The Architecture of Grief: A Review of Project Rebirth

When guest blogger Lanie Tankard, who has reviewed a dozen other  books on this site, read my last post about Courtney E. Martin, she was ecstatic because, unbeknownst to me, she had just finished a review of Project Rebirth and had planned to send it to me. Synchronicity at work!

Project Rebirth

Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors

by Dr. Robin Stern

and Courtney E. Martin

 New York: Dutton/Penguin Group (USA), August 2011 (228 pages)

Rebar is set. Steel framing stretches toward the sky. The World Trade Center site is slowly being rebuilt with five office buildings.  The core walls look solid.

What about the survivors of 9/11, though? Was there an architectural plan to rebuild their lives over the last decade?

A new book follows eight individuals who used their grief to reconstruct themselves: Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors by Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin.

Every year since 9/11, filmmaker Jim Whitaker interviewed these survivors on the anniversary of the attacks and used some of the stories in a documentary called “Rebirth.” The movie, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, was recently released in theaters and will air on Showtime on September 11.

What sets this book apart from both the film and other books about 9/11, however, is the perception Stern and Martin bring to these narratives. The two knowledgeable authors enhance the eight accounts with details from the latest research on grief. Gradually the writers enlarge these chronicles until they become universal insights about how individuals in tragedy find inner resources to cope and ultimately emerge stronger. Stern is a psychoanalyst, educator, and author, while Martin is a writer and speaker. Experienced and eloquent, they have separately worked in innovative ways on solutions to some of humanity’s deepest problems.

In Project Rebirth, we meet a young man who was a teenager when his mother, a finance trader, died on the 104th floor. There is a construction worker whose brother, a firefighter, died going in to save people. A man from Harlem rushed to volunteer and stayed for 117 days straight. An investment bookkeeper lost his partner, an insurance worker on the 102nd floor. Two firefighters headed over together, but only one returned. A police detective helped in initial rescue efforts and then recovery of remains. A fifth-grade teacher in Brooklyn assisted her class through the day but later suffered because she was an Arab Muslim. Lastly, a woman about to be married lost her fiancé, a firefighter, who was never found.

These survivors are representative examples of everyone who experienced 9/11 firsthand. They had to make modifications in their lives that were not ordinary maintenance or repair, but rather major reconstruction. As they determined how much of their interior space was actually still habitable, each selected a different floor plan. The detailing differs — where one chose a cornice, another used a cupola — but is always elegant in its presentation by Stern and Martin.

Although these eight survivors do not know one another, their stories prop each other up. When taken together, they form a block of rowhouses: an unbroken line of attached houses sharing common side walls. In Project Rebirth, they attain what the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission defines as historic appearance: “the visual appearance of a structure or site at a specific point in time after it has undergone alterations or additions which enhance or contribute to the building or site’s special architectural, aesthetic, cultural, or historic character.”

These Post-2001 People have undergone significant landscape improvement over the last decade as they added character-defining elements in their processing of 9/11. Survivors meet the criteria for landmark designation in historic districts just as surely as do buildings.

Project Rebirth not only bestows that well-earned title on them but also designs a resilient layout for anyone who grieves — which at some point in our existence includes all of us.

###

Lanie Tankard in Times Square

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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