Harrowing Past Is Still Part of Us
By Gail Sheehy
Los Angeles Times
Sunday 07 September 2003
It will take love and remembrance to heal the wounds from 9/11.
"We don't normally cover anniversaries," said the TV producer, whose network was undecided on how to "handle" the second anniversary of 9/11. The person calling on behalf of family members refrained from pointing out that Americans don't normally pass through security in the country's military command center and then get blown up at their desks. Or go to work in the towers of Manhattan and face a choice between jumping out the window or being incinerated while their families watch the spectacle on TV.
It is a natural human inclination to tune out reminders of a horrific event. A decade of lapsed memory followed our war in Vietnam. Why should we remember and reflect on Sept. 11 at the risk of reopening wounds still painfully fresh?
We are approaching the most dangerous of anniversaries the second. Support systems fade. Media turn away. Friends, family, even spouses tend to lose patience with those still sorrowing and parrot our culture's popular bromides: "Time to move on," "put it behind us," and the cruelest of all clich s: "closure." The very word "closure" implies the hole will just heal up and one can then plant another flower over it and move on.
In truth, the wound never fully closes after a traumatic loss. The 3,000 lives taken on 9/11 robbed tens of thousands of family members and colleagues of those they loved, but that was only the first blow. The news leading up to the second anniversary is that nearly half of those who "vaporized" in the twin towers left no identifiable trace nothing to make their deaths real so the grieving process can begin.
Yet, among Americans lucky enough not to have directly suffered a loss on Sept. 11, it is common to hear comments like: "A lot of other people have lost their loved ones in auto accidents or sudden heart attacks; why are we making such a big deal out of these deaths?"
"What's different about us is that I buried my husband three times," says Debbie Hemschoot of Middletown, N.J. The first time, she buried mementos for her son's sake. The second time, it was ashes from ground zero. Then the day after Mother's Day, Hemschoot was called by the medical examiner's office: "We found a piece of your husband."
Who among the public would have guessed that the 9/11 victims' families were getting their loved ones back, literally, piece by piece?
The Tietjen family was relieved when told that their son, Kenny, one of the heroic Port Authority police officers who saved lives at the World Trade Center, had finally been identified by DNA testing. Just before Christmas, Kenny's sister, Laurie, and two of his fellow officers went into New York to collect the remains. The two cops emerged from the makeshift morgue ashen-faced, carrying a stretcher covered with a flag. A stretcher with only a few tiny bumps on it.
Laurie cried aloud: "Where is everything?"
When colleagues later asked Laurie why she was so grumpy, she kept the grisly truth to herself. Like many of the families, she has internalized the societal pressure to "get on with it." To protect their jobs, these relatives suffer in silence flashbacks, panic attacks, depression and other symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Beyond the families of victims, tens of thousands of witnesses and survivors from 9/11 are carrying heavy baggage, many of them suffering flashbacks and panic attacks. One tough prosecutor whose office, a block from the White House, was evacuated that day was told by a Secret Service agent there was a fourth plane in the air and, it was believed, headed for the White House. She says she will never get over the horrible sense of helplessness she felt as she stood among her co-workers, searching the sky and thinking: "Where's the plane? Is it going to shoot out of the sky at us?"
Recovery workers who dug for months through the smoke and fires at ground zero now learn that the White House rewarded their selflessness by doctoring warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency about the carcinogens they were breathing. Most have had no mental health counseling, because to seek help through official channels could mean a desk job for many, and for police officers, giving up their guns. When Port Authority police officers opened up to this writer, it was clear they were fearful of acting out their anger and sense of helplessness. "Am I gonna flip out like one of these rescue people after Columbine or Oklahoma City?" one officer blurted. "I have so much anger am I going to go postal? Kill myself or someone else?"
Oklahoma City points the way to the future. Eight years after suffering the deadliest terrorist bombing on American soil up to that time, those survivors have learned that the psychological effects of trauma by terrorism are cumulative and if they are ignored into the third year the likely reaction is a double-dip depression.
The alternative to pretending we can "get over it" by forgetting is to renew the memories of those taken from us. We can best do that by celebrating the way they lived, rather than recalling the way they died. Tell their stories. Bring them up as a teaching moment for the lives we are living now. Remind ourselves to do the important things we wish we had done before. As Thornton Wilder wrote in "The Bridge of San Luis Rey": "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
Gail Sheehy is the author of "Passages" and, most recently, "Middletown, America: One Town's Passage From Trauma to Hope" (Random House, 2003).
