Cover Story

Gail Sheehy calls the Sept. 11 attacks a "mute mass murder."

"We heard no moment [the towers] were there and the next they were dissolving," she said at her presentation titled "Homeland's response to 9/11" at APA's 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago.

The talk stemmed from her interviews--soon to be compiled for an upcoming book--with ordinary people whose lives were irrevocably changed that day.

Sheehy, perhaps most well-known for her groundbreaking book "Passages" (Bantam, 1984), said Sept. 11 thrust Americans into a life passage. People experienced a "cataclysmic life accident," she said. "We all experienced a sense of betrayal of safe country, of God."

One community in particular dealt with an extreme sense of betrayal and loss, she said. Middletown, N.J., lost 50 of its residents in the attacks--most worked in financial securities or for fire or police units. Sheehy has spent the past year living part time in the small Jersey town, getting to know some of the widows and widowers and recording their personal stories.

"How is grieving for these 9/11 people different?" asked Sheehy. "It's a special pain--what people knew turned to chaos...victims' families don't know how their loved one died and can't imagine how."

She shared the stories of Pat and Kristin, who both lost their husbands. Pat gave birth to a baby boy just eight days after her husband's death. Kristin was walking out the door with her 2-year-old and her dog on the morning of Sept. 11 when her husband called from the 94th floor of the south tower to tell her not to worry, he was fine. When she asked him why he was calling to say that, he told her to turn on the television. Minutes later, she watched his building collapse.

For these women and for hundreds of other men and women who have experienced tremendous loss, the past year has piled myriad emotions on top of profound sadness. To those in the audience, Sheehy urged understanding, saying, "Grief is not a linear process--it's a spiral. The people suffering need no deadlines, no neat stages, no false concepts of closure."

The men and women in Middletown have slowly found ways to deal with their grief, but their lives will be forever changed, she said. Sheehy, who was presented with a presidential citation for "her unique ability to combine journalism and psychology" from APA President Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, said she hopes the rest of America won't "drift back into complacency."

--J. DAW