Stories from the Stage

S5 E1 | FULL EPISODE

Changed Forever 9/11

Twenty years ago, 9/11 changed the world. People struggled to make sense of the terrible acts, and to rebuild their lives in its aftermath. After the death of his father, David Filipov goes to Afghanistan where a Pop-Tart takes on a whole new meaning; psychology professor Michael Sargent confronts his biases on an airplane; and Jude Treder-Wolff finds seeds of hope to fuel her work as a therapist.

AIRED: September 06, 2021 | 0:26:29
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TRANSCRIPT

MICHAEL SARGENT: I heard the click of a seatbelt

being released to my right,

my head swiveled and I saw him on his feet

rushing into the aisle.

JUDE TREDER-WOLFF: And I start to feel this wave of dread

and my heart is heavy.

This is why I didn't want to come here.

DAVID FILIPOV: It's five weeks after 9/11.

And that means 15 days after the memorial service for my father,

who was on the first plane.

FILIPOV: My name's David Filipov.

I grew up in Massachusetts,

studied Russian, went to the Soviet Union,

became a journalist and worked at the "Boston Globe"

and the "Washington Post" for 25 years.

I've been to all the conflict zones--

Russia, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan.

Now I'm back in Massachusetts,

working for Northeastern University

as the editor of their news site.

After all of these years

of writing about war and conflict,

what do you feel like you have

learned from experiencing and writing about

those tragedies?

Every single place, everybody--

minus the small percentage of people

who are belligerents--

people want to hear your story.

They want to feed you.

They want you to listen to their story.

And they want to send you on your way

happier than when you met them.

What elements do you find are present

in the stories that you most like to tell?

Well, you get up in the morning

and funny things happen, serious things happen.

Just as you're laughing, someone calls and said,

"You lost something important." - Mm-hmm.

That's what my stories, I try to do.

I want everything in there. - Yeah.

I want you to laugh, and I want you to see.

Because the thing about war and conflict

is that it's tragedy, right?

But everyday things still happen in it.

And so I want the stories to show that.

It's five weeks after 9/11,

and that means 15 days after

the memorial service for my father,

who was on the first plane.

I'm in Khoja Bahauddin, Afghanistan,

a northern Afghanistan forlorn outpost

where a few rebels are holding out against the Taliban.

And I'm supposed to be

an experienced "Boston Globe" war reporter

who's come here to cover

the conflict that America has entered

in order to defeat the people who killed my father.

And I'm starting to realize

that I might not be up to the task.

It first hits me when I crossed from Tajikistan--

where everybody speaks Russian, which is my second language--

to Afghanistan.

And at the border, our new Afghan friends

greet me and put me into a taxi,

and we go speeding off into the night.

Suddenly, we come screeching to a halt.

Two guys get out

and start firing their rifles into the darkness.

And I'm like, "Okay, here we go!

"Get the notebook!

This is it, war with the Taliban!"

And then, one of the guys comes back and

takes the bullet-ridden corpse

of a dead fox and throws it on the seat next to me.

And I thought to myself, "Yeah, I'm not ready for this."

But, then, I realized

I had a lot more in common than I thought.

Afghans would tell me, "Oh, you lost your father.

"I lost my father, and my sisters, and my home,

and my uncle, and my farm."

Now, America had come, and we represented hope.

When the B-52s would circle overhead,

dropping 500-pound bombs on the Taliban positions,

Afghans would cheer and point at the planes and say,

(speaking Dari)

"The plane, the plane, the enemy is dead."

And they'd point at me and smile because

I was the Americans.

One frontline commander took me to this wall

where his men had done a primitive stick figure drawing

of a plane flying into a building.

This, he told me, is how we know

the rest of the world is with us.

But there was only so much camaraderie that,

you know, could be derived.

I couldn't understand Dari without a translator, and,

in this place where everybody had lost so much

in 30 years of constant war,

I had trouble putting my own grief behind me.

Then there was the problem of the food.

Northern Afghanistan was a hungry place,

and it was very difficult for me

to find something that wouldn't make me violently ill.

Pretty much the only thing I could keep down

was this delicious bread

and really delicious, ubiquitous lamb kebab.

Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, morning, noon, and night.

(laughter)

It was killing me.

