On September 11, 2001, Bobby McIlvaine was killed, along with nearly 3,000 other Americans. In the 20 years since, his parents and brother have searched for ways to live through, and with, their grief.
The writer Jennifer Senior’s brother was Bobby’s roommate when he died, and in the cover story for The Atlantic’s September issue, she visited with each member of the family to understand their personal journey through the aftermath of national tragedy.
“The McIlvaines very early on saw a grief counselor,” Senior tells The Experiment’s host, Julia Longoria, “who said to them: ‘Here’s how you have to think about this. You are all at the top of a mountain, and you all have a broken leg, and you all have to get down to the bottom of the mountain. But because you all have broken legs, you just have to take care of your own self and figure out how to get down.’” In this story, Senior explores how each family member dealt with their grief in very different ways. “But there might be a flaw in that metaphor too,” she says, “because, you know, some people never get down the mountain.”
This episode’s guests include the Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior and Helen McIlvaine, Bob McIlvaine Sr., and Jeff McIlvaine, the family of Bobby McIlvaine Jr.
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Alyssa Edes and Julia Longoria, with editing by Katherine Wells and Scott Stossel. Reporting by Jennifer Senior. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde.
Music by Water Feature (“Double Blessing I” and “Richard III (Duke of Gloucester)”), Naran Ratan (“Forevertime Journeys”), Keyboard (“Being There,” “Small Island,” and “Staying In”), Parish Council (“Heatherside Stores), Alecs Pierce (“Harbour Music, Parts I & II”), and H Hunt (“Journeys”), provided by Tasty Morsels. Additional music by Joe Plourde. Additional audio from C-SPAN.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(Rain rolls in, over the sound of birds calling. Some fluttering notes play. A siren passes. Then, quiet.)
Jeff McIlvaine: I mean, especially now, 20 years later, it’s so hard to kind of put into words what he was like.
(The music picks back up again, lilting but soft.)
Julia Longoria: Growing up outside Philadelphia, Jeff McIlvaine idolized his big brother, Bobby McIlvaine.
Jeff: In my head, he was the top person in the world.
Longoria: In the McIlvaine family, Bobby was kind of a wonder boy—a star athlete and a straight-A student. He went off to Princeton.
Jeff: For a lot of kids, that would probably be hard, when you have a brother who’s that successful. But I never felt that once. You know, he was just my friend. He was my brother.
Longoria: And when Bobby graduated from Princeton, he moved to New York City and got a job at Merrill Lynch. Jeff remembers one night 20 years ago when he traveled into the big city where his big brother lived.
Jeff: I had friends who got jobs in the city—
Jennifer Senior: Right.
Jeff: —and had apartments. So I was visiting them. I met them after work, and they were at Battery Park.
Longoria: And Jeff realized Bobby worked in the building above them, basically.
Jeff: So I called him. I was like, “Yo, we’re downstairs.” And I remember, like, he came down and he was, like, wearing a suit. And I was like, “Guys, I don’t know if he’s going to, like, hang with us.”
Him sitting down with my friends was, like, so exciting. So he, like, bought a beer, and he was like, “I’m just going to stay for one.” He, like, talked to my friends and stuff. And then he finished the beer, and then he was like, “Can I get another one?” because he was having a good time, you know? And that was great. But he was like, “I gotta go. Do you want to see my office?” And I was just like, “No.”
(The music takes a turn, quieter and ominous.)
Jeff: Because it’s—it—he wasn’t supposed to die the next day.
(A meandering melody begins to play.)
Longoria: Jeff is one of thousands of people who lost someone they love on September 11, 2001—20 years ago now. His big brother, Bobby McIlvaine, died that day, in New York City, at the age of 26.
Jeff: It haunts me, though, you know, to think like, Oh. He was, like, reaching out and saying, you know, “I want to show you my office.” And I was just like, “Nah.”
Senior: But what specifically about it haunts you, right? The—the …?
Jeff: Because, I mean, it was the last time I saw him.
Longoria: He told this story to Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior, who wrote about the McIlvaines for The Atlantic magazine.
(The hauntingly soft melody fades out ever so subtly.)
Longoria: How did this story come into your life?
Senior: Well, I mean, the most obvious way it came into my life is that I knew Bobby McIlvaine. He was my brother’s roommate in college. He was my brother’s roommate in New York City. When they were young men starting out, I would visit my brother at Princeton, and Bobby would be there, and he would just be [Pausing to find the right words.] ridiculously precocious and charming.
