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The Dream After the Nightmare

By (November 1, 2007) One Comment

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America

By Susan Faludi
Metropolitan Books, 2007


If you’ve ever woken from a nightmare bewildered by how many unrelated characters your brain managed to yoke together while you slept, spare a thought for Susan Faludi, whose “terror dream” involves Rudy Giuliani, Daniel Boone, John Wayne, Jessica Lynch, Ann Coulter, James Fenimore Cooper, Cotton Mather, Diane Sawyer, the cast of Sex and the City, and the New York City Fire Department. In support of the named parts there’s a dizzying cast of men and women lost to cultural memory, the writers and narrators of stories that morphed into myths and were called upon to comfort a nation under threat. Her book argues that the American response to the 9/11 attacks was a spasm of atavistic panic, in which centuries-old fears came back in modern dress, and nobody bothered to check the facts.

The first section is a brisk rundown of these revivals. These are mostly familiar stories that reveal, in their juxtaposition here, an overriding cultural concern to get independent women like Private Jessica Lynch back into civilian clothes (ideally a wedding dress). The first step was to silence the women whose job it was to speak out in the public sphere, by the near-total cull of female writers from the Op-Ed pages of the national newspapers, on the unspoken assumption that war (or anything resembling war) was a man’s domain. The few women who were allowed to remain in the punditry clubhouse were those who most viciously attacked anyone who questioned the tub-thumping “patriotism” of autumn 2001. Although left-leaning male writers were attacked for any oblique suggestion that this wasn’t a war between America’s God and Evil, they did not come in for the mauling that Katha Pollitt and Susan Sontag suffered at the hands of former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and (sigh) Ann Coulter. Faludi balances vivid quotations and depressing statistics in a wry, elegant and often impassioned narrative that deftly illustrates the futility of reasoned argument as a defense against fear and fantasy.

Faludi argues that the media erasure of feminist voices was motivated by the intense need of a vulnerable nation to turn men into heroes and women into victims, even though that metamorphosis required a total detachment from reality. Comic-book archetypes of masculine heroism were quite consciously applied to “wrinkle-suited middle managers who sat in airport lounges,” to the cynical wranglers and paranoid hawks of Bush’s government, to the firefighters who went to their violent deaths largely because of ignominious bureaucratic failures rather than in the victorious defense of their city and their nation. Chapter two, “The Return of Superman” recounts various ludicrous media comparisons between politicians and Marvel superheroes, alongside comic-book publishers’ torturous attempts to fit the attacks to their simplistic narrative. The pervasive desire for heroes, Faludi suggests, was the more acute because the nature of the attack, in the utter destruction it wrought, barely lent itself to the sort of heroics illustrated in comic books: most people either walked out of the buildings unaided, or were immolated. She quotes one paramedic: “it’s just body parts. You’re just going there to recover body parts.” The aid of the “rescue workers” was therefore courageous in a manner more tragic and profound and less suited to mass-media glorification than the stereotypical version of life-saving heroism.

More heroic potential was offered in the story of Flight 93, yet as Faludi shows, the story was explicitly gendered to fit a collective fantasy of heroism. Sandra Bradshaw, the female flight attendant who boiled water in coffeepots to scald the hijackers, was quietly edited out of a story that became about tall, muscular, all-American guys taking on the enemy to save their families. In the service of national pride, the media might well have made larger-than-life heroes out of Sandra Bradshaw as well as passenger Todd Beamer, whose famous “let’s roll” became a rallying cry for the president on more than one occasion. The evidence assembled here, however, suggests that the media did not imagine this as a collective citizen uprising, but as a quasi-military attack coordinated and led by the small group of men on board who best fit the physical profile of a hero. The evidence was a combination of fragmentary phone calls and the understandable faith of the bereaved in their loved ones. From these fragments, “the 9/11 Commission ultimately concluded that the passengers of Flight 93 likely did attempt to confront the hijackers but did not succeed in entering the cockpit.” Faludi’s point is that “this version of events—valorous in its own right—was insufficient to support the grand opera the media was determined to stage.”

