The 9/11 Syndrome

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September 13, 2013 by Roe

I live about 20 minutes from Newark, so give or take I’m about 30 minutes from Newark Airport. Everyday I hear planes fly over my neighborhood.  Everyday.  One’s flying over as I’m writing this now.  One flew over as I made the decision to write this, about less than 5 minutes ago.

I try not to watch much TV.  Most of it’s garbage anyway, I know.  But sometimes I get into these weird documentary obsessions. The retelling of history, a person, an era; It really gets to me, it really touches my soul, gets me to think about myself and the world around me.  I don’t know.  I love that stuff.  I think I always have.  Even in school I didn’t mind it.  I really enjoyed it when the teacher would put on a documentary.  But it’s when 9/11 documentaries come on, I get sucked into this black hole.

I got into a passionate discussion with my 14-year-old brother a few hours ago.  I had just started watching a documentary on the 9/11 Commission Report and was trying to explain to him how our government failed us that day; How the loss of innocent life is unacceptable in any situation and how it breaks my heart.  He asked me why I watch these documentaries, why I put myself through it.  I watched another one last night before I went to bed and my mom walked in and said, “Oh, I can’t watch those things.  I’ll always remember, I’ll never forget what happened.  It was a tragedy.  But I can’t put myself to sit down and watch those things.  It’s depressing.”  “Well, maybe we should get depressed about it,” I said.  Maybe we should feel something other than complacency.

I tried to explain to my brother the analysis that goes on in my head.  I was 10 years old when 9/11 happened and out of all the stories I’ve heard, my perspective still remains the clearer than anything. And that’s probably true with everyone because in times of crisis or mental trauma, that’s when our memory receptors kick in – That’s when the film starts rolling and everything your eyes touch and any stray emotion you feel become permanently ingrained in your memory banks.  But at 10 years old, you can’t process or even begin to fathom the actuality of the situation and what it means.  At that age, you’re still immature.  Hell, you haven’t even gone through puberty yet.  You’re a kid.  A kid who can’t see past recess, foursquare, and the 3:30 bell to go home.

Now I’m older, more matured, educated, analytical.  I watch these things and try to come to terms with where our country went wrong – The mythological idea of a country a typical 10 year old grows up believing is perfect and right and just and true and free.  I try to put myself into the shoes of an Al Qaeda soldier.  But the truth is, when I do that I can’t feel my feet.  Because I can’t fully invest myself in that temporary fantasy.  I do not understand the hatred and rage or the “death to America” sentimentality they feel towards us.  Maybe it’s because I’m still too young to understand and/or because my knowledge of American History starts to fade after the Kennedy years and I draw blanks about what comes after, what our country did, how the international community currently views us and why.  Maybe it’s because I know little to nothing about Al Qaeda, their cause, or their struggle.  In any case, it’s when watching these documentaries I am desperately trying to understand the viewpoints from all sides in order to come up with some logical explanation to what happened that day.  And it’s a struggle every time because I can’t do it; Logic fails.  Logic seems not to apply to tragedy and we are told to accept it as the transcendent horror that it is. Am I what Billie Joe Armstrong would brazenly call an “American Idiot“?  Maybe.  But maybe not as I am truly trying to understand.  Sometimes I feel my whole life is a Coming-of-Age story and it’s just one lesson after another.

See, I’m no stranger to trauma.  I was the first child born in my family – First daughter, first niece, first grandchild. I was showered with constant love and affection and got to know my entire family in a way that neither my four cousins nor my brother got to experience.  My grandfather emigrated to the US from Sicily in 1968.  He had bore three children with my grandmother – all girls. He had always wanted a boy, but as fate would have it – girls were in the cards.  I think he may have been hoping for a boy when my mom was pregnant with me but as fate would have it – another girl.  I have watercolor memories of spending time with him, laughing and playing with him.  Because both of my parents worked full time, I spent an majority of my childhood with my grandparents before I was able to be enrolled in school.  I especially used to love it when Poppy pushed me around in one of those red Little Tikes cars with the yellow roof.  Remember those? I think there’s pictures somewhere…

