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Middletown, America: One Town's Passage from Trauma to Hope

Middletown, America: One Town's Passage from Trauma to Hope

by Gail Sheehy

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Fifty people never came home to Middletown, New Jersey, after September 11th. Wall Street fathers, young Port Authority police, single working moms, the beloved coach of the championship girls traveling basketball team. Three toddlers in one church pre-school lost their daddies. Dozens of widows, young and beautiful girls in their 20s and 30s, some still nursing


Fifty people never came home to Middletown, New Jersey, after September 11th. Wall Street fathers, young Port Authority police, single working moms, the beloved coach of the championship girls traveling basketball team. Three toddlers in one church pre-school lost their daddies. Dozens of widows, young and beautiful girls in their 20s and 30s, some still nursing newborns, watched their dreams literally go up in smoke in that amphitheater of death across the river.

Gail Sheehy traveled to Middletown shortly after the disaster and began in-depth interviews with many of the bereaved.

Middletown, America was written as the year progressed, following parallel and intertwining stories of selected individuals and their families. A mother who was doubly bereft when she lost her only son as he tried to fill the shoes of her absentee husband; the sole survivor in an office of 67 people who escaped the 88th floor of Tower 2 seconds before the floor was decimated.

Here are the fire-fighters, rescue workers and front-line public health volunteers, now training to be soldiers in this new war.

Of equal importance, however, is the way these very real individuals dealt with this disaster and the trauma that followed. Middletown, America is also a story of recovery and of the ways people finally learn to deal with seemingly insurmountable grief and an incomprehensible physical and financial disaster.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
In an extraordinary feat of narrative alchemy, journalist Gail Sheehy turns the dust and ashes of 9/11/01 into literary gold with this fine, affecting study of Middletown, New Jersey, the affluent commuter suburb that lost nearly 50 people in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Over the course of 18 months, Sheehy became intimately involved in the lives of a handful of Middletown residents whose destinies were irrevocably altered that fateful day. And in her skilled hands, their stories -- crackling with unexpected intersections -- reflect not just personal anguish but the shared suffering of a nation in trauma. We see the messy spiral of grief moving forward and looping back: One widow is galvanized into furious political activism, while another retreats into a cocoon of helplessness; traumatized children careen from bewildered rage to sullen withdrawal; and the so-called "lucky ones" who escaped the Towers suffer a toxic combination of post-traumatic stress and survivor's guilt.

The author does not shy away from the human side of tragedy. Between stories of amazing grace, she weaves tales of less-than-noble behavior -- anger at charitable efforts gone awry, suspicions directed at Muslim neighbors, and the inevitable grousing over monetary settlements. Then, slowly, the fractured community begins to mend. Some of the widows begin dating, post-9/11 babies work their magic on grieving families, and connections are forged with survivors of other terrorist bombings.

Unique amid the literature of September 11th, Middletown, America is a thoughtful, carefully observed character study that traces a ravaged community's painful journey from unspeakable grief to the place where hope lives. It is a remarkable achievement. Anne Markowski

