Simone: The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is this week and our team here at Not Past It — we’ve spent the past few weeks talking a lot about how to cover that on the show. And as we were talking, one of the questions that came up was basically like, “well, Simone, what do you want to say about 9/11?” And I thought about it for a while…and I really struggled to find an answer.
Simone: I remembered the grief—the weight of the 3,000 lives lost that day. The countless lives lost in the Middle East in the decades following. But also the intense Islamophobia and xenophobia that ripped through the US.
[ARCHIVAL, President Bush: Either you’re with us. Either you love freedom, or you’re with the enemy.]
Simone: The American flag ribbons and the “Never Forgets.” It felt like this fanatical patriotism had taken over the culture, and I remembered how alienated and angry I felt about those displays.
[ARCHIVAL, Brian Williams: September 11th is everywhere.]
[ARCHIVAL, Clint Eastwood: The terrorists who wanted 300 million victims, instead are going to get 300 million heroes.]
[ARCHIVAL, Woman: I kind of want it to be in people's faces, so they never forget my husband and all those people.]
Simone: At the time, it seemed like there were “correct” emotions, and I didn’t have them. And the emotions I did have – they didn’t feel like they added up to anything. No takeaway. No observation. Certainly nothing that felt safe to share on a public-facing podcast on the anniversary of this extremely somber day. Like, I wasn’t expressing the appropriate levels of “God Bless the USA” that it seemed was expected of me. Truth be told, I still feel this way—and I wanted to understand why.
Simone: So I invited a clinical psychologist to dig into some of my feelings, to try to understand what’s behind them—and what they reveal about 20 years of remembrance. That’s the conversation we’re gonna play for you today.
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history—and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I’m Simone Polanen.
Simone: Instead of doing the usual thing—tell you a story, talk to some historians, make a little joke, thanks for hangin’—we’re gonna try something different. Embrace the messy, get a little personal…and get a little therapy.
Simone: After the break.
Simone: I’ve always hated the question “Where are you from?” Because for me, the answer has never felt simple. I was born in the States. But my father grew up in Suriname. My mother, in Ethiopia. Hot dogs and potato chips and mac and cheese were treats I had outside of the house, you know what I mean? Plus, I lived abroad for a chunk of my childhood…including in 2001. When I finally did move back to the US, I used to get called out for spelling “color” and “flavor” with a “u.” Stuff like that. So when people ask me where I’m from, I just say, “I’m American” because that’s the closest thing to the truth—even if it doesn’t feel quite right.
Simone: On the days when I’m called to really draw on this American-ness—days like the anniversary of 9/11—I always come up short.
Simone: So I called up Dr. Jacob Ham. He’s director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a clinical psychologist.
Simone: As you can see, I'm calling you from my closet. So apologies, but the sound quality is really good in here.
Dr. Ham: I hear that. I hear that.
Simone: I wanted to sit down with Dr. Ham, and basically have a therapy session. To examine these complicated feelings I was having. So settle in, because you’re about to hear me spill my guts for a hot minute.
Simone: I was hoping to unpack some of those with you because they're feelings that I'm sort of struggling with understanding.
Dr. Ham: I love that it's going to be coming from an emotional place. It's in my wheelhouse. Let's say instead of like a pundit or something like that.
Simone: I started by sharing my experience of 9/11 with Dr. Ham…
Simone: So in 2001, I was nine years old and in the fourth grade. And I was living in Holland. My father had work that had taken him to Amsterdam. So my family had been living there for a few years. And so, the day I learned about the September 11th attacks was actually the morning of September 12th. And when I woke up in the morning, my parents kind of sat me down and they were like, “You know, this, this really big event happened in the world. Two planes crashed into these two buildings in New York City. And you know, it's a really big deal.”
Dr. Ham: Right.
Simone: And I think I was sort of like, “Yeah, why? Like why are we sitting down to talk about this one though?”
Dr. Ham: Yeah.
Simone: In my kid brain, I was like, I know that bad stuff happens in the world. Mommy left her country because of war. At school, I’d learned about WWII and the Holocaust. I knew about slavery and the middle passage. I had learned about so much violence and human suffering by this age. I was devastated by it all, but the adults around me kept it pretty level-headed. I understood that to mean, brutality is a part of this world and that’s just the way it is.
Simone: And so I was confused. Why were they so much more upset about this than all those other tragedies? I didn’t give it much more thought until I moved back to the States a couple of years later. It was 2003. I was about 11 years old and in the sixth grade. And I started to become aware of this, like, hyper-patriotic narrative.
