In 1977, an armed group of Hanafi Muslims took over the B’nai B’rith building in Washington, D.C., where I worked, holding more than 100 of us hostage for 39 hours. Although I was not physically harmed in the ordeal, I still cannot erase from memory the visceral terror and stark vulnerability our captors unleashed on us as they brandished their weapons and threatened to kill us.
By contrast, in “My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering,” the New York University professor and historian Martha Hodes describes how for decades a memory block had obstructed her ability to recall all but momentary flashes of the harrowing experience her 12-year-old self endured in 1970. “Why did I remember so little,” she asks, “and what could remembering tell me?”
This memoir is her answer. Her propulsive, high-stress journey is filled with dread and fear, underpinned by her hard-won compassion for the profound pain her long-ago self believed she had no choice but to disown.
Ms. Hodes opens with a summary of the hijacking she had willed herself to forget. On Sept. 6, 1970, she and her 13-year-old sister, Catherine, boarded a New York-bound TWA jet in Tel Aviv. That morning they had said goodbye to their mother, with whom they had just spent the summer at the home she shared with her second husband and their newborn; upon landing in New York, they would be met by their father, with whom they lived the rest of the year. On the last leg of the flight, after stops in Athens and Frankfurt, two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) stormed the cockpit and diverted the plane to a remote airfield in the Jordanian desert. It was one of the most brazen episodes of air piracy prior to 9/11.
In fact, it took the raw destruction of Sept. 11, 2001, to begin to jar loose Ms. Hodes’s memories. While teaching a class in downtown Manhattan, she heard the blasts of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and later saw the smoking ruins. Soon, unnerving fears and intrusive memories began popping up, as if her unconscious mind was making connections that her rational self still struggled to ward off. But the message came through. “For the first time ever, I wanted to know more,” she writes. “I wanted to connect the twelve-year-old girl who buried as much as she could to the grown-up struggling to understand what happened to that girl. . . . As a hostage I had quelled memories and emotions; as a historian I wanted to search for facts and feelings, to provide meaning for everything that had happened to me and my family.”
It takes every tool in her professional toolbox for Ms. Hodes to breach the divide. She doggedly sifts through official documents, media accounts, government and corporate archives, and various other sources. She tracks down other former hostages, whose eyewitness testimony, she hopes, will permit her to vicariously live through scenes of which she herself had no recollection. Her most valuable source would seem to be the diary she kept during the summer and fall of 1970, which she had packed away for decades. Yet her written record turns out to be almost as spotty and elusive as her memory.