A Monstrous Decade, a Fanatical Family, and the Worst Birthday in Human History
Ten Years of 9/11
Courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.
Remember when "September eleventh" didn't mean anything? Except "my birthday," if it happened to be your birthday? That last summer before it meant anything, before the date became the name of the deadliest day on American soil since the Battle of Antietam, I got an internship at Seattle Weekly. I was the Best of Seattle intern, tasked with sitting in one of those cubicles with walls that don't go all the way up, unfolding reader ballots, and tabulating votes for, say, Best Nail Salon.
I'd recently stepped off a cliff, family-wise, and wasn't speaking to them. I was 20.
September 11 happens to be my birthday (always has been!), and September 11, 2001, happened to be my 21st birthday. I awoke to the phone going nuts and answered it with all those expectations you have about your 21st birthday. The person on the line didn't know it was my birthday. Said to turn on the TV. For the next two hours, I sat on the couch with my boyfriend—an older man who turned out to be taking advantage of me, although I didn't see it that way at the time—and watched a Boeing 767 meet its reflection in the south tower of the World Trade Center over and over. Every time the plane came into the frame, I expected it to slice behind the buildings, Blue Angels–style, and every single time it failed to do what my eyes expected. Then the south tower thickened and disappeared over and over. Then the north tower thickened and disappeared over and over. It seemed fictional, far-fetched, trapped in the gluey flicker of the TV, too staged to be true, too exponentially unreal: The unreality of the plane hitting the building instead of missing it, times the unreality of uncountable people having to choose between burning to death or jumping to death, times the unreality of the towers vanishing like a magic trick.
Before there were images of the glowing, cathedralesque, rancid wreckage, there was miles of footage. The New York media market made the most of it. The Today show went into extra innings. The mediators revived and killed and revived and killed all those passengers and officer workers and emergency crews. The more it looped, the more the plane looked like a toy. We now know that somewhere aboard that second plane, seconds before it hit, passenger Peter Hanson was on the phone to his father in Connecticut saying, "It's getting bad, Dad—a stewardess was stabbed—they seem to have knives and Mace—they said they have a bomb—it's getting very bad on the plane—passengers are throwing up and getting sick—the plane is making jerky movements—I don't think the pilot is flying the plane—I think we are going down—I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building—don't worry, Dad—if it happens, it'll be very fast—my God, my God." The call "ended abruptly," according to the 9/11 Commission Report, and Hanson's father turned on the TV and "saw the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center." His last words before "my God, my God" were consolations to his father.
I'm sure they said on the news that another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania and then another into the Pentagon, but it wasn't until I got to the Seattle Weekly offices that this sank in. The working knowledge in the newsroom was that the plane over Pennsylvania had been shot down to protect the White House, an error that sticks in my mind because it was published in the newspaper as a fact under my byline the next day. Since 9/11 was a Tuesday, and since Seattle Weekly went to press Tuesday night, the editor, Audrey Van Buskirk, had only a couple hours to make a bunch of articles, which is how the intern tasked with Best Nail Salon got to write about the most important news story in decades. The meaningless coincidence of this 21st birthday was the topic. I reheated a line from Joan Didion that she'd reheated from William Butler Yeats—"The center did not hold," I wrote—and put it in a blender with some autobiographical stuff about my family's military history and turned in a piece that, someone told me later, made the news editor cry. In his defense, it was 9/11.
Six months later, during my sophomore year at the University of Washington, Seattle Weekly offered me a job. Neither of my parents was helping to pay for school, and in their standoff with each other, neither would cosign on a student loan—Dad was trying to buy a new house for his new wife and daughter; Mom was trying to refinance the house because the dishwasher had just exploded or something. So I took the job. Six months after that, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, Audrey Van Buskirk threw a birthday party for me in her Wallingford backyard.
Once everyone was good and drunk, we did a reenactment of the tragedy. It was a completely fucked thing to do, but then it was a completely fucked day to be having a birthday party, and it seemed better to face it than to eat cake and make small talk and pretend like everyone wasn't sick to their stomach. There didn't seem to be any good reasons to celebrate. Van Buskirk, the Seattle Weekly editor who'd hired me, had just been fired by the CEO of the New York company that owned Seattle Weekly, along with managing editor Bethany Jean Clement. These were the editors who'd given me my first shot, who'd saved me from the depressing drama playing out between my parents over money, who'd given me a column and begun to teach me how not to embarrass myself, and who were as well, by the way, probably the best chance Seattle Weekly had at being an extraordinary newspaper.
