9/11/03: The Past as Pre-History

Two weeks after the attacks of 9/11 created a Ground Zero in New York, I went looking for the emotional Ground Zero in the suburbs. I found it in Middletown, N.J., only 20 miles across the bay in physical distance but as remote as one of the Trobriand Islands in its complacent consciousness. That was, before nearly 50 people were robbed from Middletown and environs.

I started my explorations of Middletown as a student of anthropologist Margaret Mead; I had learned that when a highly significant event opens a fissure in the normal patterns of life, a writer must drop everything and go to the edge, where she will see the culture turned inside out.

To that outsider, it was the idealized American suburb. But the first thing I learned about the place was: There is no middle in Middletown. It was a large, sprawling, fragmented township divided into 12 separate enclaves. There were police and firefighters, wealthy traders and their stay-at-home wives, C.E.O.’s, and celebrities like Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. The bigger the house and the broader the lawn, the less likely the occupants would know their neighbors or imagine they would ever need to rely on community. It was a microcosm of suburban America.

My first calls were on the people charged with the care and protection of the townfolk. John Pollinger, the police chief of Middletown, a big, strong alpha male who appeared to always be in control; the center-parted hair, the Ray-Ban shades, the crisp uniform framing his 6-foot-5 stature. After he described the mutiny of some of his men who insisted upon going to Ground Zero, day after day, leaving the town depleted of its first line of defense, his eyes swelled and he came close to tears.

Next I called on the religious leaders, they were among the most shaken. Although their sanctuaries were filled, beyond capacity in the weeks following Sept. 11, there was nothing in their playbooks to explain this new face of evil and the whereabouts of God on that terrible day. A Presbyterian minister, John Monroe, told me “we were dead men walking.” One priest was so overwhelmed at the task of comforting the 24 families in his parish who lost loved ones, he virtually hid out during the first week following the tragedy.

I then moved onto the mental-health professionals. Maureen Fitzsimmons, the program director at Catholic Charities was one of the first shepherds to welcome the widows and widowers into new “family” support groups where they didn’t have to explain or defend their unruly emotions.

One day, Maureen let me know she thought there was one widow who was interested in talking to me. I had to bite my lip when Mary Murphy opened the door, five months pregnant. I don’t know how either one of us got through that first interview, but what I went through with Mary and the other widows could not be considered a traditional journalist interview. I was the absorber, the mirror, we communed. After the session was over, somehow, we both felt better.

From there, one bereaved family member passed me on to another. For the next few months, the people of Middletown just wanted to spill. But by Christmas, just about everyone retreated. They felt vulnerable and saw everyone as an invader.

The hotel where I holed up, the Oyster Point, was far above the usual standard for a journalist. It sits directly over the Navesink River at the junction of Middletown and Red Bank, a river dotted with pleasure boats and swans. I could look down from my window and watch the water wrinkle with the wind shifts and enjoy the tender pink and gold sunsets. The staff couldn’t have been more nurturing. Jennifer and Nicole at the reception desk were more than willing to drive me to an appointment when a cab didn’t show up. The hostess made sure my interviews were comfortably private, often conducted in the “living room” before a fireplace. The night bartender knew exactly when to bring warm milk before I retired.

Still, I would flip on the TV as soon as I got to my room and hear about anthrax discoveries in the nearby post office, or our bombing of Afghanistan. Or another warning to be “vigilant.” By the time I called to say good night to my husband, Clay Felker, who was across the country in California, I’d be bouncing off the walls.

My husband and I thought of ourselves as a hardy bicoastal couple, able to commute between Manhattan and Berkeley at will. On Sept. 11 we had been separated, since Clay had already started his semester teaching at the Graduate School of Journalism University of California, Berkeley. Being an experienced editor, Clay understood and supported my decision to live among my subjects. But the usual journalistic detachment did not apply in any aspect of doing this research.

By the time I had finished a day of interviewing distraught widows and parents, or siblings and guilt-ridden survivors, I would drag myself back to my hotel, so tired I could barely contemplate the effort of having dinner.

