Rita Henley Jensen

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–I was in the subway on my way to my Houston street office on Sept. 11 when something unimaginably evil happened in the city and nation I love: A group of men, made mad in part by a determination to continue controlling women’s lives, devised a scheme to murder us using our own creations–our jet planes, plastic knives and even pilot training.

They killed no one close to me on that day, yet I continue to feel deep sympathy for those who lost loved ones and I did not escape unscathed. The actions of these few on Sept. 11 slaughtered–perhaps forever–my sense of safe distance from political violence. I left the subway and walked three miles to work and toward the flames. Throughout the long afternoon, I watched the air fill with smoke as I fretted about the proper response for a news service dedicated to covering women’s issues. The best we could do was send out a message that we were still in business and issue a call for peace and justice.

I awoke the next morning and realized that the groove I had created way back when I was a young wife was still very much a part of me. My internal alarms and sirens had shut down and I went into high-function mode. Women’s Enews would continue publishing; the staff and writers would work from their homes until we could return to our offices. While others grieved, I made phone calls and responded to e-mail. And ignored the best I could the smoke in the air and the roar of fighter jets overhead.

Like many, I had a lousy marriage years ago. Like too many, mine included battering. And I was aware even as the towers fell that because I had been beaten regularly over a period of six years that I would most likely experience post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath–something that women are twice as likely to experience as men.

Women may be more susceptible because they often tend to the emotions of their children and other family members first, delaying the time when their feelings are expressed. In addition, many battered women create an ice-hard wall between their emotions and their awareness to get through each day and get done what needs to be done. Cynthia L. Cooper reported in Women’s Enews, “Women at Higher Risk for Stress Reactions” last Sept. 17 that 1 in 10 women experience the disorder.

“Women who have had overwhelming stressors in the past will likely be more vulnerable to an experience like a bombing or a situation like the World Trade Center, where there is such devastation,” Esther Giller, the president of The Sidran Foundation, an organization dedicated to education about post-traumatic stress disorder, told Cooper.

Trauma Continues Throughout Fall, Early Winter

Throughout the fall and early winter, the frightening news continued unabated. Anthrax was mailed to journalists, political leaders and women’s clinics, resulting in the deaths of people who had no apparent connection either to those in power or those in the anthrax conspiracy.

A plane on the way to the Dominican Republic crashed in Queens, devastating many families in the neighborhood where I live. The cathedral where I had found solace so many times and where my younger daughter had been married burst into flames one night. A thousand people were detained in U.S. jails, with no names released. A war was launched against the Taliban. Afghanistan was bombed, yet Osama bin Laden escaped. Others died. Women and children fled to refugee camps. The war expanded to include all terrorists–a word that is never defined.

My son-in-law was laid off and my older daughter, home with a new baby daughter, was uncertain how she could re-enter the work force. My college-student daughter informed me that the bomb scares at her Brooklyn College campus interrupted nearly every class. It was decided it would increase Women’s Enews credibility if the news service left NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to go out on its own. I found new space and signed the lease shortly before Christmas.

Turmoil and fear. The entire autumn and early winter. And I handled it all.

On Christmas Day, after I took my grandson for a quick spin on his new bicycle, I was sitting in my favorite chair with my family surrounding me, two daughters, two sons-in-law, two grandchildren, discussing what was for dinner, when the despair overtook me. The battered woman’s groove, which had isolated me from my emotions and that had permitted me to show no visible strain since the attack, was gone. Without warning, the ice wall collapsed. I looked at my watch. It was 4 p.m. Seeing my state, my daughters finished preparing the meal.

Fear Takes Charge for Six Months

Anxiety curdled in my stomach and twisted in my gut. I could no longer read the obituaries of those who had died. Too much pain and sadness. Sometimes I could not breathe. I ate little. Dry heaves. Many nights I could not sleep. I would think of my new granddaughter and feel only apprehension that she had been born into a world with Osama, nuclear threats and global warming. A world, as Women’s Enews documents nearly every week, that has specific tortures for girls and young women during war and afterwards as well. A world where rape is a weapon of war and a pastime of peace used particularly often against young women, infecting them with AIDS and impregnating them with unwanted offspring.

My almost-out-of college daughter and her husband announced their plans to start their own family. I felt little joy. I could not say out loud that I thought the earth was being killed and there was no future for us.

It felt like I had fallen in an emotional ditch dug years before. I could see the life and joy around me, but I could not leap, or climb or rappel myself out and join in. If I am so tormented, I asked myself repeatedly, how do the women of Afghanistan feel; how do the Israeli and Palestinian women survive? How do the women in Sierra Leone and the Congo continue?

I did not seek medical care until my exercise buddy found me in a corner of the locker room, weeping. I confessed I wished very much to die. She said she knew I did, and urged me to seek medical care. Eventually, out of the need to stay productive, I swallowed my misgivings and some prescribed anti-anxiety drugs.

In April, a friend suggested I read “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman. Amid his cogent descriptions of the deadly rivalries that riddled what was once known as the Paris of the Middle East, one passage was strangely comforting.

Friedman mentioned that the residents of Beirut were large consumers of tranquilizers. Somehow, the knowledge that others living with terrorism also were intensely anxious and depressed comforted me. I could forgive myself for feeling so bad and needing medication.

