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Mary Marshall Clark,
Director of Columbia’s Oral History Research Office, and Codirector of the September 11, 2001, Oral History Narrative and Memory Project.

Where were you when the World Trade Center was attacked five years ago, and can you tell us your first thoughts when you first heard the news?
I was in a taxi that was swerving strangely as it traveled up Amsterdam Avenue making its way from 96th Street to Columbia University. The driver was listening to the radio in Arabic, so I didn’t understand what was happening. He was so distracted I thought he was having a heart attack and so asked him to pull over to the side of the road.  I was on my way to teach the first class of my semester, “Oral History, Theory and Method.” My first thought when he told me that two planes had crashed into the towers was that it must be terrorism. My second thought, which came to me several hours after the event when classes had been cancelled, was that oral history might play some role in documenting the catastrophe. One of my most outstanding students, Daniel Wolfe, a Ph.D. student in Public Health, called to say that he had walked all the way from Greenwich Village to Columbia to attend my class. Despite the fact that he was a trained journalist, he felt that he needed to understand oral history in order to document and interpret a catastrophe of such proportion.

Others at Columbia thought it was important, too. Kenneth Jackson asked me to appear in his class on the history of New York City and invite his students to undertake such a project with me. Several days later, Provost Jonathan Cole approved the project and suggested that I contact Peter Bearman, the sociologist, to collaborate. He held the view that oral historians could benefit from the expertise of social scientists to document contemporary history in a moment of unfolding national importance, as normally, we are focused on the past. Peter was and is extraordinary to work with. He is as fascinated by the role of biography in shaping sociology as I am by the role of the group in shaping individual memory and experience. 

None of the work would have been possible, of course, without the incredible group of 30 interviewers who listened and bore witness to the extraordinary, painful and potent narratives we collected. In the final phase of our work, we interviewed many of these interviewers on what it was like to document catastrophe. The archive will open sometime next spring or summer.

Why did you think it was important to have a project like this, and can you give us some examples of the kinds of discoveries you have made in talking to people about the impact of the event on their own lives?
Documenting September 11 allowed us to do several important things at once. First, we were laying the groundwork for the writing of history decades from now from first-person perspectives. We did so by encouraging those who witnessed the events to assign meaning to the events themselves, rather than relying on the mass media and the government to do so. Secondly, we were recording the complex aftermath of the events: on immigrants and Muslims, and on poor people whose lives were disrupted by the loss of welfare checks, whose stories might not have been dramatic enough to interest the media. Of course, we also collected a large body of great and stirring narratives of people who were at the site, who walked down the towers and escaped the explosion of detritus when the towers collapsed. In so doing, we created an extraordinarily large collection of interviews in the immediate wake of mass trauma, one that psychologists and others studying trauma are very interested in exploring.

One of the things we learned in all of these investigations was that the aftermath of the impact of September 11 was never short. It still feels “like it happened yesterday” to those we talked with—they tell us that when the transcripts are returned and edited. We also learned that there was a real backlash against immigrants, whether Latino or Middle Eastern or South Asian, who “looked like” the imagined enemy—even in New York, which has greater tolerance for immigrants. This is an important historical story that, tragically, remains relevant, a story that historians and others interested in questions of civil liberties will mine over the decades.

In your own view, has 9/11 proved to be a watershed event? Five years on, are New Yorkers still feeling its reverberations, and what further steps do you think social workers and policy makers should be taking to assist with their recovery?
There is no doubt that September 11 has proved to be a watershed event: not only for New Yorkers, but for other innocent civilians and refugees who have become victims of the cycle of violence in the world that September 11 unleashed.  We were exploring whether and how September 11 might become a turning point nationally, and clearly it has had not only national but international consequences.  Many of those we interviewed were afraid that their experiences of trauma would be repeated elsewhere, and other innocent lives and innocent communities would be destroyed. This empathy, this fear that violence could replay itself endlessly, is a very important quality of citizenship that New Yorkers bring to the experience of being American.  

The collective memory that we have gathered over the past five years has taught us that the urban experience of September 11 in New York City is very different from the interpretation of September 11 as a national memory. Social workers, policy makers and politicians need to understand that the legacy of September 11 is complex: making it impossible to predict a path of recovery that is simply personal, or a matter of public policy that can apply to every aspect of the aftermath. 

In the wake of any catastrophe, I think that social workers, policy makers, politicians and others should begin by listening to those who suffered most directly about what their needs are. Too often, decisions are made by those who have little or no idea about what it means to endure extreme suffering. Too often, those who live through traumatic events are seen as victims and treated as passive receptacles of trauma. Oral historians tend to see those we interview as informed participants in the making and writing of history: they are the real authorities in the shaping of collective memory. 

Back to Five Years Since 9/11


AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.

Published: Aug 25, 2006
Last modified: Sep 29, 2006