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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tumblr_oakla4rnMS1vz8wnzo1_500Image published by Huffington Post, August 10

My Thought #1  I feel pity for Donald Drumpf because now I see him for what he is—yes, you read correctly—pity and sorrow, but still despising and despairing about what he stands for and what he’s done to our country. He is a cowardly braggart, narcissist, and both ego- and megalomaniac. These are but words to describe a very sick man. He is a bull gone amok in a china shop and now that he has almost shattered everything around him; exhausted, bewildered, he remains determined to bring the whole building down around your ears and mine.

Conflagration date; during the weeks before and after November 8; if, indeed anything is left of our political process by then.

Are you reading this Donald? A wise person told me that when someone is pointing a finger of blame at another, three fingers point back at—them. Do you get it?

Doesn’t a Drumpf yuuuuuge vacation seem like a good idea right now—for his own and all our sakes?

He is simply the most out-of-control and the most dangerous, unaware, unconscious and unconscionable public persona in American history. Not our first racist bigot, not our first fascist, but our first demagogue who channels Benito Mussolini and the far lesser but equally horrifying, (his “friend”) Roger Stone. Drumpf’s name will live on in infamy.

(The Guardian August 9): Roger Stone, an informal adviser to the Trump campaign, implied last month to internet agitator Milo Yiannopoulos that the notion of discrediting the election as “illegitimate” is part of Trump’s campaign strategy.

Stone’s maladvice to Drump

“I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone said. “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.’”

“If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts,” Stone continued. “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”

This is what I mean by “conflagration”. Come on folks, we are hearing this very script pertaining to Pennsylvania for a week already; except he is not leading in Pennsylvania.

Who can save this very sick man—and us—from all our worst nightmares manifesting? His children can, if they approach him along with his innocent grandchildren, and lead him gently out of the china shop. But Ivanka &Co, better ask him to get his foot out of his mouth first if he wants to walk and not fall and be carried out by them.


Thought #2 President Obama’s reading list is impressive in its eclecticism:

“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

“H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

I’ve only read “H is for Hawk”, an excellent book being made into a movie. Read a review






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This past weekend I volunteered at a Democratic Party phone bank in Florida calling registered Democratic voters. I made around one hundred calls. Many I reached said they are with her but about TEN PERCENT, ALL lifelong Democrats, said they are undecided. When I probed a little the resounding response was why does she lie—and continue to evade being straightforward and honest—about her use of a private email server for classified emails when she was Secretary of State. They truly wanted to vent their disappointment and doubt.

I tried to re-assure them stating that she has apologized, said she made a mistake and it won’t happen again–their response? Why does this keep happening and why can’t she come out with an authentic, from the heart, simple statement?

Well, why can’t she? I don’t know the answer to that question.

Just this past week she muddied the waters again by saying she may have “inadvertently” “short-circuited” her responses to official and unofficial investigations around this email issue. The media zeroed in on the “short-circuited” and omitted the “inadvertently”. This is what the media does and after twenty-five years in public life Hillary should have learned to choose her words more carefully…or if she has a problem talking off the cuff…simply speak truthfully from the heart. (I don’t believe she has a problem fielding questions given her debate performances, but then she’s talking policy and not miring herself deeper and deeper in personal issues. She keeps a shield between herself and her public.)

“Authenticity”, “sincerity” and “missing” are two words I heard repeatedly.

Other phone bank volunteers with me reported the same unease among people they called. We asked the paid organizers to pass this feedback up the chain, and they said they would. Other people have shared with me that at fund raising and other Democratic Party events, this remains the number one troubling concern for previous Democratic voters.

If this is a problematic issue in Florida (critical swing state) and around the country, my ten percent of responders can quickly amount to millions of votes lost for Hillary and hundreds of Democratic Party members “down-ticket” running for office–from the local to national level.

Driving home and thinking about this, I now believe supporters do trust Hillary and her experience and ability to govern but question her inability not to obfuscate.

