“They Are Not Monsters”

Sep 10 2013 @ 7:31am

Dahlia Lithwick reviews a new memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, about an American Jew who travels to Jerusalem to reconcile with the family of his wife’s would-be murderer:

Harris-Gershon’s story is not really about Middle East politics so much as it is a story of healing—a debate about whether South African–style reconciliation and restorative dialogue can really bring about closure after an event of unspeakable pain and violence.

That’s a slightly tricky proposition in this instance, in no small part because rarely has a book about empathy and reconciliation been so full of loathing and outrage.

Harris-Gershon pretty systematically rejects any offers of help, friendship, support, or healing, or he mashes them through a fine mesh sieve of sarcasm and second-guessing. Harris-Gershon seems less interested in the work of embracing the “other” than in the rejection and renunciation of the community from which he hailed. Indeed the most beautiful and powerful moments in the book take place when he interacts with children—his own daughters whom he clearly adores, and at the very end, with the children of [terrorist Mohammed] Odeh himself, who he really does embrace with a breathtakingly open heart. But it’s the adults Harris-Gershon seems to have given up on completely, and it’s hard to find reconciliation in the absence of truly guilty humans.

Harris-Gershon’s book is ultimately a powerful and harsh tale of solitude, of perfect lonely rage. (About halfway through the narrative, every colloquy is between himself and himself; for much of the book other voices disappear altogether.) The relief I felt when Harris-Gershon finally allowed himself to sit and listen to the voices of Odeh’s family was the closest thing to actual reconciliation you could find. Harris-Gershon closes his own narrative uncertain that restorative dialogue is the answer, but he’s finally persuaded that the only way forward is to believe that “they are not monsters.” You are not ever fully certain he comes away healed, but he finally seems to be less alone.