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What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife?: A Memoir Paperback – August 22, 2013
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*Starred Review* Readers can be forgiven for expecting Harris-Gershon to tread on familiar ground in his Memoir of Jerusalem. But this enormously compelling title smashes preconceived notions while delivering an unforgettable and provocative story about the roots of terrorism and the nature of victimhood. Initiated after the author struggled for years with the emotional aftermath of his wife’s traumatic injuries from the 2002 terrorist bombing of Hebrew University, this book is as much about trying to write about what happened as it is an attempt to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. In alternating chapters, Harris-Gershon details the couple’s personal story while juxtaposing it with his ongoing historical research. He doesn’t shy away from the complicated politics and provides a concise background to both the Israeli and Palestinian positions while recounting his own attempts to understand how they came to be locked in their adversarial relationship. As he works his way toward meeting the convicted terrorist who tried to kill his wife, Harris-Gershon finds himself considering how a man becomes a monster. Bracing, intense, and relentless, this is a book about how we as humans get to the darkest of places and the questions we must ask to find our way out. A transformative reading experience. --Colleen Mondor
"Fierce... A tale of redemption and new beginnings and of truly embracing the other. Harris-Gershon’s story is not really about Middle East politics so much as it is a story of healinga debate about whether South Africanstyle reconciliation and restorative dialogue can really bring about closure after an event of unspeakable pain and violence." Slate
"Brave and impressive." Guardian
"It is a story about how a great personal trauma can lead to a journey that upends long-held beliefs and ideas. The terrific thing about this book is that the author manages to tell his story without sentimentality, grandiose pronouncements, or false humility. He pulls the reader in with his unpretentious, laconic style, and with his refusal to shy away from acknowledging his own flaws." Daily Beast
"This enormously compelling title smashes preconceived notions while delivering an unforgettable and provocative story about the roots of terrorism and the nature of victimhood... Bracing, intense, and relentless, this is a book about how we as humans get to the darkest of places and the questions we must ask to find our way out. A transformative reading experience." Booklist, starred review
"An arduous, brave, messy, raw, emotional journey." Kirkus Reviews
"Harris-Gershon's prose and storytelling abilities are matched only by his deep and moving compassion and humanity, all of which spillout on every page of this amazing book." Tim Wise, author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son
"This book is an act of forgiveness. It does what all great non-fiction does, which is to look with ruthless honesty at that which is most beautiful and terrible within all of us - friend, enemy, lover, stranger. A beautifully written, brave and compassionate book." Sarah Messer, author of Red House
"An immensely compelling and intelligent memoir that leads the reader through anger and confusion towards reconciliation and hope." Richard Zimler, author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and The Warsaw Anagrams
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After this life-changing experience, David took on the role of strong, loving spouse. His own emotions were put away; after all, he was not the one injured in the bombing, how could his feelings matter? When Jamie was healed enough, the couple left Israel and started a life in Washington DC and a family. Jamie used therapy to deal with her trauma, and was helped to heal. David found therapy unhelpful (though it helped with some of his physical symptoms).
His healing began when he read that the bomber, now in an Israeli prison, had expressed remorse. He was unable to process this information; Palestinians were the enemy, they were evil, the "other," not people who could feel remorse. This began a journey, both emotionally and literally, that would take him through a course of study of the history of Israel and Palestine, of the process of truth and reconciliation in South Africa, of the decision to go to grad school to write a book about his experience, and ultimately to the home of the bomber's family.
David's writing is taut and clear, the kind of writing that can keep you up all night, as it did me as I neared the end. It is brave; I found myself wondering how he could so openly explain his process, his learning about different realities and finally about himself. He is as clear about his denial as he later is about his process of recovery from trauma, which he was able to see as his trauma as well as Jamie's.
You will learn much from this book about the middle east, about South Africa, about PTSD, about love, about a man's journey to wholeness. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
One would think that the experiences that Harris-Gershon and his wife had in Israel would only have reinforced that opinion.
