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Tell me, tell me lies

The Terror Dream Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America; Susan Faludi; Metropolitan Books: 354 pp., $26

September 30, 2007|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."

AMERICAN mythmaking can be complicated. Take George Washington and his apocryphal cherry tree, for example -- how many twists and turns did it take before this patently embroidered story became a chapter in the national bible? At least I can understand why a nation would have such a story: What land does not want to believe that its founding military man was also a man of unshakable honesty, especially if his historical honesty is questionable?

It's harder to gain perspective on tales established in our own time or to understand their purpose. One such current myth is that of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch. I've wondered for years what exactly happened to Lynch in Iraq and, more important, why the United States took such a keen interest in her. Admittedly, she was a pretty, blond, 19-year-old soldier, but that didn't seem to account for all the attention. I felt sorry for her in a general way, for what she'd gone through in the ambush of her convoy by Iraqi militants, her injuries in a car accident during that attack, and the frightening rescue operation by U.S. troops that freed her from an Iraqi hospital bed in the early days of the U.S. invasion in 2003. But I didn't understand the role in which Lynch had been cast.

Susan Faludi explains the historical underpinnings of the Lynch "story," which forms the core of her brilliant and forceful new book, "The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America." The terms in which the Bush administration and a compliant mainstream media couched Lynch's "rescue," she argues persuasively, duplicated not just the broad outlines but also the specific details of an American myth forged in the nation's earliest frontier experiences. Faludi shows that a culture's stories about its women reveal how a society views itself and what its goals are. The archetypal American story, she argues, is not predictive of a healthy republic. She has been making similar arguments since her first book, "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," was published in 1991.

It all goes back to settlers and witches, pioneers and savages, cowboys and Indians, to the kind of nightmare suffered by the hero of Alan LeMay's 1954 novel, "The Searchers" (on which the iconic western movie was based), who hides in the bushes while Comanches slay his family. He cannot escape "the unearthly yammer of the terror dream," LeMay writes, "coming to him like an awareness of something happening in some unknown dimension not of the living world." Faludi's examination of the kind of myths on which the LeMay novel is based offers a disturbing, culturally explosive explanation of the myths that inform today's war on terror.

Early American settlers, Faludi writes, "dwelled in a state of perpetual insecurity. . . . Time and again, military attempts to guard frontier towns failed." She cites several colonial settlements whose leaders were warned repeatedly of imminent Native American attacks, yet villages were left virtually unprotected and were decimated in the eventual onslaught. Remind you of anything?

Captives, usually settlers' wives and daughters, were brought back to Indian encampments. Not only had settlement leaders permitted the invasion, but more often than not they also failed to pursue the captives. Some captives were killed or died, others chose to remain with the conquering tribe (sometimes having children with Indian men), and some used their wits to escape. In the face of such reality, what society's male leaders needed, Faludi argues, was an alternate narrative to show the men as powerful and responsible and the women as frail flowers threatened with sexual despoilment and in need of protection. History had to be rewritten to salve the shame men felt at their inability to protect their own.

One such captive is Hannah Duston, whose Massachusetts village, Haverhill, was attacked by Abenaki Indians on the morning of March 15, 1697. Abandoned to the Abenaki by her husband, Thomas, and the other village men who fled, Duston, recovering from the birth of her 12th child, was taken captive. She managed to escape 15 days later, killing and scalping 10 of her sleeping captors, nine of whom were women and children. She returned to Haverhill amid much excitement.

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