heir community was created by cataclysm, then bound
together by a vocabulary of grief and the stamp of history.
But a year later, the families of Sept. 11 — a small city's
worth of widows, parents and other kin touched by terror — say
that what defines them most is their sense of separation from
As a nation that wept together resumes its hectic,
distracted course, family members and outsiders say,
September's bereaved have become a lost legion, left to find
their own way.
For Joan Parker, whose husband, Philip, was working on the
99th floor at the World Trade Center on the morning of the
attacks, the realization of that growing fissure began with a
telephone call last fall. The voice on the other end was one
she had not heard in 25 years, since high school.
Over the following weeks, Mrs. Parker and her friend
reconnected amid the sorrow and horror. But then a different
tone began to creep in. The friend began to ask about
"She started getting into questions about what kind of
house I lived in and what kind of job my husband had," Mrs.
How much would the Parkers collect from the charities and
compensation funds? Was paying the families of the victims
really a good idea? Mrs. Parker gradually became uncomfortable
and stopped calling back. Then the calls themselves stopped.
And so, by increments, the gap widened.
Who are the families, anyway? Into what category of
American experience should they be filed? Are they crime
victims? War refugees? Heroes? Will an image of greed that
attached itself to the few outweigh the nation's empathy for
History provides only a flimsy guide. Like Holocaust
survivors, scholars say, many of the families bear intimate
witness to evil; like Vietnam War veterans, they have clung to
one another through the crisis, forging an identity.
But no one, least of all the family members themselves,
knows where their road leads. Some experts in social movements
compare them to canaries in a coal mine or messengers from the
front — vanguards of an emerging national conscience that will
nag, wheedle and shame the nation on issues of terrorism and
memory for generations to come. Or they could become just
another special interest group carping for attention and
money, their moral capital squandered.
"The closest thing that I've been able to think of — and
some people might feel it's an odd word — is that they've been
blessed, in the Old Testament Ecclesiastical sense," said Kai
Erikson, a sociologist at Yale University. Being blessed has
sugary connotations now, Professor Erikson said, but to the
ancient Hebrews, it was a deeply ambivalent gift.
"For better or worse," he said of the families, "they've
been made different by this very peculiar thing that's
happened to them."
Generalizing about 10,000 to 15,000 turbulent souls — and
even more if extended relations and friends are counted — is a
dangerous thing. Some family members have forsaken contact,
retreating into isolation. Some who leaped into action last
fall have withdrawn, while others have begun to reach out in
the last few months. Only a small vanguard is directly
involved with political issues like a Manhattan memorial; most
families have been silent, their stories still untold. On many
issues they are deeply divided, as are all Americans.
But through more than 100 interviews over the last two
months with family members, therapists, academics and
politicians — focusing on the relatives of the office workers,
who constituted the vast majority of those killed — some
signposts to their journey have emerged.
Women, responding differently than men to the maelstrom of
media, politics and grief, stepped forward to lead, creating
networks that solidified into a community backbone. The
Internet became crucial, connecting people and allowing a
virtual community to become real. The myriad organizations
that arose — from lobbying groups to living room
kaffeeklatsches of intimates who say they have bonded for life
— became vehicles for change, altering the participants by the
very chemistry of bringing them together.
The rest of the nation has, of course, been down its own
rocky road. Economic uncertainty, war and other echoes of
terror, from anthrax to shoe bombs, have haunted American
life, creating the sense for many people, social critics say,
that Sept. 11 was a jinx, a triggering event for so many other
things that have gone wrong. Moving on with life, head down,
eyes forward — in a real way, whistling past the graveyard —
has become, those experts say, an understandable and very
Many family members, on the other hand, say they have been
completely transformed. Some describe being seized and swept
away, changed whether they wanted to be or not, by the very
effort of trying to make sense of what had happened. Where
mainstream America became unwilling to look back, the families
could not look away.
Maria Ragonese thought last fall that she might drown in
the pool of pain that surrounded her after the death of her
sister-in-law and friend, Laura Marie Ragonese-Snik.
"And yet ultimately I learned to swim," she said. "I'm
involved with and doing things I never thought possible in the
name of justice and in the honor of my dearest friend. I have
become interconnected with so many people through this one
event that it's now as if I have this huge extended family,
all fighting the same fight."
The thousands of children, many too young to remember lost
parents, provide another spark. Some family leaders say their
passion about a memorial is driven by the thought of young
people who will need such markers to absorb the enormity of
what happened. Other parents worry that an alienated, lost
generation, angry at the world and at their government — a
thousand Timothy McVeighs, as one mother put it — could emerge
if the next few years of recovery are bungled.
Gayle Regan, who lost her husband, Thomas, thinks her
3-year-old twins, Allai- star and Connor, have already been
altered. When she hung an American flag outside her garage,
the children wouldn't stop hugging it. She thinks that for
them, the flag somehow represents the father who they have
been told is in heaven.
"I feel like we're all these instruments of change now —
it's almost a song we have to sing," Mrs. Regan said.