The New York Times
… Ms. Sheehy's detailed reporting of her subjects' experiences -- she says she did more than 900 interviews as well as follow-up phone calls and e-mail exchanges -- still makes for compelling reading. We are introduced to widows of hard-driving Wall Street traders; to survivors who somehow made it out of the towers; to the families of cops who died in the rescue effort; to siblings, parents and friends of people who were at work at the World Trade Center that sunny September morning. — Michiku Kakutani
The Washington Post
Without question, Middletown is a fascinating corner of the contemporary world...Sheehy is skillful at telling dramatic stories about people's personal lives.—Alan Ehrenhalt
Publishers Weekly
With nearly 50 victims, the commuter hamlet of Middletown, N.J., and its environs suffered the "largest concentrated death toll" on September 11 of anyplace in America. A "town with no middle," Middletown consists of affluent financiers and working-class police officers and firefighters-two groups that were hit particularly hard in the attacks. Bestselling author Sheehy (Passages; Hillary's Choice; etc.), who spent almost two years observing the residents' reactions to the staggering loss, explores how this high-end suburb, for which the closest thing to a social fabric was a ferocious sensitivity to social status, dealt with the tragedy. Sheehy ignores governmental machinations in order to describe the welter of emotions ordinary Americans experienced. The enemy of clich is detail-and Sheehy's months in the town yield subtle, detailed portraits that confound easy images of "strength" or "denial" (although those are also present). Sheehy implicitly critiques modern American life: any salutary community bonding suggests a prior lack of cohesion, just as the emphasis on financial assistance tends to obscure more fundamental psychological needs. In a community filled with "prefeminist" housewives, "loss of self" became a substantial problem-who am I, if not this or that victim's spouse? Fortunately, in addition to the considerable generosity the town evinced, survivors were able to form an "intentional family" united by grief. One sometimes hears that everyone "knows" what happened on September 11. This admirable book tells precisely the stories we could stand to hear more about. 8 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Sept. 2) Forecast: More focused than Steven Brill's After, and aided by Sheehy's track record and a nine-city tour, this could jump onto bestseller lists. This is a BOMC main selection, and a featured alternate at QPB, the Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club. 100,000 first printing. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
How Middleton, NJ, copes after September 11, when it lost 50 residents, from Wall Street dads to Port Authority cops. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The post-attack life of a New Jersey community that lost a disproportionate number of its members on 9/11. Middletown: "Nearly fifty people were robbed from this middle-class commuter suburb," giving it "the largest concentrated death toll." Sheehy (Understanding Men’s Passages, 1998, etc.) followed a selection of families for the first 18 months after the attacks, through the disbelief and insulating numbness of the first days, through anger and tests of faith, through the discovery of resilience and independence, through relapses, and—for some—new lives and loves. Cantor Fitzgerald was widely represented in the community, and that brokerage firm’s post-disaster imbroglio is seen from the perspective of the victims’ families rather than of the ubiquitous Howard Lutnick. But working-class families are here, too. Although at times it feels as though Sheehy is using the victims to buttress her notion of life’s passages or is explaining away their grief as textbook examples of bereavement stages ("Planer was using avoidance—a typical trauma response," or "Lisa was completely unaware of the disconnect between the verbal and emotional territories of her mind"), she does manage to portray each family and family member with a distinct personality. Most startling is the capacity of trauma’s net, which takes in not just the immediate families, but everyone from rescue workers to clergy and on to grief counselors themselves. Sheehy is particularly good with the layers and details of trauma: recognition of all the things the lost person did for their family, the paperwork and financial worries, the flashbacks, the crises in the survivor’s identity, getting the remains home piece bypiece, the gremlins of guilt. Healing is a process, but a relentless one: "grieving is a spiral," say Sheehy, and much of it is downward and ever-widening. A sharp study of grief in both individuals and the community. (8-page photo insert, not seen) Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



When the glossy black bird dropped onto the lawn outside her kitchen window that August, Kristen felt a shudder go through her body. She called out to her husband.

"Oh my God, there's a raven."

"A what?" he said. Ron didn't know much about birds.

"A raven," she repeated impatiently.


"You don't understand, that's a bad omen. The raven is the harbinger of death."

Kristen clutched her breast. She had a tumor there, waiting for biopsy. It was in the same place where her mother had found a tumor at the age of thirty-eight. Kristen had lost her mother to cancer a few years earlier. It was a horrible death.

"I'm scared," she told her husband. "I think that's me. I think it's a symbol that I'm going to die."

"You're crazy," her husband said. "It's just a crow."

"I don't want that bird in our yard," she said. Kristen was not usually one to worry. Not this surfer girl from the Jersey shore. This was a tall blonde tomboy who grew up with all guy friends. A natural beauty who still had age on her side, being thirty; she didn't give a thought to taming her flyaway hair or painting makeup on her smooth Swedish skin. She was headstrong to the point that she sometimes got in her own way. For instance, she almost missed marrying Ron. Kristen thought she never wanted to be tied down to one man. No interest in marriage. Zero. Hated children.

Her first date with Ron Breitweiser was on his birthday, August 4, 1996. It was the summer of her bar exam, but she found herself far more attracted to this handsome money manager than to the practice of law.Less than six months later they eloped to a Caribbean island. "And I wasn't even pregnant!" Kristen likes to say. "But why waste time?"

The Breitweisers settled in the pleasant land of Middletown, New Jersey, a lush green oasis in the backyard of New York City. Their house was hidden in woods. The two of them became inseparable. She had no hobbies and he had no hobbies because their hobbies were each other. They would watch TV together, read books together; if Kristen got up to take a shower, Ron would follow her into the bathroom so he could keep talking to her. When Kristen brushed her teeth, she would squeeze out the toothpaste onto Ron's toothbrush. They were crazy about their dog, Sam, a golden retriever, whose discombobulated bulk somehow found its way into their bed every night.

They weren't planning to have children. But when Caroline arrived in March 1999, they turned the conversation pit of their living room into a playroom just for her. In late August 2001, when Kristen and her husband went to a cocktail party, they joked that it was the first time in two and a half years they had been out alone, without their daughter. And it was true. They didn't need a social life. They didn't even see much of their own families. In fact, Ron wasn't speaking to his family. They'd had a huge falling-out.

The Sunday before September 11, for some reason, Kristen stopped to read the obituary section. She said to her husband, "Honey, you know, life is so short. Your dad's older. Are you sure you don't want to call them and just suck it up and make peace?" He said no. He just wanted to break with his family.

