After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning: A Memoir by Helaine Hovitz

Image of After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning
Release Date:
September 5, 2016
Carrel Books
Pages: 480
Reviewed by:

“Hovitz had the grit, determination and resources to pull herself out of the morass of PTSD. What about the rest of her generation growing up in this post-September 11 world?”

Author Helaina Hovitz in her book After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning provides us with a timely account of the seen and unseen damage searing experiences and memories shape.

In the book Hovitz shares her memories of that dread filled morning on September 11, 2001, when a neighbor, Ann, collected her children and then 12-year old Hovitz from their middle school as it was evacuated.

“’Don’t look up, don’t look back, just keep going!’’ Hovitz writes: “I was tiny so I had to fight my way through walls of people. . . . Before it was fun. An adventure. Now, it suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe, and maybe I couldn’t. In fact, I felt like I was going to faint. . . . ‘Oh my God, they’re jumping!’ Ann said . . . I kept hearing more sounds. Some reminded me of the crashing and grinding of garbage trucks, others of a heavy box suddenly dropped on the ground, others, still, hail hitting a window, only heavier, like a giant bag full of nails, creaking, slamming, booming.”

How does anyone survive psychologically intact from such horror experienced at the onset of adolescence—or at any age? But millions of New Yorkers have had to cope with PTSD to a greater or lesser degree after September 11 and so have many hundreds of millions of Americans, and indeed people from around the globe. Our world changed that day, and we are still dealing with the seismic aftershocks.

Helaina Hovitz, in understated prose, takes us with her on her path away from PTSD. She does not shy away from nor minimize the effects of her trauma. Years of therapy and counseling, growth into adulthood with not so deeply buried horrific memories that threaten to overcome her at any moment, panic attacks, her descent into sexual acting out, and alcoholism are all vividly laid out for us.

For Helaina, a university graduate, the path ends more or less happily at “This.”  “’This’ would be finalizing a book. ‘This’ would be attempting, with no prior business whatsoever to start-up a news service exclusively focused on inspiring and hopeful stories about people who are trying to make the future better.’ ‘This’ was dealing with chronic pain, for almost a ten years by then, trying tons of doctors and medications and therapies and getting nowhere.’ ‘This’ was doing it all stone-cold sober.’”

Hovitz had the grit, determination and resources to pull herself out of the morass of PTSD. What about the rest of her generation growing up in this post-September 11 world? How many of them have a shot at new beginnings akin to Helaina’s?

Recently on August 17, 2016, we were reminded of the devastating effects of such trauma when we saw the infinitely tragic image of Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy sitting in an ambulance seat in Aleppo, his hair, face and body covered in ash and blood. Since 9/11 so many hundreds of thousands of children have suffered death or grievous physical and psychological trauma in the Middle East and other conflicts. We read and see their stories daily in the media.

Throughout history witness-bearers through their stories provide personal glimpses into historic events that can otherwise become dates and place names and statistics. Hovitz’s book opens a window on one person’s journey in the aftermath of September 11. She has rendered a valuable service in adding her voice to the memory of this momentous interstice in world history.


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This is me, this past week, teaching a Philosophy class, in the same classroom, at the same school, as I have done for these past 29 years. I look happy, I am happy, I love teaching. If all there is to teaching is   teaching, then, on most days I feel I can teach for ever. But there are meetings, and duties, and obligations, and grades to compute and comments to write, and students to see, and parents to see, and visits to the college office, and plays and other performances and sports events to attend, and (did I mention meetings), new technology to master and more and more pressure on faculty and students alike as the college application process year-by-year encroaches on every corner of high school life. You grow older among a sea of perpetual youth so gradually that you hardly notice your own well of bountiful energy starts to dry up. If your time in the classroom invigorates you, all that time away from the class room drains your internal reservoirs. I am tired. This has been an unusually trying year of ups and downs and I feel it now. So this  is no time to make decisions. But for me the transition away from teaching in this pressured environment has already begun. One more year I have said, a heads up, so as to graciously exit (as a older friend once  called it) “the little stage” of the class room.