She suggests that turning these men into (super)heroes served a purpose beyond that of reassuring the nation that it could fight off a terrorist attack: the cultural anxiety to which the superhero narrative responded to was older and deeper than that. She quotes the author of a 2002 commemorative book titled Why We Fight, who contrasted the actions of the men on Flight 93 to a recent depressing fiction of American middle-class manhood, and concluded that “American Beauty is a lie.” The crisis of masculinity that Faludi explored in 2000’s Stiffed, in particular “the wasting disease suspected to have overtaken the male professional class,” would paradoxically be resolved by the very act that made the nation genuinely vulnerable. The events of Flight 93, in the absence of much concrete evidence, were turned into a reassurance that men had not, after all, been emasculated by their unheroic roles as corporate functionaries who crisscrossed the country competing for diminishing career rewards and recognition. While noting that “acknowledging people whose heroism gives solace to others is an essential part of any war effort,” Faludi is careful to point out that there are human costs to this “frenzy to apotheosize,” this cultural insistence on overwriting individual courage with a narrative that had little to do with the human beings involved. As the book goes on to demonstrate, “for the fantasy to hold, citizens would have to stay in character, never mind that their roles were constrained and deforming.”

This constraint soon became apparent in the one arena in which women’s were the dominant voices: the experience of the bereaved. Despite the fact that about a quarter of the victims of the attacks on the twin towers were female, widows were everywhere and widowers nowhere. The media favorites were pregnant widows, with stay-at-home mothers a close second, all of whom were repeatedly, relentlessly interviewed about their grief, their fears, and their all-consuming focus on their children. But as the event receded into the past, more and more of the widows began to go “off-script,” moving on with their lives and going back to work—and, Faludi shows, earning themselves much less flattering scrutiny in the process. Given their dangerous combination of financial independence and sexual knowledge, widows who do not stay indoors in a perpetual state of grief have long been a fearful specter in oppressive societies, yet in 21st-century America the same fear seems to haunt the harsh media judgments Faludi cites. The firefighters’ widows received $2-3 million in compensation, only to find their purchases scrutinized for evidence of inappropriate choices: “It was as if by making their own choices the women had committed a kind of desecration, defaced the very statues erected to their virtuous victimhood.”

She demonstrates that the worst attacks were directed at those who began to question their own political choices, to distrust the leaders they had voted into office, and to demand genuine rather than Manichean explanations for the events of 9/11. The self-styled “Jersey Girls,” suburban wives and mothers whose persistent questioning was instrumental in establishing the independent 9/11 Commission, endured hysterical denunciations in the media as well as in what Faludi admits is the “id-ruled realm of the Web.” Several of them switched parties and campaigned for Kerry in 2004, and were “swiftly Swift-boated.” But the primary purpose of the widows’ vilification was not to shut them up; after all, “What could their tormentors do to them that could possibly be worse then what they’d already suffered?” The ideal of the dependent, grieving widow was a myth with a different target, “the female populace at large, which was soon to be saturated with a gauzy vision of resurrected American femininity, dedicated to home, family, domesticity.”

Women who were not grieving widows purportedly reacted to the terrorist threat by scrambling to the altar so they could be one next time. But how real were the trends that 9/11 was supposed to unleash: women giving up high-powered jobs to raise families, a new baby boom, and the “security moms” whose need to be protected dominated their political thinking in the 2004 election? By examining the original stories that gave rise to these media myths, Faludi deftly unpacks these supposed demographic shifts and reveals their backwards logic. Rather than hundreds or thousands of people behaving in a way that constituted a trend worth reporting, most such stories cited two or three unnamed sources, and were themselves retold hundreds or thousands of times, generating the trend out of thin air. Looking at the statistics to prove which stories “play” and which don’t, does not necessarily tell us what people are doing, but it does suggest what is taking hold in a culture. Thus in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, “a narrative was created and populated with pasteboard protagonists whose exploits would exist almost entirely in the realm of American archetype and American fantasy.” The great achievement of this book is to take us back to where that archetype was born and that fantasy first written.

