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.

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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.

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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?

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Interview by Wendy Schuman
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