The Girl in the 9/11 Bubble

From left, Jessica Moody, Sydney McLoughlin, Emma Rathkey, Dori Freund, Kara Jerez, and Meghan Brethel, at America's Camp last month.Photo: Will Wendt

By all rights, this should be a fresh start for Emma Rathkey.

It’s the first day of classes of her freshman year at Connecticut College, and she’s one of 500 new arrivals. She seems to blend in perfectly—slender with pale-blue eyes flecked with green, like her father’s, and wearing a pink Izod, blue sweats, and Old Navy sandals. For the first time in years, no one around her knows anything about her.

Starting over, however, is more loaded for Emma than it is for her classmates. Her father was killed on September 11. “David. Alan. James. Rathkey,” she tells me slowly, as she watches me write his name. He worked for I. Q. Financial Systems, on the 83rd floor of the North Tower. While other children who lost a parent that day might take steps to avoid being branded the 9/11 kid in their first week at college, Emma still wears on her right wrist a light-blue rubber bracelet with the words 9/11 REMEMBER HONOR HOPE.

She got it at a place called America’s Camp, a one-week, all-expenses-paid summer program held in the Berkshires for children who lost parents on 9/11. For Emma, who’s been to the camp every summer since the attack, it’s the only place in the world where she feels free to be herself, where she feels unwatched and unjudged. “It’s my favorite place on Earth,” she had told me, crying and smiling at the same time, when I had visited her there a week earlier.

At camp, Emma was effusive, giggly, emotional. She and her friends never seemed to stop hugging and crying, a seven-day marathon of catharsis. But today at college, she walks briskly past her new classmates to greet me, and I see that she’s changed. She looks not unfriendly but guarded, not sad but not carefree either. “Camp’s my comfort zone,” she says. Emma knows she’s in a period of transition and that she has new friends to make and a new world to explore. But part of her can’t wait to see her camp friends again. She texts them, e-mails them, visits them on Facebook. They go on family vacations together and have a sleepover at Christmastime and monthly get-togethers, where they sing songs and relive camp memories. Emma has a CD with America’s Camp music in her car. They’re her closest confidants—closer than her high-school friends or the kids she grew up with. During the school’s most important fall social weekend, she plans to be at the wedding of an America’s Camp counselor. It’s like she wrote in her college essay: “I live for one out of 52 weeks a year.”

For the children who lost a parent in the World Trade Center—2,752 of them under the age of 18—their grief has been especially pernicious. The public, ongoing, and politicized fallout from the event means these children are forced to contend with their loss again and again. Trauma experts compare their experiences to those of kids who lost parents in the Holocaust, Bosnia, or Rwanda. How do the children of 9/11 heal? In all manner of ways, of course. Emma Rathkey, for her part, appears to find comfort from only one source: the small group of other kids who have been through exactly what she has.

Emma grew up in mountain lakes, New Jersey, a heavily wooded, well-off bedroom community of some 4,000 people about an hour’s commute to lower Manhattan. “It’s one of those towns where everyone knows everything about each other,” she says. Her mother, Julia, stayed home and took care of Emma and her younger brothers, twins Matthew and Ian—but Emma was a daddy’s girl. She and David looked alike, and had similar dispositions. “He was quiet, a little taciturn,” says Julia, “and she could be that way, too.” They also shared a passion for soccer. “He was my soccer coach for our entire lives,” Emma says. “When I started playing, he was my coach. When he died, he was the coach still. He loved it.”

Most weekday mornings, Emma would still be sleeping when David pulled out of the driveway. But on the morning of September 11, 2001, she was awake for some reason. “I listened to him eat breakfast, then come back upstairs,” Emma says, “and I just didn’t get out of bed. I remember lying there and just not getting up to say good-bye.”

The loudspeaker crackled at the end of her seventh-grade French class: Will everyone please stay in their classrooms after the bell rings. Someone is coming around to talk to you. Everyone laughed. “We’re all like, they probably need us to sign a permission slip,” Emma remembers. “And then somebody came to my class and said, ‘The Twin Towers have been hit by planes.’ And automatically, I just start crying.”

She remembers the confusion at the school, and the seemingly endless wait for her mother to come get her, and the question she asked when she saw her mother crying. “Is Dad going to be okay?”

And, finally, her mother’s answer: “I don’t think so.”

