I had intended on getting back to this blog in October, after a change in my personal situation (which I’ll blog on in October), but a confluence of events inspired me to write my thoughts out before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
My big boy is 10-years-old now, and is bright, curious, and like most boys, has a well developed sense of the macabre. Recently up in Long Island with his grandmother, surrounded by news of preparations for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he peppered his Mor-Mor with questions about the details, including ones I wasn’t sure he was ready for. Despite his hurling unforgivable curses at his brother armed with the gnarled bone replica of Voldemort’s wand, I wasn’t sure if the reality of that mammoth and horrific event was appropriate for him quite yet.
Gus came away from that conversation more curious than ever, really wanting to know more about the event. Up in Vermont for my Aunt’s Bat Mitzvah (an amazing event in itself I plan to blog about, too), we met up with my Uncle Paul, Aunt Densie, and Cousin Helaina. They live in Manhattan, and the 22-year-old Helaina was in 7th grade, only two years older than Gus is, when she faced that seeming Armageddon a mere two blocks from her school.
We talked in hushed tones, away from Gus, about her experiences, her haunting and heroic climb from what was ultimately diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and her mission to bring the voices of these “lost children” of 9/11 to light. I am extremely proud of what she is doing, and can’t wait to read the book she’s writing with stories from her classmates’ lives and struggles.
Flash forward to this evening, when Helaina posted a radio interview that the Canadian show “The Current” did on her. As I served the boys dinner, with the Mets game on in the background, I first started talking about the article I posed on Facebook on Mike Piazza’s game winning home run the first night of baseball in NY after 9/11, and what that meant to New York—and to me. Gus’ curiosity was again piqued, and I remembered Helaina’s interview. I asked Gus if he’d like to hear it. The “Yes, Please!” was out of his mouth before I could finish my sentence.
I believe it turned out to be a fantastic way to introduce some of the harder details to Gus. For him, it was personal, as it was about a cousin he’d just seen. But moreover, this was the story of a girl that was pretty much his age, which made the story something he could really relate to. But it wasn’t just the story, it was the medium that really worked. Like most kids, Gus has a very active imagination, and is also extremely influenced by the visual. By keeping the ballgame on (but on mute) it gave a visual distraction while still allowing him to focus on the words of the story. Essentially, it allowed him to process what is a very intense and frightening event, and be able to detach enough from it so it wouldn’t overwhelm him. For those parents looking to introduce their kids to this subject, I can’t recommend my cousin’s interview enough, though I should say you should listen to it first do decide if the details are too much for your child.
Gus and I then had a discussion about what PTSD is. It was there that we began to tread on ground I was hesitant about going. I explained my relatively mild form of PTSD after the event, immediately thinking about leaving DC to make sure that my baby boy was going to be safe—the feeling that we were just at the beginning of what would be a long and bloody series of events. Then I made the mistake of saying, “How would you feel?…” The instant I said it, I know I needed to move him someplace else. I asked a very imaginative, and sensitive boy to immerse himself in the trauma. His widening blue eyes told me that he was immediately willing to oblige. I blurted out, “Don’t think about that event, just think about something like it.”
And that’s when Pop Culture came to save me.
Gus has been in a major Harry Potter zone lately, and my wife felt it was time to introduce him to her favorite swords and sorcery film series—Lord of the Rings. Going through all the films was their Hurricane weekend treat (and, oh, how awesome is my wife?), and he has now taken a Rowling reading break for a healthy dose of Tolkien.
With Orcs and Golems still fresh on the brain, Gus immediately responded, “Yeah! It’s like if I was one of the boys told he would have to fight in the Battle of Helm’s Deep! I would be so scared, because I would be put in a life-or-death situation without having any idea of what to do! That’s just like what Cousin Helaina went through!” His mind went directly to this one of my personal favorite scenes, when the small remnants of Rohan tried to hold off a massive Orc army. The scene of boys his age being handed helmets and swords obviously had a profound impression.
Yes, it was on-screen violence helped my son to process the events of 9/11, and give him room for real empathy, but with the emotional distance not to have it overwhelm him. I don’t know if it will help any other parents as they prepare their kids to understand and process the events of 9/11, but it sure was an absolutely fascinating, and extremely helpful lesson for me to learn.
Indeed, it made me rethink my perceptions of movie violence a bit. My sister was just querying whether my Nephew was ready for Star Wars, a film series that Gus started watching when he caught me working out with it as background noise when he was 3. Given the relatively bloodless violence, I said that the first one was fine.
I’m not totally going back on that, but today’s events made me realize that in some ways the bloodless cartoon violence inures kids from the reality of violence, where films like Lord of the Rings is fantastic enough for kids to divorce themselves of the reality of the battles, but realistic enough for them to get a sense of the fear and horror that war truly wreaks. Now, I’m not saying that you should sit your toddler down in front of the Game of Thrones series, but I do think there is something useful in a more realistic, yet unreal depiction of violence as a tool for parents to analogize on the realities of violence in our world.
So thank you Helaina Hovitz, thank you J.R.R. Tolkien, thank you Peter Jackson, and thank you Gus Nathanson for teaching me something new about how to deal with the pain that was, and is 9/11.