Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On grief, rage, and commemoration

By Rosemary Joyce

Families of survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York are deeply divided about a proposed building project on the site of the tragedy.

Just not the project that most readers would think.

As detailed on its official website, the site of the attack is slated to have a completed memorial one year from now:

The Memorial will consist of two massive pools set within the footprints of the Twin Towers with the largest manmade waterfalls in the country cascading down their sides….

The names of the nearly 3,000 individuals who were killed in the September 11 attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, and the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing will be inscribed around the edges of the Memorial pools.

The Memorial pools will each be nearly one-acre in size. The names of the victims will be inscribed on parapets surrounding the pools, within groupings that will allow for family members, friends, and co-workers who shared life’s journey and perished together to have their names listed side by side.

An eight-acre landscaped Memorial Plaza filled with nearly 400 trees will create a contemplative space separate from the sights and sounds of the surrounding city.

The design draws from a now-familiar repertoire of elements for sites of public mourning in the United States: water and nature as signs of peace, stone as the durable medium of commemoration, and the inscription of names as the means to preserve the individuality of those who died.

These are elements that can be credited to the success of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC. Her design was controversial when first proposed but changed our notions of how to produce a meaningful space of memory and mourning that works both for those with personal losses to remember others for whom those losses are a distanced and more public historical event.

The project at the World Trade Center site has another, more controversial, component: two years from today, a museum, constructed underground on the footprint of the Twin Towers, is slated to open.

A USA Today report summarizes what has been criticized, notably, the plan to incorporate unidentified human remains in the museum (although not visible to visitors), characterized as a "macabre, if invisible, tourist attraction".

The article describes the "raw emotion" of the survivors as standing in the way of their "moving on". It cites Notre Dame historian Erika Doss saying she is surprised by the "intensity" of feelings nine years after the attack:

"It's a different country than nine years ago, but it's amazing how people are hanging on to this. There are people who are still really, really angry."

Anger and "intensity" of emotions: I think immediately of a turning point in the anthropological study of death, loss, and mourning: an essay by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, published under the title "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage".

In it, Rosaldo described how he finally came to understand the simplicity of an Ilongot man's description of grief at loss, and how rage caused by that grief led to the desire to commit violence against others.

Rosaldo's understanding came through personal experience, starting with the unexpected death of a brother and culminating when his wife and colleague, the anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo, died in an accident during their shared fieldwork.

"Probably I naively equated grief with sadness", Rosaldo writes. "My life experience had not as yet provided the means to imagine the rage that comes with devastating loss".

"Only after being repositioned through a devastating loss of my own could I better grasp that Ilongot older men mean precisely what they say when they describe the anger in bereavement as the source of their desire to cut off human heads".

Rosaldo's experiences led him to think differently about the barely articulated circuit of grief and anger that Ilongot men had described for him as something experienced deeply, rather than rationalized and debated:

"Bereavement should not be reduced to anger, neither for myself nor for anyone else… I experienced the deep cutting pain of sorrow almost beyond endurance, the cadaverous cold of realizing the finality of death, the trembling beginning in my abdomen and spreading throughout my body, the mournful keening that started without my willing, and frequent tearful sobbing."

Intense emotions like anger and their continued expression are the distinctive property of those who actually lost close family and friends nine years ago. While the rest of the country "moves on" (including descending into politicization of the tragedy), these people are still grappling with their deep, intense feelings.

For survivors who support the development of a museum on the World Trade Center site– even if they do so with reservations– it is the promise of incorporating objects with intimate, personal resonance in public history that the museum offers. A lacross stick; a $2 bill; a woman's purse; these will be transformed into sites of memory of their lost loved ones.

Eileen Fagan, who donated her sister's purse, says

"We don't have that much family. People aren't going to remember her except for this pocketbook. It's the story of her life. She was like a lot of people that day, going to work, just doing her job."

Or as another survivor who donated to the museum, Myrta Alvarado, said,

"It's the way I can give him something, to put him in the middle of history."

Even Diane Horning, who declined to contribute and believes the museum is premature, supports it because of the role it could play for other survivors:

"People desperately want a place to honor the victims and connect with their feelings."

That is something that Renato Rosaldo taught anthropologists how to understand: the need to connect with the deep feelings of grief and anger that death of those close to us can bring.