‘These people all looked within themselves’

Elaine Kasket, Counselling Psychologist and author, meets Bjørn Johnson: co-director of Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11; and Jane Harris, a close supporter of the Memory Box project.

In the aftermath of 9/11, artist Ruth Sergel constructed a simple plywood video box in New York City. Hundreds of people – survivors, witnesses, emergency responders, bereaved family, and friends of the lost – entered to tell their stories.

In the 20th anniversary year of the attacks, filmmakers Bjørn Johnson and David Belton released Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11. Rather than being yet another factual or sensationalist rundown of that day’s tragic and terrifying events, their film weaves its narrative from extraordinarily intimate threads of experience. Interposed with the standard news-archive material are carefully selected excerpts from Sergel’s original video-box recordings and new video from a reconstructed ‘memory box’. The result is a poignant meditation on unimaginable loss and a portrait of post-traumatic growth, and I spoke with Bjørn about it.

Why 9/11?

I’d never really experienced grief until shortly before 9/11, at the age of 21, when I lost my mother unexpectedly. She’d gone to a hospital appointment on Friday, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and was gone by Sunday. Understanding at such a young age that life can change in an instant, that someone who’d been this bubbly, constant person in your life can just be gone – that hit me hard. 

When 9/11 happened, it struck a chord with me. Across the Atlantic, thousands of people were feeling the same things I was feeling, and there was a kinship there. But our family struggled for years. My dad closed up, and I closed up too – I think I always suppressed it.

Years later, my wife would ask why I was watching videos of 9/11. I didn’t really know. I just had the feeling I wanted to tell the story of 9/11. But it’s probably the most well-documented event in human history, so how could I make a film that had anything unique to say in that space? I held onto the idea that if I could capture what I felt, and what people felt at the time, maybe that would be a route in that was unique, personal, and genuine. About 16 years after Mum’s death, I found Ruth’s project. 

One of the first things you hear in the film is someone giving instructions to a person entering the video booth: ‘When you’re ready, push go’. Then there’s a series of people settling in to confront this freedom to do whatever they feel ready to do. They have to start somewhere. There’s a camera, but no other person, no expectation. They’re literally in a plywood box.

You’d think it’s very easy to go in and press the button in a wooden box, but I don’t think it is. It takes incredible courage and bravery to face all those things… it’s so easy, in the face of extreme grief, to suppress it. When there wasn’t a director saying, ‘I’m going to ask you this question, and you give me an answer,’ people had to look much, much deeper and process feelings and emotions, anger and shock. That’s what Ruth’s project did and why it’s so remarkable. It speaks not just to 9/11, but to grief and trauma on a much broader scale.  

The first video I watched from Ruth’s collection was an African-American police officer called Michael Westcott. He was witness to the whole thing and lost colleagues, and he went into this booth mere months after it happened, confronting his feelings and having the bravery to speak out. I remember being incredibly moved by his video, because what struck me was that he was doing something I couldn’t do at the time. It made me realise that in 16 years, I had never done that. As a victim of sudden loss, it was incredibly cathartic process to make this film. 

I’ve come out the other end of it feeling like I have processed it and confronted it. I didn’t have a wooden box like these people, but I could see the benefit they were getting from speaking. So I went and had my own sessions, found a lovely therapist. I’d never done it before, and it took me a few sessions to get warmed up, but all these things came out. Everyone is different. It’s so individual, how you process grief. I think people put time pressures on themselves – it’s been a year, or it’s been two years, you should be over it by now. And that’s not necessarily true.

There’s no timeline. Many years out from your own loss of your mother, you had an experience that was so valuable to you, not just through making of the film, but also through doing your personal therapeutic work.

I was thinking about the ways stories are shaped in documentaries. People criticise projects like Making a Murderer, for example, saying the agenda of the filmmakers infects or distorts the story. But in Memory Box you left this space, honoured people’s stories. There’s an archival news clip in your film, of a reporter trying to stop people in the street for an interview. His clothes and skin and equipment are clean – he must have been in a van or building. The people coming towards him are silent and covered in ash, and he’s shoving the microphone in their faces, saying, ‘Can you tell me what you saw?’ He’s not considering their experience – he’s only using them as conduits to his story. What you’re doing with Memory Box feels quite different. 

