A recent experience has caused me to consider yet again the difficulties inherent in writing about someone else, above all a friend. An essay I worked on for two weeks caused such distress to a good friend that I abandoned the project before finishing it. The experience reminded me of an episode where I’d strenuously, but wrong-headedly, objected when a journalist friend, Betsy (Elizabeth MacBride), wished to quote me in a 2011 article looking back at September 11, 2001.
There are two parts to this post. I was more intrigued than I’d expected by what I wrote ten years after 9/11, now that another eight years have elapsed, and it occurs to me others might be interested in being drawn back to that time and their own reflections. So I will begin by reproducing the 9/11 part of my message to Betsy in its entirety, edited only slightly and only for context and clarity.
However, the original impulse behind this post was my thoughts about how we respond when friends write about us. Thus the second part of this post, springing from those 9/11 ruminations, concerns my reactions when I was the one written about.
For the record, I don’t conflate the significance of the events of 9/11 with the theme of the second section. Sometimes juxtapositions aren’t ideal.
July 27, 2011:
Several thoughts come to mind about the impact of 9/11 on NYC.
It happens that Laura [now my wife] and I had made plans for a vacation in Santa Fe a week or so later. Laura, who witnessed from her office window the collapse of the World Trade Center’s second tower, was too distraught to fly, so I cancelled all our arrangements. United Airlines credited my account with little or no fuss. However, the place we were to stay balked at giving us a refund. They contended that Laura had no reason to feel traumatized. Eventually I negotiated a half refund.
The trauma of 9/11 was most acute for those who worked or (as in your case) lived in the vicinity of the former WTC. The nation’s reaction wasn’t immediate, but once it kicked in, it subsumed the local experience. The real horror became a private experience for those who had been there.
So I think New York’s visceral response has been hijacked, which is obviously ironic. It may be why [your editor] feels the city hasn’t been changed. The events flare back to life for any New Yorker when an article or book appears describing the firefighters’ determination to save lives or transcripts are released of cell phone calls, but for the most part 9/11 has been internalized in deference to the larger cause of patriotism.
My second impression is that New Yorkers are dismayed by the failure of various parties, governmental and private, to rebuild on that site. The carcass of the WTC has become a symbol of dysfunction, which in turn has become a microcosm of dysfunction at the federal level. After 12/7/1941 the nation reacted to Pearl Harbor by rebuilding the fleet. After 9/11/2001 the nation responded with inaction. Yes, we went to Afghanistan, but Bush soon lost sight of the mission and redirected his attention to a non-culpable country, Iraq. Meanwhile rebuilding at home stalled. I sense that the legacy of 9/11 in New Yorkers’ minds is a precursor of a nation in the first stages of decline.
For the record, I argue among friends that we aren’t yet in decline, but we are at a crossroads. The decisions we’re making now could determine it one way or the other.
A third impact is that we now know the unthinkable can happen. Even immigrants, who constitute a large proportion of the city’s population, feel it. They knew “it” could happen in the places they came from, but they thought America immune.
A fourth, related impact is on civil liberties. I notice that Norway is insisting they won’t allow last week’s murder spree to lead to infringements on freedom. I don’t know if that resolve will hold. I do know that in the States, after 9/11 we yielded to the terrorists to the extent that we ratcheted up security to absurd levels. Each New Yorker has an experience or two to make us skeptical of the seriousness of security measures. One that stands out for me is the time the subway train I was on pulled into the Fulton Street Station and all passengers were told to get out. We all milled around on the narrow platform in that cramped station in ignorance of why we’d been thrown off. A cop told me a bomb threat had been made. Even so, passengers weren’t instructed to leave the station. Had a live bomb gone off, there would have been many casualties. I promptly left the platform and headed for another line that stopped at the same station with a lingering sense that the whole exercise was just that. Such charades are a dubious reason to cut back on our civil liberties. Scratch a New Yorker and you’ll get a resigned protest that the terrorists gained their objective.
All these consequences, some profound and enduring, persist under the surface. New York is about business, careers, aspirations, the future. But a decade later, the unfinished project to rebuild on the old WTC site is a drag on that optimism.
I found myself including scenes from 9/11 in my fiction, but they aren’t essential to any of those stories. In each case, the events of that day have an impact, but the stories could have been written without them. On that level, I lean toward your editor’s point of view. The true impact of 9/11 won’t be understood for perhaps decades, when we find out if this country’s direction was permanently changed.
Below, as a final note, I’m copying a slightly revised version of an email I sent a New York Times reporter a few days after 9/11. She was circulating in a crowd where a friend and I stood across from the WTC ruins.
On Wednesday evening you asked my friend Michael and me to talk about our reactions as we were looking over to the site of the former World Trade Center from Cedar Street. Your interest in me, I assume, was as a blind onlooker. How does he experience this?
