I have finished the Susan Faludi book (it was Husband’s podcast night so I was holed up upstairs with nothing to do but read or fold clothes so I read), and as fits the pattern so far, I enjoyed the whole thing.
There are three things I basically want to say about it:
1. I thought the first half was excellent, from the representations of male and female roles in the popular and serious press, immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC. I thought the bit about the female firefighters was TEH BEST EVR until I read the chapter on Jessica Lynch, a female soldier who had been injured and then brought to an Iraqi hospital, and then taken out of it in an organized rescue event. If what Jessica Lynch as reported by Susan Faludi is saying is true, then I can’t even imagine how the spin and lies got as far as they did. If you read only one chapter from the book, read that one. It’s even better than the one that discusses the hunter and mountain man imagery that shrouded the presidential race of 2004.
2. I thought the second part of the book was even more interesting, although I am still not convinced that it exactly fits. It tackled the subject of the captivity narrative, a literary genre that originated in the United States way back when, starting with tales from women who had been abducted by native Americans and returned to tell the tale (or, in many cases, had to be dragged back kicking and screaming). Faludi presents this tradition as the foundation for the current portrayals of women needing rescuing and men being judged on their failure to and success for protecting and saving them. It really is interesting to see how culture affects politics, even across the course of centuries. Or how politics struggle to find legitimacy in cultural representations, even if reality does not reflect the stories a nation tells about its people.
(This is an aside, but the Salem Witch Trials were also presented against the background of the captivity narrative. The author refers to a book (?) by Carol Karlsen called “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman,” which examines the role gender played. Perhaps obvious now [20 years after Karlsen wrote] is that the bulk of the accused and the executed were successful, important, or independent women who lived outside strict social control. What I didn’t realize was that the bulk of the accusers were young girls who had been orphaned and traumatized during Indian raids, forced to witness dreadful things perpetrated against people they knew and loved.)
3. I’m not sure how the two parts hold together, at least not beneath the title “The Terror Dream.” The title comes from the 18th and 19th century examples of capture and rescue, specifically of a male from a novel–The Searcher? I can’t remember–waking up from the terror dream that has numbed him throughout his life so that he can act to save a girl. You can see how Faludi tried to insert this phrase into other parts of the books, but it is awkward at the beginning and only really makes sense when you see it in context almost at the end. I don’t disagree that the events following 9/11 are absolutely pertinent to the captivity/rescue tradition established in the second part of the book, but they don’t connect well as presented. I have a feeling she set out to write a book about Post-9/11 America (note the subtitle) and it morphed, but after her proposal had been accepted by the publisher and she had cashed the advance check. I discovered quite by accident that the paperback release of this book in September will have a different subtitle: Misogyny and Myth in an Insecure America. That won’t really fit the book either (although “myth” is better than “fantasy”) but it at least draws attention away from the World Trade Center (although the cover art will include it) and maybe will make the book seem more cohesive. Maybe there have been major rewrites, too, but I couldn’t judge that from the cover.
So the two parts of the book are individually cohesive and very interesting, and they do relate significantly to each other, but my complaint is that they seem like they were forced to fit a title. That is my complaint about the book.
And then there are my highlights, all from the second half:
- Didja know that Nathaniel Hawthorne was the editor in chief of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge? Awesome. Where’s a publication like that today? Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader lacks the same kind of panache. Of course, in that magazine he criticized at length the barbaric and unwomanly tactics Hannah Dunston employed to escape from captivity and return to her family.
- A 19th Century description of a gang bang: If she resists at all her clothing is torn off from her person, four pegs are driven into the ground, and her arms and legs, stretched to the utmost, are tied fast to them by thongs. Here, with the howling band dancing and singing around her, she is subjected to violation after violation, outrage after outrage, to every abuse and indignity, until not infrequently death releases her from suffering.
That’s just… wow. So much for Victorian sexual squeamishness. Forget for the moment that rape was never reported by captive women or Indian warriors, and focus on the phrase “not infrequently,” which equals “frequently.” Just how often was this happening… in 1877? Lots and lots of times, ladies. Better not leave the house.