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9/11 took heavy toll on community

Volume is long on trauma and a bit short on hope

MIDDLETOWN, AMERICA, One Town's Passage From Trauma to Hope, by Gail Sheehy; Random House; 412 pages. $25.95.

There was a time when you could stand on the beach near Middletown, N.J., and look across New York Harbor and see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. That's how close Middletown is to the tip of Manhattan, just a short ferry ride away. That's why so many couples choose to raise their children in the suburbs of Middletown while working in the city.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the landscape of New York City changed. Of the 2,800 people who died at the World Trade Center, about one-fourth — 691 people — lived in New Jersey. Middletown had the heaviest losses of any New York suburb. Fifty Middletown families lost a father or mother or son or daughter on that day.

Within weeks, Gail Sheehy came to Middletown. She'd decided to write a book about these families, about how they and their neighbors were recovering.

Sheehy is best known for her 1977 self-help book, "Passages." She tried to use a similar format for "Middletown, America." She tried to make it be about a community going through grief. The book has just been published, in time for the second anniversary of Sept. 11.

By attempting to write about so many families, Sheehy set herself a huge task. In the end, the reader comes to know a little about 20 grieving people and gets a peek at another 20 or so.

In the end, the reader doesn't care much about Middletown as a community. In fact, Middletown was not much of a community before the tragedy. It is a suburb, a township. It is a collection of housing developments where there had been farms and fishing villages. There is no Main Street in Middletown. A freeway bisects the township. Most of the mourners met each other for the first time in their grief support groups.

Even though this is not the story of a town, Sheehy does give us glimpses of individual lives, and those lives are compelling.

Sheehy tells us of a policeman who couldn't sleep. He said he kept hearing the sound of bodies hitting the pavement. She writes of a 14-year-old boy who was in his science class on that September morning and became hysterical as he watched the television and saw a plane destroy what he knew to be his father's office.

Sheehy writes of a widow, a former lawyer named Kristen Breitweiser, who took it on herself to pressure Washington for an investigation. Breitweiser met with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton, and ultimately she and the other widows prevailed and they got their investigation.

While some of the other widows and widowers were paralyzed with grief, Breitweiser was too busy to fall apart. She was fine until Christmas 2002, when she started having panic attacks and didn't leave her house for a month.

In "Middletown, America," Sheehy makes us understand the long-term effects of chaos. (Read it and think about families in the Middle East who have lived with terrorism for generations.)

Sheehy piles fact upon fact, detail upon chilling detail, until finally, about halfway through, you'll feel like your heart is buried in concrete. If you keep reading, it will only be because you want to get to the hopeful part ("from trauma to hope," the cover promises).

At the end, in the part that is supposed to be hopeful, Sheehy compares Middletown families to Oklahoma City families. She talks about how long it took for those in Oklahoma to feel better. "Three years after the bombing in the heartland, many survivors were just entering the bleakest period of their grief," Sheehy writes.

If that's not bad enough, she chronicles the toll this took on the counselors and advocates who worked with the Oklahoma families. She counts up the heart attacks and suicides among the helpers.

Sheehy is clearly worried about the Port Authority police, the people who worked 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero for more than a year, recovering their friends' body parts. Even as Sheehy shows us widows beginning to get better, the reader feels uneasy about the 9/11 survivors (those who escaped while their co-workers stayed to man the phones) as well as the police officers (who have no support groups and whose marriages are starting to suffer).

You'll come away from this book about trauma and hope feeling not as hopeful as you'd like.


E-MAIL: susan@desnews.com