On July 31, 2002, while David Harris-Gershon was enjoying a lunch of pasta and tomato pesto at their home in Jerusalem, his wife Jamie was in the student cafeteria at the Hebrew University, cramming for an exam with a couple of friends.
The two Americans had met and married in the States and traveled to Israel for a year of study at the Pardes' Educators Program. One year led to three as they both enrolled in a two year graduate program at Hebrew University for their Masters in Jewish Education.
So it was that Jamie was at the cafeteria, that July afternoon, just leaning over to retrieve her study materials, when the backpack bomb went off, killing her two friends and seriously injuring her. Later that night at the hospital, Jamie's surgeon presented David with a misshapen nut that had flown from the backpack bomb into Jamie's small intestine, saying, "Sometimes people want these things."
By December of that year, Jamie's physical recovery had progressed well enough that the couple returned to the States, settling in the Washington DC area, him to teach and her to await the birth of their first daughter. Jamie began the hard work of her emotional recovery, while David simply denied his trauma. After all, he wasn't at the University that day. He had not been hurt by the terror attack. If anything, he had failed to protect his wife - he was clearly not a victim.
Except that of course, he was. He was suffering from many of the PTSD symptoms, not even knowing that there was such a thing as Secondary PTSD, or secondary traumatic stress disorder. Although not a diagnosis under the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, it is a very real syndrome:
'Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist and professor of social work at Tulane University, wrote in his 1995 book, "Compassion Fatigue, Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder," that secondary traumatic stress is "the natural consequent behaviors resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person."' - The Jewish Chronicle
No matter how hard he tried to deny it, the stress was taking its toll on him, causing breathing difficulties, worsening his insomnia, taunting him with exaggerated threats of harm to his family. Unable or unwilling to accept therapy, he struggled alone with his demons.
And then one day he read that the terrorist, Mohammad Odeh, now in an Israeli jail, expressed remorse for the bombing. Everything stopped for Harris-Gershon at that moment and he immediately began an almost manic attempt to verify that statement of regret. To meet this man.
Knowing that he could never forgive, he did want desperately to understand, hoping that understanding might lead to healing. He began exploring reconciliation, wondering what the South Africans found at the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Could reconciliation work without revenge? He made contact with others who were also dealing with unbearable pain created by political violence. And he decided he needed to meet with Mohammad Odeh.
He connected with Leah Green of the Compassionate Listening Project who helped him to reach out to the Odeh family who agreed to meet with him. His journey led him to a home in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, where he met with the family of the terrorist who tried to kill his wife.
Clear and accessible Harris-Gershon's prose in this book is compelling, honest, and at times lyrical. Planning to read for an hour or two before bed, I read until four in the morning, unable to put the book down.
It is a riveting account, not only of the bombing, but of the Harris-Gershons' attempt to rebuild their lives, coming home to the United States, the births of their two daughters, and of his return to the Middle East. The self-deprecating humor often found in the internal dialogues which he conducts with himself and with inanimate objects, leavens the dark nature of the tale.
But the book isn't just a memoir. Harris-Gershon explores the roots of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the politics leading up to the July 2002 Hebrew University attack, the intifada, and the impact of the occupation upon the Palestinians. Both David's wife and her attacker play background roles because this book is not simply about a bombing in Jerusalem.
Society has developed ways to deal with and assist both the direct victims and the perpetrators of terrorism. Prison for one and intensive physical and emotional therapy for the victims.
What I learned from this thought provoking book is the need to address the trauma of the secondary victims. For every primary victim, there must be a dozen or more family members and friends who are traumatized as well. And for the Palestinians there must be an equal number of secondary trauma victims of artillery shells and the oppressive nature of occupation.
And how many are even aware that they are suffering from a form of PTSD? That they too, are victims. How many simply trade the pain and fear for hate? Perhaps because reconciliation is hard and hate is easy and it is re-inforced by both cultures.
I don't know, anymore than Harris-Gershon knew that his visit to the Odeh family would help him to find closure, reconciliation or peace. But sometimes, you have to try anyway, because nothing else has worked.
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My answer, of course, is a coffin..an eye for an eye...Read more