David [Belton] and I are both seasoned filmmakers, and you spend your career constructing narratives – it’s what we do. In many ways, Memory Box was counterintuitive. These videos were never intended to be edited. When we built the trust up with Ruth, the original artist who created the project, she was naturally very concerned that we’d do something sensationalist with this material. Every step of the way, we had to reassure her this wasn’t our intention. 

We always had the mindset that we wanted to step back as filmmakers. If there was ever a moment in the film where you’d feel the filmmaker’s hands, or something felt contrived or manufactured, then we would step back. We would go, no, it’s Mary’s moment. It’s Donald’s moment. It’s Daisy’s moment, this is what she’s saying. The images that we choose to reflect that should contextualise rather than sensationalise. 

So that was always a huge mantra for us throughout the whole process. And I think for the most part, we were successful. I hope their words come across. We had to make choices along the way, and that can’t be helped. But I think we built a strong cast of characters who have a lot of things to say, not just about grief, but about trauma itself, in all its guises. Donald Byrd, for example, the choreographer.

I loved him, and I loved the visuals of the dance he created from what he witnessed at the towers.

Donald didn’t lose anyone, but his trauma was real. It’s traumatic to bear witness to something so horrific. It’s not on TV, you don’t have that filter in front of you. It’s there. The way he channelled his trauma into dance was amazing. He took his life’s passion and his skillset, and he used it for good. That experience didn’t just heal him in the moment but became the framework for his entire career since. It’s remarkable.

These people all had support networks in place to some extent or another, but they all looked within themselves. I found it fascinating, the resources they pulled on. Mary lost her brother in the north tower, Charlie, and she turned to the work she does with vulnerable kids, and they found hope and solace in each other. Donald did it through the dance, Daisy through her activism. They all drew on their own experiences, their own passions in life to get through their traumatic event.

It took me 20 years and making a film to do it, but I came out the other end a different person. I don’t want to say a more grounded person, but I feel in a different space. I’ve talked more about mum in the past year than I had in the previous 19, and that was through the process of making this film and confronting my grief. And it was lots of emotions mixed up. It’s totally irrational, but there was a lot of anger that was there. It’s not her fault that my mum got ill, of course not, but I got angry that we went to see the doctor so late and, you know, surely you were feeling poorly before we went in, and that’s not fair. She must have been terrified. 

You’ve made space for a lot of emotions instead of suppressing them, and it sounds like it’s been important for you to be able to do that. 

It’s been incredibly important for me. Ultimately what I hope the film does is act as an inspiration to people. A friend who’d lost his sister recently watched the film and didn’t go into details of why but said it really helped. That was so lovely to hear because that’s what [David Belton and I] both wanted. 

That was the whole purpose of bringing the people back to the booth 20 years later, to see how they’ve moved on with their life and to inspire hope. Grief is a terrible thing, and everyone processes it differently, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s being patient, and it’s not feeling guilty. It’s okay to move on and feel happy in your life and find joy in other aspects. That’s not a betrayal to the people you’ve lost. 

I think Lisa says it in the film. It’s about understanding you can have these feelings. You can feel the grief and sorrow for your loss, but you can find happiness too. And it’s just finding a balance between those two things.

It’s one thing to read that in an article or have somebody say it to you, whether it’s a friend or a professional, but to be able to show it and demonstrate it, in the way that you’ve arranged the different voices and stories, it has a different impact. It’s such a tricky business to simultaneously serve as a container while also getting out of the way. I think that’s what both the film and Ruth’s original project have done, and perhaps what therapy does as well. 

We had to retain the essence of the box. If we’d lost that, if we’d manipulated it too much, we would’ve gone too far. So we always reined ourselves in. Just like Ruth did in her original project, we had to give space for these people. A respectful space. And I think we did that.

- Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11 is available in the UK on Sky Documentaries. For more information, see www.yard44.com. 

 

How is it possible to go on living – and even thriving – after an unimaginable loss? How do we use the arts, and our individual creativity, to navigate through and grow from collective and personal trauma? What can it mean to have a space without judgment or interference, to process what we’ve experienced however we want and however we need? 