He wanted to be a writer, but one of the things that Bobby learned early in his life in publishing is that a lot of people in publishing came from upper-middle-class families. They had cushions of money beneath their toes. And Bobby’s family didn’t have that kind of money. And Bobby knew he wanted to make a living. And so he went into corporate PR after two years of being in book publishing.
Longoria: And that’s how Bobby ended up working for Merrill Lynch and going to a work conference on one of the top floors of the north building of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.
(Somber music plays, just a whisper under the narration.)
Helen McIlvaine: I went down, had coffee, and was going over my work.
Longoria: Like many Americans on that morning, Bobby’s mom, Helen, was starting her workday as a teacher.
Helen: And they had the TV set on in every classroom. And I … My knees buckled, and I—uh, I had to be helped.
Longoria: Bobby’s dad, Bob Sr.—also a teacher at the time—was also at work.
Bob: It was on TV. And I called Helen, and, of course, the first thing we tried to do is get ahold of Bobby. We kept calling. Now, the phone was ringing, but no answer.
Longoria: No one could reach Bobby: not his parents, his friends, his girlfriend, or his brother, Jeff.
Jeff: And I was like, Bobby just might’ve died. You know? [Emotion makes his voice quiver.] Like, he might’ve had to be running from that building. And that was just—ugh!
We all slept downstairs together. I slept on the couch, and my parents slept on the floor. And we just couldn’t—we had to be together.
Longoria: It took another full day before Jeff, Helen, and Bob Sr. were finally called down to the armory, where they were greeted by a police officer.
Helen: She just handed me this paper. And it had a list of people. But in highlighter was—
Senior: (In sympathy.) Oh!
Helen: —Bob McIlvaine: DOA.
Longoria: Dead on arrival.
Senior: There were only roughly 100 civilian bodies recovered from the World Trade Center. So it was, indeed, a sort of bittersweet miracle that they had one.
Helen: And I—I, uh—I looked up, and I said, “He’s dead.”
(An organ tone plays, a resonant drone under the retelling.)
Senior: On September 13, when it was confirmed that Bobby had died, everybody met at my parents’ house. And, um, when they showed up, Bob just started bawling. I mean, it was just this primal bawling. He had just come back from the morgue, and he said, “I tried to see Bobby’s body, but they wouldn’t let me.” And then he said, “His head …” and he couldn’t say anything more. He couldn’t—he just started bawling.
Bob: We really didn’t know how he died.
Longoria: And this question—what Bobby was doing when he died, and whether he suffered—would haunt the McIlvaines—Bob Sr. especially—for years.
Senior: The McIlvaines, very early on, saw a grief counselor who said to them, “Here’s how you have to think about this: You are all at the top of a mountain, and you all have a broken leg, and you all have to get down to the bottom of the mountain.”
Longoria: Bobby’s brother, Jeff, remembers this.
Jeff: They said, “Grief with someone is like being at the top of Mount Everest and you’re trying to get down.”
Senior: But because you all have broken legs?
Jeff: And you all have the same problem, but you can’t help each other.
Senior: You just have to take care of your own self and figure out how to get down.
Jeff: You’re on your own.
Senior: And you are all going to get down however you can. [A beat.] And it was a really helpful metaphor for the McIlvaines.
Bob: Because you learned that you grieve differently.
Senior: They had such dramatically different approaches to grief. Um, but there might be a flaw in that metaphor—because, you know, some people never get down the mountain.
Longoria: Right after Bobby died, Jeff, Helen, and Bob Sr. each had their own vision of what their trip down might look like.
Jeff: My thoughts were, I just want to get to the point where this isn’t in my face every day, constantly. And I just want to have a day when I wake up and this isn’t the first thing that I think about.
(The drone fades out.)
Helen: I’m looking for meaning and some hope because he couldn’t be gone.
Longoria: And for Bob Sr. especially, the mystery of how exactly his son died would stay with him, consume him, and set him on a path that he still travels down.
Bob: I talk about it all the time. My whole basis of everything revolves around the day.
(A resonant woodwind loops and reloops over the crackle of vinyl playing.)
Bob: To this day, I’m grieving. I want to know who killed him.
Longoria: This week, we follow three members of one family down the mountain of grief. The mountain was 9/11, an event experienced in some way by all of us Americans and millions around the world. But each member of this family still had to find their path down, alone, one by one. As we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, we tell the story of their journeys.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music ends.)
Longoria: So 20 years after the McIlvaines lost Bobby, Jennifer Senior sat down with each member of the family individually.
