Twenty Years Gone
The Atlantic|September 2021
One family’s struggle to make sense of 9/11
Jennifer Senior

When Bobby McIlvaine died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads. He’d kept the diaries since he was a teenager, and they were filled with the usual diary things—longings, observations, frustrations— while the legal pads were marbled with more variety: aphoristic musings, quotes that spoke to him, stabs at fiction.

The yellow pads appeared to have the earnest beginnings of two different novels. But the diaries told a different kind of story. To the outside world, Bobby, 26, was a charmer, a striver, a furnace of ambition. But inside, the guy was a sage and a sap— philosophical about disappointments, melancholy when the weather changed, moony over girlfriends.

Less than a week after his death, Bobby’s father had to contend with that pitiless still life of a desk. And so he began distributing the yellow legal pads, the perfect-bound diaries: to Bobby’s friends; to Bobby’s girlfriend, Jen, to whom he was about to propose. Maybe, he told them, there was material in there that they could use in their eulogies.

One object in that pile glowed with more meaning than all the others: Bobby’s very last diary. Jen took one look and quickly realized that her name was all over it. Could she keep it?

Bobby’s father didn’t think. He simply said yes. It was a reflex that he almost instantly came to regret. “This was a decision we were supposed to make together,” his wife, Helen, told him. Here was an opportunity to savor Bobby’s company one last time, to hear his voice, likely saying something new. In that sense, the diary wasn’t like a recovered photograph. It raised the prospect, however brief, of literary resurrection. How, Helen fumed, could her husband not want to know Bobby’s final thoughts—ones he may have scribbled as recently as the evening of September 10? And how could he not share her impulse to take every last molecule of what was Bobby’s and reconstruct him?

“One missing piece,” she told me recently, “was like not having an arm.”

Over and over, she asked Jen to see that final diary. Helen had plenty of chances to bring it up, because Jen lived with the Mc Ilvaines for a time after September 11, unable to tolerate the emptiness of her own apartment. Helen was careful to explain that she didn’t need the object itself. All she asked was that Jen selectively photocopy it.

Jen would say she’d consider it. Then nothing would happen. Helen began to plead. I just want the words, she’d say. If Bobby’s describing a tree, just give me the description of the tree. Jen demurred.

The requests escalated, as did the rebuffs. They were having an argument now. Helen, Jen pointed out, already had Bobby’s other belongings, other diaries, the legal pads.

When she finally left the McIlvaines’ house for good, Jen slammed the door behind her, got into her car, and burst into tears. Shortly after, she wrote Helen a letter with her final answer: No, just no. If Helen wanted to discuss this matter any further, she’d have to do so in the presence of Jen’s therapist.

Helen and her husband never saw Jen again. “She became a nonperson to me,” Helen told me. Today, she can’t so much as recall Jen’s last name.

But for years, Helen thought about that diary. Her mind snagged on it like a nail; she needled her husband for giving it away; it became the subject of endless discussion in her “limping group,” as she calls it, a circle of six mothers in suburban Philadelphia who’d also lost children, though not on September 11. They became indignant on her behalf. A number proposed, only half jokingly, that they break into Jen’s apartment and liberate the diary. “You don’t get any more memories,” one of the women told me. “So anything written, any video, any card—you cling to that. That’s all you’re going to get for life.”

The McIlvaines would have to make do with what they already had. Eventually, they did. Three words of Bobby’s became the family motto: Life loves on. No one could quite figure out which diary or legal pad it came from, but no matter. Helen wears a silver bracelet engraved with this phrase, and her husband got it tattooed in curlicue script on his upper arm.

HERE I SHOULD NOTE that I know and love the McIlvaine family. On my brother’s first day of college, he was assigned to a seven-person suite, and because he arrived last, Bobby became his roommate. My brother often thinks about what a small miracle that was: If he’d arrived just 30 minutes earlier, the suite would have been an isomer of itself, with the kids all shuffled in an entirely different configuration. But thanks to a happy accident of timing, my brother got to spend his nights chattering away with this singular kid, an old soul with a snappity-popping mind.

Eight years later, almost to the day, a different accident of timing would take Bobby’s life. He and my brother were still roommates, but this time in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, trying to navigate young adulthood.

Back when Bobby was still alive, I would occasionally see the McIlvaines. They struck me as maybe the nicest people on the planet. Helen taught reading to kids who needed extra help with it, mainly in a trailer in the parking lot of a Catholic high school. Bob Sr. was a teacher who specialized in working with troubled adolescents; for a decade, he’d also owned a bar. Jeff, Bobby’s younger brother, was just a kid in those days, but he was always unreasonably good-natured when he turned up.

And Bobby: My God. The boy was incandescent. When he smiled it looked for all the world like he’d swallowed the moon.

Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Bobby headed off to a conference at Windows on the World, a restaurant in a building to which he seldom had reason to go, for a mediarelations job at Merrill Lynch he’d had only since July. My brother waited and waited. Bobby never came home. From that point forward, I watched as everyone in the blast radius of this horrible event tried to make sense of it, tried to cope.

Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.

It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the Mc Ilvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”

This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.

That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a coverup to be exposed. Something was fishy about 9/11.

And then there was Jen. She’s married now, has two terrific kids, but she wonders sometimes, when she’s quarreling with her husband or feeling exasperated with her life, what it would have been like if she’d been with Bobby all this time. I tracked her down in April, and of course she’s nothing like the heartless villainess I had come to imagine her to be. That was just the story I’d told myself, the one I’d used to make sense of the senseless, to give shape to my own rage. Like I said: We all need our stories.

One thing I knew when I finally visited her, though: I wanted to see that diary. And I wanted the McIlvaines to see it too. “I’m not a saver,” she said when we first met up for cocktails. My heart froze.

But she still had it, just so you know.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR SON.

Helen welcomed this invitation the first time she heard it, because it focused her thinking, gave her an outlet for her grief. But soon it filled her with dread, and she felt herself straining under the weight of it. How can you possibly convey who your firstborn was or what he meant to you?

Helen usually starts by telling people that Bobby went to Princeton, but that’s hardly because she’s status-fixated. It’s because she and Bob Sr. did not expect to have a child who went to an Ivy League school. They both went to state schools in Pennsylvania, not even particularly well-known ones. Both of their kids were sporty. But when Bobby was 8, his third-grade teacher said to them—and they both remember her exact words—“Start saving your pennies.” This one’s education might cost you.

“The amount of things that had to go right for my brother to go to Princeton were, like, astronomical,” says Jeff, a high-school biology teacher and track coach in Somerdale, New Jersey. “To us, it was like someone from our family becoming the president.”

This is how everyone in the family remembers Bobby: as a sui generis creature, exceptional and otherworldly, descended from the heavens through a basketball hoop.

He was an intense student. He was an even more intense athlete, competitive to the point of insolence. Writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer last year, Mike Sielski, an old high-school classmate of Bobby’s, described him as “all bones and acute angles and stiletto elbows” on the basketball court. It was a goose-pimpling story, one he had occasion to write because another classmate of theirs had unearthed 36 seconds of video from 1992, in which a teenage Bobby McIlvaine throws an immaculate pass that sets up an immaculate shot that flies right over the teenage head of …

Kobe Bryant.

Bobby scored 16 points off Kobe and his team that day, in addition to setting up that floater.

When he arrived at college, Bobby retained a bit of that alpha-dog streak. He was still competitive, even while playing mindless, made-up dorm games. He wasn’t bashful about ribbing friends. He was tall and handsome and had a high level of confidence in his sense of style, which may or may not have been justified. “There were times you wanted him to step back and not be so serious and intense,” says Andre Parris, a former suitemate and one of Bobby’s closest friends. “But it was part of who and what he was, and what he thought he had to do to get ahead.”

What “getting ahead” meant to Bobby was complicated. Financial worries are all over his journals from those years (I don’t feel like a real person sitting here with no money, reads one typical entry). Yet he was conflicted about what it might take to make money, flummoxed by all the kids who were beating a dutiful path to business school. (Is youth really just a hobby? he asked about them, with evident pique.) He wanted to be a writer. Which paid nothing, obviously.

This conflict continued into his brief adulthood. He spent two years in book publishing before realizing that it was no way to make a living, and switched instead to corporate PR. He could still write his novels on the side.

But for all Bobby’s hunger and swagger, what he mainly exuded, even during his college years, was warmth, decency, a corkscrew quirkiness. He doted on girlfriends. He gave careful advice. His senior year, he took a modern dance class because, well, why not? It would be fun. And different. His final project involved physically spelling out his girlfriend’s name.

That was just a lark, though. Bobby’s real intellectual passion was African American culture and history. After Bobby died, the McIlvaines got not one but two condolence notes from Toni Morrison, with whom he’d taken a class. The second came with the term paper he’d written for her. “It is certainly one of the more accomplished and insightful,” she wrote, “as was he.” His senior thesis received an honorable mention for the main prize in the department of African American studies.

At his funeral, Bobby’s oldest friends spoke of what a role model he was to them. I was five years older than Bobby, which meant I mainly saw him as charming and adorable, intelligent and unstoppable.

