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The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America
ISBN: 978-0312428006
By: Susan Faludi

Review by: Sydney Redigan


According to Susan Faludi, the problem America faces post 9/11 is not national security, but national insecurity. Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, gained notoriety in 1991 with Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, an investigative look at the 1980s response to feminism with often vicious stereotypes of working women. In 1999, she switched her focus to the plight of the male sex with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which proposed that the nation's obsession with power and masculinity was actually leaving many men powerless, out of jobs and alone. These books, unapologetically provocative, were not met quietly, often inspiring backlash of their own.

Faludi's newest release, 2007s The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America, lives up to the reputation of her former works. Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer for the New York Times, called it a tendentious, self-important, sloppily reasoned work that gives feminism a bad name, while Sarah Churchwell of The Guardian called it bold, ambitious, often brilliant. The premise of the book is that the attacks of 9/11 exposed an insecurity in America, an attack on its masculinity that resulted in a very real attack on feminism. After the attacks, Faludi argues, America resorted to coping mechanisms that it has been using since the late 1680s when white settlers saw attacks from natives as similar assaults on their own masculinity. In these earliest days of the nation, Faludi says a myth was born, a myth that holds that American women are in sexual danger at the hands of outsiders and that they require a male hero to rescue them.

Faludi sets up her argument by separating the book into two parts. The first, Ontogeny, gives a detailed account of American culture since the attacks. She explains how the victims of 9/11 were feminized through the use of selective video and photographs and how the heroes were masculinized. America's post 9/11 obsession with firemen (firefighter was rarely used when referring to the crews on ground zero, Faludi found) superheroes and the cowboy persona of George W. Bush turned the attack from one in which more men actually died to an attack solely on women and children. Faludi spends a large portion of this section on Jessica Lynch and the contortion of her story from merely a soldier injured and cared for in an Iraqi hospital to a fragile victim who was possibly sexually abused. Faludi devotes this time to Lynch's story because it aligns so well with the second part of the book, Phylogeny. In this section Lynch examines the history of the terror myth as it resurged again and again, paying special attention to the captive narratives produced as a result.

Like Lynch's story, many of these narratives, written by women who had been captured by natives, began as innocuous accounts of captivity that mostly either resulted in peaceful and respectful relationships with their captors, or documented the captured womens bravery in escaping or attacking the captors. But, also like Lynch's story, these accounts did not lend themselves to the myth and thus were re-written with gusto, removed of any heroic efforts by the women and peppered with insinuations of sexual violence. Faludi moves through the history of the nation breezily, citing the Salem witch trials, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War, and the Westerns of the Cold War as evidence of the nation acting under the pretense of protecting women to hide its insecurities in violence.

While it seems that Faludi moves through the history almost too quickly, it is undoubtedly because of the sheer amount of material she covers. With over 50 pages of notes, ranging from historical documents to recent Time magazine articles, the book could well have exceeded its 463 pages. Despite some reviewers criticisms that Faludi draws too many conclusions from the facts she gathers, most concede that she has done her investigative research. Additionally, Terror Dream was praised by most of its reviewers for Faludis own sharp criticism of post 9/11 journalism. More than once she exposes the consequences of reporters not checking their facts and the domino effect it can have when other news sources readily take up the same mis-information.     

One of Faludis most interesting examples of this is the creation of the myth that 9/11 scared women into leaving their jobs, getting married and having children. From Time magazine to the Los Angeles Times, Faludi unearths stories about the anxiety single career women faced after the attacks that made them re-think their life choices. In each of these stories, the statements of one or two women were used to represent the entire female population, but the idea caught on and soon newspapers, women's magazines and broadcast news were heralding the return of traditional values (for women) of family first.

Faludi's critique of this kind of flimsy journalism lends itself to her bigger critique of the bandwagon effect the attacks had on the media. She likens the post 9/11 statements of the Bush administration as a sort of with us or against us admonition to the media. Faludi holds that journalists were scared from asking questions with the threat of treason. One of Faludi's examples of this is Susan Sontag, who wrote in the New Yorker, a few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. Her considerably mild statements elicited hateful responses for more than a year after the issue was published. New York Post columnist Rod Dreher said, "I wanted to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman's apartment, grab her by her neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters." Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, said, "Susan Sontag will occupy the ninth circle of Hell." The first part of the book is full of these examples, showing the danger of a culture too scared to speak.

Faludi takes on a huge task with Terror Dream, examining not only the cultural climate of the past seven years, but the entire history of the United States. Her conclusions, while too far-fetched for some, are undoubtedly well-researched, eloquent and timely. And despite the political lines she may draw and the ominous message of the book, Faludi ultimately expresses hope in a new future for America that has completely done away with the myth. By living in a myth we made the world and ourselves less secure, she writes. The attacks on 9/11 present us with a historic watershed: faced with a replay of our formative experience, we have the opportunity to resolve the old story in a new way.

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