How one town deals with tragedy
Gail Sheehy is one of those writers with cachet. A serious journalist as well as a darling of the New York publishing set, she's the author of Passages, a book that's achieved icon status, and Hillary's Choice, the best-selling biography of Hillary Clinton. If ever there was a writer equipped to go after a human-interest story related to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, then Sheehy, a Long Island resident, would be the one.
True to her penchant for getting at the feelings beneath the events, in Middletown, America: One Town's Passage from Trauma to Hope, Sheehy takes a look at the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, focusing on Middletown, New Jersey, a suburban bedroom community that lost 50 of its own in the cataclysmic acts of terror. Suddenly, women had no husbands, sisters had no brothers and, saddest of all, many children had no parents.
Eschewing any academic sociological analysis, Sheehy offers short reportorial takes that profile the Middletown folks and their struggle to cope with the loss. In anecdotes that are, by turns, chilling and sobering, Sheehy explores the horror they experienced in learning that their loved ones were among the dead. But her interviews also uncover the myriad ways people struggled to adjust to their changed lives: some sought psychological help; some turned to spirituality; others moved away from the upscale town to begin life anew; some took to political activism and demanded government response to the whys and wherefores of the attacks; and some individuals got stuck in a time warp, finding it difficult even to leave their homes. In one case, a 9/11 widow eventually started up a relationship with a 9/11 widower.
Naturally, there were endless practical matters for everyone to deal with as a result of the tragedy, not the least of which were monetary. A significant number of the 9/11 victims were high-profile financial executives working for companies such as Cantor Fitzgerald. After the tragedy, Middletown and its "old-money" sister community, Rumson, were suddenly transformed into a hotbed of grief and confusion, where mortgages had to be paid on deluxe six-and seven-figure homes.
Sheehy introduces Kenneth Feinberg, the Bush administration's so-called "special master" appointed to dole out compensation to the surviving familiesa mission that proved to be controversial, contentious and emotional for all concerned. This aspect of the book evokes a dichotomous reaction in the reader. We feel sadness for the trauma and the daily difficulties endured by those left in its wake, yet there's a strange irony in the fact that some of the widows were compensated at sums based on their spouses' huge yearly earnings multiplied by their estimated remaining working years.
By applying various modifying formulas, Feinberg, in pursuit of equanimity, accomplishes a measure of fairness. (Never mind the debate over whether relatives of casualties of terrorism ought to be compensated in such a fashion at all.) In the end, some of the 9/11 survivors received the equivalent of lottery winnings, which makes for a curious outcome in the whole staggering sequence of events.
Sheehy extends the parameters of her investigation to include people who were at the World Trade Center that day and lived to tell about it, as well as survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. There are also profiles of clergy, social workers, teachers and doctors who played vital roles in helping the local populace deal with the shock of the attack.
With the two-year anniversary of 9/11 upon us, Middletown, America is bound to evoke strong reactions. It's highly readable, journalistically savvy and engagingly centered on subjects who emerge as flesh-and-blood human beings.
Martin Brady is a freelance writer in Nashville.