“That’s me. I’d say I’m sorry to disappoint you… but I’m not. I excel at not giving a shit. Experience has taught me that interest begets expectation, and expectation begets disappointment, so the key to avoiding disappointment is to avoid interest. A equals B equals C equals A, or… whatever.”– Ellen Muth (Georgia) from Dead Like Me
I am an emotional person. I admit that without pause. I love watching dramatic movies, live-action or animated, and television shows that render me speechless. My wife Corinne refrains from such emotional rollercoaster viewings, but I, conversely, have difficulty turning away. I am like Rafael, not the master painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I am not referring to the ultra-violent comic book version. Still, instead, the 1987 television series version depicts him as hip, loyal, and sensitive, but rude, feels slighted, and gets cranky when annoyed. That’s not “exactly” me, but I meander through life protecting my anxious and, inherently, insecure self.
I have always felt this way, whether with making friends as a kid, how I felt about my body image, or how I responded to emotionally stimulating events. This sensitivity, and connection, to major events, especially those in the past, drew me to the world of professional history. History, memory, and emotion often link together to help break down my anxiousness and self-doubt. As an anxious person, which I discussed in a previous blog, emotional connections are vital in exploring the past. Today, I briefly explore change, life and death, and the quest to understand myself and the past, especially in the context of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
A Lifelong Memory
“If we can’t make memories, we can’t heal.”– Guy Pearce (Leonard Shelby) from Memento
September 11, 2001, is a day that will never cease to be a pivotal moment in my life. Although not personally connected to the events, I was affected by them. Recently, I read a story in The Atlantic exploring a personal account of one victim of the terrorist attacks. The article was well written, meticulously researched, and absorbing like no article I have read. At the end of it, I was in tears, and when I discussed what I read with my wife, I could not control my emotions. It was a haunting reminder of how affected I am by that event, the lives taken, and how the trajectory of life never seemed to get back on track.
Twenty years ago, my life was on a path that only seemed fitting, even if not necessarily my choice. I attended the local community college majoring in Criminal Justice, although dreams of comedy, archeology, and more always seemed to float in my imagination. Schooling had never been my thing, and attending straight out of high school seemed more an obligation than a personal passion. But I took classes, yet initially didn’t enjoy the experience. Maybe it was because others had told me that, because of a slight learning disability, I would not succeed. Years of pessimism had not prepared me for self-discovery or that 9/11 would completely redefine by professional path.
It was a typical Tuesday for me, as I am sure it was for many. I drove to my 9 am class and heard the news coming out of New York distorted and hard to grasp. But it seemed isolated, so I went to my Speech course and gave my first address of the semester. As a shy, slightly introverted person, a public speaking class was not in my wheelhouse, but I was chosen to speak first and wrote a speech over a few days and memorized every word, not an easy task. So, as I walked into class and gave a speech titled “Philosophy of Life,” the contents of which I can’t recall, one plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. After class, I walked into the main campus building and was shocked to discover televisions displaying a live news feed from New York. Another plane had crashed into World Trade Center, but the South Tower and a plane crashed into the Pentagon.
I had been in the building, not three minutes when I watched as the South Tower collapsed. Haunting, and even as I write this, that terrible flashbulb memory is with me. I remember the faces of those around me, their expressions of disbelief, even 20 years later. If I was an artist, I could draw their faces to perfection. Of course, paranoia set in, and it seemed the entire country was up in flames. What was down seemed up, left seemed right, and nothing made sense. The North Tower collapsed not twenty minutes later, and news of another plane crashing in Pennsylvania lit up the airwaves. The college canceled classes for the rest of the day. I drove home with an anxious pit in my stomach, with both hands on the wheels, one eye on the road, the other towards the sky.
It’s almost as if a “peace” within me shattered that day, at that moment. I am not sure who I was before. A kid defined by always getting by but never really seeking to know who he was. I was alive, but after years of difficulty in school, negative anxiety surrounding my body, and a vision of the future I never really wanted but felt forced into, I had changed. Why did this happen? Who were those that lost their lives? Why? Why? Why? I felt inadequate to the moment, ignorant of the world around me, and for the first time, I thought I had to do something about it, but it required difficult self-reflection.
I wanted to see the world, experience life, and be as informed as is humanly possible. It is not much different from how I feel now amid this lingering pandemic. Vaccinated, masked up, and older, slightly wiser, I feel the need to live, even as I am emotionally distraught by what the year has caused, the lives lost, the time slipping away. I was a teenager when 9/11 occurred. I lived comfortably in a bubble created by circumstances I did not construct nor support. Yet, after that day, I sought to redefine my path in life, rewrite my story moving forward, and claim authority over my capabilities. Like, Howard Zinn, I became a social historian, focusing on people caught up in the larger arc of history. This quest has fueled me for the last twenty years.
