Replacement for a Child Lost

Born After Plane Crash, Judy Mandel Lived in Sister’s Shadow

In Her Place: A doctor told Florence Mandel (left, with 1-year-old Judy Mandel) that having another child would ease her suffering.
Courtesy of Judy Mandel
In Her Place: A doctor told Florence Mandel (left, with 1-year-old Judy Mandel) that having another child would ease her suffering.

By Sarah Seltzer

Published May 14, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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With impressive sales numbers to demonstrate, Mandel got back in touch with an agent she’d met at a conference; she inked a book deal with Seal Press soon thereafter. As a result of her rare move to one form of publishing from another, she’s become an object of fascination among aspiring writers. But she’s also inspired intense responses from readers who identify with the sense of alienation she chronicles in the book, her feeling that the camera of her family’s life was always zooming away from her.

“When I do readings, invariably one or two people come up and say, ‘I think I am a replacement child, too,’” she said. “I have a lot of those conversations. They want to know things like: ‘If I’m adopted, could I feel this way?’ ‘Would it have to have happened before I was born?’”

Remarkably, Mandel has heard from others who were touched by the same crash that killed her sister: She’s read the blog posts by the pilot’s daughter, and was contacted by the daughter of a man who lived upstairs from Mandel’s family. This woman never knew that her father had loved and lost a previous family, and like Mandel, she found answers about her life in the story of the crash.

Mandel believes that the midcentury brand of secrecy surrounding the “accident,” as her family called it, has ebbed somewhat in our oversharing society — but not entirely and perhaps not enough.

“People have asked me, if they’ve lost a child and they want another child, how can they guard from a negative influence? I tell them it’s all about talking about it, giving some reality to that deceased child,” she said. She notes that she appreciates the custom of shiva because it coaxes forth talking and storytelling.

Now, with her memoir and a blog on Psychology Today, Mandel talks all the time about “the accident” and its effect on her life, painful as it is. And the strong pull that her story exerts over others who suffered goes both ways: Whenever there is a public tragedy, Mandel feels personally obligated to use her life’s example to offer the comfort of understanding, if not to give answers. In doing so, she hopes she’s living up to her parents’ memories.

“Even after the crash, when they were still living in a hotel, they heard about the third plane crash in our area within six weeks,” she said. “They got dressed in middle of the night and went to the hospital to see if they could help.”

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a writer in New York and a contributor to the Forward’s The Sisterhood blog. Find her at www.sarahmseltzer.com.


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