How 9/11 changed the life paths of three members of the Williams community.
—As told to Denise DiFulco
Psychiatrist Kevin Kelly ’72 changes careers and helps to change the culture of the NYC Fire Department
My wife is a lawyer, and after 9/11 she volunteered her services to families of victims. That brought her in contact with a lot of New York City firemen. She saw what they were going through, which was this unimaginable routine of three or four memorial services a day interspersed with digging up body parts. She came home to me and said, “You, Dr. Kelly, have a unique opportunity here to be of service, because these guys desperately need to talk to somebody. They’re not going to talk to anybody very easily, but you might have a foot in the door because of your background, so you’d better do something about that.”
At the time I was in private practice as a psychiatrist. But I found her logic inescapable, so I assembled a panel of therapists from the New York Celtic Medical Society—four or five people with Irish names—and we contacted the fire department and volunteered our services. I had no specific expertise in working with psychic trauma in adulthood, so I had to do a lot of fast reading-up and a lot of learning from experience. Also, I had some anticipation that the fire department would be a close-knit tribe, wary of outsiders, and especially wary of someone who encouraged people to discuss feelings and admit weakness. I was right about that latter part, and the art of overcoming it has been one of the most interesting and satisfying parts of the job.
I’ve heard some astonishing stories, the details of which are too harrowing and gruesome to repeat. But more generally I can say that what the firefighters experienced at the World Trade Center site, especially in the body-recovery work that continued for nine months after the event itself, was horrific beyond anything a civilian can imagine. I realized eventually that their reluctance to discuss these things came not only from a wish to avoid revisiting the trauma themselves, but also from a wish to protect me from the horrors they had faced. Eventually they got past that, and I’ve often had the experience of seeing a square-shouldered fireman break down in tears. Being a witness to that moment, and to the mixture of embarrassment and relief that they feel at those times, is a deeply moving privilege.
Sometime in the winter of 2002, the head of the fire department’s Counseling Services Unit called and said he appreciated what we were doing on a volunteer basis, but their needs were growing, and they needed someone on site full time. I hadn’t been looking for a midlife career change, but it seemed like the right thing to do. So I joined up. I didn’t give up my private practice entirely, but I did have to cut it back significantly and add a number of hours to my total workweek. I took a cut in income as a result, but it was worth it to have this opportunity to do some good for a deserving group.
Lots of people retired from the fire department in the years right after 9/11. So at this point the people who are still on the job who were involved then are a distinct minority. There’s a whole different mentality that people who were there have over people who weren’t there. Also, the culture of the department has changed. The idea of seeking mental health treatment is much more acceptable than it used to be. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for people to sit around the kitchen of the firehouse and talk about “what my shrink said.” A decade ago, that would have been unthinkable.
I remember one guy who was injured in the collapse of the World Trade Center who told me a story about going back to work. His 5-year-old daughter was obviously worried. As he was leaving home, she said, “Daddy, is there something I can do to help?” And his first response, he told me, was: “Oh, no, sweetheart, that’s OK. The big, strong fireman can take care of everything. You don’t need to worry.” But something told him that wasn’t the right answer. So he thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, you know, there is something you can do to help. You can give me a hug, and I can take that hug down to the firehouse and pass it around to all the guys in the house, and then everybody would benefit from your hug.” That’s a mark of a change there that a guy can think of that response.
I’ve wondered about how this job has affected me. Particularly I worry about burnout—the effect of listening to horrific stories all day long. The official term is secondary traumatization, and if that’s happened, I’ve failed to notice it. I feel kind of invigorated by being lucky enough to be in a position to help. But maybe if you asked my wife, she might say, “Oh, God, yeah. He’s impossible.”
Teacher Erin Peaslee ’08 embodies the legacy of an alumna who perished in the Twin Towers
Sept. 11 was the first time I really understood that my dad’s job was dangerous. I was a freshman in high school, and I was terrified. Everyone thought we were going to war. My dad is a senior captain in the Pittsfield (Mass.) Fire Department, and on 9/11 he picked me up early from school. We watched everything unfold on TV, and I felt kind of helpless. My immediate fear when they were talking about firefighters going to Ground Zero was that my dad was going to have to leave us. I couldn’t say to him, “I don’t want you to go,” because I saw all these people that needed help. I was at an age where I realized he had an obligation as an emergency worker.
I always took a lot of pride in what my dad did, and that was especially true after receiving the Lindsay S. Morehouse ’00 Scholarship —Psychiatrist Kevin Kelly ’72 20 | Williams Alumni Review | September 2011 at Williams. Lindsay died on Sept. 11 in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and her family established a scholarship fund at Williams for the children of emergency first responders. To receive an award that recognized my dad’s profession as something to be respected, and also one commemorating someone who had died on 9/11, was really meaningful to me. I felt a personal connection to it. It wasn’t just money from the school.
