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Saturday, 05 March 2011 18:21

Interview by Piet Meiring with Peggy Shriver: Healing and Reconciliation through the Arts in the Aftermath of 9/11

It was a cold day in November 2007 in New York. Winter was waiting around the corner, but the discussions around the table were lively and the hospitality of Don and Peggy Shriver, who had invited me to share their lunch with them, heartwarming. I wanted to talk to them about the shattering events of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington and how America – the American psyche – had been changed by all of that. Above all, coming from South Africa where we too continually have to confront the demons of our past, I wanted to know about healing and reconciliation in a fractured and traumatised society.

Don and Peggy Shriver were the right people to talk to. Don is an internationally respected scholar, author of many books on the issues of reconciliation and forgiveness, and on the role of religion in society, who served as dean of Union Seminary in New York for many years. His wife Peggy has published widely as well, and is appreciated as speaker on many a podium. But above all, she is a gifted artist, a poet who touches the hearts – sometimes the raw nerves – of her wide audience. The Shrivers are no strangers to South Africa. They have visited our country on several occasions, involving themselves in the work of the Institute for the Healing of Memories, and speaking at numerous conferences and workshops.

While Don sat listening, I asked Peggy about the way that the arts have been employed in the process of healing and forgiveness in America.

Did the artists play a significant role in helping the American people to come to grips with what had happed to them when the Twin Towers were destroyed? It seems to me that America has no shortage of musicians and painters and poets – but did they rise to the challenge?

You are right – there are many artists in the country. A recent study of the arts drawn from the latest census declares that the artistic work force in the United States is double the size of the US Army! More Americans identify their primary occupation as artist than lawyer, doctor, police officer or farm worker – nearly two million. 9/11 touched us all and changed us all – and that goes for the artistic community as well.

Although much has happened since America’s self-confidence was ripped apart when the boastful World Trade Center towers slumped in fiery catastrophe to the ground, seven years later is not a very long time to have achieved much significant artistic work. Historian Richard Norton Smith asks, ‘How many anniversaries must pass before pain congeals into perspective?’ When I look at the site of New York City’s World Trade Center, I see surprisingly rapid elimination of the debris of ‘Ground Zero’ and, sadly, an increase in the deterioration of the area surrounding the site. Many small businesses have barely survived the assault on their immediate community. The population that once was served by these businesses is now departed – or dead.

Leaving the artists on the side for the moment, how did Americans in general react to the shock of 9/11?

Once the initial shock had subsided, it left its own devastation, not as visible, but as real. Many young people taking a confident stride into a well-planned future stumbled, hesitant about what to expect. A goodly number of people wanted to erase the evidence of the gash in the Pentagon, the downed plane in a Pennsylvania field, and the grotesque smoking ruins in lower Manhattan as quickly as possible. For health reasons it was important to rid ourselves of toxic fumes and decay. Rebuild bigger and better! They can’t destroy our symbols of achievement (but they did)! Grief, rage, fear – a mixture more toxic than the ruins still smoking one hundred days after the attack. Soberly, others began asking why this had happened to us. What have we done to them? Empathy for tragedies in other countries became more personal. A stubborn group, including some victim families, looked with suspicion at a possible conspiracy by our own government for the failure to head off the attacks.

What efforts were made to memorialise the tragedy?

The public was indeed eager to memorialise this tragedy for which they had no language except the date: 9/11. A competition worldwide was established to design an appropriate overall reconstruction of the entire site, a competition that was won by Daniel Liebeskind. Meanwhile, another competition was established to memorialise the victims, one which would be of keen interest to and involvement by the victims' families. This was won by Michael Arad, a young American architect. Another idea was put forward to create an International Freedom Center at Ground Zero, which would show what those victims had lived for – the freedoms for which Americans had fought through the nation's history. It would also honour similar efforts in other countries – battlers against apartheid in South Africa, the Chinese dissenter facing a tank in Tiananmen Square, for example.

The proposal to create a Freedom Center was unfortunately rejected. But the other two, Liebeskind’s plans and Michael Arad’s concept, the latter being revised and altered, were eventually accepted. Work has started on the terrain. But apart from that, numerous private projects were also in the offing. You told me that you were impressed by a unique initiative led by a former fire-fighter…

Well, let me tell you about Lee Ielpi and his friends. Families of the victims, increasingly restive and frustrated, formed several spontaneous associations in an attempt to get trustworthy information and commitments from clogged official channels. Realising that there was strength in numbers and that they all needed emotional support, these groups coalesced into a coalition of 9/11 families. Ielpi, a former firefighter and father of a young firefighter named Jonathan who died on 9/11, emerged as the remarkable leader of these grief-stricken people. Soon another leader was recognised – Jennifer Adams, a woman in the financial field who honoured her colleagues by volunteering on site for four months to interpret it to strangers – until more and more volunteers joined her. From their donated office space overlooking the WTC debris, they saw opportunists and hate-mongers selling tragedy to concerned, eager listeners down below. At street level one could only see a high fence surrounding the site.