Kristen had it good, and she knew it. She had graduated from Seton Hall Law School in 1996 and, as she liked to say, left the law at the top of her game-after practicing all of three days. She hated it. Took a leave of absence to care for her mother, but when that duty was done, Kristen showed no enthusiasm for resuming her aborted law career. Her husband told her she didn't have to go back, he could make enough money. He was a whiz at investing. So good, he had been hired at thirty-eight as a vice president by Fiduciary Trust, an investment-management firm for high-net-worth clients. The president, William Yun, had even asked Ron to manage his father's personal money.

But the minute Ron got home from his office in the South Tower at the World Trade Center, he would change into hiking clothes and walk with Kristen and the baby and the dog up the nature trail behind their house. They would gaze across at mountain ridges and muse, "It could be Wyoming." Kristen wasn't a religious person, but as she would reflect later, "We'd notice the birds and we'd notice the deer and we'd notice the beauty in everything. We knew we were blessed. You almost think that's insurance against bad things happening."

On Saturday, August 25, the first day of Ron's two-week vacation, the two were lazing by the living room window with coffee and newspapers. "Look, that bird's back," Kristen said. Again her husband dismissed it. She left the room to look through her English-lit books to try to find the Poe poem. She found a quote in Shakespeare about the raven bringing "warnings, and portents and evils imminent." When she returned, she saw her husband poring over their Audubon birding book.

"You're right," he said, "it's a raven." The book said the predator was nearly extinct in the Northeast. That made the dumb fear crawl in her stomach. That damn growth in her breast. That damn bird.


The Egan family had just entered the green and blessed land of Middletown-refugees from Connecticut-so that Michael could be closer to the World Trade Center. The commute from Middletown was a breeze; a luxury commuter bus stopped five minutes from his door and delivered him across the Hudson to the door of the South Tower on the tip of Manhattan Island. With two elevator rides he would emerge to the astonishing views on the 104th floor, where Michael Egan commanded his division as director and manager of the multinational insurance giant AON.

Anna Egan was not happy about the move to Middletown. Or the house. She called it a trophy house. Grand in scale and coldly formal with its glass walls and two-story center hall and spiral staircase. Michael intended it to entertain clients and boost staff morale. It was not for Anna that he bought the house, she knew that; he bought it for AON.

But it turned out to be the best of summers for Anna, the first summer she had had her husband to herself in how many years? Not since her firstborn son, Jon, who was already flapping his wings in preparation for his flight from the nest to start college in California. Certainly not since the birth of her second son, Matthew, who was sixteen on paper but with Down's syndrome, who could really say? Matthew was away, too, at a special needs camp.

"So here we were in this huge house, just the two of us, no kids, noth-ing but boxes, and we're like teenagers again," as Anna remembered-

cherished-those last seven weeks of the summer of 2001. "We did nothing but spoil each other. It was so long since he'd taken any time off. We'd stay late in bed. He'd go out to lunch and not go back to work. Silly little things, like he bought us both walkie-talkies. 'We need to connect more,' he said. I'd get beeped all the time, even when I was in the shower."

They played chase-and-tickle around the patio, this fifty-one-year-old Englishman and his wife, who, at forty-seven, was petite but voluptuous. To this proper Brit, Anna with her Sicilian background and slight accent stirred erotic fantasies of Anna Magnani. "You're still sexy after all these years," he would say, looking into her large, dark Mediterranean eyes. Over and over he would tell her, "I love you, darling."

But there was a little flutter in Anna's stomach that wouldn't go away. "I was scared and I didn't know why." It wasn't the move. She had moved so often, she was a pro. She always dove right into the community and made friends and opened their home to her sons' friends.

When she thought back on it, there was an eerie element about her husband's behavior that summer. He bought her a PalmPilot and beamed into it the phone numbers of all his associates, even old ones. "Why, Michael? I don't need this," she'd protest. "You never know," he'd say. He always carried in his briefcase the keys to the family house in England, but one day he entrusted them to her. "Why?" "Just in case I might lose them," he said. He called her all the time: from the office, from the train, even from watering holes in the city when he was out entertaining clients. "Let's get this straight," he'd tell the clients. "She's not Italian. She's Sicilian. She's the best. Say hello, Anna."

Then there was the freakish conversation on the night of September 10. Michael's sister Christine had come down from Canada, at Anna's urging, to stay with Matthew, so the couple could get away to Bermuda to combine a business trip with a celebration of their twentieth anniversary. Christine Egan had never been to the World Trade Center; she was excited about seeing Michael's office way up on the 104th floor.