Senior: How many folders do you have there, Bob? My God! Is that about a dozen?
Senior: And how are they organized?
Longoria: We’ll start with Bob Sr., who’s been collecting information about 9/11 since the day Bobby died.
Senior: Oh my God. Look how much!
Bob: Well, I had two safes in here.
Senior: Okay, so I …
Senior: This catastrophic, unacceptable, unimaginable thing happened to Bob Sr. And what I wanted to know when I was sitting in that den with him is how does he wake up every day and process it? How does he think it through? How does he understand it? How does he manage to put one foot in front of the other?
Senior: He’s showing me a stack of papers in his—Good God! Look at that.
Bob: Yeah, I took those pictures on the 13th.
Senior: (Reading.) “Ground Zero, morning of the—September 13.” Look, it’s a—I have not seen the likes of these pictures since, it’s just …
Bob: Well there’s not many pictures like it, ’cause there wasn’t many people down there, takin’—
Senior: No! It’s a hellscape of twisted metal and just obscured by—
Bob: Well …
Senior: —just these toxic clouds.
Senior: In the early days, the Mcllvaines—the parents—they couldn’t get through the day. It was hard. And Bob Sr. became very involved in anti-war stuff.
Bob: To me, the fact that we were going to war— don’t care what happened; the war was the most asinine thing we could possibly do. So I guess that’s how I grieved. I became very active.
Senior: Protest politics gave him something to do. It was a way for him to grieve, a way for him to channel all of his rage and all of his frustration and all of his sorrow. And then what happened was that, eventually, he became very interested in the 9/11 Commission hearings. In 2004, he went down and he listened to all the testimony in Congress.
Lee H. Hamilton: Then we will have to provide a full and complete accounting of the events of 9/11.
Bob: I traveled down to Washington every day, hoping I’d get something out of that. I was hoping I would get answers. That’s the only reason I flew down there: to get answers. What in the world happened?
Condoleezza Rice: If anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been information about threats inside the United States …
Senior: He listened to Condoleezza Rice testify before Congress about what the 9/11 Commission had found.
Richard Ben-Veniste: Did you tell the president at any time prior to August 6 of the existence of al-Qaeda cells in the United States?
Rice: Uh, first, let me just make certain …
Ben-Veniste: If you could just answer that question—
Rice: Well, first …
Ben-Veniste: —because I only have a very limited time.
Rice: I understand, Commissioner, but it’s important—
Ben-Veniste: Did you tell the president?
Rice: —that I also address … (The gallery applauds.)
Bob: Condoleezza Rice was so bad. It was like a filibuster. She wasn’t giving us any information.
Senior: What was the question she wasn’t answering?
Bob: Every question. She would just ramble on.
Senior: He thought it was weird that we went to war. You know, I mean, “Why Iraq?” which was a reasonable question. And he thought that she was just hiding something. He thought she wasn’t telling them the full truth. And it made him furious.
Bob: I went nuts afterwards. I just walked out, and I just said, “This is fucking hell. This is—the whole story is a rotten egg. It is false.”
Senior: And I think that’s really where he broke off from all of the anti-war folks. He really became much more radicalized after that.
Bob: I became very militant, and ’til this day, I’m very militant. You know, I want to know what the true story is. And, of course, at the beginning, I didn’t know anything.
Senior: And, you know, the internet was building and building and building at that time. There was more and more and more rabbit holes to go down if you wanted to, more things to research. And he became a detective.
Bob: You had to say, “Why 9/11?” And that’s a big question for anyone.
Senior: Why 9/11? What do you mean?
Bob: Well, I believe the government did it.
Senior: He just decided that the whole thing was an inside job.
Bob: Bobby died, you know?
Senior: What means the most to you, of this stuff around you?
Bob: That he was murdered. That’s the only thing that matters to me.
Senior: So Bob Sr. believed that the government wasn’t telling him the truth about how or why.
Bob: I was hoping to get answers, and I got no answers. So whose job is it, then? I figured, “well, then it’s my job.
Senior: And, weirdly, one of the things that triggered his suspicions was finally seeing the New York City medical examiner’s report. When Bobby died, Bob Sr. hadn’t seen the body.
Bob: I remember going to the morgue. She said, “I strongly recommend you don’t see the body.”
Senior: And so he never did. And he always felt terrible about it.
Bob: ’Cause I felt so guilty that I didn’t do it.
Senior: He was laying the blame on himself, saying that it was his own weakness for not having insisted.
