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Tell me, tell me lies

Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."

AMERICAN mythmaking can be complicated. Take George Washington and his apocryphal cherry tree, for example -- how many twists and turns did it take before this patently embroidered story became a chapter in the national bible? At least I can understand why a nation would have such a story: What land does not want to believe that its founding military man was also a man of unshakable honesty, especially if his historical honesty is questionable?

It’s harder to gain perspective on tales established in our own time or to understand their purpose. One such current myth is that of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch. I’ve wondered for years what exactly happened to Lynch in Iraq and, more important, why the United States took such a keen interest in her. Admittedly, she was a pretty, blond, 19-year-old soldier, but that didn’t seem to account for all the attention. I felt sorry for her in a general way, for what she’d gone through in the ambush of her convoy by Iraqi militants, her injuries in a car accident during that attack, and the frightening rescue operation by U.S. troops that freed her from an Iraqi hospital bed in the early days of the U.S. invasion in 2003. But I didn’t understand the role in which Lynch had been cast.

Susan Faludi explains the historical underpinnings of the Lynch “story,” which forms the core of her brilliant and forceful new book, “The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America.” The terms in which the Bush administration and a compliant mainstream media couched Lynch’s “rescue,” she argues persuasively, duplicated not just the broad outlines but also the specific details of an American myth forged in the nation’s earliest frontier experiences. Faludi shows that a culture’s stories about its women reveal how a society views itself and what its goals are. The archetypal American story, she argues, is not predictive of a healthy republic. She has been making similar arguments since her first book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” was published in 1991.

It all goes back to settlers and witches, pioneers and savages, cowboys and Indians, to the kind of nightmare suffered by the hero of Alan LeMay’s 1954 novel, “The Searchers” (on which the iconic western movie was based), who hides in the bushes while Comanches slay his family. He cannot escape “the unearthly yammer of the terror dream,” LeMay writes, “coming to him like an awareness of something happening in some unknown dimension not of the living world.” Faludi’s examination of the kind of myths on which the LeMay novel is based offers a disturbing, culturally explosive explanation of the myths that inform today’s war on terror.

Early American settlers, Faludi writes, “dwelled in a state of perpetual insecurity. . . . Time and again, military attempts to guard frontier towns failed.” She cites several colonial settlements whose leaders were warned repeatedly of imminent Native American attacks, yet villages were left virtually unprotected and were decimated in the eventual onslaught. Remind you of anything?

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Captives, usually settlers’ wives and daughters, were brought back to Indian encampments. Not only had settlement leaders permitted the invasion, but more often than not they also failed to pursue the captives. Some captives were killed or died, others chose to remain with the conquering tribe (sometimes having children with Indian men), and some used their wits to escape. In the face of such reality, what society’s male leaders needed, Faludi argues, was an alternate narrative to show the men as powerful and responsible and the women as frail flowers threatened with sexual despoilment and in need of protection. History had to be rewritten to salve the shame men felt at their inability to protect their own.

One such captive is Hannah Duston, whose Massachusetts village, Haverhill, was attacked by Abenaki Indians on the morning of March 15, 1697. Abandoned to the Abenaki by her husband, Thomas, and the other village men who fled, Duston, recovering from the birth of her 12th child, was taken captive. She managed to escape 15 days later, killing and scalping 10 of her sleeping captors, nine of whom were women and children. She returned to Haverhill amid much excitement.

In 1874, nearly 200 years after her capture, a statue of Hannah Duston was erected on the New Hampshire island where she had killed her captors: a 35-foot-tall uncorseted woman “with a steely gaze, undulating coils of Medusa hair . . . a fearsome figure clutching a tomahawk in her right hand and a bouquet of scalps in her left,” Faludi writes. Five years later, another statue was put up in Haverhill: More modest at 15 feet, it also lacked the telltale scalps. Like Pfc. Lynch would later be depicted, she argues, “the Haverhill statue showed a woman who had ‘spunk’ -- she retained, after all, her tomahawk (albeit not raised) and a determined look in her eye -- but lacked the unseemly trophies of retributive aggression. She had been frozen pre-mayhem, her tomahawk . . . as virginal as the jammed M16 that Lynch carried but never fired. . . . Her feistiness would be untainted by ferocity.”