So, for me it is her perceived lack of humility and grace under pressure that is bothering them at a visceral level. They are looking for an opening to support her whole-heartedly but these niggles remain.

This Monday morning’s election headlines reported that Tim Kaine, Hillary’s running mate for the presidential election on November 8 said over the weekend that Hillary and the campaign are aware of “trust” and “trustworthiness” issues with voters. He also said that when Hillary and he are in the White House there would be “total transparency.”

I am pleased to read and hear this and that his comments are so widely covered by reporters. But there is more that needs to be done. We need to hear this from her!



Produce a simple short ad with Hillary acknowledging that the email issue continues to shadow her campaign. Have her say, while sitting at a kitchen table as she did in the Convention video, all homey and casual and humble, so as to connect with all voters:

“I hear you. I know many of you are still worried about issues of the email server when I was Secretary of State. But that was more the four years ago. I’ve learned my lesson. I made a mistake. I apologize unequivocally to all of you who support us, and our causes. Here is our promise. Tim and I will strive to do our best for you and honor, explicitly, your trust.”

Then post/send this key quote to every social media and other media (print, TV) outlet and Internet tools you have. Share/blast the heck out of it!

I will continue to volunteer for Hillary—this election is too important for us to sit out.

But, it will be excellent if the campaign committee can help her help herself and all of us!

Hope you read this Donna Brazile!!



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For most of my adult life I’ve been an educator, as well as a freelance journalist and an author, an international expert on the psychology of personality, and since the age of thirteen an anti-apartheid activist in my motherland, South Africa.

Let’s start there—the racist ideological madmen whom we opposed in South Africa at least believed in something, albeit a despicable racist ideology.

Drumpf believes in nothing except himself and his brand…and that’s it. He is non-empathic and unaware of the damage his lies do to other Americans and his country. He’s a racist. He’s a psychologically impaired ego- and megalomaniac. He is in the same league as all the most infamous villains of history. That alone should disqualify him for President.

Drumpf is the most pervasive negative role model for our children and grandchildren.

I’ve written a book on parenting, I’ve taught hundreds, if not into the low thousands of highly intelligent, young people, about moral responsibility, human rights, reality and illusion, and perhaps, most importantly, how to think and write critically.

* Drumpf models that it’s perfectly acceptable to be an ill-prepared, foul-mouthed, morally blind ignoramus. As long as you can lie and lie again, and bully and browbeat, you can be President.

*Drumpf models to them that bluster and bullying, screaming obscenities at individuals and groups is acceptable —after all he’s running for President; he’s the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, he must be okay.

* Drumpf lies and double downs, contradicts himself, lies again. He is a national embarrassment. He is a vaudeville villain, a clown, a con man, a cheat, a liar, a liar, and a liar.

HE IS A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR. He models to America and the world’s children that it’s okay to lie. And lie, and lie.

* He signals to America’s allies and enemies that his word is NEVER TO BE TRUSTED.

* He signals to Americans not only that can WE NEVER TRUST HIM but the sure road ahead if he becomes President will be to upend 240 years of progress, of tearing up the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

*He is the greatest danger to America’s future and that means the international order too.

Can you imagine Drumpf trying to deal with a major catastrophe; he’ll blame the victims.

He’ll shirk responsibility. He won’t spend time in the White House; he’ll go back to his shyster business dealings. He and his wife will visit occasionally. Pence will be our president except in name…. and on and on.

My heartfelt appeal is directed to Republican leaders TO DITCH DRUMPF. Let’s put our country back on a path of sanity. He is America’s greatest failure.



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Barkskins: A Novel by Annie Proulx

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Reviewed by:

“Over 300 years the forests are raped, eco-systems destroyed, wealth generated, and the insatiable international desire and greed for wood exploited.”