Bob: Still regret it, though.
Senior: So around 2005—somewhere around there, could have been 2006, 2007, I don’t know—but, at some point, Bob Sr. decided that he was ready to look at that report.
Bob: You can see the nature of the injuries.
(A beep plays to indicate an aside: a content warning.)
Longoria: Just a warning here—especially if you have young kids in the room—this description is disturbing. So skip ahead about 40 seconds if you need to.
Senior: Bob got the medical examiner’s report. And what he discovered was that Bobby’s head had mainly been blown off. A little bit of the back of his head was intact. His right arm was missing. So now we know, of course, why the medical examiner didn’t want him to see him.
Bob: You know, if you look at the body—they gave me an outline of what his injuries were [Papers rustling.]—if he was hit in the back, to have that kind of injury to head, well, of course, the injury’d be back here.
(A whirring music plays lightly in the background.)
Senior: I think all of us thought that the way Bobby died was that he had either been running away from the site and was hit in the head, or that he was just standing and watching as all of this horrible stuff was unfolding and got hit in the head. And the reason we thought this—there were two reasons for this. No. 1: His body was recovered. And that, in and of itself, was very unusual. If he had been trapped at Windows on the World, he would have incinerated instantly, right, with all the people up there. So that’s reason No. 1.
And reason No. 2 is that, on September 13, a New York City detective actually told Bob Sr. that Bobby’s body had been recovered on the periphery of the site. And the periphery suggests he was almost back at Merrill Lynch.
Bob: The multiple lacerations in the chest, you know? Well, arm—arm could go off anywhere. But the thing is, he wouldn’t be running away from the building.
Senior: He concluded that if Bobby had been running away from the building, Bobby would have fallen forward.
Bob: This is where I—you know, my whole thesis, everything I jump into now, is based upon his injuries.
Senior: And from this, Bob concluded that there must’ve been some explosion in the building that blew him backward.
Bob: Bobby died from a detonation in the lobby before the plane hit. I don’t think he ever knew the planes hit. He didn’t get a chance to run.
Senior: I—I cannot actually speak with any kind of confidence about what made Bob Sr. look at the medical examiner’s report and conclude, based on what he saw, that Bobby must’ve died from an explosion. A medical examiner who I spoke to didn’t seem to think that there was anything inconsistent about a very different hypothesis, which is that burning debris could have fallen and done this to him.
(Music fades out.)
Senior: How do you make the distinction between the work that you’re doing and other things that are labeled conspiracy theories?
Bob: Well, that’s why I spent so much time reading history. Because, if you make comparisons, to kill 3,000 people is absolutely nothing to empire.
Senior: So this has become Bob’s mission. He is now evangelical about spreading the word about American abuses of empire. He thinks that 9/11 was an inside job, and it wasn’t to justify the war in Iraq, but it was, in point of fact, to destroy FBI offices that were located inside the World Trade Center. I mean, it’s a very elaborate kind of idea that he has about how they were investigating the American use of Japanese gold that we had secretly requisitioned during World War II, and were using to destabilize the Soviet Union. I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. The FBI, as far as I can tell, didn’t have an office in the Twin Towers. But there are people who take him and this theory quite seriously.
Bob: Because I speak out so much, the word just spreads. The Russians came over. They—they spent two days here. They wanted to hear what I had to say. France came here, stayed a few days to talk.
Senior: And he has been invited to speak all over the world at conferences about terrorism.
Bob: I traveled down to Colombia, Italy, Japan, you know—stayed at Fort Benning once.
Senior: I think he believes that it’s a way of converting his grief into purpose.
Bob: You know, I like being angry
Senior: Why do you like being angry?
Bob: Because I want people in the world to know who killed my son.
Senior: What do you get out of this? What—?
Bob: A better world.
Senior: A better world.
Bob: I mean, I think about it every day.
(Lilting, jolting music plays.)
Senior: This is a very hard question to ask, but do—are you ever afraid of not remembering him?
Bob: Not remembering him? No.
Senior: Of losing the vividness of who he was?
Bob: Well, I—I do what I’m doing. I’m sure that’s really helped me, because I think of him every day. So I’ve had the opportunity to do that for at least 20 years. I don’t want to get away from it.
Senior: You don’t want to get away from it.
Bob: ’Cause I want the truth to come out. So I keep it alive.
Senior: You keep the grief alive.
Bob: Yeah. Of course I do. I keep 9/11 alive.
