Death Masks at Ground Zero



115 liberty st ny 10006

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

With the groundbreaking of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, this past Fourth of July marked the latest phase of post- 9-11 recovery.

“As we commemorate the foundation of our nation we will lay the foundation for our resurgence,” Gov. George Pataki hopefully explained about the event.

But while Pataki may feel it is high time for new beginnings, to his and many other New Yorkers’ annoyance, some critics of the groundbreaking think it’s still too soon to move on, or at least to rebuild Ground Zero, mostly, they claim, for practical, often monetary reasons.

This tension between emotion and money—and especially the misplaced blame for loss and pain—has become one hallmark of post-9-11 grief. It was something that momentarily appeared to stump psychiatrist Dr. Rynearson six months after 9-11, when he arrived in the city from Seattle eager to help New York City therapists help their city heal.

The afternoon of Rynearson’s workshop, nearly two dozen New York City therapists sat in a dimmed room at the downtown Brooklyn office of the social services organization Safe Space, puzzling over what slides of 200-year-old Native American death masks had to do with World Trade Center victims.

The counselors, several working or slated to work with families of World Trade Center victims, paused their note-taking as Dr. Rynearson pointed out pertinent details on the grimacing faces flashing across the overhead: the jet-black jagged veins lining the mask of a man who froze to death; the blue, bloated look of another who drowned. The idea was that people who die violently are not at peace, Rynearson explained.

Shamans donned the masks and danced above the bereaved, letting them connect with their deceased loved ones, pacify the troubled spirits, and move on with their own living.

“The shaman was sort of the equivalent of a psychotherapist,” Rynearson, who was a Harvard anthropology major in the heady days of Jung, added wryly. “They were a weird group, not really accepted, spent a lot of time by themselves, starving themselves.”

Dr. Rynearson, who has the curious distinction of being one of the country’s few experts on violent death, is a tall, white-haired man with large-rimmed glasses, a round, owl-like face, and a humble, slightly bumbling demeanor. In the spirit of his field, he wore a red tie lined with tiny canoes rowed by tiny men. Rowing is perhaps his favorite metaphor for how best to get through the shock of losing a loved one to violence—keep balanced and afloat, go with the flow.

Rynearson would know. His wife committed suicide following a post-partum depression. Though her body was never found, police believed she jumped from a ferry. Rynearson was left with two small children and his irrepressible imagining of the last few minutes of her life. Each time a public document surfaced about her disappearance—a police report, a terse account in the local paper—Rynearson felt compelled to revisit and revise his own rendition of her death. Rynearson has since found that this “painful kind of inheritance”—a survivor’s story of a loved one’s brutal death, which the vast majority did not witness, but which they imagine, intensely, over and over—haunts about 40% of those who have recently lost a family member to violence.

“This is what our mind does when it’s overwhelmed, is try to make a story of it,” said Rynearson, looking weary.

Fourteen years after his wife’s suicide, Rynearson opened a specialty clinic in Seattle that works with family members after a violent dying. Rynearson found it takes about 6-9 months following an unnatural death before family members are ready for therapy. At his clinic, that means helping survivors reframe the haunting fantasy of the violence to allow room for real memories.

As if right on time, six months after 9-11, many survivors of World Trade Center victims began seeking counseling of their own accord. Safe Space, which typically works with families of homicide victims, often from poor communities, formed two World Trade Center support groups. Rynearson had traveled to Brooklyn to help out the counselors, mostly women, manning the groups. These women seemed eager to adopt Rynearson’s ideology, which had a distinctly West Coast, touchy-feely bent, but when question and answer time rolled around, it became evident they still didn’t get how masks fit into their agenda. At least for the time being, they said, their newest clients were more likely to discuss money than memorabilia.

“We wanted them to focus on their own feelings and experiences,” sighed one therapist, “but funds were so tied into their experience that we had to let them talk about it.” A murmur of agreement rippled through the room. “In my non-World Trade Center groups people are saying, ‘No one knocked on my door and gave me $20,000 when my husband was killed,’” piped up a voice from the front of the room. “Financial assistance has become part and parcel of their grief,” shrugged another. “It’s difficult for clients to focus on what their feelings are.”

Rynearson nodded and mumbled affirmation that this soon after the tragedy it was easy to confuse feeling shortchanged for something tangible, like money, for the senseless loss of a life. Then he offered a bit of classic, infuriatingly open-for-interpretation therapist advice: “Group isn’t helpful if there’s not some crying going on,” he said, then reconsidered. “But it’s not a good idea to encourage feelings for the sake of feelings.” And sometimes, Rynearson warned, talking just isn’t enough. “A lot of what family members go through following a violent death is beyond words,” he said.

To the therapists who work with the victims’ families, this confusion had translated into a concern for compensation; for Rynearson, masks seemed to suffice. Rynearson brightened when a black and white photo of a scowling shaman gazed ominously across the room. She wore a large, looming headpiece, making her look more mythic bird-god than human. “Isn’t she wonderful?” he marveled. “One of my fantasies in terms of being a therapist is how I long for this power, in terms of the patient you’ve been seeing for 10 years who’s never getting better and all you have to offer is yourself. You want to say, ‘Mr. Ferguson, next week we’re trying something different,’ and then walk out of the lobby looking like that.'”

The room erupted into relieved giggles, one of the few light moments of the day.

“What you’re doing is different, very different,” said Dr. Rynearson in a more solemn moment, standing to address those then working the front lines of September 11th’s fallout. Then he gave an odd, new twist to the event that transformed the world: “Very exciting work,” he said, “very exciting work. It’s too bad I’m too far away.”

He left New York’s shamans the pioneering task of nudging the bereaved, and through them the city itself, further from the federal Victims Compensation Fund and closer to their grief.

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