In the southwest corner of Utah, along Highway18, sits an alpine valley called the Mountain Meadows. It is a quiet place, out of the way from any major traffic. There are a few farms that sprawl across portions the valley but it is, by and large, undeveloped. At an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet the valley is a pleasant place to escape the summer heat that beats down on the surrounding dessert. In 1857 this valley was the scene of one of the most tragic events in the history of the West. That year a group of Mormon settlers disarmed a California-bound wagon train under a flag of truce and then systematically slaughtered approximately 120 men, women, and children.
In the book’s introduction the authors stated: “Only complete and honest evaluation of the tragedy can bring the trust necessary for lasting good will. Only then can there be catharsis.” I find the use of the term “catharsis” particularly apropos. Catharsis is the purging or cleansing of the tragic emotions. Understanding the massacre in the context of cathartic reconciliation provides an effective way to resolve the feelings of collective guilt as well as to purge the state being collectively guilty.
The institutional support for this book and it’s acceptance among mainstream Latter-day Saints shows a willingness on the part of the church and its members to come to terms with the massacre. This reconciliation is just beginning. But as Mormonism rediscovers the Mountain Meadows Massacre, its adherents are forced to confront the question of what they would have done had they been there. The difficult part of this is realizing that the perpetrators cannot simply be dismissed as evil, violent men. The perpetrators lived good decent honorable lives before the massacre, committed a terrible atrocity, and then returned to living good decent honorable lives. Anyone who sees this fact is forced to ask the question; “would I have acted any different in the circumstances?” I believe that by asking this question is the first step to healing the wounds left by the tragedy. When this question is honestly asked, we can purge whatever part of us may have caused us to do what the murderers if we had been in their situation so that we will never again repeat the tragic mistakes of our collective past.
Richard Turley, one of the co-authors Massacre at Mountain Meadows, highlighted the need for an emotional understanding and connection with the perpetrators; “and I think that those emotions that we felt are important to understanding what really happened. I think sometimes people try to tell the story of what happened at Mountain Meadows from a pedestal of righteous indignation that allows them to separate themselves form those emotions and if they never felt what happened there they don’t really understand it.” In Greek tragedy the end of the tragedy is catharsis, a cleansing or purgation of the tragic emotions of pity and fear. It is by going through the process that the tragedy evokes, that one reaches catharsis. This is not easy or always pleasant. The purpose of tragedy is to bring to the surface negative emotions so that they can then be cleansed from the spectator. Aristotle remarked: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions.” C.S. Lewis likewise remarked: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” I believe that this is because literature puts us in the position to feel and experience our shared identity with other people. By experiencing their crimes, sins, and flaws we identify whatever shared nature and, hence shared guilt, we have with others. By seeing a commonality with tragic figures we begin to understand the flawed parts of our own nature. It is then that the healing can begin. It is this process that can bring catharsis.