Emma with her family, New Year's, 2000.Photo: Courtesy of Julia Rathkey

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.”

This summer, nearly 300 children who lost a parent on 9/11 gathered at America's Camp.Photo: Justine Kurland and Will Wendt

On August 18, 2002, Emma was one of 79 children who boarded buses from the Shea Stadium parking lot to Camp Mah-Kee-Nac in Lenox, Massachusetts, for the inaugural session of this most specialized of all summer camps. She had hardly met another kid who’d lost a parent on 9/11, but on the four-hour ride, Emma didn’t say a word to the girl next to her, except for a chilly “hello.” She was afraid of having to share anything about herself with anyone, even other kids in the same situation. When the bus pulled into the camp, 150 counselors in bright-red STAFF T-shirts bounded up to greet them. Soon the counselors were singing camp songs and teaching the campers to dance to them. At lunch, a sound system in the mess hall was pounding the camp’s theme song, “Reach,” the dance-pop anthem by S Club 7: “And when that rainbow’s shining over you / That’s when your dreams will all come true.”

Your dreams will all come true?” Emma remembers thinking. Were they out of their minds?

The counselors asked her if she wanted to unpack. “No,” she snapped. They assigned her a bed next to a counselor so she could be closely watched.

Every night, listening to her bunkmates talk about their fathers (and it was almost always fathers who were lost), Emma cried. Jessica Moody, the girl Emma sat next to on the bus, lost her father, Thomas Moody, the FDNY captain of Hazmat 1, Squad 288. Meghan Brethel’s father, Daniel, was the captain of Ladder 24. Dori Freund’s father, Peter, was a firefighter with Engine 55. Kara Jerez’s stepfather was Robert Cirri Sr., an officer with the Port Authority police. And Sydney McLoughlin’s firefighter father, Gregg, didn’t die on 9/11 at all, but months earlier. (There are a small number of other campers with uniformed parents who didn’t die on 9/11, but the campers don’t seem to make a distinction.) It was the first time Emma had heard other kids like her tell their stories.

Emma’s family rarely discusses 9/11. Therapists call it “reciprocal protection.” In a 9/11 household, no one talks about 9/11 for fear of upsetting everyone else.

On the fourth day, Emma found herself in the water on a fun board, a sort of half-surfboard, half-boat. She and some of the other girls from her bunk were standing and wobbling on them, splashing into the water when they lost their balance. Something about it made her laugh. “Fun,” she said.

By the end of that first week of camp, Emma and her bunkmates had become something more than friends; they became like a universe unto themselves. Jess was the rebel, Dori the quirky one, Sydney the social butterfly, Meghan the confidante, and Kara the adorable youngest. Emma, everyone agreed, was the mom. “I guess it means that they think I care about them and I’m the one to protect them,” Emma says. Over time, the girls found that they could rely on one another, at camp and at home, whenever they needed a sympathetic ear. “We all felt the same way when our moms dated someone new,” Emma says. “We all felt the same way when teachers mentioned us in school. We all felt the same way when people singled us out. There are different bits of emotion that can’t be connected—you’re your own person—but the main emotion was the same.”

Sitting outside the mess hall at America’s Camp last month (the girls became counselors this year), I asked Emma if it ever feels peculiar to her that her strongest relationships have been formed at a place that is linked to the greatest tragedy in her life.

“Well, I don’t really think of this as my favorite place on Earth because my dad died,” she says. “It’s not like he died on purpose or anything. But now that he’s gone, was it because he wanted me to learn something? That he wanted me to learn that there’s somewhere for me?” Her voice tightens. “Where I won’t be judged. Where I will make the closest, strongest bonds with people that I’ve ever made. So I think about it that way.”

The problem with camp, of course, is that it ends. Each year, returning home with the 9/11 anniversary approaching, Emma found that the buzz wore off quickly and she would revert to her pre-camp self. Not that she was aware of it. “I was trying to hide so much—I thought I was fine.” Julia had another assessment. “Starting as early as the start of eighth grade, I felt she was way too controlled. And she would never talk about David. If I talked about it, she’d be like, ‘Okay, fine,’ but I’m not sure she processed it. There was a sadness that emanated from her that hadn’t been there before.”

