Short text messages show surprising storytelling power in Norway tragedy

Even the young person who sends and receives hundreds of text messages per day is unlikely to think of them as acts of reading and writing.

Most text messages, including mine, are delivered in casual code for humdrum purposes, a mode of expression that makes communication seem as automatic as breathing.

Roy: coffee?

Jeff: now?

Roy: see u there

Jeff: k

But consider my exchange with my daughter Alison:

Dad: Ali, rock heaven has another saint. Janis greets Amy Winehouse.

Alison: sad so sad. But not a surprise. I take comfort that she is free of that prison.

The 27 words in these messages work hard. Embedded in them is a story, a short biography of Amy Winehouse. I deliver news of the singer's death indirectly and euphemistically, guessing that it is already known. I allude to Janis Joplin and rock heaven, connecting Winehouse to a long tradition of fallen rockers. From Alison, we get judgments about the duration of the singer's suffering ("not a surprise"), and its depth ("that prison").

All in 27 words.

The narrative power of the text message was revealed dramatically in recent days as the world mourned the deaths of almost 80 Norwegians, most of them young, all victims of a single mass murderer named Anders Breivik.

As the killer stalked his young victims, gathered at a camp to learn about government and democracy, a 16-year-old survivor named Julie Bremnes began an urgent exchange of text messages with her mother Marianne.

Mourners attend the funeral of Bano Abobakar Rashid, 18, the first victim of the shooting rampage at Utoya to be buried, at a church in Nesodden, near Oslo, Norway, Friday, July 29, 2011. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

According to the online edition of the Daily Mail and other sources, Julie and her friends heard shots on Utoya Island, ran to the shore, and sought cover behind some rocks.  From there she never saw the killer, but watched the dead and wounded on the shore and dead bodies floating on the water.

The texting between Julie and her mom, who was glued to television news, began at 5:42 PM:

Julie: Mummy, tell the police that they must hurry. People are dying here!

Mum: I’m working on it, Julie. The police are coming.  Dare you call me.

Julie: No.

Julie: Tell the police that there is a mad man running around and shooting people.

Julie: They must hurry!

Mum: The police know it. This is not good, Julie.  Police are calling us now. Give us a sign of life every five minutes, please?

Julie: OK.

Julie: We are surviving!

Mum: I understand, my girl. Stay in cover, do not move anywhere! The police are already on the way, if not already arrived! Do you see anyone injured or killed?

Julie: We are hiding in the rocks along the coast.

Mum: Good! Should I ask your grandfather to come down and pick you up when everything is safe again?  When you have the opportunity.

Julie: Yes.

Mum: We will contact grandfather immediately.

Julie: I love you even though I may shout a few times :)

Julie: And I did not panic, even though I’m shit scared.

Mum: I know, my girl. We are awfully fond of you, too!  Can you hear shots?

Julie: No.

From TV reports, the mom could inform the daughter of what was going on, including the fact that the gunman was disguised as a policeman.  Mom used the text messages to bolster her daughter’s spirits and to assure her that help was near, including a final message about the police capture of the killer: “Now they have taken him!”

By then, the killer, a 32-year-old homegrown terrorist, had written more than a few words of his own, expressed in a 1,500-page logorrheic manifesto, years in the making and published on the Internet to justify his murderous rampage.

The question is always: Why?

Why did Anders Breivik, posing as a police officer, blow up a government building in Oslo? Why did he make his way to Utoya Island and, for more than an hour, assassinate dozens and dozens of young people, using automatic weapons and, for maximum damage, bullets that explode inside the body after impact?

Like the Unabomber and other fanatics before him, Breivik used violence to voice a hatred that his inhumane words could never fully express. Those words, as excerpted by the world media, are nothing new. They echo the common complaints of political extremists, language that can be traced back to Nazi myths of the master race and beyond, Mein Kampf with blond hair, but no silly mustache:

  • “Muslim individuals who do not assimilate 100% within 2020 will be deported as soon as we manage to seize power.”
  • “Most people are still terrified of nationalistic political doctrines thinking that if we ever embrace these principles again, new 'Hitlers' will suddenly pop up and initiate global Armageddon…This irrational fear of nationalistic doctrines is preventing us from stopping our own national/cultural suicide as the Islamic colonization is increasing annually.”
  • “Once you decide to strike, it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike. Explain what you have done…and make certain that everyone understands that we, the free peoples of Europe, are going to strike again and again.”

Any critical reader will soon realize that the killer's writing is not just predictable and derivative. His words are automatic, mechanical, the antithesis of the loving dialogue between mother and daughter.

So great was the loss of life in Norway -- and so young the victims -- that the killer’s words and actions will take their toll for years to come. How could they not? Let’s just hope that the record of these events includes the dialogue between young Julie and her mother, an exchange that could be a scene in a Bergman film or an Ibsen play.

I take that back. The dramatic artists’ representations are mere imitations of real life. This overheard exchange feels more real, more human: From Julie’s caring attention to others who are in harm's way; to the reassurances mother and daughter provide each other; to the delivery of information that will keep her safe; to the gloriously Norwegian understatements of love; to the authenticity of the girl’s fervent exclamation points, her slang that she is “shit scared,” even one of the best uses of the smiley face I have ever seen.

I will lay this wager, that in the tsunami of words in the killer’s manifesto, the reader will not find a single smiley face or any other tender expression of love for another. The text messages run 179 words and took minutes to write and exchange. The killer could have spent another decade writing, and another 300,000 words and never come close to the poignant power delivered between mother and daughter in such few words.

Consider the difference: 300,000 words of hate vs. 179 words of love.

With this post, Roy Peter Clark begins an occasional series of essays on how to write short -- and why it matters.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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