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Keeping us rolling

One year after the nation turned to a grieving widow to be its pillar of strength, Lisa Beamer still offers her simple suburban life as a touchstone for normalcy. Whether we need her or not.

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002


One year after the nation turned to a grieving widow to be its pillar of strength, Lisa Beamer still offers her simple suburban life as a touchstone for normalcy. Whether we need her or not.

McLEAN, Va. -- The most famous widow in America arrives for her book signing through the stock room, thereby avoiding unplanned contact with the orderly crowd of Washington suburbanites.

The line of customers -- mostly white, mostly women -- snakes through the Books-a-Million store, around the table of Sept. 11 titles, and out the front door. A young man in the queue speaks into his cell phone: "Jen thinks she's the greatest woman in the world."

Someone at the front of the line, like a sentry, stage whispers: "Here she comes." Necks crane.

No one introduces her, not even the woman who is paid to publicize her. Introductions have hardly been necessary since that evening last September when President Bush, speaking to Congress and the nation, extolled the heroism of one of the passengers aboard United Flight 93, the plane that crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania instead of the White House or the Capitol.

"Would you please help me welcome his wife, Lisa Beamer, here tonight," Bush said on Sept. 20, gesturing toward the gallery to a young blond woman dressed in a borrowed black dress.

A year later, on a mild evening in late August, Beamer is dressed in a burgundy turtleneck with half sleeves, accented by a silver necklace. On her left wrist she wears the diamond tennis bracelet Todd bought her on their trip to Rome just days before he was killed. She wore this same outfit on one of her Larry King Live appearances.

Beamer sits down without speaking. She does not read from her book Let's Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage.

It doesn't seem necessary; who hasn't heard the story of the man whose last words became the rallying cry from military war rooms to football locker rooms?

She approaches a table at the front of the store and customers applaud.

"She carries herself so well," Linda Fletcher, a 54-year-old first-grade teacher, says by way of explaining why she has come bearing a sign that reads: Thank You Todd! "She must have gone through torment, but you'd never know it."

Beamer looks up and smiles the kind of unfocused smile that celebrities develop from long contact with large groups of strangers.

She holds a black Sharpie pen, ready for instructions about how to personalize the inscription. The line moves toward her, each person preparing to speak to the woman who they think of as family but have never met.

* * *

This is how they would want to look on the worst day of their lives. She is the best expression of themselves, that ideal of composure, of dignity in grief.

She was so poised that night last September. Four and a one-half months pregnant, widowed just the week before, and yet so steadfastly there when a shaky country needed proof it could get through an uncertain time.

She was Jackie Kennedy for a new generation. Plucked from middle-class obscurity, she lacked Jackie's pedigree (and wardrobe; a friend lent her a suitable dress), but seemed groomed for the spotlight nevertheless. JFK's widow had 3-year-old John to salute the funeral cortege; Beamer carried within her a living metaphor of the country's future. Her every action seemed to fulfill her new duties as the nation's unofficial morale booster for the nation.

Not long after the attacks, Beamer boarded a plane from Newark to San Francisco. Though the flight number had been changed, it was the same flight her husband had been on. She needed to meet with executives of the Oracle Corp., her husband's employer, for their help setting up a foundation in Todd's honor. In a country still wary of flying, her flight instilled confidence. United employees lined the corridors of the airport to applaud her when she landed.

A year later, the country has regained its equilibrium. But Lisa Beamer is still here, still telling her story, the story she has told several hundred times on television and in print.

Now she's telling it again, this time in hardcover.

Her publisher printed 1-million copies of Let's Roll! The book is No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Apparently, a great many people still need Beamer's unwavering spirituality to guide them.

But the relationship between Beamer and the public has shifted over the past year. People freely express impatience with her; they question her motives.

Maybe that's the best evidence of all that she has helped move us back to normalcy.

* * *

Beamer signed the book deal four months after the attacks with Tyndale House, a Christian imprint with experience selling millions of copies. Tyndale may be best known for its Left Behind books about life on Earth after the return of Jesus Christ. One of the books in the series, whose titles have sold 10-million copies since 1995, begins inside a plane after passengers have mysteriously disappeared in mid flight, leaving only their clothes and startled nonbelievers in the adjoining seats.

Initially, Beamer's book was to be titled Let's Roll! Finding Hope in the Midst of Crisis. No one ever seriously considered fiddling with the most recognizable phrase of the past year, but the subtitle did change.

It was a shrewd move to introduce the idea of ordinariness in the subtitle. As Beamer makes clear in the book, normalcy is her family's strong suit.

"We had a Norman Rockwell type of upbringing," Beamer writes. "Rather than spending evenings plopped in front of a television set, many nights our family would play games or read books together. . . . When we did watch television, our favorite show was Little House on the Prairie.

"Indeed, we were an Ingalls sort of family in many ways," she writes. "Mary Ingalls was a role model for me. Like me, she was the oldest sister in the family . . . the responsible one who got good grades and always watched out for her younger siblings."

