PW: How did you settle on Middletown, N.J., for a post-September 11 study?
Gail Sheehy: I was aware that this had been a fickle destruction and that some communities were particularly hard-hit—Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey. I was a student of Margaret Mead, who had drilled into me that whenever a cataclysmic event occurs, you should rush to the edge of the chasm and look down, because you will see your culture turned inside-out in a way you ordinarily never do.
I began noticing that the name Middletown kept coming up. I suddenly thought, this is such a huge rippling historic event, how can one contain it—maybe I could use Middletown as a microcosm to look at America in the "New Normal."
PW: How did you deal with what you yourself were going through emotionally during all of this?
GS: I couldn't insulate myself. As a writer, you have to be open. You're porous. I really put myself at risk without realizing it, because I am not a paid psychologist. I would be out communing with the people I was following. I would do three of those in a day, which was really too much, and then I would come back to my hotel room. I'd turn on the TV at six o'clock, and there would be the latest report on anthrax and so on. By 11 o'clock at night, when I'd call my husband in California, I would be bouncing off the walls! He finally got very alarmed, and said, "You're going to have to talk to somebody." And then my daughter, who is a psychologist, said, "Mom, we all know in our profession that you have to have a supervisor who you unload your problems with your cases on, so you don't suffer secondary trauma." So I hooked up with a psychologist and I would call her once a week and unload.
PW: What about these people surprised you?
GS: That they didn't follow stages. And that there wasn't any formula, other than to say that grieving is a spiral—that's my analogy. You go around and down, and then you have to willfully give yourself another kick to start spiraling upward. I think one thing that's relieving about this is that I followed 50 people, and even though the journey is pretty horrific some of the time and quite sad, they all came out at the life-affirming end of the tunnel.
PW: Did you see differences in patterns of recovery between the working-class and the white-collar groups?
GS: The blue-collar families had a natural and extended support system with their families and with their professional families. Laurie, the sister of the dead officer I write about in the book, said, "I have not one brother now, but three." Whereas the wealthier the people were, and the bigger their lawns, the more isolated they had become. And when the father or the mother is suddenly plucked out, they're really at a loss for how to reach out when the cultural norm is to appear perfect.
PW: There's a subtle critique of the American mode of living in this book.
GS: I thought one of the values of the book was to see an affluent American dream suburb turned inside out, and see what stuff it is made of when the chips are down. I think everybody in the community realized that it wasn't really a community. It was a collection of strangers. Some people who were ready to change their attitude—those people have made permanent changes. The police chief is one of them. He says now, "I don't have problems anymore. I have annoyances." Other people, of course, revert to their old patterns and go back to looking out of their garages in the dark of the dawn.
PW: The idea of "closure" gets exposed as a false value in the book.
GS: The hole never really closes up when there's been a traumatic loss. The very word closure implies, "Well, it'll just heal up and then you can plant another flower on it and we'll go right on." It is our American optimism and our short historical memory that lures us into thinking, "Oh well, we'll put that behind us."