Over the past few weeks I’ve listened, read, watched, and pondered a quilt of stories around the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, as the world celebrates/honors/remembers the event 10 years later.
There are first hand stories of those who were in the buildings, rescuing people or escaping; stories by watchers, waiters, victims, and victimized; works by writers, poets, bloggers, singers, musicians, actors, sculptures, painters, quilters, and just regular folks tell the story from their perspective for better or worse or just to preserve the moment in history.
I’ve found studies that show today’s school children know little or nothing of the events of September 11, 2001, and many textbooks have little or no mention of the plane hijackings and their results. Living in Israel at the time, I kept replaying the Holocaust mantra in my own head, “Never forget, always remember.” Yet, it seems that some groups do want to forget, or at least step lightly around the historical event.
As I coped with my own personal experience which I will share in another post, I will never forget my dearest friend, the actress, director, and playwright, Naomi Yoeli, grabbing me when we realized what was happening. She stared deep into my eyes with the beautiful intensity that defines her spirit, and said the immortal words, “Today the world is changed. Nothing will be the same. This is history. Do you understand me? History.”
As the day approaches, I’m hearing a few groans and gripes about being overwhelmed with 9/11 stories. This is normal. For those without a personal connection, we can only take so much of the stories.
As Naomi said, I think it’s important that we do share our memories, our history of that moment. That we preserve our own unique experiences of those moments when billions around the world watched the first tower burn as a second plane blasted into the second tower, as rumors of a third hijacked plane, then a fourth, became reality, one turning the side of the Pentagon into a burning hole and the other crashing into a field, then the incredible story of the passengers who brought down the plane rather than cause more death and destruction of innocents.
To help you share your own story, here are a few tips. Remember, it’s your story, it’s your personal experience, adventure, and perspective. These tips are not to change or influence what you write about September 11, 2001. They are only to help you share your story so the world will never forget and always remember.
Share What You Know
We want to know your personal experience, so share what you know.
Keeping the experience personal and intimate, you bring us into your experience. We share your thoughts. We feel your feelings. We walk (or run) down the path with you.
Rhett Miller shared his 9/11 Diary on NPR’s Here & Now telling of his experience that morning, a morning he was planning his marriage proposal and finishing a song he was writing.
Normally, we’d be able to see the Trade Center from here. The air is thick and brown. Rubbish and wreckage are all we see. It’s tricky terrain to navigate. Twisted metal, broken glass, scraps of burnt papers…
There is no one else on the street. I tried twice to look back at the tower that still stands, but the cloud is too thick. We run – in our stupid birks [Birkenstock] – down to where the street dead ends, south. Other people are running, now more in earnest. I wonder why.
I pass a cop. He’s wearing a face mask. He yells, “The second tower just collapsed. Get the hell out of here.”
It occurs to me that if I had opened the outside door at the bottom of the stairwell two minutes later, we probably wouldn’t have survived.
We keep running until we get to the water. Smoking fragments of glass and metal rain down on our heads.
Erica and I hold hands as we run.
Miller’s story is not about the hijackers, the history of all the politics and political decisions that brought us to this place and time in history to create these events. It’s a highly personal story, told simply, of his escape and the impact on his own life.
I didn’t write a word of the engagement ring in the journal. I was afraid Erica would see it and I didn’t want the ring wrapped up in tragedy…We never lived in Manhattan again. We got married. Had two kids, and now live in a quiet spot in Hudson Valley. We don’t discuss the events of that day much any more.
On the same show, Michael Benfante, the “reluctant hero,” tells of how the simple act of rescuing a woman in a wheelchair and carrying her down 68 flights of the north tower before it collapsed turned his life into a self-imposed hell. He felt guilty for not having done more, for the firemen who passed him on the way up to die, and embarrassed for the media attention. His inability to cope with all that happened in the aftermath of 9/11, he turned to alcohol. Eventually he turned his life around and writing a recently released book about his experience, hoping to show others they are not alone in feeling depressed and guilty for just doing the right thing.
His story isn’t unique. Guilt, depression, loss, victimization, a sense of responsibility for things beyond their control, many who watched or were there and survived suffer from all of these, a combination of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Survivor’s Guilt.
We always want to know the story behind the story, a behind the scenes report of what happened – or better yet, what really happened. WBUR Radio’s story of two fighter pilots called to action on September 11 to respond to a hijacked plane is a powerful insider story of what it was like to be prepared to deal with a hijacking. In flight, the hijacking turned into terrorism all around them. Military pilots ready to react, respond and defend are helpless at the speed and timing of the coordinated attacks.
NASTY: So my question was, “What happened to American (Airlines Flight) 11?” I’m asking this in my head. We don’t have CNN in the cockpit, so anybody who was watching the news had a better idea of what was going on then we did.
DUFF: And that was the case for pretty much the whole day. People on the ground knew a whole lot more than we did. Our whole world was, basically, New York City and we had our hands full, we were pretty busy…
DUFF: When the first tower fell, I was escorting a Delta jet into JFK (Airport). I saw some motion just out of the corner of my eye and I turned and looked and lower Manhattan was like a big tan cloud over it, you know, it was just completely engulfed. But I could see a little bit of one of the towers and I called up and said, “Hey, I think one of the towers went down.” And they called back and said, “Yeah, we got it on CNN, South Tower just collapsed.”
I said OK and just kind of went back to work. I think that’s what Nasty and I were kind of trying to do all day. You had to keep refocusing, you can’t get emotional. It was like, you flip a switch and you kind of go into that combat mode where you’re like, “OK, people are dying right now.” It’s all focus, no emotion, as best you can…
NASTY: The second tower we were both in formation relatively close to each other and, I guess, directly above when the second tower collapsed.