When they were fired, the CEO, realizing that it was a Monday, said he needed them to come back the next day to finish seeing off that week's issue to the printer. Someone high up in the office later described this move as "asinine," equivalent to "chopping their heads off and then asking them to clean it up."
So at the party, Clement was the south tower, and I was the north tower: We're both tall. The smallest woman at the party volunteered to be the airplanes: She stretched her arms out and two men picked her up and rammed her into us. A friend who looked a little like Katie Couric played Katie Couric. And everyone else had to decide if they wanted to jump to death or burn to death. People had been asking all night how it felt to have my birthday be September 11, had been apologizing for my awful luck, had been telling me that I should've maybe thought about having my birthday on a different day. But I thought then, and still think now, that having a birthday on September 11 is nothing if not a reminder of one's exceptional luck simply to be alive. Not a bad thing to be reminded of. Like: You've made it this far. Good on ya. You've never had to choose between burning to death or jumping to death...
Several years after 9/11, I noticed another coincidence. It's not just that it happened to be my birthday and that this particular birthday happened to be the threshold of technical adulthood, the official graduation from innocence. Being born September 11, 1980, means that I was conceived in December 1979. A month before that, in November 1979, Iranian radicals longing for a return to Islamic theocracy stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking its guards and occupants hostage for 444 days, or 14 and a half months. My conception and birth happened within the Iran hostage crisis, the first battle in America's war with militant Islam. I saw Mark Bowden talk about his book Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam in 2006, and as he signed my book, I told him of the coincidence. He paused and sat back and said, archly, "You're the son of the global jihad."
I never would have gotten a job at The Stranger if not for the job at Seattle Weekly, and if not for 9/11, I might not have gotten a job at Seattle Weekly. In many ways, 9/11 was perversely lucky for me. 9/11 was my big break.
Mike Frizzelle—born in 1983, the third of my parents' four boys, the only blond one, sardonic, laconic, virtuous, hardworking, a stress case—was in his senior year of high school on September 11, 2001, in Southern California, retaking Algebra II so he could go to college, listening to the news by radio. He'd already thought about joining the military, because when you're a Frizzelle, it's sort of expected, and after telling a recruiter he was going to wait until after college, he got the hard sell to join the reserves. Mike asked how often reserves get called into active duty. "And he was like, 'Only if the country is attacked, and how often does that happen? Hahahahahaha.' And then two or three weeks later was 9/11."
The family history is organized by world conflicts—our great-grandpa in World War I, our grandpa in World War II, our great-aunt as an army nurse in the Korean War, our uncle going off to Vietnam, our dad doing air force intelligence in Germany during the cold war. But Mike joined the army in 2007. This was five and a half years after the invasion of Afghanistan and four years after the invasion of Iraq and two and a half years after an international team of weapons officials had declared the official reasons for invading Iraq to be officially bullshit. We talked about it, Mike and I, kind of—how little sense it made to be joining the army at that moment in time. It was so unusual for someone with a degree to be signing up for the army in 2007—if you have a degree, you can start as an officer—that the guy at the recruiting station had to dig up a manual to figure out how to do it.
But I didn't harp.
Our family uses politics to hurt one another. There is little respect for calmness. There is little respect for the opposing point of view. And after years of all of us fighting about all kinds of things, I had no interest in inflicting my opinions on Mike. "You know how the whole family's kinda arrogant? We think we're better than everyone?" Mike said once. It seemed like news at the time, but it wasn't: There's unwarranted arrogance going back generations. And military personnel going back generations. We are not a peaceful people.
And Mike is the brother who makes me thank my lucky stars my parents made so many babies, the brother I look up to even though he's younger, and he's not an idiot, and the army was something he wanted to do, and he didn't feel like elaborating. The closest he ever got to an answer was "I actually joined the army to avenge your birthday. I was like, No one takes a birthday from a Frizzelle."
Plus, we are the children of parents who were madly in love and then went to war with each other. They kept it mostly civil, but each of my parents felt right, felt wronged, felt burned.
The short version (as I understood it at the time) is that Mom had an affair and Dad wouldn't forgive her, but Jesus would, so she became a born-again Christian and, along with that, a Republican. (She voted twice for George W. Bush because she thought he was "more Christian" than his opponents.) The affair was with a veterinarian whose office she worked at on Saturdays—a dumb little side job to help make ends meet in a dumb little building by the side of the freeway. The veterinarian was short and chinless and an unlikely romantic rival for my dad, who practically spit his name whenever he said it.
