A few months after 9/11, I responded to a study at NYU, my alma mater, about our memories of that day. This survey asked us what times the first and second planes hit the World Trade Center, where did they take off from, where did they crash, what time did they crash, and other details like that. I filled it out, provided my contact information and offered the willingness to revisit the survey at future dates.
But that information is common knowledge. It has been reprinted over and over and over again in news stories -- 8:43, Boston, Lancaster, PA, four planes, bound for California, etc. etc -- and I can rattle off those details the same way I can recite the first couple stanzas of "The Raven." Only a media blackout of the subject would lead me to forget those locations, dates and times. This 9/11 memory study, I think, is kind of stupid.
I was a 17-year-old college freshman in my second week of college at NYU when New York City was attacked by terrorists. And my story, which is relatively un-exciting, goes like this: I was asleep in my top bunk in a dormitory downtown, I woke up to firetruck sirens, the phone kept ringing, it was my roommate's father, I turned on the TV, I ran outside, I ran inside, I called my parents, I packed a backpack, I waited, I ran outside and inside, I sent emails. I called my boyfriend, I called my parents again and told my dad that there were people dying in those buildings. And then they fell down, which I saw on the TV, but I hung up the phone and ran downstairs to the front of the dorm and saw people running up the street in droves. That night my best friend called me and I wrote in my journal and read an Anna Quindlen novel. The next morning I bought a book of Emerson's essays from a bookseller on the street at a "disastrous discount," and then I went home to my parents' in Connecticut.
And then my memories stop. I just don't remember much else, and I assure you, it's not freshman-year-beer-drinking-induced. Months and months and months of 2001 and 2002 go by and I can only remember a couple of the books I read, the classes I took and friendships I tried to develop. Instead what remember most is this feeling of abject terror.
Terrorized, truly. I was on the alert constantly for another attack, afraid of dying, claustrophobic and jumpy at loud noises. I slept fitfully. I had panic attacks and hyper-ventilated all the time. I didn't ride the subways for an entire year. I saw a counselor once, but I kept most of what I felt to myself. My internal monologue was something like this: "What happened to you wasn't that bad. You weren't covered in dust running through the streets. You weren't pulling dead bodies out from piles of rubble. You're still alive -- so stop complaining." The photocopied fliers of the dead and missing taped to every telephone pole, to the arch in Washington Square Park, even on my dorm, reminded me of this every day. I didn't think I was really allowed to feeI so afraid -- but I did, for one really fucking horrible year. (At least I painted a few awful watercolors.)
One of those nights right after the attacks, still back home in Connecticut, my mother and big brother got into an argument with each other. I couldn't believe they were bickering over such silly things when I was still shell-shocked -- couldn't they understand how unimportant and petty their domestic squabbles were now? I was reading on the couch in the living room, and I walked into the kitchen sobbing and said,"Please stop fighting" and my father wrapped his arms around me and let me cry as he held me.
Their argument, their selfishness and insensitivity, was the first time that I realized other people didn't understand what I had been through. No one I loved could relate to me on how my hourglass had been turned upside down and shaken -- none of them could just listen and not be what felt to be falsely soothing or dismissive. I didn't want them to pretend to understand, either; it made me so angry to hear about the scared people in the suburbs and exurbs. Those people didn't know from fear! Indeed, when our country geared up for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, my reaction came from a purely emotional place: all I could think of was standing on Fifth Avenue, staring at the World Trade Center on fire, and knowing that I was watching thousands of people being killed. I felt at the time, and still feel, that I wouldn't wish that on anybody.
Ultimately, the only thing that made my post-traumatic stress disorder subside was time. Six and a half years later, I live in New York City again and ride the subways every day -- just another hardened, fearless New Yorker. But that feeling of not being understood has never really gone away. Talking about it with my family about 9/11 makes me feel uncomfortable and I don't like doing it. And yet I do, every September 11th anniversary, when the articles that people like my father read in the national newsmagazines, ones about Lancaster, PA, and Windows on the World, and America's Mayor with a bullhorn and Todd Beamer, are published again and again.
All of this is a really long way of saying that I saw Cloverfield this weekend and it blew me away for its spot-on depiction of being attacked (in the film, New York City is ravaged by an alien that's 20 stories tall and breathes fireballs -- but, you know, whatever). The first 45 minutes of Cloverfield is the closest I think I can get to showing sometime else what 9/11 was like for me on an emotional level. Cloverfield nails what that morning felt like: the confusion at first, and then fear overwhelms and all you can think about is the possibility of dying and needing to escape by getting out-out-out but where can you go because the subways and trains aren't running? It gets what it looks like and feels like to believe there's 8 planes in the air, that the president ordered any non-grounded aircraft to be shot down, they could be shot down above your city and kill you, and what if there's a ground attack? It depicts what it's like to be convinced that that day is the day you are going to die. You are 17 years old and you are going to die on a sunny Tuesday morning in the middle of New York City.
I know I'm supposed to be some blase hipster about this film, and say the storytelling-style is tedious, the acting is bad, and there's no plot. Maybe I'm supposed to turn up my nose at anything that isn't some intellectual-approved 9/11 literature or filmmaking. One might say that, heaven forfend, those saccharine 9/11-made-for-TV-movies are more realistic than a monster-attack flick. But this is really how I feel. The first 45 minutes of this film were just incredibly relatable for me.
So I know it isn't cool to say this but, thank you, Cloverfield. You got it.