Helen: He’s still—You can feel it in him: He’s revved up, and he wants you to believe it, and he’s got a campaign going. And that’s as far away from where I am as possible.
Senior: Bob’s wife, Helen, is in no way interested in investigating their son’s death the way that Bob is. She once, in fact, told me she would walk across the country not to learn all the things that Bob has discovered.
Helen: Yeah. Oh my gosh, I would have! And farther, and then come back again! And then … [Both laugh.] I would do anything not to have to ever see visually or in my head …
Senior: But what she does share with Bob Sr. is this profound experience of losing their firstborn.
Helen: I can’t say anything bad, because he and I are the only two people who know exactly what it’s like to be Bobby’s parents and to have him die. Nobody else. So I know exactly how he feels.
I think if he decided to be a male stripper in an old people’s home, it’s okay. He has to be who he has to be, ’cause, damn it, this happened. You know? And if—if that’s going to [Laughs.] give him comfort … Get that visualization out of your head! (Both laugh.)
Longoria: While Bob Sr. traveled the world, thinking every day about his son’s death, his wife, Helen, and son Jeff were making their own individual ways down the mountain. How, after the break.
(A moment of music, and then the break.)
(A rewinding cacophony plays before melting into a softer, more somber soundscape.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And we’re back with the story of the unclimbable mountain that was September 11—how the McIlvaine family tried to live life after they lost their oldest son, Bobby.
Helen: He loved Oreos and pizza. And he always had Oreo in his braces. And he, uh he thought he could dance, but he couldn’t. (Laughs.)
Senior: So I sat down with Helen to find out how she was processing her grief and how she was getting down this so-called mountain. And she had a very different relationship with Bobby than the one that his father had. They talked politics and progressive politics. But Helen and Bobby were just thick as thieves. They talked about everything.
Helen: I think he probably shared more than most people would believe.
Senior: Relationships, family, girls. And he could just go on and on and on in a way that would make her roll her eyes.
Helen: I said, “Hold it, Bobby, you have to understand. I’ve been married for almost 30 years, and I haven’t given this much thought to your father [Laughs.] and—and we’re still married.“ (Both laugh.)
Senior: Bobby loved to talk about his feelings and loved to go shopping with Helen.
Helen: He sent me this birthday card, and it really probably would be more appropriate from a girl, but I love—love it a lot.
Senior: Okay, I’m gonna read it.
“Happy birthday to the wise woman who taught me that the best things in life are half-price. [Senior laughs uproariously.] Happy birthday to the mother who taught me how to shop and also much, much more. Love, Bobby.“
Oh my God. That’s hilarious! (Both laugh.)
Helen: Isn’t that sweet?
Senior: And she loved it. She could talk on the phone for forever with him.
Helen: Sometimes I almost pretend [A beat.] that he’s just up in New York.
(A gentle, sonically diaphanous mixture of horns and high marimba notes wafts in.)
Senior: Helen was very different from her husband, who is externalizing his grief. She was really internalizing it. And the way that she would privately contend with it was she would read.
Helen: I just immersed myself in—in all these … (Fades under.)
Senior: She would buy all of these kind of self-help books and spiritual books .
Helen: And I’m looking for meaning.
Senior: I think what she was trying to figure out is if what she had been taught in her Catholic upbringing was true. Was his spirit living on in some way?
Helen: I was looking for Bobby in those books.
Senior: And trying to deal with her grief on her own.
Helen: And it’s all I could think of to do, because he couldn’t be gone.
Senior: And she really tried.
(The music disappears.)
Helen: I would say to you, “Oh, I’m just fine.” I absolutely did not want to be a victim. I could not take that role.
I—I just held it in and—and pretended that, if I put this aside and stick it somewhere, I can get through whatever social event that I’m stuck at having to do. I didn’t want to be the mopey one in the corner.
Senior: Or pitied! You didn’t want to be pitied.
Helen: Yeah. Yeah! Uh-huh.
Senior: Because feeling people’s pity is the worst.
Helen: It is. It sucks!
Senior: Bob feeds his grief. And in the beginning, Helen starved hers. Her aim was to give it as little oxygen as possible so that it was this teeny, tiny flame that she would only allow to kind of billow up when she was with the six other women in her quote-unquote “limping group,” who had also lost children—not in 9/11, but had lost kids.
Helen: Well, I felt safe with them.
Senior: But talking to anyone else about Bobby felt awkward. Those conversations wound up being about them somehow.
