‘Help When Times Are Hard’: Bereavement and Star Trek Fan Letters – Lincoln Geraghty

“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?”
– Kirk to Saavik, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [1982]. 

Henry Jenkins (1988, 1992) uses Michel de Certeau’s (1984) term “textual poaching” to describe how fans rewrite Star Trek TV shows and movies in order to produce their own narratives which they then share amongst each other in the form of novels and music. Constance Penley (1997) has also analysed artwork produced by these fans and Heather Joseph-Witham (1996) has looked at their costume making. These studies have brought critical attention to what might have seemed an overdone and outdated subject and have highlighted how important Star Trek fan culture is to the fields of media and reception studies. The Star Trek movies and TV shows play an important role in the emotional and affective lives of both American and British fans. In this paper I want to investigate the ways in which fans actually talk about the show and their engagement with it. For example, some fans appear to draw on their love of Star Trek in making sense of traumatic and significant life events such as bereavement. To investigate this subject, I utilise material such as British and American fan letters printed in the UK Star Trek Magazine and edited fan collections.

When studying fans through their personal correspondence it is perhaps too easy to attribute their confessions of being comforted by Star Trek to the connections between social and psychological conditions. Joli Jenson, in her work on fandom as pathology, describes how excessive fandom has been seen “as a form of psychological compensation, an attempt to make up for all that modern life lacks.”(1992: 16) Fans are a potentially dangerous group of ostracised individuals who have nothing better to do than fantasise about their favourite TV show or star. Of course, this is a very narrow-minded view of cult fandom. At the very least, fandom is a form of community discourse that not only offers support to individuals through interaction with each other and the focal text but it also helps to maintain people’s own personal relationships with family, friends, and individuals.

Fandom does not make up for things that are lacking in our lives, because that would seem to imply that we are all lacking important social skills making us all cultural hermits. Instead, as I want to build upon in this paper, fandom offers a sense of personal empowerment where investment in Star Trek provides the necessary tools to help cope with events in daily life. As Lawrence Grossberg (1992; 65) states, being a fan of a particular text allows people “to gain a certain amount of control over their affective life, which further enables them to invest in new forms of meaning, pleasure and identity in order to cope with new forms of pain, pessimism, frustration, alienation, terror and boredom.” People have to deal with stressful events throughout their lives – whether they describe themselves as fans of something or not – and they all deal with them in their own different ways.

It is interesting that Grossberg does not specifically mention death as something that fans learn to cope with by investing in the text – perhaps coping with pain and pessimism might include coping with bereavement. However, pain is a topic that Camille Bacon-Smith has looked at in connection with the Star Trek female fan audience in her seminal work Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992). In her research of fan writing Bacon-Smith paid close attention to a form of literature known as “hurt-comfort” fiction. This term describes stories where one hero suffers – most often physical pain but sometimes illness – and the other hero comforts them. According to Bacon-Smith, these stories “say that one way of dealing with personal pain is to recognize the suffering of those we care about and return their attention and comfort” (261). Even though these stories specifically refer to physical pain experienced by fictional characters, in some senses I would propose that Bacon-Smith’s statement could also apply to letters regarding the pain of bereavement. Fans seem to recognise that pain and respond to it by consulting the Star Trek text and writing their feelings down on paper. This act in itself shares the pain; other fans read the letters, respond, and thereby reply by comforting the person who is suffering. Furthermore, Bacon-Smith goes on to describe how writing these stories was not primarily for fun but rather it “fulfilled some of the deepest needs of community life” (268).


Fans who were experiencing turmoil in their lives responded by writing stories that put their favourites characters (usually Kirk and Spock) into a situation where one of them suffered and the other comforted. The literature was merely a symbol for the specific discourse of support that the fans were sharing. Often the fans would contact each other about the story just to talk about it before they wrote anything:

Isolation continues to break down as new readers discuss [the] work. The writer even finds satisfaction in helping others when fans tell [them] that [their] story has affected them and offer stories of their own in turn (269).

With regard to the letters I have gathered, Bacon-Smith’s theories about “hurt-comfort” fiction might possibly help us to understand why and how Star Trek fans turn to the text when they suffer a loss; how writing about that experience in the form of a letter that will be read by other fans will offer them some form of comfort. However, it is important to keep in mind that Bacon-Smith was examining a specific form of fan literature that had a specific readership and was almost entirely produced by women. The letters I examine have been written by all types of fans, all ages both male and female, from those who never watched Star Trek before their trauma to those who dress up and take part in organised Star Trek fan activities. Therefore, I want to stress that Star Trek fan letter writing can be considered part of a larger social movement that not only acknowledges the series as an important factor in fans’ affective lives but also recognises certain intrinsic cultural elements that all people share when dealing with bereavement.

