by Artie Van Why
Grief and patriotism are personal, not a pissing contest. No one else can tell you how to feel when a momentous event occurs, and in the event of a national tragedy, snark is disrespectful to those personally involved. Artie Van Why contacted me a couple of months ago about reviewing his book That Day in September. "I lived in New York City for 26 years and I worked across from the World Trade Center. I was there in the streets the morning of 9/11," he said. "All along this endeavor has been, one, my way of processing and working through that experience. And secondly, and to me more importantly, it is my personal contribution to assuring we never forget that day. That Day In September is my personal tribute to honor those who died that day."
Normally, political books are not my field, and one would think that any book dealing with 9/11 would feel political, but Van Why's book does not discuss national policy or even much of the larger picture surrounding the event. Adapted from a one-man show he performed in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway, his approach is entirely in the memoir field. When so many people have their memory of the towers tied up in television, Van Why felt the ground shake firsthand, and it's entirely reasonable that he would want to get his story out there.
The man who had been running behind me from my right reached me and stopped. I turned to ask, "What do we do?" and was aware of someone falling on top of a pile of clothes just across the plaza. It took an instant to register that it wasn't a pile of clothes. The person had fallen on a pile of bodies that were already lying there. I stood and stared as one body after another fell.
After the second plane hit, Van Why found himself running up the street with other people, some falling over each other, others crawling beneath cars to avoid the falling debris.
Up ahead of me, a man was lying in the middle of Fulton Street. He was a heavyset man in a suit, lying on his stomach. Everyone was running right past him. I started to run past him myself, but for whatever reason, I stopped and ran over to him. I dropped to my knees at his side. It was then I noticed all the blood and where it was coming from. His skull had been split open, and the top part of his brain was protruding through the split. Blood was gushing out of the wound. Amazingly, he was breathing. I saw, lying near him, a putty knife — a regular putty knife that had an even line of blood along its blade. I thought, oh my God, is this what hit him?
This isn't grief or heroism porn, and I believe Van Why when he says he just wants the details out there as a matter of public record. Self-published in 2003, That Day in September reads like fleshed out emails to those who asked what happened, emails that did indeed lead to the first drafts of his stage script. It's a slim book, and he dedicates little time to his life before or after 9/11. In some ways, that makes sense, as it keeps the focus on one day. On the other hand, if 9/11 was the day that started Van Why's process of returning to theater and moving closer to family, I did desire a bit more. If I had been his editor, I would have suggested restructuring and elaborating some portions of his life outside of that day. I would have suggested that the narrative experience more personal journey. Given that it was written in 2003, he may have been riding that line of post-traumatic stress recovery, and had just enough time passed for retrospect. I don't know. I would be curious to know what he thinks of his delivery now, reading his writing 8 years later. I suspect that the writing comes across differently in its theatre incarnation, but not having seen it, I can't say for certain.
Still, for those looking for a firsthand account of 9/11, Van Why contributes an important voice. It is not that our memories of watching tragedy via television are invalid; it's that they are all very similar. We were going about our business and someone turned on the TV. Me? I was in college, fresh from a walk of shame and the subsequent shower, and there was a message from my roommate's dad. "Turn on the TV. The world is ending." There are thousands of stories like mine, and yes, they all contribute to the picture of that day. However, Van Why's account puts reality into our discomfort. It is one thing to imagine how horrible it must have been, and quite another to escape the horror yourself. That Day in September is not the best written account you will ever read, but it is his story, one that I suspect does not have many like it.
And here we are, a decade later, swimming in a sea of "Anniversary Specials" that run back-to-back on television, prodding at the wounds of those who were there. Some events will provide genuine tribute, and others, a contest to see who can draw out the "best" profit-turning mix of pain and patriotism. And here we are, a decade later, still with a hole in the ground surrounded by red tape. I hope we can do a better job taking care of ourselves than we have. Grief is a long, complicated process, I know, and everyone handles it differently. You and I do not make the rules.
Still, whatever you find yourself doing tomorrow, do so with respect.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.
This review also appeared on Pajiba itself on September 12, 2011.