The second half of the book spins us back in time to offer a brilliantly original answer to the urgent question, “Why did we perceive an assault on the urban workplace as a threat to the domestic circle?” Faludi argues that 9/11 went right down to the nation’s violent roots, and the war on terror that its early settlers fought for generations, against the native tribes just beyond the boundaries of their fragile encampments. She draws on a number of literary and historical studies of early America, particularly Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence, to argue that it was the captivity narrative, the first unique literary genre of the new nation, which gave us the model for the ideas of heroism, anxious self-defense, foreign threat and female vulnerability that were rushed back into service in the 21st century. The vulnerability of settlers to abduction by Indians was a fearful reality on the frontier, for men as well as women, boys as well as girls, but in theory it could be faced and fought with stronger fences, bigger weapons, and constant vigilance. In reality these precautions were not enough, and the abductions continued as a fact of life.

Behind the admissible fear, there lurked others that men couldn’t voice: that they were to blame for failing to protect the settlement, and that abducted women might prefer life among the natives to returning to white society. These fears ate deep into the culture over two centuries of intermittent violence, until the final subjugation of the Indian population at the end of the 19th century. Faludi argues that it was in that long period of insecurity that the myths of female vulnerability and male protectiveness incubated. She uses statistical data to prove the popularity of certain stories and figures over others, and extensive quotation to show how stories were adapted and edited over time, usually following a pattern in which the female captive’s agency was reduced and her story handed over to a male relative acting the role of rescuer and father-confessor. The part played by male protectors in these stories was enhanced and inflated over time, and their failures quietly forgotten.

  An exemplary story is that of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted as a teenager in 1836 by a Comanche tribe from her home in Texas, and stayed with them until she was in her mid-30s, and married with three children. Over the years she evaded several ‘rescue’ attempts, and was eventually forcibly returned to her white relatives, who had to imprison her to stop her escaping back to her Indian family. Over time this story edited out Cynthia Ann’s agency and her clear preference for her life with the Comanche, who like many tribes offered considerably more freedom to its women than did the white settlers. Reincarnated as a rescue drama, the story inspired The Searchers, the epic John Wayne movie of the Cold War era, in which the various feckless “protectors” of the original Cynthia Ann had metamorphosed into the taciturn, square-jawed hero of the West. A story of cross-cultural adaptation with a female subject became the archetypal tale of a male defense of American values – embodied in a female object.

Faludi’s title and epigraph come from the novel on which the film was based, which offers a vivid picture of America’s defender convulsed in fear at the threat of an unseen foe: “Behind the ringing in his ears began to rise the unearthly yammer of the terror-dream – not heard, not even remembered, but coming to him like an awareness of something happening in some unknown dimension not of the living world.” Written by Alan Le May at the height of the Cold War, the novel looks back to the early days of Western settlement for a parallel atmosphere of paranoid anxiety, and fantasizes a comforting narrative of violence and rescue in order to silence that “unearthly yammer.” The final moments of The Searchers (restaged, Faludi points out, at the end of Steven Spielberg’s post-9/11 War of the Worlds) present John Wayne’s battle-scarred hero carrying helpless little Debbie, “limp, piet-style, in his arms, the bloody scalp of her captor, Scar, firmly in his possession.”

Faludi barely needs to remind us how frequently politicians and journalists evoked the 1950s filmic Wild West, and Wayne as its ultimate hero, as a paradigm for how they intended to act after 9/11. There is surreal comedy here in the details of Bush and John Kerry vying for gunslinger status in the 2004 election: offering interviews to Outdoor Life magazine, displaying their gun collections, and sharing hunting exploits with eager journalists, a competition Faludi interprets as “a casting call to decide who would get to play the electorate’s King of the Wild Frontier.” She notes that Bush played the role more convincingly than Kerry, perhaps because it required a willingness to confuse reality and fantasy: it was Bush who invoked the classic Western movie poster “Wanted: Dead or Alive” to define the hunt for bin Laden, and who realized that it didn’t matter whether this was an image remembered from a movie screen or from real life. “The point of the performance was to reconstitute an imaginary America that would always prevail over its swarthy ‘invaders’ and an imaginary American man who would always repel them from his homestead door.”

