12 January 2009

Family Members, Their Lost Loved Ones, and Their Mantra: ‘No More 9/11s’

Like many stories, this one begins with love.

No Truer Hearts will tell a story of  love, loss, and action. All the family members shared this tragic trio of experiences, but the book will highlight the dramatic and inspiring journey of Beverly Eckert, who was transformed from happy wife and successful executive to grieving widow and 9/11 activist.

Beverly and other family member activists had lost a loved one on 9/11, but had vowed that their searing pain and aching grief should not be visited upon other wives and husbands, sons and daughters, as a result of another terrorist attack. Not if they could help it.

This weekend I drove up to Stamford, Connecticut and spent many hours once again gathering information and recollections from Beverly in order to get a step closer to telling this story in part through her eyes. From the outset of this book project, I had decided that it was not enough to describe how the family members succeeded in their reform efforts. I also sought to combine this largely political tale with the individual instances of love and loss. In this book, it is the enduring love of Beverly for Sean Rooney, her husband of 21 years, who was killed on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center’s South Tower. 

The “no truer hearts” of the book title refers to the passionately committed drive of the family members as they strove to fix a broken government. But it also refers to the bond of love they had with those they lost, a bond that transcended death, and gave those left behind strength in the face of adversity, and comfort during the many dark and desperate moments of their struggle. 

In the devastating wake of the 9/11 attacks, there survived thousands of tales of love and loss. It is impossible to comprehend them all, but I felt one such story could touch the hearts of many, make the incomprehensible more real, make a massive cataclysm more personal. 

The one great love of Beverly’s life was Sean. And as she recounted to me this weekend the final political hurdles that she and her fellow family members cleared on the way to legislative victory for the 9/11 reforms in the winter of 2004, Beverly's memory of Sean was with her constantly. As she stood holding Sean's photo to her chest at White House vigils, or walked the endless, cold marble halls of congressional office buildings, or spoke at press conferences, hearings and other events, Beverly had in her heart Sean's love, the memory of his infectious laughter and the lasting reality of their shared lives. Beverly had done many things to preserve Sean's memory: plant trees, start a scholarship fund, place plaques, commission a mural. But her work on the 9/11 Commission and subsequent reform legislation would stand as her most wide-ranging tribute to his life and memory. 

Even as we sat in her house in Stamford, Sean was there. The documents and articles that Beverly was poring over were spread across the large dining room table that her husband had made in his well-equipped basement workshop. When Beverly sautéed some shrimp in garlic and butter, it was in the kitchen that Sean had remodeled almost single-handedly. And as a fire crackled in the living room fireplace, Sean’s smiling face looked down upon us from a photo on a nearby shelf. 

As I seek to reconstruct this sad but dramatic chapter in our country’s history, and to tell the story of  one of the great loves behind it, I am glad that I have a guide as wise and brave and generous as Beverly. She will help me take readers on a moving and memorable journey.

03 January 2009

'9/11 Press for Truth': An Uneven Critique of the Commission

Unlike many other films and television programs about 9-11, this documentary places some of the family members at the center of the narrative regarding the post-attack investigations. It thus begins to tell the sort of story I will present in No Truer Hearts. But while the makers of 9/11 Press for Truth have their hearts in the right place regarding most matters, the film suffers from a sometimes confusing lack of focus and clarity, raising intriguing questions on the one hand, but leaving many others frustratingly unanswered. 

But my biggest quibble is that the film perpetuates the popular notion that "The Jersey Girls" were the main driving force in the family member movement, and that they alone fought for the creation of the 9-11 Commission, and attempted to guide its activities. If you watch this film and read many other accounts, including the article about them in the notoriously dicey Wikipedia.com, you would hardly suspect that there were other members of the Family Steering Committee, or, indeed, other active family members at all! Certainly the Jersey Girls deserve what accolades they have received. Their hard work, dedication, sacrifice and effectiveness are an important part of the story I'll be telling. The only difference is that my version will be more complete and accurate than most of what has passed for reporting on the subject to date.

I don't want to dwell on the negatives, since this is definitely a film worth watching, but I when I wrote "lack of focus," I wanted to point out that the director tries to take the viewer in too many directions at once. On the one hand, we are told by the subheading on the DVD's cover that the film is "The coverup exposed by the 9/11 families." And indeed we are shown how the Jersey Girls and their family allies raised important questions and uncovered facts about the attacks and their aftermath. But a large part of the film also showcases the work of Paul Thompson, who is not a 9-11 family member, but who has performed a great deal of research on the subject on his own, which appears on a website and in a book, The Terror Timeline. I found both strands interesting and useful, but felt the movie's message would have been more effective and clear if the relationship between Thompson and the Jersey Girls was explained. 

The story of the 9-11 family members and other activists is a complicated one, and most writers think that most readers just can't do complicated. And so they write simple stories and perpetuate easily digestible myths, which often obscure more than illuminate. I beg to differ. Life is filled with rich narratives driven by complex characters. It just takes a little extra effort by writers to present these tales, and by readers to absorb them.

Here is the film's page on iTunes. The film also has a presence on Myspace and Facebook.