Unlikely Star: A Woman Turns 9/11 Grief Into Action

Sep 7, 2011

Carie Lemack, 36, gave up a long time ago trying to make sense of the Sept. 11 attacks that killed her mother, Judy Larocque.

"That's not possible," Lemack says.

But she says she will never quit trying to prevent that kind of tragedy from ever happening again.

Ten years after her mother's unfathomable death, Lemack is on a mission that's taken her down a road she also never could have imagined.

"How bizarre is it," she says, trotting across the marble floors toward the office of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), "that the halls of Congress could feel like home. I never expected this. My mom would just think this was hysterical."

'I'm Not Afraid To Say What I Think'

Lemack's mom, a marketing executive who died on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, always used to say Carie would end up doing something interesting. But her eldest daughter Danielle was the political science major. Carie read the newspaper just for the Red Sox.

Back in 2001, she was a 26-year-old dabbling in marketing, and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, hardly the type you'd expect to end up on a first-name basis with top government officials helping to drive national policy.

"But here I am," Lemack shrugs, as she makes her way to the senator's office and greets him with a hug.

"You look fabulous," Sen. Kerry says.

"You too," she responds, engaging in just a moment of small talk before drilling down on business. She knows how these things work: Time is short and she has no intention of wasting it.

"One of the 9/11 Commission recommendations that hasn't been acted on is congressional oversight," she begins. "And I haven't seen any members from either side tackle this problem."

Kerry begins to reply, "We've actually had major meetings on committee reform...," but Lemack is indefatigable.

"But how do we do something," she interjects. "How do we get people together to do it?"

A petite brunette, dressed down in comfortable flats, Lemack cranes her neck up at Kerry, who towers a foot-and-a-half over her. But with intensity in her eyes, and emboldened by a sense of nothing left to lose, Lemack strikes a presence much larger than her 4'10" frame.

What's the worst that can happen, she figures, when the worst has already happened.

"Ten years after my mom got killed, I'm not afraid to say what I think to anyone," she says. "A politician's job is to do what we want them to do. And so it's my job to tell them. So I'm happy to do that."

Fighting Fire With Fire

Indeed, she first made it her job, just months after Sept. 11, when she called her first news conference as founder of Families of September 11, and began to stand up to everyone from the Red Cross to the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund set up by Congress.

"Everybody grieves differently," Lemack says. "And I'm doing my own journey of grief. As I like to say, I want to grieve productively."

From her apartment in Washington, D.C., Lemack still runs Families of September 11 and another organization she founded called Global Survivors Network.

"I feel like the one thing my mom gave me in her murder was the moral authority to make a difference," she says. "And I need to use that moral authority very carefully; to go out there and make sure what happened to us doesn't happen again."

"[Lemack has] done an absolutely fabulous job turning [her] personal, and the collective pain into progress," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, at a screening of a new documentary Lemack produced.

The film, called Killing In The Name, focuses on Ashraf Al-Khaled, a Jordanian Muslim who lost 27 members of his family when his wedding was blown up by an al-Qaida suicide bomber. Lemack decided it was a story that needed to be told.

"[Osama] Bin Laden kept releasing videos, so we thought, 'Why don't we?'" she says. "Because people are only hearing the terrorists' side of the story. We just thought we should fight fire with fire."

Lemack shows her documentary everywhere she can — from small independent theaters, to HBO where the film will air this month; from schools in Jordan and Indonesia to a gathering of academics and senior policy makers this summer at the Aspen security forum.

Already Making A Difference

Just moments before she was due on stage to introduce the film, Lemack sat fidgeting nervously in the front row. She's a pro at public speaking, so that wasn't what was bothering her.

"No, no," she explains. "What I am nervous about is that I hung up with my sister suddenly, and I haven't heard back from her, and I don't like — let me just call her real quick," she says, pulling out her cell phone.

It's one of the many ways Sept. 11 has changed her.

"I'm just more aware of what could happen, so I just want to make sure it hasn't happened," she says.

A quick check and one "I love you" later, and Lemack slips her phone back into her pocket. Then, as the film opens with video of Al-Khaled's wedding explosion, she stares down at her lap.

"I don't like watching this part," she says, still looking down. "I don't need to see those images."

But the graphic display is deliberate, and critical to Al-Khaled and Lemack's self-described mission "to break the silence in the Muslim world about the true cost of terror."