DUFF: So we flew right up over the top of it and we were looking down at it. I was looking at the square and I remember thinking, I was just going to make a radio call saying, “Hey it looks good because it’s not leaning or twisted or anything.” And as I’m looking at the square, the roof, it starts getting smaller. All of a sudden I saw the plume coming out of the bottom, it was falling away from me when we’re looking at it.
I could say that’s the one time during the day where, you know, I was just getting ready to tell them, “I think you can probably save the building,” and I’m thinking, “Well they’re probably thinking the same thing, sending guys in.” And from an emotional standpoint, I think that was the hardest part of the day — watching that go down.
You give yourself a little bit of time — 10, 15 seconds, whatever it is — to kind of be horrified, and then you have to just kind of push it out of your mind. Not that you won’t deal with it at some point, but just not now.
Only someone who was there in that flight seat could tell that side of the story.
We all have our side of the story. Together, they form a tapestry of the entire event, preserved forever.
Your story may be unique, but you are not alone. Millions shared these feelings, along with hope afterwards that the world would indeed change. Share your thoughts and you might help someone else understand that they are also not alone.
Help Someone Tell Their Story
Not all of us are gifted storytellers, writers, speakers, or bloggers. If you know someone with a story to share that needs help, help them tell their story.
Sit down with a recorder or video camera and just let them talk. If necessary, edit it later, but let them tell it their way.
Ask leading questions to get them going. If they have told the story before, it will be easy for them. If it is a story evolving in the telling, give them the space and silence to find the words to share their thoughts and let the story unfold.
Depending upon the permission and cooperation you get, you can transcribe the recording, share the video, or retell the story as a tale, giving voice to their experience.
If you need help, The Experience Project has an “I Will Never Forget 9-11” forum to help those who wish to share their stories.
Go Deep Not Dark
When a friend of mine is unhappy, she goes dark. Her words not mine. She means she crawls into herself and tends to fall off society’s radar. It really means that what she is feeling is so emotional, she can’t express it, therefore she hides from it.
September 11 impacted us all. Emotions flew in all directions from fear and terror to hope and joy. For those personally involved, those emotions shifted second by second or were totally put on hold as they deal with each moment and event before them. For the world watching, the scenes and media influenced our emotions, swinging the pendulum back and forth, freezing momentarily as the next bit of news was relayed, then resuming its horrific path.
Don’t let your emotions get in the way of you sharing your story. Sometimes they are the most important part of the story.
When I think back on my own personal experience, my throat tightens, my eyes squint, and I chew my lips refusing to give in, but now and then, I need to give in and give up. The events of 9/11 arrived when I was literally in a war zone with bombs going off around me. A year into the Second Intifada, as the 2000-2005 series of terrorist attacks on Israel became known as, I was already suffering from sleepless nights, anxiety, stress, and what would become a slight form of PTSD for my husband and I. The events of 9/11 cost us plenty in psychological trauma as we kept away from tall buildings, got nervous when we heard airplanes overhead, and moved our life from suicide bomber to suicide bomber to major terrorist event scenarios to preparing for the upcoming war with Afghanistan and Iraq. Talk about emotional.
Dig deep. Use those emotions to help you tell your story. They are a part of you and a part of your story. Don’t run from them.
Is There a Lesson to Be Learned?
Not every story has a lesson, but maybe your story does. Did you learn anything from September 11th?
Miller learned to trust his instincts. He just knew going into that basement wasn’t the right thing to do. Benfante learned that heroes aren’t all that they are reported to be, and that the only joy in life comes from inside not out.
What did you learn?
Or did you unlearn something?
Many people felt such hope that the world would wake up and the Star Trek fantasy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (Kol-Ut-Shan) would unite us all to walk hand-in-hand through the gardens of the planet in peace.
Living in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the time, I was thrilled to see the emotional unity Israel felt with the United States. A huge banner went up in Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv and two main streets were temporarily renamed “New York” and “Pentagon” as a memorial. There was such hope and rejoicing. Israel didn’t feel alone. A few weeks later, more terrorism, more suicide bombings, the United States stalling and the President indecisive and focusing his attention on Afghanistan and Iraq to make more war and less peace, and the world’s dream faded and people became isolated, dismissive, distracted, and divisive.
There are lessons to be learned and shared from that part of the experience as well.
Don’t Have Words? Use Art
Reuters reported on a September 11 Art Show at MoMA in New York that doesn’t feature images or art from that day but from before and after, triggering memories and responses not necessarily recollections of the day’s horrific events.
beyond 9-11: The Art Of Renewal In Iowa was a project featuring 21 Iowa artists, writers, and musicians expressing their response to the event.
If you have an artistic nature, why not share that creativity on your blog to share your own experience, thoughts, and memories of that day and the days after to honor the anniversary.
Or report on artists that do. The Art of 9/11 by The Brooklyn Rail reports on an exhibition of ten artists at apexart in Brooklyn and their artistic response to the terrorist events.
Keep It Simple
A lot of people block up their writing when they think they have to tell a whole story, or give all the background and history. This isn’t a high school writing class nor college paper. You’re not going for your doctorate.
Begin the story at the moment you realize that your day wasn’t going to be the same as the day before and the day before that. Begin the story when you realize that your life has changed. Begin the story, as Liz Strauss often does, at the end, then talk us through the middle and the beginning.
Pick a moment. Maybe your story isn’t the whole experience but a moment within the experience.
Remember, you can edit and change what you’ve written later, just write it out now. Get your thoughts out, fix later.
If it isn’t right but the moment to hit publish is here, hit it any way. You can fix it later, just let your story be told.
What do you recommend to help people share and tell their story of 9-11?