Trauma in 9/11′s Wake: The Objectification of New York City Firefighters
All across the United States, people are looking back at the carnage wrought by September 11, ten years ago. Some are still calling for revenge, not realizing that healing and safety will come not from more wars but from a realization of our common links to one another.
Over the last ten years, New York firefighters have been lionized, demonized, and everything in between. Often the reality of the vulnerable, emotional individuals under the fire hats gets lost. Time and again, firefighters’ stories have been sensationalized by the media or appropriated by conservative groups to bolster calls for war. But a deeper look at the experience of New York City firefighters brings us back to a core truth: that we are all vulnerable, scared, hurting people, and what we need to heal is not violence but a renewed sense of our interconnection.
In the Firehouses of New York City
The first few weeks at firehouses around the city after September 11 were a cacophony of rolling wakes and memorials. At the time, the men were grappling with the immediate losses of their 343 “brothers,” stresses to their families, the fear of future attacks, and a punishing twenty-four-hour schedule at ground zero, searching for bodies and clearing debris. The inability to find bodies intact would prove to be one the greatest stressors. Widows and their families came to the firehouses seeking refuge. Former firefighters stopped by to offer solace and support. Grieving members of the public appeared en masse with food and tributes. Celebrities made appearances. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to a firehouse in Brooklyn and handed out cigars.
I know all this because I served as a consultant to the New York City Fire Department after the attacks. Starting on September 12, 2001, I volunteered in a number of firehouses around my Brooklyn neighborhood trying to offer assistance to many of the men who were living in shock.
Firefighters as a group, for a variety of reasons, do not typically utilize psychotherapy services. Nevertheless, early on I felt that these men would need assistance in coping with their trauma, grief, and rage. Eventually a collaborative project emerged to embed psychologists in nearly seventy houses, providing help to a thousand men and their families.
Beginning this work was difficult. Firehouses are fairly closed systems, with specific relational codes, unique traditions of cooperation, subtle hierarchies, and politics that are not easy to master. Over the kitchen table of my firehouse was a sign that said “Keep It In the House,” a testament to the privacy and protection firefighters often give each other. The men had not requested that a psychologist be assigned to their house, but they did not object to it. They took a skeptical eye to my arrival.
On January 3, 2002, escorted by three peer counselors, I had lunch with approximately forty men in the kitchen of the firehouse. They listened politely as I discussed issues of trauma, grief, depression, and alcoholism, but asked no questions. Later that day I met with the officers. They too sat in stony silence as I inquired about the men lost and the circumstances of their demise. Afterward, my mood plummeted. As I was leaving, I asked one of the captains how I did. “Ah, you sucked,” he replied. I did not know why, but at the time this interaction somehow made me feel better. The captain’s comment was the first bit of aliveness I had experienced all day.
I returned a few days later but took a different route. My goal was to gain acceptance, but this required overcoming class and ethnic differences. It also required that I be my “real self” and that I try to learn what it is like to be a firefighter. I began learning by going to fires and to ground zero continually. Eventually I found greater acceptance. I ended up staying until 2005, when our project ceased. Since that time I have stayed in close contact with the firefighters and their families.
Trauma and Recovery
During the first month in the firehouse, I determined that there were many levels of emotional disturbance among the forty men. The engine company (which is also an EMS service unit and is responsible for setting up water lines) and the ladder company (which is also called a truck, and carries the ladder used to make rescues in tall buildings) had both arrived at the World Trade Center before the collapse. The engine and all its men had survived, due to a fortuitous command decision. The men on the ladder, however, were immediately sent into the south tower by the command center. All seven men working there perished shortly thereafter.
All the engine men who had survived the collapse of the building were deeply affected. They were living in an altered psychic state. They experienced continuing flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, and nightmares. Many kept replaying in their minds scenes of “jumpers,” those individuals who jumped from the top floors of the World Trade Center rather than being burned. Others replayed horrific scenes of carnage that they saw later in the day. None were receiving treatment at the time of my entry into the system. Yet others were living through various forms of shock, guilt, and impacted grief.
During the first month of my work with them, I was reminded of the Holocaust memoir, Ruchele by Rose Farkas (1988). The author, who had survived the death camps, reported the following event in one of the liberated camps directly after the war:
[I] entered a room where children were shivering and crying softly. The same scene repeated in the next room. I saw a little girl holding the hand of a small boy who was lying on the floor. When I approached, I could see that the child was dead. I told the girl to let go of him. “I can’t,” she said, crying. “My mommy told me never to let go of his hand.”