Meanwhile, the fleeing father was rehabilitated, even though every detail of his supposed heroism in rescuing seven of his children was invented by writers more than 100 years after the attack. In 1821, Yale President Timothy Dwight whitewashed the record of male performance in the Haverhill incident and described Thomas Duston “receiving and returning [the Abenaki] fire; and presenting himself equally as a barrier against murderers, and a shelter to the flight of innocence and anguish. In the background . . . the kindled dwelling, the sickly mother, the terrified nurse with the newborn infant in her arms, and the furious natives, surrounding them. . . .”

Hannah couldn’t have been too sickly if she was scalping her victims 15 days later. The attempt to portray her as weak and bedridden -- and a “rape victim,” according to a recent entry on a website run by a descendant of Duston’s -- cannot help but remind Faludi’s readers of the Lynch story. Faludi’s retellings of “captivity narratives” like Hannah Duston’s -- which feminist historiographers and others have been examining over the last three decades -- give “The Terror Dream” enormous depth.

Faludi also documents how Lynch was turned from a volunteer reenlisted soldier wounded in the course of an ambush into a frail, child-like, cheerleading, prom-queen type who was rescued by big American men. The private -- who, it turns out, just before her “rescue” was lying unconscious in an Iraqi hospital bed surrounded by kindly nurses treating her broken bones -- was said by the Bush administration to have been alone in her room, a Revolutionary Guard standing over her and slapping her repeatedly. Lynch later said she had no recollection of this. She also doesn’t recall torture or rape -- or the threat of rape, although this was insinuated repeatedly in the media retelling of her story. Faludi argues that Lynch was cast as the rescued damsel, providing Americans with a retroactive psychological justification for the Iraq war.

Faludi also examines the masculine side of the national myth, including Daniel Boone, a wandering loser whose wife was the primary earner in the household and known to be a skilled markswoman. Boone managed at one point to rescue his daughter and her two young friends from Indian capture, but two of his sons were tortured and killed, “the memory of which would haunt Boone for the rest of his life.” Faludi shows how his story was shaped and embellished until Boone became a path-clearing, Indian-killing, distressed-damsel rescuer.

As Boone himself said: “Many heroic actions and chivalrous adventures are related to me which exist only in the regions of fancy. With me the world has taken great liberties, and yet I have been but a common man.” Compare this to the words of a New York firefighter “hero” who lost 343 colleagues in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center: “We were just as much victims as everybody that was in the building. We didn’t have a chance to do anything.” Said another: “Basically the only difference between us and the victims is we had flashlights.”

Throughout the book, Faludi provides stunning and depressing evidence of a concerted effort to silence women and roll back women’s rights in the wake of 9/11 and to transform the attack on a U.S. financial symbol where men and women worked side by side into an assault on family and hearth. She shows over and over again how some conservatives and right-wing media and bloggers have blamed the attack on a society feminized and emasculated by the women’s movement. At first, we can’t understand why, but she brings in a Mack truck’s worth of testimony and proof, and we begin to get it. It’s all about restoring faith in the patriarchy in order to make us believe that the authorities are capable of defending the homeland.

But rather than act in ways that in fact would help make us more secure -- say, replacing those faulty New York Fire Department radios or spending money on improving port and air-freight security -- the Bush administration has chosen to deal with terror, Faludi says, by conforming to the old myth and reasserting masculine swagger. Part of that includes the “curtailing of civil liberties, the authorization of torture . . . the creation of secret prisons . . . and, most of all, our reckless fool’s errand into Iraq.”

Faludi ends the book with an indictment of a nation that acts according to its myth, or terror dream, a nation that barters “the need to pursue concrete concerns . . . for ceremonial scrip. . . . By living in a myth, we made the world and ourselves less secure.” As one widow of a New Jersey firefighter concludes: “The American public fails to confront the truth about anything.”

Faludi holds the terror dream responsible.


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