The night of Dec. 10 I slept fitfully. One moment I felt my husband’s voice tickling my ear, words of love whispered from across the land through the telephone, as I tried to hunker down after absorbing the tearful stories of the widows. Suddenly, I was left with the nasty buzz of disconnection. Too depleted to redial. Shut my eyes to the day, begging sleep.

Next thing I was watching my husband running. Fire melting his clothes, peeling off his skin. Watching helplessly as he runs to the windows and I call to him, “Don’t jump!”, but he doesn’t hear me, and he dives out the window into the boiling fog of jet fuel. It holds him for a split second, rocking him like the warmth of a thermal rocks the parachutist. I’m screaming-“Wait for me!”-but he’s already in free fall. I see my husband being “vaporized”-that was the word used by the medical examiner who I had interviewed earlier that week, an image that had stuck in my mind of heat so intense it was turning steel girders into soup, and melting my husband into nothingness.

Awakening, it took some moments of sobbing and sweating before I came to the consciousness that this wasn’t my husband. It was their husbands I was dreaming about-the widows of Middletown-that was how deeply their stories had penetrated into my unconscious. I turned on the TV news.

Today marks the third month since the terrorist attacks on New York.

My equilibrium was rescued by my daughter Maura, who is a psychotherapist. She said, “Mom, you’re showing all the same symptoms as the people you’re writing about.” She was right: locking my keys in the car, sleeping fitfully, obsessively reading about and rehashing the details of 9/11, seeing a low-flying plane and imagining that I saw it invade a building. Maura had a solution: “Mom, even professionals have to have a supervisor to discuss their difficult cases and unload.” My husband found a wise psychologist in Berkeley, and we made a date to speak for an hour at the same time, once a week.

“Of course, your daughter is right,” she said. “You’re holding all these stories. You don’t want to be a container that gets so packed it explodes. You want to let all the angst and anger flow through you.” She warned me that in the anger phase, anybody who gets in the way becomes a target. She advised that I proceed very slowly.

I developed a ritual to combat the isolation of hotel living. I would light a scented candle, put on a tape of Ella, sink into a bath of Dead Sea salts, and leave this world for half an hour. But there is nothing more protective than pulling close to your own loved ones, reaching out in any way you can squeeze into your day-leaving a nutty voice mail, sending a silly gift-ways that don’t depend on the participation of the other. But of course, real live hugs are best.

In February I sat down for lunch with the widow Karen Cangialosi. In earlier visits with Karen, she was always at pains to look after everyone else. This day, she looked me in the eye and said, “I want to ask you a few questions. She fired off a series of concerns that any who is a subject of a personal account should ask of the person recording their story. “Karen, do you realize what a huge step you’re taking?” I said. “You’re meeting me peer to peer. You’re setting boundaries.” I told her I wanted to give her questions a lot of thought and write my answers as a Statement of Purpose.

Writing the letter to all those I wished to follow, I acknowledged that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many of the people had trusted me with confidences, but now, after the sixth-month anniversary, everything is harder. Its was natural that they were more wary. Then I addressed each of Karen’s questions.

-Why are you writing this book?

This book will be about surviving loss. It will take people through the journey of healing and give others insight into what it takes, not only to survive, but to reconstruct one’s life after the worst has happened.

-How do I know that your book will help the widows rather than hurt us?

Most of us find ourselves by finding the story or narrative in terms of which our own life makes sense. The story of how a stunned and wounded Middletown survived 9/11 is a great American story. It could help you as you move to the next stage in your life, even as it helps other Americans understand how to live in our new post-9/11 world.

-We’re feeling very vulnerable and fearful that we’re going to be exploited.

You’ve gone from living in a safe, private suburb to becoming known as “the widows.” And some of you have become public figures. Your new position is the natural outgrowth of being at the center of a national tragedy.

-Why should I expose myself to being interviewed? It leaves me open to being misquoted and misinterpreted.