Helen: I could see people, like zombies, ready to come over—[Imitating a zombie.] “Ughh”—you know, about … I said, “No. No. Please don’t.”
Senior: She didn’t want to have anybody accidentally say the wrong, misguided, harsh thing to her.
Helen: This person—and I don’t want to name who they were, ’cause I love this girl very much—she said to me, “You know, when I worry about the kids and they’re not doing well, I think about you and what you lost. And then I feel better.” Maybe she didn’t add “Then I feel better,” but she implied that she felt better. And I thought, Oh God. See what I mean? I’m going to be the poster child for, uh, let’s say it, “At least I’m not Helen!” [Laughs.] “This all … But at least I’m not Helen!”
Senior: They were constantly saying the wrong thing, even though they didn’t mean to.
Helen: And “no mother should lose her son.” Really? (Chuckles dryly.)
Senior: Why were you so hell-bent on not being the victim?
Helen: Because no one else was the victim. If—if this were a war and a lot of people died, I could be one of those people that lost somebody. But this was so bizarre in Philadelphia. It wasn’t New York. And I just didn’t want to be the one who lost a child on 9/11.
Senior: She still felt these huge stores and just surges of anger.
Helen: I became, as I’m trying to not be this victim, I found myself petty, bickering, and, um, things that I really didn’t like about myself.
Senior: She was stuck. She was fermenting in her own anger. She wanted to find a way to lead a better, richer, less angry, less bitter life.
Helen: It was not serving me well.
Senior: Somewhere around the 10-year mark, she just had some kind of epiphany. She realized, “This is untenable.”
Helen: Yes. I wanted to talk about it sometimes
Senior: “I can’t keep leading my life this way.”
Helen: And I—I had to find other means to do it, because I kind of shut that door.
Senior: She wanted to talk, and no one was asking. She had, like, done such a successful job of deflecting that she was suddenly in a cul-de-sac of kind of her own making. There were no outlets.
Helen: You know, it’s that feeling of that frustration. You know, frustration is probably the worst feeling sometimes. Sadness is bad, but frustration is like—you want to get at something you can’t.
Senior: What changed?
Helen: It was, uh, working with somebody who was incredibly spiritual.
Senior: Helen went to see a new therapist and she says this was the big turning point for her.
Helen: I just noticed when I was with her, that it was so easy to talk to her. And she’ll go in any direction, and we always end up talking about Bobby.
Senior: She got great comfort from the idea that Bobby’s spirit could still be rattling about somewhere.
Helen: I think that the best story is that he might be some piece of heaven, and he just came down and became human for a bit, and he just did us a little favor. I don’t know. That—that touches me. I mean, if a Catholic reads this, they’re going to say, “She thinks she’s—she’s the mother of Jesus!” (Laughs.)
Senior: He’s, uh, he’s been heaven-sent.
Helen: And I don’t need to make that “I’m not a victim” statement anymore, you know? It’s been 20 years. If you want to call me the lady that lost a kid, [Laughs.] it’s okay.
(Mechanical flute-like music reverberates over a lightly distorted siren, ticktocking back and forth, cavernously empty but simultaneously full of breath and air.)
Senior: So I think if we’re going back to the mountain metaphor—it’s an imperfect metaphor, but if we are going to indulge it—I think, for Helen, there are times she’s definitely down the mountain, but times she’s very open about being right back up at the top again, feeling depressed and at a loss. We know that Bob McIlvaine almost chooses to stay at the top, although he comes down from time to time. But if there was any hope of them getting down, they were really going to have to follow Jeff.
(The music slowly fades out as Jeff speaks.)
Jeff: I was alone in this—not totally, but my parents were in a similar situation. They were both parents. They had each other. I was 22 years old, about to start my life, and I remember feeling like [Choking up.]—I felt a responsibility to not die.
Senior: So Bobby died when Jeff was so young that Jeff, who is very self-deprecating and who you could mistake for being just kind of an average Joe, because that’s how he likes to present himself, he’s not. He is so psychologically astute and so perceptive—ridiculously so—and very funny. So wise. He told me that the day he found out that his brother died, he made a conscious decision that he had to lead a rich and full and rewarding life.
Jeff: I remember thinking that, like, on the first day: I can’t let this ruin me. ’Cause then what would he think? You know? Imagine if he knew that my parents and my brother never were able to recover from that. How bad that would make him feel, you know?
Senior: It was almost a promise he made to Bobby in his head, that he was going to lead this beautiful, fulfilling life.
Jeff: Throughout this whole process, I said that the only person I can really talk to about this is Bobby, and he’s dead.
