After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people found ways to share their own grief and that of others in stories as apt as they were inventive. In an Esquire piece, Scott Raab chronicled the new World Trade Center as it rose to the sky; Alissa Torres wrote a book of her grief as a 9/11 widow; The New York Times published portraits of victims — how one had trained his dalmatian to “stop, drop and roll” as a way to teach schoolchildren fire safety, how another would bundle up warmly and travel far and wide to stargaze.
Now, as the 20th anniversary of the attack approaches, Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic gives us a multi-charactered portrait that reinforces how grief doesn’t always follow a predictable path; it may veer in unexpected directions or shed one shape for another.
“What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind” — which appeared online earlier this month and can be read in the September issue of the print magazine — portrays those closest to McIlvaine, a bright and charismatic 26-year old, and who have been separately grieving their shared loss these 20 years.
It begins as a portrait, of sorts, of the last of the many diaries and notebooks that Bobby kept through the years. The partly-filled diary was a memento that, Senior wrote, “glowed with more meaning than the others” after Bobby was gone. From there, the story fans out to sit with Bobby’s father, Bob Sr., who delves into a blizzard of research and conspiracy theories about 9/11, with overflowing files and pin-dotted maps; his mother, Helen, whose grief diverges from her husband’s, and becomes open and forgiving with time; his brother, Jeff, who is determined to live a full and good life in Bobby’s honor; and Bobby’s girlfriend, Jen, who suddenly found the world an “untrustworthy place.” Jen has kept Bobby’s last diary for herself all these years, despite repeated requests from Helen to let her see it.
Then there’s Senior herself, who had known and cared for Bobby; he roomed with her brother in college. Since his death, she stayed in touch with the McIlvaines and, as she writes, came to love them. That closeness helped her establish trust when she decided to pursue the family’s story. But it also proved a freighted responsibility, particularly when she got Jen to share the diary and discovered that a life-affirming quote attributed to Bobby was based on a misreading.
The story delivers a deep emotional impact, not just because of its reporting rigor or Senior’s skill in turning a phrase, such as her description of Bobby’s journal-loaded desk as “a study in plate tectonics.” Those facets increase its power. But it also hits hard because Senior weaves character profiles and relationships with a meditation on grief. The story is a philosophical accomplishment as much as a technical one.
Senior doesn’t shy away from sharing, in the story, what she learned through her reporting. For example, she notes, “We are always inventing and reinventing the dead,” something said to her by a friend who helped explain the relationship between lost loved ones and their survivors. Elsewhere she writes, “Our minds truly have minds of their own” when addressing the quicksilver nature of traumatic memories.
In a Twitter thread devoted to the story, Senior said she purposely included some of what she learned about “love, grief and the stories we all need.”
Senior was just as generous in responses to questions from Storyboard about the reporting and writing process, exploring on the subject of grief, and ending with “an Easter egg” for attentive readers. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I don’t know if every journalist has this experience, but for me, it’s the closest stories — the struggling neighbor, the weird happening down the street — that sometimes go unnoticed. Knowing the McIlvaines as you do, when did you begin thinking of their story as one you wanted to tell?
It’s a good question. So many of the best pieces are hiding in plain sight.
I guess I first started thinking about the McIlvaines’ story in November of 2018. Thanksgiving was approaching, and everyone was resuming that dopey, tiresome conversation about how to make it through a meal with your Trump-loving uncle without firing small cannonballs of stuffing at him. It suddenly occurred to me that tolerating this kind of momentary discomfort was really nothing compared to what Helen Mcllvaine had to tolerate in her own marriage every single day. But for a variety of reasons, I never pursued it.
But this year, on the 20th anniversary, I decided to try. Then my mind turned to the diary, as it still sometimes did; For years, I’d been obsessed with it, just as Helen was. But I never thought of making a journalism project out of recovering it, probably because it’s not the kind of story I do. I’m very old-school, trained to be an observer, not a character or agent in a piece.
I somehow got over my hesitation, I think because I’d become a devotee of a podcast called “Heavyweight.” If you haven’t listened to it, drop what you’re doing and go do so — it’s phenomenal. The host, Jonathan Goldstein, is basically in the closure business, resolving one ancient question or conflict per episode: Why did those girls dump me in middle school all those years ago? Why did my favorite babysitter stop showing up? Why did Moby never thank me for introducing him to Alan Lomax’s “Sounds of the South,” especially when sampling them made him famous? And can I get that damn box set of CDs back? And then I realized: Oh, this is a written version of “Heavyweight.” I’m going to try to recover that diary after 20 years.