Attendance at the Peekskill Baptist Church in their hometown of Shrub Oak, N.Y., was not optional for Beamer and her two siblings. The family prayed at mealtimes and "often had devotional readings after dinner." Todd's family (his grandparents were "salt of the earth" Ohio farmers) was just as devout, she says.

Lisa's father, Paul Brosious, was a research physicist whose "faith was a reasoned scientific approach to Christianity rather than an emotion-oriented faith." On matters of morality, he took a hard line. "Dancing wasn't something good kids did," according to his daughter.

Mr. Brosious died of an aortic aneurysm when Beamer was 15. His death, and the attendant issues of medical malpractice, Beamer says, shook her faith severely.

"My brother Paul could sense the shift in my attitude. He recognized I was slipping away from my faith and edging ever closer to danger."

We don't see much evidence of this danger. It's really not that kind of book. It's the kind of book that uses exclamation points (Todd had to eat through a straw for six weeks and he didn't lose a pound!) in lieu of real excitement.

"I never got to the point where I wanted to dump the whole God thing and I didn't go wild or become a 'bad' person, (but) I definitely stopped caring about who God wanted me to be. . . . I was angry at God," she writes.

Ultimately, she concluded that God's power over her life was not for her to understand, but to accept. "You are a sinner and deserve only death," she thought to herself. "The fact that God has offered you hope for eternal life is amazing! You should be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude."

Spiritually, that's where she was when she met Todd Beamer, star athlete and "go-to guy," at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school, in the early '90s. They married in 1994 and settled into a life they had carefully scripted.

"We left very little to chance or to accident," she writes. "We planned to get Todd's career (in software sales) off the ground, buy a house, and have adequate insurance coverage before having children."

The marriage was not without tension. "Todd was a hard worker, but he tended toward being a workaholic," Beamer writes. "That was unacceptable to me."

Todd, an account executive for Oracle, juggled two cell phones, an electronic organizer and a laptop. He left the computer at home reluctantly during family trips when Lisa insisted he decide whether his job was more important than his wife and two sons.

That might be the closest Beamer comes in the book to revealing an imperfection in her life. Of course, that may well be the closest thing to imperfection there was before Todd was killed.

Though Todd could have called her from the plane as others did with their families, he did not. She learned about the crash on the news and became nearly catatonic for hours, while her family and friends rushed to support her.

Several days passed before she spoke with the GTE Airfone operator, Lisa Jefferson, who had spoken with Todd for a quarter of an hour as the passengers planned their uprising. Jefferson recounted Todd's last words. Almost as important, she explained that Todd had not called his wife directly because he was afraid she might lose the baby if he did.

On Sept. 12, she sat her elder son, David, in her lap and explained to him that "most of the time airplanes are safe but sometimes they have accidents.

"And David, the plane Daddy was on yesterday had an accident and it hit the ground real hard. Everyone was hurt badly and died."

"But Daddy's going to be coming off the plane, right?" David asked.

"No, not this time."

She told interviewers early on that it was her experience with her father's death that prepared her for this tragedy.

This time when people asked her how she was coping, she cried, but didn't crack.

* * *

The story of Flight 93, captured in dozens of cell-phone conversations between passengers and people on the ground, was so riveting, and Todd's role so central, that it seemed almost an act of patriotism to participate in this effort to make a historical record.

Over time, however, the interviews seemed to take on a different purpose. No substantially new details were emerging from inside the flight, but Beamer was still in demand. By the six-month anniversary, her publicist estimated that Beamer had made about 200 appearances in the media.

On Feb. 21, Beamer invited Diane Sawyer into her New Jersey home to, in Sawyer's words, "share, for the first time, her most intimate gift." The episode of Good Morning America featured video from the delivery room and shots of the newest Beamer child, Morgan Kay, back at home with her brothers.

The next night Beamer and Morgan were guests on Larry King Live.

"What was the birth like? Did it go well?"

"It did," she said. "It went very quickly. The boys were born quickly, so I was hoping for that."

He asked if Morgan "sleeps well at night."

She sleeps pretty well, Beamer said.

King asked if her two sons were sleeping in cribs or beds.

Both in beds, Beamer said.

Are the boys jealous? "No, not at all," she answered.

Call a random number in the phone book, ask how the kids are sleeping, and the answers might be the same. So utterly banal. And so completely reassuring.

If it wasn't already apparent before that appearance that the public didn't expect much in the way of insight from her, it certainly was afterward. What she thought about the war in Afghanistan was not as important as the minutiae of her life in suburbia. She had become something akin to a weather report of our own emotional state; if she was hanging in there, then we must be doing okay, too.

* * *

Perhaps the backlash was inevitable.

In April, just after the six-month anniversary, a Minneapolis writer named Steve Perry wrote an icy column titled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Widows" for Counterpunch, a leftist political magazine.