The attack on the Trade Center was targeted at everyone who had ever worked there, visited, gazed on the towers from distant parts of New Jersey or Queens, even at those who had seen only photographs. Michael provided information I couldn’t have gleaned on my own: The images of giant cranes, the sides of the World Financial Center reflecting the late-day sun, US flags flying resolutely over machinery. Such details, as conveyed by my friend, were critical to my experience of returning to the site of the disaster. But I believe the dozens of silent people staring west from Cedar that late afternoon weren’t really seeing the disaster that is so much on our minds. Instead, we were comparing our memories of the Trade Center with the six-story pile of rubble that sits there in its absence.
For all of us there, our purpose was to be in the presence of ghosts. I’m sure many onlookers knew victims of the attack and were remembering them. None of my closest friends was hurt physically, but several were traumatized by watching first-hand the crashes and the ultimate disintegration of both towers.
For me directly, there are the memories of working at the Trade Center in the mid-eighties, and only blocks away ever since. On Cedar Street we were commemorating the ghosts of people we knew, the ghosts of our former selves, the ghost that was the building itself.
In the past week many friends have called, some I haven’t been in touch with in years. A good thing to come out of the disaster is that these old connections have been made again. Even if they turn out to be fleeting, the renewed contacts show the connections remain true. As I have thought about the World Trade Center since standing there on Cedar Street, perhaps that is the lesson: Ghosts live on.
Betsy replied: ” Do you still believe, 10 years later, that the lesson is that ghosts live on?” To which I responded:
Do I still believe ghosts live on? It’s a good question. When I wrote that line, I was thinking how the tragedy brought the living together, including people I thought I’d never hear from again, and that we were doing so around those who had died. It was like a great, swirling campfire meeting in which this world and the next broke the barrier of death and came together for that brief moment.
That moment of unity, even among the living, has long since gone. Emotions have been drained by succeeding events, especially the 2008 recession that threatens to repeat as we write.
National tragedies, such as 9/11, morph into personal histories. The attackers’ victims are no doubt living ghosts for their spouses and children, as they are for their colleagues and closest friends. In my case, as I mentioned in the email I copied, I knew no one who was killed in the WTC. However, my mother was undergoing treatment for the cancer that would kill her on July 7 of the next year. She does live on for me, with a vividness that confounds my expectations and my metaphysical beliefs. So, yes, ghosts live on, only time turns them from a multitude into the few who mattered the most to us when they were alive.
When we find ourselves depicted in writing, our reactions can be out of all proportion to what is actually said. People see themselves in mirrors and can be gratified, distressed, surprised, disappointed. Psychology might kick in and exaggerate the image’s effect in either more or less flattering ways. However, while a mirror reflects a host of features and interpretations, a written statement is defining. Besides, it’s in the nature of written statements that they can be challenged.
Recently I spent two weeks working on an essay about a friend I’ll call Judith, about whom I’d only just learned something that I thought would have come out in the two decades I’ve known her. Far from being a dark secret, it was an action she’d taken that required moral and economic courage. It emerged by way of a reference she made to “racism” during an interview. She isn’t a person of color, and so I asked her why that reference. When she explained, it got me thinking about what in her background had made her so determined to come to the defense of black people in the way she did. I said I’d like to write about it and arranged to do my own interview of her.
Judith’s having grown up in a neighborhood that changed from mixed to mostly black contributed to her taking that stand. For her, it was unexceptional, but to me, as I’m sure it would be to most people, it was courageous.
During our extensive interview, a psychological insight came back to me as if new. Contrary to its Platonic notion as a universal absolute, courage is personal and dependent on our background.
I told Judith I could imagine three factors that might upset the subject of an article. One would be the author misrepresenting the facts or the context. Second would be the exposure of anything that felt deeply private. Third, perhaps most difficult for the subject to explain, would be the author’s failure to supply an adequate context. For this last instance, although it didn’t apply to her story, I had in mind the quandary of writing about a failing of a family member without adequately demonstrating the subject’s love for that person.
I sent a draft of my essay to Judith. When she called, I heard stress in her voice. She interpreted my characterization of her act as causing her embarrassment. No, I said. I’d written that it was the emotion another person might have struggled with, but I hadn’t attributed it to her. We resolved that difficulty. But in a later email, she asked me to remove mention of a certain event in her childhood, and still later she sought more revisions. I could tell that for her, the project had turned into a series of sensitive memories and issues, and I worried that out of respect for my effort, she might authorize me to publish it on my website despite yet more reservations she might have. Even though I thought both her story and the insight it gave me merited being brought into the open, and even though her action was yet one more reason to admire her, I gave up on the project.
My understanding of that three-part acceptability test came from my own experience of being written about. Several examples come to mind, but the one that most troubles me involves an article by my journalist friend, Betsy.
My July 27, 2011 email, copied in section 1 of this essay was a response to Betsy’s mention that she was planning to write an article about the tenth anniversary of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. She asked for my impressions. From my long answer, she wanted to quote a certain short passage in her article. I was pleased.
