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Facing their Fears

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Shino Tanikawa has found herself reviewing how she was raised. "In Japan, we all read books that are written for children but have some really graphic descriptions of what it was like to walk through the sea of dead and mutilated people after bombings," says the 38-year-old marine scientist. She doesn't expect her 6-year-old daughter, who attends a Hudson Street elementary school, to be exposed to the same bracing truth. "At home, my parents were straight without being too scary," Tanikawa says. "I grew up hearing stories about how in the middle of the night, they had to get up and go underground to the shelter. They didn't paint this pretty picture of the world. They knew just how much to give me, and that's what I'm trying to do."

She's also trying to steer her daughter, Cai, in her own pacifist direction. "I'm not as worried about what she saw and heard regarding the World Trade Center," Tanikawa says. "The bigger influence might be what my husband and I do as a follow-up to the event. There was a peace march, and I took my daughter, so she had her first exposure to an antiwar march. If we continue to participate in those kinds of things, it will probably have an influence on who she's going to be. At this one, she thought it was funny that people were chanting and singing."

In Maplewood, New Jersey, Abby Cotler still has her home; her 17-year-old son is still attending Columbia High School, where Cotler is co-president of the PTA. Cotler finds hope in the openness of parents who, like her, were raised in the fifties and sixties, often by adults who said "Everything's fine" and left it at that. "This generation is much more open to discussing things," Cotler says. "We make a point of it. And we want him to know we're here to listen to what he thinks and feels, too."

But the tentacles of the ongoing trauma have touched Cotler's suburban family. "I was talking to my husband today about how the view of the world our kids are inheriting has changed. I feel bad for them; I always thought they were in a world where they felt completely safe. And I don't even know if they realize how different it is. I always thought they could never comprehend the world we grew up in -- with Vietnam, the civil-rights movement, air-raid drills, the fear when Kennedy was killed. If anything, it's made them grow up a little. But I'd rather it hadn't happened so fast."

Cotler's son Ezie has planned for years to attend West Point. "About a week before this happened, my mother was talking about how she was worried about going to war," Ezie says. "I promised we wouldn't get into a war. Part of me is afraid, but part is kinda psyched up about it." He's applying early-admission, with a goal of joining the Army's Special Forces.

A friend of Sarah's has been plucking out her own eyelashes. And Sarah's younger brother asked, "Is this World War III?"

"Well," Abby Cotler says, after a long, slow exhale, "I understand it and I respect him for it. It's honorable and I'm proud of him for it. It made me nervous before. But now I'm also very scared. I mean, I'm his mother."

She was ambitious and curious in all the ways you'd want your 16-year-old daughter to be. Michael Ruiz enjoyed tutoring the Manhasset High School junior for her SATs. So he was startled by the visible change. "She was very lethargic," Ruiz says. "The subject of the tragedy came up, and she said, 'What's the difference? We're going to die anyway, either from chemicals or nuclear war.' You could see this girl meant it. She had no interest in doing SAT work."

Dr. Robin Gurwitch is familiar with this scenario. A clinical psychologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Gurwitch, together with her colleague Dr. Betty Pfefferbaum, has spent six years studying children caught in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. "In the short term, particularly in adolescents, you see more high-risk-taking behaviors," Gurwitch says, "whether that's drinking or substance abuse or driving fast. Or there's more concern that the future's not going to be there, so why not just kill myself now?"

And the medium term? "Six years out, we still see kids with nightmares," Gurwitch says. "The aftermath has been very protracted. And we were dealing with a discrete event in Oklahoma City, not the ongoing stuff you've got in New York."

Given her expertise, surely Gurwitch feels capable of handling the future facing her 11-year-old daughter? She laughs. "You mean," she says, "as I'm sitting here writing a proposal to study the effects of bioterrorism on children?"

So here I am on yet another bright-blue autumn afternoon, vibrating with nerves. I'm standing in an elementary-school courtyard waiting for dismissal. I've come here from the magazine's offices, two blocks from NBC, where the mayor has just held a press conference announcing the anthrax infection of Tom Brokaw's assistant. "You heard what's going on at the Times?" asked a colleague rushing down the hallway. "Now the target is media companies?" asked another. At about this time, I'm not proud to admit, I called my doctor asking for a Cipro prescription. The last thing I heard before leaving the office: "The hospitals are supposed to be on alert for a sarin-gas attack in the subway."

It was a long F-train ride to Windsor Terrace. I'm wondering how to phrase it: Should I tell Jack that "bad germs hurt some people today"? Because Jack, like all kids, is an emotional seismograph. They see us glancing up at passing planes. Jack will hear, somewhere -- soon -- about anthrax, and I want to minimize the confusion. I think about his friend Toby, who has somehow tangled up his grandfather's death from cancer with the World Trade Center attack, telling Jack that Grandpa died in the fire at the towers.

Now Jack is hugging my legs and handing me his new collages. I open my briefcase to stash them inside. What does Jack spot amid the clump of papers and notebooks and tapes? A blue surgical mask. "In case I have to go write a story in a place where there's dirty air," I mumble.

Maybe this is my opening. I'll explain away the anthrax in just the right casual tone. But Jack has other plans. It's hot and bells are jingling across the street. An ice cream truck. "Sure," I say. "Have whatever you want."


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