By the beginning of tenth grade, Emma felt she was starting to lose control over her life. “Other kids feel invincible; she always thought about what bad could happen,” says Julia. Emma had an especially intense year at camp that summer, but when she came back, her friends couldn’t understand her attachment to camp, nor to her friends and counselors. “My friends were like, ‘There are two guys you hung out with all week who are ten years older than you?’ I remember them making fun of it. And I’d try to show them dances, and they’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Emma had a boyfriend, a boy named J.J., but that relationship was complicated by 9/11. “I know that I get very attached to men,” she says. “I’m more afraid of losing them than I am of girls. It’s not like I’m trying to replace my dad, but I feel like I need that presence.”

Her soccer coach that year also gave her a hard time, at first, for missing practice because of America’s Camp.

“All of a sudden, my home life and my camp life and my 9/11 life were all meshing and mixing and bumping,” she says. “I was constantly upset. I would cry easily. And I was convinced everyone would die. My mom would leave the house and say she was coming back at this time and she didn’t and I’d think she was dead.” Emma says she didn’t want to live. “I’d be crying and I’d be like, ‘I’m sick of this.’ I thought about slitting my wrists.”

One day in the car, she told her mom she wanted to go to counseling. “I didn’t want to feel that way,” she says. “I didn’t want to never have a happy feeling.”

Emma began seeing a counselor. She began to accept that what happened to her on 9/11 did put her in a unique group; her camp friends were, in a sense, the only ones who could understand her. At the same time, she says, therapy helped her see that she’d eventually have to normalize her relationships with others.

Emma and J.J. broke up last spring. Emma says he never ultimately got her. “Once he was like, ‘Sometimes I forget that your dad died in 9/11.’ I was like, ‘What?’ He was like, ‘No, it’s just like, I don’t think of you that way.’ And that’s good, but it’s such an important part of me that it’s also weird.”

But in her final two years of high school, Emma grew closer to her mother than either of them had ever expected. “Since I came to college, we’ve talked every day,” Emma says. Emma even came to accept that her mother met someone new. She spent months not talking to him. “Hostile is an understatement,” says Julia. “She wouldn’t make eye contact or talk to him at all. She was mean to him, actually.” But when the family all went on a trip to Europe the summer after tenth grade, Emma managed to melt a little. “I was feeling a lot better,” she says, “and I think a lot of that was because I was willing to accept Gregg and his family.” Julia and Gregg Richardson married last June, and Emma was in the wedding.

Emma has two classes on September 11, but she expects that after European history, she’ll go back to her dorm and catch some of the reading of the names on television. “Sometimes there are people from camp on it.”

On campus that first day, I ask Emma if she believes in closure. “People here may believe in it,” she says. “But at home it was like, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ And at camp, there’s no need to have our grieving end. It’s what we go through. They just let us be who we want to be.”

I ask her how she’ll feel when college professors raise the subject of 9/11, or if fellow students start blaming America for the attack. “I know it’s going to be hard,” she says. “Obviously, I’m going to learn stuff I don’t want to learn. I mean, I’m not going to take any classes that are going to provoke it. And I’m not going to participate; I don’t want to. In a psychiatry class, you may have to share your story, and I’m perfectly willing to do that.” Emma says she’d like to major in child psychology. “I just don’t want to hear political aspects or other aspects or the day gone over 80 times.”

Then Emma tells me a story. For the past five years, on the 9/11 anniversary, she, her mother, and her brothers have taken a walk they used to take with their father to a place near Mountain Lakes called Tripod Rock. “My mother used to not let us sit under it,” Emma says, “in case, for some odd reason, the rock decided to fall after hundreds of years. We have a picture of us all sitting under it with my dad, saying, ‘Yeah! We made it under the rock!’”

That story makes her think of another one. Once, when she and her family were traveling in England, they took a walk and found themselves approaching a cliff. “My dad would always be the one who walked along the edge, and my mom and I would always be, ‘Get away! You’re going to fall! Don’t do it!’ And he’d be laughing, because he thought it was so hysterical that we were scared.”

She is smiling now, thinking of her father.

“I do wish I’d spent more time with him. He’d always be like, ‘You always hang out with your friends. Why don’t you stay at home?’”

Then, just as quickly, the smile vanishes.

“But I was a teenage girl,” she says.

The Girl in the 9/11 Bubble