It was like any other day in the life of any other ordinary couple. The wife was heavily pregnant and was having a bad temper. They fought, had dinner, and went to bed. The ordinariness of their lives was apparent in the messiness of their bedroom. Clothes strewn all around, books on the floor, and the doggy curling up on a mattress. He hugged her and tried to make up in bed. She was trying hard to hold on to her assumed grumpiness. She was breaking inside her to hug him back…Another day dawned. He hurriedly got ready to leave for work. She was lazing around before starting her work-day. Then she saw it on TV. He like so many others never returned…
It was the final class (11 May, 2010) for the “Terrorism/War on Terror” course that I had been auditing (with Prof. Jeremy Varon) at New School. I had not been very regular with the classes as my core workload at NYU tended to become unmanageable. On this somewhat cloudy evening, I came by with the lure of listening to one of the victims of 9/11 attacks. That was how I became familiar with the story of Alissa Torres who lost her husband in the attack. A heavily pregnant Alissa had to pull herself up to navigate the ordeals of heartbreak and disappointment to maintain a semblance of calm for the sake of their unborn child. As I sat listening to her story that she had to repeat countless times, the pain and agony of a victim came alive for me. 9/11 until then had been a memory for me; a memory etched on a TV screen in the recreation room of Shivalik Hostel in IIT, Delhi. As I recall those turbulent days in Delhi in the wake of the attack, I felt alienated for an altogether different reason. I left Delhi soon after never to live there again. (But that is a different story to tell and I will save that up for later.)
Alissa Torres’ graphic nonfiction American Widow is a critical example of the cultural productions surrounding the trauma of 9/11. The narrative starts with the events of September 11, 2001 and ends with the first anniversary in September, 2002 while flashbacking into 1998, the year she fell in love with her husband, Luis Eduardo Torres. The first chapter of the book frames the attacks as a simulacrum with the images of ravage being shot by helicopter-borne TV journalists and beamed live worldwide. The near absent materiality renders it a semiotic event as if reality could be grasped through the exclusivity of simulated images. The very opening of her arresting book suggests the impossibility of meaning-making in a traumatic event of this sort. The second chapter of the book, interestingly, cuts back to 1998, the year Alissa met her future husband in a club. It was attraction at first sight as they danced together that evening, exchanged cards, and walked on the street holding hands. The enormity of the attack is replaced with a personal narrative of love and longing. This technique serves well to demonstrate Torres’ avowed purpose of ‘normalizing lives’ in the wake of mass hysteria generated by the media, politicians, and other interest groups.
Luis and Alissa married in 1998. Originally from Cali, Colombia, Luis’ story contains elements typical of other immigrant narratives. In 1990, he obtained a visa for Mexico but was detained at the immigration checkpoint (Ch. 17). He was finally let off on the basis of his claim that he came to Mexico on a short vacation before starting school for a degree in psychology. The very same year he migrated to the US and started working in the garment district. He doubled up his work at the sweatshop with that of driving a taxi. On the weekends, he took up work in a restaurant. He had to work hard to support a family back home and save up enough for the future. In 1995, he managed to obtain a job in finance as a runner. The very next year, he was promoted to the position of a Latin American currency broker (Ch. 8). Years of struggle to learn English came to an end as he could speak in Spanish while brokering Latin American currencies. In the August of 2001, Luis was fired from his job and was desperate to land another for the sake of their unborn baby. Alissa was heavily pregnant. On 10 September, 2001, he joined Cantor Fitzgerald (which was housed in one of the World Trade Center towers) as a currency broker.
The evening before September 11, 2001, Luis and Alissa had an argument. They went to bed without sorting things out. He tried to patch up in bed. She remained petulant even as she wondered, “Look at him – exhausted, sleeping as if nothing’s wrong between us” (29). The next morning she woke him up early so that he did not get late for his second day of work in the new job. He left home hurriedly. She was still mad at him. She was cursing him in her mind for not giving her a call from work. Then came an incoming call and she saw it on TV: A plane just hit the World Trade Center. She was never to meet him again. She was left with their unborn baby and the happy memory of a vacation at Kauai, Hawaii in June.
The days following the attacks were spent in searching for Luis. He had been missing for days and she clung to the hope that he might end up as a burn victim. On 22 September, the police came and confirmed his death. He had jumped out of the tower in a desperate bid to survive. On 29 September, at the end of his funeral service, the priest played:
I’m searching for America
And I fear I won’t find it.
Its traces have become lost
Amongst the darkness.
An individual moment of grief was turned into mourning for the nation. America appropriated her right to mourn her husband’s death. Incidentally, the first public musical reaction to the events of 9/11 took the form of a spontaneous choral performance by an ensemble of American politicians who gathered to address the media. They broke into a spontaneous chorus of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (1938): “From the mountains, to the prairies, /To the oceans white with foam – /God bless America, my home sweet home! /God bless America, my sweet home!” The power of American nation that experienced physical and symbolic violence was reasserted through an emotionally charged musical performance.
In October 2001, she gave birth to their child, a son who came three and a half weeks early. Torres’ poignant description of the moment captures her joy of motherhood and sadness at the intensity of her longing for her dead husband: “I welcomed the grief in the screams of my hard-earned labor. I invited you into each one, mourning you each time as I had not done previously. So badly, I now wanted these moments of unfettered noise that I didn’t have to explain. As I screamed, it felt like sex. I invoked you in my mind as the contraction rose to my lips. I remembered your physicality upon me as I rode each wave of pain. My first intense physical sensation in fifty days. It recalled that world of lust and body I used to inhabit, now made manifest only in grief, with each thrust of life. As my body was torn apart in the rhythmic convulsions, so too was my heart, in the sudden full realization of my loss. The shock had parted during these moments of contraction, as a sun of reality peered in, shining strong on the fact that you were dead and I was still alive and this being bearing the name of tragedy would never know you except as I built you in his memory” (83).
Traumatic events such as 9/11 are unpossessable, writes Kristiaan Versluys in his “Introduction” to September 11 and the Novel: Out of the Blue (Columbia UP, 2009). It is a limit event that defies any semiotic/ meaning-making process. To draw a parallel with other catastrophic events, it lies beyond the scope of language. It indicates the breakdown of our conceptual, semantic, and hermeneutic apparatus (Derrida). Yet there are competing discursive and instrumental impulses in verbalizing the event and appropriating its symbolic significance. When the state usurps the individuals’ right to mourn, by turning them heroes/martyrs, it instrumentalizes grief for the purpose of taking revenge. Torres’ book generates an alternative discourse of the event by standing firm in her conviction that grief is essentially personal and that there was nothing heroic in this death. As I listened to her speak, I realized that the pain of losing one’s dear ones can never be compensated by bombing innocent civilians in other parts of the world.
[For further information on Alissa Torres’ book, please follow the link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500694]