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The Girl in the 9/11 Bubble

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Emma with her family, New Year's, 2000.  

Emma says her mother told her that David had managed to get a line out on his cell and called home that morning to tell her he loved her and the children. But there are still things that Julia hasn’t told her daughter about that phone call: how Julia could hear women screaming; how the floor he was on was filling with smoke; how Emma’s father was finding it hard to breathe. Emma would just as soon not talk about such things. At home, she says, the family rarely discusses anything to do with that day. Therapists who have made a study of 9/11 families call this “reciprocal protection.” In a 9/11 household, no one talks about 9/11 for fear of upsetting everyone else.

At one point, I ask Emma if she could talk with me about what she’s been through if her mother were here. Emma shakes her head. “It would be too hard for me. I just hate making her upset, because I just want everyone in my family to be happy. That’s all I want.”

Emma remembers the first few weeks after 9/11 as a constant wail. “I was just crying, crying, crying,” she says. Her mother recalls things differently. “She was withdrawn, almost too controlled,” Julia says. “She had a lot of anger.” For several days, Emma kept telling her mother she was worried her father had been hit on the head and had amnesia and was running around aimlessly. She remembers what seemed like the whole world filing in and out of her house, bringing food. She and her brothers sat on the couch in the living room. Their father had spent his evenings reading there. It’s where the family opened their Christmas presents.

Julia’s friends had found a grief counselor within days of the attack, and soon she settled on a plan for helping the children. The Saturday ten days after the attacks would be David’s memorial service, then the kids would return to school on Monday. The service on September 22 was a mob scene. Only one other person in Mountain Lakes had died in the tragedy, and the town was searching for a way to grieve. David’s teammates from the town soccer league were there. Emma’s teammates were there, in uniform. Emma wrote a eulogy, which her uncle read out loud. “When you’re like someone, it seems as though you get along better with him,” she’d written, going on at length about playing ball with him in the yard, playing soccer with him and her friends, taking bike rides just with him. She concluded: “Now I am sitting here at my computer and thinking of all the great things I did with my father and I realize that all I had to say were four words: I loved my father.”

The quick return to school failed to be the balm her mother had hoped for. Emma remembers feeling like a spotlight was on her. “It would just be like, ‘Oh. Emma. Let’s see what her reaction is right now. Let’s see if she’s upset.’” Julia also encouraged Emma to return to soccer early on. Now she says that was a mistake. “I forced her to go to a practice and said, ‘If you can’t do it, call me.’ Within ten minutes she called me crying hysterically and said, ‘Mom, I can’t do this.’ ” Julia’s other error, she says, was an early attempt to put the three kids in therapy. “They all hated it,” Julia remembers. One of the twins didn’t even look at the counselor. They each came out and announced they didn’t want to do it again. “The counselor would relay things back to my mother,” says Emma, “so it wasn’t very private.”

At home, the kids weren’t talking about their father. Julia would try to mention him at least once a day, but Emma wouldn’t respond. At bedtime, Julia would give the children an extra kiss, which she said came from David. Julia tried to put up a strong front, Emma says, but it didn’t always work. “Sometimes she would melt down, too, and slam her door and just sit there.”

That spring, Emma started to become unstable. She’d go to pieces if her brothers were fighting, or if she’d just had soccer practice. If she heard a girl in school talking about doing something with her father, she’d fall silent. “If they saw I got upset, they’d ask, ‘Are you okay?’ and all of a sudden it would hit me that I wasn’t, but I’d just say yes and leave and get more upset.”

The low point came when Julia suggested America’s Camp, which she’d heard about after researching summer programs for kids who have experienced loss. She’d settled on this camp because it seemed to stress fun over therapy, but Emma flipped. Was this some kind of joke? Did her mother want her to keep feeling like a freak? Julia had never seen Emma come apart the way she did now. She was thrashing and flailing and slamming doors, screaming, “No! I’m not going!”

Her mother decided to send her anyway, but offered a deal. “If you want,” she told Emma, “I will go up there with you and stay in the town. After three days, if you want to come home, if you’ve given it a fair shot, you can come home.”


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