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A new book about grief has its roots in the long-lost diaries of a 9/11 victim

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bobby McIlvaine was just 26 years old on September 11, 2001. He was at the World Trade Center by chance, helping a colleague set up for a banking presentation. And he was killed. The Atlantic writer Jennifer Senior knew Bobby well. His parents let her read his journals, and then she wrote about him in what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning essay. She told Rachel Martin how she felt compelled to investigate his life.

JENNIFER SENIOR: He was an avid diarist, and he had a diary sitting on his desk on September 11 that his father gave to the woman that he was going to marry, that Bobby was going to marry.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Her name is Jen.

SENIOR: Her name was Jen. Yes. And, you know, he was in this fugue state as he was cleaning out Bobby's room. And Jen was with him. And Jen took one look at that diary, saw that her name was all over it, and said, may I have this? And his father said, yes, yes, of course. Take it. Maybe you'll find something in there that will be useful for the eulogy. He was trying to be kind. And Bobby's mother, when she found this out, was so upset and said, how can you give away the last thing our son ever wrote? It was - it's a chance to have - to hear his voice one more time, to, in a weird way, be in conversation with him, to hear fresh conversation from him. This was a chance to hear their son, who was a good writer and had a lively mind. And when she asked Jen, his fiancee, for this diary, she never got it back. Jen wouldn't give it back. And I became obsessed with this thing, just as Helen did. I could not understand why. Why would you not give this back to a mother? And I just became bound and determined to get this diary back.

MARTIN: Over all these years, you had just had Bobby's mom, Helen - her version of this story.

SENIOR: That is exactly right. It did not occur to me that there could be a perfectly humane, plausible, sympathetic, really profound goose-pimpling explanation for why Jen may have wanted to hang on to this diary.

MARTIN: What happened when you tracked Jen down and confronted her about this? I don't know if confront is the right word. Seems probably more aggressive than it actually was.

SENIOR: She was extraordinarily gracious. I wrote her this very gingerly note. You know, I said to her, you know, that I really wanted to just ask her about how she was processing this trauma 20 years in. She wrote me back this incredibly nice note, saying that she had a very fond memory of the two of us talking right after we had discovered that Bobby had died. I have no memory of this at all, which just shows how funny our memories are. I mean, to some degree, this book is about - the piece is about how flawed our memories are, particularly when it comes to trauma. But she couldn't have been more gracious, and she was ready to share it. And she had contemplated it. And she was, I think, in a funny way, grateful for the opportunity.

MARTIN: She was grateful for the opportunity to talk with you, to sit and share memories. And in the end, what did you learn about her motivations for keeping the journal?

SENIOR: Oh, but if I tell that, I give away.

MARTIN: Oh, we don't have to. Oh, no, we don't have to.

SENIOR: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I always am nervous about keeping spoilers.

SENIOR: Oh, no. I love that you asked. I love that you asked. Well, here's what I will say.

MARTIN: OK.

SENIOR: The last page you read it - and I meant it. I mean, the hair - every hair on the back of my neck was, you know, standing up. It was - when Helen finally saw it - because Jen gave me permission to Xerox it - you know, Helen said, oh, my God, how could she not have held on to it? I mean, I would have had to have given her this diary if I'd known what was in it. I mean, this is a 26-year-old young man, right? I think Helen made the mistake of thinking that there was going to be a lot of material in there about her because in his previous diaries, of course, in the diaries of a teenager, many of the ones that she'd seen, he talks about his family. But he had just fallen in love. A lot of this diary was about Jen. And I'm not going to say all the various things that were in there. And some of them are also about grief, coincidentally. And so what - so it made it doubly interesting because his diary wasn't just kind of this historical artifact with kind of a crystal ball. It kind of had all of these pearls of wisdom about how to grieve. And no one could have predicted that.

MARTIN: There's a subplot in this story about this marriage between...

SENIOR: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Helen and Bob Sr.

SENIOR: Yes.

MARTIN: And wow, the grace that she extends to him as he is working through a lot of questions about how his kid died, right? And there's not information - they don't know what his last moments were like. And so Bob Sr. starts to fill the vacuum with a lot of conspiracy theories. How did Helen absorb all that?

SENIOR: Grace is such a perfect word, and it's exactly right. I mean, he decided that the government was involved. This was an inside job. He went down a rabbit hole. She couldn't have cared less. In fact, she was - I wouldn't say hostile to this idea, but she really wanted no part of it. She didn't want to think about 9/11. She didn't want to think about 9/11 conspiracy theories. I mean, while she wanted to grieve in her own way, there was a grief counselor who told them early on - and this was a very useful metaphor for them - that when someone dies, you have to imagine that you are at the top of a mountain, and you all have a broken leg. So you can't help each other get down the mountain. You're going to have to get down in your own way. And so this was his way.

I mean, the only exception that I think one could take to that metaphor, which someone pointed out to me, is Bob Sr. doesn't even seem to want to get down the mountain, right? He wants to live in his grief. He's in this, like, kind of glass house of sorrow. And what's amazing to me is that Helen has accepted that and said, he doesn't want to get down. You know, he's going to stay right here with his grief.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLIDEO'S "JESUS SAUVE")

INSKEEP: Jennifer Senior, speaking with our friend Rachel Martin about her essay "On Grief."

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLIDEO'S "JESUS SAUVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.