In 2019, the editor of a local newspaper asked me to cover the local 9/11 tribute parade of local police and fire trucks. I refused. Now that I have your attention because of that outrageous …
In 2019, the editor of a local newspaper asked me to cover the local 9/11 tribute parade of local police and fire trucks. I refused.
Now that I have your attention because of that outrageous statement, let me explain.
My 9/11 was my own private hell for several years. New York is near and dear to me. My grandparents had an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. All my siblings lived and worked in Manhattan at some point in their lives. I also lived in Manhattan for two and half years. After I got married, I dragged my long-suffering husband all over the city to visit all my favorite spots. I will always love New York.
Survivor’s guilt was likely a large part of what I experienced after 9/11. The day of the attacks was one of the most vivid of my life, consumed with locating my brother who I knew who worked at the World Trade Center as a senior IT executive at Merrill Lynch.
Needless to say, it was impossible to call anywhere on the East Coast that day. I sat at my desk at work and tried every hour. John’s cell phone, John’s office phone, John’s home phone, my sister-in-law’s cell phone, my sister’s work phone, my sister’s cell phone, my parents’ home in Connecticut. I gave up mid-afternoon. Needless to say, I didn’t get any work done that day.
My brother was at the Wall Street Stock Exchange Computer Center on the 30th floor of the South Tower. We did not know what happened to him until he arrived home around 9 p.m., suit caked with dust.
John exited WTC-2 down one of those stairwells everyone saw on the news, on to the plaza level of the World Trade Center complex. He was walking up E. Broadway when the south tower fell. With NYC’s mass transit immobilized, he found his way to the docks on the west side and got a ride across the Hudson to New Jersey. From there, he hitchhiked home in his dust-encrusted suit. Because every bridge to Manhattan was closed to vehicle traffic, the rides he caught took him up I-287 and across the Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge, 30 miles north of lower Manhattan. A series of complete strangers eventually delivered him to his home in Winton, Conn.
My sister called me sometime after 9 p.m. Eastern Time with the news. It was the first I had heard from my family. The phone call fell to my sister because my mother was occupied dealing with my invalid father, who spent the day convinced his only son was dead.
The reaction to traumatic events for survivors is complicated. Climbing out of the attendant pit of grief, guilt, and stress is also different for every person. A “one size fits all” response to the collective grief of a nation, or of the grief of an individual, doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be expected.
According to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Americans reported that they couldn’t stop watching news coverage of the attacks. In another study, around 60 percent of Americans watched the events of 9/11 at the World Trade Center live on television, according to research by Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine, and public health at the University of California Irvine. The rest saw those events through television or other news media during the intensive media coverage that followed the attacks. The 60 percent suffered greater post-trauma physical and psychological effects in the years that followed. The impact of the 9/11 attacks on the entire nation are undeniable.
The 9/11 attacks were followed by the rise of a new media venue, the internet, with its 24/7 capacity to deliver both news and misinformation seconds after events occur. Self-expression on social media is a tsunami, and every year, the 9/11 tribute parades and memorial ceremonies are outnumbered by the number of individual tributes flooding the internet. The internet made it possible for a nation of more than 300 million to collectively revisit the national trauma of 9/11 every year, year after year.
It is undeniable that 9/11 was an event that created national collective grief and trauma. The path of grief is different for every person and I will not stand in the way of others who want or need to express themselves on the anniversary of this tragedy. My own baggage from 9/11 left me with no desire to attend parades or memorial services, except for maybe the one held every year in New York. I would also like to see the towers of light that are lit up every year where the two towers once stood. That means something to me more than any random parade or tribute held thousands of miles away from New York.
Professor Silver and her colleagues ran a study on post-9/11 reactions that lasted several years using a “nationally representative sample of individuals.” Approximately one in 20 of the several thousand in the study “were either in New York or Washington, D.C., or Pennsylvania, or had been on the phone with somebody in one of the buildings or had been in the area and had witnessed the events directly.” Before I discovered this and similar research, I had no idea that the proportion of those directly touched by the 9/11 attacks was so large.
Doing a little math, one in 20 Americans is approximately 16 million people. Studies consistently show that the closer someone was to the vicinity of the 9/11 events or to the people directly involved, the more their mental and physical health was affected. Keep in mind that these are statistical results. They report averaged trends. Some of the 16 million are certainly outliers, people who bounced back from their trauma and grief quickly, and others who likely fell completely apart. Regardless of the exceptions that prove the rule, Silver et al. reported that most suffered some elevated effects of grief and post-trauma stress disorders with recoveries within three years.
The 9/11 attacks affected more than just my brother.
One of my oldest friends was working at the Pentagon on the morning of 9/11. He successfully evacuated but the event caused him to reevaluate his life in startling ways. He first moved out of Washington, D.C. to Austin, Texas. He dropped his career as an analyst at a think tank and took up making armor and jewelry for Medieval re-creation groups. His marriage fell apart and he started gender-change treatments and renamed himself Stephanie.
My brother does not talk about 9/11. Like my friend Max, who is now my friend Stephanie, my brother went a bit sideways after the 9/11 attacks and I confess, I didn’t like him very much during that time. He finally returned to being a pleasant person after he left New York to take a job in Seattle.
We have only spoken once about his experience. It was a short conversation and it left me with a compulsion to know everything about 9/11. In that phone call, John said he exited across the WTC plaza. I knew that was where many of the bodies who fell or jumped from WTC-1 had come to rest. I asked him if he had seen any of those who fell.
“Yeah,” he replied. “They were people pizza.”
I used to run a volunteer EMS organization. I know what messy post-blunt-trauma body parts look like. I couldn’t eat pizza for quite a while after that phone call.
Outwardly, I appeared fine. In private, I was obsessed. I spent about five years reading fire science texts, forensic pathology texts, and every single page of every 9/11 report published. I collected 9/11 texts, photos and videos, and engaged in the strange exercise of looking for my brother in them. I could not stop thinking about 9/11 for a long time.
Having emerged from that fog, I find reminders of 9/11 uncomfortable. I have no desire to attend 9/11 tributes or parades because I will never get what my brother said to me out of my head.
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