Till, suddenly, literally, salvation fell from the sky

in the form of food parcels

being dropped by the United States of America

with the stamp on them:

"People's food gift from the United States of America."

(laughter)

Filled with 2,200-calorie rations of barley stew, rice,

shortbread, peanut butter and jelly,

and Pop-Tarts.

(laughter)

Yeah, Pop-Tarts. Now, dropped from 30,000 feet,

I want to tell you that those things

don't look really very good.

They kind of crumble.

More importantly, this whole effort was under fire.

Relief agencies noted that Afghan militias

were reselling the food parcels on the black market,

and ordinary people would take the more unfamiliar items,

like the peanut butter and jelly,

and feed them to their livestock.

Nobody wanted the Pop-Tarts, which looked disgusting,

all crushed like that and caked in the dust

that everything covered in northern Afghanistan.

Except for me.

(laughter)

These things represented

not only a foodstuff I could keep down,

but also packed with all that riboflavin and vitamin B-8

that they put in breakfast foods.

But it also evoked memories of my childhood

growing up in the '60s,

as those of you who were there remember,

I lived on this stuff.

I remember when they first introduced

the frosted strawberry Pop-Tart, and we loved that filling!

For many years, I thought that's what

strawberries really taste like...

(laughter) ...and I was so disappointed

when I found that they don't.

We also remember the horror we felt when we realized

if you leave a frosted strawberry Pop-Tart

in the toaster for too long, it bursts into foot-high flames.

(laughter)

Yeah, and then there was the dismal day

when I discovered that my father's favorite flavor

was the revolting and disgusting brown sugar cinnamon.

I'm sure you all agree. (crowd groans, laughs)

So, anyway, in those days of

loss and discovery of 2001,

I learned to distinguish the packages on the ground

that I could eat

from the revolting and disgusting one that I could not.

And, in a way, you could argue

that those Pop-Tarts kept me alive.

Time went on, and, over the years,

I got to where I was almost able to

talk about my father's violent death

the way that I'm doing now,

kind of keeping it together and not breaking down.

I got to the point where I could watch

all those movies about 9/11,

and there are more than you think.

And I could almost watch the TV news

without averting my eyes every time

they showed that grainy video of the plane

flying into the first tower and exploding into flames.

You've all seen it.

So, I thought, you know, what about Afghans?

You know, it's ten years after 9/11.

How are they feeling about this, you know, odyssey?

What has war done for them?

So, I decided to go back

to the places where I'd been in 2001

and catch up with the people I'd met.

But the problem was that the Taliban had come back

to many of these places that I'd seen liberated.

To do this story,

I was going to have to take a couple of risks.

I could only dress in Afghan clothes.

I had to speak only Dari in public.

I had to stay out of places

where I might be picked out, do my interviews inside,

never go to the same place twice,

never stay in the same place for longer than a few minutes.

Because an American traveling alone

could attract kidnappers and people who would kill me.

So, I did all that,

and I met with people who were in the villages,

trying to hold out against the Taliban.

And I found that actually some things had improved.

Everybody had smartphones, cheap data plans.

Even women who had been

cut off from the world in their burkas,

now you can see them tapping away on the glowing screens.

But there were also bad things.

The Taliban had come back, in part,

because people feared them less than they feared

the drug-dealing militias and warlords

who had taken over in their place.

Yeah, so, my last stop on that trip

was at a U.S. military outpost

whose job was to keep peace in the region.

But actually the Americans very rarely

ventured out of their heavily guarded compound,

and we spent a lot of time

lolling in the 180-degree... 120-degree heat.

But it feltlike 180!

(laughter)

120-degree heat, you know, sitting there,

steaming in front of this big table

covered in food parcels from the United States,

from people who wanted to support the troops.

And among them were more Pop-Tarts

than anybody could ever want to eat.

(laughter)

Roasting in the... what did I say?

120? Let's make it 180!

(laughter)

Once again, I called upon my Pop-Tart-whispering ways,

and I was able to discern the delicious flavors that I loved

and avoid the revolting one that I hated.

Yeah, I won't say that Pop-Tarts kept me alive this time,

but they definitely kept me sane,

as did the memory they evoked.

You close your eyes.

You take a bite.

Home.

Thank you.