When I get to the point of writing the first draft of this book, I will go over with each of you the quotes from you that I would like to use. Still, you may be concerned that without qualification, your words may be misinterpreted. I’m happy to work with you too assure accuracy and context.

-Yes, but can’t your editor change it?

No. A book is a work of art in which a writer’s words are the instrument of her art. My editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, is accustomed to offering suggestions but never changing anything without my approval. He is the winner of many National Book Awards and we have worked together very closely on my last three books.

-Why do you think you’re qualified?

I’m not a licensed psychologist, but I’ve spent 30 years researching and writing about the passages of adult life.

–What will I get out of talking to you?

When you talk to me, you talk to someone who can frame your experiences within a broader context. I am an empathetic listener. Listening may not sound very powerful or healing, but we gain insight into our feelings and problems as we talk.

-How do I know you won’t exploit us or sensationalize our sufferings?

My intent is not to sensationalize, but to tell the real story of grief and pain and the struggle to recovery. Daily journalists-even at respected publications-do not have the time to work as I do. A book-length work requires hundreds of interviews in order to get at a deep understanding of the situation. This is a process. It doesn’t begin and end with one conversation. Some of our interviews may be painful, others not. But at the end of the process, we will produce a meaningful map of the inner and outer journey through this torturous terrain.

-How much time and effort will this take?

It’s extremely difficult to predict. I need to interview those who agree to be part of this project roughly once a month. The path you are walking will eventually lead to the light, and I hope to be there to record it. I am asking for your trust and cooperation.

All 50 of the people whose journey I wanted to follow agreed to participate.

On the first anniversary, I went to my editor, Robert Loomis, and told him I had little progress to report. If I was going to have a book that took the journey of traumatic grieving to the point of hopefulness, I would need to follow the people of Middletown for at least 18 months.

I knew this from having traveled to Oklahoma City to interview the survivors, families and mental-health professionals who had grappled for seven years with the aftermath of the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Most people don’t turn a corner before the first 18 months.

Loomis is a writer’s editor. He understood. Without hesitation, the deadline was extended.

But even at the 17-month mark, I still didn’t know if there would be any light at the end of the tunnel for trauma, but, as if on cue, at the 18 month, a few people started taking the first steps.

Some took giant steps, like “The Four Moms from New Jersey,” who went to Washington, D.C., and took on Congress and the White House to demand an independent national commission to investigate the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For others, simply carrying on the rituals of a family vacation was triumphant.

“Steve and I had promised to take the boys skiing over spring vacation, and I don’t want their lives to be deprived because they lost their father,” she said. Setting her apprehensions aside, she drove to Vermont through snow and ice with her two little sons reading the map and calling out navigational signs. It gave her a sense of raw physical power. They had no sooner checked in to the ski lodge than Karen attempted to make a fire-a chore that had traditionally belonged to her husband. The family was just settling down with hot chocolates when the screech of a smoke alarm broke through. The boys had never heard this sound before, and given their state of hypervigilance, they looked scared. Karen asked them to step outside. She opened the windows and climbed up and removed the battery in the alarm. With newly practiced aplomb, she invited the boys back inside. For Karen, this was concrete evidence that she could pull off both the mothering and fathering roles for her sons.

For another Middletown widow, one of the most anxious, the act of boarding an airplane bound for the Caribbean with her support group, 20 months after losing her mate, was a leap of faith.

At the end of 18 months, again I asked my editors for the indulgence. I needed one more month to create the “Phoenix Rising Summit.” This meeting between the guardians of Middletown and Oklahoma City was designed as a way to expand the boundaries of community through the shared experience of Oklahoma City and Middletown.

About 20 of us met at the OKC National Memorial last May for two days. The OKC caregivers showed us that healing comes from the support of the community. They also warned that the second anniversary is the cruelest. Even family members grow weary and many Americans begin to parrot the bromides of popular culture-“Time to move on,” “Time to put it behind us,” “Find closure”-I knew enough by now to understand that there is no closure after a traumatic loss of this magnitude. One can learn to live with it, incorporate it into a commitment to new life, but no one can keep up that resilience alone.