Within five years the September 11th Families’ Association under Ielpi’s directorship and Adams’ skill as CEO had shaped a vision and message very different from the act of hatred that had brought them together. Remembering that the World Trade Center had taken as its motto “peace and stability through trade”, they sought not to return hatred against hatred, but to make their grief constructive for the future. First they established a network of communication among families of all victims, a newsletter lifting up important issues. Soon victim family members and friends, firefighters, policemen, volunteers who had helped in the times of crisis, and persons with special skills (such as museum design) were being trained to become tour guides, incorporating their own personal stories. This was healing for those in grief but also for people throughout the nation and world who wanted to share it and to collaborate in making the world a safer, more loving place. By 2006 they had become housed in a building at the south edge of Ground Zero, doing “Person to Person History.” It is called the Tribute WTC Visitor Center and it pays tribute “to the vitality of all those who were loved and lost through personal glimpses into their lives.”

Did you visit the Visitor Center yourself?

Lee Ielpi generously gave me and my husband a tour of the facility, pointing out highlights and significant details. The first gallery is devoted to the WTC as it originally was – the bustle, excitement, energy, power and community pride of the seven buildings connected by an open plaza, with musicians, clowns, picnics, dramatic events, strollers and gawkers flowing through. A scale model dominates the scene, and a video depicts actual scenes of people there, many now dead. Suddenly one views a video of rubble, listens to firefighters communicating two minutes before the North Tower collapse. “These are strong voices—voices with a mission,” Ielpi comments. We note a huge twisted girder and also a deformed airplane window frame, wondering who peered from it in growing horror. But mostly the galleries are of people. One wall is just gorgeous September blue sky, and it becomes plastered with posters seeking missing people. Lee says, “Of the 2, 752 missing people, they only recovered 140 whole bodies – and my son was one of them. No body parts have been identified for 1,125, but 10,000 fragments remain for DNA testing.”

Remembering the stench of burning debris that lingered as a faint odour for three months throughout Manhattan, I was touched by a quote from the poet Hettie Jones on a column: “We are breathing the dead, taking them into our lungs as living we had taken them into our arms.”

Are the names of the dead listed in the building, as was done at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington?

Yes. Another wall quietly lists all the names, including those who died in the field in Pennsylvania and in the Pentagon. Each name is singled out alphabetically to be seen briefly on a screen. But the wall that catches your throat is the mosaic of family and friends’ offerings of pictures of beloved victims in all their liveliness and vitality, many so heart-breakingly young. The average age is 35-40. Clearly, people from all over the world are there, too. Attached to the wall is a tight packet of paper cranes folded as prayers for peace by high school students in Hiroshima—dedicated to a Japanese victim, Kazushige Ito.

I was told that a large number of young people, children, reached out to the people of New York, especially from Japan...

Indeed! A flock of 10,000 paper cranes hangs over the stairs leading down to the study center – the response to a request for a few paper cranes from Japan. The 12-year-old girl Sadato, who folded 1,000 paper cranes for peace before she died in Hiroshima had a few cranes left over, and one of them is being sent to the Tribute Center. Before ducking downstairs, I note Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Into the Fire,” with its message:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love.

Did you ask Ielpi about the children in New York? How did they come to grips with the events of 9/11?

Children have been much neglected as adult society works through this wrenching ordeal, Ielpi told me. By shielding them with silence, children have been left with their own fears – that the world is coming to an end, when people jump from tall buildings to avoid the airplanes plunging into them, for example. One of the gift store offerings is a collection of art by children, entitled The Day the World Changed, assembled by New York University Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York.

Other events also took place in the world of arts. I remember reading about the way in which the New York Philharmonic played their part in healing the wounds of the city. During the International Arts and Reconciliation Festival at the University of Pretoria, Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem was used extensively as an instrument of healing. The same happened in New York, I was told.

It is not surprising that music was a source of solace almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The fall New York Philharmonic Orchestra season was poised to open the very next week. A huge gala regularly introduces each fall season as music lovers splurge in their finest attire to celebrate and toast the event. In 2001 it was quite subdued. But before that, behind the scenes, Joseph Flummerfelt, director of the N.Y. Choral Artists, was consulting with conductor Kurt Masur about an appropriate response to 9/11. Flummerfelt thought that a performance of Brahms’German Requiem would be ideal, and Masur agreed. It should be a benefit concert, they decided, not a part of the usual subscription series of concerts, free, but with donations.

Any performance of the Requiem is a massive undertaking, Joe told me. To assemble 80 professional singers and a full orchestra on very short notice (one week!) – and to ask them to contribute their time and talent for free, including a couple of rehearsals – seemed almost impossible. But his choral artists had performed the Brahms a year prior and were highly trained. Everyone seemed eager to participate, he recalled. Even in rehearsal the musicians performed with special commitment. They, too, were in shock, and the music was cathartic for them.

