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The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in…

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (2007)

by Susan Faludi

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An astonishingly informative and intelligent and relentless book, albeit one that really changes gears about two-thirds through. The book starts by dissecting the shift in post-9/11 discourse as the media—unable to track down Bin Laden, explain how or why it happened, or find any emotional closure—reverted back to a traditional narrative of women being in danger and men charging in to save them and sacrifice themselves. This doesn't sound all that dangerous, until Faludi goes into incredible and horrific detail about the ways media narratives shifted and bowdlerized themselves to fit this narrative and exalt older ideas of masculinity while reducing females.

We'd expect this kind of behavior from some of the media figures like Mark Steyn and The New York Post. And others, like Christopher Hitchens (and, unmentioned in the book, Orson Scott Card and Dan Simmons), were sort of pushed over the edge into a neoconservative lunacy by having to mentally grapple with the attack. But you wouldn't expect this kind of talk from Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter, in charge of a magazine whose purpose is largely to be as boring as possible. Yet he did go there, and quite a few other mainstream commentators did too.

This trend didn't just end with the invasion of Afghanistan and other cathartic measures, continuing up to and through the 2004 presidential election. Faludi even devotes a whole chapter to the story of Jessica Lynch, a damsel-in-distress myth largely concocted up by this asshole but eagerly lapped up and perpetuated by a compliant media. As someone who was 15 when the September 11th attacks happened, this first section of the book was frustrating beyond belief as I confronted my own inability—albeit in high school—to see through these narratives as they were built. And it drives me crazy that they continue to this day (listening to this audio).

The last third of the book almost feels bolted on at first: a historical accounting of how the damsel-in-distress myth became entangled with American identity during the wars with Native Americans. Some of the earliest American works of literature were captivity narratives, the stories of people captured by Native Americans who eventually—through escape, ransom, or armed attack—were able to rejoin their original societies. But while the earliest featured earnest accounts of female ingenuity, they gradually turned into virginal women unable to cope with their vicious captors, only able to hold on long enough for their heroic men to ride in and rescue them. Even real-life captivity narratives that didn't fit this trend were often fictionalized a few years later with few changes outside of diminishing the role of women and changing the names around slightly. Faludi also traces how this narrative slowly metastasized throughout larger and larger circles of American culture, first in the Salem Witch Trials—which she convincingly recasts as a means to terrify independent women—and later in the postbellum south's captivity stories that substituted black men for the original's indian savages.

This last section is different in both sweep and method from the first two-thirds, and doesn't have the sense of urgency and necessity as a critique of our own times. It leads me to believe that this book was originally written differently, with the historical stuff preceding the media criticism. I imagine Faludi (or her editor) rearranged the book to grip the reader faster—or emphasize the present-day narrative to sell more copies. Either way, I think this book would be much more effective reading the last third before everything else, as it seems to lead up to and contextualize Faludi's far more devastating fact-gathering on the present day. My fiancee is even about to read through the book for the first time in that fashion, and will report back whether it really seems to cohere in that sense.

Either way, this is a fantastic book that deserves to be read by everyone, whether you're truly interested in the sociological and historical aspects of this narrative or simply interested in being a good person who is thoughtful about what you say.. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
A fascinating look at America's reaction to the attacks of september 11th, from a feminist perspective. Analysing news reports and bogus stories, including the whole Jessica Lynch saga, Faludi shows convincingly that when the going gets tough, the simplest thing to do is to search for the John Wayne figure - even though, or in fact because, that figure is a mythic one constructed to gloss over the 'shame' of not having been able to protect the homestead sufficiently during white America's expansionist phase.

Faludi's study focuses on America, but various European allies in the 'war on terror' could well fall under a similar spotlight. When fundamentalist Islam attacks, it seems the best answer some of our leaders can come up with is to lock up their wives/daughters and strut their cowboy credentials. ( )
1 vote Litblog | Dec 19, 2014 |
Well-researched and very readable: "The Terror Dream" analyzes how the media and the government manipulated the events that transpired on 9/11 (and the aftermath) so that everything be presented as a return to strict gender roles circa the 1950s and/or the Wild West. Faludi pulls out all these great quotes from the media and blogosphere (my favorite: "The phallic symbol of America has been cut off," he wrote of the World Trade Center, "and at its base was a large smoldering vagina, the true symbol of American culture, for it is the western culture that represents the feminine materialistic principle, and it is at its extreme in America") in order to show the backlash against feminism and women in general.