Transitions abound in my life as in your own. Elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school (usually) to college, college to (maybe)  grad school, and then usually a job. Along the way transitions to and from relationships, transitions through the individuating process in adolescence into new understandings of parents and family life, experiments with and questions around gender roles and sexuality. Transitions in serious relationships, surviving break up, heart ache, more commitment, then (maybe) marriage, children, divorce, second time around a better fit, illness, death. Children, and the unfolding of unconditional love. Big bumps suddenly in life’s smooth path; divorce or death of a (partner) spouse. How do we recover from those transitions? But we do, although gradually life’s bumps and bruises whittle away at our core.

When I had a recent significant birthday I treated myself to a session with a world famous astrologer (Lawrence Hillman) and he is as good as his reputation. At the end of the session he said you have to find a place you can call home. This statement made me ponder, didn’t my Buddhist teachings say home is where the heart is? Well, yes and no. Metaphorically, yes, but physically no; physically I’ve never much cared for the New England landscape although I love the shore villages in the summer and the tranquil Berkshire Hills, and the mountains of Vermont but New England can never replace my complete at-one-ness with the South African landscape I love. Never home. It is too cold and barren and dead for too much of the year. I crave flowers, color, bird song, scents, warmth and light, sunlight, I am a person of the light. My life is in the USA now. I am an African-American. And I’ve found “home” in south west Florida surrounded by the one-of-a-kind and magnificent Everglades that teeming estuarine environment of great white clouds and blue sky, birds, saw grass and fish. And light and warmth.

IMG_0307  This week my counselor suggested I write about transitions because she has so many clients (especially women) experiencing all of the above (and many more), all the time. So perhaps I will. I appreciate your feedback.

Note: The top photograph  © Milton Academy 2014; and the other © Janet Levine 2013.


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From the New York Journal of Books web site

The Last First Day: A Novel

by Carrie Brown.

Reviewed by Janet Levine | Released: September 17, 2013
Publisher: Pantheon (304 pages)

0307908038.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_For the past 30 years I have taught at a fairly large New England prep school in the Boston suburbs with an internationally diverse student body—co-ed—and both a boarding and day population. My experience is in many ways lightyears from that of Ruth van Dusen, the protagonist of The Last First Day.

Ruth has been the headmaster’s wife for over 30 years at a fictional, rural New England prep school, Derry School for Boys. But in essence, especially in the evocation of the school as a community—the surface clubby congeniality of the faculty, a world unto itself, a Petrie-dish of emotions, aspirations, disappointments, petty ambition, and empire-building—it is the same.

As another school year is launched Ruth prepares (as she has done for all these years) for welcome back faculty, party at their home—the headmaster’s house—scenes from her severely troubled childhood, courtship, and marriage flash through her mind.

Ruth’s husband Peter is the wise captain who has kept the school afloat through financial storms and social upheavals with a gracious demeanor and boundless tact. They have no children.

They are both aware that Peter—growing visibly older and afflicted with a rare illness—will soon lose his tenure and make way for a younger, more “modern” leader, one more in sync with the changing world of educational mores and innovative technology.

Ruth, at turns angry and sad, faces the loss of what she could have been if she had not willingly if reluctantly, subsumed her life into that of her husband and the school itself.

Carrie Brown utilizes the literary flashback device to an almost alarming degree as we move ever so slowly with Ruth through her catering preparations and her evening marking the van Dusen’s last opening of school. This is a meandering novel not in a hurry to tell its tale.

Ms. Brown works with words like a miniaturist painter does with color and detail. Scenes from the van Dusen’s courtship, early marriage, and later years merge into the slowly fading life of the present with its impending changes and challenges.

This nostalgic (maybe overindulgent) tale almost drowns under the slow, torpid flow of scenes; but we can relish the sensitively evoked detail, like a Vermeer painting, depicting the curves and sandbars of youthful love and then a long union. These are the driftwood and detritus washed up on the banks of a relationship in which both partners know one another too well and (from Ruth’s perspective) often not at all.


Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift.


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0307907619.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine

by Simon Critchley Jamieson Webster

Reviewed by Janet Levine | Released: June 25, 2013
Publisher: Pantheon (288 pages)

“Stay, Illusion! is not a graceful gavotte but a gallop through the fields of thought . . .”

Stay, Illusion! is a series of short (often very short) essays with an emphasis on developing a psychoanalytic and philosophical context for the world’s most famous play, Hamlet.

The thrust of the authors’ reflection here is not literary appreciation or even literary criticism but to develop a “philo-analytic” (my term) doctrine to contextualize the overwrought psyche of Prince Hamlet. This is not surprising as the authors are the husband and wife team Professor Critchley, a philosopher, and Dr Jamieson, a psychoanalyst.

The title of their Introduction to the book is Praised by Rashness and they acknowledge that they are not literary scholars and have chosen “a series of outsider interpretations of Hamlet” and continue that they are not “above rashness themselves” in their approach as they shape their doctrine. They conclude the Introduction sharing that they will proceed “rashly.”

In this process the authors succeed. Stay, Illusion! is not a graceful gavotte but a gallop through the fields of thought familiar to them and reined in by an almost whimsical tethering of their associative processes to specific references to the play. Riders who accompany them throughout the book are among the great modern philosophers and psychoanalysts such as Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Hegel, Melville, and Joyce, and others referenced, who happen to have written, mostly briefly, about Hamlet.

In Part 1, this wild ride takes readers through a brief but exhilarating summation of some of the major motifs in the play including the question: Why, for Hamlet, does thinking replace doing?

Part 2 notes those, “attempts to psychoanalyze the play’s eponymous hero.”

Part 3 links many of philosopher Nietzsche’s tenets in his first book The Birth of Tragedy to aspects of the play. The concise Conclusion makes the case for love being the strongest leitmotif in the play and, Ophelia, the true tragic hero(ine) of the play. Authors Critchley and Webster coyly end, “It is not without bucketfuls of shame that we write about Hamlet. . . . We are but unauthentic amateurs . . . this is essentially a book about nothing, for the love of nothing, for the nothing of love, for the love of Hamlet.”

So then, why write the book? Are these but two erudite Hamlet buffs writing a fan letter to the Bard? Are they strutting their “stuff,” the result of many a dinner conversation and Sunday afternoon talk, as they walk over the English countryside? Obviously Prof. Critchley and Dr. Webster can write; their prose sweeps the reader along.

But who are these readers? Shakespearean scholars (I number myself among them) will find this book adds nothing to their understanding of the text that has not been said before. In fact there is a utilitarian and facile quality to what lines of text the authors chose to quote—lines not to nudge the book toward a Hamlet doctrine—but to force fit the text to the philosophical and psychoanalytical doctrines of others.

Perhaps these are unfair questions to ask—the book entertains, refracts some new perspectives—and like the play remains illusive, enigmatic, forever out of reach.

A disclaimer: I teach and have taught the play Hamlet for over 25 years. Hamlet is the prototype modern Western man, filled with nihilistic angst and anxiety, neurosis and mad obsession.

The text, I believe, is all we need to try to understand this provocative and evocative young man.

Hamlet, the character, broke the mold of Elizabethan heroes of “the theater of revenge” and as such freed Shakespeare to stand (even now) head and shoulders above the great modern philosophers and psychoanalysts such as those referenced in this book.

Secondary sources abound in hundreds of books and thousands of theses and academic articles on Hamlet. But let the primary source “the play’s the thing” speak for itself.

defies doctrines; and fortunately we do not need anything else.


Janet Levine is an author of four books and a freelance journalist with decades of writing under her belt. Her book The Enneagram Intelligences: Understanding Personality for Effective Teaching and Learning, focuses on the impact of personality on education in both teaching and learning styles.


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Several times a year, with permission, I use this blog space to share student responses to what they are learning in my classroom. This is the response of a high school senior to an introduction to meditation practice.