Because I am nosy and manipulative, and because their divorce was the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me, and because Mom was lonely and available—she ran a day care at home, so she was always there, covered in babies—I asked as many questions as my 12-, 13-, 14-year-old brain could formulate. She answered everything I asked. She would apologize for telling me things that disturbed me—things I was too young to know about—like how pornography made her feel undesired and how Dad being at work late into the night made her suspicious, and even though I didn't know what I was talking about, I would act worldly and sympathetic, like I'd seen this kind of thing all the time. In fact, I was on my way to obese and deeply closeted, and Mom was my closest friend. As she radicalized into an evangelical Christian, I radicalized into an evangelical Christian, too, giving speeches in church, having epiphanies around the fire at church camp, and agreeing fervidly that simply looking at pornography was the same as cheating and therefore Dad had cheated on her first. Embarrassingly sure of myself, lit up by Christ's mandate to forgive, I declared it unforgivable that Dad couldn't forgive her.
Dad didn't exactly radicalize after the divorce, but his Republicanism became more pronounced after he remarried. Once, randomly, my stepmom said, "Since you're gay, I'm guessing you're really into gay rights, but gays are no more than 10 percent of the population, and in this country, majority rules." She insists that Barack Obama was sworn in on a Koran. Rush Limbaugh is the reason she gets out of bed in the morning.
What's disorienting about talking politics with my parents now is how different the messages are than when I was a kid. During the 1988 presidential debates, when my parents were still married, I asked who we were voting for, which guy was our guy, and Mom said Dukakis "because Democrats care about poor people." Dad now says he never voted for Dukakis, and in the years since 9/11, he has been a vice president for more than one defense contractor. Maybe that explains why his position on just about everything seems more hard-right than it used to. Mom's move toward extreme Republican positions has seemed bizarre, but it makes sense considering her religious transformation (a religion I ran screaming from after her hysterical response to my coming out of the closet). Still, I often feel like I'm defending the values they instilled in me when I was a kid—that they're the ones who changed.
In May of 2009, Mike called to say that he'd be leaving for Iraq in the morning. It was one of those phone calls you know is coming but still surprises you when it comes. I had no idea what to say, even though I'd had years to prepare for the moment. He and I think similarly, but our closeness is tacit, based mostly on the universal facial expression for Can you believe this fucking family? The family without Mike around would be unendurable, and I'm a worrier warrior, a Worst Possible Scenario machine, and I kept thinking about who would be left if he got killed.
The last time I'd seen him was in October 2008, in Jacksonville, Florida, where our older brother Patrick, who's been in the navy since 1998, was getting married. Like a Frizzelle out of central casting, Patrick's primary mode of communication is ad hominem attack—he once called me out of the blue, after we hadn't spoken in more than three years, to convey that my life was meaningless and that Satan was living in my body. (Nice hearing from you, too!) He considers the dissolution of his first marriage a promise to God that he broke, and to make amends, to do right by Him, to be fit for heaven, finally, he and his bride-to-be decided they would wait until marriage to have sex. On the advice of their church, they decided not to kiss during their year-and-a-half courtship, because kissing presents the temptation to go further. Mike and I shared a hotel room that wedding weekend, and learned about the whole kissing thing the morning of—learned that when the officiant said, You may now kiss the bride, that would be their first time ever—and as Mike stood in the hotel room ironing his formal blues, he laughed and blushed and covered his eyes and laughed.
At the wedding, in a wheelchair, was our grandfather, Dad's dad, Nolan Frizzelle, who followed his World War II career in the marines with a career as a businessman and Republican Party activist in the 1960s, and ultimately, from 1980 to 1992, as an elected representative in the state legislature, representing Orange County. He was "a right-wing extremist," "a bigot," and "the only elected official in the United States who defends apartheid," according to opponents' descriptions of him that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper itself described him as a "hard-line ideological," "irascible and long-winded," and "one of the 'cavemen,' the archconservatives Orange County exported to the Capitol during the Reagan Revolution." Grandpa thought South African blacks were, in his words, "quite incapable of governing themselves" and that their problems had been exaggerated. In 1989, he authored a measure that would "prohibit prosecution of parents whose children die of illnesses or injuries treatable with modern medicine" for those who would rather rely on prayer than science. That same year, he attempted to remove the words "sexual orientation" from an antidiscrimination law in Irvine because he believed preventing discrimination against gay people would "advance homosexuality... a perverse lifestyle."
Our family is so often propelled by imaginary facts, and the president who invaded Iraq was so propelled by imaginary facts, and the thinking of the majority of the American public that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11 was such a constellation of imaginary facts, that Mike getting killed in Iraq, for nothing, would be the bolt from heaven par excellence: What better illustration of the harm of imaginary facts?
On the phone that day, it seemed obvious that Mike was going to die and that the only way to prevent that from happening would be to keep him on the phone forever, but I couldn't think of a single question to ask, so I went with the winner: Are you nervous?
