Sheehy's 'Middletown': a 9 / 11 anatomy


Middletown, America: One Town's Passage From Trauma to Hope, by Gail Sheehy. Random House. 448 pages. $24.95.

The appeal of Middletown, N.J., in reality and as metaphor, is immediately obvious. This leafy suburb just a ferry ride from Manhattan was the classic nice-place-to-raise-a-family for those who worked at the World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11, 2001, though, some 50 area residents of this felicitously named community were among the stockbrokers, firefighters and others who died in the terrorist attack. Middletown, America: One Town's Passage From Trauma to Hope is Gail Sheehy's story of those left behind, the grief-stunned widows, the guilt-ridden survivors, the confused children, the broken town.

Sheehy is the author of the Passages franchise, a series of self-help books marching through the phases of adult life, to which she assigns snappy names like the Trying 20s or the Forlorn 40s. In Middletown, Sheehy pushes the aftermath of the 9 / 11 attacks through a Passages-like sieve.

So she offers trademark labels for the survivors she interviews, categorizing them by the roles they play in their families -- a sister of a police officer who was killed serves as the family's Strong One, another man's son is the Warrior, while his brother is the Reporter. Everyone, Sheehy says, is trying to cope with the New Normal. Yes, it gets Annoying after a while, like those ironic quote marks that people trace in the air.

Much of the book seems less about Middletown than a sort of Oprah Nation of hurt and healing -- several extended scenes trace survivors going through art therapy, drama therapy, teen therapy, therapy therapy. You have to indulge the attendant language that comes with this world -- such as one therapist's intonations of "the startle phase," "the automatic obedience phase" and the "self-repair phase."

This fuzzy-wuzzy overlay is ultimately unnecessary -- the survivors' own wrenching stories bore straight into the reader's heart with no need for jabs in the ribs about What It All Means.

You might think you don't need to hear any more about the widows who were featured so prominently in news coverage, but Sheehy's portraits illuminate these women as complex individuals, a welcome approach after so many news accounts had them as either sainted madonnas or greedy money-grubbers. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between, and Sheehy takes you there.

If there is a star in the book, it is Kristen Breitweiser, a widow who has emerged as one of the most vocal advocates for the families. It's heartwarming to follow Breitweiser from "sturdy surfer girl," as Sheehy frequently refers to her youth, to effective lobbyist. Rather than simply serve as the token weepy widow, she used the spotlight to help push for a commission to investigate 9 / 11. Also fascinating are the depictions of another group of survivors -- those who walked out of the towers alive and yet uniquely burdened.

Sheehy, a one-time protege of Margaret Mead, proves adept at describing Middletown as a community -- or rather, as another exurban American place with little sense of community. It is sadly ironic, then, that what ultimately turns Middletown into a true community is the shared tragedy of 9 / 11.

Jean Marbella is a national correspondent for The Sun, where she has worked since 1987. She covered the events of 9 / 11 and their aftermath.

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