1. The Universal Breath

The diamond mind of sharp, concentrated focus and the profound physical state of relaxation create a terrifyingly brilliant experience. Meditation, deeply and intricately connected to Eastern philosophical cultures, allows an individual to follow one’s own breath to find an inner state of harmony and to develop an awareness of one’s basic goodness. Compassion for one’s self and others is crucial in a harmonious society.  Through meditation, guided by the breath, one can leave the chaos and distractions of the external world for inner tranquility.  Few things are universal. However, the gentle inhale and exhale of breath, bringing oxygen to the bloodstream and thus enabling life is a common, shared experience throughout the human species.  In accordance with Eastern teachings, inner goodness—or the innate and natural tendency toward good—exists within every person, just like the breath.  With attention to the breath, one can journey to find ones inner goodness and gain the experiential knowledge that comes from meditating.

2. Confusion or Liberation

Many teachings of philosophy incorporate a metaphor indicative of the closed minded nature of the majority of human beings, whether it is the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s The Republic—where all the people watching the shadows on the walls of the cave are in utter disbelief of the world outside and shun the man who has seen beyond—or, as depicted in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the people who cannot look within themselves to find their own inner goodness and instead live in fear of themselves and the world around them.  Our consciousness manifests within the universe in two distinctive states: confusion or liberation.  Liberation is the state of enlightenment and meditation is the means by which one can access such a state of internal clarity, peace, and harmony.  As outlined in Shambhala, basic goodness is the innate good of “being alive” regardless of more material things such as “accomplishments or fulfilling our desires.” To acknowledge basic goodness is to recognize our “actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.” Through meditation, one can become awake, acknowledge the superficiality of society while maintaining an unshakable understanding of true, basic goodness. Meditation has given me a refuge as I have seen a glimpse of the universe within myself.

3. The Essence of Now-ness

A spiritual warrior is “one who is brave” and such bravery must manifest in “the tradition of fearlessness”; “ultimately…the definition of bravery [is] not being afraid of yourself.” I often feel disconnected and almost alienated from the world around me when my mind and body are pulled in different directions and even divisions of my mind—my heart, my soul, my conscious attention, my focus, etc—are at odds with one another.  In a chaotic world, it is easy to fall victim to compelling and yet opposing forces.  If one allows this to happen, the luxury of introspection is lost, as is the awareness of basic goodness. As “synchronizing mind and body is looking and seeing directly beyond language”, I find meditation weds my deepest, most profound inner conflict: how to understand science and religion in relation to one another.  The answer, lies within the gentle, peaceful harmony that is buried within each of our chests and can be traced to the gentle rise and fall of the chest with each deep inhale and each beautiful exhale.

Poet Li-Young Lee speaks about the power of the breath and how, when one pays attention to it and trains oneself to go beyond the shallow, superficial few seconds we have usually allot each breath, one can change their perspective.  With deep breath comes deep thought.  Reality transforms as we ground ourselves to be present in each moment as our lungs fill to their full capacity.  Meditation is a perpetual state of introspective focus, the union of body and mind, and comes to find peace within reality.  To be afraid of nothing is to be “experiencing that very moment of your state of mind, which is the essence of ‘now-ness’.”

4. Meditation—Access to Clarity and Alleviation of Fear

Throughout our guided meditations, I have become deeply invested in the experiential aspects of learning.  My personal experiences have been profound. In the first meditation, I focused intently on the breath.  I felt my lungs open as my posture improved, my shoulders rolled back and my head aligned with my spine. As breath pushed my diaphragm out, and my focused dropped from the tension of worldly thoughts, I felt the bright warmth of light radiate within my chest cavity.  To articulate my experience in the most juvenile of manners, I felt a tingle, an excitement that radiated from my concentration and my breath that I experienced as a child when waiting for Santa Claus to come, with his mystical reindeer and brightly wrapped presents, on Christmas Eve.  In coming out of the first mediation, I found it curious to equate the two experiences, but as I internalized the innate sensation, I realized that I found hope, pure joy, or, ultimately, unadulterated goodness through meditation.  As a child, this sensation is easily accessible, as we are not so grounded in the superficial realities we engage in later.  However, as we grow up, we fall into our roles in society, becoming fearful of the back corners of our minds.  Meditation is our access to clarity and alleviation of fear.