I delved further into the themes raised by Memory Box with Jane Harris, a therapist, bereaved parent, co-founder of The Good Grief Project, film-maker (A Love that Never Dies and Beyond the Mask), and a close supporter of the Memory Box project.

Jane: I'm Jane Harris, co-founder of the Good Grief Project. I'm a therapist and I'm also a bereaved parent. I wear the three hats.

When Josh died in 2011, my life changed in the blink of an eye. I began to walk a different path, which you do after trauma. I use the word trauma because I think you can't be a bereaved parent and not be traumatised. It's in the wrong order of things, to lose your child – no, to experience the death of your child, I didn't lose him. I like to try and normalise the language around grief and loss.

Jimmy, my husband, Josh's dad, is a photographer and we'd met at film school way back… we'd always made films together. And the first realisation was that we were going to have to carry on doing what we'd always done. To survive the death of our son, being active and being creative was going to be part of our process. That is what led us to create the Good Grief Project, because that is about creating a more comfortable language around grief. It's about looking at how being active and creative can help you process your grief, find a new and more comfortable way of folding that person into your heart, where it's less jagged around the edges.

We noticed early on everybody wanted us to be over it. They wanted us to find closure. They wanted us to be who we were, and we slowly realised none of those things were going to happen. We didn't want closure. We wanted openings. We didn't want to be over it. We wanted to carry Josh with us. We wanted to know about continuing bonds. We wanted to be creative. We wanted to look at photographs and we wanted to work through the trauma.

Elaine: I hadn't known before about Ruth Sergel's original project, shortly after 9/11, when she had set up this video box in the aftermath of the attacks. The way she situated that project was focused on people having complete freedom, within the solitude of that box, to tell their own stories in their own way. She said she felt that there was damage when people were prevented from being able to tell their own stories in their own words. And she wanted to make a space for that to happen.

Jane: The beauty of this film is that it provides a therapeutic container that is safe. You're not trying to make it okay for other people when you're in that box, but in the world we wear a mask.

We're constantly trying to make it okay. I can remember an instance where I went back to London, not long after Josh had died, and I was walking in the street, and someone said to me – they didn't know Josh had died – they said, ‘How's Josh?’ And I said, fine. And I did that. Not because I was protecting myself, but I could not bear to pick someone else up off the floor. I couldn't bear to deal with their pain.

I felt terrible about that. And I didn't ever have to do that again. But I think the thing about creating a safe space, a box, a therapeutic environment, is that people can say it how it is without having to look into the eyes of someone else and think, oh, are they scared? Are they going to run away from me? Are they going to faint?

Elaine: It doesn't look like what most people would think of as a therapeutic space. It's a plywood box in the middle of some room. There's a velvet curtain behind and the door gets closed and there's the camera there. They click it on. But it’s not the setup of the space, it's what that space makes possible.

Jane: I'm not religious, but it felt really biblical to me. Going into a confessional, I've not done that. I'm a non-religious Jew, but the whole idea of going in and confessing… that's always been quite attractive to me. You can go and say something, and it is received hopefully without judgment and you come out feeling lighter. Of course, therapy is all about that. It’s about that suitcase that is absolutely bursting at the seams and you're sitting on it and you're trying not to let anything out and you realise you've got to get off the suitcase and go in there and start to throw away some of the garments that are slightly torn. So that box is a bit like the suitcase, you go in there. It must've been so cathartic.

Elaine: The original memory box was very soon after the events. You hear people almost searching for coherence or understanding. They talk about smelling something or hearing something and not understanding what that is. They talk about seeing paper floating down from the sky and not understanding what that is. And there's a lot of incredulity. One woman is talking and then she says, ‘that was just too much for me to think about’. And then she turns the camera off. And then Donald Byrd, the choreographer who created this incredible dance piece that was rooted in what he observed at the towers, also says, ‘oh, it was just too much’. Someone else says ‘it was beyond my mentality’.

Jane: What's happening clearly is that people are suffering from PTSD as you do. It's not a dirty label. It's the reality. How could you not be traumatised? PTSD is about feeling overwhelmed by memories, feeling shocked, having flashbacks, smelling something, and you're suddenly back there and you have to cut off.

