On the morning of September 11, 2001, a charming, ambitious young man named Bobby McIlvaine attended a conference in the World Trade Center. Like thousands of other Americans that day, he never came home. Two decades later, as the country marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, staff writer Jennifer Senior traces the fallout from her friend Bobby’s death, writing that she’s spent the years since watching “as everyone in the blast radius of this horrific event tried to make sense of it.” Her story, “Twenty Years Gone”—about love, grief, and one family’s struggle to move forward—is published online today, and on the cover of The Atlantic’s September issue.
Through interviews with his parents, his brother, his then-girlfriend, and his friends, Senior captures the magic of Bobby: a sensitive, Princeton-educated 26-year-old who once scored 16 points off Kobe Bryant in a high-school basketball game and who had just bought a ring to propose to his girlfriend, Jen. Senior details the moment his loved ones’ worst fears were confirmed in the days after the attacks—in the Lexington Avenue armory, where Rudy Giuliani consoled them—and describes how his family and friends shifted from praying together that Bobby was okay to processing the traumatic loss in different ways. Their grief pulled them apart and created unresolved tension about what really happened in the weeks and months after 9/11.
Bobby’s mother, Helen, buried her emotions, telling Senior that she bottled up the devastation from losing a child to avoid becoming the person her friends and neighbors pitied. Her husband and Bobby’s father, Bob Sr., instead dove into the world of September 11 deniers and conspiracy theorists. “The only thing I do is 9/11 stuff,” Bob Sr. tells Senior. “My whole basis of everything revolves around the day.” Senior untangles how Bob Sr.’s obsession affects the marriage, describing the dynamic between two people for whom 9/11 is a daily source of friction: “She’d come downstairs and tell him she was thinking about buying a new sweater; he’d reply by asking if she knew that the government had lied about the actual date of Osama bin Laden’s death.” While Helen doesn’t support Bob Sr.’s obsession with exposing the truth, and his unsolicited soliloquies, she tells Senior that long ago, she realized that “9/11 truth,” as Bob Sr. likes to call it, has sunk its hooks into her husband, and she’s never thought it her place to pry them loose. “I’m defending the person, not the view,” she tells Senior.
And Helen has had her own obsession for the past 20 years: Bobby’s final diary. Bobby spent years keeping diaries and legal pads, working out his thoughts on the page. In the days after Bobby’s death, the final diary and its contents became a breaking point between Jen and Helen. Jen was to be the McIlvaine’s daughter-in-law; today, Helen can’t so much as recall Jen’s last name. Through interviews with both women, Senior effects a striking, dramatic resolution in the battle over Bobby’s diary, unraveling the mysteries of Bobby’s final entries, and the origin of a phrase the family came to associate with Bobby and his death: Life loves on.
“Twenty Years Gone” is online at TheAtlantic.com today and on the cover of the September issue.