My second experience meditating came to me when I heard our teacher say, “Good, the energy in the room is much better now” as everyone’s focus had dropped from their heads to their bodies.  In a focused trance  I had forgotten those around me.  As I heard the vibrations of her voice, reminding me of their presence, I shifted my focus to the energies in the room.  Immediately, from the blank, dark of my mind, a spiraling gold light materialized, twisting towards me.  Shocked, I abandoned the image and dropped down to the breath once again.

Back in class, we spoke about transformational figures and monks who had devoted their entire lives to meditation.; we spoke of how those individuals have an incredible presence and that their goodness emanates from them at all times.  On some level, I believe that everyone has an energy that radiates from within.  Without the clutter of language and the trivialities of words exchanged, we can sense others’ presences as I intensely experienced in my meditation. Through meditation, we can find the true, good energy within ourselves and channel it.  The Dalai Lama responded in the movie “Kundun” when asked if he was the Lord Buddha, “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”  In this manner, each person has unknown, universal goodness within themselves that can be reflected in the eyes of others.

5. Harmony Between Mind and Body

In abandoning fear, in diving within myself, in finding harmony between body and mind, I have unearthed a compassion for those around me, as well as for myself. Fear inhibits our potential beyond belief and above my desk, I have the quote “Be fearless: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” as a constant reminder that so often, the bars of our cages—cages that define our social and cultural experiences in life—are fashioned from our own thoughts of fear and apprehension.  To release oneself from such negativity is to sit gently on the earth and allow the soul to reunite with the sky, to find harmony between body and mind is to access basic goodness.  To meditate is to find “drala”: “the unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that [go] beyond any dualism.” Meditation allows me to understand my ego and the societal cultivation of empty materialism so as to align myself with the metaphysical or the universal spirit of goodness.  Through meditation, I see myself, and those around me in relation to the earth and the sky.


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Yesterday I opened a Twitter account @jlevinegrp.

This is a big step. For months now many of my valued blog readers have asked me if I have a Twitter account so they can become a follower. So now I can shout out, “Yes, I do. Hope to connect with you.” Several factors coincided to move me to act now. The first is already stated. I am so grateful to all my blog readers and those who take the time to leave comments on the blogs. One hundred and ten thousand of you in the last three months! Thank you for being so loyal and proactive. Not all the comments make it onto the blogs, maybe I am too discerning a censor? I approve comments from people who use a personal name (as opposed to a business label), I try to catch and trash all the porn and references to porn, and political or other, propaganda. Unfortunately I can’t approve those in a language other than English (I don’t know what they contain) but do approve the occasional comment in French. If someone left a comment in Afrikaans or Dutch, I can respond to those, too.

Secondly, the pressure and temptation to be a member of a social network is overwhelming. I am a social person, I love forging connections, networking, and as I wrote in a previous blog, we live now largely  in a brave new world on a LCD lit screen that we hold on our hands, balance on our laps or spend hours with on our desks. Addiction, did anyone say the word, addiction? This pressure only increased when recently I received an e-mail from an older friend, whom I mentioned in that same blog as being an unlikely kindle owner, asking me to be her friend on Facebook. This was a revelation to me and I decided (as they say) that I had better get with the program.

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“If only there was a cure for unhappiness.”

The other day someone spoke those words to me accompanied by a heartfelt sigh. Unhappiness is a burden we carry at times and it can be debilitating. Is there a cure? It is easier to contemplate the idea that we cause much of our unhappiness by attaching so much energy and attention to the cause—loss, unwelcome change, illness, our own or that of someone we are close to, disappointment and so on—than to change our state of mind about the situation. Yet change our attitude is exactly what we need to do. As Hamlet in the famous Shakespeare play of the same name says, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Here are some proven “cures.”

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