Gail Sheehy on America's Passage

Middletown was a typical suburb of New York, where people didn't seem to need one another. Then 9/11 happened.

Gail Sheehy, author of the landmark work Passages, which defined the developmental stages of adult life, spent almost two years with residents in a town hard hit by 9/11, documented in her new book Middletown, America. She spoke with Beliefnet about the families' ongoing journey through grief and a surprising alliance with Oklahoma City survivors.

Why did you choose Middletown, New Jersey, as the subject of your 9/11 book?

Like everyone else in the first weeks after the tragedy of 9/11, I was looking frantically for some way to help. My training with Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, was very pertinent. She was my mentor at Columbia-she drilled into me that whenever an event of huge proportions happens in a culture-an assassination, a coronation, a devastation-drop everything, rush to the edge of the precipice and look down, because you will see the culture turned inside out in a way you ordinarily never do.

I began reading about certain communities that had been extremely hard hit, that by some fickle selection of fate had an inordinate number of deaths. The name Middletown kept coming up. I'd never head of it before, but it also rang a bell because of a famous book about America in the 1920s called



So I went there on the first and only evening of their vigil about three weeks after 9/11.

People were just wide open at that point. One widow began talking to me about what she was experiencing-that she didn't know any of the other widows, although she knew there were many in the town. That really nobody knew one another, that it was very separated and that she was feeling very isolated. And I also noticed that the people who looked as if they were clerics, the people who spoke were stumbling around and looking as dazed and overwhelmed as everybody else.

So I just plunged in and began to spend half my time in Middletown, gradually working my way from the outer edges in, as I met one person they introduced me to another.

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Interview by Wendy Schuman
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