways of seeing--and even helping. In the case of Kim, the invitation to see as she sees, to envision as she herself envisioned in order to construct meaning, solve problems, and liberate herself draws people into her world and work as much as does their acquaintance with that famous photographic image. 

In fact, during her prepared remarks, Kim had capitalized on the power of the visual by explicating the photographic illustration her foundation******* most uses to convey its mission. It combines Nick Ut’s photo of the child Kim with a Nancy Bayin’s photo of the adult Kim holding her own child, her first-born son. In it, the black-and-white Ut photograph of the child Kim sits under and merges with the Bayin color photo, which captures the sweep of the adult Kim’s scarred shoulder, against which she holds her baby son. While the child Kim runs toward the front of the Ut photograph, Kim’s son looks beyond the back of the Bayin photo. As Kim explained, the childhood version of herself is running toward the past, while her son is looking toward the future. Meanwhile, Kim’s lips are close to her son’s ears, so she can guide him, be sure he feels her love and care

Kim had chosen this image to represent the foundation over several similar ones because of the dark space bounded by the necks, shoulders, and chins of Kim and her son. It's shaped like a heart. As such, she explained, it communicates love.

And hope, too, I thought as she said this. Here was Kim, baring her scars, and talking about hearts and healing, which had been on my mind that morning for different reasons. Kim's scars testify to the events of her childhood; how she's lived with them and put them to work on behalf of other children of war assert the possibility of healing and wholeness for those whose lives are marked physically and emotionally by terror and violence.

Thinking about the People Who Won't Meet Kim--Especially Students
But most people don't get to hear and watch Kim Phuc speak, don't get to ask her questions. They just see the 1972 photo. They don't get to hear her describe herself as lucky because her feet weren't burned, which meant she could run. 

I especially find myself wondering what students think and know about her. Teachers regularly use photojournalistic sources to help students understand historical moments and events. While I met that photograph of Kim at home, on the television screen and in the newspapers and magazines lying on the coffee table, the teenage Americans of today routinely meet it--and Kim--in their required United States history courses. And as a 2015 article posted on CNN World stated, "Even without the benefit of context, the image of a naked 9-year-old girl running for her life is as searing and indelible today as it was 43 years ago."********

So how should/might teachers present this photo and for what learning purposes? What learning might it prompt with and without context? And what context at that?

Sometimes teachers share "basic information" to help students understand history as they encounter it in various kinds of sources and media. But what facts and concepts constitute "basic information"? And how meaningfully can "basic information" illuminate the information and perspectives different media and stories present and represent--especially if meaningfulness is to be judged by those hearing/reading the stories and those telling them

There's another potential problem related to context: contextualizing materials that deliberately or inadvertently mislead. Might the presentation of certain contexts predispose students to regard particular voices, viewpoints, and stories********* as "significant" because they connect strongly to provided contexts, because they support or exemplify certain generalizations? Contexts themselves are not inherently neutral. At their best in school settings, they support the synthesis of broad, deep understandings that recognize, take into account, and value the lives and experiences of diverse human beings. At their worst, they promote specific analytical, emotional, and political agendas that do not value human beings, their stories, and their images except as supporting evidence for specific viewpoints, theories, arguments, and positions.

In fact, Kim's story is in part about this kind of manipulative contextualizing--and that's precisely why I think both her story and her photo need to be shared. The toxic feelings that Kim felt she needed to rid herself in her late adolescence were the result not only of her childhood war-time experiences, but of her adolescent experience of being victimized for second time--this time by the government of her own country, which appropriated her, her image, and her story for its propaganda machine. When the just-married Kim and her husband defected to Canada en route to their honeymoon "destination" of Cuba, Kim became free of her government's agenda and free to use her image and her story for her own urgent, world-bettering purposes.

Interweaving Contexts and the Two Kims
Kim's photo matters, Kim's story matters, Kim's work matters--and all three are inextricably linked, each providing a context for understanding the impact and significance of the other two. That we hear her story and her commitment in her voice is crucial: all journeys of transformation, regardless of how much they inspire others to refashion their own lives or to help others, are individual and personal. Furthermore, without the stories of these journeys, we--and our students--too easily succumb to assumptions about what's possible or probable, see tragedy where it doesn't exist, and unwittingly foster tragedy where it needn't exist. But with such stories to inspire and educate us, we replace our assumptions with knowledge, recognize the power and durability of human resilience, and appreciate the potential and actual impact of principled human agency. We also re-experience important spiritual contexts for doing good work and for doing right by ourselves in those dark moments we fear we may not survive physically and/or emotionally.

I've told a number of people--including my Baltimore friend who seems to be doing well since his procedure--about the experience of hearing Kim Phuc at that Friday luncheon a few weeks back. In retelling her story multiple times, I've come to realize that I have a new indelible image of Kim in my mind: the adult world-traveling Kim with her bright smile and her turquoise shawl********** now keeps company with the child Kim who will be forever running from fire and fear. Together, they embody hope, possibility, conviction, and action--all of which people of every age need, and all of which prove elusive from time to time. Something good is always possible--or at least often possible. We need to recognize and grab on to what we have whenever we can, get going, keep going, and help one another along.

Since I published this blog post, I've heard from Karl Kirchwey--and can now demonstrate the danger of assumptions--in this case, my assumption about where the garden in his poem "In the Garden (2)" is actually located: it turns out it's not near New Lebanon, New York, but in the yard of the house in Pennsylvania where Karl and his family lived for a number of years. Karl's "garden poems" were initially inspired by Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris; and, like "In the Garden (2)," other poems in both Mount Lebanon and The Happiness of This World also combine historical moments for the sake of exploring and commenting on America's role and responsibility in the world, especially in the recent past and the present. Looking forward to going back to Karl's poems and Gluck book with all of this in mind.

* Many thanks to my friend Barbara Eisenson, the co-chair of the luncheon series in which Kim Phuc was one of the featured speakers, for inviting me to this event. Barbara and I were roommates in Providence during the year we earned our M.A.T. degrees at Brown.
** The actual name of the photograph is "The Terror of War." Kim's full name is Phan Thị Kim Phúc.
*** Mount Lebanon and The Happiness of This World  are my two personal favorites among Karl's poem collections. He's also a wonderful translator--check out his translations of Paul Verlaine's poems.  
**** Kirchwey, K. (2011). "In the garden (2)" In Mount Lebanon: Poems (pp. 72-73). New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 
***** Screen shot from English home page of The Kim Foundation International:
*(6) Screen shot of Amazon page:
*(7) Bayin, Anne, and Nick Ut. Photo Illustration for the Kim Foundation International. 2000. M.I.L.K., Toronto and Vietnam. Anne Bayin: Photographer/Writer. Web. 9 May 2016. Anne Bayin took photo of Kim and her son; Nick Ut took picture of Kim from 1972. Bayin designed the image that combines both photos.
*(8) Newton, P., & Patterson, T. (2015, August 20). The girl in the photo from Vietnam War. Retrieved May 12, 2016, from 
*(9) Screen shot of the photo on the Ashford Vineyard home page:
*(10) Partial screen shot of the photo appearing on the New England page of the Unicef Fund web site:

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