Why a 9/11 widow went graphic with her grief
Alissa Torres has suffered humiliation and despair since she lost her husband in the attack on the Twin Towers seven years ago. Writing a graphic novel has eased her pain
A psychic once told Alissa Torres she would one day become a writer, "but not in the way you might expect".
The aspiring young Jewish author could not have imagined the pain, grief and anger which would forge her path to publication of an intensely personal and controversial memoir 20 years later. "Suddenly I had the material which inspired the passion to pour it all out on the page," says Torres.
She is talking about how, when she was seven months pregnant, her Colombian-born husband Eddie perished in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. It was his second day at his dream job with Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial-services company, which looked like finally helping the struggling couple towards a solvent future.
Within five months of losing Eddie, Torres, whose maiden name was Rosenberg, was in print, spouting vituperatively about her status as a highly reluctant American icon. She was one of the first 9/11 widows to find voice among a group which mostly put up silently with being written about, second-guessed and wheeled out as a vehicle for Americans to vent their own collective rage and sense of helplessness in the face of attack.
"A narrative was constantly being told that was not mine," she says. "People were talking about our experience looking in, and I felt it was time to talk about what it was like looking out."
Now, seven years in the making, comes her true-life graphic novel which records the freeze-frame horror of imploding buildings, and the domestic tragedy of grunting goodbye to the husband with whom you were having a row, before discovering two days later that these would be the last words you would ever say to him. "Part of writing the book was to be honest - and it wasn't very pretty," admits the 42-year-old lawyer.
Torres, a feisty New Jersey native, has both impressed and irritated US critics by refusing to romanticise her tale. She is pretty frank about the problems facing her and her husband before he was killed. "Eddie had been laid off from another job the previous month, and with a baby on the way there was a lot of anxiety. I was ready to leave for Hawaii and figure out how to be a single mum."
She is also not afraid to mouth off against the officials who, she says, made her life almost unbearable when she was at her most vulnerable. "I suddenly understood what I was taught at my Jewish school about how giving anonymously is the highest mitzvah, because it's so humiliating to receive charity," she says.
The draining experiences she faced immediately after finding out that her husband was dead included having to prove to Cantor Fitzgerald that Eddie really was their employee when the terrorists struck before he had had a chance to sign his contract, and having to invoke the FBI to get assistance for her inlaws to fly in from Colombia to attend their son's funeral.
Her nightmare started when, still seething after the row with Eddie, she took a phone call. "I was going about my business, being angry and annoyed, when my brother called to say a plane had crashed into one of the towers. Then everything shifted," she recalls.
"‘So he's dead, then,' was my first thought." But she had no means of verifying this flash of intuition.
"Eddie's cellphone was broken, and I didn't even know how to spell Cantor Fitzgerald, let alone which floor it was on. I just knew it was really high up and he was dead. But I stopped being sure he was dead once I got out of the house and started walking, having thought, in a daze: ‘I guess I'd better get down there.'"
In the graphic novel, comic-strip speech bubbles record the banal words exchanged with strangers and the bizarre thoughts in her head as she walked, in shock, from her Manhattan home towards the World Trade Centre.
"It was absolutely slow-mo and so surreal," she says. "I knew I had to feed the cat and dog before I left, and things flew all over the place. I knew I wasn't thinking rationally when, at seven-and-a-half months pregnant, I contemplated roller-blading downtown in the absence of subways and taxis."
The baby was uppermost in her mind when she stopped to buy a healthy sandwich - "I knew I had to look after myself" - and she noted a strangely light and happy atmosphere as she walked alone towards the towers against a sea of humanity which appeared to be peacefully strolling the other way. "It was a beautiful day and people seemed happy to be out from work - they were walking, not running at all - until I got closer, and came across one woman screaming."
Even as she saw both towers collapse, Torres still thought her husband could be alive: "Eddie was a resourceful guy, and if anyone could have figured how to get out it would have been him. I finally came across two banking types in suits who said the guys from Cantor Fitzgerald were fine, just a little cut up. It wasn't something ugly they were doing; they knew how terrible the situation was, and were looking at this pregnant lady they knew had just been widowed and should be persuaded to go home.
"I suddenly realised it wasn't very realistic to go down there to say goodbye to my husband. So I turned around."