"If we [are] just gonna sit there and we are not going to say anything about what we have been through, this terror will never end," Al-Khaled says on screen.

The film follows Al-Khaled as he confronts the father of a suicide bomber, interviews a man who says he recruited the bomber, challenges young boys in a Muslim school in Indonesia with teary testimony from women who were widowed in the 2002 bombings of crowded nightclubs in Bali.

Lemack says the film is already doing what she hoped. For example, when she showed it to a group of radicalized Muslims in the United Kingdom, she says one of the guys was startled when she said her mom was on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.

"He said, 'Wait a second! We were taught there were no people on the planes,'" Lemack recalls. "And his whole face changed. I didn't have to say anything else, but it's like... we planted a seed."

Not A Normal Grieving Process

Lemack's documentary has also made an impression in the film industry; it was nominated for an Oscar. And talk about ending up on an unlikely path, Lemack got to walk the red carpet, in a strappy, silky, beaded designer dress, and more than a $100,000 worth of borrowed "bling."

"It was just phenomenal," she says. "I got to meet all these stars — very out of my league. And having dinner with Anne Hathaway and her parents ... it was just mind-blowing!"

But then again, everything has been kind of surreal these past 10 years. Hers was not a normal loss, nor has it been a normal grieving process.

At any public event, or private party, Lemack gets thrust from being the grieving daughter, into a walking, talking, national symbol of sorts. People want her opinions; they ask her to pose for photos; and everyone who knows her Sept. 11 story, wants to tell her theirs.

There was the woman who went on about how she was on the same flight as Lemack's mother — on Sept.10. Or the guy who shared that his wife — who had been away on business on Sept. 11 — couldn't get a flight back home for a whole week.

"Awww, that's terrible," Lemack offers, kindly. "That must have been hard."

It's her standard reply. But, some days, she concedes, she delivers it better than others.

"It's just hard," Lemack says. "It's like telling Jackie Kennedy where you were when her husband was shot. You just wouldn't do that."

Losing her mom on Sept. 11, instead of any other day, means getting used to things like that — something is constantly jabbing at her wound. She could be grocery shopping, and catch an image of the burning towers on a magazine cover at the checkout. She could be having dinner, and get a phone call that they found another piece of her mothers remains.Or she could be interrupted at a family birthday party by a reporter looking for comment on breaking news, like the death of Osama Bin Laden.

"Welcome to my world," she sighs. "It's always intense. And that's something I'm trying to learn how to accept."

Ten years after the fact, Lemack still finds herself constantly craving what she calls "The Before."

"It'd be so nice to go back even just for a day," she says. "That carefree-ness that's just not there anymore. I miss that part."

'I Can't Believe It's Been That Long'

Today, Lemack seeks solace in family: her sister, and her father who divorced her mom when she was young. And she takes special comfort in what she calls "the family she never wanted to be part of." She and other Sept. 11 children, parents, and widows cling tight to one another, and comfort each other in ways no one else can.

At a recent Sept. 11 commemorative event, Lemack huddled with two close friends who both lost their husbands. They have shared many a tear over the years, but on this day, they were cackling in a corner, at what Lemack calls "the black humor of 9/11."

"It's things that won't sound funny to anyone else, but we can let steam off by laughing," she says. "Sometimes we just need that release."

This time of year is always especially hard, Lemack says. But this year, it's especially so. She hates hearing it referred to as an "anniversary." "That's something you celebrate," she says. But it is a huge milestone. As she fiddles with a gold locket around her neck that holds a picture of her mom, she can't quite fathom that her mom has been gone 10 years.

"I can't believe it's been that long!" she says. "It makes me almost want to be ill to think I haven't talked to my mom in 10 years. If I think about it that way ... it makes me upset. I can't ..."

Lemack will spend Sept. 11 with her sister, close to where they grew up near Boston. They will keep the TV off, and taking refuge in the quiet outdoors, that their mother loved.

Lemack often looks up to the stars or in the garden behind her childhood home to feel her mom's presence. One of the most powerful moments was 10 years ago, on Sept. 12, 2001.

"I was walking my mom's dog in the woods behind her house," she recalls. "And there was no breeze, and all sudden these ferns just started blowing. But there was no breeze."

Lemack and her sister have since built a bench at that spot. It was one of their mom's favorite places to go and "be part of the day" — as she used to say. It's one of the places Lemack will be, during the day, this Sept. 11.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.