Simone: At the time, it really felt like it was everywhere. Politicians began wearing American flag lapel pins. The Yankees started playing “God Bless America” every game. The phrase “Never Forget” was repeated over and over again. It appeared on bumper stickers and t-shirts and flags. It was a message of remembrance…but it also felt like a message of vengeance. And it made me deeply uncomfortable.
Simone: I wondered if my peers felt like I did…but I realized pretty quickly that I was alone in my feelings.
Simone: I talked to my friends about do you remember where you were? What was the experience like for you? And it seemed like they all had these very dramatic stories of where they were and what they did that day and what they were thinking and of how scared they were and how this event was like, totally transformational for them and sort of changed their sense of security and how they saw the world. But you know, for me, again, it was that same feeling of not understanding. And I felt incredibly guilty.
Dr. Ham: I know.
Simone: I wasn't having the right emotional response.
Dr. Ham: Right.
Simone: Am I really that callous? Like, what’s going on? And now, we're almost 20 years after that. And, Iike, don't know that I feel that much different. And actually, if anything, over the years, like, I’ve only become, like, angrier about this narrative around 9/11, or it's just, it's, I feel, like, even more uncomfortable now.
Dr. Ham: Can you elaborate on the anger?
Simone: You know, I think in part the “Never Forget” narrative leans really heavily into this idea of “We are United as Americans.” Like, “We are one America.” And I don't believe that.
Dr. Ham: I know.
Simone: And for me, the stuff it brings up, you know, and I'll probably get emotional talking about this, is it makes me think about, well, it makes me think about who I am as an American. But when I think about that, I think about my parents because they're both immigrants, they both immigrated to the United States in their late teens. And they share stories about sort of that transition. And, even though they tell, like, when they tell me the stories, they infuse it with a lot of humor, you know, and a lot of reflection and they seem to be sort of emotionally past whatever it is—those incidents that they talk about. I hear stories of them, the times they really struggled to assimilate and figure out how they would fit into this country. Or even times where I think people excluded them or alienated them and they didn't fully realize that was going on, but, like, I, I could understand that.
Simone: My parents had stories about being called slurs and then having to ask their friends what those words meant. Dedicating years to managing complicated paperwork for a chance to be a part of the country, and being terrified of the consequences of messing up. I heard people be way too impressed about their education, their social status, their hygiene, even. It’s the kind of thing you don’t pick up on as easily if you weren’t born as the “other.” To them, it was innocent. To me, it was humiliating.
Simone: I'm upset, I'm upset that America doesn't love my parents as much as I love them, I guess, in a way. Which feels, you know, saying it out loud, it feels a little naive to say that, but like I was upset, I was upset by that. And so to then feel like I'm being called to unite, as sort of hard and scary as it is to say, like, don't feel as big of an emotional connection to, you know, there's a part of me that's like, “No, fuck you. Like, I don't want to unite.” And so I think this call, this call for unity...I think that's why it feels like such a slap in the face.
Dr. Ham: I didn't get it either. Maybe it is because I'm an immigrant too. And I grew up always feeling like this is like, I'm not welcomed here. That's really obvious. I feel stressed about needing to, like, present in just one way too. Being outraged about it and how it still impacts New York and all this other stuff. And I was getting ready to tell stories about people who, where it still impacts them, but it's...you know, honestly, I was talking to my wife before this podcast and I was like, “Hey, can I tell them that you are across the street when it happened? And you saw these bodies falling?” And she said, “I guess. Why?” I said, “Yeah, you're right. I'm not even sure it impacts you.” And she said, “No, it does. But I've had so many other things happen. So many other traumas in my life. I can't, like, it's, it gets crowded out with all the other stuff that happens in life.” And, so I think your anger is actually an incredibly wise and important part of your response. It has a pulse on a reality and a truth that’s more important. And maybe that's what your anger is saying. Like, don't let this one event crowd out all the other things that you and your family have been through.
Simone: Yeah...yeah. Yeah. I think that's probably right. Like there's a, it feels like there's some kind of erasure embedded within never forget, ironically enough.
Dr. Ham: Exactly. It didn’t include us. It honestly didn't include us. I honestly feel the same way you do. Exactly the same way.
Simone: Yeah. I feel that I am struggling to know what to do with my anger. For a long time, I feel like it led me down a path of just resignation of like “That's America.” This is what the country is. And I'll figure out a way to survive in it. You know, I'll figure out a way to feign the interest, or shape myself in ways so that, you know, I'll find a way that works for me within this existing culture.
Dr. Ham: Don't you dare do that.
Simone: Well, I feel like now, more recently, I've been, one, I’ve been aware that that's like, sort of the attitude that I've had. I think in part because I see a lot of young people—Gen Z is really acquiring this reputation for how deeply they care and how willing they are to put those feelings into action. I've seen that and I've been like, “Oh my God, why wasn't that my response? Why did I not think that that was an option?”
