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All Talked Out Already?

People don't seem to be saying much about Sept. 11, but that doesn't mean it's not on their minds, experts say.

January 22, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Oppenlander can't pinpoint the date, but sometime this winter the Sept. 11 terror attacks slipped from the tip of his tongue to the back of his mind.

In those first few days of reeling emotions and incredulity, Oppenlander--like many others--could talk about little else. Conversation, he said, helped ease the emotional pain inflicted by the staggering death toll and forged a tangible reality out of two-dimensional horrors he saw on his television screen.

Then war began in Afghanistan and the stumbling economy got worse. Closer to home there were holidays to celebrate and school functions to attend and, on a recent morning, Little League tryouts under a crystal-clear sky at an Irvine ballpark.

"I think people's thoughts moved immediately to the war, and now that that's winding down, they're getting on with things," Oppenlander, 37, said as his son Nicholas, 7, and a dozen other boys took turns batting. "People stopped hearing about it and had other things to focus on. It just doesn't come up in normal conversation anymore."

Four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the pungent agony wrought by the crumbling towers has faded for Oppenlander and others, even as work crews continue to dig through the rubble and, occasionally, recover body parts. Flags still flutter from cars on the freeway, and "God Bless America" signs crop up in unexpected places, but many people say they're just talked out.

One researcher thinks we still have things to say. It's just that more and more people don't want to hear them.

"People stop talking because they get the feeling from others that others do not want to listen," said Roxane Cohen Silver, a UC Irvine professor of psychology and social behavior who is leading a multiyear national study tracking the emotions of 1,300 people in the aftermath of the attacks. In the first report from that study, a survey taken around Thanksgiving found about 17% of people "were reporting what's called symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," a rate she said is high.

The next survey will be taken in spring, she said.

"If they aren't talking about it, it's not necessarily because they are not distressed," she said. The silence can come from direct rejection--"Somebody would say, 'I don't want to hear about it'"--or through nonverbal signs, such as shrugs or appearing to be distracted as the person talks.

But in the ensuing silence, grief festers.

"What we get is a conspiracy of silence as everybody thinks that nobody wants to talk about it," said Silver, who studied the aftermath of the Columbine school shooting and other traumatic events, including the 1993 wildfires in Laguna Beach and Malibu. "The more others constrain your talking, the worse you get over time. We see an increase in distress over time."

Carol Carroll, 62, lives alone in Anaheim and says the main reason she doesn't talk about the attacks anymore is there's no one at home to talk to.

Carroll is a creature of habit, and on a recent sun-dappled morning she stopped during her daily walk to chat with Gene McKibbin, 77, as he tended to some of the 135 rose bushes growing in his yard off North West Street. They didn't talk about the terror attacks. But for Carroll, the images are always with her, just waiting for a trigger to come rushing back--images of the airliners bursting into the twin towers, and then the buildings collapsing, and of a huge gap in the Pentagon wall and a blackened Pennsylvania farm field.

"Every once in a while I'll be talking with someone, and I'll refer to the towers. I'll just say Sept. 11, and they know right away," Carroll said. "Then they get quiet for a few seconds."

Michael Schudson, a sociology and communications professor at UC San Diego, said the images last flashed back for him earlier this month when 15-year-old Charles J. Bishop stole an airplane and flew it into a Tampa skyscraper, an event that Schudson described as an "echo" of the initial attacks.

It takes such reminders, he said, to bring events back into conversation.

"Public consciousness is ephemeral, and something doesn't stay constantly in mind unless there's some ongoing reason for it to do so," Schudson said. "But the sheer suddenness and size of the violence has left a really deep scar, even if people aren't talking about it on a daily basis."

The most common reminder, he speculated, comes from a trip to the airport. "I doubt that anyone who goes to an airport can do so without in some fashion thinking about Sept. 11," he said.

For many people, the start of the new year has helped place the attacks in something of a historical locker and "marks the end of a period of formal mourning," even as we still wrestle with grief, he said.

"[Mourning] has to stop sometime, and no time feels exactly right because the dead are dead and we do mourn them," Schudson said. "I imagine that the new year was one of the moments where we felt maybe that we could stop talking about it and thinking about it every day and feel a little less guilty about that."

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