I want to understand and conceptualise the affective relationship Star Trek has with its fans and analyse how its fans believe that it has helped them in daily life. Such an analysis of how they identify with the series will also provide an understanding of Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska’s affirmation taken from their comprehensive study of science fiction cinema: “[Science fiction] offers the pleasures of excitement, fantasy and escape, while also grappling with some of the oldest questions about what it is to be human.”(2000: 58) It is my intention to extrapolate how far one might regard the Star Trek fanbase as a collective network of support. I believe that those fans who communicate through writing letters to fan magazines, as well as online chat rooms, are doing so in an attempt to contact fellow enthusiasts and share their own personal experiences, whether they are positive or emotionally traumatic. By doing so the fans are able to reveal private and delicate information and at the same time realise that others may have had similar experiences. All the fans who are distressed at the loss of a friend or family member describe Star Trek as being integral to the recovery process which suggests that they see its multiple texts as a form of encouragement. When talking about this in letters read by other fans their affection is passed on through a cohesive fibrous network that allows for intimate but positive exchanges. Star Trek fan culture is a collective network, multi-layered and interwoven with numerous channels of communication – all of which offer support on many personal levels.

One of the most pre
valent forms of fan letter that can be found is what I would call the “Help When Times are Hard” letter in which the sender has written about how much Star Trek has helped them overcome very difficult social, emotional, and even physical obstacles in life. The main examples of such letters I wish to discuss communicate how fans use Star Trek’s message of peace and harmony as a source of hope and strength. Star Trek has been seen by its fans as a form of support and counsel. That some fans perceive Star Trek as an important part of their lives is not in doubt, however, that fans should turn to it to seek comfort rather than their families, friends, or traditional forms of medical and psychological counselling is an important aspect of fandom that needs to be assessed here. Ultimately, I suggest that the letters analysed are connected by a sense of mutual self-improvement and shared life experience. These facets of letter writing are representative of a supportive networked community very much part of contemporary culture.

Beginning in October of ’73, everything in my life blew up in my face. Within the space of eight weeks, I lost everything. My wallet got lifted in Boston. A week later in New York it was my whole pocketbook – including keys and addressbook [sic] – locking me out of my home, office, car, cutting me off from my friends. The following week, my fiancé was killed in a car accident. The week after that, my new VW bus was stolen (never recovered). Two weeks after that my mother died, and the day after Christmas, my beloved grandmother had a fatal heart attack. I went under… [After watching Star Trek for the first time] I was hopelessly hooked! And that [author’s emphasis] was the point at which I came back to life… Star Trek shoved a whole new set of ideas in front of my nose. And, like the donkey and the carrot on the stick, I started moving forward again… As I began to come alive again, I realized that I could never possess my past anyway. The only thing we ever really have is the future, and the present determines the future. My future will become whatever my present makes it. And all I can really say about my present is that every moment I am trying to make it the very best present it can be. (Walker, 15-17)

According to social psychologist Colleen Murray “death may be the last taboo issue in family science and family therapy,”(173) and many individuals seem to deny the fact that death is an inevitable part of family life and all families will encounter the varied stresses that it can bring upon them. However, Star Trek’s related ability to provide emotional relief to those who have recently experienced bereavement seems not only to help individuals to cope with the loss but it also appears to teach them a life lesson. The above letter exemplifies a dual property that Star Trek possesses: After a sustained period of familial loss, where three close people unexpectedly died, the author recounts how she “came back to life” when introduced to Star Trek. Once the period of mourning had ended Star Trek taught her that life was too precious to waste on thinking about the past and that, “the only thing we ever really have is the future.”

Such an epiphany is a common characteristic of letters sent by fans who have suffered traumatic events such as death and illness, yet often those fans had never watched Star Trek before they suffered their loss. Death and emotional distress, in the case of Virginia Walker, was a catalyst for her eventual introduction to the world of Star Trek; after watching several early episodes the author went on to write about how her involvement with organising a fan club and many national conventions offered her a new perspective on life: “Before I wore blinders… maybe I’ve grown up” (Walker, 16). This intimates that Star Trek replicates, even replaces, the supportive role of the church which has been commonly recognised as one of the “positive factors” in emerging from mourning (Murray, 188). Creativity, the second recognised factor, appears also to be part of Star Trek’s ability to help fans convalesce as the author also describes how her “field of interest is now virtually unlimited” (Walker, 16).