Dr. Ham: Well, shoot. Now I feel bad about saying don't you dare do that.
Simone: No, no, no. No, Don't, don't, no, not at all.
Dr. Ham: That part of you that wants to just resign yourself, that part is also good. So we can't be mad at that part either. What do you think that part is trying to help you accomplish?
Simone: Honestly, like a preservation of energy in a way.
Dr. Ham: Mmmm...I know. Yeah. I just always go back to what’s in my domain of control. And, then I get more microscopic and I just focus on the person in front of me, the patient in front of me, the person who is hurting. And then I just try to do good in that moment and just hope that it has a ripple effect on the world. And maybe you need to figure out what your domain of control is, where your voice has power.
Simone: Yeah. Do you think we're, like, ready to have a different kind of conversation about 9/11 now that we're like 20 years removed?
Dr. Ham: No, not at all. (laughs) I don't think so. Our country's like more divided, more extreme.
Dr. Ham: Like if I think about the way that people heal from trauma, after something bad happens, a lot of people do wither, and they go into themselves. And for a lot of people, one important step of healing is to have the power to say, like, “What happened wasn't right. You had no right to do that. And I'm very angry at you for having done that. And you're never going to be able to do that to me again.” And it's, it's a stance of protection and self-advocacy that a lot of people with trauma don't ever have. And so it's a really good place to start. But then as people get older and older, and more complex, then you see people who say like, “Yeah, but my parents also were abused. My country was abused. We’re Holocaust survivors. We’re war veterans of some wars, or we have slavery and historical oppression. It wasn't their fault.” And then just, we get into this space of being so complicated that we can't really just find fault in just one person. It's just like, we're all in it together. That's where I hope we end up. But right now we're not there yet because we're still in the place of saying, “You are not allowed to hurt me like this. You are not allowed to, to abuse me anymore” or all these other things.
Simone: Yeah. What do you think it'll take for us to graduate from that place?
Dr. Ham: People like you, I think. People who are—
Simone: Oh boy.
Dr. Ham: People like both of us who are willing to say, like, “I have a different experience and I still, like. grieve what you went through, but I need space to have my experience too.”
Simone: Yeah. I don't know that I've ever seen that.
Dr. Ham: That's why your voice is so important.
Simone: Let me tell you, it sure didn’t feel that important. To me, I was just talking about my feelings, and hoping to find something constructive in the mess of emotions.
Simone: But after the break, Dr. Ham and I discuss the power of these kinds of vulnerable exchanges, and what making space for different experiences actually looks like.
Simone: Welcome back.
Simone: Before the break, Dr. Ham and I shared our experiences of 9/11 and connected over feeling excluded by the “Never Forget” narrative.
Simone: He was encouraging me to express my perspective, even if I felt alone in it. That in doing so, I was making space for others who may also have those feelings.
Simone: But I was terrified of being so vulnerable so publicly. In the back of my head I was thinking, “Man, I am not going to be able to control who hears this. Or how it’s received.”
Simone: I wanted to be honest about my experience. But I was worried that others would hear what I had to say and feel hurt or diminished.
Simone: Why, why does it feel so much, sometimes, like acknowledging someone else's pain is invalidating your own?
Dr. Ham: Because we get defensive. One, the energy of it already just makes our bodies feel like we're being attacked. Like we did something wrong, and maybe we did. But two, as anger elevates, then our bodies naturally get more like, “Uh oh, if they're screaming at me now, they're going to bite my head off next.” And then that energy makes us feel like, oh, we have to protect ourselves. We have to justify how we think or whatever. It's a very human response. We're still just animals who are afraid for ourselves. And you have to rise above that survival instinct to keep your heart open to the other person.
Simone: I want to maybe push back on that a little bit. Is it fair to put all pain sort of on equal footing? Let's say one party has been oppressed by that other party. All right. So they might both be hurt, but there is sort of a clearly oppressive relationship.
Dr. Ham: Mhhhmmm.
Simone: How do you leave space for and validate both of those people's feelings?
Dr. Ham: It's about timing. It's about whose turn it is. When it's one person's turn, then you bracket your pain, you become fully listening. And then afterwards, you figure out a way to help them feel like you really get where they're coming from. And then at some point, if you have a reaction and you say, “I want to share what I went through. There's a part of me that feels attacked or I feel like I need to defend myself. Can I do that right now?” Or if they say, “No, you can't do that right now. I need you to really sit in what I went through.” Then you're like, “Okay, I'll wait.” So you negotiate it. Ideally.