The scholarship is what allowed me to get my Williams education. When I was in high school in Pittsfield, I visited the campus a lot. I wanted to stay close to home, so I applied to Williams early decision and got in. Sometime over the summer before my freshman year, I learned that I received the scholarship. I already was excited to attend Williams, but the scholarship also made me feel a responsibility to do as well as I could. I majored in math and psychology, and I got my master’s degree right afterward at Boston College. Now I teach sixth grade at Mystic Valley Charter School in Malden, Mass.
A mere 10 years after 9/11, I’m teaching kids who are almost the age I was when it happened. They barely have an understanding of what 9/11 was or what it meant, and I think that’s unfortunate. I try to educate them as much as I can about exactly what happened that day, what it meant for our country and how it sort of shaped us and our country since. I explain to them that it woke me up and made me realize that we’re all vulnerable, and that as Americans we’re not untouchable. America isn’t just this superpower that can never be affected by anything negative. I try to help kids understand why someone might want to do something like that and explain to them how 9/11 brought our country together.
Lindsay Morehouse ’00 was an analyst for the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, working on the 89th floor of the South Tower, when she was killed in the World Trade Center collapse. So far, four Williams students, including Erin Peaslee ’08, have been recipients of the scholarship established by her friends and family to allow children of first responders anywhere in the world to attend the college. Says Lindsay’s father Ted Morehouse, “We continue to find solace in the successes of the many young people who have benefited from the scholarship.”
The College dedicated Convocation in October 2001 to the four members of the Williams community who had so recently been lost on 9/11, celebrating the spirit and contributions of Howard K. Kestenbaum ’67 of Montclair, N.J., in whose memory gifts have been made to the Alumni Fund in the years since 2001; Brian J. Murphy ’80 of New York, N.Y., for whom friends and family established the Brian J. Murphy 1980 Scholarship; Lindsay Morehouse ’00; and the parent of a student at the time. All continue to be missed.
Williams political science professor James McAllister creates a course to reflect a new reality
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was teaching a book, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. The basic thesis of that book was that liberalism had triumphed in the world and things would be very peaceful from here on out—or for the most part. The course was on the future of world politics, and that day I realized I had an entire syllabus that was basically irrelevant.
That led to some real soul searching about how to design a course that would give students not only theory and history but also an ability to engage with all the issues that were on the front page of The New York Times every day. There weren’t any courses at Williams that dealt with the issues that emerged after 9/11—particularly the foreign policy challenges we faced—so I created one. I’ve been teaching PSCI 120, “America and the World After September 11th,” since fall 2002.
It’s been fascinating to watch the course evolve over the decade since 9/11. If you had told me in September 2001 that Osama bin Laden would become basically irrelevant to a course that in many ways he brought into being, I would have said that’s crazy. But that has proven to be the case. We used to spend three or four weeks looking at al Qaeda, its origins, its prospects, its organization. By 2007 we were spending two weeks on those issues. This past semester, only one week.
There are much deeper issues today than Osama bin Laden and terrorism. Ten years ago I never thought to put anything related to China on the syllabus. But now we spend an awful lot of time on China as the emerging great power of the 21st century. And that’s another big change, too. When I first taught the course, we spent a lot of time talking about America’s unprecedented position of power in the international system. Now we spend an awful lot of time talking about America’s relative decline, which was hastened by 9/11, and we’ve spent a lot more time dealing with external threats than with our own economic and domestic problems.
I’ve watched my students become more critical of American foreign policy over time. I think the sort of fear, patriotism and nationalism that was present in the first years after 9/11 became much more realist and noninterventionist. Students generally were not big fans of President Bush, and those feelings have only intensified. I don’t think our current generation of students worries as much about terrorism as the students did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which is healthy in one way. You don’t want a bunch of students worried about when the next attack is going to come.
I’m actually thinking about changing the title of the course from “America and the World After September 11th” to, simply, “America and the World.” Our country is entering a new period in its history that is not going to be solely defined by 9/11. And I think Osama bin Laden’s death was very important in that respect. It will help America make the transition to a world in which the most important problem we face is not terrorism. So the title of the course will reflect that change. One more year, I think.
A Course Stands the Test of Time
Here’s a comparison of final exam questions from James McAllister’s “America and the World After September 11th”:
2002: Imagine that President Bush has to make a firm choice between two policy options. On the one hand, he can wage a war against Iraq and eliminate Saddam Hussein’s regime. On the other hand, he can launch an all-out effort for the reform and democratization of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Assume that he cannot pursue both policies simultaneously. Which course would you recommend he choose?
2011: Two issues are central to the nature of world politics in the 21st century. The first is the question of American decline. … The second … will be the rise of China. … What are the challenges America faces both at home and abroad and what are the best strategies for dealing with our own potentially declining position in the world and the challenge posed by rising Chinese power?