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


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What changed there after 9/11?

Rabbi Levin and Parson Monroe, a Presbyterian reverend, noticed that people were so open, so needing, so loving, so frightened that they would stop each other on the street and talk about deep things. Not gossip, not chitchat. That went on for two to three months. But then depression settled over the community, and people became almost mute in their shock and numbness and grief. And then it began to transmute for many into anger or rage or withdrawal. But the people who were already on a path of searching for deeper meaning, for their spiritual anchor in the world, those people were accelerated in their search. And they walked through doors that they saw were opened by this tragedy to find more meaning in life and in relationships. Those are the people that the clergy saw as finding a real resurgence of spiritual need and belief. On a deeper level, people were really questioning faith that they might have accepted in a rather passive way. Now they challenged-and reaffirmed.

Did church attendance go up?

The churches were packed only for a month, and then church attendance fell off to below normal, which is apparently a fairly normal reaction to trauma. People need to embrace and be embraced by a larger group in the sense of communal interest and love, and then they just need to pull apart and retreat.

Was it also that people felt abandoned by God?

Some did. And some felt abandoned by their religious leaders. There's one priest who was so overwhelmed that he could not be reached by phone by the 24 families in his parish who lost a loved one. He evaporated for the first week. And [people] became so angry that they never would go back to the church.

People were really revealed, even to themselves, in ways they hadn't seen before. And other people rose to the occasion who weren't designated leaders of the community, like the nurse in that parish who came forward and provided a sanctuary for the families starting the first night, a 24-hour sanctuary in which she remained all the time for the next three weeks.

What did the survivors offer each other that they couldn't get from mental health professionals?

The mental health personnel in the community, many of them, were really at a loss. There really was no experience like this in our history to go on. There's no data on what kind of treatment works for victims of terrorism in the context of living with an ongoing threat. These professionals didn't know where to start, there was nothing in their professional playbook to meet the situation. And then they were often rejected. Many of the professionals rushed down with nurses and doctors and EMS personnel to the ferry dock when the survivors were coming of the ferry to provide mental health support. Nobody wanted it. All they wanted was a cell phone to call their loved ones.

People for several months by and large did not seek any kind of mental health help. What did draw early on as early as October were some support groups, most of which had a religious base. Then I remember some three or four months after the tragedy, one of Rabbi Levin's congregation came up after a Saturday service and said, "I notice that people are feeling very fragile about their own lives." And he said, "Yes, and that's how you know that nothing is happening-because if they're only concerned with the fragility of their own lives they're missing the whole point." That spurred him on to do more outreach.

The fascinating thing to me was, the religious leaders, about half a dozen of them, found one another and admitted to one another, "I can't cope, I don't know how to do this, I am overwhelmed, I don't know where to start.

I need help.

" So they gathered with each other on an informal basis, at various churches and temples and gave each other strength--and techniques and tactics and even exchanged Scripture.

What is the grief like after almost two years. Has it changed? What are the lingering effects?

Well, it changes very much. Eighteen months was kind of the peak of where grief really feels bottomless, but grieving is a spiral.that's one thing I think I've learned, grieving isn't linear, it's a spiral and the mind takes in only what it can handle. And a person may seem to be moving until a memory or a sensory detail or another trauma piles on. And then the person loops back down into despair, and it's necessary to thrust forward, to complete the loop and continue to move forward again.

In this kind of trauma, there are many factors that keep people tumbling and spinning around in this messy spiral of grief, most notably the fact that they were getting their loved ones back literally piece by piece. So you never know when it's going to be another punch. But by now they understand their coping mechanisms, they're quite well aware of the triggers for them, they've found their natural support systems.

But the second anniversary-I know this from the research I did with the Oklahoma City families-tends to be the cruelest one. Because people are tired of cutting the families slack. People tend to say things like, "It's time to get over it, it's time to move on." Or "Have you found closure? You must have found closure by now." Well, the dirtiest word in the lexicon of trauma victims is closure because there isn't really any final closure. There's a wound there that never quite closes. And recognizing that and accepting it is much healthier than trying to pretend that it's all healed over and you're just moving on as if nothing happened.

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