Remembering it wrong, and how to get it right
A lesson from Jim Dwyer, one of the greats of journalism
Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made.
A small point of light momentarily left me terrified last night. I was lying in bed, looking out the window, when a plane began its descent toward Sea-Tac, which happened to be in the direction of my building. Likely many thousands of feet up, it was just one of a number of planes I see heading to or from the nearby airport each day. But as the dot became brighter, I imagined it slamming into my apartment. I’ve imagined that a million times since 9/11, but always in New York City. This was the first evidence that my fear had followed me across the country — the first time I’d imagined a plane striking my new home in Washington State.
I know it is irrational to fear such a thing. I know it is extremely unlikely to happen. I know that. But the trauma of Sept. 11 and that time has never left my body.
In some ways, reporting on the tragedy marked the beginning of my career. That feels weird to say, though, because I was also badly traumatized by it. But in the moment, I ran toward covering it.
In 2002, I began working as a reporter and researcher for a New York Times book on the history of the towers from their conception to their fall, called City in the Sky, by Times reporters James Glanz and Eric Lipton. And in 2004, I began work on a second one, called 102 Minutes, which would later be a National Book Award finalist, by Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.
As I’ve mentioned here before, the question I am most often asked by students and people outside the profession is about how I handle covering traumatic stories, how I protect myself. I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but it was in those years that I discovered that I process trauma through my work.
While reporting for those books was uniquely painful, I learned some of the most important lessons I would ever ascertain in journalism from the four reporters I worked for. One in particular that I learned from Jim Dwyer has never left me, and has only been amplified recently, after Jim’s death at the end of 2020 and with the 20th anniversary of the day everything went to hell.
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