Spiritual development is a significant aspect of fan letters and many fans attribute their rehabilitation and conversion to Star Trek’s “baptism by television.” Susan Sackett likens their need to share such experiences with others to those newly converted to a religion who become “its most fervent proselytes”(15); again this helps them recover from their emotional and physical loss. Finding comparisons between Star Trek fandom and religion is not a new scholarly pursuit but such investigations do provide an interesting insight into the letters I have analysed. For William B. Tyrrell, Star Trek not only “offers the comfort of religion”(717), but for its fans it represents a world where they belong, just as Virginia Walker found that she “came back to life” when she was introduced to Star Trek. For Michael Jindra, Star Trek “does not have the thoroughgoing seriousness of established religions, but it is also not mere entertainment.”(50) The combination and interplay of the two facets is a sign of its unique “vitality.”

It is this sort of “vitality” linked with a supposed ability to aid in the memorialisation of deceased loved ones which characterises fan letters and is exemplified in the next three taken from the British Star Trek Monthly Magazine. I have included them in my study to show how Star Trek’s effectiveness in the mourning process is not restricted to an American audience but rather emphasises how universal its message is:

My husband was the one who got me hooked on Star Trek, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, but my favourites are Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. My husband and I, and later our sons, have spent many a memorable and happy hour glued to our favourite Star Trek episodes. When my husband and eldest son died two years ago in a tragic accident, watching certain episodes became more important, more poignant, bringing back special memories for my little boy and I. (Sandra Bunner, 64)

I have just watched Imperfection and am writing to say how overwhelmed I was by Jeri Ryan’s acting… She reminded me of when my father died three years ago, and what he must have felt when he knew he was dying and there was nothing anyone could do to save him, but his stubbornness kept him with me for seven years. I could not stop crying. Thank you Jeri; you fulfilled your talent and showed us that your character has feelings as well. (Andrea Dearden, 95)

This is the first time I have had to accept the loss of a friend and I can tell you it is awful. I feel there is something missing inside that I can’t explain. If it wasn’t for the help of my other friends and Star Trek, I don’t feel I would have been able to move on. Over the course of the following days I watched several heart-warming and emotional episodes of Star Trek: Voyager from seasons five and six, and they helped tremendously… This very letter has enabled me to share my experience with others, so I thank you for finding the time to read it. (Philip Arkinstall, 63)

These three letters share similar themes, the most noticeable is the fact that those who were grieving watched episodes of Star Trek to help overcome their grief and try to come to terms with their loss. Individually, the authors indicate that specific types of episodes helped with their own specific situations: the woman in the first letter who lost her husband and son watched “certain episodes” thereby “bringing back special memories”; the Voyager episode “Imperfection” [2000][1] reminded Andrea Dearden about her father’s long-term illness and death; and in the third letter “heart-warming and emotional episodes of Star Trek: Voyager” helped Philip Arkinstall come to terms with the death of four close friends. These examples express that if some fans need an emotional pick-me-up, they might perhaps turn to a more dramatic and “heart-warming” episode, or if they need to be reminded or comforted then they might re-watch one or more episodes to recreate a special memory.

The reason behind these varied uses of Star Trek episodes can be attributed to the fact that Star Trek is such an open text and that to a large extent it has become reality for some people who want to believe that it is true, or, as David Gerrold (228) says, “it represents a future we would like to make real.” In fact, all three letters seem to question Daniel Bernardi’s theory that Star Trek is a constrictive and absolute mega-text (7) because the fans take different personal meanings from episodes and often the emotions they feel when watching a specific episode change when they watch it a second or third time under less stressful circumstances. Lawrence Grossberg asserts that fans make the text “mean something that connects to their own lives, experiences, needs and desires. The same text will mean different things to different people, depending on how it is interpreted.”(1992: 52) The mega-text is therefore not fixed and authoritarian but rather flexible and receptive.

I have known and loved many friends I’ve met at conventions who also play Klingon, but the most Klingon of them all was my friend and “Captain,” Chuck. The man lived, breathed, and ate Klingdom; he knew every word to every [author’s emphasis] Klingon song ever sung on Trek, and was totally devoted to Klingon fandom. Sadly, he was killed in a car accident in February ’98, in a fierce El Niño rainstorm… To honor him as a Klingon we would gather around [his coffin] and send him out with a Klingon Death Howl… When our breaths were spent, our shoulders sagged with relief, like a weight had been lifted. We would always miss him, and remember him, but with joy… When people make fun of Trekkers, especially those of us who run around cons dressed as Klingons, and call us geeks and nerds, I shrug it off. Because I know better. Everyone needs something to believe in, to carry on. Everyone needs somewhere to belong. (Avril Storm Bourbon, a.k.a. K’Lannagh O’Sullivan, 174-176)

