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Interview with Professor Pennebaker about the Effects of the JFK Assassination on Dallas (1991)
Jim Ruddy
  • Map
  • Highlights
    Alarming statistics about deaths in Dallas in the years after the assassination
    What Dallas did to NOT think about the assassination
    Discrimination against Dallas citizens
    How the new generation regards the assassination
    A new openness to discussing the assassination in Dallas
    The 6th Floor Museum exhibit and the JFK film as a sign that Dallas can deal with the event
  • Transcript
    Jim Ruddy : -complications-
    James Pennebaker : Oh I see.
    Ruddy : some of which they would produce for-
    Pennebaker : Kind of like insider trading.
    Ruddy : Yeah. It's funny, they called right before they bought all this stock. 
    Pennebaker : Exactly.
    Ruddy : Even though they claim they're just talking about golfing. Have a conversation. Arrange something for them.
    Ruddy : Okay, can you go ahead and tell us what your name is?
    Pennebaker : My name is James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at Southern Methodist University. 
    Ruddy : Tell us briefly, and I'll probably ask you some questions about it, but to help us out what was your findings about how the JFK assassination affected people in Dallas, people from Dallas.
    Pennebaker : What we found was after the assassination occurred basically Dallas residents did what they could to avoid thinking about or dealing with it. Dallas became a city of the future and a city without a past. What we found was that in the three or four years after the assassination murder rates went up, suicide rates went up, deaths due to heart disease went up. These occurred in Dallas but not elsewhere in Texas, nowhere else in the United States. 
    Interestingly, Dallas did a lot of things to not think about the assassination. There were no streets, schools, buildings, or anything named after Kennedy. Interestingly a very similar thing happened in Memphis where virtually nothing is named after Martin Luther King even though there are some things named after Kennedy just as there are things named after Martin Luther King here.
    Ruddy : What was it like to be a Dallas resident? For those of us who are new here, who never lived here, or were born since then, what are the kinds of things that Dallasites experienced when they went out of this town?
    Pennebaker : In our interviews one thing we found was that Dallas residents, many of them were discriminated against when they'd go out of town. For example, people have told me of people throwing rocks at their cars, being refused service as restaurants, people making long distance phone calls from Dallas would have operators hang up on them. Story after story just showed that America, or many people in America... people in America were angry with Dallas residents.
    Ruddy : What do you think this movie might or might, I know you like to deal with what's happening, speculate what could this movie real publicized about Kennedy do after 27 years?
    Pennebaker : Ultimately I don't think it's going to do a lot. What, the interesting thing is we have to look at who is affected by this. All of our research indicates that people who are most upset about the assassination now are the people who were living in Dallas in 1963, which now is a minority of the Dallas population. Those are the people who still think about it but don't talk about it at all, who are upset by it. We're finding that young people in Dallas, or transplants, are actually quite fascinated by this phenomenon, this event that occurred in Dallas, so in many respects I think that there is the Dallas- there is more interest-
    Ruddy : Go ahead; take your time; say that all again.
    Pennebaker : Okay. In many respects I think there is more interest in this particular movie among most Dallas residents, those people who weren't alive at the time. I think everybody else their attitude is "Let's not make such a big deal out of it. Let's move on."
    Ruddy : Is it- how difficult is it for someone now to understand that kind of prejudice that happened back then. It seems like a fairly unusual phenomenon. 
    Pennebaker : It's a very unusual phenomenon, and you almost have to talk to residents to appreciate what happened. This was a massive trauma, not only for the country but, specifically for Dallas. There was this self-consciousness and great discomfort about it. Having this horrible thing happen in your city, in the town that you were proud of.
    Ruddy : And in terms of how did that change, has it changed? If it changed what do you think helped change it.
    Pennebaker : Well what happens is that after an event occurs usually it takes a long time for people to get to the point to acknowledge it, to admit that it occurred. It's interesting that the Sixth Floor exhibit, which just opened two years ago, finally was able to open. Before that Dallas residents did not want this to occur. In fact, before that there was virtually no acknowledgement downtown that the assassination had happened, but since then, since the building of the Sixth Floor, there's been this, I think a new openness that has occurred in Dallas, and I think this movie could be made now, but I don't think it could have been made 10 years ago.
    Ruddy : In terms of the healing process, were there things that helped people outside Dallas get over- to quit stigmatizing Dallas the way they had?
    Pennebaker : It's ironic, I think the one thing- the primary things that got Dallas past this stigmatization was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. All our data showed that as soon as those other assassinations occurred all of the psychological effects almost disappeared in Dallas. It was almost as though the heat was off, that it wasn't just Dallas that had problems, that it was other cities and probably the entire United States.
    Ruddy : In terms of the movie, what are your thoughts on the making of the movie.
    Pennebaker : What are my thoughts on the movie? You know I don't have very many thoughts about the movie. In many respects what's been most interesting is just the intense interest that many of the younger Dallas residents have had. I think it's not coincidental that so many people showed up for the casting calls, for example. In our surveys, for example, in 196- in 1988 after the- in 1988 there were that spat of TV shows that commemorated the 25th anniversary of the assassination. The Nielsen rating showed that of all the cities in America that watched those shows, Dallas residents watched it the most especially the- most people under 30. So for example, Dallas residents under the age of 30 watched it at the rates of about four times higher than say Houston residents of the same age.
    Ruddy : ...you've got this thing to deal with I suppose-
    Pennebaker : It's interesting. It's as though the parents, the people who- if we look at the Dallas- let's think how I want to put this. See the interesting thing is that the Dallas residents who were here at the time, they still ultimately don't want to deal with it. Their attitude is "Let's not talk about it. Let's move on," but their children are intensely interested in it. "What really did go on?" And I think that's why there is so much excitement among especially the younger people as well as the transplants.
    Ruddy : In terms of the movie, if the movie were to allege some kind of conspiracy involving the Dallas police force and paint the town as being a real hotbed of right-wing fanaticism and what not, even if it were to be depicting Dallas in the most negative kind of way, do you think that would open up those old wounds or not?
    Pennebaker : Ultimately I don't think so because we're now far enough away that that's history. That's not Dallas today. Dallas today is a much different city, so I don't think if it depicted Dallas at the city of hate as it was portrayed in the media many years ago. Nowadays I don't think that we'd be- it wouldn't be us. That was Dallas in the past.
    Ruddy : So- negative aspects for this, are there any negative aspects to digging up, dredging up all this stuff?
    Pennebaker : I think in most respects, in a way it's almost healthy. It's an open acknowledgement that something profoundly important happened in Dallas, and I think many people in Dallas who are associated with say the Sixth Floor exhibit or perhaps even this movie see this as ultimately almost a healthy sign that Dallas can deal with it now. We can admit that this event occurred.
    Ruddy : And that's different than it was in the past?
    Pennebaker : In the past- let's look at what would have happened say 10 years after the assassination. Dallas was still very very nervous about it. Attempts to open the Sixth Floor then were all put down. Then it was too close. Then it was Dallas as us. That was- it was my Dallas that this assassination occurred in whereas now it was the Dallas of many many years ago of another generation.
    Ruddy : And in terms of-
    Crew : We should change tape.
    Ruddy : Changing tapes, now's a good time.