The courage it took to do the early stuff is enormous because in a way there wasn't a guiding or supporting person. If you're in a room with someone else you can say, ‘OK, let's just stop there. Let's just hold that thought and maybe come back to it.’ It's a lonely place in the early stages of the process. But it's the beginning of a cathartic journey, which creates hope when all hope has been lost.

Elaine: The people who speak in the film, are doing all sorts of different kinds of work, both in the immediacy and the aftermath. The Staff Sergeant who was at the Pentagon, she said ‘I realised how important serving my country is’. Somebody else is helping at the site of one of the attacks and says, ‘I'm an American, I have to do this’. He becomes very emotional at this. And then I absolutely love the account of the choreographer, Donald Byrd, who had the trauma of seeing people falling. What that was like, to see people who weren't struggling, but who held onto each other and leaned into it. He took that incredible pain and transformed it into this dance, footage of which is in the film. You see people making meaning and creating, appreciating things, connecting with communities and values.

Jane: Finding meaning is at the heart of how we move forward after trauma. When you've been traumatised, you know, meaning has gone from your life, everything that was supposed to happen has collapsed around you. Rebuilding that meaning is terribly complicated, but it's an essential component of recovery. Finding your safe place in the world again.  

Elaine: It occurs to me that PTSD is very much in the consciousness and popular discourse, but post-traumatic growth is not.

Jane: It is the most remarkable thing. You can rebuild something out of the most nightmarish scenario. Post-traumatic growth is where your value of life lies. My post traumatic growth has brought me to a place where I value each minute more than I ever did before. I would never have believed that, after Josh died. If someone had said that to me, ‘Oh, don't worry, eventually you'll value life’, I’d have said, ‘Please just leave me alone’. But that just shows post-traumatic growth is the result of hard labour.

Elaine: When the film reconnects with people, years later, that feels really meaningful. You get to see these people not frozen in time. The end of the film is full of vitality and meaning.

One of the things that moved me was when they reconnected with the young, Orthodox Jewish man, Erik Tischler. He'd had this interaction with Jojo, who escaped from the tower and was sitting on the kerbside. He approaches her and offers help and says, ‘You can come to my parents' home and you can get cleaned up. Call your loved ones.’ She doesn't answer. She can't. But before he leaves, because he's a photographer, he took a picture, which he had conflicted feelings about.

But then Jojo saw this picture in an exhibition. She said it was this transformative, moving thing – quite contrary to Erik's impression that he'd been of no help to her. She had been incredibly moved that he had done that, even though she wasn't able to respond in that moment. His care and his presence had meant a lot to her.

Jane: Photographs enable so much recovery and it's at the heart of the work we do on the Good Grief Project. Photography is everything. Within a photograph you can actually move forward. The photograph isn't necessarily of the past. It can be of the future, and bring hope. When we run our creative and active grief retreats, we use photography as a way of illustrating the importance of continuing bonds. People turn up and they don't want to share their photos, they wouldn't even let you see. By the end, they've created a new photograph, which is based in the present. It gives you permission, I suppose, to be active in that taking of the photograph and what you do with that photograph. Even in re-photographing a photograph, 20 years on, and thinking ‘I'm holding that photograph now, I've survived, I'm growing and I'm changing. I lived to tell the tale.

Elaine: One witness says the struggle to survive is a powerful part of being a human being. We do survive all sorts of things, things that are unimaginable to us. And he says, once we're surviving, then the struggle to be happy… well, that's something else. Then he says – and this has big resonance with mindfulness of course, for me – it's just learning to be OK with not being OK. Embracing discomfort and being OK with it until it passes.

Jane: It’s so important to find the right place where you can do the things that you feel uncomfortable with, so that you can move forward. Jimmy had made a book of photographs within a month of Josh dying, focused on Josh's ashes. They're beautiful and they really helped him. To begin with, I remember being terrified of what the ashes represent, but then thinking they're a thing of beauty, not a thing to be afraid of. And that's what, in a way, this film is about. People are learning to embrace the reality of their trauma and their loss, to get right in there to immerse themselves and to come out feeling stronger.

Watch the full discussion of traumatic loss, and post-traumatic growth through creativity and the arts.  

Photo, above: Jane scatters some of Josh's ashes in the Grand Canyon (photo by Jimmy Edmonds, Good Grief Project)

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