Saturday, September 11, 2004


The Portraits of Grief.

The New York Times series on the victims of September 11th is located here.

When that series was published, I admit that I had my gripes. Obviously, the very idea of summing up a person's entire life in just a few short paragraphs is conceited. Then again, obituaries do that all the time, and it's not like a newspaper can print a volume on each victim. If they are to remember those who died, newspapers can be excused for being able to do only so much.

However, what struck me most in the "Portraits of Grief" series was how everyone was remembered as a saint, or a kind soul, or a big heart. The profiles were all so glowing, I got turned off. *No one* is all good, or all bad. Simply being murdered on that day did not turn one into a saint, automatically forgiving one of their debts, or their insults. I felt that the portraits failed to tell us all that we needed to know about these people. That, at best, we only had two out of three dimensions necessary to capture a complete life.

Today, looking back, I don't find myself thinking that anymore. Because now I truly understand that these portraits were not for the victims, but for us. By emphasizing all the positive things we lost that day, we come to grips with the magnitude of our loss. If we called attention to their flaws, we may come to feel that we're not only justifying our ambivalence about their deaths, but perhaps also their deaths themselves.

"Joe was a great friend, but boy, did he ever cheat on his wife."
"Tina looked so beautiful in that photo. Unlike on her wedding day."
"Lisa will be sorely missed by everyone, except the two sons she abandoned."
Every portrait would become a balance sheet, where for each person we would add up the positives and the ultimately insignificant negatives and-- unconsciously, of course-- question whether we, the living, suffered all that much for losing them that day.

The portraits reminded us that, yes, we did suffer much that day. The moments when the planes crashed and the towers fell, those who died lost the mundane blemishes of an imperfect life. We remember them now as we want to remember them. We remember them for the things that we miss most about them.

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