“Not Really Real”

If someone describes an event as “not really real,” does that mean that they are not entirely convinced that an event occurred? Is this saying used as a coping mechanism to try to forget?  Regardless of the ambiguity embedded in this phrase, Eric Klinenberg discusses in the Prologue of The Urban Inferno how this reaction often reveals detachment from a situation.

When I think about detachment that I have experienced in my life, Hurricane Sandy immediately comes to mind perhaps because of its relevance.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, because I was not experiencing Sandy’s aftermath first-hand, I struggled to fully understand the severity of the hurricane even though it had affected my family, friends, and communities in New York and New Jersey.  I believe that distance, to a certain extent, interfered with my ability to connect.  However, after reading the Prologue of Klinenberg’s The Urban Inferno, I am starting to wonder whether distance was a convenient excuse.

In The Urban Inferno, Klinenberg describes the reactions of his family and friends after Chicago’s heat wave in 1995.  When he returned to Chicago in August 1995, he discovered that his friends and relatives seemed to respond to questions about the heat wave with “detachment and disavowal” (Klinenberg 12).  He was surprised to witness that people who “had lived through the heat wave had both absorbed the magnitude of the disaster and blocked out its significance and implications” (Klinenberg 13).

During his Chicago visit, Klinenberg continued to observe this elusive approach to the disaster.  While some people had trouble engaging in such dialogue, others seemed to deny the heat wave’s impacts.  For example, Klinenberg recalls a few of his friends admitting that the heat wave deaths were not “really real” (Klinenberg 13).  As a result, these people suggested that the mortality figures were either fabricated or not necessarily correlated to the heat wave.  Klinenberg explains these reactions, “The dead bodies were so visible that almost no one could see what had happened to them” (Klinenberg 13).

Even though I was unable to relate to Hurricane Sandy, I never challenged the devastation and overall trauma that it caused.  Furthermore, I never said the words, “not really real,” when expressing how I felt about Hurricane Sandy.  Klinenberg’s interactions with his family and friends have allowed me to consider the origins of these responses and how common they are.  Is it easier for people to minimize the effects of a natural disaster for their own comfort and wellbeing? Are people influenced by others’ rationales? Do people make such remarks in the hopes to move forward?


Klinenberg, Eric. Heat wave: A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.


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monica byrne

novelist . playwright . traveler . futurist . feminist


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