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September 16, 2002

9/11 a story we must tell

Marshall Duke is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology

A phone conversation between my older brother Marty (the “real” doctor) and me is surely not a rare thing. Usually he tells me about his children and his grandchildren, about his plans to retire or about the worsening traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. But late in the evening on Sept. 11, 2001, he told me how he had walked down the stairs from his office on the 62nd floor of the first World Trade Center tower hit and, with the help of some heroic firemen, had survived being trapped in the lobby of the Marriott hotel after the tower collapsed.

There have been many phone calls between us since then. Our most recent was just a few days ago. I asked him how he was feeling with the anniversary of the attacks coming up. He said tersely, “I’m not wonderful, but I’m fine.” He then went on to tell me about his children and his grandchildren, talked about his plans for retirement, and complained about the worsening traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike.

On Sept. 11, 2001, my brother’s daughter Nancy was visiting her older sister in Atlanta. She had been married for about a year. Nancy was on her way to the airport to return home to Washington when the attacks began and planes were grounded, so I got in my car to pick her up. Locked on the radio on my way to the airport, I heard about the attack on the Pentagon. So did Nancy on an airport TV screen. I arrived to find my niece weeping uncontrollably in the supportive arms of an Atlanta policeman. Her husband, you see, worked at the Pentagon. It was as if all of the fears of this nation were wrapped up in this innocent 24-year-old: Her father in the World Trade Center; her husband in the Pentagon; she and I in a car traveling north on GA-400 waiting for two phone calls.

We were still on 400 when she got a call from her husband. He was in a different part of the building, he said, when the plane hit the Pentagon. They had all been sent home. He was on the Metro. As she told him she loved him, the news reporter on the radio said that the first tower was collapsing. We didn’t know whether it was my brother’s tower. We didn’t know if he had gotten out.

He had been in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He had stayed inside that time, to help with medical care. This was his habit. I was sure he was dead. I began to think of how I was going to help this young girl through this—how I was going to become what my brother had been for as long as any of us can remember: the head of the family. I tried to reassure her about his being a survivor; I tried to reassure myself. As did all of us, I knew that in that moment life had changed forever. I never felt so helpless.

During the spring and summer of 2001, before the attacks, we at Emory’s MARIAL (Myth and Ritual in American Life) Center asked people to allow us to tape them as they shared family stories with their children—family narratives. Family narratives, it turns out, are critically important in a number of ways. They help families to make sense of what happens to them on a daily basis, and they are a way of passing on a family history that places each of the living members into a longstanding, enduring context. It was not until November that we listened to one of the first tapes we had collected. We were shocked at what we heard. Sitting with his family of five, a father began by saying, “Let’s talk about the time that Uncle Billy was murdered.” The parents then went on to tell of this horrific event in the family’s history in some detail.

As time went on, we found that many of the other well-functioning families we were studying also told of terrible things that happened to them. How could parents tell such things to their children? Why? We realized that, when the families told their horrible stories, they were in fact telling them to children who were safe in their homes, with moms and dads who were there with, and for, them. The children were hearing of terrible things that happened but knew also, by the security of their surroundings, that their families had survived. The message to them was essentially this: “Uncle Billy was murdered but we are here—our family can withstand even that level of tragedy. We coped as best as we could. We were resilient. We survived. We went on. So can you.”

By noon on Sept. 11, Nancy and I had gotten to her sister’s house and began to wait. We were in contact with the rest of the family in New Jersey. We just sat and waited. The girls cried, and their cries were more plaintive than any I had ever heard—the cries of lost, frightened children. Then the phone rang, and it was my brother. He was in an office 20 blocks uptown from the World Trade Center. He was alright.

The first words both his daughters screamed out over and over were “Daddy, I love you,” almost as if that feeling had welled to a level of intensity far beyond any they’d experienced before. I spoke with him briefly; other people needed to use the phone. He said he would call me later. I was crying. I told him I loved him as well. I don’t think I had said that … ever.

For four months after Sept. 11, my brother did not wish to talk further about what happened. Along with reportedly half of those directly involved, he elected not to talk with grief counselors that came to New York believing they could help. He did not watch any news stories or documentaries. He would read nothing about the attacks in the newspaper. He shared few details with our family.

All that changed in an instant one day last January when he went to the mailbox and found a small manila envelope addressed to him. Opening it, he found his Port Authority of New York identification badge—the one that had been torn from his neck during the effort to climb out of the Marriott hotel lobby. It had been sent to his address—not knowing if he were alive or dead—by the people involved in the salvage operation.

He later said this moment freed him in an unexplainable way. Having talked for hours with his wife and children, that very night he also called me and started to talk about what happened. About the fall through the floor, about the broken rib, about the firemen and their strategy for finding their way out of the pitch blackness. About the dust in his lungs. About the friends he had lost.

Here we are tonight, like the family in the research study I described; we are sitting together telling the story of a terrible thing that happened to us as a people. But we are here. We know that we have bounced back personally and that America has bounced back as a nation.

It is this knowledge of the degree of our resilience that will assure we will never again be so completely shocked and shut down as we were on Sept. 11, 2001, that dreadful day that changed us in such fundamental ways. That day that drove us from a belief in our ultimate safety and its accompanying absence of vigilance to an awareness that we are vulnerable and must be watchful. That day that redirected us from a parental and national goal and responsibility of trying to prevent adversity in the lives of our children to the need to teach them to be resilient in the face of sporadic, but inevitable tragedy and upheaval. That day that moved us to a realization—incarnate here tonight—that we must not forget this tragedy, as it has been our national habit and tendency to forget past tragedies.

We must tell the story of Sept. 11 for generations to come. And we must tell it in the smallness and warmth of our homes as well as in gathering places like this one—large places—sacred places. And we should tell this story to our children and they to their children as long as this beloved nation exists. We must say to them as my niece, Nancy, will one day say to the unborn child she now carries:

“Know this: On Sept. 11, 2001, a terrible thing happened to us as individuals and as a nation. We coped with this tragedy as best as we could, but in so doing we never relinquished our nation’s commitment to justice, fairness and civility. We were resilient. We bounced back stronger than we were and were able to withstand that which we once believed we could not survive. We went on, but we went on with a deeper love and appreciation for this country and for the essential human values upon which it has been built.

Gain strength from all this that you now know. Terrible things may happen to you in your lifetime, but you are of us. Neither nature nor God intended for us to crumble and fade when faced with adversity. We righted ourselves. We did not lose our way. We bounced back. So, too, will you.”

This essay was adapted from an address Duke delivered at the University Gathering held the evening of Sept. 11, 2002, in Glenn Auditorium.