It must have been an unforgettable evening…

The night of the performance at Lincoln Center a week after the tragedy drew an overflow crowd, and the concert was also aired on the radio. About $300,000 was raised. The foremost gift, however, was to the audience. The President of the Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta, walked on the stage and requested that there be no applause. Conductor Kurt Masur entered in silence, the audience hushed. A magnificent, passionate, committed performance was followed by his slow lowering of hands and bowed head. He left the podium quietly. Then the orchestral players carefully carried off their instruments and the singers filed out. The audience, also in sacred silence, melted away into the night. Masur later called it a high point of his life, as does Flummerfelt.

“Blessed are those who mourn…who bear pain (says the German)…for they will be comforted.” This was a requiem for the living, solace for those who have been through the fires of suffering, who have endured, who have found their ground of being in a higher power. We know that we are mortal, our lives are as grass. We sense our limits, our mortality in a confusion of pain, loss, grief at the transience of those we love. Although Brahms uses passages of Scripture, he intends the work for all humanity, whatever their religious beliefs. Jesus is not named, and there is no traditional liturgical material. “As one whom his mother comforteth so will I comfort you.” “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house, for they will be still praising Thee.” The universal theology has patience, hope, intensity, peace. Joe Flummerfelt knew it was exactly the right music for the time.

Performing the German Requiem was not the only musical event. Some time after the Brahms Requiem, an American composer had his turn…

Indeed. A year later composer John Adams, commissioned by the N.Y. Philharmonic, produced another musical response to 9/11: “On the Transmigration of Souls.” Again, I turned to Joe Flummerfelt, who directed the choral singers in its debut performance with the Philharmonic on September 19, 2002, also at Lincoln Center. This time Lorin Maazel was the orchestra conductor of this 25-minute work. Joe agrees with David Schiff, who says in an April 2003 Atlantic Monthly article that this work sounds not random “but leads from the secular to sacred, to a vision of redemption, from chaos to carillon.” It begins with ordinary street sounds of the city, then quietly the word “missing” is heard mixing with those sounds and random names of the victims. Voices of quotations from posters put up to describe the lost (e.g. “She had a voice like an angel and she shared it in good times and bad”) are heard. “We miss you” becomes a call to remembrance. The orchestra erupts in cataclysmic sound, evolving into light – love – calm – peace. Time seems suspended, transfigured.

When the choruses, the orchestra, and the various sound tracks were put together in final rehearsal, the performers felt it was a powerful and significant response to 9/11, an important work, reports Joe Flummerfelt. John Adams’ piece has been performed many times since around the country, and it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The original performance with the Philharmonic won three Grammys – best classical recording, best orchestral performance, and best classical contemporary composition. Everyone apparently rose to the occasion, giving their best to this effort.

From what you are telling me, it is evident that the people of New York warmed to the music. Were the immediate victims and their families touched by the music as well?

Well, I too am wondering, after listening to this recording, how those who still grieve personal losses respond to this music. Surely it was almost impossible to bear at that very immediate performance—and I don’t know if any victim family members were present. As years pass, however, there may be some comfort in drawing other not personally involved listeners into such an evocative experience. When it is possible for any of us to move with confidence from chaos into calm and transfiguration regarding this devastating tragedy, I do not know. We can be grateful, however, that we are being drawn through music in that direction.

I am aware of the fact that many other artists, painters and filmmakers, touched upon the events of 9/11 in their work. Novelists, your own daughter Lionel Shriver among them, have followed suit. You yourself have contributed a series of poems commemorating the shattering experience. To conclude my interview, may I quote one of them, the poem titled “Balance Sheet”?

Gladly. I wrote the poem on September 20, 2001, in the days after 9/11. The poem is divided into a “balance sheet” of what we have lost and what we have found in light of 9/11. As I return to it seven years later, I wince particularly at finding “A sense that wrathful vengeance if not quenched/ Could turn us into those we vilify, An evil victory.” My Irish poet suggests that kind of “victory” is what we have.

Balance Sheet
(U.S.A. 9-11-01)

Clouds of smoke towering.
Vengefulness lowering.
Brave love empowering.
Holiness sorrowing.

What we have lost:

Our thousands dead and those that are to be,
As retribution takes its mutual toll
In feudal escalation.

Our carefree sense of life’s benignity
In freedom, weightless and invisible—
A daily moon-walk dance.

Yes, we have lost:

Our openness toward strangers without dread,
Anticipating welcome from the world,
Naïve, unqualified.

Unquestioned trust in our superior might
And in our way of life as safe and fair,
Our blessings justified.

Our nation’s cloak of virtue, long our pride,
Now threadbare held before harsh hatred’s light,
Our better deeds ignored.

Clouds of smoke towering.
Vengefulness lowering.
Brave love empowering.
Holiness sorrowing

What we have found:

A human bond of suffering and grief
As distant mourners share our anguished loss
And angry disbelief.

A sense that wrathful vengeance if not quenched
Could turn us into those we vilify,
An evil victory.

Yes, we have found:

A shared new global vulnerability
And, with our neighbors, more humility
In order to be strong.

A voice in utter comfort, care and love
Finding with surprise what matters most,
How little else held dear.

A hope that with Christ’s presence in our pain
With unity of courage, love and faith,
God’s future will prevail.