Yvonne Roberts says now is the time for
America’s belief in therapy to be embraced by its leaders.
The day the world was irreversibly altered.
Survivors, eyewitnesses and rescue workers; relatives and friends,
many of whom were the recipients of desperately moving and
courageous last messages of love conveyed by mobile phone – in the
long and terrible aftermath, how will they cope?
How will America’s citizens come to terms, on
a personal and private level, with such a cataclysmic series of
acts? How too will they make sense of the individual role that was
cast for many of them by an accident of fate? One man, for
instance, arrived 10 minutes late for work at the World Trade
Centre because his baby had kept him awake. He lived, many of his
Barbara Olsen wanted to have breakfast with
her husband on his birthday so she changed her Monday flight to
Tuesday. She took American Airlines flight 77 which crashed into
the Pentagon. Theodore Olsen’s birthday will be forever branded. “I
wish it wasn’t so,” he said simply, “but it is.”
The American writer, Jay McInery, has
described the confusion of emotions experienced by many New
Yorkers. “I want to hug strangers. I want to hurt strangers.
Everyone I have spoken to is feeling indiscrimnantly compassionate
and furiously vengeful.”
Americans are accustomed to living in a
society in which violence fills the TV screen and documentaries
peddle gory criminal reality. None of this could prepare them, or
us, however, for viewing death “in real time”, as one man put it.
Spectators in the street cried as bodies fell from the World Trade
Ironically, perhaps, that for which America
has often been mocked and derided, may now stand it in good stead.
At times, it has appeared as if the entire country is either on the
psychiatrist’s couch or buying self-help manuals by the truck load
when not learning how to love its inner child.
Self-esteem is the most used phrase on the
American talk show circuit. Oprah Winfrey has popularised the
language of therapy and given credence to the basic “right” to feel
good about yourself – and to do something about it, when you feel
A cynic might call this an exercise in
national narcissism; a degree of self-absorption that only the
richest country in the world can afford. But, during this still
unfolding crisis, as each day triggers a fresh maelstrom of
conflicting emotions, it has to be a bonus that therapeutic
discourse is such a strong tradition. And the expectation exists
that a person will seek help. Britain’s stiff upper lip,
thankfully, is alien to the USA’s caring professions.
How America, as a super-power, deals with its
new vulnerability is now preoccupying international politics. The
language is extremely bellicose. If only George Bush and the hawks
in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill would, like so many individual
Americans, look inward and, out of the trauma, fashion a matured
psyche for the nation; one which does not feel the need to hide its
fears and insecurities with mass retaliation and destruction.