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A town forever changed, torn apart by Sept. 11

Middletown, America: One Town's Passage From Trauma to Hope, Gail Sheehy, Random House: 414 pp., $25.95

October 07, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

FOR those of us in Los Angeles, the events of Sept. 11 were far off in many ways. Certainly we felt the unspeakable horror. We might have been stunned into a kind of paralysis in front of our television sets, watching endless loops of planes hitting towers, people leaping to their death, fireballs erupting. Remote control in hand, we may have gasped, dumbfounded, as the World Trade Center towers, first one and then the other, seemed to disappear inside themselves, shrinking with a shocking expediency that defied understanding. Maybe we knew people who died there or knew people whose friends did.

But unlike those who lived close to ground zero, we didn't wake each morning to search the gaping hole left in the horizon, we didn't watch plumes of smoke cloud the air for days, we didn't smell the burning-rubber stench. And we didn't come home to neighborhoods that had been irreparably damaged, to communities whose fabric of daily life had been utterly shredded.

From the horror of the World Trade Center attack and its aftermath, Gail Sheehy ("Hillary's Choice" and "Passages") creates a close-to-the-bone portrait of what happened that day and its long-term effects.

She focuses her examination on Middletown, N.J., a commuter suburb 20 miles from Manhattan. Middletown, "one of the seventy-five wealthiest townships in America," and its neighboring hamlets on the Rumson peninsula, experienced the largest concentrated death toll from the assault on the towers, losing almost 50 residents that day: parents who didn't come home, a Port Authority officer who rushed to the scene to help, adult children who were just beginning careers as traders or brokers, beloved sports coaches, single mothers, commuting fathers. For all the community's affluence, nothing could shield it from this extensive loss.

Sheehy followed selected Middletown families for nearly two years, reporting on their lives before the attack, the stages of grieving and how they coped, recounting the survivors' slow but unstoppable will to rebuild and move on.

She also investigated the healing process that took place after the Oklahoma City bombing and the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, reporting that it can take years, even decades, for people to recover from trauma of this magnitude. She considers those who help in the aftermath of such tragedies -- community volunteers, recovery workers, mental health professionals -- who often suffer "vicarious trauma," experiencing health problems and emotional difficulties as a result of their exposure. And finally, she investigates our government's actions before and after the tragedy, looking at failures in the security systems and stonewalling by government agencies that made a bad situation worse.

The Sept. 11 survivors pose big questions: "How could there be such a colossal, systemic, utter failure that morning? Between the FAA, the NSA, ... the CIA, the Secret Service, the FBI?" asks Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband, Rod, that day and led the families' fight for an independent national commission to investigate the attacks. "There is no possible way that four planes could be simultaneously hijacked above the United States and no one know how to stop them until they hit the buildings." Many of these crucial questions, Sheehy reminds us, remain unanswered.

Most stirring are the personal stories: children missing fathers; sisters grieving for brothers; volunteer workers whose hearts broke as they worked with families of the victims; Port Authority officers who labored on the pile of rubble 12 hours a day, seven days a week, until the job was done. Sheehy includes heroic narratives, tales of rash actions by people who wanted to help but didn't know how and the stories of those who were able to make a difference. Though there are heartwarming moments, the book's ultimate effect is one of deep sadness and loss, eliciting tears even when the reader is fortified against them.

Breitweiser laments to the author after a visit to the local library: "I'm only thirty. And I'm a widow.... Where is the book for a thirty-year-old woman with a two-and-a-half-year-old child whose husband was killed by terrorists and who watched it on TV? Where is the book for that?"

This is the book for anyone who wants to better understand the scope of this tragedy -- what it meant to those involved, how it has affected the world the rest of us live in, how it colors the stories we're told by our government. "As early as December 2001," Sheehy writes, "the Bush administration began shifting ... from the hunt for Osama to the unfinished decapitation of Saddam's Iraq" -- a shift that was explained to her by a strategic analyst for the Rand Corp.: "It was easier for America to make war on a state -- for example, Iraq -- than on a terrorist network, because that's what we know how to do." Sheehy's poignant narrative may not be the consolation Kristen Breitweiser seeks -- no book can offer that -- but it's a significant step in the right direction.

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