Trajectory & Emotion
“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”– Michiel Huisman (Steven Crain) from The Haunting of Hill House
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had two friends over to the house for dinner and drinks, as well as a beautiful conversation. Having an indoor get-together with friends is not something we have done often, as pandemic numbers have begun to increase where we live, even slightly. We are all vaccinated, so we took the opportunity and enjoyed it thoroughly. Upon closing the night, we asked our friends to sign the chalkboard in the kitchen, which all our visitors do, although we have not had many since moving into this home, roughly a year ago. Instead of signing names, Joel drew a picture of Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame.
The image that Joel drew was marvelous and, in the days after, captivated me. Only after reading The Atlantic article by Jennifer Senior, did I make a somewhat personal connection to Raphael, his soft interior, rugged exterior, and sensitive yet defensive side. As I said, I am an sensitive person by nature. Whether I am watching an episode of Black Mirror, like “San Junipero,” observing a terrific character-driven performance by Nicholas Cage in Pig, applauding inclusion in CODA, as well as singing along with Emilia Jones as she sings, and uses ASL to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” or, lastly, I am learning lessons on loss in The Haunting of Bly Manor, I come face to face with powerful emotional visual moments where I am unable to maintain my stoic stance.
In Pig, when Cage, who presents a genuinely Oscar-worthy performance, offers advice to the chef of a fancy eatery, he utters the line, “We don’t get a lot of things to care about.” That cinematic moment moved me. Similarly, this occurred while watching the new Val Kilmer documentary Val. There is a moment when Val Kilmer is performing as Mark Twain for his play, “Citizen Twain,” and he says, “How do you heal a broken heart?” It hit me hard, although the context was different from how it emotionally grabbed me. How do we cope with a broken heart shattered by loss? Loss of love, life, innocence, and loss – all seemingly at play here. After reading the 9/11 article, I realized how much that event had affected and changed me. It made me see the world differently.
Sure, lots of signs at that time read, “Never Forget,” but I wanted to live by that mantra, not simply throw it on a bumper sticker, only to watch as time and weather erased it. I didn’t want to abandon the past nor remain in it. I wanted to teach, inform, and contextualize it. If I were to endure a “broken heart,” I would equip myself with knowledge and personal stories to maintain an anchor to specific moments in time so that I, my students, or anyone, could easily access a realistic picture and understand, accurately, what occurred. It dawned on me that most, if not all of my students, for the first time, were not born when 9/11 occurred. That fact shook me. They might not emotionally connect to it nor see it with similar gravity.
I am not here to offer anyone a roadmap to happier feelings. 9/11 broke my heart, and each year, each time I teach a history class, that emotional journey is reopened. It’s overwhelming but necessary to keep the memory of the event persevered. Memory can offer so much material to a historian. Even memories that prove inadequate, frail, or plain wrong tell us something about the individual, time, and place. In so doing, those memories offer opportunities to ask questions, sometimes without finding adequate answers. Such a mountain of possibilities is incredible, but one must tread lightly. The reality of the past can be twisted and redirected.
My wife Corinne’s grandfather, Fred, fought in the Second World War, and I mentioned him in a previous blog. My wife speaks about him often, and one thing she repeats is how he told her to remember the past, keep it alive, and talk about it often. As an American soldier during WWII, Fred liberated a Nazi Concentration Camp in Germany and was horrified by what he witnessed. In the aftermath of a global war, he came face to face with a horrifying truth, the Holocaust. Fred’s directive to his granddaughter, Corinne, has stayed with her, leading her to become a historian and an academic. She will never let go of nor lose sight of that directive. No matter how difficult, we must move forward with truthful communication about those moments that change us as individuals, a country, a world community.
Themes of Change & Loss
“We can’t count on the past. We think we have it trapped in our memories, but memories fade. We could fade at any time.”– T’Nia Miller (Hannah) from The Haunting of Bly Manor
For the past few days, I have been finding solace in listening to my playlist of original cinematic scores. I found myself replaying, The Newton Brothers score from The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, Netflix miniseries created by Mike Flanagan. I spoke of him in my post on horror movies, but it is not the scary component that brings me back to him today; it is his show’s underline emotional theme of love found and love lost, as well as time, death, and the fading of memory. At the end of Bly Manor, the narrator, played beautifully by Carla Gugino, utters an enchanting phrase as she tells a “ghost story” or “love story”; aren’t they the same? She said, “All things fade…Flesh, stone, even the stars themselves. Time takes all things. It is the way of the world. The past recedes, memories fade, and so, true, does the spirit. Everything yields to time.”
