When violence such as the Newtown, Conn., massacre or the Boston bombings erupts, the typical narrative tells us that the victims’ lives end or are forever altered. But sometimes, new life emerges from the ashes. Memoirist Judy Mandel was conceived after the sister she never knew perished.
“I was born of fire,” begins her new book, “Replacement Child” (Seal Press).
The horrifying event that forms the basis of Mandel’s memoir occurred in 1952, when American Airlines Flight 6780 crashed into her family’s New Jersey home. The accident ripped a figurative as well as literal hole in the family’s heart; one daughter, 7-year-old Donna, was killed, and the other, 2-year-old Linda, was seriously wounded.
Investigators never determined the cause of the crash, one in a string of three fatal plane crashes that happened in the area and led to a presidential commission on airport safety and a temporary closure of Newark Airport.
In the years following Donna’s death and Linda’s slow, painful and surgery-laden recovery, Mandel’s mother, Florence Mandel, suffered from depression and was told by a doctor to have another child. Judy was born two years after the crash.
“My mother must have been haunted by that her whole life. It led to her depression, but it’s also amazing that she could go on and have a full life after that,” Mandel told me over coffee in April. We were at the Midtown Manhattan hotel she was staying at before going to a women’s book fair.
There, as she does in her appearances around the country, she would talk about both her personal journey and her unusual publishing one, entwined trajectories that have garnered her a considerable following in the memoir world.
When Mandel was growing up, her parents rarely talked explicitly about the crash or about the loss of their daughter. As a child, Mandel writes, she felt an emptiness, a sorrow whose source was veiled from her.