"The media's incessant flogging of Beamer's story, and her eager collaboration in it, amount to a grotesque comment on the idea of grief and loss," Perry wrote. "They take catastrophic personal tragedy and cheapen it by making it feel like a publicity stunt -- a set of gestures repeatedly enacted for the cameras."

Perry was not alone, as he pointed out in the column.

Ted Rall, the syndicated cartoonist, called Beamer's behavior "cynical, crass and gauche." A cartoon of Rall's in February skewered the women and the media:

"The unbearable grief of the empty spot in your conjugal bed must weigh down your heart with unimaginable pain," says a TV interviewer to one of the women. "Huh?" she replies. "Oh, yeah, definitely."

Part of Perry's broadside was directed at the attempt by Beamer's foundation to trademark the expression "Let's Roll."

"Well, a widow's got to do what a widow's got to do," he wrote, implying strongly that this effort was a particularly loathsome intersection of grief and greed.

Viewed in the light most favorable to Beamer and the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, which she established to support the children of disaster victims (her family is ineligible), the trademark battle was an attempt to outflank the rank profiteers who raced to snap up rights to the phrase. The foundation's bid for a charitable trademark is pending.

But only Beamer, not the nameless others, has had to endure the public's eyebrow arching. A quarter of the customer reviews of Let's Roll! posted on amazon.com are brutally negative and most of those pivot on the idea that Beamer's only interest is to make a buck.

"In a tribute to the free market and the opportunistic nature of human behavior, Lisa Beamer shows Americans big and small how to snatch a dollar out of the jaws of tragedy," Lukas Manneun from Washington, D.C. wrote. "If only she had a written a good book in the process."

Her defenders insist Beamer will make no money from the book. But they are wrong.

"A portion of the proceeds will go to the foundation," says her publicist, Tina Jacobson, declining to specify the exact percentage. The rest, of course, goes to the stay-at-home mother raising three children.

* * *

Her discomfort is almost palpable at the late-August book signing in McLean, one of two stops she made in the Washington area. It's part of the reason she has chosen not to read from the book during this 15-city tour; she fears making a full and public expression of her emotions.

Over the course of an hour, 175 people pass before her. Some approach as if they were in the receiving line of a funeral. Others chat like they just bumped into her at the supermarket.

They console her, they ask if she will appear at their walkathon, they give her flowers, they ask to "leave a brochure for her consideration," they tell her about the ailing goldfish they named "Beamer," they ask about Morgan.

"She's getting ready to crawl, which is scary," Beamer, 33, says brightly. She is happy for the small talk. But when a woman begins to cry in front of her, or a mother thanks her for saving her son's life (he goes to school in Washington and could have been killed by that plane), she finds it difficult to respond with more than a polite smile and a whispered thank you.

* * *

Access to Beamer is controlled by a New York publicist she hired in November. After the signing, I renewed a request I had made some weeks earlier to interview Beamer. Tina Jacobson held out the possibility of 15 minutes on the phone the next morning.

The next morning came and the time was whittled to 10 minutes. Though I didn't hesitate to accept the offer, I doubted I could unearth new information from her in less time than it takes to order a meal.

With no time to ease into a rapport, what question should I ask first? What question hasn't been asked before?

So I ask her what goes through her mind when someone tells her she named a sick goldfish after her. She laughs.

"It's hard for me to have perspective on that," she says. "I still know me as the me before all this."

I ask her if there's a reciprocal nature to this relationship. Does contact with the public help her deal with her own grief?

She is grateful for the sympathy, but it's not what motivates her, she says.

Her life, she says, remains far more private than the public might suppose.

"Most of the things that have happened this year have been in a small area of my life," she says. "The healing process is very private. Most of my life is still about family, raising healthy children as Todd and I had planned.

"I don't look at my role in life as being a public role," she says. "It's not where I think about being in the future. I look forward to going back to my little life in New Jersey. I don't want to be on the road for a month."

I asked whether she had induced labor on Morgan to avoid the media attention, as had been reported. No, she just wanted to make sure she had family by her side when the baby was born.

I asked why she thought a God who was capable of changing events would permit those who believed in him to suffer so. She paraphrased from Paul's letter to the Romans: "I can't hope to know the will of God."

Fifteen minutes passed and she said she had to go.

I looked at my notes and realized I didn't have a single word that I hadn't already read somewhere before. And it occurred to me this was the great attraction of her message, that it never changed, that it is as resolute and confident now as it was when she first sat down with Katie Couric a year ago.

And this is why she could disappear tomorrow without any hard feelings from the people who have taken solace from her example.

"If she doesn't want to be in the spotlight," says Lisa Crippen, a 52-year-old landscape designer from Vienna, Va., "I respect that."

But she won't disappear, at least not yet.

She has pretaped interviews for ABC, NBC and Fox to run on the one-year anniversary.

That night, having shepherded her elder son through his second day of kindergarten, she'll tell Larry King about her day.

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