The men’s grip on the hands of their dead comrades was unyielding. They were all bound by severe survivor guilt, imprisoned by feelings of grief, rage, and despair. People beset by survivor guilt live in two worlds. On one hand they are submerged with the dead and with those they feel they have let down. On another level, they are simultaneously angry and glad to be alive and free. They are unable to express this duality because they fear the emotional pain of loss that they feel may undo them.
In March 2002, I started doing groups with the firefighters. During these times, I found it very helpful to share my own experiences during the time Yom Kippur War in Israel. The war stories helped to normalize the experience of trauma. The therapy groups took on an eerie and tense silence. The jokes were gone and time stood still. Since September 11, the men had been living out two lives in double consciousness. In therapy, these lives came together. The dead joined us at the table, reanimated by the men’s memories.
Ed, a big, burly man, tearfully shared a memory of John, the group’s house leader:
Two weeks before 9/11 we were up all night cooking and talking about our lives. I never felt closer to someone. In the morning we were tired but happy. John looked at me and said, “You have to do these things you enjoy when you can — you never know when your time is up.”
Ed brought up the most material about the fallen during this session. This was striking since he had been one of the most silent. At the end of the group session, he spontaneously announced that his wife was pregnant. As the others congratulated him, I could sense a renewed commitment to life at the firehouse, an eye to the future rather than the past.
Survivors Make Reparations
Making sacrifices, sitting with memories of the dead, and other similar acts constitute “reparations,” the harbingers of healing. Toward the end of the first year, the firefighters began to build a memorial wall, an elaborate construction that featured pictures, uniforms, and personal letters. These materials were encased in a mahogany and marble setting that looked like it belonged in a luxurious hotel. Many firefighters possess advanced construction skills. Nevertheless, the speed with which this memorial was built surprised everyone; the energy driving it was enormous.
At the end of one group, I asked the following question: “How is it possible to take away anything positive from the experience you have undergone?”
One young firefighter retorted, “I thought you would tell us.” Another said he thought that perhaps the enormous sacrifices made were required by God in order to save the thousands who lived. Still another countered that having gone to all the funerals and having heard eulogies for the many fine men, he felt inspired to lead a better life. “Listening to their stories … [could] teach a man how to live a better life in this world,” he said.
However, the sense of debt and urge to make reparations also took a more ominous turn. Many firefighters were also national reservists and were beginning to get called up for active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of their sons and daughters signed up for military service. The wars began to enter the active consciousness of the firefighters and their families.
The Fetishization of the Firefighter
At the same time I was immersed in therapeutic work with the firefighters of my battalion, I became aware of how the image of the heroic firefighter was employed to assuage the trauma of the national psyche. Initially, the image of the New York City firefighter was utilized to help us feel some measure of security and invulnerability. Eventually this image turned into something darker and more manipulative.
Let me explain by describing two images:
The first image is from September 13, 2001, at a firehouse in Brooklyn. A captain is crying at a house that lost four men. The house is mobbed. The crowds brings food and tries to talk and touch the firefighters, who are trying to avoid contact. They are shocked and frightened. Reporters are also there with cameras and floodlights. The firefighters and the neighborhood folk are real, open, and vulnerable.
The second image is more famous: a photo that depicts three firefighters holding aloft the American flag over the ruins of ground zero, similar to the photo of American soldiers raising the American Flag at Iwo Jima. At that moment the firefighter (always imagined as male, despite the presence of roughly thirty women within New York’s firefighting battalions) became an object of religious reverence. On a day of tragedy, he saved tens of thousands through courage and sacrifice. This was true. Like the mythic hero, he returned from the land of the dead, having saved others and the community from greater destruction. He stood for resilience, sacrifice, and continuity in the face of experienced vulnerability.
In becoming a cultural hero, however, the New York firefighter also become a fetishistic object — an object used by others to make them feel better about ourselves, often at the object’s expense. Developed by Sigmund Freud, this idea of the fetish helps describe any neurotic attempt to grapple with powerful feelings of dread and anxiety. We give a person or object mythical powers, convincing ourselves that it can save us from our feelings of inadequacy and fear. We identify with the strength or virility of a real person or an object. However the fetishistic object has an underside. It also symbolically represents its reverse: the sense that the person or object will let us down, that contained in its essence is the seed of weakness, inadequacy, loss, and death.