(cheers and applause)

OKOKON: When you think about

the stories that you tell in general,

where do they come from?

Is there a feeling behind your stories

that tends to drive them?

SARGENT: When I tell stories,

I'm trying to evoke feelings in the audience.

I know that different storytellers

have different approaches.

Many storytellers are very emotionally expressive

when they tell, with big gestures,

and big expression,

and wide variation in voice inflection.

I aim for a more understated approach.

In the same way that if you were reading

a novel or reading poetry,

you wouldn't have the author there to express emotions.

You would be dependent upon the words,

and the imagery in those words to transport you to a place

where you feel something.

And that's what I try to do on the stage.

It sounds like you have a very specific style

when it comes to your storytelling.

I do have a very specific style in my storytelling.

As my friends, and as my family,

and certainly as my students would say,

I care about details, and so I have a specific approach

to pretty much everything.

(chuckling) Nice.

Nice.

SARGENT: I could see outside...

This is outside.

I could see outside, and I could see

that the morning sky was this clear, deep, striking blue.

But I was inside, and I wasn't struck so much

by the blue of the sky as by the fact

that I had never seen an airport look quite like this.

I had driven down from Maine, where I live,

in order to fly out of Boston because the flights

out of Logan Airport were cheaper than the flights

out of Portland.

I was traveling to the Midwest to go to a wedding.

It should have felt like a routine travel day.

On most any weekend prior to this it would have felt

like a routine travel day,

but on this day, it felt anything but.

I was traveling in late September, 2001.

The attacks had happened less than two weeks prior

to this travel date,

and I was afraid.

The night before traveling I had called a dear friend.

And instead of ending the call by saying "Goodbye,"

or "Talk to you later,"

I told her that I loved her

as if we might never speak to each other again.

By the time I arrived at the airport, it was clear

that other potential travelers were also afraid

because the airport parking lot shuttle driver

had no trouble dropping me off at the curb

because there were no other cars.

And I got through security in record time

because there were essentially no other travelers.

Logan was a ghost town.

Now, in truth, there were a few other travelers there,

but for each of us, there seemed to be

not one, not two, but three security officers,

each one with a rifle,

each one with an index finger near the trigger,

each one with a face locked in a severe and vigilant expression.

I went to my gate, and waited to board,

and eventually we did board.

And as we went onto the plane I saw that it was a Boeing 737,

which, depending on how it's configured,

can hold as many as 200 people.

On this flight, there were three passengers.

I sat on the left side in an exit row aisle seat,

and I noticed that one other passenger

was in the same row

and on the right side of the plane.

And as he walked up the aisle,

I noticed the crisply pressed white dress shirt,

and the dark-- I think it was black-- necktie,

and the perfectly maintained mustache.

But then I noticed, above all, his olive skin.

In truth, he could have been Pakistani,

he could have been Indian,

but through the fog of my overactive,

post-9/11 imagination, I saw him as Middle Eastern--

whatever that means.

Or Arab-- not Arab American-- Arab.

And I'm ashamed to say that I saw him immediately as a threat.

I watched him carefully

as he put his roller board suitcase in the overhead bin,

and then put a brown shopping bag,

whose contents I tried to see, but could not see, in the bin,

closed the door, and he sat down in the window seat

and closed his eyes, perhaps to escape my piercing gaze.

Eventually, I turned to the left and looked out the window,

and watched the tarmac slide in the wrong direction

as we slowly pushed back from the gate,

and then slide in the right direction

after a bit of engine revving as we began to move forward

on a not-very-crowded tarmac.

The flight attendants

went through their pre-flight instructions

and then took up their positions in the jump seats.

And we had just a bit more taxiing to go

before we were preparing to take off.

And then I heard the click of a seatbelt being released

to my right, and my head swiveled,

and I saw him on his feet rushing into the aisle.

Now this behavior, even before 9/11,

would have been a little bit disconcerting,

certainly confusing.

But on this day, done by this man,

it was utterly alarming.

I wished that those security officers we'd left behind

were there because by their training

and by their temperament, they were ready to deal with this.

I am a college professor.

By temperament and by training, I'm ready to analyze data,

but not, but not to deal with a potentially dangerous man,

or so I thought.