However, her editor proposed that, instead, she quote a single sentence: “National tragedies, such as 9/11, morph into personal histories.”
In reply, I protested:
This isn’t what I wrote. I didn’t make a general statement. What I wrote was specific to 9/11 and is what makes 9/11 fascinating in a very specific way. It isn’t true of all national tragedies. It’s a particular, in some ways disturbing fact that 9/11 became a national tragedy after the event. As I mentioned, I had difficulty persuading our intended Santa Fe hotel that Laura’s distress was genuine and a legitimate reason to cancel. I’m sure that the hotel’s management would today deny they lacked empathy for New Yorkers. On the national level, the tragedy was somewhat manufactured, largely for ulterior political purposes and media sales. The genuine sentiment stayed here in New York, where it turned inward, private, because otherwise it would have been lost (subsumed, as I wrote) by that other thing, the national tragedy.
Many national tragedies are genuinely felt by the nation. New Orleans in 2005 was probably such a case. JFK’s assassination was definitely one. Nixon’s resignation counts. People from all around the nation were traumatized by those events. The trauma of 9/11 was real in New York. I was never convinced the rest of the nation was traumatized by it. Hence my word ‘hijacked.’
I asked Betsy to send me the current draft of the article unless it would cause her “journalistic problems.” She questioned that phrase. I replied: “I was going to say “journalistic ethics,” but thought it would sound sarcastic. After all, what’s wrong with quoting somebody as saying something they didn’t?” She responded to this malicious dart with a considerate acknowledgment that the sentence quoted me out of context.
Contrary to my assertion that I hadn’t written that sentence, which I made in all wrong-headed sincerity, Betsy had quoted it word-for-word. It was generous of her to refrain from challenging me on my error and to focus, instead, on my underlying concern about being quoted out of context.
The question remains why I objected so strenuously. The sentence didn’t make a personal disclosure. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. Rather, I thought that, in isolation, it oversimplified my larger ideas, and I still do. But this explanation hardly justifies my flat-out denial of authorship.
The other day, wanting to make sure I didn’t write anything that troubled her, I sent Betsy an early draft of this post. Her take on how we react to what people write about us is this: “The permanence of the written word and the idea that others will read it take one’s own experience out of one’s control, a need that has different roots in all of us.” Her point is well taken. But I think there’s even more going on.
Julie Hart, a poet and teacher, alerted me to an article by Nuar Alsadir entitled “The Craft of Writing Empathy,” which contains the following relevant passage:
Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, sketches a scene in which a man peeping through a keyhole, completely absorbed in looking at what he sees on the other side of the door, suddenly hears a creaking of the floorboards behind him and realizes he has been seen. Sartre uses this scenario to explain the loss of subjectivity that occurs when a person shifts from being a subject looking out at the world to an object in another’s field of vision, the one who looks to the one who is being seen.
The man then imagines that the person who has seen him peeping through the keyhole knows him as he cannot know himself—knows him, in fact, better than he knows himself. He can now only know himself by reading the other’s knowledge, see himself through the gaze of the other. This transformation from being a subject … to an object … results in what Sartre calls existential shame—the shame of having been caught in the act of being who you are.
This isn’t the place to do justice to Alsadir ‘s article, some of which I question. However, I’m glad to have been introduced to Sartre’s notion of existential shame, even if I’d prefer to call it existential embarrassment. Looking back, how we reacted to something written about us can reveal something important if we’re willing to see it. My distress over how I was quoted tells me that I feel a need to maintain some kind of control over my ideas, or at least my expression of them. Coincidentally, Betsy said much the same thing. However, I’m guessing a lot of people wouldn’t care. Why I do care is another matter.
The quotation from my email that Betsy ultimately used in her moving August 14, 2011 Crain’s New York article is this:
‘The nation’s reaction wasn’t immediate, but once it kicked in, it subsumed the local experience. The real horror became a private experience for those who had been there.’
On February 25, 2017, more than five years afterwards, I wrote the following to Betsy:
I’ve been meaning for years to acknowledge my mistake where I thought you’d made the mistake. This had to do with the article where you quoted me on 9/11. I no longer recall what I objected to. I do recall that sometime later, I went back over our email exchange and discovered you’d been right. The right moment to talk about it never seemed to arrive, and now it’s so long ago that, as I say, the details elude me. But in this small way, I’d like to set the record straight and to apologize.
I can’t dismiss this episode as mere stupidity on my part. It forces me to recognize just how sensitive, even irrational, we can be when seeing ourselves through someone else’s writing. The author has factual and moral obligations, but perhaps so, too, does an author’s subject. We must take care to identify the reasons why a quotation attributed to us or passage about us is upsetting, and then, if we still feel strongly, to explain those reasons accurately.
The ego clouds judgment. We need to part those clouds and let the sun shine through. That’s what writing is about: letting in the sunlight.