In the days and weeks immediately after 9/11, a curious phenomenon of American political and cultural mythology reasserted itself, according to Susan Faludi in her absorbing essay on the American response to threat and tragedy.
Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written extensively on women’s and social issues, argues persuasively that prominent American leaders, journalists, and cultural figures interpreted the traumatic events as a time for masculinity to reassert itself and for women to meekly tend to their homes and families while the real work of meting out punishment to the terrorists was left to the menfolk. In this scenario women were vulnerable victims, needing to be rescued by heroic males who would do the necessary to save the nation. Faludi refers to these notions, which recur prominently throughout U.S. history, as “captivity narratives.”
To buttress her views, Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, has assembled a vast array of articles, statements, and media outpourings from a wide variety of prominent commentators, including mainstreamers, liberals, and, of course, militant neocons, all of whom echo the same basic themes: “the demotion of capable women, the magnification of manly men, the heightened call for domesticity, the search for and sanctification of helpless girls.” These are, she says, the “cumulative elements of a national fantasy…our myth of invincibility.” This pervasive myth can lead us in times of crisis into “adolescent fictions about homeland protection substituted for actions that would have enhanced our security. Our cartoon declarations of ‘evildoers’ masqueraded as foreign policy.”
Tough words, but Faludi’s thesis is mostly convincing. She points out that after 9/11 “America had ample paragons of courage,” but asks whether they had to be “lofted into some ridiculously gilded firmament.” Faludi warns that failure to understand the “mythic underpinnings of our response to 9/11” can leave us “stunned, insensible, when we are confronted by a moment that requires our full awareness.”
Two of the book’s most fascinating examples concern the capture and rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, and the iconic John Wayne/John Ford film, The Searchers. Faludi demonstrates that “the story of a helpless girl snatched from the jaws of evil by heroic soldiers was the story everyone wanted” but had little relation to what really happened. In later interviews, Lynch explained to Faludi and others, including Diane Sawyer, who seemed desperately to want her to follow the captivity narrative scenario, that she wasn’t abused, tortured, or mistreated, and although seriously injured she wasn’t in combat and wasn’t a hero. According to Lynch, the real hero was a Hopi Indian fellow soldier, Lori Piestawa, her army roommate, who actually rescued her and was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in the same incident. While in the hospital in Germany, Lynch was glorified as a “blonde waif,” and “the tiny girl who was clutching a teddy bear,” but most of the media ignored Piestawa. Faludi uncovers many fabrications concocted by commentators who dramatized Lynch’s story according to their predetermined scenarios, regardless of the actual facts.
The Searchers has a rough parallel with the saga of Jessica Lynch, and both perpetuate the captivity narrative. In the film, Wayne hunts down and eventually rescues a white girl captured in an Indian raid who lived with her captors for 25 years before being rescued. Based on an actual event, both the film and the novel that inspired it are fabrications. In reality the “heroic” defenders of the fort ignored ample pre-attack warnings and left the gate open and the grounds largely unattended while most of them were off in the fields. James Parker, the loose model for the Wayne character, was a criminal and shameless prevaricator and actually spent the day hiding in a thicket by the river with his wife and one of his daughters. The rescued woman, Cynthia Parker, James’s niece, who had a devoted Indian husband and three Indian children, didn’t want to be rescued, tried numerous times to return to her Indian family, languished with despair, stopped eating, and eventually became sick and died. Faludi observes that “her protest was an insult to the pretension that she had been saved from torment, redeemed by white intervention…”
Faludi also cites the Salem witch trials and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper as illustrations of how the myth has recurred in both history and literature.
The Terror Dream is important and timely. Faludi sometimes overstates her case by implying that Americans always buy into the captivity mythology about themselves and their country, and that everyone reacted to 9/11 with the dramatically overhyped rhetoric that in retrospect might be explained as an emotional reaction to a horrifying event. The captivity narrative has distorted our history and certainly hinders many of us from seeing the world as it is, but the views of nearly 300 million people are not as easily encapsulated as Faludi implies.
For example, in dealing with Cold War America, Faludi states: “The fifties media and advice industry maintained that men would regain their virility once women reclaimed their feminine delicacy. For men to be brave Cold Warriors, women had to be compliant homemakers.” And, “a renewed obsession with female sexual purity—and the menace of violation—marked the era.” To this observer, who graduated from college and served on active duty in the mid- to late ’50s, Faludi, born in 1959, has it exactly wrong. That era had a conservative anchor and a smug overconfidence that America bestrode the world—which is far from Faludi’s portrayal of men as emasculated wimps and women as locked in feminine delicacy. But the ’50s also had a restless energy that ushered in the rebellious ’60s and challenged traditional values. Faludi would have done better to have talked to more people who actually experienced the period rather than rely excessively on media samples.
But these are minor flaws. Faludi’s point—that demythologizing our history and achieving a deeper honesty about ourselves is urgent and necessary—is indisputable. So read the book, be illuminated, stimulated, and perhaps angered by it, discuss it with friends and colleagues, and enjoy the ride.
Bill Lenderking is a retired foreign service officer and freelance journalist. Read his review of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.