On my first and only visit to the 9/11 museum in Lower Manhattan, I stood in the ticket line behind a child and his parents who were visiting from out of state. “Did it fall like this?” the kid asked, miming collapse with his hands so that his palms smacked loudly together, grinning up at his father as he hopped from foot to foot. His tone was light and curious, as if he were inquiring about the mechanics of an amusement park ride.
On September 11, 2001, I was about the same age as this kid was now. Listening to him talk about what was for him a hazy, distant history, I realized for the first time that someday I might be among the last living witnesses to an event that had happened when I was too young to fully process it. I thought about a 90-something World War II veteran I’d seen once, sitting in a folding chair at a local museum, talking about his war to a group of eager tourists. I thought about Studs Terkel’s The Good War, an oral history of World War II, and how the interviewees, some of whom were children at the time, described the fear and shock of Pearl Harbor, the unknowing before and the tumultuous after.
9/11’s tumultuous after—an after which for me was defined by frightening TSA security checks and field trips postponed over terrorism threat levels— is the subject of a new podcast called “9/12,” which looks at what happened next, after the Towers fell, asking listeners to consider how “9/11 the day became 9/11 the idea.” The podcast does not focus on the people that 9/11 documentaries typically do, the first responders, victims’ families, and city politicians whose testimony has defined media coverage of the attacks for twenty years. Instead, “9/12” mainly tells the stories of people who were caught up in the conflagration of 9/11 but at its margins instead of in its burning center. In that way it is more like The Good War than Saving Private Ryan; like Terkel’s book, “9/12" takes a layered, panoramic approach, building many memories into a chorus rather than recording only one voice.
For the people featured in “9/12,” 9/11 represents a bisection, a marker and source of change in their lives. We meet a soldier who enlisted on 9/11 with a sense of righteous idealism only to lose her faith in the American military; hear from Onion joke writers who struggled to make sense of tragedy using the tools of comedy; and spend time with Mo Razvi, whose Pakistani neighborhood in Brooklyn was devastated by government crackdowns on Muslim immigrant communities. Whether 9/11 pushed them into radical action or patriotic feeling, stubborn optimism or seductive conspiracy, “9/12” works to distill the effect that the day had on its subjects.
For many people who lived through it, how exactly 9/11 changed us is harder to pinpoint. In an Atlantic story about a group of third-graders whose classroom was close enough to Ground Zero that they couldn’t return to their school until 2002, one of the students says, in 2021, “I think it’s affected my life in ways I don’t know.” This might be the most difficult question to answer as we start to consider the attacks from a historical perspective rather than a personal one: Who might we be if not for 9/11?
When I try to unravel the links between that day and our present, I’m stymied by the enormity of the task, the impossibility of loosening a single thread from the complicated fabric of now. The riddle of it reminds me of Cy Twombly’s painting “Fifty Days at Iliam: The Fire that Consumes All before It,” a piece I loved as a teenager for its raw simplicity, its stain of red on white canvas, how well it conveys uncontrollable destruction. Nothing in the fire’s path is left untouched.
In the last episode of “9/12,” host Dan Taberski interviews the musician Elvis Perkins, whose mother Berry Berenson was killed on one of the planes on 9/11. Taberski argues here that the grief of 9/11’s survivors should be left to them, to be kept and kindled on their own terms, while the public directive to “Never Forget” should be about remembering what followed. “It’s 9/12 that we should be never forgetting,” Taberski says. “9/12 and every day after that.” By that, he doesn’t mean the nostalgia that some Americans carry for a brief, post-attacks respite from partisan politics, this imaginary moment of peace when everyone knew “what was really important.” He means the ugly, ragged truth of it, the years of war and bloodshed and error, the paragraphs compared to the “few words” that account for what unfolded on a single September morning. “Memorialize how we reacted,” Taberski says. “Memoralize what it brought out in us. Etch that into granite slabs. Cast that into bronze in the middle of the town square.”
To close out the series, Taberski plays “Ash Wednesday,” from the album Perkins recorded after his mother’s death. When Ash Wednesday was released in 2007, I loved the album, playing it on a loop on my iPod at the bus stop. I especially loved the song “While You Were Sleeping,” which was melancholy and lyrical and original.
In a recent appearance on CBS for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Perkins chose to play “While You Were Sleeping” and talked about his memories of his mother and the song and about how to make sense of 9/11. “I realized pretty soon there was no sense to be made of it. The best sense I’ve been able to make of it is through the code of making songs,” Perkins tells the interviewer. “If not make sense of it, just find a way to hold it, to contain it, and therefore to bear it.”
Until “9/12,” I didn’t know Perkins’ backstory; I didn’t know that he wrote the second half of the album under a cloud of sorrow. Now I hear Ash Wednesday differently, ascribing new meaning to its lyrics about fire and smoke and dying, the weariness in Perkins’ voice, the sense of loss that runs like a river’s current beneath every track’s surface. Now I know that the title and the title track are both allusions to the fact that Perkins’ mother died on a Tuesday.
Even if I wasn’t aware that 9/11 was part of the origin story of Ash Wednesday back then, I was still hearing its echo, still engaging with and responding to something that wouldn’t have existed if not for that day. And maybe this is why the question about who and what we would be without 9/11 is ultimately unanswerable, because everything was altered in its all-consuming wake, in ways we can pin down and label and ways that we can’t. “So each day is ash Wednesday,” Perkins sings. “All this life is ash Wednesday.” There are no more befores. There is only the after. ■