Book Review: The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi

Perspective requires time. With six years having passed since the events of September 11, 2001, we are beginning to see some critical analysis not only of the ramifications of that day but how we responded as a nation. In The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, Susan Faludi provides a unique view of our response. Even if you don’t agree with her, her case is both well-researched and well-written.

Faludi, an award-winning journalist and author, argues that after 9/11 America withdrew into a “dream state” marked by four perhaps uniquely American archetypes. The archetypes are related and based in significant, if not exclusive, part on the cultural roles we have historically assigned the sexes. At bottom, they indicate that America engaged in myth-making rather than addressing the reality of the events of that day.

The first step, according to her, was to undermine and demote the concepts of strong women and the role of women as leaders and equals in society. Faludi points out how media coverage following 9/11 focused on firemen and other males as the heroes of the day. Although women also played heroic roles that day, in the rescue effort and in the aftermath aftermath, they were difficult, if not impossible, to find amidst the heroes of the day. At first glance, this may not only seem conflict with our recollections of the time but Faludi simply returning to a topic she explored in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Yet, as in Backlash, Faludi’s use of facts and statistics (with supporting footnotes) documents the minimization of the female voice in the media in the aftermath of 9/11. This effort not only undercut, but seemingly reversed many of the gains women had seen with the advent and growth of the feminist movement.

Hand-in-hand with the demotion of the strong, independent woman came the increasing build-up and importance of “manly men.” She sees America Hearkening back to 1950s Westerns with the John Wayne-type hero, the big strong man who would save the day and risk his life — or even die — trying. For example, she notes how four men were built up as the manly heroes on Flight 93 while the female flight attendants were relegated to weak roles. She also points out how Time magazine’s first issue after 9/11 showed only men under the banner “Heroes” while the one photo under “Survivor” was of a bloodied woman sitting on a curb, a man with a badge putting his hands on her shoulders in a sign of protection and strong comfort. Likewise, all but one of the photos in the “Heroes” section of Newsweek‘s 9/11 Commemorative Issue, were of men. “The one example of female heroism offered was a cameo of two women in the line of traditional feminine duty: elementary school teachers who ‘did their best to appear calm and look after their kids.'”

The portrayal of the elementary school teachers dovetails into Faludi’s third point — that there was a greater emphasis on domesticity. The hero would work and provide protection while the little lady took care of the children and kept the the fires burning on the home front. Among other things, The Terror Dream notes how 9/11 widows were treated compassionately and with kid gloves by the press, particularly if pregnant at the time their husbands died. But if the widows were driving for an investigation of the government’s actions on that date or otherwise questioning what was being done, they were seen as having forfeited their “victim tiara.”

Finally, these combined to help create the ultimate archetype — the manly hero will search for and save an almost sanctified helpless female. As she commented in an op-ed piece shortly before this year’s 9/11 anniversary, Faludi traces much of this back to traditional rescue tales stemming from as early as the Puritan colonies in America. The post-9/11 example is Jessica Lynch. While she was at first portrayed as fighting to her last bullet before being captured in the early days of the Iraq war, an equally false myth developed and took hold. Lynch ended up being the virginal lass (the school marm) kidnapped by evildoers (Indians) and who could be saved only by a large number of men (the sheriff and his posse) who risked their lives taking on those evildoers. Despite Lynch’s protestations and other evidence to the contrary, the story was not only repeated in her ghost written book about the events surrounding her capture, it became almost unassailable.

Ultimately, Faludi seems to believe that our retreat into this fantasy or “terror dream” reveals an aspect of an American belief in invincibility, one that exists so long as these archetypes exist. As a result, America tends to ignore reality in order to feel safe and secure when, in fact, these archetypes may actually undermine our response to actual events and conditions because they contradict the story we want to believe.

Whether Faludi’s analysis is right, a possible aspect of what 9/11 says about us as a nation, or a feminist-based response to post-9/11 America will undoubtedly be the subject of continuing and likely heated debate. There is no doubt, however, that The Terror Dream is a cogent and distinctive view of the American psyche and post-9/11 American culture.

To not understand the mythic underpinnings of our response to 9/11 is, in a fundamental way, to not understand ourselves, to be so unknowing about the way we inhabit our cultural roles that we are stunned, insensible, when confronted by a moment that requires our full attention.

Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream

1 comment to Book Review: The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi

  • I appreciate your excellent review of this book. On the radio yesterday I heard Susan Faludi discussing THE TERROR DREAM: FEAR AND FANTASY IN POST-9/11 AMERICA. Among her many provocative points, Faludi described an historic pattern of behavior in times of crisis: following the shock and terror comes the mythmaking in which certain persons are designated heroes and others are the victims to be rescued. Not too surprisingly, hero and victim status is generally assigned along gender lines by both mythmakers and media. Faludi cited the news media’s fixation on the widows of 9/11, although both men and women lost spouses and other family members; the survivors who must carry on in the face of loss were painted as the victims. Then, when some widows rejected the victim role and asked hard questions of the government, the media ostracized them. When the myth in the making is one of specifically male heroism, Faludi commented that it requires bolstering by specifically female weakness and helplessness. She traced this pattern in American history back to the settlement of the nation.

    I deeply appreciate the bravery and sacrifice both men and women have made for the good of one another and the good of all. In my comments here, I have no wish to denigrate their contributions to human society. And I recognize that what each individual can contribute to society can very well be determined partly by physical strength, intelligence, talent, willingness, or resourcefulness. Still, Faludi’s radio interview sparked my thinking: though we might welcome rescue and protection, sometimes they come with a price.

    I remember my mother’s descriptions of how independent many women were during WWII, managing life on the home front and assisting with the war effort. When the crisis was over, the women were expected by society and often by themselves to go home, to resume their proper domestic roles. So, those who had become women of action for the good of the country in wartime transformed themselves once again in peacetime to ladies in waiting.

    For my own writing (novels and plays), I often research the American Civil War and Reconstruction eras. And the course of history often fills me with frustration and outrage. In the first half of the 19th century, women’s rights activists had been busy with their agenda, but they willingly or grudgingly put their issues on the shelf with the outbreak of war. Women’s rights activists were among the most vocal advocates for the emancipation of slaves, but the fight to preserve the Union, which grew to encompass the fight to free blacks from bondage, did not expand to encompass true equality among races or genders. Particularly in the South, the kind of mythmaking Faludi writes about was evident in the new order: white males became white knights, silencing women who might speak for themselves and rescuing the white ladies from attack by men of other races by keeping the women in the bondage of dependency. Sometimes the price of protection is too high.
    Rosemary Poole-Carter