The image of the firefighter became this dual object: On one level he symbolized strength and resilience. On another level he symbolized psychic vulnerability and the government’s incompetence in protecting civilians from harm. It is this latter image which is most damaging to individual firefighters.
The firefighter also became an object of tragedy and a symbol of national loss. Very quickly after September 11, however, his image also became associated with the idea of revenge as a psychological method to overcome vulnerability. Conservative groups used the firefighter image to justify revenge and to quash misgivings about launching a war in Iraq. During the period leading up to the war, the image of firefighters holding the American flag at ground zero was replayed continually. It served as a way of overcoming moral ambiguities about a war of national revenge.
The role of the media was crucial in injecting both aspects of the “heroic rescue worker” into the public imagination. The story of September 11 became the narrative of the heroic rescue worker or soldier who has laid down a sacrifice. The media played a crucial and powerful role in silencing other narratives and stories.
For a brief time, September 11 was an unmediated experience. Survivors and the general population described the aftermath of the attacks as “surreal” or “beyond description or imagination.” People were on their own to find a focus and a meaning to the event. Alone, frightened, and at the crossroads of life and death, the races came briefly together in a search for community. And for a while we asked interesting questions about the place of our country in the world community. But this period did not last long.
The media also eventually heralded a concerted if not unconscious attack on the “heroic firefighter.” This was no accident. Beginning in 2003, as the difficulties in Iraq became more apparent, the media began scapegoating firefighters, portraying them as representatives of the failures of national policy. At a time when questioning the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq was seen as unacceptably unpatriotic, the firefighter became one diversionary target for our doubts and disappointments.
From 2003-2006 there were no less than forty articles in New York papers that depicted firefighters in a negative light. One article featured a firefighter from my own house. In the fall of 2004, a young firefighter who worked valiantly on September 11 was suspended after the New York Post reported on its front page that he had committed a victimless crime (a nonviolent misdemeanor). The net of subsequent media scrutiny almost ruined the career of this man, who a year later went on to win a unit citation for bravery. Such is the cost of turning a person into a fetishistic object, of worshipping a false god: the fetishtic object will become a disappointment.
Presenting people as heroes tends to rob them of their humanity, their need for help, and their need to mourn. We never hear about it, but many firefighters did deeply heroic work in the personal realm. In my previous writings, I have emphasized that many traditionally minded men face a shame-based difficulty in integrating their emotional needs, feelings, and higher qualities. In adulthood they seek to integrate these needs and feelings through the construction of a heroic identity that involves giving to others the sort of psychological and spiritual nurturance for which they once longed. I have found that many firefighters after September 11 became heroic in this manner. They learned to self-disclose, to share their feelings, and to reach out to help others heal.
The Ten-Year Anniversary: A Time to Remember Our Common Links
Every year on September 11, I return to the firehouses. It is a reunion of sorts. The original men and the widows and their families return to pay homage. Most media narratives emphasize their resilience and successes. But this is a group that is very impaired. Most have been able to cope, but many are still suffering from trauma. This is a condition that can’t be cured in the traditional sense. Those who have adjusted have been able to find some meaning in the event, whether religious, spiritual, or familial. Many are now also sick from the dust they inhaled near ground zero. Lung disease, digestive disorders, and other illnesses run rampant throughout this group. Cancers have appeared, more than would be expected among this youngish population. Many are bitter about how their image has been used, and how they experienced a certain fall from grace over the years.
This year will be somewhat different. The tenth anniversary will attract more hoopla and jingoistic narrative. It will trigger more traumatic memories. Afterward more firefighters will likely return to counseling or become re-truamatized and depressed. Their families will re-experience their own traumas and feel renewed remorse from their husbands and fathers, whether they are retired or are on active duty.
New York firefighters are simply human beings who went though a horrific experience. In reality they saved many, but they could not save a country from a decade of war and economic stagnation. To understand that, we must look deeper into our own national mistakes, dictated not so much by rational calculus but by the call to revenge and an overestimation of the usefulness of military power in foreign affairs.
The losses of September 11 remind us of our common links to one another. Yet our personal and cultural tendencies toward narcissism; the isolation of our communities; and our refusal to interweave death, bereavement, and mourning into our daily rituals all move us to forget this. The sacrifices of the firefighter community bring us back to this core truth. Our lives are built around small and large connections to one another, both nationally and globally. It is this truth that must also dictate our foreign policy.