She points out how the overwhelming majority of those who died at Ground Zero were male, and yet the media searched in vain to find pictures of women being carried out of the ruins by strong firemen; she also points out how the rescue efforts were largely pointless, as most of the survivors walked themselves out of the building. When those male-hero stories failed to materialize, the "victims" plastered all over the media became the poor widows and little girls left behind.

Then she turns to how the government portrayed itself, going back to Westerns and stories of the Wild West, and making themselves out to be coyboys saving the nation from invaders; she goes back further in history to draw these parallels.

The whole time I was reading, I was also wondering to myself...was my head in the sand during all of this?! How could I have not noticed?! I remember specific events--such as the Jessica Lynch "rescue"--but I'm surprised that I never put two and two together as to how these stories were being presented to the public.

Still, this is not a book about victimization; rather, it's the beginning of a long-needed discussion on how the media and government draws the attention away from real issues that need to be faced.
  mugwump2 | Nov 29, 2008 |
The first 1/3 was quite boring. The second part, on 9/11, and de-bunking the Jessica Lynch myth, was fascinating. After that, the book switches to a historical perspective on feminism in America; I gave up.
  Seajack | Jul 7, 2008 |
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A bitter chill crept along the whole length of his body. The frozen ground seemed to drain the heat from his blood, and the blood from his heart itself. Perhaps it was that, and knowing where he was, that accounted for what happened next. Or maybe scars, almost as old as he was, were still in existence, down at the bottom of his mind, long buried under everything that had happened in between. The sky seemed to darken, while a ringing, buzzing sound came into his ears, and when the sky was completely black it began to redden with a bloody glow. His stomach dropped from under his heart, and a horrible fear filled him -- the fear of a small helpless child, abandoned and alone in the night. He tried to spring up and out of that, and he could not move; he lay there rigid, seemingly frozen to the ground. Behind the ringing in his ears began to rise the unearthly yammer of the terror-dream -- not heard, not even remembered, but coming to him like an awareness of something happening in some unknown dimension not of the living world.
-Alan Le may, The Searchers

A people unaware of its myths is likely to continue living by them, though the world around that people may change and demand changed in their psychology, their world view, their ethics, and their institutions.
-Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence
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In Trauma at Home: After 9/11, one of several high-toned anthologies published in the early aughts that strived to "make meaning" out of the twin towers' rubble, Judith Greenberg, a professor of comparative literature, offered "an example of how this tragedy has been played out upon the body and in the mind."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805086927, Hardcover)

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of Backlash--an unflinching dissection of the mind of America after 9/11
In this most original examination of America's post-9/11 culture, Susan Faludi shines a light on the country's psychological response to the attacks on that terrible day. Turning her acute observational powers on the media, popular culture, and political life, Faludi unearths a barely acknowledged but bedrock societal drama shot through with baffling contradictions. Why, she asks, did our culture respond to an assault against American global dominance with a frenzied summons to restore "traditional" manhood, marriage, and maternity? Why did we react as if the hijackers had targeted not a commercial and military edifice but the family home and nursery? Why did an attack fueled by hatred of Western emancipation lead us to a regressive fixation on Doris Day womanhood and John Wayne masculinity, with trembling "security moms," swaggering presidential gunslingers, and the "rescue" of a female soldier cast as a "helpless little girl"?
The answer, Faludi finds, lies in a historical anomaly unique to the American experience: the nation that in recent memory has been least vulnerable to domestic attack was forged in traumatizing assaults by nonwhite "barbarians" on town and village. That humiliation lies concealed under a myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty, which is reanimated whenever threat and shame looms.
Brilliant and important, The Terror Dream shows what 9/11 revealed about us--and offers the opportunity to look at ourselves anew.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:49 -0400)

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Examines America's psychological response in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks to discuss why America responded with a call to restore "traditional" manhood, marriage, and maternity.

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