by Susan Faludi. Metropolitan Books; 368 pgs.; $26. REVIEW BY YASMIN NAIR
Susan Faludi is best known for Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women ( 1991 ) . In The Terror Dream, she claims, in effect, that there's been yet another backlash against women: 9/11 spurred the demand that women return to their traditional roles of helpless mothers and wives. Faludi isn't clear on who is responsible for this, alternately blaming 'the media' and 'us.' But she's specific about its origins: the mythic captivity narratives of our pioneering past, featuring white men as rescuers of white women captured by brutal Indians. Faludi's concern is with how the real stories of these women were changed. In 1697, Hannah Duston escaped from her Abenaki captors, after scalping 10 of them. In 1879, a memorial statue in her honor erased any signs of her trophies, depicting her instead as a demure if 'determined' hero. Faludi sees Duston as one of Jessica Lynch's 'historical sisters.' The American soldier may well have gone down shooting at her Iraqi captors but the media, in a story now widely debunked, chose to depict her as a helpless little girl rescued by brave male soldiers.
Faludi's attempt to draw historical parallels ignores both history and the present. Central to her notion of national myths is that of a national psyche —but that's a problematic fiction at best. Do 'we' truly and unproblematically construct our lives in accordance with overarching myths? And what do we erase when we focus on them so unrelentingly? The Lynch rescue has been effectively dismantled as propaganda. But even that shouldn't distract us from the larger point, which had nothing to do with her heroism. Lynch, a complex figure in her own right, is one of many drawn into what is now virtually an economic draft and feel compelled to join the army as a way to pay for college. Drawing such a clear line between Duston and Lynch makes for an attractive thesis but it also allows us to ignore the present-day realities of a war economy.
Faludi is right to point out that female domesticity and masculinity are key to American nationalism, but those are default features of nationalism everywhere. Why would the United States be any different? And are we supposed to recover the 'true' stories about women like Duston? If so, to what end? How do we reconcile their inherent contradictions? Yes, it's true that Duston was a singularly courageous woman. But then there are those, um, scalps. And the thorny issue of integrating womanly valor into a larger narrative about colonial expansion against Native Americans.
Terror Dream mostly reads like a series of press clippings about the domestication of women, and it could have benefited with more attention to the wider context in which these stories originated. Faludi appears to have written the book in a vacuum; she gives almost no indication that such stories were frequently met with counter-narratives and analysis, especially in the alternative press.
She writes, for instance, of the infamous 2005 New York Times article by Louise Story that female Ivy League graduates were choosing to forego careers in favor of motherhood. Faludi acknowledges that the story was debunked, but doesn't admit that it was also widely derided. That's not to argue that we've achieved feminist nirvana, but to point out that Faludi's book doesn't acknowledge the resistance to such narratives. For her ( slight ) analysis to work, she needs to construct a monolithic and all-pervasive media wall of stories that relentlessly batters 'us' with these normative ideas of gender. If we take seriously her idea that gendered myths have a grip upon us, are we also to simply and hopelessly reconcile ourselves to being subject to them over and over again?
The Terror Dream is the shoddy sort of cultural criticism that revels in attractive ideas ( dreams and myths govern our existence ) and broad claims ( we're the way we are because of how we tell stories about our past ) . The truth is that our biggest problems emerge neither from dreams nor myths, but the hard reality of the present—and that the nightmare of unending war persists for many outside our borders.
Faludi will be at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark, on Wed., Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m.
E-mail Yasmin Nair at email@example.com .