In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a new form of terrorism rattled the international order. Militants from a nascent Marxist-nationalist revolutionary movement called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine began to hijack passenger planes — repeatedly, all over the globe — in an attempt to bring about the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel and Europe.
Yet even during those years, when “hijackings were mere inconveniences,” as the historian Martha Hodes writes in her intriguing new book, one event stood out: the coordinated seizing, in September 1970, of four aircraft traveling internationally. (A fifth attempt, on an El Al plane, was foiled in midair by an armed guard.) It was, Hodes notes, the “most spectacular episode of air piracy the world had ever seen.”
She was 12 at the time. Her sister, Catherine, was 13. They were heading home to their father in New York after spending the summer with their mother in Tel Aviv. But shortly after their TWA flight flew over Brussels, Hodes saw a woman and man run down the aisle, he holding a gun and she a grenade. The couple commandeered the plane, diverting it to a remote airstrip in the Jordan desert. Thus began a six-day, six-night nightmare in which the plane’s passengers were held hostage aboard the unmoving plane, as their flight meals gradually dwindled to scraps, with no running water, no working toilets and dynamite wired inside the aircraft.
The story has all the makings of a real-life thriller. But soon Hodes encounters a narrative problem: She remembers very little about those days. The diary she kept at the time, rather than serving as an insightful guide, proves to be a “relic of erasure.” “I was adept at banishing disagreeable feelings,” she recalls. Of limited help are her fellow passengers, some of whom seemed more excited than alarmed by the incident. “Gee,” one wrote in a letter midflight. “We’re being hijacked!” Others broke into song, adjusting lyrics to fit the circumstances: “living on a jet plane …”
Like these other passengers, Hodes recalls that she did not feel frightened during her time in captivity. But years later, in the wake of 9/11, she finds that the world’s sudden fear of air travel corresponds with the one she has been carrying with her unacknowledged since she was a girl. This is what gives her book its propulsive force: her effort not only to piece together the details of the hijacking and its aftermath, but to make sense of the omissions in her own memory.
In “My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering,” Hodes examines the episode with a historian’s meticulousness and a reporter’s zeal. She tracks down many of her fellow hostages, pores over TWA archives and press briefings, and resurfaces long-forgotten interviews that she and others had given. Still, despite providing an impressive play-by-play of the events as they unfolded — from a female captor’s announcement over the loudspeaker (“I am the new pilot”) to the flight attendants continuing their beverage service, free of charge this time (“standard policy during hijackings”) — she cannot make up for the emotional void at the center of her book.
Capturing no sense of imminent danger, and no genuine recollection of emotion, Hodes’s story remains at a frustrating remove. While reading it, I felt at times as though I was viewing the hijacking through the thick pane of an airplane cabin window. With too many unknowns, Hodes tends to rely on the unsatisfying vagueness of rhetorical questions: “What thoughts did I quell, then vanquish? Did I worry that the plane would crash?” She asks, but does not — cannot — answer.
Luckily, narrative aid comes from unexpected quarters. Some of the most compelling scenes in the book have nothing to do with the hijacking, but rather deal with the author’s family and unconventional upbringing. Both of her parents had been protégés of Martha Graham. They fell in love while dancing together at Graham’s company in the 1950s and wed soon after, but Hodes’s mother could not stay put. She wondered whether it was “abnormal” to spend her extra cash “on a leotard instead of a cookbook,” Hodes writes. After a five-week dance tour of Israel, and a second trip, to Tel Aviv, to help start a new Israeli dance company, she decided to move there. Though Jewish, she was drawn to Tel Aviv not out of ideological conviction or religious curiosity, but out of a sense of opportunity to break free of American domesticity.
“Away from her husband and children, my mother flourished,” Hodes writes without a hint of resentment. An arrangement was struck: Hodes and her sister would spend the school year with their father, living in a spacious, roach-infested apartment in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, and the summers with their mother in her tiny, seaside Tel Aviv apartment. (Once, when Hodes asked her father what class the family belonged to, he replied: “artist class.”)
Toward the end of the book, Hodes takes a reporting trip to Israel and Jordan to retrace the steps of her youth. But these chapters fall oddly flat, reading like an assortment of generic anecdotes. Yet it is in her quest to find out why she has forgotten so much that the book’s strength comes into focus. An astonishing reason for her lapses in memory, Hodes finds, has to do with her and her sister’s consumption of tranquilizers. She discovers testimony from International Red Cross doctors revealing that some hostages, including children, were subject to a “liberal distribution” of soporifics.
But she also lands on another reason for her forgetfulness that feels true to life. Like her father, who had waited anxiously in New York for days for word of his daughters’ condition, Hodes was highly selective about the memories she recounted to others about the hijacking over the years. These memories had solidified in her mind as the only narrative of the experience. “My aim was the same as my father’s,” she writes. “To craft stories we could live with.”
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