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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Terror Dream.

I read Susan Faludi’s latest book, The Terror Dream, when everybody else was putting up reviews about it, and then was for some reason unable to come up with anything to say about it. This is the problem have with Faludi – I love her books, but most of them have the effect of making me feel angry and helpless, and then my teeth start grinding and I start picking fights, only to splutter about what’s making me mad, and this does no one any good.

In The Terror Dream, Faludi places the events of 9/11 directly into the classic American mythology of larger than life male heroes rescuing helpless, hysterical females, even when the reality does not suit. Faludi, after thoroughly describing the destruction of the World Trade Centers and the subsequent media coverage that cast this as an attack on women and children, when in fact most of the victims were men, goes on to set the record straight on our entire American history, taking the piss out of legendary folk heroes such as Daniel Boone, and correcting the utter fabrications surrounding injured soldier Jessica Lynch. Faludi points out, time and time again, how the doings of men throughout history are elevated into breathless hero worship, while the confirmed heroism of the women, such as flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw, who boiled water on Flight 93 to use in her attack on the terrorists, was ignored in favor of stories such as that of Todd Beamer, whose last words “Let’s Roll” were spun out into a tale of derring-do that was completely conjured by the media from the reminiscences of his wife, Lisa, and other family members.

The story of Lisa Beamer shows Faludi at her most conflicted. Faludi accurately recalls Beamer as perfectly fitting the mold of the pregnant grieving hero’s widow, never once deviating from the script in the years that followed her husband’s death. In one of many interviews with Larry King, Ms. Beamer exemplifies the only approved role for female survivors of tragedy.

Larry King: What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to go to work?

Lisa Beamer: Right now, I want to take care of my kids. That’s what I wanted to do before September 11, and it is certainly a bigger job now than it ever was before.

LK: What do you make of all that’s happened since: Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, war, airport security, people in Guantanamo?

LB: I need to really use all of my strength and energy on just my little world and my little family. And certainly I have confidence that the powers in our country that can effect change, the government and corporate America in the case of the airlines, are going to do the right things.

LK: Did you not at all, Lisa, question your faith when this happened?

LB: I do just trust that God was in control that day and that he is, you know, taking care of me and loving me through this right now.

As Faludi writes, satisfying media fantasies “became her seemingly full time duty.”

Beamer indulged every whim of the press, including remaining quiet when they printed gross inaccuracies about her devotion to home and hearth (one press report falsely stated that Todd’s phone call “made her life worth living again,” a statement she later claimed she never made or even thought.)

All this compliance, however, did not deter the press from turning on her for the same willingness to indulge them.

Even Larry King, on whose show she had appeared at least eight times, began grilling her about her long stint in the media spotlight.

In the retelling of these events, Faludi seems to struggle somewhat between contempt for Beamer and defense of her, and as a result she sounds like she’s fallen into the same sticky situation that strikes many feminists find themselves in - trying not to woman-hate on women they hate.

Faludi comes into full stride when showing how this myth advances Manifest Destiny. Pioneer women were constantly being kidnapped and raped by savage Indian tribes and rescued by the daring pioneer men, despite the fact that most of the women who were taken to live in the tribes were very well treated, rape was virtually unheard of, and almost 60% of the women preferred their new homes within the tribes and refused to return to White civilization. Yet the image of the brutal savage was constantly trotted out in the popular culture of the day, and fueled the White man’s war on the Native Americans.

The invoking of Manifest Destiny opens the door to Faludi’s overarching point, which is that this pervasive insistence on erasing some voices and distorting others does American culture no favors; in fact, it can be deadly. The most famous example, which Faludi recaptures in nauseating detail, was the deaths of the New York City firefighters who, due to faulty radios, did not hear the warnings that the towers were about to collapse and died in the wreckage. Their story, much to the anger and dismay of their relatives, was spun into a courageous tale of the men putting their own safety last in order to rescue, well, those fictional, screaming women, most likely. This spin covered up the reality, that the firefighters had been urging the mayor’s office for new equipment for eight years, since the last attack on the Towers, that the people on the top floors were beyond help, that the men, had they known of their impending doom, would certainly have evacuated the burning buildings. This glossing over of reality in favor of a fairy tale absolves those who would not provide proper equipment to the men of their grisly deaths, and covers up the need for assistance to future firefighters as well.

The Terror Dream is a well researched trip through the history of American myth-making, and should be a wake up call to the media to focus on reality in favor of a delusional sexism that hurts men and women both.

If Faludi really wanted her voice to be heard and taken seriously, however, she should have written her book under the pseudonym Norman Mailer.

The Terror Dream
by Susan Faludi
2007 by Metropolitan Books
Hardcover, 296 pp.
ISBN: 0-8050-8692-7

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