Little Universes

I've been focusing on the wrong thing

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I guess I’m a morbid guy. Since I was young, I’ve been naturally drawn to horrible disasters. I remember not wanting to go to school on the day of the Oklahoma City bombing because I wanted to stay and watch the TV coverage. On a trip to the aquarium with my grandma when I was eight we went to the gift shop and the only thing I wanted was a reprint of the New York Times they were selling from the day after the Titanic sunk (a Titanic IMAX documentary was showing at the aquarium and I was endlessly fascinated by it). And, since that day twenty years ago, I’ve been preoccupied with the events of the morning of September 11th.

That day and the week after, you could not tear me from the television. A few weeks after, I persuaded my Dad to take me to Ground Zero because, for reasons I couldn’t understand, I had to see it for myself. I still remember getting close to the barricades and seeing the remains of the tower’s unmistakable arched windows sticking 50 feet out of the ground at an alarming angle, like shrapnel. The landscape was still smoldering.

Looking back, I reflexively recoil when I think about my 13 year-old self standing there, surrounded by trauma my young brain couldn’t really take in or process. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t anxious or upset standing at those barricades. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of that landscape and the full gravity of recent history. It didn’t feel good, but I remember feeling more alive and in the world than I’d ever felt previously. It was probably just my first acute, semi-adult feeling of personal trauma.

9/11 is a national, global tragedy and, in a sense, the events of the day belong to everyone. I feel like a fraud claiming any part of that day for myself. But today I also feel legitimately unable to write about anything else. Two nights ago, I watched the first episode of the Hulu/National Geographic documentary on 9/11. If you can bring yourself to watch it, I do recommend it. After years of watching footage of that day (I don’t particularly love this about me, but many of my earliest YouTube binges were of bystander videos shot that morning) I naively assumed I’d seen the disaster from all available angles. I suppose a part of me thought I’d understood the day as best as I, a 14 year-old at the time of the attack, could.

The documentary, which draws on unseen, donated footage from the 9/11 Museum, shattered that notion. It is kaleidoscopic, granular, and relentless all at once. In the first episode alone, we don’t just hear the day narrated from the perspective of numerous survivors, we see them live it.

In one of the most striking moments, a survivor describes helping a severely burned woman he saved into an ambulance. His narration is paired with home video footage, shot hundreds of feet away from an apartment of a random bystander. The video starts out on the base of the tower and zooms out before settling on a scene of a man helping a woman into an ambulance. It is not stock footage. What we’re seeing on screen is actually the narrator, captured in the exact moment he’s recounting decades later. It feels inexplicable that such a small, intimate moment could’ve been caught on film amidst the complete chaos and it feels almost almost impossible that the documentary crew tracked down the man involved. We soon learn that, only minutes after the narrator parted with the woman in the ambulance, he learned his sister and niece were in one of the planes that crashed into the towers.

That short piece of found footage accidentally captured an instant just before his life changed forever. “This was my world, never to be the same again,” he says of that moment.

The sequence is gripping and positively wrenching. But its power, at least for me, was in revealing how even enormous individual tragedy can appear small on a scale of that magnitude. That ambulance clip is just one, 10-second isolated moment in a sea of horror. For every person in the frame, it is likely an indelible part of their life, a trauma forever imprinted. But, just out of frame are a thousand more moments just like it. The camera could have hovered on any person and the story would have been equally bracing and traumatic.

I worry about sounding too obvious — ‘September 11th, a traumatic day’ is not exactly an insight. But what I really mean is that watching this particular footage unlocked something inside my own mind — a perspective that I find almost impossible to maintain on a daily basis. The documentary succeeds in showcasing the unimaginable enormity of trauma: how, in every person, in each frame, there is an entire universe of terror and suffering. Every moment of solidarity, every act of heroism large or small is magnified.

This morning, I went back to YouTube and looked at a couple of the clips I’d seen before from that morning. This time, I had a difficult time getting more than a few frames in. I felt compelled to pause on every face and to consider the day from their perspective or to zoom out further and imagine from the perspective of their loved ones. Obviously, it’s all too much. Nobody can adequately understand or begin to process that much suffering, nor is it anyone’s job to do so.

Still, I’m grateful and humbled by the reminder of the enormity of the human experience. It’s the same sensation I got reading Jen Senior’s phenomenal Atlantic feature “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” a sprawling effort of reporting that takes one young man’s death on 9/11 and examines it from the perspective of his family. Their suffering does not take a straight, tidy path; it is not evenly distributed. Early in the piece, Senior quotes a therapist who helped the McIlvaine family grieve. The advice is a poignant description of grief and a frame for the piece: “Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.”

Bobby McIlvaine is just one of 2,977 people who died on 9/11, which means that Senior’s 13,000 word examination barely begins to sketch the emotional footprint of that day. And yet this one family’s story is enough to completely lose one’s self in for a lifetime.

I read Senior’s piece a few days after writing my grandmother’s obituary. She died a few days shy of her 95th birthday. I’d never written an obituary before, and all I had to go on were my memories and a series of sterile bits that needed to be included in the piece (town of birth, where she attended school, her official job title when she worked as an accountant). Ninety-five years is a long time, and I felt a real sense of pressure to capture her rich, textured life as something more than a few encyclopedia facts. I spent a lot of time reading obituaries — random obituaries, famous obituaries, weird obituaries, Google search results for “best obituaries.”

I got a bit obsessed (again, morbid guy, here). The best obituaries did what Senior’s piece and the documentary did: they reminded me of the enormity of one life, however private or seemingly unremarkable from the outside. One piece (I suppose it isn’t an obituary but a eulogy) by the journalist Derek Mead moved me intensely in this exact way. The story, both lovely and sad, isn’t mine to tell so I suggest you read it in full but I will explain its effect on me: it helped remind me that even those who seem alone or lost or as if they have very little are never solitary figures. Each of us is carrying our own universe of memories, emotions, as well as the hearts of others. Again, it may sound so obvious, but it is obvious things like this — the understanding of the interconnectedness and complexity of each of us — that I find are the hardest to remember as we go about our days. And it only gets harder as we live through a pandemic that takes thousands of lives each day.

Recently, I was talking with another person who, like me, has a peculiar obsession with rewatching footage from that September morning. They suggested their interest was because they — like me — hadn’t watched the horror in real-time. Perhaps, it was yet another effort to make sense of a senseless act. For me, my focus on the footage is always around 9:02 am, when the second plane hit. It is, in my mind, the moment that the nature of the attacks becomes obvious. It is the moment where the 21st century seems to change forever, not just for those in lower Manhattan, but for millions of people across the globe. What I obsess over are the minutes before that moment. I guess part of me wanted to live in that naïveté just a little longer. Or at least try to scan the pixels for some kind of sign of the upcoming disasters that will ripple out from this one day. “This was my world, never to be the same again.”

But this year, something’s changed. I no longer feel drawn to 9:02 am or rewatching the cable news wide shot images of the smoking towers. I realize I’ve been looking at the wrong thing all along. I’ve been looking for the wrong thing all along. There’s no sense to be made from the wide shot. It is senseless horror and death and destruction. The only sense I can make comes from zooming in and from the realization of the universe inside every person in the frame.

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