Book Review: 'What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist who Tried to Kill Your Wife?: A Memoir' by David Harris-Gershon
Review by Susan Grigsby
The thing that really sucks about life are the shades of grey. How much simpler life would be if everything was neat and tidy and always stayed within the lines. And how complicated life gets once we acknowledge that good and evil aren't always as easily defined and contained as we want to believe them to be.
We want to believe that those on our side are the good guys, and that those who attack us are the evil bad guys. The introduction of the fact that that guys on both sides are human beings with mixed motivations and the capacity for both good and evil, screws everything up. It makes simple answers difficult to find and less likely to be satisfying.
Raised in a conservative Jewish family, David Harris-Gershon considered Palestinians, if he gave much thought to them at all, to be the bad guys. "Growing up, I just thought of Palestinians as another enemy of the Jewish people,” he said. “I thought of them as a caricature of evil. And that is sadly common among American Jews.”
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.”
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.
Most Daily Kos readers are familiar with David Harris-Gershon (aka The Troubador) from his work's frequent appearance on the Recommended List. Clear and accessible as always, his prose in this book is compelling 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.
While Mohammad’s murderous plot had brought me face-to-face with an undeniably barbarous element woven into the fringe of Palestinian society, I had also been brought face-to-face with his family. And what I saw was a normal people. A kind people. A broken people. I saw a people who feared military uniforms, feared casual bureaucratic encounters, feared a knock on the door telling them that a child had been taken to prison.
I saw a people who feared helicopters and the sky in which they hovered.
I saw a people who feared midnight raids and indefinite detentions.
A people who feared armed, uniformed teenagers.
A people tired of the fear.
Tired of the suffering.
Tired of the shame.
You need to read the book.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.