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"As if I Wasn't There": Writing from a Child's Memory

“It’s almost as if you weren’t there.”

That’s what a listener told me after I read my work in progress at a program called New Adventures in Nonfiction. Held at Performance Space, an intimate venue in New York City, I had opened by admitting that my current project was “definitely a new adventure for me.” I was writing a book about “the hijacking of three planes, in September 1970,” I told my audience. “The hijackers were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-Leninist organization. They hoped to trade the passengers and crew for Palestinian prisoners. I was twelve years old at the time, and a passenger on one of the planes. I was traveling with my thirteen-year-old sister, unaccompanied by adults. We were returning to New York, from Tel Aviv, and were held hostage in the Jordan desert, inside the airplane, for a week.”1

After my sister and I got home, we did not talk much about the hijacking. No one took us to a therapist or sent us to a school guidance counselor. Parents of some of the other children on the plane even instructed teachers not to bring up the subject, for fear of causing further suffering. My friends in seventh grade—I returned to school two weeks late—found me apparently unchanged; indeed, decades later a classmate told me that as the years progressed she wondered if she had imagined the whole thing. Over time, the world’s memories of September 1970 faded too, making it easier for me to sustain the erasure.2

Nearly a half century later, I found myself wanting to know more about what had happened to me. Because there was so much I did not remember, I started out by doing what I knew how to do best: research. Gathering and cross-checking documents seemed like the best way to make sense of my fragmented memories. The Popular Front had hijacked five flights that day, and three planes ended up in the desert. First I read a book I had studiously avoided: an account of the hijackings by a fellow hostage. In Terror in Black September, David Raab focuses his rigorous archival research on the international negotiations that ensued—he was seventeen years old at the time and published his book thirty-seven years later. As I read Raab’s descriptions of events, I marked up the margins, frequently scribbling the words “don’t remember.” In the National Archives in Washington, I read heaps of State Department telegrams. At the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library in California, I read “situation reports” and transcripts of telephone calls between Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. Trans World Airlines no longer exists, and at the TWA archives at the State Historical Society of Missouri I read detailed narratives of the hijacking written by each member of our crew. I gathered press coverage, watched television news segments, and read the political manifestos and autobiographical writings of my captors. I also gathered records of the experiences of other hostages—interviews they had given upon their return, legal testimony taken in lawsuits against the airlines—and set out to find some of those who were still alive.3

When I began to write, I again did what I knew how to do best. I compiled a multitude of voices, balancing, combining, and filling in gaps, to reconstruct what had come to pass up in the air, in the desert, and during our release. During this process, I thought often of Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past, in which the historian Richard White skillfully places his mother’s memories of her native Ireland in the context of deep archival research. Historians, White writes, “must accept memory as a guide,” treating it “as detectives treat their sources: they compare them, interrogate them, and match them one against the other.”4

Sometimes the research and writing brought unbidden emotions. The International Committee of the Red Cross had served as mediator in the negotiations, and in their archives in Geneva, Switzerland, I unexpectedly came upon a never-delivered telegram that my father had written to my sister and me.

Soon after reading my work in progress at Performance Space, I gave a first complete draft of the manuscript to two friends. One, the director of counseling at an independent school, told me, “I got anxious about you when you disappeared from the narrative.” The other, a fellow historian, thought I had written far too much about other people’s experiences. Where I put my own observations last, he said, I needed to put them first; where I described the aircraft making a 180-degree turn over Brussels to head back toward the Middle East, for example, I had recounted eight people’s observations ahead of my own. When the plane landed in the desert, he went on, “it felt like there were a million people in the narrative, but not you.” This historian-friend was James Goodman, whose own books are intentionally based on an abundance of voices, beginning with his Pulitzer Prize finalist Stories of Scottsboro, which the preface describes as providing “the perspectives of a wide range of participants and observers.” In other words, Jim appreciated the undertaking of collating voices. He also recognized that, given my dearth of personal memories, I would need other people’s stories to tell my own. But rather than populating my narrative with so many voices, Jim suggested keeping the focus on myself via the device of an omniscient narrator. “Where a historian can turn to many characters,” Jim said, “a memoirist has one.”5

Read entire article at American Historical Review