Twine of Truth
By Patti Davis
Tuesday 09 September 2003
The 9/11 attacks must teach us that even the blackest evil can t extinguish the light of the human spirit
Sept. 8 It seems that each generation is branded by an event in history something that stopped time and forever changed those who witnessed or experienced it. It seems so, except history is not quite so organized
GENERATIONS OVERLAP; MEMORIES stretch out across decades, even centuries. The Holocaust was one such event; so was slavery both churning out their horrors over years, falling like hard shadows over many generations yet they feel like single events because they sit like stone in our collective psyche. The Vietnam War is another, as is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
September 11 will never again be just a date on the calendar. We are still newly wounded, but as years pass we will process the memory differently. As with any wound, there will be healing, a smoothing over of scars and a reconnecting of torn nerve-endings. But what will never fade is the knowledge that something huge and horrible happened on that clear autumn morning. A challenge exists for people of every generation: how best to honor the memory of an event that seemed to throw earth off its axis how to explain it, paint it vividly and authentically for the inheritors those who are too young to possess their own memories. Already, there are children who will only ever know an empty hole in the Manhattan skyline, who can t look up at that blue wedge of sky and see ghosts of the twin towers, who won t have seared into their hearts the images of the day the towers fell.
History is a woven rope handed from one generation to the next. It s often a sad task, taken on with uncertainty and prayers and with an understanding that the future is molded by how the past is handled.
I was young 11 or 12, I think when my parents showed me a black and white film of American soldiers going into the concentration camps in Germany at the end of World War II. The faces of both the rescued and the rescuers are indelibly inked in my mind. The strong hands of soldiers reaching tenderly for emaciated bodies, thin as matchsticks, yet moving, bending, understanding life amidst so much death taught my heart how to plant itself in the future and promise that nothing like this should ever happen again. Fittingly, that short documentary was called Lest We Forget.
My father had kept the film for years, and even though I was young I was old enough to understand that his intention was always to show it to his children at a time that seemed appropriate. So we could ask the questions that need to be asked even though there are no answers. So we could understand that out of horror can come heroism. So we could hold fast to the faith that even the blackest evil can t extinguish the light of the human spirit. My mother has since told me that he was emphatically committed to showing us the truth of what happened when evil consumed a country and slaughtered so many. He believed he owed us that truth.
Ultimately, that is what the rope of history is made of the strong twine of truth.
As years rumble on and we keep approaching the date of September 11 with tentative hearts (Where are we now? Who are we now?) I wonder how many families will sit in living rooms and look at film footage or photographs, diving into the deep wells of their children s eyes knowing they will never be able to answer the questions pooled there. I can offer only this: the diving down is how the rope of history is grasped and passed on.
Who are we if we don t pass on the truths about that one morning that one moment in the time-span of history when the sky billowed with smoke and the buildings crumbled and people jumped to their deaths and others were lost in the wreckage; when firefighters and rescuers raced into the flames, many of them perishing as well. Who are we if we don t also say: Yes, there were those in other lands who cheered and threw out candy like some macabre Mardi Gras celebration when they heard that some 3,000 Americans had died a horrible death. We didn t look too long on their hatred. We turned back to each other. Who are we if we don t tell our children, so they can tell their children, that while evil can turn the world to rubble killing, maiming, crushing even the strongest hearts it can never break the soul. Out of the rubble of the September 11 attacks, souls rose up. Some of them left this world to hover above us; others survived to embrace another day, another year more time on this uncertain earth. More time to remind us of how resilient our souls really are.
A long time ago, I sat in a peaceful living room and learned the sad lesson of how violent and cruel human beings can be. I learned that there are no answers to the question, where does evil come from? I learned that there is an answer to how we rise above evil. We soar on the wings of our hearts. We find those wings by looking deep into the darkness and remembering that nothing can extinguish our souls. We find them by holding onto the rope of history, and pulling it into the future, emboldened by the faith that we can make it different from the past.
If we handle history carefully and truthfully, the empty hole in the Manhattan skyline will be filled with promises.
Jump to TO Features for Thursday 11 September 2003