Two weeks before this anniversary, we held the Phoenix Rising Summit II, this time in Middletown. Family members and children of 9/11 victims came together with their local police, clergy and mental health counselors to learn what they can expect in the next few years as they continue the long walk back from traumatic grief. Who better to give them the unvarnished truth than guardians from Oklahoma City, who have already spent eight years identifying the cumulative effects of trauma and working successfully to heal their community?

The day culminated with a crossing by ferry to Wall Street, an interfaith service at St. Paul’s Chapel, and finally, a private tour of Ground Zero. Widows and widowers from Middletown, some of whom had never been to that dreaded place, had the opportunity to tell the stories of how their loved ones lived-rather than how they died-to their companions from Oklahoma. Many were shocked to see that sacred space turned into a busy construction site.

Our guide from the Port Authority stuck to describing the condition of the slurry walls that contained the seven-story pit where the Twin Towers once stood. He recounted for the visitors how urgent a priority it had been to support and treat those walls, once the towers were no longer there to hold them up, before the river flooded in on the pit. He described how engineers came up with a creative solution: They drilled hundred-foot holes in the slurry wall and filled them with epoxy and steel pins.

The guide’s account was interrupted by a sober voice from the heartland, that of Richard Wintory, former senior assistant prosecutor from Oklahoma City.

“We don’t have to guess at what’s going to happen to your folks who have been through this trauma and who have ignored the fallout,” he said. “If there’s not a strategy as detailed and creative as drilling holes in the slurry wall and filling them with epoxy and steel pins to keep the river out of the pit, if you don’t use that same tenacity and skill to keep your people from letting the river flood in your lives, you’re going to have more people die as a result of 9/11.”

Wintory spoke from the experience of working with the families of the 168 people killed on April 19, 1995, when a domestic terrorist blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The invisible psychological wounds persist to this day, most severely among those who were the last to come forward for help: the rescue and recovery workers.

“What y’all are experiencing is not different from what our rescue and recovery workers faced,” said Wintory, who has seen many of them disabled by the cumulative effects of stress and trauma. “This is a problem that is only going to get worse as time goes by,” he emphasized. “Cops have a harder time acknowledging that it’s O.K. to have a problem with what they experienced. It took our guys two to three years to come forward. When that stuff gets bottled up, it’s going to kill more Port Authority police officers,” he warned. “It’s going to wound and kill loved ones of Port Authority officers who will become victims of domestic violence. It’s going to turn children into folks who have serious problems dealing with their lives. The ironworkers and other union people who worked down here with y’all are also going to be affected by this.”

Wintory’s warnings were underscored by Jack Poe, the police chaplain of Oklahoma County, who is still running workshops to rehabilitate the shattered law-enforcement personnel who worked on the Oklahoma City rescue and recovery. “You talk about any kind of addictive behavior, and we’ve seen it,” he said. “Addiction to gambling, womanizing, drugs, alcohol, spending themselves into debt, domestic abuse. If we learned any lesson it’s that it takes a while for the men to integrate this experience. The longer they’re on the disaster site, the longer it’s going to take. You can’t expect a lot of this to surface for your people until three to five years.”

A chilling time frame.

Following the families of Middletown over the better part of two years was a tumultuous passage-through disbelief, passivity, panic attacks, sheer survival, rising anger, deep grieving and realignment of faith, to the shock of resilience, the secret romances, the discovery of independence, the relapses on the first anniversary, the return of a capacity to love and be loved, and, finally, the commitment to construct a new life. I cannot imagine any greater reassurance of the powers of the human spirit, buttressed by faith, to heal itself.

People ask me what can we do on 9/11? The simplest act of recognition that we are now living in a New Normal would be to walk across the lawn to someone you don’t know and say, “You’ve lived here a long time, and I’ve lived here a long time, and we don’t know each other. I’d like to get to know you, so that if a day comes when we need each other, we will have already made the connection-the foundations for our community will already be there.”