"I feel fine," he said. "I was nervous two days ago but now I'm fine." What was he going to be doing? "We're going to be training Iraqis. The Iraqi brigade or something," he said. What was he doing at the moment? "Sitting in an empty apartment with a computer and a pillow." What were his plans for the night? "Steak dinner. Just take it easy."
And that was it. Then he heard his older brother try to explain how proud he was of him and how brave he was, and talk about how meaningful it was to go off and be part of history, and all that other uplifting crap you say to someone when there's a chance this is your last chance. Feeling blank, full of love, terrified, inarticulate, the next thing I knew, we were done talking and I was wandering around the apartment trying not to cry.
I called Dad, who said, "I think Mike's chances of coming back in one piece are pretty good."
I called our great-aunt—the army nurse during the Korean War—and she said, "I think he'll be in jeopardy, of course, but it'll be a random sort of thing, Iraqis blowing up Iraqis—getting in the middle of that. That would be the danger. But probably not as much danger as being a policeman in Oakland driving on the freeways. I hope he doesn't get killed, but mostly I hope he doesn't get hurt." She said it was worse to lose a limb or come home with your brain scrambled than not to come home at all.
I called our youngest brother, Steven, who still lives at home with Mom even though he's well into his 20s and who said, "I told him, 'Don't be a hero. If you hear a gun, don't think about your guys—run!' That's what I would do." This is classic Steven, so offhandedly selfish. When I told him what Aunt Betty said about getting injured being worse than not making it back at all, he said, "More things to worry about! Thanks! I didn't even think about that. Jesus." And then he added, "I told Mom, 'He's nervous but he's keeping it together. Try not to freak him out by crying and telling him how Jesus loves him.'"
Two months after he got to Iraq, Mike and I were on Facebook at the same time. "It's like 120 here and windy. Feels like a blow dryer in your face all the time," he typed on Facebook chat. "I would like to go home. I'm over this place." I asked what he missed most and he said, "Girls, alcohol, and the ocean."
"They made me a platoon leader today," he said in a chat a month later. "I've got 30 guys. Basically I'm in charge of force protection and logistics. I handle that so the MiTT only has to worry about the Iraqi army." I could never understand this technical stuff, no matter how many questions I asked, so I usually steered the conversation toward his state of mind. Six months into his Iraq tour, he started mailing handwritten notes on United States Army stationery, "because there is nothing more impersonal than the internet." He wrote letters to his long-term girlfriend, his college sweetheart, almost every day during basic training, "and we grew so much closer because of it," he wrote. "Since I've been out here, I've only done internet and we've been kind of drifting, so writing letters is my new thing. It's relaxing, too, not to mention people actually keep them." He said he'd come home to the States for a two-week R&R and hadn't told the family because he just wanted to spend the time with his girlfriend. "I just didn't feel like talking about the military and I knew the family would be asking," he wrote. And "if I expect to keep [her] around I need to give her most of my attention."
Keeping her around wasn't in the cards, though, not in the end. At a certain point in time, he learned some information that changed everything, just as, at a certain point in time, our dad learned some information that changed everything with Mom—a piece of information Dad shared with me only a few years ago, when I was on a road trip with him, just the two of us.
According to Dad, in the early years of their marriage, on the air force base in Germany, one of his superiors sent him away for a weekend of training and had sex with Mom while Dad was gone. When Dad got his orders to move to Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, my parents undertook a driving tour of Europe in a yellow-green MG with a suitcase full of diapers and their several-months-old first baby, Patrick. During that drive, in the town of Dunkirk, Dad almost left her. In a fury over finding out about his air force boss, Dad got into the MG and drove to the water and got out and looked up at the cranes in the harbor and thought about what to do. He doubtless also thought about the miracle of Dunkirk, one of his favorite war stories. He thought of his wife back in the motel room with their first-born son, and he swallowed his pride and believed her that it wouldn't happen again, and then they moved to Omaha, where I was born and where unbeknownst to him she had an affair with a neighbor, and then to Northern California, where unbeknownst to him she had an affair with a swimming instructor at the pool.
Dad found out about those other men when he found out about the veterinarian, years later—imagine the violence of that revelation—and to add insult to injury, Mom asked him to move out so she and the veterinarian could make a go of it. (Didn't pan out.) My unbridled rage against my father for the entirety of high school—my formulation that it was all because he couldn't forgive her for one thing—was born of ignorance. I'd been propelled by made-up facts and, fighting against his supposed villainy, had done my best to hurt him. By the end of the conversation on that enlightening road trip together, he and I were sobbing—a tough-guy military dad and his gay adult son sobbing so hard we had to pull into a Bank of America parking lot and just sit there for a while to pull ourselves together.