Nevertheless, I put my hand on the seatbelt

and was prepared to, if necessary, unbuckle

and launch myself forward and tackle him if I saw a threat.

And I watched him reach into the bag

and bring out a small eight-by-eight box,

expertly wrapped in shiny green paper, with a bow on top,

and ribbon, and he closed the bin,

and he sat back down, and set the present down

in the middle seat next to him, and closed his eyes,

and began to go to sleep, content that this gift--

perhaps for a child, perhaps for a spouse--

was not going to be damaged in mid-air by his suitcase.

We took off and we ascended for an uneventful flight.

And I went through the stages of relief,

and then embarrassment,

and then ultimately shame at my reaction to him.

We landed, went our separate ways.

I enjoyed a wonderful wedding weekend,

and then I returned on an uneventful flight.

And soon I was back in the classroom with my students,

teaching them social psychology,

teaching my class on prejudice and stereotyping.

(audience laughter)

And in that class, I have always emphasized

studies about the ways in which white people

often stereotype Black people.

And I've justified that emphasis by pointing out that, indeed,

much of the research-- a disproportionate amount

of the research in the field-- has been focused on that.

But I also have my selfish reasons

for focusing on that topic, because I inhabit skin

that marks me as an African American

and makes me a target for those very stereotypes.

And I don't want to be reduced to that stereotype,

even though I know I could be.

Yes, I'm big, and, yes, I'm Black

but I'm not very good at basketball.

(audience laughter)

And you might think, "Oh, I bet he's got rhythm."

But I'm the same man who was salsa dancing,

and my girlfriend looked up and asked, "Michael,

"do you want me to dance to the beat of the music

or the beat that you're dancing to?"

(audience laughter)

So, no, I don't fit that stereotype.

And I don't want that stereotype to blind my students

to seeing who I am.

But in focusing on that,

I've run the risk of missing the ways

in which my own stereotypes can blind me

to seeing all of who they are.

And the other people who I encounter in the world.

Including a man just trying to get home

to bring a present to his loved ones.

So, if stereotypes are an affliction then, yes,

I should do my part to try to ensure

that my students are healed.

But I should never forget that dictum:

physician, heal thyself.

And I haven't yet done that, but I'm trying.

Thanks.

(cheers and applause)

Stereotypes can be quite consequential in tragic ways.

And I'm lucky that in my case, even though I misjudged someone,

I didn't act on it in a way that could have made

for an awkward or even dangerous situation.

But not everyone manages in every situation

to stop themselves before wrongly acting

upon a stereotype.

TREDER-WOLFF: My name is Jude Treder-Wolff.

I grew up in Wisconsin.

I live on Long Island.

I'm a creative arts therapist and a social worker,

and I worked in private practice for a long, long time,

and now I train therapists and teachers

using improv and storytelling in their work.

Wow, okay, so I'm very interested, what exactly

does the work of a creative arts therapist entail?

Creative arts therapy is just using the arts

in any way you can,

to help people to express

what's going on with them, to express how they've changed,

how they're struggling.

And what do you feel it is about the arts that

allows people to heal when they work through them?

When you tap into that part of yourself that I,

I can go into something that I don't know how

it's going to turn out,

I'm not going to judge it until it becomes

whatever it's going to become,

gives people a lot of strength and courage

to change themselves, just to tap into the part of you

that knows I can look at things a different way

than I ever did before.

I could look at myself in a, in a way that I never did before

and that I could make something

and then talk about it and claim it,

and show it and express it.

I'm lying on my back,

looking into the piercing blue eyes of Sharon,

my new acupuncturist,

who's taking my pulse.

And she says, "I see you're having headaches

"and a lot of back pain.

"Tell me about what's happening emotionally,"

and she starts putting needles in,

and I say, "Ugh, I feel worried all the time."

I have this heaviness in my chest

that I thought was heart disease,

but it turned out to be just plain old sadness.

And I have this feeling like all is lost.

It's depression, I guess.

Then she puts a needle in my left arm

that sends a jolt of pain through my entire body,

and I feel like jumping off the table.

She goes, "Ah, that is the wounded healer point.

What do you do for work?"

And I say, "I'm a therapist."

I know, a therapist who feels like all is lost.

It's like a ski instructor that's afraid of heights.