The superficial distance in time between urban, high-tech New York in 2001 and the frontier experience of abduction and (often botched and bloody) rescue was collapsed with the gung-ho “rescue” of Private Jessica Lynch from her Baghdad hospital in April 2003. Subsequent mythmaking fabricated her ill treatment and emphasized her physical vulnerability to bolster the status of the men involved in kicking down doors even as the “captors” were trying to unlock them. Faludi relates the relish with which the media speculated on the suggestion (strenuously denied by Lynch and the doctors who treated her) that the modern-day captive might have been raped. Against Lynch’s protests, her biographer Rick Bragg wrote in his book I Am A Soldier, Too that “[the] records do not tell whether her captors assaulted her almost lifeless, broken body after she was lifted from the wreckage, or if they assaulted her and then broke her bones into splinters until she was almost dead.” Although in an interview Lynch herself assured Faludi that she had “no such memory of either alternative, or any other aspect of this alleged ordeal,” the media was keen to fill in the gaps and generate a lurid myth on the basis of Bragg’s baseless assertion. Lynch was eventually convinced to allow the inclusion of the claim in “her” story, she says, because Bragg told her that “people need to know that this was what can happen to women soldiers.” The patently false notion that female troops are uniquely at risk of sexual violence subliminally reinforces the idea that they should not be in combat situations at all.

The insertion of rape into the Lynch rescue drama placed it squarely in a long history of cultural anxiety over the prospect of white womanhood violated by dark-skinned aggressors. Beginning with James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans Faludi runs through the numerous fictional iterations of this theme, which she notices gained in intensity and popularity during the 19th-century migrations across the Great Plains:

The move west was accompanied by highly embroidered, salacious reports from newsmen and their literary fellows about female captives who “suffered all the cruelties that the fiend-like malignity and heartlessness of their cowardly captors could invent.”

Faludi cites a number of historians who have proved that the rape threat existed more vividly in the minds of male writers than in the experiences of pioneer women, and thus she suggests that its cultural ubiquity justified increasing restrictions on women’s freedom of movement:

In an era that confined women to a separate sphere, the possibility of rape provided a pretext for that confinement. And the portrayals of woman cringing from sexual contact with the Indians also relieved a specific male fear: that white women night choose the company of their enemy, whether as intimates or friends.

With the closing of the frontier and the confinement of the native population to reservations, the anxiety over women’s voluntary fraternization with the enemy might seem to have been allayed, but instead, Faludi suggests, the myth was merely dormant, ‘ready to be reactivated whenever a homeland threat might call for its protective services,’ for instance in the defeated South, when lynchings of black men were most often justified by an accusation of raping a white woman.

Like any work that tries to grapple with elusive forces like fear, myth, and fantasy, Faludi’s book inevitably raises questions that are larger than it can answer. How much are ordinary people’s everyday lives affected by these deep-seated forces? Do people think, live, and act differently since 9/11, or is the “terror dream” just a fevered media nightmare, confined to the realm that few people actually inhabit? In a similar attempt to understand the conflicted 21st-century relationship between media cause and effect, Vanity Fair recently examined the coverage of Al Gore’s 2000 election campaign, and the way that false and distorted claims, repeated over and over, gradually tugged away his credibility and managed to convince the electorate to vote for a drinking buddy over a competent manager. The journalists involved, of course, denied their culpability, and insisted that they were following, not creating, the story. Faludi’s book does not flatter reporters by distinguishing between them and their unruly fellow travelers, the novelists, filmmakers, preachers, ad men, speechwriters, bloggers, columnists, and talk-show hosts who work together to spin their cultural fictions. Arguably no one is better motivated to uncover the truth behind such fictions than a feminist, nor perhaps more aware of the power of popular myths (try looking for evidence of an actual historically documented bra-burning, and see what you don’t find).

At a recent event in New York, Faludi wryly admitted that the reviewers of her book had over-emphasized the extent to which this is a feminist text, tending to read it as “Backlash II” rather than, as she says in the introduction, “a book about what September 11 revealed about all of us.” Asking what and who is missing from the dominant narrative—and why—has always been a distinctively feminist line of questioning, but that does not make this a book primarily about women’s experiences. It might be easier for some readers to dismiss it if it were. The challenge, however, is universal: “faced with a replay of our formative experience, we have the opportunity to resolve the old story in a new way that honors the country and its citizens”—of both genders. Despite this hope, The Terror Dream is far more an eloquent breakdown of national self-delusion than it is a handbook for the creation of a new authenticity. It remains to be seen whether the American public really wants to wake up.

Joanna Scutts is a PhD candidate in English at Columbia University, where she is researching the relationship between war commemoration and literature in the 1920s and 30s. She lives in New York City.