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.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
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 "Middletown." 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.
How many from there died on 9/11?
There were 50 in Middletown and environs.
And the widows were so young-this couldn't have been anything they were prepared for.
They had no resources, no consciousness that this could happen. Some of them were pregnant. They all seemed to have at least two children, if not three or four. And they weren't all widows, there were widowers too. And there were parents. And the parents were among the most tragic, because often they were middle-aged and were never going to have another son or daughter. The women seemed to be much more open about their brokenness in the first six months, and the men seemed to be rather stoic. But the women took advantage of whatever was offered, in terms of support groups, information, spending more time with their spiritual leader, more intensely experiencing their remaining children. And they were doing better after six months by and large, whereas the men began to really fall apart at the end of a year. By the first anniversary, most of the men were really not even able to cope or understand what was happening to them.
In your book you quoted Rabbi Levin as saying that "9/11 opened doors and some of us walked through." What did he mean by that?
What he and the other clerics in the Middletown area found was that in the first six months there was an incredible sense of community that certainly had not been there before. Middletown was a place where people didn't think they needed community, where people were affluent enough and their work was often in New York, so that they often came and went with very little if any engagement in the community.
Very early on one of the mental health experts from the county had been asked by FEMA to do an assessment of the mental health needs around the various communities around New Jersey. And of the six where she interviewed, she designated [this community] as going to have the hardest time. Because of its affluence, because everybody has to put on a mask of perfection, of alrightness. To break through that, to let the mask drop was going to be the biggest obstacle they would have to overcome in order to find community, resources or help that they would definitely need-and that did turn out to be true.