(audience laughs)

And she says,

"Well, you've got a pretty good case of burnout,

it looks like," and that tracks-- it's 2011.

And I've spent the last ten years

doing a great deal of treatment

with people who were directly impacted

by the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Spouses of first responders,

people who were the last to speak to a loved one

that died in the towers that day,

survivors who saw terrible things

and are haunted by these images.

And now what they saw and they heard and remember,

is stuck in my brain and is waking me up at night

and giving me panic and depression.

And I say to Sharon, "The worst thing about it

"is that I feel ashamed and embarrassed

"that I have all these symptoms now

"because it didn't happen to me.

I didn't lose anybody."

And she says, "Well, you lost something

and that's what you have to work out."

And I'm trying, I'm in a support group

for trauma therapists run by a burnout specialist

in New York City,

and, uh, she... her prescription is know yourself,

love yourself, and ground yourself in something

that gives you a sense of wonder

to go into these dark places with people.

So for me, that's a memory I've had my whole life.

I'm 11 years old,

lying on the hood of our parents' Chevrolet station wagon

with my sister and brother

staring at an astonishing display of shooting stars

all night long.

And my brother, who's an aspiring physicist, says

that some of the stars we're looking at

don't even exist anymore, they burned out,

maybe centuries ago in some far away galaxy.

But light travels forever,

and so we see those stars as if they exist right now,

and they'll continue to travel into the future.

So some other kids on some other planet

looking, looking on their parents' vehicle

will see that, that same light as if those stars still exist.

And this fills me with wonder that has always sustained me,

and I cannot connect with it anymore.

And this year, like every year,

I get invited to events on the anniversary

created by an organization called Voices of September 11th

that was created by two social workers

who did lose someone in the, in the towers, their sons,

and they have an organization that offers trauma recovery

and resilience training,

and they invite first responders

to come to these events on the anniversary

and I can't go.

I don't know why.

So I do acupuncture and I do yoga.

I go to a Zen Buddhist retreat

where they teach you how to lose yourself.

I take improv classes where you have to get over yourself.

So I have to know myself, love myself, lose myself,

and get over myself. (audience laughter)

It's like I'm dating myself, but with a co-pay.

(laughter)

In 2015-- maybe the improv had an impact--

I finally say yes to this invitation

to go on the anniversary to the events that they have,

and I get off the subway

and walk toward the newly built World Trade Center,

and I start to feel this wave of dread

and my legs feel like sandbags, and my heart is heavy,

and I'm, I have palpitations and my throat is dry.

And I go, "Here are these symptoms again.

This is why I didn't want to come here."

But I go and I open the door to this event space.

And it's a beautifully appointed banquet room, dimly lit,

candles on each circular table with linen tablecloths.

And on each table

is a little plaque that identifies

who will be sitting there, to find your place.

So over here is a sign that says Sandy Hook trauma team.

And over here it says Boston Marathon trauma team.

Over here, San Bernardino trauma team.

And I find my table,

which is a bunch of therapists like myself

that are here alone, and the hum of people talking in that room,

people who do this work,

I feel an easing in my chest.

I feel like I belong with these people.

And the talks are wonderful, one after another.

And the last one is an FBI agent who was the person responsible

for the final disposition of the plane

that flew into the Pentagon.

And as she was going through these parts the last time,

she saw something sticking out

of the seat back.

And she reaches in there and pulls out a pocketbook.

And in this pocketbook is a wallet and letters

that are folded up into tiny squares.

And she realizes

that these are letters that were written

by a woman who knew what was happening

and she wanted to find any way she could

to communicate with her family what was happening to her

and what she was feeling for them.

And she did everything she could to make that happen.

And they put these letters together, and the FBI agent said

she delivered them herself to the husband

and she said, "I'm so sorry, it took us all this time

to get these to you.

And he said, "It's okay."

"My son is having a really rough go,

"and this is like she's still with us.

It's just the right time for us."

And to me, these letters are what hope looks like,

because she knew that all was lost and she did it anyway.

And I feel wonder and awe.

And I think I'll never again say that all is lost

because you never know.

And you have to do what you can, and do everything you can.

And I think about the shooting stars

and that the light goes on forever.

Thank you.

(applause)

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