Please describe the reporting and writing process — how long it took, and any specific challenges you had to solve to fashion the story into its eventual form.
I did the story (for me, anyway) in record time. I got the green light on April 12, sat down for my first interview with the McIlvaines on April 17, and handed in a draft of the story on Saturday, June 12. After that it didn’t change all that much, but we spent another three and a half weeks fact-checking and line-editing. It shipped on July 8.
The main challenge was finding a through line that connected the story’s many disparate parts. I knew I had to write thousands and thousands of words about how differently Helen and Bob Sr. were grieving, for example, before I even got to the contents of the diary, whose recovery I’d used as a plot device. How on earth was I going to sustain everyone’s interest for that long? And how was the McIlvaines’ suffering connected to the recovery of that diary, anyway? So I was terribly anxious for a while about making sure that there were hidden, interlocking themes throughout.
The main challenge was finding a through line that connected the story’s many disparate parts.
Because I know and love the McIlvaines, I also faced a terrible dilemma when I (or rather, my very astute editor, Scott Stossel) discovered that Bobby hadn’t written something the family assumed, for 20 years, that he had— “Life Loves On.” Those three words were of tremendous importance to them, words so plump with significance that Bob Sr. got them tattooed on his upper arm. How was I supposed to break it to them? Was I supposed to break it to them? I mean, this was the personal diary of a civilian, not the Pentagon Papers. I lived in terror that sharing this news would be shattering, which in hindsight was a little naïve. What was shattering was losing their son. And they were so grateful I’d gotten the diary and found other beautiful gems in there that this misreading mattered less than I thought it did.
How did your connection to the McIlvaines affect your reporting? Did it make it easier, or more difficult (or maybe both)? Did you or they set any conditions on interviews beforehand?
On balance, knowing them was definitely more of an advantage than a disadvantage, because the McIlvaines immediately trusted me. But Jesus, what do you do with that trust? I wanted to make sure they never, ever felt like it was misplaced, or like I was punishing them for speaking so openly about their suffering. At the same time, I didn’t want to minimize their marital differences (which I don’t think I did) or somehow give the impression that I, like Bob Sr., thought the government was behind 9/11 (I most certainly do not). But if I learned anything from Helen, it’s that you can feel heaps of affection for someone and still openly disagree with him or her.
I also learned something kind of profound from this experience: If you aren’t profiling a person in power or, you know, a serial killer, why not treat that subject like someone you love? People are much more open with you, and become much more themselves, if they’re speaking from a place of comfort and security, rather than fear.
If you aren’t profiling a person in power or, you know, a serial killer, why not treat that subject like someone you love?
The McIlvaines placed zero conditions on my interviews. Quite the contrary: Because I knew them, I felt like I had to remind them from time-to-time that the tape recorder was running. Especially with Helen. She and I can talk uninterrupted for days.
In an excellent interview with Caroline Mimbs Nyce for Atlantic readers earlier this month, you talk about what this story taught you about grief. Is there anything you learned during your reporting that may help other journalists who are interviewing or interacting with those who are grieving?
Yes. Don’t ask anything insanely stupid like I did, which was, “Who in your family do you think is furthest along in processing their grief?” It was a horrifying question, idiotic and insensitive in every possible way, because it implies that some people are better at grieving than others, or there’s one right way to metabolize grief, or that it’s some kind of moral failing if you’re still grieving when others aren’t, or that you’re grieving differently, etc.
And I think it’s worth repeating what I said to Caroline: Grieving is idiosyncratic. Expect anything and everything from someone who’s grieving. And it’s a tyranny to tell someone to get over it, or past it, or through it, whatever. Some people spend their whole lives inhabiting their sadness.
This story is packed with details, from a dive into 9/11 conspiracy theories to cameos by Rudy Guiliani and Kobe Bryant. But I never felt unmoored. How did you figure out the structure?