Senior: But how can you make good on that promise when you are grieving this tragedy that the nation and the media will never let you forget?
Jeff: Bobby dying on—on September 11, you couldn’t get, like, a bigger version of death, you know? And I think it slowed a lot of things. It was an extended period of shock because there were times where, if you sat here and had me talk, I wouldn’t cry. I just couldn’t do it, because I think my brain, and from what I’ve understood—I’ve read a lot about it and talked to the therapists and—your brain can only handle so much. So I would just not be able to access these feelings. So, like, people would ask me, “How are you doing?” And I’m like, “I feel like I’m doing fine.”
Senior: The problem is that everyone was traumatized by September 11.
Jeff: My biggest pet peeve—and people still do this to this day—is, you tell them about your brother. And then they tell you the story about their experience with September 11. And then they go, “We were worried. And we couldn’t get ahold of my one son, and everybody in that—and then we got ahold of him and he was fine.” And you’re like, “Thanks. [Both laugh.] Our experience was a little bit different!” I appreciate, but, like, I don’t understand why they think I’m going to go, “Thank you for sharing that with me.” [Senior bursts into laughter.] They wanted to be a part of it. And that was part of the whole thing where I, like, started keeping people away.
(Piano music, searching and full, wistful and distant.)
Senior: I think he just learned to not talk about it. And he learned to stifle his grief, a lot like Helen. And the only ways that he could really feel his grief in the beginning were, if he drank, it was easier to sort of disinhibit himself.
Jeff: And I remember talking to my therapist about this. I was like, “I—sometimes I get drunk just so I—It takes away those barriers.”
Jeff: I tried to—to get ahold of these feelings, but it’s like, you can’t—it doesn’t let you.
Senior: But drinking is a young man’s strategy. It’s obviously not going to serve you well as you get older. And Jeff got older. And he became more mature, and he met a terrific woman.
Jeff: And that’s where my wife came in. [Talking through tears.] I mean, you know, I don’t think it would have gone as well if I didn’t meet her. I think I would have been pretty destructive, you know? She was one of the only people that didn’t seem like she was trying to use it or something. And she wasn’t afraid of it. But I would’ve just been drowning in my own thoughts constantly. And she was there to just say, “I’m here, and all of your pain is okay. It’s not …” And she also allowed for me to think about someone else. She was my being-able-to-feel-normal. And she’s—I’ll never forget that she did that for me.
Senior: And I should say, he really appreciates what his father did too.
(The music fades out.)
Jeff: I started going down the path that my dad is going down, but I can’t—I can’t do it. I get so freaking angry. I don’t have that sense of vengeance for justice that he does.
Senior: Right. Right.
Jeff: I don’t think anybody’s ever going to be held accountable for it.
Senior: He couldn’t take that path. Like, that path for him just required too much emotional bandwidth. It required, kind of, emotional stamina that he just didn’t have.
Jeff: I also know that I can’t live a happy life if I’m delving into it.
Senior: You know what the recipe is for having a happy life, if you’re Jeff McIlvaine? You have four children.
Jeff: I was so happy when I started having kids and being able to focus on them. And I think, you know, family is, uh … When you go through something like this, you—you just realize it’s, like, the only thing.
Senior: He had four kids and the oldest is a boy, and they named him Bobby. And they talk about Uncle Bobby regularly. He’s just a big part of their lives.
Jeff: You know, when—when he died, it’s, like, a very selfish time, I think, when someone dies that’s, like, that close to you. Because you’re not like, I feel bad for them that they died. You’re thinking, I feel bad for myself that—that I don’t have them anymore. But as time goes on, I’ve been living 20 years without him, so I’m used to it. But I feel really bad for him. I feel really bad that he didn’t get to live his life.
He got robbed of so much stuff, you know? Like, I have four kids. Like, he never got to do any of that, you know? He never got to meet any of them. He barely lived! Where that—that … You couldn’t have—you can’t have that feeling when it first happens. ’Cause you’re just … The loss hurt so much.
(A deep piano melody, heavy but moving with momentum and emotion, plays.)
Jeff: It sounds faux pas to say it, but if my brother didn’t die, I can’t imagine that I would be as appreciative of my life as I would be if he hadn’t died.
Now, I, of course, I wouldn’t choose … You know what I mean? (Laughs.)
