Can We Both Honor Victims' Stories and Note Post-9/11 Cultural Shift?

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Today, as promised, I’m responding to Cathryn Wellner’s response to my 9/11 blog entry about how that tragic day contributed to a societal need to connect through stories.

I will first respond to what Cathryn found most disturbing about my post — my failure to acknowledge the terrible price at which the post-9/11 societal transformation has come, in part, “the isolationism and paranoia of leaders who should have taken a moral high road instead of squandering the outpouring of sympathy and good will from around the world.” I cannot disagree with anything Cathryn says here. I completely agree that much of our nation’s post-9/11 response has been inappropriate. It was not, however, my intent, nor did I feel it was my role, to delve into the politics of the years since 9/11. I wanted only to look at the event’s effect on storytelling.

Cathryn writes, “I’m not sure people back home are aware (or care) that America has lost ground in the eyes of the world because of the way the country responded to 9/11.”

We are aware and we do care. If we didn’t, we would not have elected Barack Obama.

Cathryn raises the myth that the 9/11 terrorists entered the US through Canada (hence the requirement now for passports at the US-Canadian border). Yes, we need to expose the myths of 9/11 that have altered this country so dramatically (remember that myth about Saddam Hussein having some connection to 9/11?). I thank Cathryn for exposing the myth about terrorists entering the US through our northern border.

Cathryn concludes her piece, in part, by saying she “hope[s] one day new stories will be told, stories that honor the victims of a terrible tragedy but no longer define either America or the world as pre- and post-9/11.”

Here’s where I have mixed feelings. I think it is inevitable for historians and sociologists to examine pre- and post- eras: pre- and post-World War II, pre- and post-Vietnam, pre- and post-JFK assassination, pre- and post-election of Barack Obama. An event that shifts the cultural landscape and national/international psyche as cataclysmically as any of those changes history.

And I ask: Isn’t possible to both honor the victims’ stories but recognize that we live in a different era than we did on Sept. 10, 2001?

Finally, I respond to Cathryn’s assertion that “The division of story interest into pre- and post-9/11 would come as a surprise to generations of tellers and listeners.”

First, I identify 9/11 as only one influence in what I have referred to as today’s “explosion” of storytelling interest. The practitioners I interviewed over the last year discuss other influences here.

Next, I fully acknowledge that I’m a relative newbie to the world of storytelling. When I first learned about the discipline of organizational storytelling in 2004, I was drawn to it as a field meant to be my passion — but I was wide-eyed and unknowledgeable.

I also believe it is impossible for anyone passionate about storytelling to evaluate the field from a historical perspective because we are so attuned to the idea of storytelling. Cathryn says, “I have been involved in storytelling since the early 1980s. I traveled as a storyteller for a decade, then turned it into a consulting career and have worked primarily with health-related groups ever since.” Just as I have been all-storytelling-all-the-time since 2004, so has Cathryn been since the early 80s. Others would say they have been since, say, the early 70s. The first National Storytelling Festival in 1973 is often cited as the real jumping off point for our era’s interest in storytelling. Still others would say storytelling is an ancient art that has always been huge.

I stand by my belief, however, that 9/11 increased our need for connection with others and inspired us to cherish each others’ stories more than ever.


I can’t think of a more corageuos project in the current exploration of storytelling among humans, than trying to analyse the interplay between storytelling and the events connected with 9/11. The dialogue between Kathy and Catherine has taken these issues to a very demanding and potentially very meaningful level. It makes the analysis of stories in organizations seem like child’s play in comparison ;-)

One very general observation, it’s certainly nothing new in world history that crises, traumas and wounds can create community and give birth to meaning-making stories. What is different with 9/11 is that the world is still visibly affected by the aftermath, we still live inside a multitude of interpretations and stories sparked by those moments. They haven’t yet come to rest in the storage chambers of world culture where you can find memories of The Black Death and The Witch Hunts. Or more modern legends like the tragic and hopeful story of Sadako from Hiroshima and The Thousand Cranes.

That’s a great observation, Ulf. Thanks so much for commenting.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...


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