Annie Proulx, the author of Barkskins is an accomplished American writer. She has achieved the status of grande dame of American letters and deservedly so. An earlier book, The Shipping News, is a stellar work, one with teeth and grit, lyricism and poignancy, dark as well as magical moments. That book remains a pioneer at the frontier of American fiction, as her protagonist, Quoyle, exists in one of the first portrayals of a single father as a heroic figure through the travails and triumphs of his small, dysfunctional family.

If readers hope for more of the same in Barkskins they will be disappointed. The book is overlong, the storylines confusing, the insertion of pages and pages of albeit interesting facts about daily life in the towering, primeval forests—the utensils, the logging tools, the clothes, the traditions, rites and rituals of all the people who meet, clash, and intermingle—are shared in almost overwhelming detail, so as to slow and even disrupt the novel. It is as if Proulx insisted on using all the detail she had accumulated in her ten years of research and writing of Barkskins. At the very moment we are engrossed in one of the story lines we are dragged back to arcane documentation.

The book opens in 1693 when two indentured Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in Canada—New France—to serve as woodcutters for an eccentric feudal lord who built a grand chateau deep in the forests for his future bride (when he finds one).

Sel is forced to marry a native Mi’kmaw woman, and his progeny, through generations, vacillate between the two worlds of their generators—French frontiersmen and native Canadians or “original people.”

Duquet escapes his servitude to gain a foothold on the wealth the territory offers through fur-trapping, trading, and later enterprising forays into timber. He founds, and his descendants (later changing their last name to Duke), now timber barons, forge an international empire.

Both families’ genealogical lines are tied to trees, natural disasters, unexpected plot twists and turns—in frontier Quebec, then Michigan and hundreds of years later in the kauri forests of New Zealand.

Over 300 years the forests are raped, eco-systems destroyed, wealth generated, and the insatiable international desire and greed for wood exploited.

Overall the writing is fluid, and as would expect of Proulx her characters are exposed to states of the human condition from veniality to love. There are too many characters and episodes to cite here, but among the most intriguing is the union of Kuntaw, one of Sel’s grandsons and Beatrix Duquet, a granddaughter of Charles, and their life near the Penobscot people, river and bay in Maine. This union (although they never married) is one where descendants of the Sel and Duquet families unknowingly for many years in the second half of the eighteenth century, amalgamated their lives. They had no offspring.

Kuntaw and Beatrix meet on the muddy banks of the river:

He stood a few yards back from the horse and looked at the girl. She was elegant, wearing a black cloak edged in red. Something about her dark-ivory face said she was part Indian.

“You like to make some money?” she asked moving close. She lifted her head and inhaled his odor of smoke, meat and pine pitch.

He shrugged. “What do?”

“Split wood of course.” She enunciated very carefully. ‘You carry an ax. Do you know how to split firewood?”

He nodded. “I know.”

“I need you, Indian man. Follow.” Beatrix Duquet turned her horse and trotted gracefully toward the big house, he had to run to keep up with her. Watching her long crinkled hair sway, the bright heels of her boots, he felt a wave of enchantment strike him like warm rain. So, in his thirtieth spring, began the strangest part of his life, as he seemed to stumble out of the knotted forest and onto a shining path.

Barkskins is an epic saga but unlike many of James Michener’s epic historical sagas or others such as The Thornbirds by Australian, Colleen McCullough, or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, to name only a few, Barkskins does not have the sweep and flow of history that keeps one reading through the night.

Perhaps the material here would be better served as eco-nonfiction, such as John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, Bill McKibbon’s The End of Nature, or Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and influence this and successive generations to save the planet and specifically in Proulx’s case, the forests that are left on our planet before they are denuded; however, as eco-fiction it falls below Annie Proulx’s admittedly extraordinarily high standards.

Perhaps her intention all along is to write a cautionary tale about the environmental catastrophe we have already wrought.

Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go well together. —George Santayana

By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects. —Lynn White, Jr.

