New Animal Productions
An image from 9/11: The Days After, airing Friday night on History.
An image from 9/11: The Days After, airing Friday night on History. New Animal Productions
My first professional writing job started on September 5, 2001. It involved writing goofy weekly recaps of the brand-new CBS travel adventure reality show, The Amazing Race, which is about to enter its nineteenth season. My first recap posted on September 9.
My second posted on September 20, after the show had taken an unexpected week off, and it started like this: "First, a warm hello to everybody who's made me, or anyone, smile in the last ten days. Keep it up." And I wrote that because, quite honestly, I didn't know what else to do when attempting to write comedy at that particular moment. It wasn't just comedy; it was comedy about travel and planes and airports.
Ten years later, I'm still not entirely sure what to do. As you undoubtedly know, practically every television network, broadcast and cable, has its way of commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the events of September 11. Some are obvious; some aren't. Some are perfectly logical ways for television shows to acknowledge current events; some seem exploitative and creepy.
To say these offerings are diverse in style and content doesn't begin to cover it. Tonight, Animal Planet airs an episode of a new show called Saved that documents how people survive difficult experiences with help from their pets, and it focuses on people affected by the attacks. Saturday night, Biography airs a special called Beyond: Messages From 9/11, in which "families of 9/11 victims share their stories of the messages they received from beyond." On Sunday, Oprah Winfrey's OWN is showing a BBC documentary special called Twins Of The Twin Towers, about the people who lost twins on that day.
There are as many angles as there are channels and networks, and even everybody doing one simple, modest thing begins to feel like everything by everyone is coming at you all at once, until the titles all run together. Portraits From Ground Zero on A&E. 9/11: 10 Years Later on CBS. Primetime: Remembrance And Renewal on ABC.
I had it in mind at one point to produce some kind of a programming guide that would give you an overview of everything that was being offered up the rest of this week and this weekend, so you could pick for yourself what, if anything, you wanted to watch. But that seemed like it would make the day into a programming event, which in practice it is, but it also ... isn't, and shouldn't be.
So I thought perhaps I'd give you an idea of what's out there from what I could see in advance. I sat down this weekend with a pair of screeners I got from History. One was called Voices From Inside The Towers, a title so jarring that when its name was spoken at press tour, I saw a woman instantly shake her head — not in disapproval, but in refusal. It wasn't "tsk, tsk," it was, "Absolutely NO WAY." And I felt the same.
So I started with the other one, a special called 9/11: The Days After. It consists of video from September 11 and the following days, a combination of news footage and home video footage. The Los Angeles Times recommended it as perhaps the one special to see, calling it "hard to watch, and impossible to turn off."
"Hard to watch" does not begin to describe my experience. My throat started to tighten almost immediately as the minute details of how terrifyingly the day unfolded were very honestly and evocatively documented: a woman suddenly realizing she knows someone who works in the World Trade Center, footage of a clothing store where the folded shirts are covered with a thick layer of ash. Eventually, I started to shake, and then I started to cry.
It wasn't because what they were showing was logically any more sad than many, many other specials about many, many other horrible events. It is personal to me — to where I was, to what I remember.
Because, as the L.A. Times noted, the special, by design, "puts you, as much as possible, into the place and time." And in doing so, it's very effective. These are not reenactments or talking-head interpretations of historical events; this is documentation. This is very much an example bearing witness, and there's a longstanding tradition of people doing just that, even if they didn't used to do it with so much home video.
What I personally felt was a rolling back of a ten-year process in which my memories became less raw and my sadness became more manageable than it was when I stood on the lawn of the state capitol watching a co-worker pal of mine eulogize his brother at my state's official memorial service. Mind you, my experience of this was strictly from far away, living as I did in the Midwest at the time. I was marked so much less than almost anyone else, and yet feeling that healing effectively un-happening was profoundly unnerving, and I found myself wondering why I was doing it. Confused again, right there in my living room, ten years after I was trying to figure out how to write up my second reality-show episode ever.
The Times may have found the piece impossible to turn off; I did not. I cannot address where it goes after the first half-hour, because that's as long as I lasted. I turned it off, and it took me several very long minutes to gather myself together.
Obviously, this would not be everyone's experience. And obviously, I can't possibly tell you what most of these specials actually have in store, because I didn't watch them. And I am not criticizing anyone for airing them; how could I criticize the History Channel for airing documentation of a historical event? But while I will go to great lengths for you — I will watch terrible television, I will read distasteful books, I will see movies I anticipate hating — I did not watch any more.
The precise lesson of all of this, for me, was that reactions to actually seeing this stuff are going to be intensely personal, and this is mine. If you feel like you want to watch some sort of commemorative programming, choose it very carefully. Understand that how you react may surprise you. I did not expect to have this kind of a response. I would have, if I'd been watching people talk about losing loved ones or even watching other people cry.
But it didn't take that. It just took returning to the time and place. The special was very effective, in that it returned me eerily to how frightened I remember feeling, how uncertain everyone was of what, exactly, was going to happen next. And it wasn't solely focused on misery and dread, either. It also paid attention to people pitching in to help, and all those people who showed up to donate blood. Remember that? I remembered it with my history-documenting memory, and I could have included it on a scholarly list of things I remember about those two or three days. But I don't think I remembered it with my emotional-experiences memory, the people crowding into hospitals to give blood because it seemed like the best thing they could think of. This was like reactivating some kind of sense memory harder to control once it begins to move me, to a greater degree than the academic way I tend to remember things that happened many years ago and in which I was not directly involved, even if they're very sad.
So this, all of this, is not for me. My plan is to do the same thing I have done every year since then: I will read my friend Sarah's essay about how she spent that morning, I will remind myself of the many moments when she met kindness, and then I will go do something else.
Think carefully about what you want to watch. Think carefully about immersion experiences, especially. They are potent, and depending on how suggestible you are, you may find that you are more transported than you intended.