New York Stories: An Oral Historian Takes on 9/11

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In an age of 24-hour news coverage, personal memories can get lost in the noise. It's Mary Marshall Clark's job to turn off the TV and listen.

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Michael Keller

On September 12, 2001, Mary Marshall Clark started the day setting out for work -- and ended up beginning a job that has occupied her for the last 10 years. The city, she remembers, was eerily quiet for a place where people usually don't stop talking. "There was a strong feeling you had to keep going and not look -- not to think about it -- just keep going with your work," she says. Clark did both.

In the days following the World Trade Center attacks, Clark, one of the world's foremost oral historians, started an interview project analyzing the role September 11 played in New Yorkers' lives and how these New York stories differ from what 9/11 has come to mean in the national media. Ten years later, after thousands of hours of interviews and tens of thousands of pages of transcripts, Clark is beginning to understand what it all means.

9-11 Ten Years LaterClark is the director of the Columbia Center for Oral History, a single room on the eighth floor of Columbia University's main campus library. No elevator goes to the eighth floor; to get to it, you walk up two flights and follow a narrow white hallway lined with appointment-only study cubicles. On one side, you'll find a single door with a frosted glass window and a small placard identifying the office. 

This little-known office, whose interior Clark designed, is one open space with dark wood molding and glass half-wall dividers between desks -- meant to break down the office hierarchies and encourage conversation. The office's high ceilings and skylights fill it with light, illuminating books upon books that follow a wraparound walkway along the walls, like an antique library.

The September 11th Oral History Narrative and Memory Project set out to understand how the attacks affected the lives of everyday New Yorkers over three years following the attacks. After the attacks, Clark turned off her TV out of concern about her son viewing violent imagery. But as an oral historian -- a member of a profession that seeks to collect and preserve a diversity of voices -- removing the images on television was symbolic of what 10 years of analysis has led Clark to believe: September 11 has many meanings for New Yorkers, but media's version is far from the truth.

* * *

The outside of the Columbia library bears the classic names of antiquity ("Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes" etc). Clark points to one in particular as her profession's predecessor: the first historian Herodotus, who believed that a history of an event is incomplete until the historian has interviewed everyone involved. In an article recently accepted by the journal Radical History Review entitled "Herodotus Reconsidered," Clark argues this very point: that historians in general, not just oral historians, must take the plurality of voices into account since one event can mean many things for many people.

Whether such a personal form of storytelling should be considered on par with objective history, however, is debated. Social psychologists have shown in a number of studies that individuals' recollections of events are subject to distortions in memory, forgetting of events, and, most interestingly, group convergence. A series of studies in the 1950s known as the Asch Conformity Experiments showed how susceptible people were to external opinions even on simple tasks such as judging whether a given line was longer than another.

One of the seminal figures in the field, however, an Italian historian named Alessandro Portelli, defends the value of oral history. First, he points out that oral histories have a richness of emotion and memory, which provides historical context. Second, he debunks the notion that traditional history is itself free from subjectivities. Formal historical records such as police reports or court documents, he points out, inevitably stem from eyewitness or oral accounts. When they are written down they become "official" versions of events but are not necessarily any more reliable, Portelli argues. 

In oral history, you can understand "what people did, what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did," he writes. Or, as Clark paraphrases Sartre, the value is "not only in what happened, but in what people did with what happened."

While Clark was in the field training interviewers, reviewing transcripts, and trying to make sense of the diverse experiences she was hearing in the fall of 2001, another, simpler story was developing in the media. As often happens after historically important events, a mainstream view of September 11 was emerging: The attacks in New York and Washington were acts of war and, as such, required swift retaliation.

By contrast, for the majority of those who gave oral histories of September 11, the day largely wasn't about retaliation, "it was a deeply sad day," Clark says, one that gave people pause and time for mourning. According to Clark, sadness, survivor's guilt, and a sense of surrealism -- not anger -- were the predominant affects her team found in the collection. In the collection, Democrats and lifelong Republicans speak about their worry that the U.S. rushed to war too quickly and lamented that only more violence would most likely result. 

James Dobon, a paramedic who rescued scored of people Lower Manhattan that day is one example: "The one thing that's changed the most is, like, what's going on now in Iraq -- no, not Iraq, in Afghanistan, I'm sorry, in Afghanistan," he says. "Even after this happened and they started talking about retaliation, I'm more of a pacifist than ever. I said -- and I'm a Republican -- because what I saw that day, the devastation, I could not basically see us doing to other people. Life is too cheap then; it doesn't mean anything, and there's not reason for it."

But to get to this personal meaning of September 11 wasn't easy. Given the research on consensus memories, Clark knew that her interviews would have to be more complex to get at the personal experience people had on of September 11. To do this, she employed an interview technique known as the life-history approach that lets people start the oral history at any point in their life. 

The interviews, then, follow the narrators they thread a story through the most important moments in their lives until they make arrive at September 11, 2001, setting the events of that day against the rest of their lives. As such, the interviewees tell the events of his life at their own pace and within the narrative of their own lives rather than a hopping onto the pervasive mass-media narrative.

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Michael Keller is a journalist and producer for the New York World, an online and investigative startup reporting on state and city government. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post's Health and Business sections.

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