“…I very rarely ask questions about 9/11 during oral history interviews, and I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is.”
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been reflecting on my own memories of that fateful day in September, and its impact on how I interview others about traumatic events. Indeed, I recently realized how deeply intertwined my thoughts about 9/11 are with my oral history practice.
The first time I spoke aloud about 9/11 – aside from discussing breaking news in the days that followed – was in my introductory oral history class with Dr. Natalie Fousekis at California State University, Fullerton in August 2009. This was nearly eight years after the original events, when the terrorist group al-Qaeda coordinated the hijacking of four passenger airplanes with the intent to crash them into major US targets. This led to a tragic loss of life and shook a sense of national security for many Americans.
As an exercise about collective memory, Natalie invited the class (from youngest to oldest) to share recollections of that day. Despite the age differences (approximately early twenties to early forties), as we went around the table, it was striking that roughly twenty different stories aligned so closely, as though we were all reciting the same narrative with slightly different words. With the exception of hearing the news while getting ready for high school, my own memories were much the same. This was, of course, in part due to the media coverage Americans saw of the Twin Towers falling over and over again, which helped create a collective memory of that day. But the similarity in omissions was striking, too. I don’t remember many people discussing the plane that hit the Pentagon or Flight 93, which crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania. Later dubbed Ground Zero, even in 2009, New York City dominated our memories of 9/11.
I also remember that though the mood in the classroom was somber, none of us cried or expressed an overwhelming sense of grief. Looking back, I wonder why there wasn’t more emotion around this discussion of such a traumatic moment. The eighth anniversary of 9/11 was only weeks away, and for those who had been teenagers in 2001, that day and the ensuing War on Terror had indelibly changed our lives. In part, maybe we were already trying to analyze our own experiences as oral historians rather than vulnerable individuals, interpreting what our collective memories meant rather than sitting with their personal heaviness. Or maybe this room of California students felt more removed from the horrors of that day due to physical distance from the sites on the East Coast. But it is also possible that even eight years later, we weren’t yet ready to address these memories as collective trauma.
In the more than a decade since this classroom discussion, I have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews – many of them discussing traumatic moments for individuals and the collective. Yet, I find it strange to reflect on the centrality of 9/11 to my early oral history training, as it has been a major pitfall in my own practice as an interviewer. About three years ago, while preparing an interview outline, I suddenly realized that my narrator’s work documenting and securing collections at a major arts institution coincided with this moment in history. Luckily the narrator agreed to share her memories, and we had a fruitful discussion about the ways in which, for a time, 9/11 impacted all levels of American culture. This experience helped me register that I very rarely ask questions about 9/11 during oral history interviews, and I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is.
One possibility is that I, like many others in the field, struggle with when an event gets to become “history,” and how we choose to memorialize it. To me, 9/11 feels like yesterday, not necessarily an historical moment upon which I need to ask narrators to reflect. And I am certainly guilty of collapsing historical timelines and not concentrating on the recent past, even during long life history interviews.
But I also suspect that my omission of 9/11 in interviews has a great deal to do with the traumatic nature of that day. Like many interviewers, I’ve sometimes been reluctant to introduce topics at particular points of an oral history for fear of creating a trauma narrative where there otherwise wasn’t. And until recent training, I was not even confident in my own skills tackling trauma-informed interviews. This hurdle has a clear solution: I need to prioritize discussing potentially traumatic topics like 9/11 in pre-interviews or introducing them in the co-created interview outline.
What is less clear is how to navigate my own trauma about 9/11. How do my own memories of that day impact my willingness to ask others about it? Am I too close to the subject to be able to speak with narrators about it? Quite possibly. But one complication for all interviewers is that unlike other traumatic events with a beginning and end date, 9/11 is an ongoing reality – even twenty years later. From the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to the wide reach of the Department of Homeland Security to heightened airport screenings, we are all still living with the consequences of 9/11, and the trauma has not actually ended.
Twelve years after that classroom exercise around 9/11 and collective memory, I can appreciate Natalie’s methods all the more. I’ve learned over the course of my oral history practice that even deeply personal narratives can include elements of collective memory, and it is important to recognize such common threads in our lives as interviewers, as well.
I often preach that oral history practitioners need to acknowledge our biases so that we can better overcome them or even use them to our advantage. For me, examining my blind spot around 9/11 has also encouraged me to think about incorporating more recent and ongoing historical events into interviews. Not only is this reflection an important addition to the historical record, it is part of our essential work to help narrators make meaning of their lives through oral history. Similarly, evaluating my own blind spot around 9/11 has helped me recognize the blind spots in the collective memory of that day – such as narratives that leave out Flight 93 or the attack at the Pentagon – and encouraged me to think about how oral history can help fill these gaps. As we recognize the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, this work feels more necessary than ever.