In the winter of 1993 my family was over Nonna’s house.  We were watching TV, talking intermittently.  I was sitting next to Poppy. And all of a sudden someone said something to him, and he didn’t respond.  It was at that time everyone looked at him and realized he was having a stroke.  At the early stages of my toddlerhood I still remember his wide open eyes as he sat next to me unable to speak, the panic that ensued immediately afterwards as the paramedics were called.  And right before my memory starts blurring, right before – I remember struggling with the little Italian I knew to ask him if he wanted a glass of water.  I didn’t understand what was happening, but at three years old, I could feel the tension and sense of panic in the room and was so desperately trying to communicate to ease his discomfort in the only way I knew how.  And it haunts me.  To this day it haunts me.  And everyday I think about it and every night before I go to sleep I try to erase it from my mind so I can sleep easy. And then I wake up again and it will cross my mind and I will it away before it enters again.  And sometimes I cry about it.  And sometimes I try not to cry about it.  I get tired blubbering to my mom, unable to speak because I’m so grief stricken over this toddler trauma I’m not sure anyone truly understands – I don’t even know if I understand it.  And I dream of him sometimes and I wake up crying; In the latest one about a month ago we actually spoke.  But the funny thing is, when we spoke it was just like that night – me trying to scrape together the little Italian to knew to ask him questions – stupid questions like, “How are you?”, “What’s your favorite color?” and “Do you like music?”.  He died soon after his stroke on a cold December day that year and I don’t think I’ll ever let it go because in my juvenile, naive state of mind  I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand why it happened or ever got the closure I needed – whatever the proper “closure” would’ve been to a three year old anyway.

In my heart, I connect this monumental, national trauma to my personal one.  There are parallels of paralysis – wanting to help but can’t, shattering of innocence, loss of innocent life; Vivid memories, crystal-clear emotions, each individual trauma a scar on my childhood, a mark on my youth that cannot be erased.  And maybe I’m obsessed with understanding.  In my entire 22 years of life that has been so dedicated to learning, maybe it is a habit I cannot break out of and every time I replay the events, I’m determined to find the answer; I’m determined to find out why it happened.  It’s the 9/11 Syndrome.  It happens every year, like the opposite of a holiday: We revisit the past in waking daydream states and unconscious dreams to try and fix the unfixable. 9 times out of 10 we believe with all our hearts that logic will lead to unbiased truth and when that truth comes, everything will be okay; It’s a flaw in the human mind.  It’s a cycle I feel I will never break out of.  My grandfather has been gone 20 years this December.  Windows on The World, where my dad proposed to my mom, is now only existent in memories.  And I will revisit these events in my head, listen to every heartbreaking story, and watch every heart-wrenching documentary because I am in a Catch 22.  For all the lives lost, I must remember; And if I can’t remember everything or everyone, I should at least try at my very best to see that I do.

In The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell says throughout human history, you can tell what’s most important within a society by looking at the tallest buildings.  Obviously, churches and other religious structures were the tallest buildings at one point in time and that emphasized the importance of religion. But then there was the rise of modern architecture and skyscrapers and colossal business buildings.  Those are the tallest buildings in our society today – The buildings dedicated to the ebb and flow of corporate capitalism and commerce.

Joseph Campbell also believed in religion as metaphor.  I take his belief and apply that to reality as well – I believe that our realities speak to us metaphorically (indiviudally and as a people) and that it is up to us to understand them, so that we may navigate this life to find our appropriate path. (For more on my personal experience reality as metaphor, please see my Dragonfly post).  When the Towers fell 12 years ago, I believe that was a universal metaphor for the demise of the corporate world as almost exactly seven years later, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, which began the avalanche of the most recent American recession which we have not fully recovered from.  As a nation, our trust in government and business was shattered.  And it is nowhere near being regained.  Once trust is broken, it is very hard to gain it back.  When you let someone down or a community down or a nation down, it takes a long time before they can look you in the eye again and take what you say at face value.   That goes for everyone, no matter their party designation, financial well-being, or societal stature.

On 9/11, I was very lucky.  I was not physically harmed and at the end of the day, my friends and entire family were unscathed, alive, and breathing. But as a human being where compassion is in my nature, is in all of our natures, I cannot help but relive the tragedy at least once a year.  It is a ritual I feel I must undergo in an attempt to comprehend what happened those people (and their families) who gave their lives that day less than 20 miles away from my elementary school, where at 10 years old, my world was suddenly changed forever. Emotions are a potent thing.  Sometimes they help more than harm and sometimes it’s the other way around.  But emotions can inspire us and lift us and propel us to make a better future for tomorrow.  We can aim our electrically charged dissatisfactions to accomplish something positive and great; There’s no need to be angry or hateful or complacent. We just need a positive attitude and clear head and the willingness to try.  Even if hurts, I will undergo the ritual annually. Eternity is always, future is everything.  It will all go on whether or not mankind is here to witness it.  And I prefer to stay until it is my time to go.

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