These epigraphs certainly suggest the reason for Annie Proulx’s book encompassing the polemical tilt toward recording so thoroughly this irreparable damage.


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Image of Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War
Reviewed by:

“a well-written, family memoir that tackles broad questions of identity . . .”

Their Promised Land is somewhat quirky: compelling and heartwarming in parts but also long-winded and unremarkable in others. Ian Buruma, the author, is well known in trans-Atlantic literary and intellectual circles as a journalist and socio-political commentator. He teaches politics and writing at Bard College outside of New York City. In this book he is at his best when he philosophizes about individual and familial issues within an often indifferent societal context.

Buruma’s grandparents of the title, Bernard (Bun) and Win had five children. Buruma’s mother was a Schlesinger daughter and his father a Dutchman. The young Buruma grew up in Holland but often visited his grandparents and the extended Schlesinger family in England. The book is developed around the extensive correspondence the author found, long after his grandparents’ deaths, in which with great loyalty and devotion they wrote to one another—whenever they were apart—through their long and frustrating courtship, the First World War, and then the Second World War. These letters are a remarkable record of an ordinary family living in extraordinary times.

Or maybe not quite such an ordinary family.

Both Bernard and Win were English born children of German Jewish immigrants who left Germany for England in the late 1800s. They lived within a few blocks of one another in Hampstead, now a polyglot and diverse suburb of London; then, a German Jewish enclave of wealth, privilege, intellectual fervor and passion for classical music. Aside from their love for one another, their children, and the English countryside, their love of classical music served as a formidable tie. Win was an accomplished violinist, Bernard a music aficionado. Music brought out his deepest emotions and often moved him to tears.

Bernard’s father amassed substantial wealth, and his generosity aided their large and growing family (five children including a son, the famed film director John Schlesinger, the author’s deceased uncle) to live in the manner to which Win and Bernard were accustomed—private schools, holidays abroad, large houses in the countryside—where Win became an adept gardener—stalwart in local village activities, and household help. As Buruma remembers, Christmas was a bravura performance for Win and Bernard, as if by outdoing the neighbors they could be persuaded that this assimilated Jewish family was of the essence of “county English.”

As Buruma tells us “everything about their lives seemed very, very English.” And, “Their loyalty to Britain and its institutions was perhaps extreme, but it came partly from gratitude. The society in which they were born and bred did not turn on them, as Germany had done on its most loyal citizens.” Still, many Britons regarded Jews in their midst as exotic and many resorted to ugly stereotypical responses. Win and Bernard’s pride allowed them to simply ignore these attitudes.

As a young man, Bernard, happy-go-lucky and a rugby player, scarcely completed high school before enlisting to serve in WW1. Win, a few years younger, studied at Oxford but interrupted her studies to train as a nurse at Beech House, a London hospital for injured British Jewish soldiers. Eventually she did graduate from university. After the war Bernard completed his medical studies but was refused a residency at a prestigious London hospital, and he later learned it was because of his Jewish ancestry. Nonetheless he enrolled again to serve in the Second World War and was posted to India as a medical officer who rose there to the highest ranks of medical service administration.

During his absences Win stoically kept the home fires burning in true British “stiff upper lip” fashion, raising the children, doing her duty as required for the war effort, and writing long letters of genteel country life to Bernard.

Undoubtedly their legacy rests on their efforts in the late 1930s to adopt 12 Jewish refugee children from Germany, arrange for their transfer, meet the trains carrying them, buy a house in London to house them, hire a young rabbi to look after them, and then to pay for all their studies. Among the most touching pages of the book are the descriptions of the constant reunions of these refugees with Win and Bernard as they became adults, married, and had families of their own.

