It must be a rite of middle-aged passage when your children learn in school about “historical” events that to you seem recent, vivid, and simply part of your biography. It happened to me this week with 9/11, which I experienced while living and working in downtown Manhattan, and which my daughter was assigned to interview me about this week. She and her brother took about as much interest in my answers as they do in their grandmother’s stories about the Second World War. To them it’s all the same: bad stuff that happened before they were born, and that makes the grown-ups annoyingly teary.
I didn’t tell them, of course, about the deepest parts of the experience. The feeling of physical violation that I had, from my heart down through my bowels, when I looked down Lafayette Street on my walk home to my studio on 13th Street and Fourth Avenue, after watching the towers fall from the balcony of the building at Spring & Broadway where I worked. It felt like a psychic rape, a malevolent message being sent: if we can do this, we can do anything. We can touch you anywhere. Then the fierce response, also from deep in my viscera: this is my city, my place. I will not leave it. I will not be driven away. I felt an upsurge of sexuality, too, in those days afterward: an affirmation of life, of connection and survival, in the face of terror and death.
I tried to tell my daughter about what I think was the terrible response of our government to 9/11: unjust wars, torture, Big Brother-like surveillance, Guantanamo. It’s not what she can hear, yet, or what the school is prepared to explore. But today, as I remember the song most played at the funerals of those killed on 9/11, I’m thinking of the version by Paul Robeson, the great musician and activist for civil rights and economic justice. In his voice, I hear the possibility of mourning without the impulse to revenge.