Ten Years Later: Still Telling Our Stories

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series that will run this week to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

I drank my wine as I told the story of how I was listening to the radio as I was getting dressed that day. Someone inside the World Trade Center had called the radio station, telling the DJs that a plane had just hit one of the towers. The person on the phone had worked at the WTC during the 1993 bombing, and was sure that he’d have a similar experience with a long slow evacuation leading to nothing in particular. He wasn’t even sure if he’d leave his desk.

I turned on the TV to follow things more closely, and watched uncomprehendingly as a burst of smoke and flame exploded from the south tower. The station’s helicopter was on the wrong side to capture the second airplane. I then called my parents; they had not heard what was going on.

It was now a week later, and I was sitting with friends from my Ph.D. program. I took another sip of my wine as we discussed our reactions to the events of 9/11/2001. My friends shared their stories of how they learned of the attacks, and what they did afterwards.

The same thing was happening all over. People reached out to family and friends and described how they learned of what was happening. [1], [2]

Why were we feeling the need to tell our stories? This was not new. People tell similar stories about the Kennedy Assassination [3], [4] or the Challenger explosion. [5], [6]

It’s ten years later, and we are still telling these stories. Why?

I had no clue at the time what the explosion I watched meant. Unlike a stream of events that are often hard to comprehend in the moment, stories have an understandable structure. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories are easier to understand than the events themselves. They arise afterwards through reflection. And we choose which details to include based on the impressions we want to send—and the responses we want to achieve.

In the story I told that day of the caller to the radio station, I didn’t mention that I was afraid to look online to see if that man survived. I don’t remember which building he was in, but I have a vague memory that he was in the north tower, above the impact site. Which would suggest that he almost definitely died that day. To this day, I want to believe that he survived.

Even that little snippet of story tells you a lot about my character and personality. I’m choosing to reveal more of myself here than I did with my grad school friends. Not because I didn’t trust them, but because I didn’t want comfort that day. I wanted to hear that others had similarly confusing and heartrending days. I wanted to feel that I was not alone, that we were all in pain. My pain wasn’t unusual or even particularly noteworthy.

The stories about 9/11 are a window into the motives of the storytellers. Politically, 9/11 has been used to emphasize everything from the need for war[7] to the need for better health care.[8] It’s been used as a way of bringing people together (think of the French newspaper which claimed “Aujourd’hui nous sommes tous Americains”[9]) or as a way of emphasizing differences.[10]

With all the memorial stories being told, I encourage you to look at every one of them with a critical eye. What details are being brought to your attention, and which ones are being glossed over? What is the goal of the storyteller? Are they trying to share their pain or celebrate life? Trying to justify action or regretting lack of action? As far as my story goes, my goal is to encourage critical thinking about how we communicate about the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.


1. Where were you on 911?
2. 2. http://www.angryflower.com/septem.gif
3. Assassination of JFK: Where Were You?
4. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?
5. Challenger explosion: readers remember
6. Where were you when the Challenger exploded?
7. President Bush Launches Attack on Afghanistan
8. 9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill Passed By House & Senate
9. We Are All Americans
10. We are no longer all Americans

Tomorrow: “Remembering 9/11…Even if You Don’t Remember It” by Sara Goas.

Martha Turner Fein is a trainer with a degree in communication. She grew up in Washington, DC, and she loves books. And coffee.


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