Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Susan Faludi has never been afraid of controversial topics. Her two previous books, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, took on touchy issues of gender politics and feminism. Likewise, her provocative new book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan), concerns sensitive cultural territory, the nation's myths about 9/11. Does Faludi worry about treading on sacred ground? "I'm used to being beaten up," she says wryly. "You try as best you can not to think about that while you're writing it. A friend of mine stuck on my refrigerator door many years ago this little slogan she had on a calendar, a Yugoslav proverb that said, 'Tell the truth and run.' " TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke with the author at her home in San Francisco.
TIME: Where were you on 9/11?
Faludi: I was in Los Angeles, three hours behind. I was actually woken up by a friend, a journalist, who told me to turn on my television. I had this very curious dream that late that night, or early in the morning. I have no way of explaining this. I'm the farthest way from a New Age type of person, in spite of living in California. But it was a dream in which I was on an airplane and sitting next to another woman, a stranger. Two young men came up carrying pistols and shot twice. I remember in the dream the bullet went through my throat and the throat of the woman next to me. In the dream, we were alive but could not speak. Then I woke up and told this story to my long-time beau. I don't even think I could even believe myself. The phone rang and my friend told me to turn on the television. I bring this up not because I'm a psychic but because the metaphorical quality of the dream struck me much later when I went back to look at our very strange series of reactions to the traumas of 9/11.
You write about the return to the macho, John Wayne type of hero. What does that have to do with 9/11?
After 9/11, one of the recurring ways we as a culture responded to the events of that day was to re-enact a kind of John Wayne western. I'm not just talking about the Oval Office where, of course, there was all that rhetoric about how we were going to smoke them out of their holes and Bush was recalling old Dead or Alive posters from old movies. But so many of our pundits and politicians were talking about the war on terror as going back to our days of fighting the Indians on the Great Plains. The Cabinet was dining on what they billed as a Wild Western menu of buffalo meat. The press was full of trend stories about how this was going to bring back "John Wayne masculinity." The TV programmers were rerunning John Wayne westerns. Karl Rove asked Hollywood to produce a film paying tribute to post-9/11 American heroism and what came back was a film called The Spirit of America, which was all clips of old movies showcasing old American film heroes in which the Westerns were prominent examples, and in particular John Wayne in The Searchers. So we kept returning to this Cowboy and Indian mythology, and I wanted to understand why. It didn't seem like a reaction to the actual threat which was coming from engineering students in jumbo jets, not Indians on the Great Plains.
Why would female helplessness be part of this equation?
It was just as important that women be helpless and in need of rescue and grateful for rescue as it was that men be strong. The way that the American male hero was supposed to present his strength was by saving a helpless woman. If the woman could defend herself, then the drama couldn't be enacted.
You write about the fact that even though men rescuing women was a common motif in post-9/11 discussion, that wasn't really something that had happened much in reality.