In radio and newspaper interviews I’ve done recently, a singular question has been asked more than any other: if your wife was the one injured in a terrorist attack, why are you the one telling your story?
It’s a similar question I asked myself when, in the wake of the 2002 Hebrew University bombing, I began suffering from PTSD-like symptoms. Hyperventilating in public and unable to sleep at night, I’d ask myself, Why are you not okay? You weren’t injured, your body wasn’t pierced by shrapnel, you’re not a victim. Why must you behave as one?
And it was this thought – you’re not a victim – that prevented me from seeking help, even after my wife had gained a remarkable measure of psychological healing after the attack. It wasn’t until years later, researching secondary victimhood as I prepared to reconcile with the family of the Palestinian bomber who tried to kill my wife, that I came to understand just how wrong I was.
For in trying to understand myself and my motivations for such a reconciliation quest, I came to understand that secondary trauma is not just real. It can be just as powerful and debilitating as the primary trauma itself. I came to learn that secondary victimhood exists not just in the victim’s imagination, but in clinical research as well.
This is something I explore in my memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? For in the book, I examine psychological studies which show that journalists who cover traumatic events often exhibit the exact same psychological distresses as the primary victims they cover. And sometimes, remarkably, spouses of war veterans will not only exhibit identical PTSD symptoms as their partners, but will sometimes respond to the exact same stimuli – the blades of a helicopter overhead, fireworks erupting – despite never having set foot on a battlefield.
For many years after the Hebrew University attack, I refused to view myself as a victim – refused to give myself such license – even as I struggled to breathe and sleep.
Today, when asked by journalists why I’ve written a memoir, and not my wife, I breathe deeply and say: because we were both victims, and this is my story.
Being compared to Philip K. Dick is great, especially when they secretly mean “will die a penniless paperback writer at the age of fifty-three.” In other words, such a comparison doesn’t exactly invite trust.
My new novel, Osama, recently came out. It’s available on the Kindle, and in a fancy hardcover edition from its small, UK-based publisher. It got rejected more times than Andie Macdowell’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral had sex (“less than Madonna, more than Princess Di… I hope”). One can see why. For one thing, it’s called Osama.
The comparison I mention is, specifically, to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, made recently by reviewers for both the UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Financial Times. Yes, I’m tooting my own horn here. Someone has to! But of course Osamaowes a huge debt to Dick’s brilliant alternative history, where the United States has lost World War Two and is divided between the victorious Germans and Japanese.
But I was thinking about Philip K. Dick a lot recently. He’s a constant reminder of Gustave Flaubert’s maxim, “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Forget riches: for that matter, forget holidays, new clothes or a square meal more than once a week. Forget fame, either. Even notoriety is hard to come by these days. And forget respect: you’ll get reviews comparing your work, variously, to processed cheese or toilet paper, and you’ll be glad someone even noticed.
And yet and still. I can’t imagine doing anything better. Maybe I’m a romantic, fondly believing in the image of the artist starving for his art. I often talk about moving to that mythic attic in Paris where I could sit drinking bourbon and punching keys on my typewriter. You know. In the sixties.
I’ll move as soon as someone invented a time machine.
Maybe I’m just putting it on. I’m hardly starving. In fact I could do with losing a few. It’s the sedentary life, you know. You get more exercise from shifting books than writing them.
I commute from the bedroom to the lounge. Writing these days seems to consist mostly of checking your e-mail, Spider Solitaire and Twitter, followed by checking your e-mail again.
Nope. Nothing from Steven Spielberg today either. Red nine on black ten, red five on black six… is it four o’clock in the afternoon already? Where did the time go?
I’d better take another break.