In the full daylight of 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 I slept the deep, tunneled in, wake-me-and-die sleep of the depressed. My mom’s voice began to come through my bedroom door, joined by that of my boyfriend’s–a surprise since he had no car and rarely showed up of his own volition. They knocked, then walked right in as I struggled to gain consciousness and go back to sleep all at once. Sleeping my activity of choice when I wasn’t working or at school, I resented the intrusion and bristled, scowling at them from my cozy den. I wasn’t a morning person, and they both knew it. I was not friendly or even really coherent before my first cup of coffee, preferring silence for the first hour or so of wakefulness before the more reasonable hour of 10 a.m.
“Ryan’s here,” my mom, Captain Obvious, began, her brow furrowed, manner grave. “New York has been attacked, it’s all over the news. Why don’t you get up and watch with us.” Ryan towered over her in my doorway, wringing his hands, face ashen. “I ran all the way here,” he said. “I told him he should come over immediately,” my mom continued, “because we don’t know what’s going on yet, or if something more will happen.”
I squinted at them, feeling pissed they had interrupted the only activity I really enjoyed, the only real pleasure I had, just to tell me some place I’d never been, on the other side of the country, where I didn’t know anyone or care about had been bombed or something. Whatever. “Fine, whatever. I’m going back to bed.” I informed them, pulling the flowered comforter I’d scammed from Eddie Bauer Home back over me.
“How can you sleep at a time like this?” Ryan demanded. “Our country has been infiltrated by terrorists and you’re not going to get up and watch the news?” Disbelief and anguish showed plainly on his face. I was unmoved. “It has nothing to do with me, and besides, if something else happens you can come tell me. I don’t need to be awake for something that’s already happened.” I informed him, turning over to face the wall.
He and my mom retreated, closing my bedroom door behind them. I slept on, drowsiness washing over me, pleasurable as a drug. I wasn’t giving up that delicious sensation for anything.
When I at last got out of bed, my folks were working in our dark, dank, unfinished basement, listening intently to the radio as they sorted through boxes and made piles: trash, recycling, donate, keep. They were permanently moving to Georgia in the next year, having spent most of the previous eighteen months there setting up their new life. I was living in my childhood home, taking care of things until I graduated from college and they sold the place.
My mom glanced up from a box of old tax receipts telling me Ryan wanted me to call when I got up. “The Pentagon was also attacked, the World Trade Center towers in New York, all crashed into by hijacked planes. Another plane crashed in Pennsylvania.”
“Just horrific, absolutely horrific,” my dad said, shaking his head. The cheap radio sat on the washing machine, endlessly switching affiliates, sound byte after sound byte. “Is it over?” I asked. “We don’t know, but we’re hopeful. The crash in Pennsylvania was into a field, not a building or populated area. There have been no further reports, and all planes are grounded,” my dad answered.
I felt nothing. I went back upstairs to call Ryan.
“Have you heard everything? Did you watch the news? Have you seen the footage, it’s just awful. Everything’s falling apart, no planes are flying, they don’t know who did it, the towers caught on fire and fell, people were jumping and falling from the buildings,” Ryan went on in a rush. I could hear the TV on in the background, a newscaster’s voice.
“Yeah, I know. So what are you going to do, watch the news all day?” I wasn’t reacting. I wasn’t feeling. There was nothing inside me except puzzlement that people seemed to be feeling so intensely about a city on the opposite coast. OK, so America got attacked. Well, we fucking deserved it, didn’t we? Did people truly believe we were invincible, above the atrocities that happened in other parts of the world on a daily basis? And besides, I didn’t know anyone in New York. I didn’t even know anyone from New York, did I? The East Coast seemed as far away as Australia, and I had never traveled.
“This is unbelievable,” Ryan was saying angrily. “First you go back to bed when you hear the news, and now you’re acting like it’s just another day? People are dying! America has been attacked! If you can’t react I don’t know what’s wrong with you. You’re inhuman.” Click.
Inhuman. Ouch. He had ended the conversation and there was nothing else for me to do but go about my day, getting errands done and such, if anything was open. I called a few other friends to talk about what had happened, but more in the context of being in a fight with my boyfriend over our disparate reactions. Some listened patiently, one agreed vehemently with him and even called me a monster.
As the day wore on the afternoon papers came out with full page photos (the 24 hour news cycle hadn’t become prevalent, nor had going online for news, and ubiquitous smartphones were years away), people called and checked in, the TV and radio news explored the events, trying to make sense of it all. It was all anyone was talking about, from the grocery store to every street corner, because in 2001 people were still talking and reacting to each other in real time, in the physical realm.
What was becoming clear to me was that there was something wrong with me, with my lack of reaction. I began to question myself and why I couldn’t respond to a horrifying national tragedy. I wasn’t feeling. There was nothing inside. No feeling for my common human. No feeling for my country. No feeling.
Later Ryan walked over to my house again, and headed straight to the basement where I could hear him speaking in earnest tones with my dad about what it all meant. He had avoided me when he came in. He must have been seeking the comfort of family, of grown adults during a time when the world appeared to have been turned upside down. To prove I wasn’t inhuman or a monster I sat down to watch the news, hoping to expose myself to some grim, gruesome, provocative images that might spur some stirring of emotion. Surely the news would provide, taking me directly into the carnage, wreckage and horror.
I saw the Twin Towers turned into smokestacks, giant plumes of billowing grey soot obscuring their tops…or did they even have tops anymore? I saw raw footage of a plane crash into the second tower, the first already smoldering, as people screamed and the camera shook. I saw streets covered in ash, rescue workers digging in, tents full of aid workers caring for the injured, people hanging on to each other, holding each other up, hands covering mouths, people crying, people searching for loved ones. I felt nothing.
My mind registered the magnitude of the attack, sure. I understood intellectually that something extremely terrible had happened, and that as a result my country would go through changes, or maybe even be attacked again. Mentally I knew people on the opposite coast were having the worst, scariest day of their lives, losing people they loved, family members missing in the rubble and chaos. But I. Felt. Nothing.
I tried to get down deep, squeezing my insides, trying to register something against my emotions. Nothing came, nothing was there. My feelings were entirely frozen. Completely numb. Inaccessible. Well, that wasn’t good. Not only could I not connect with the tragedy, I couldn’t connect with my countrymen, or my wrought-up, devastated boyfriend. There was just a vast, numb expanse where a person should be, and was there something to the assertion I was inhuman?