Issue 2.1 Homepage

The September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project:
A First Report

Mary Marshall Clark

As I look back on the article I wrote for the Journal of American History for its September 2002 issue, I am aware of how the archive that I and others helped create will soon take on a life of its own as it is made public. We are now engaged in the process of re-interviewing people, which began in October 2002 and has continued through the summer of 2003; we will return once more to the same individuals in 2004-05. When we began collecting the stories of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, we believed that we might capture stories that lived below the radar of the media and we wanted to enter the lives of those we talked to at eye-level. Oral history, an academic methodology with activist roots in communities around the world and always centered in individual experience, seemed an ideal way to allow people to construct meaning for themselves in a context in which public sentiments were largely created for us by the media and the government. While we didn't use the word "trauma" as one of the initial categories of investigation, it became clear to us in the second year of our work that we were working in its wake, re-living the public trauma through allowing it to enter our personal lives. In many ways, by using tape recorders to allow those we interviewed to find the freedom to express their grief, we were facilitating the work of both personal and public mourning not only for others, but ourselves. As I wrote last year, this mourning involved a dread on the part of witnesses and survivors we interviewed that other civilians, particularly those who lived in Afghanistan, might also be killed or irreparably harmed as a result of an American war of retaliation. The mourning of 3,000 lost in the events of September 11, 2001 was thus complicated by the killing of 3,500 civilians in Afghanistan by December that same year. The sense of being silenced about our politics of mourning grew as we, like our interviewees, found it harder to sort through the broad, historic meaning of September 11, 2001 as our country prepared to invade Iraq. Our stories became filled with silences, which we struggled to interpret as we attempted to document the meaning of a word "9/11" that is not a named event, but a number, a shorthand that has justified the shortcuts of war in the name of those who suffered, but without their informed consent. I look forward to the time, not so far away, when the public sentiments of those who expressed their grief and trauma to us in the hopes of creating a safer and more peaceful world - will be unleashed.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Journal of American History, 89. 2 (Sept. 2002): 571-79. Click here (PDF, 75KB) to read it.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.