Hope Returns

The spell did not lift completely, however, until June 30, when, for the first time, I went on an early morning bird walk. Led by a woman in her early 60s full of detailed knowledge and good cheer, I joined a group of 10 others who quietly walked through the deep green of the nature preserve, at the ready with binoculars hanging from our necks. The nearby lake, our guide pointed out, was down four feet at the beginning of the summer, bad but not as bad as the drought of 1917, when it was down eight feet.

As we rounded the bend and came upon the flower gardens, our guide whispered urgently, “Quick, there is a blue bird.” I lifted the binoculars she had provided and I was able to see the tiny, brilliantly iridescent blue bird flying back and forth to its specially designed birdhouse. The guide pointed to a similar neighboring birdhouse where a carpenter wren lived and explained that to have a blue bird visit, one must provide two birdhouses. The blue bird will nest in one until the tree swallow arrives to kick it out. The blue bird then moves to the nearby birdhouse and the two co-exist.

I looked around at the dew-drenched trees, shining in the rising sun, and for the first time since Sept. 11, I drew in a breath of appreciation for the beauty around me. I felt hope that perhaps, perhaps, we will find a way to keep not only my daughters and their families safe, but the Israeli and Palestinian daughters too. (If they are safe, the sons will be, as well.) Could we battle and then co-exist as well?

Hope is the antidote for anxiety and sadness. I am thankful it returned to me. And I hope each day that the journalism Women’s Enews produces will add to the possibility of safety for all of us. Please join me.

Rita Henley Jensen is the founder and editor in chief of Women’s Enews.

For more information:

The Sidran Institute
Traumatic Stress Education and Advocacy:

National Mental Health Association
“Anxiety Disorders–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”:

The Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Alliance:

For more information:

Men’s Resource Center of Western Massachusetts:

Honor Men Fighting to Protect Life, Ease Suffering

The first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the resonant images of men assisting others a year ago today offer us an opportunity to redefine our idea of masculinity and how America should respond to the tragedy, commentator Rob Okun argues.

Rob Okum

AMHERST, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–With the rising drumbeat for war against Iraq, citizens across the country are girding themselves for the waves of emotion we’re sure to ride today, this first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The unsettledness, the feelings of insecurity, the redoubled efforts to work for peace, the calls for bombing Baghdad–they are all at play this September, on town commons and city streets across the United States.

Amidst this sea of feeling, we must not forget one powerful image of caring men from a year ago: firefighters and police officers, rescue workers and medical personnel, selflessly struggling to preserve life and ease suffering.

We aren’t accustomed to poignant displays of emotion from men, and the depth of their feelings has largely been forgotten. But it is those very snapshots–the tears, the hugs, the expressions of sadness and vulnerability–that hold a key to our national health.

Over this past year the beauty and power of those images has been muted, overwhelmed by the “Wanted: Dead or Alive” bravado directed to bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks, especially the now rarely mentioned international outlaw, Osama bin Laden.

No Need for More Citizen Percussionists

We don’t need more citizen-percussionists joining in to beat the war drum. Rather, we need a chorus of citizens who remember those caring men to rise up to challenge the White House, a timid Congress and a mostly docile media. The current call for Iraqi blood, expressed through conventional masculine posturing, menacing demeanor, tough-talking bluster and a “my way or the highway” approach to foreign affairs has many of us feeling no more secure today than we did when we woke up last Sept. 12.

We have turned a blind eye to the most elementary question the nation had just begun to ask itself last fall: “Why do they hate us?” And we’ve squandered a precious year avoiding deeply peering into our national soul for answers.

Many U.S. citizens took comfort last fall listening to the Bush administration’s tough talk and tougher action. Who now remembers the three weeks of grace before we began our relentless bombing campaign that harmed far more Afghan citizens than it did members of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda gang? Who now remembers President Bush standing solemnly at a Washington mosque pleading the case for tolerance and restraint? If men and women disapprove of the Cheney-Bush brand of masculinity, now is the time to stand up and say so. If men and women disagree with the notion that diplomacy and dialogue aren’t what “real” men do, now is the moment to make their feelings known. Before Baghdad is turned to rubble, let’s tell the White House we don’t want the U.S. to be the policeman of the world.

Think of Bill Cosby’s Feminine Side

It is still not too late for the United States to begin taking a national moral inventory. The many acts of generosity and kindness our country performs around the world–our “kinder, gentler” brand of masculinity (think Bill Cosby’s feminine side)–are too often obscured by our history of arrogance, bullying and insensitivity (think Sylvester Stallone’s hyper-masculinity).

This anniversary can be about our nation endorsing a redefinition of men and masculinity. It’s “manly” to take a stand for nonviolence and tolerance. In this paradigm, declaring that Saddam Hussein is to September 2002 what Osama bin Laden was to September 2001 only perpetuates the old destructive model of masculinity that has gotten us into the mess we’re in.

There is great spirit in this country and great heart. This anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on what is best in us, our most hopeful vision of global harmony, including men’s open, unabashed feelings of vulnerability. Rather than beating the drums of war, let’s create a men’s chorus of peace, raising a communal voice in a call to personal and collective conscience. Perhaps as a nation we will choose to hear its distinctively male timbre calling out for compassion, for love, for understanding.

A psychotherapist in Amherst, Mass., Rob Okun is associate director of the Men’s Resource Center of Western Massachusetts, where he edits Voice Male magazine.

–Rob Okun, WEnews commentator.