I wish I could say that the structure was a series of conscious decisions. But it was the product of thousands of unconscious ones — instincts forged over time from lots of feature-writing experience. (I just turned 52, which still looks like some kind of error.) I knew I wanted to open with a close-up shot of the diary, and the foreshadow that recovering it would drive the plot. I knew the next section would be the traditional nut graf stuff — my explaining that I knew this family, and that everyone in it grieved differently. I knew the next section had to be about Bobby himself, so that everyone would be invested in him as a character and understand exactly who the McIlvaines had lost. And one night at 4 a.m., I realized I wanted to start that section with “Tell me about your son,” which I’d later put in context. And I wanted to end it with another Easter egg, in the form of Bobby castigating me years ago for concluding all of my stories with a quote. From then on, I knew where the exit was: A quote from Bobby’s diary. And shrewd readers knew to look for it.
It took me some time to figure out how to make that exit, by the way. Turned out I needed to do it in italics for it to register.
Then it just became a question of telling everyone’s story. It was my editor, Scott Stossel, who suggested that I plant two more teasers about the diary into the piece— one in the stretch about Bob Sr. and one in the stretch about Helen — so that readers would never lose sight of it. He was absolutely right. It kept the momentum going.
I found the mention of Bobby teasing you about ending stories with quotes especially touching. In an early passage, you credit him with teaching you an an important journalistic lesson: “If you’re going to cede the power of the last word to someone else, you’d better be damn sure that person deserves it.” Later, you demonstrated how well you learned it by ceding the last sentence to Bobby himself. At what point did you decide on that linkage?
As I said above, early on in the process, and then one morning, at about 4 a.m., when I was at that stage when all you’re doing is writing your story in your head.
There are so many terrific sentences, but “We are always inventing and reinventing the dead” is especially so. Do you remember when and how that line emerged?
Yes. A friend said something to that effect to me about his own father, who’d died some time ago. Not exactly that phrasing, but close, like: “Do you know how often I reinvent my dad?” He was trying to console me about telling the McIlvaines that Bobby had not, in fact, written “Life Loves On.” His point was: He could have, and he may as well have; the line is still perfectly true to him.
Same question for: “It’s the damnedest thing: The dead abandon you; then, with the passage of time, you abandon the dead.”
I said that one out loud, fully formed, to Jen during our interview. Something she said made me think of it — maybe that she was afraid to date again? And I said the sentence, whole. Then I was like, “Hey, I’m going to use that.” It’s all on tape, which is funny.
At one point, you quote Jen as saying, while referring to Bobby’s final diary, “I’m not a saver.” Then you immediately reveal she had indeed saved the diary. (Here’s a verbatim reaction from a friend who read your story: “Jesus Christ, I’m glad she included the next line about the diary existing because my heart dropped and I almost threw the phone across the room.”) I have to ask: Did you consider not revealing that detail quite that quickly?No. I’m experienced enough to know that you will NEVER keep a reader’s attention for that long without promising some kind of payoff — especially these days, when attention spans are short and Twitter always beckons. Also, I had this great thing on my hands. Why not get everyone excited about it? I was really excited about it.
I’m experienced enough to know that you will NEVER keep a reader’s attention for that long without promising some kind of payoff…
I think it’s useful, too, to think about Hitchcock’s distinction between suspense and surprise. You’re surprised in a film or a book when a bomb goes off; you’re in suspense when you see someone plant it.
What has the reaction been from readers? From members of the McIlvaine family? Has anything surprised you?
The McIlvaines were very happy. They’re not the types to throw annual golf tournaments to commemorate their son; now they don’t have to. His name is out there in the world. (Another terrific story in the Philly Inquirer by Mike Sielski, about Bobby and Kobe, did something similar, I think.) Because Jeff and Jen and I went on “Good Morning America” together on August 10, the three of us had dinner the night before. Jen and Jeff hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, so that was wild. They got to reconnect, bond, gingerly discuss the past.
The reader response has been kind of amazing —and overwhelming. I started thinking I was writing a 9/11 story, but it very quickly became a story about grief, and that’s what people responded to. I was suddenly hearing about grief in all kinds of contexts and configurations. It’s a universal theme.
I guess what surprised me was something kind of depressing: Today, I’m no better at knowing what to say to people about sorrow and loss than I was four months ago. It’s always hard finding the right words.
What did you learn from the process of working on this story you believe will stick with you most?
That you’ll always find the hidden connections between things. They don’t hide forever. It gave me a kind of faith.
What are you reading right now for inspiration? … can be journalism, fiction, anything you’d like to share.
“Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday. I read the Blake Bailey Philip Roth bio (some of it before the scandal, some of it after) and despised it. Reading about him this way is so much more pleasurable.
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career.