The show’s arc is powerfully situated around memory, being forgotten, or the tragedy of forgetting yourself—the loss of oneself in multiple tragic ways. Sweet Tooth, on Netflix, takes on a similar theme, but gives it a young adult, less Nolan’s Memento examination. The show strikes several strong cords focusing on the need to let go, and in so doing, open oneself up to incredible possibilities. One of my favorite shows, Lost, which I spoke of previously, explores that concept and does so brilliantly. It pays homage to the power of memory and offers thoughtful dialogue on life, death and letting go of anchors holding us back. I am drawn to those dramatic shows, like Pushing Daises, dealing with issues of loss, forgetting, change, and the passage of time.
That is what has always drawn me to memory. Its ability to remain strong, its ability to fade, change, and ultimately cease. As a historian, one using memory as a medium to historical research, I recognize its imperfections while marveling at its fantastic beauty. Bly Manor was a haunting show, not because of the ghosts, but rather the inherent sadness that goes along with time, the fading of memory of those moments lived and love lost. As Rahul Kohli, who played Owen, says, “To truly love another person is to accept the work of loving them is worth the pain of losing them.” An incredible statement, one that illustrates several complex meanings about life, death, and time. I remember the first time I watched the show, I loved it, but I initially felt that Hill House was better, but I see them as equal after a recent rewatch. Both series take on difficult issues and, emotionally, I feel sucked in by such attempts.
Flanagan writes characters with depth without subscribing to generic tropes. They take issue with change, rebel against the mundane, strive to resurrect fading truths, and untimely learn to let go, accept, or be consumed by what they seek. I seem to connect to these types of characters—hopelessly lost or broken by the world. Maybe my anxiety is attracted to such tales of woe. My dissertation is, after all, nearly 500 pages of historical trauma researching deconstructed haunting memories written by American sailors. I enjoy not being the voyeur of their dismay but cheer on those historical subjects and television shows where someone must confront their fear and accept their fate, as is the case with Dead Like Me. I seemingly mourn alongside these fictional and historical figures, and I cannot shake the storyline, the character’s tension, and struggle.
Towards the end of Bly Manor, the Narrator (Gugino) says, “Nothing holds, and all things change, given time. Change does not often announce itself. It does not trumpet its arrival. No, change is emergent. By the time one realizes it has arrived, it has already set its teeth.” Change has been a difficult thing for me to confront. The death of a friend in high school in an automobile accident showed me that, but I assumed it was an isolated reality, a tragic moment in time. My parents’ divorce, while not surprising, took a sledgehammer to preconceived notions of happiness and introduced an unwelcome acknowledgment of change. I had, for years, lived with unabated regularity, defended by well-constructed yet fictional walls of protection. I was blocked from dealing with radical change, the type September 11, 2001, unleashed upon me. I feared change with incredible intensity. For nearly two decades, such a prospect was unimaginable, but for the last twenty years, I anxiously perceive change around every corner.
“Some say there is no great equalizer than Father Time. That’s because of one simple thing. No matter who you are or where you go, well, let’s just say ol’ Time’s got a knack for catching up to us all.”– James Brolin (Narrator) from Sweet Tooth
Discussion of nostalgia, food, music, and more, elaborate on my need to remember my lived experience. I am happy with who I am, yet I have struggled, at times, to love myself. I have been too easily distracted by bullies and naysayers but unconditionally loved by family and friends. I have difficulty accepting change and, all too often, cannot stop connecting my emotional reality to those uniquely powerfully emotional narratives in film. Although touched by powerful cinematic stories, I avoid discussions of death yet constantly strive to accept the passage of time.
Small changes, rippling through time, can amount to a more noticeable difference. I have lived as much of my life since September 11, 2001. It now sits at the midpoint of my life, who I was before, and who I have become. In 2015 I ran the Tunnel to Towers 5k. As the race website says, the event in New York “symbolizes Stephen Siller’s final footsteps from the foot of the Battery Tunnel to the Twin Towers and pays homage” to all those who lost their lives. It was an emotional run. I was overwhelmed by the site of first responders and despondent as I exited the tunnel in lower Manhattan, the new World Trade Center sitting, front and center.
I feel loud, I think directionally, and I live in the past. In the end, I am who I am. On September 11, 2001, the attacks broke my heart and ushered in a generation of bewildering change, so I dedicated myself to new endeavors. But 20 years later, I am wiser to how much I changed or how much around me has changed, and I still connect emotionally to visual mediums in the same way. Time is still tricky to handle, feelings of loss impossible to reconcile, and memory a double edge sword of wisdom and trauma—the echoes of the past remain, both good and bad. I am sure that is how it will continue, but let’s reconvene in 20 years and find out.