Returning to New Orleans

Prisoner of Her Past plays a little differently in front of every audience, but nowhere like in New Orleans.

Though only a brief – if significant – sequence of the film was shot in the Crescent City, the audience embraced that passage. In the Q-and-A session following the screening at the National World War II Museum on April 4, more than half the questions concerned the way PTSD has wracked New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

What’s being done to help children who experienced horrors during and after the storm? What about adults? Where are New Orleanians supposed to go for help? Why doesn’t language express what trauma survivors feel? How do you deal with the guilt of surviving? How do you replace friends who left and are never coming back? How do you save your city?

The avalanche of questions made me particularly glad that we had brought my mother’s story into the present by showing modern-day trauma in New Orleans. You don’t have to be a Holocaust survivor or a war veteran, the film is saying, to be haunted by traumatic memories.

Answering the questions were two of New Orleans’ leading PTSD experts, Drs. Joy and Howard Osofsky, who were first responders after Katrina and appear in Prisoner of Her Past. As I sat on the post-screening panel with them, listening to their answers, I felt as if I were listening to a city communing with itself, grappling with some of the same troubles that have so deeply disturbed my mother.

But this wasn’t the only revelatory screening in New Orleans. Earlier in the day, we screened the film for more than 200 students at Xavier University Preparatory School, the same Catholic high school shown in the doc. Though the girls we filmed in 2006 have long since graduated, the current students fell to a hush as the Xavier Prep sequence in the movie unfolded. Their questions, too, were unlike any I’ve encountered elsewhere: Have you ever met a Holocaust survivor who also survived Katrina? Did you ever hear again from the girls you filmed? Will you come and film in New Orleans again, to keep covering the story?

Toward the end of the session, Xavier Prep principal Carolyn Oubre told the students about what their teachers had suffered during the storm, how many had lost loved ones and homes and cars, how arduously they battled to come back to New Orleans, “to minister to you,” she said.

The kids instantly burst into applause.

Bravo to them all.

– Howard Reich


  1. Unfortunately I was only able to catch snippets and the end of this fabulous documentary. I am a middle-age trauma survivor and have been struggling with understanding my inner world my whole life. Finally, I got a PTSD diagnosis. For a couple years I spent endless hours learning about the holocaust and WWII. I was drawn to it and could not explain why until now. I share the experience of trauma. I was traumatized in childhood and then in adulthood by authority figures and a community and legal system who deny me my rights. My trauma continues. Your film tells a very important story: how trauma needs to be stopped, acknowledged, and understood for us to evolve as a caring, life-affirming species.

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