Mike had found out long before I had, which probably explains why he never went to war with Dad like I did. He remembers where he was when Mom told him. They were sitting in the car in the driveway of the house that would end up in the bank's hands, and Mom confessed to the affair with the veterinarian. "And then I think she said there were more," Mike remembers. "She's just kind of like, 'There's a lot more.'"
Mike got home from Iraq, got out of the army, and found out his girlfriend's devotion to him had been a myth. They had been together for four years, but there had been a lot of other men while he was gone, which in retrospect explained all the odd looks he got from mutual friends whenever he'd come home to see her. When he graduated from Officer Candidate School in 2008, on a Valentine's Day, and my dad and granddad and their wives and I all flew to Georgia to pin lieutenant bars on his uniform, Mike's girlfriend was supposed to be there, too, but never showed. "That probably would have been a great time to break up with her," he says now.
As for Mom, the picture I have painted here is incomplete. She has soldiered through so much grief—her father died when she was 17, her only brother has been in and out of jail and halfway houses for decades, her mother is estranged—and she has transformed her grief into a fixation on taking care of other people. She is perhaps the most preternaturally sensitive person currently living, a rescuer of stray animals, a person who emphasizes manners and modesty, a person who will do anything for anyone even if she doesn't want to. As a mother, she always made it clear that her love was unconditional, and her foibles richly illustrated the concept of consequence. For what it's worth, Dad was the first date she'd ever been on.
She has been struggling in financial quicksand for the past 20 years, since the divorce, and she works three jobs, seven days a week, and has never once complained about it. No matter how little money she has, every September she makes a batch of chocolate chip cookies and a batch of peanut butter cookies and sends them in a box (some cookies break in transit, coating the other cookies in cookie dust) along with an inflated Mylar birthday balloon that floats out, falls up, when I open the package.
Two weeks ago, I called my father's aunt, Betty Lewis, the army nurse of 21 years, to get her take on how the family had changed since 9/11, and how her own life had changed, and she said, "9/11 meant nothing to me in my life." She's 88 years old, and she's long been something of a black sheep in the family: In the army, she met another army nurse, Dot, and the two women lived together as life partners for 30 years, an arrangement that was never discussed by anyone ever when I was growing up.
I told her I was working on an essay about the 10th anniversary of 9/11, specifically a piece about how my life had changed and my little brother's life had changed since 9/11, and how being the children of divorced parents has programmed us for conflict but also demonstrated the dangers of taking sides, to say nothing of this being a military family and this having been a militarized decade—and she stopped me right there. "We're not a military family," she said. "We're a family trying to get away from some ghost."
I said: We're not a military family?
She said, "When they talk about the war experience—it's a dream. It's a fake dream. It's a dream they all have. Their patriotism is a myth. 'I wanted to be patriotic—rah, rah, rah—the military!' But none of them have really been in the military." She said that during World War II, Grandpa Nolan "sat over there on an island," meaning Hawaii. He was ill with spinal meningitis, which spared him from being sent to Iwo Jima, where something like 93 percent of his peers died.
"Like me in Korea," she went on. "I was there the day the war ended. I was never in danger of anything more than maybe drinking too much and falling down. Whenever my sister said I was a hero, I just wanted to vomit. It was a job. That's why I joined nursing school." She pointed out that my older brother, Patrick, "has never been shot at in his life." She added, "Your father was in the intelligence corps in Munich—what kind of suffering is that? People pay big bucks to go to Munich." In terms of actual suffering and/or imminent danger, she believes Uncle David in Vietnam and Mike in Iraq came the closest.
It has to be pointed out that Aunt Betty exaggerates. When I floated the above past my father, he said, "More soldiers die in every war from illness than combat. Dad almost did. Then he taught hand-to-hand combat to marines for a year. That's an office job? And because I scrambled fighters to the Czech border but did not fly one, I was not in the military? Come on."
But here was Aunt Betty's point: "I think there's a right-wing nut problem with the family, and they sing praises to the military because if you want to be a right-wing nut, you have to do that."
I had a violent, familiar feeling of the family story rearranging itself once again. There are people who want God to run the country, and they include many of my relatives. And were it not for the great gift of being gay, getting pushed out, I might well be one of them. Mike, to his vast credit, got away from it on his own. Like the rest of them, he's a fighter, but he's not a fantasist, a fanatic, a showboater, an egocentric dreamer, or an extremist, like certain people I could mention. They look so middle-of-the-road, my family. But they're fundamentalists, basically, and the question is: Are they armed?