An organised type who had been campaigning for housing justice and helping the ageing, Torres resisted the exhortations of her mother to get out of the city and come "home" to New Jersey. She instead busied herself with the search for information about Eddie's whereabouts. It was two days before hearing that Cantor chief Howard Lutnick was on TV, weeping about having lost all 658 employees at work in the towers, finally brought home the truth that she was indeed a widow. "Suddenly I realised it was time to stop looking for my husband," she says.
Perhaps only a graphic novel (young artist Sungyoon Choi provides the illustrations) can adequately convey the surrealism of the scenes that followed - the shocked reaction of shop assistants in the maternity shop where Torres ran for a black funeral dress; the cruelty of the Red Cross worker who withheld promised funds to get Eddie's family to New York to see him buried; the insensitivity of a never-seen-before neighbour hoping to drag the "authentic" 9/11 widow to her German church for a special service.
Torres was jerked out of the stupor-like depression that followed the initial burst of activity by the birth of her son more than three weeks before her due date. "You accompanied me to the hospital in an envelope of large, vibrant pictures taken at the beach on September 9, 2001, our last day together," she writes in a page clearly intended as a love letter to her husband.
But the birth of Joshua, aged seven next month and already aware of the circumstances of his father's death, marked the toughest period of his mother's fight to deal with life after 9/11. "As the pregnant wife of a victim I was the object of pity, allowed to go to the front of the line. As a single mother, I was suddenly at the back of the line," she say.
Then came the humiliation of going round a convention centre where organisations had set out their stalls for victims' families to apply for their bounty: "If it wasn't for the fact I had a child on the way, I'd have been out of there," says Torres bitterly. "But because of him, I was driven to go round all the tables and apply for whatever I was supposed to get.
"It was horrible, even though it wasn't intended as an exercise in humiliation. You could fill out in one place the different forms for social security, workers's compensation, crime-victim support. And the mayor's office was there, a Buddhist charity and the Red Cross. I don't remember seeing the Jewish charities."
While the Buddhists were her favourites - "You showed your death certificate and marriage certificate, filled out a one-page document, and got a cheque," she says - others, notably the Red Cross, induced extra suffering by imposing a sense of guilt and shame on the askers. "There was so much ineptness among the do-gooders, and so many experiences that were hurtful and shameful. To this day, people who are supposed to be in the business of relief need to get their act together - they are not doing a good job."
Torres holds no brief for the Bush administration, which she blames for not having acted on intelligence which could have prevented the attacks.
But at least compensation payments have allowed her to remain living "modestly" in Manhattan and concentrate on raising her child. "I had to move six times - including back to New Jersey for 10 months out of sheer exhaustion. There was a lot of difficulty understanding what our financial situation was, and a lot of insecurity for a very long time."
She does not put the calmness she demonstrates today down to a talent for recovery: "Recovery is a wrong word. You don't recover from things like this, you grow on top of them. I like to think of myself as an ancient city, which is destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again and then built on top of once more.
"I don't think of what happened as some terrible weight which doesn't let me exist and thrive; I think it's made me a better person because I feel very appreciative and engaged with the world."
She remains engaged also with the love of Jewish family ritual which persuaded her, in order to please her mother, to agree to a second wedding to Eddie presided over by a rabbi after their civil ceremony. She makes sure Joshua sees her family regularly, and has exposed him to Judaism as well as his father's Catholic faith. But she will not be saying yiskor (a memorial prayer) for Eddie on Yom Kippur. "I'm not much of a synagogue person," she explains.
She is also not happy about the seven-year wrangle over how to rebuild Ground Zero. "I don't like the idea of a big Freedom Tower and was appalled by the notion that the original towers should be rebuilt. For a time I felt the site should be left, or made into a park. Then I thought how great it would be to have a vibrant, living and diverse, mixed-income apartment block representing all the different people who died together there. I feel very sad for those people for whom that is the only place to remember their loved ones. And I'm very glad I've been able to build my own memorial to my husband - which is my book."
American Widow is available at www.amazon.co.uk from around £10 including p&p.
Around 3,000 people died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was created shortly after the attack to help victims' families in return for their agreement not to sue the airlines involved.
Some relatives remain unhappy with the arrangement, believing more money would have been available had they pursued individual claims.
A number of families have also criticised the way the victims deaths have been used by the Bush administration as a justification for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.