1.8 When meanings fall apart
1.8.1 The experience of Hillsborough
We have explored the challenges of entering into situations which are ambiguous and open to competing interpretations. But what happens in a situation where nobody knows what is going on, where established meanings have collapsed altogether? Tom Heller gives a graphic account of such a situation in his description of his experience of the Hillsborough football stadium disaster.
Click to read Tom Heller's account of his experiences at Hillsborough.
Activity 12: The experience of Hillsborough
Read through the recollections of Tom Heller, then read through it again looking for answers to these questions. Remember what you have learned about scenes, roles, scripts and props in terms of how clearly defined they are in this context.
Why did Tom Heller feel so helpless?
How did he manage to define a role for himself?
What made the situation begin to seem more under control?
What was the impact of returning to his children playing in the garden?
In spite of his years as a doctor, Heller found himself stranded without any working definition of the scene. He says
Nothing could have prepared me for the scenes inside
He had no guidelines as to what to do – what role to play
My God, what could I do? Who was going to tell me what to do?
The tools of his profession helped, desperate to do something, he took out his stethoscope:
… grateful to have the time at last to do something that I knew how to do. I often use ‘stethoscope on the chest time’ to think during consultations. It’s a good ploy really; the patient thinks that I am being ever so thoughtful and thorough, and I have time to think about what the hell to do next. Panic overtook me on this occasion.
He was still unable to work out a useful role:
If only someone would arrive who knew what to do.
Then at last equipment began to arrive:
… and we started working together, putting up drips on everyone
I decided to use my newly refound skills to put up drips on everybody who was going to be transferred to hospital … It was … a sign to the hospital doctors that we general practitioners could do something right after all …
Towards the end there is a sense of ‘meaningfulness’ and control being gradually restored:
By this time the routines were more established. Someone was writing down the obvious major damage to each person and what he or she had received in the way of drugs, etc.
A kind of pattern had been constructed. Collective action became possible again. Roles could be allocated. The horror of the death remained, but the blind panic of the total collapse of collective meaning receded a little
There was a further shock when Heller returned home. Having experienced normality totally shattered, he found himself stepping back into a domestic normality which had continued completely undisturbed. How do you play ‘normal’, when you have just been exposed to the insubstantiality of normality's foundations?