Published on Friday, September 8, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
My September 10th
by Laura Kaminker
September 10, 2001. The date has a certain poignancy, doesn't it? For many people, it was the last day of peace, the last day without the pain that they'll live with for the rest of their lives. For all of us, it was the last day our illusion of safety and invulnerability was in full working order. It was our moment before knowing.
I can recall my own moment before knowing, when the landscape of my life changed permanently. I can picture it in the same vivid relief that I imagine September 11th families can recall the bright blue sky that Tuesday morning.
It was August, 1982. I was hanging out with two good friends, cooking, talking, laughing, drinking wine, being young women together. Later, I changed into an oversized t-shirt, got in my pull-out sofa bed, under the covers, read the little Modern Library edition of a Thomas Hardy novel I had found in a used bookstore. Then - and here I pause, achingly, wistfully, watching that former self, the young woman I was - I switched off the light. I see the tensor lamp with the red metal shade, my finger on the switch. It was my September 10th.
A few hours later, a man broke into my apartment. He pounced on me as I slept. I felt a knife at my throat. He dragged me out of bed, robbed me, raped me, and left.
* * * *
Living in New York City in the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, I noticed, over and over, parallels between my recovery from sexual assault and New Yorkers' recovery from the collective trauma of that awful day. Of course every person's experience is unique to her or him, but I think all trauma is somehow related.
Generalized fear, anxiety, sleep disturbances, inability to concentrate, flashbacks - the symptoms of post-traumatic stress are well documented. But the sadness and grief can be punctuated by moments of ebullience, an almost euphoric joy - the joy of being alive. Facing the possibility of imminent death - coming face to face with the ridiculous fragility of one's life - one is left with profound fear, yes, but also with a profound joy.
It was commonplace after September 11th to claim we would never be the same. Wall Street sharks would spend more time with their children, families would remember to say I love you, we would all be less frivolous and materialistic, and nicer to each other. I don't know if the terrorist attacks permanently changed anyone's priorities, but my own trauma changed mine.
This doesn't mean I never get cranky, never complain about little indignities and annoyances. Those moments are part of life, too. But I have a different perspective. I'd like to know if other people who have come face to face with their mortality are sometimes moved to tears of joy simply walking down the street, feeling, Here I am, life is so good. Not " my life is good" - just life is good. That is, it is so good to be alive.
Our youth-obsessed culture tells us we should view birthdays with dread. But I celebrate my birthdays with gusto. Aging is another word for living. I am alive, here on this earth. The margin of error is fragile beyond measure. My good fortune, too, is immeasurable.
* * * *
In my last year in New York, missing-person flyers appeared around my neighbourhood. A young woman gazed out from the lamppost, a playful half-smile on her pixie face. A week or so later, her body was found in the woods. Her name was Sarah Fox. She was the same age I was when I was raped.
My trauma, and Sarah's, bears more resemblance to the terrorist attacks than might first be apparent. When Sarah Fox's body was found, women in my neighborhood began walking each other home from the subway, coming home earlier, staying closer to home. Just as we now report a suspicious package where we once just walked by, and wait patiently at the airport for our turn to be inspected.
Growing up female, we learn to organize our lives around the threat of an everyday terrorism - the fear of sexual assault. Someone in our midst - randomly, horribly, inexplicably - is hit. We are reminded of what's out there, what is possible. We can't prevent it, we can only take a few precautions and hope that's enough. We hunker down fearfully for at time, then we buck up and move along. Sound familiar?
I'm sure Sarah Fox did exactly the right things, took all the right precautions, lived her life with her own personal mix of caution and determination, as all modern women do. As I did. Now Sarah's parents are mourning her, while I am still here. In the worst thing that has ever happened to me, I had a bit of luck. Sarah did not. I wonder Sarah's family wistfully remembers a moment before they knew.
* * * *
A friend has asked me how I evolved from trauma victim to grateful survivor, but my awe and relief was with me from the start. In the earliest days of my recovery - still stunned, still waking up screaming at the same time every night, still crawling out of my skin - I would get a little flash: I Am Still Here. Outside, walking - or driving my mother's car with the radio on - experiencing a simple, solitary pleasure - and I would hear it, the quiet, persistent voice. I Am Still Here.
Later on, the pain threatened to drown it out. But in darkest despair, the little voice kept me afloat. I Am Still Here. I made it. So many victims don't. You survived, the voice would insist. Don't let him take your life now.
I look back on the 21-year-old woman who turned off the light that night, on my own private September 10th, and my heart breaks for her. There was so much she didn't know.
Laura Kaminker is a freelance writer, formerly of New York City, now living in the Toronto area.