A Privileged Encounter: A Personal History of Pan Am 103 meets The Women of Lockerbie

Helen Engelhardt

The day after I received delivery of the first 30 copies of the new paperback edition of my memoir, I received a phone call from my friend, Milbre Burch. She is a master storyteller and was inviting me to attend her production of The Women of Lockerbie in Columbia, Missouri. A Ph.D. candidate in the theater department of the University of Missouri, Milbre especially wanted me to participate in talk back sessions with the cast and crew after each of the eight performances presented by the Columbia Entertainment Company.

Soon Milbre had arranged for talk back sessions at the last two performances, and four radio interviews to discuss the play. She had also organized a reading of The Longest Night, an opportunity for me to tell my personal story during the Sunday morning service at the Unitarian Universalist Church, which her family attends, and to be a guest at three classes at the MU Journalism School and the MU Department of Theater! Milbre Burch, as you can see, is a force of nature, a creative publicist, and a friend of boundless generosity.

Milbre discovered The Women of Lockerbie two years ago, when she told a fellow theater graduate student about my audiobook, and he told her about the play. By coincidence, she was then studying Greek tragedy, and she used Brevoort’s Greek-styled play for her final project. That experience encouraged her to approach the Columbia Entertainment Company, which agreed to let her direct the play as a Stage 2 Production.

In 2003, The Women of Lockerbie was produced in New York City by the New Group and The Women’s Project. At the time, our families were invited to a special preview performance and talk back session with Deborah Brevoort. I wrote about the play and our reactions to it at length in TruthQuest, quoted from comments made by family and friends, and wrote a three-page critique of it. Many of us found serious faults with Brevoort’s concepts, language, and character portrayals. With the exception of a few scenes and some moments of dialogue, I was deeply disappointed, indeed angered, by what I considered Brevoort’s careless disregard of relevant facts, both historical and physiological.

However, knowing the quality of work that Milbre does, the intelligence and artistry she brings to her story-telling performances, and the insights she brought as an instructor in the storytelling workshops I attended, I knew that if anyone could find depths in this work to move me, she would. And she did. At the end of her production, when the Lockerbie women kneel to begin washing the wounded clothes in the stream—the boundary separating the land of the living from the land of the dead, when the grieving American mother has become able to join her hands with theirs, my eyes filled with tears.

During the audience talk backs, I tried to focus on what I could uniquely bring to the discussion: familiarity with the facts which are the foundation of Brevoort’s metaphoric retelling, and familiarity with the actual town of Lockerbie which I have visited three times with my son. I also tried to represent our group as best as I could, what it accomplished legally and politically and how it gave us a unique and appropriate place to share our deepest feelings and thoughts as we did the hard work of grieving. Watching Brevoort’s play again, I had a new insight into what is profoundly missing: there isn’t any reference to our group whatsoever. The women of Lockerbie have formed such a group for themselves, enabling them to make emotional sense of the horror that fell from the skies onto their town. This gives them the courage to take on the American State Department, to be prepared to risk going to prison in order to accomplish their goal of “liberating the laundry” to cleanse and return to the families, before the State Department can set them on fire and dispense with that untidy mess entirely. The American mother, bereft of her only son, has nothing and nowhere to do something meaningful with her grief except to either weep or to pace the hills of Lockerbie searching for any trace of her son who disappeared in the fireball. Brevoort never has her husband say, “We could join with the group, we could be with them.” The only group that his wife can join is the women of Lockerbie, as she leads them in the ritual of washing.

In an article in the Columbia Daily Tribune (two-part article the week of January 22, 2013), Milbre said: “I’m sure my knowing Helen has helped me think critically about the script and to share her concerns with my actors.… I was compelled to dig deeply into dramaturgical research for the production…” The Keepers of Love and Memory “was our starting point (and the inspiration for Brevoort; The Keepers was a two-part documentary directed by Laura Palmer for Nightline in 1997). Images from a sculpture entitled Dark Elegy by Suse Lowenstein—the mother of a Syracuse University student who died on Pan Am 103 along with 34 of his classmates returning from their junior year abroad—have made their way into our staging (Milbre had the three women adopt poses from Dark Elegy when they are silent). This past week, I played “Yesterday and Forever-Recollecting Lockerbie,” a spoken word collage of conversations by women widowed by the bombing—and produced by Helen—so that they could hear from people who lived what they are portraying. (These women are Mary Lou Cuilla, Mary Kay Stratis, Eleanor Bright, Pat Simpson, Wendy Giebler Sefcik, and myself). The production—especially as realized by my very talented cast and crew of designers—does stand alone. But offering Helen’s lived experience and perspective to the community is the kind of compassionate action that, as a woman and an artist, I am dedicated to doing. It is meant to extend the learning provided by the play. I trust it will do exactly that.”

Milbre Burch’s sensitive production of The Women of Lockerbie, coupled with the extensive display of historic materials in the theater’s alcove (selected transcripts of The Keepers matched against pages of dialogue from the play, images from Dark Elegy, a video of images of and interviews with the people of Lockerbie about the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103, copies of my memoir, audiobook and Coming Home to Us: A Trilogy of Love, Loss and Healing which includes Yesterday and Forever) was a dramatic and thoughtful way to begin the 25th anniversary year of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In the classes where I spoke, I meet young people who were born after 1988. Many of them had never heard of Pan Am Flight 103, or only knew a few facts. “For us, 9/11 is the major terrorist attack on Americans. We are just learning now about the tragedy which preceded it, which affected you.” And I learned that people are still deeply affected by this event, that it is, if anything, more relevant now than it was 25 years ago—in fact, because we are still seeking justice and the truth of the conspiracy that snatched our loved ones from us—it remains a story to be told.

Helen Engelhardt is an author and the widow of PAF103 victim, Tony Hawkins