Buruma explores with sensitivity questions of class, culture, and identity by looking at how his own grandparents lived as “outsiders who were insiders too.” As he writes, “Devotion to ‘the family’ was perhaps the most Jewish thing about them. The family offered safety, protection, and a refuge. It is a recurring theme in Bernard’s letters and intimately linked to his idea of a ‘haven’. . . . He cultivated a rather Victorian idea of domestic tranquility, a mixture of English coziness and German Gemütlichkeit, something Jews of a different class would have called heimisch.”

And Win, in her letter dated March 2, 1943 writes: “Today, while I was gardening, a time when many thoughts and philosophies run through my mind—I said to myself there are just two things in this world which make me proud and eternally thankful. One is that I am an English woman, privileged to live in the most wonderful country in the world, and the other is that I won the unique and faithful love of such a man as you.”

This book is the uplifting record of a good marriage through almost a century of great horror and darkness.

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Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966

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Reviewed by:

“A satisfying read on many levels . . .” 

Fragrant Palm Leaves is the work of a person in his mid-thirties coming to terms with realistic acceptance of the meanings that arise from his monk’s training and leadership role in trying to reform Buddhism in his country, Vietnam. Included in these musings are the great possibilities of leadership and mission as well as significant disappointments of personal loss.

The strength of the journals lies in Hahn’s honesty in his writing. The journal entries are not private musings but poignant and often powerful reflections, inspirational messages directed at his followers. A controversial figure in Vietnam as he went into to exile (for the first time) in May 1966, he wrote that he doubted if the collection would pass the censors. “If it can’t be published, I hope my friends will circulate it among themselves.”

The memoir opens in 1962 in mid-winter at Columbia University in Manhattan and at Princeton University in New Jersey. Thay is in exile from Vietnam for his controversial challenges of the government and the traditional Buddhist hierarchy in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his eighties now, is a Zen Buddhist master, a peace activist and the founder of global Communities of Mindfulness. He has written scores of books and is known affectionately by followers as “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese).

In the first section of the journals many striking descriptions of Thay’s reminiscences of the secluded mountain monastery and retreat he built with his friends and comrades—monks and nuns—at the place they named Phuong Boi contrast with his descriptions of the stark winter beauty of an American northeastern winter. “Phuong” means “fragrant” and “boi” is a palm leaf on which the “teachings of the Buddha were written in ancient times.”

Anyone who has resonated with a “place of the heart” now lost to them will be powerfully moved by Thay’s descriptions of life at idyllic Phuong Boi and his sheer joy in the beauty he finds there. His realization that he cannot remain attached to this place is a lesson for us all. As he writes, quoting another monk, “Phuong Boi doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Phuong Boi.”

Whether it is in the starry sky in Vietnam or a winter storm in New Jersey, in any place he lives Thay finds solace and cosmic connection to nature. “I still respond to the call of the cosmos . . . with all my body, with every atom of my being, every vein, gland and nerve, I listen with awe and passion. That is how I feel when I hear the call of sky and earth.”

Among many other reflections Thay touches on the passing of youth and the permanency of truth. He shares several instances of his own growing realizations on the nature of reality and illusion. These moments contain the clarity of awakened understanding. They are illuminating and encourage us to continue in our practices knowing that we, too, can experience the conviction of Truth. “How can we continue to live if we were changeless? To live we must die every instant. We must perish in the storms that make life possible. I cannot force myself back into the shell I’ve broken out of.”

Thay returns to Vietnam in 1964 after his stint lecturing in the USA and although Phuong Boi has fallen into ruin in the tropical environment, he and his cadre of followers devise Buddhist practices in the impoverished rural village communities where they find themselves. These practices are the bedrock from which will evolve the Communities of Mindfulness that Thay will establish around the globe. Several years later Thay goes into permanent exile and settles in France where he builds Plum Village, a monastery and retreat center serving thousands of followers over many decades. There are several Communities of Mindfulness in the United States committed to serving the spiritual needs of all.

A satisfying read on many levels: a great introduction to Thay’s ideas, to the majesty of his poetic writing, and to understanding the inspiration for his spiritually based activism.

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