Jeff: But—but this is the way it is. You know what I mean? There isn’t … it’s not a choice. He died. And I can honestly say today that I’m happy that I had Bobby as my brother more than I’m sad that he’s gone. And that’s a very hard process to get to. And thinking back to those early days, that’s all I wanted to get to.
(A long moment of the music, resonating as if in a long, empty room.)
Senior: Having a family was very healing for Jeff. It helped him a lot. I think, for Helen, what was most healing was recognizing that she was in pain and that she couldn’t fix it on her own and delving into the spiritual. Bob Sr. is the person who I thought may just sort of inhabit his grief forever, and that that might be his life strategy. But when I talked with him back in April, he said something that just floored me.
(The piano slowly fades out.)
Senior: Do you ever feel like, um, [A beat.] it’s too much of a preoccupation, maybe not for you, but for the people around you?
Bob: Yep. All the time. This might be my last year.
Senior: I’m sorry?
Bob: This could be my last year.
Senior: This could be? Because of that.
Jennifer: You think that it has gotten in the way—how has it gotten in the way?
Bob: My anger. I’m sick of being angry.
Senior: You’re sick of living with it yourself?
(Solitary synthesizer notes play in a void.)
Senior: I am still, to be honest, not sure that Bob will give up his grief. I think that he has lots of compelling reasons to stay with it. But here is, truly, what I learned from the McIlvaines about grief. There’s nothing logical or sequential about it. It’s totally untidy, it’s idiosyncratic—and I know we've been using this mountain metaphor this entire time, but I think that there’s something that’s oppressive about the metaphor. It suggests that grief is, like, something that one can do well or one can do poorly and you can either get down the mountain and achieve your task, or you’re a failure and you’re bad at grieving.
And it’s a bit of a tyranny to tell someone that they have to get over, or past, or through, or around, or down their grief! Some people never do. Or, the way that they grieve will really surprise you.
Jeff: I feel like I got, like, 10 percent better every year on September 11. I mean, that’s how important those times were.
(The music fades out.)
Senior: The conventional wisdom is that as the anniversary of a death approaches, people become more depressed, right? That with this change in the season, people get more melancholy. That is not the case for Jeff McIlvaine. He gets less and less blue as September 11 approaches. And every year, he goes to New York, and he meets up with my brother and some of Bobby’s oldest friends.
Jeff: I would cry, and we were talkin’ up Bob, and then I would cry more, and then we would—we would all [Laughs.] just be drunk and, you know, just crying and … but laughing.
Senior: To the extent that, like, relief and happiness are the same, there’s something about that, when he goes to Ground Zero and he can just allow himself to fully experience it—the loss.
Jeff: It was like necessary. I would be giddy, like, with excitement to go out and see everybody, because I think everybody was experiencing the same thing. That these were the only people that we could really get everything out and share and talk and—you know what I mean?—and feel totally comfortable with it.
Senior: It’s like seeing your … (Indistinct.)
Jeff: It was, like, my favorite days of my life in the past 20 years., have been—you know, aside from my kids and stuff. But, it was, like, um, [A beat.] if you were, like, in jail or something, and then one day a year, you’re allowed out, and you can go do whatever you want. That’s what it felt like. It felt like I was—I get to go, I get to get out of this, like, just constant feeling of … Like, this is pressing down on me, and I get to just be relieved for a night.
(A ringing, a humming, a guitar playing notes, a peal of a bell, a blanket of sound.)
Longoria: This week marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 9/11, the national news event. 9/11, the terrorist attack. 9/11, the source of conspiracy and mistrust. 9/11, the beginning of a series of wars. 9/11, the day Bobby McIlvaine died at the age of 26.
Senior: I think Jeff and his family are really looking forward to this 20th anniversary, honestly. At the memorial this year, friends and family will be reading—as they always do, every year—the names of the almost 3,000 dead. And this year Jeff’s son Bobby McIlvaine, he’ll be among the readers. And I don’t know how many names he’s going to be reading, but I know that the last name he will say will be “And my uncle, Robert George McIlvaine.”
(A breath of music before the credits.)
Gabrielle Berbey: This episode was produced by Alyssa Edes, with help from Julia Longoria. Reporting by Jennifer Senior. Editing by Katherine Wells and Scott Stossel.
Fact-check by Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde.
Music by Tasty Morsels, and additional music also by Joe Plourde.
Our team also includes Natalia Ramirez, Tracie Hunte, Peter Bresnan, Emily Botein, and me, Gabrielle Berbey.
And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or whatever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The sounds dissolve into a series of sustained notes that fade out, slowly but surely, as the episode ends.)