It was warm for the weekend after Labor Day. Still felt like high summer. Michael grilled kebabs. Anna lit the pool and uncorked the Chardonnay. They all three took a last dip after supper. Playing, ducking each other under the waterfall, Michael was such a Peter Pan. He could always make Anna feel young and carefree. They sat at the table, sipping a little more wine against the incipient shivers of deepening evening. Michael propped his bare feet on the table and wrapped his arms around his big chest. It was exactly a year since he and Christine had mourned the death of their mother. They talked about the wonderful memorial they had held for her after her death on September 10, 2000. Then out of the blue Mike turned around to his sister and said this thing that Anna will never forget:

"Christine, if you were to go puff"-he snapped his fingers-"if you were to go puff, up in smoke, where do you want to be buried?"

Anna and Christine both laughed. "God, Michael, of all things to say," Anna chided gently. But that was Michael with his zany sense of humor. Christine, who was pretty deft with comebacks for her brother, said, "Well, it's going to be cheap-there won't be anything to be buried!"

They all laughed again. Then Michael said, "No, seriously, if something happened to you, where do you want to be buried?" Christine debated aloud between Canada, where she had spent most of her life, and Hull, England, where their parents were buried. "We do have one more spot there," she said. "Now it's going to be a fight between you and I who gets there first!"

The next morning Anna waved Michael off in his Jag, laughing with his sister on the way to the commuter bus. As they disappeared from sight and left Anna alone in the trophy house, her mind was free to think of the small things she needed to do that day.


Kenny Tietjen always had to be first at the fire. He was unbeatable, even by grown men. As a kid coming up in a proud blue-collar section of Middletown, he kept a scanner in his bedroom. The minute he heard a report of a fire, he'd streak out of the house and jump on his moped and race to the address. Whereas the firefighters, who boasted of belonging to the largest all-volunteer fire department in the world, would be delayed by the necessities of getting to the firehouse, climbing into their turnout gear, taking their places on the truck, and traveling to the scene. Little Kenny was always there first, waiting for them-a damn fourteen-year-old.

"That kid!" the grown men would growl.

They groused that Kenny's moped was blocking their fire truck. They threatened that if he didn't back off their fires, he would be kicked out of the Fire Explorers, Post 911, where he became a charter member at the age of sixteen. They chased him away from the firehouse: "Get outta here, you're too young! Pain in the ass." But it was really the ego wound that hurt; Kenny always beat the firefighters to the fire.

"That kid!"

The funny thing was, Kenny had been scared of sirens as a very little boy. "Petrified," recalled his sister Laurie. "Firecrackers, any loud noises, but especially fire and police sirens terrified him." And as a child he was on the runty side, short and skinny and shy. He had to content himself with "torturing" his younger sister. For example, the "spit torture." Laurie giggled. "He would tackle me on the ground, sit on top of me, and-this is so disgusting, I can't believe I'm telling you this-he would spit into drool, so it was hanging just over my nose, and then he'd suck it back up."

"Don't tell Mom," he would order. Their mother, Janice Tietjen, was a devout Catholic, a pillar of St. Mary's Church.

The way Kenny Tietjen dealt with fear was to go toward the very thing that scared him. "He was just so gung ho," said Janice. "He had to be the first one in." As soon as he came of age, he became a volunteer in Engine Company Number 1 in Belford, a briny section of Middletown where the fish factory was and where firefighting was one of the noblest occupations. Kenny moved closer to the firehouse. His mother was shocked upon reading a newspaper account of her son's participation in his first fire. It was a propane tank that might have exploded, but who was the first one on the hose? Kenny.

"That kid!"

Within his first few years in the company, Kenny Tietjen bulked up and more than proved himself. At a large electrical fire in a lumberyard, one young firefighter opened a door and was knocked unconscious by a flash. Kenny ran in behind him and with another volunteer dragged the man out of the smoke-filled shack; saved his life. Kenny's helmet melted, but he suffered no injuries.

"When my brother wound up being a fireman and then a police officer, the whole family, we couldn't believe it," said Laurie. As a member of the Port Authority police force, Kenny wore a smile almost all the time. He loved his job, blossomed in it. "We called ourselves the Regulators," said Mike Ashton, who worked with Kenny in a sector car at the Holland Tunnel. "We were both active cops, we went out looking for it. We called it 'playing.' " The two spent every working night together, ate their meals together, shaved their heads together. Ashton saw more of Kenny than he saw of his own wife. They backed each other up.

Meet the Author

Gail Sheehy is the author of the landmark book Passages and the number one bestseller The Silent Passage. Most recently, she published Hilary's Choice. She is married to publisher and editor Clay Felker and lives in Berkeley, California, and Long Island, New York.

Brief Biography

New York City and Berkeley, California
Date of Birth:
November 27, 1937
B.A., University of Vermont; M.A., Columbia School of Journalism

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