FRIDAY, Nov. 22, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Alan Hilfer remembers
precisely where he was when he heard the news 50 years ago
Hilfer was 15, and his high school German-language teacher was
sobbing in the hallway. He and his friends asked the teacher what
was wrong, and she said, "The president's been shot and I think
Alarmed and confused, the boy had no idea what that meant for
the country or for his future, remembers Hilfer, now director of
psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.
Most Baby Boomers tell a similar story with the same clarity
half a century later, a collective memory that psychologists see as
the hallmark of a generation transformed forever in one stunning
All across the country on Nov. 22, 1963, America's children were
in school when the news of President John F. Kennedy's
assassination in Dallas was announced. For many of them, the first
sign of something wrong was seeing their teachers cry. And when
they were sent home early, there was respected CBS newscaster
Walter Cronkite struggling to keep his composure in front of the TV
"The authorities being shocked is pretty scary for kids," said Ronald Eyerman, a sociology professor at Yale University and the author of a book on the cultural sociology of political assassinations.
"It scared us," agreed Hilfer. "It made us feel that all of our goals and dreams, which Kennedy amplified, could be destroyed in a heartbeat. It made us all aware of the vulnerability of life."
The images -- from the sniper shots to the very public shooting
of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to JFK's funeral cortege and even his
small son's final salute -- made an indelible impression on an
entire generation that remained glued to the TV as the events
Most Baby Boomers who were children when the charismatic
46-year-old president was shot say the assassination affected their
lives in at least some way. Others say it had a profound
For some, Kennedy's killing created a sense of fear and
vulnerability in their lives, much like 9/11 did for another
generation of children four decades later, Hilfer said. Others say
the assassination inspired them to join the Peace Corps. Or go into
public service, medicine, nursing, social work, law or
But all shared one common reaction: their sense of innocence
about the world had been shattered, Hilfer added.
Unlike random acts of violence, people instinctively know that
an assassination is an act against an entire community or nation,
Eyerman said. "It's a crime against everyone," he added.
Historians are quick to point out that the period of time before
Kennedy's assassination wasn't as peaceful and idyllic as some may
nostalgically recall. Baby Boomers typically remember something
about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Cold War. And they
haven't forgotten "drop drills" and air-raid siren tests done to
prepare the nation in case of a nuclear attack from what was then
the Soviet Union.
But somehow those events didn't feel so personal, Hilfer
Watching a young president in the prime of life being cut down
in the back of an open convertible really hit home, Hilfer
Ironically, an assassination can create a "community of
feeling," a sense of unity that comes from the shared horror and
sadness that follows, Eyerman said.
But after that single moment in Dallas, a cascade of events soon
followed that roiled America: more assassinations, divisions over
the Vietnam war, urban riots, and social strife -- events that
pitted young against old, right against left.
"It's very similar to what happened in 9/11," said Sarah Feuerbacher, clinic director at the Center for Family Counseling at Southern Methodist University, in Plano, Texas. "In the days afterwards, everyone came together.
"But afterwards, the fallout occurs," she added, dissolving the sense of common ground and shared experience.
Feuerbacher said most Baby Boomers don't realize that they
probably suffered some level of post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) after witnessing JFK slumping in the convertible and Jackie
Kennedy scrambling over the trunk.
Viewing even just one traumatic event like the assassination can
produce all the symptoms of PTSD, Feuerbacher said.
"The fact that he was not only killed, but it was caught on live camera, individualized the trauma so that it was like watching a family member die, an entirely new playing field for the world," she noted. "Boomers all had a bit of PTSD. If you had not experienced the assassination, your life would have been different. You wouldn't have felt that vulnerability at such a young age."
Feuerbacher warned that just seeing a 50th anniversary special
or news report about the assassination can be harmful to the
elementary-school children of today. Fifty-year-old TV footage can
seem violent, and young children may not realize that what they're
watching happened half a century ago.
"Watching it on television is different from going to a museum. To actually see it occurring on television is a very real experience for a young child," she said.
For Baby Boomers with teenage children or grandchildren,
Feuerbacher suggested telling the teens: "I remember right where I
was when we heard Kennedy had been shot."
Share the experience firsthand, she added: "It's a teachable
moment to help make real something they're only reading about in a
To learn more about
coping with a traumatic event, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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