Simone: So it sounds like you're saying a lot of the work that needs to be done is pretty small.
Dr. Ham: Exactly. And we just have to do it as a group.
Dr. Ham: I think that maybe if I were to give our society one bit of advice, it would be to realize that hearing about one person's pain doesn't somehow invalidate your experience. And that the greatest gift we can give each other is to deeply listen without any agenda. No more self-righteousness. Just like, what is this collective thing that we all go through as human beings?
Simone: I like that. It goes back to this just not wanting to feel alone in your feelings, in your worldview, in your perspective.
Dr. Ham: That's a huge part of what I do in therapy, honestly. Everyone feels so weird. They're so judgy and ashamed of themselves for all their inner thoughts. And if they only knew what I've heard in my 20 years of therapy, I'd be like, “You're just like everyone else.” “You're just,” I say, “You're just all too human in what you're struggling with.”
Simone: Yeah. We're talking a lot about leaving space. It seems like there's not a lot of space.
Dr. Ham: Yeah. Yeah.
Simone: How do you create space?
Dr. Ham: I think it's all inner work first. You have to accept that you're an imperfect creature, that you have ugly parts as well as beautiful parts and learn to love all of those parts. Otherwise, whenever you're listening to someone, if you're ashamed of your own ugly parts, then that shame will eventually get kicked up because you'll feel something that you're, you won't allow yourself to feel. But you did it really well today. Like when you said, “I think I have to push back on this part.” That took courage and it took a sense of presumed safety in the conversation and a sense of “I have a right to have a different opinion here” and that's the real work. Like, how do we make it safe for us to know ourselves and to know another person? So it gets even more microscopic.
Simone: So we gotta get comfortable with being messy and ambiguous and uncertain?
Dr. Ham: Yeah. I've been playing with this metaphor that, I call it “Turn the jewel” and I've been saying that to my patients because I've been thinking about how jewels and precious stones are actually more luminescent and brilliant because they're multifaceted. It's because the light goes in and bounces around inside of all those little facets and then it comes out in, in brilliance. And so every time we look at a moment in a different way, we're turning the jewel and that makes it sparkle and it makes it more beautiful.
Simone: That's a beautiful message of self-love. I'm curious for you—you know,I've been sitting with my feelings for a long time, so in a way I'm a little bit blind to them. And, you know, for a long time felt really lonely in them. And actually it wasn't until I started talking a little bit about this for the story, and even in our conversation now that I'm realizing like, I mean, even just hearing that you felt similarly for me was very eye-opening because, again, it feels naive to say it, but I really felt alone in those feelings.
Dr. Ham: And I was scared to even say that I got what you went through.
Simone: It's making me angry again, but it has a different quality to it. Like it's a more energized angry.
Dr. Ham: Exactly.
Simone: You know, less resigned.
Dr. Ham: Exactly. That's the function of anger to give you the energy, to, to fix things, to solve problems, to right wrongs. Embrace that, cherish that energy. And then the part of you that feels resigned, like, do take breaks. But also I wondered whether there was a part of you that was saying, “Be cautious, be gentle while you're making change.” Don't silence another person in your anger, just call on the people who are ready to hear you.
Simone: There's a part of me too, I think, that wishes, I had something more concrete to say. Like something more definitive.
Dr. Ham: Maybe the podcast should end with an invitation for your listeners to meet with their families or their neighbors and have an, a raw open conversation about what it means for them to use this Memorial to reflect on where we are as a country. To maybe heed that call, to join behind this moment, but not in a way that silences us, but that invites all of our diversity of opinions and experiences.
Dr. Ham: Let them have the last word.
Simone: So, dear listener…I invite you to make the space in your life to speak openly and vulnerably about the messy feelings you may have on this 20th anniversary of September 11th. Even if you think you don’t have the right things to say, or the right feelings to feel.
Simone: Let us know how it goes. Because my guess is...you may not be as alone as you think.
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Julie Carli.
Simone: Next week, Zsa Zsa Gabor...the aging star who slapped a cop and brought the Hollywood treatment into a real-life courtroom.
Judge Rubin: Too many movies from the, from the forties and fifties, you know, where the heroine slaps the hero and then faints onto the sofa. And she sort of felt that life was like the movies of that genre. So she scripted this trial in her own mind.
Simone: Our producers are Kinsey Clarke and Sarah Craig. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Maura Walz and Zac Stuart Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Matthew Boll. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to Jessica Yung, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey. Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
Dr. Ham:There will certainly be some people who are angry, but other people who feel consoled by what you're doing, just like the way that you felt consoled by my sharing, talk to them.
Dr. Ham: Reach them.