This last letter written by Avril Storm Bourbon indicates a strong bond shared between certain Star Trek fans, a bond characterised by playing Klingon at conventions and social gatherings. Her grief felt over the death of a close friend who “lived, breathed, and ate Klingdom” just as she does suggests a special sense of community that reacts in similar ways to death as would a family. Robert Habenstein has noted that “death initiates significant responses from those survivors who in some way have personally or vicariously related to the deceased. Inevitably, the collectivities in which the dead person held membership also react.”(26) Therefore, the Star Trek collective that role-played with the deceased suffered just as much as his family; they chose to stay in character and mourn his death in a different way by performing the Klingon Death Howl first seen on a Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episode “Heart of Glory” [1988].[2]

Such use of Star Trek ritual can only be understood if we refer back to those critics who see it as a form of secular religion. Bourbon says that she did not care what people thought of her dressing up as a Klingon because it allowed her freedom within a community, “everyone needs somewhere to belong” and that place would be with others who lived Klingon. William Tyrrell sees such a declaration of devotion as a “ritual cry to a world where [one] belongs, where [one] has it all together.”(717) If Bourbon and her friends then wish to live as Klingons – by the code laid out for them in certain episodes and fleshed out in licensed Star Trek literature – then she would also want to mourn death as a Klingon. The act of role-playing becomes less of a game but rather a way of life (or death).

Such a development raises some interesting questions: Does this renunciation of traditional religious belief and ritual indicate a breakdown in American society? Has the notion of a traditional spiritual community, often desired when death affects a group, given way to a reliance on fictional methods of emotional security that can be construed as superficial? Perhaps in a sense one might agree that Star Trek does pose a threat to traditional forms of communal bereavement and therefore endanger established methods of caring such as therapy and attending church because it ultimately relies on a select few writers and producers to decide what should be included in the Star Trek universe. Therefore, the desire to make entertaining television programmes dictates the ritual content exemplified by the Klingon Death Howl. However, Robert Bellah’s (40) concept of a “civil religion” would counteract those critical suppositions. He sees “civil religion” as “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality,” which is how Bourbon, Walker, and all those who write about the death of a loved one see Star Trek’s vision of a better future (a future where the world lives in harmony) helping in their rehabilitation.


Star Trek, then, has taught those fans who turn to it in grief to cope with death, not be frightened or suspicious of it – even when death comes unexpectedly as in a car accident – but use it as form of personal strength. The community of fans to which these fans belong acts as a network of support where those lessons offered by Star Trek’s vision, and expressed through writing letters, can be shared. Writing about their experiences allows those who are reading the letters access into the community, making it even larger. Scholars and social critics who lament about the global demise of close communities would do well to consider how Star Trek fans cope with death through the examination and repeated watching of human and “heart-warming” stories shown on television. If “bereavement is complex, for it reaches to the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to have a relationship” (Klass, 31), then Star Trek fans would appear to have a sound understanding of the emotional and traumatic effects death has on the living, and the series would appear to have a humanising effect on its fans, teaching them the value of relationships and what will make them more human.

There is a sense that those fans who have written about their bereavement do so to find a voice. It is this voice that articulates the level of grief they are experiencing which ordinarily they may find hard to share in public with their friends. With so many similar stories to share the people who write these letters do so in an attempt to become part of a special community, one that offers support through a common dialogue based on the Star Trek fan experience. Sharing their experiences in letters emphasises how much they want to communicate their feelings to other fans and is characteristic of a distinctive form of discursive fan network.


Notes:

[1] In “Imperfection” the human half of the female character Seven of Nine starts to slowly die as the Borg implants left in her body begin to deteriorate. As she becomes weaker, Seven shares many personal moments with her crew mates as she tries to come to terms with her seemingly i
nevitable death. As the Doctor races to save her life, Seven begins to realise many human emotions and qualities that had previously been anathema to her because of her experiences within the Borg hive mind.

[2] “Heart of Glory” was the first TNG episode to address the Klingons in any significant way. Fans of the aggressive but honourable aliens were delighted to see the Worf character given some screen time and that the Klingons were becoming an important part of the Star Trek universe once again. Many seeds for successive Klingon storylines were planted in this episode and new insights into Klingon culture, the Death Howl being one of them, were revealed for the first time.


References

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Bunner, Sandra. Letter printed in Star Trek Monthly Magazine, January (2002): 64.

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Author Biography

Lincoln Geraghty is completing his PhD thesis on Star Trek fans and American culture in the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. His interests lay in Star Trek’s utopian text and how that text has been used as a form of emotional and affective support by its fans. He has had articles based on his research published in Journal of Popular Culture , Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts , Reconstruction, Extrapolation , and European Journal of American Culture . He can be contacted at: aaxlggg1@nottingham. ac.uk