By Trudy Whitman
Hills & Gardens
Just how exactly we therapists managed to reach beyond our couches, answering machines and tissue boxes and how those firemen reached beyond their ladders, axes and fire trucks to find each other around a kitchen table will remain forever a mystery. But when the impossible happens, anything becomes possible.
—Elizabeth Goren, Beyond the Reach of Ladders
Dr. Elizabeth Goren cannot be accused of living an unexamined life. The long-time Cobble Hill resident, a practicing clinical psychologist for 40 years, has just published a book about her work with a group of firefighters after 9/11. But unlike many professional psychological accounts, Goren does not remove herself from the painful journey. The story is as much about her clawing her way back to functionality and a modicum of belief in humankind as it is about the men she counseled. It is about, the psychologist writes, pushing through the “psychic contamination” and “defiled innocence” resulting from a “…medieval mentality merged with modern technology to catapult jumbo jets into the fortress of the American Empire.”
Beyond the Reach of Ladders, My story as a therapist forging bonds with firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11 (Open Gate Press), comes out at a time — the tenth anniversary of the disaster — when many of us — willingly or forced to by the round-the-clock media blitz — are reevaluating how the terrorist attack on the U.S. has changed our lives.
Goren spent the days after the attack working with the Red Cross and Department of Mental Hygiene assisting victims’ families, people displaced from their downtown homes, and rescue and clean-up workers. She relates both the horror and the futility of those days. There was frustration about the “pretense of safety” working at still-smoking Ground Zero, and the pointlessness of handing out “cleaning packages” to those permitted by the authorities to go back to their homes.
Although there was initial rejection and a culture of “keeping it in the house,” Goren felt more useful and on course after she was assigned as a group counselor to a downtown Manhattan firehouse. Overwhelmed by the disaster, the Fire Department’s Counseling Unit had reached out to New York and Columbia universities, which assembled specially trained psychologist squads to work with firefighters.
Stonewalled and alienated by the men at first, Goren finally felt she was gaining the trust of some and making headway, while others continued to balk. However, she was eventually eased out by firehouse leaders, but she continued to drop by casually for what she calls “therapy on the run.”
The bulk of the book is based on counseling provided to three firefighters that Goren wound up working with individually. In order to protect the men’s privacy, she stressed during a telephone interview, the accounts of the three first responders are “fictionalized composites,” although the “concepts and challenges” are true to her experiences. Beyond the Reach of Ladders is their story…and hers.
Liz Goren is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice. She is adjunct clinical professor at New York University and Pace University, where she teaches and supervises psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and trauma studies. She has lectured on and published articles about her post-9/11 work with firefighters. For the tenth-year memorial and the book’s publication she was interviewed by the hosts of a dozen public radio programs both here and in the U.K. Called upon for her expertise in trauma, she was also a recent panelist in a London symposium on the catastrophe sponsored by Democrats Abroad, and another at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. Beyond the Reach of Ladders is available at BookCourt, 163 Court Street.