But strangely, I wanted to impress him too. When I started my job at New York magazine, writing short features in the theater section each week, Bobby gave me grief about ending each one of them with a quote. At first I was annoyed, defensive— the little shit—but in hindsight, it’s amazing that I cared so much about this 22-year-old’s opinion, and even more amazing that he’d read me attentively enough to discover an incipient tic. To this day, I credit Bobby with teaching me a valuable lesson: If you’re going to cede the power of the last word to someone else, you’d better be damn sure that person deserves it.

BOB MCILVAINE SR. cries easily and regularly when you speak to him. Everyone in the family knows this and has grown accustomed to it—his grief lives close to the surface, heaving up occasionally for air. He cried at our first lunch after the McIlvaines picked me up at the train station a few months ago; he cried again just minutes into our first chat when the two of us were alone; he cried in a recent interview with Spike Lee for a documentary series about 9/11 on HBO.

In talking with Bob Sr., something heartbreaking and rudely basic dawned on me: September 11 may be one of the most documented calamities in history, but for all the spools of disaster footage we’ve watched, we still know practically nothing about the last moments of the individual dead. It’s strange, when you think about it, that an event so public could still be such a punishing mystery. Yet it is, and it is awful—the living are left to perseverate, to let their imaginations run amok in their midnight corrals.

For Bob Sr., what that meant was wondering where Bobby was and what he was doing when the chaos began. For years, that was all he could think about. The idea of Bobby suffering tortured him. Was he incinerated? Was he asphyxiated? Or even worse? “I think Bobby jumped,” he shouted up the stairs one day to his wife. The thought nearly drove Helen mad.

Over time, it became clear that Bobby didn’t jump. Bobby’s was one of fewer than 100 civilian corpses recovered from the wreckage. But it haunted Bob Sr. that he never saw the body. At the morgue on September 13, the pathologist strongly advised him against viewing it. Only years later—four? five? he can no longer remember—did he finally screw up the courage to go to the medical examiner’s office in New York City and get the official report.

That’s when everything changed. “My whole thesis— everything I jump into now—is based upon his injuries,” he tells me. “Looking at the body, I came to the conclusion that he was walking in and bombs went off.”

A controlled demolition, he means. That is how he thinks Bobby died that day, and how the towers eventually fell: from a controlled demolition. It was an inside job, planned by the U.S. government, not to justify the war in Iraq—that was a bonus— but really, ultimately, to destroy the 23rd floor, because that’s where the FBI was investigating the use of gold that the United States had unlawfully requisitioned from the Japanese during World War II, which it then leveraged to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The planes were merely for show.

DOES A MAN wake up on September 12, 2001, and believe such a thing? No. This belief takes shape over the span of years, many years.

That first year, Bob Sr. was numb. His sole objective was to get through each day. But he eventually got involved in a group called 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, protesting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It opened up my life,” he tells me. “I became very active. That’s how I grieved. It was perfect.”

Before Bobby went to Princeton, Bob Sr. had been indifferent to politics, voting sometimes for Democrats and sometimes for Republicans— including, he thinks, Ronald Reagan. “I was not a well-read person,” he says. “I owned a bar in the city. If I even mentioned the word progressive, my customers probably would have shot me.”

But then Bobby started taking classes with Princeton’s glamorous tenured radicals. He started writing for the school’s Progressive Review. His father devoured everything he wrote. Soon, he had Bob Sr. reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Z Magazine, the radical monthly. Bob Sr. has been interested in politics ever since. “That’s all because of Bobby.”

So this anti-war activity? It was perfect—a natural outlet for him.

But as time wore on, Bob Sr. got impatient. In 2004, he went down to Washington to hear Condoleezza Rice speak to the 9/11 Commission, and her testimony—or lack thereof, he’d say—so enraged him that he left in a huff, cursing in the halls of Congress. “I wanted answers,” he explains. Yet no answers were forthcoming. That’s when he realized: The government was hiding something. “I became militant,” he says. “To this day, I’m very militant.”

Bob Sr. is a bespectacled, soft-spoken man, slender and slightly stooped. But his affect is deceptive. We’re sitting in the upstairs den of the McIlvaines’ three-bedroom home in Oreland, Pennsylvania, the same house where Bobby and Jeff grew up. It’s sweet, modest, cluttered with family pictures. But this room has been transformed into a 9/11 research bunker, stuffed with books and carefully organized files—by event, subject, country. The largest piece of art on the wall is a world map freckled with pins marking every country that’s invited Bob Sr. to tell his story.

“I speak out so much, the word just spreads,” he tells me. “I’ll show you Italy.” Pictures and clippings from a Rome film festival, he means, because he appeared in the documentary Zero: Inchiesta sull’11 Settembre. He got to walk the red carpet. “The Russians came over. They spent two days here, wanted to hear what I had to say.” Meaning Russian state news agencies. They parked themselves on the McIlvaines’ back deck. “France came here, stayed a few days to talk.” Same deal, though he doesn’t remember which media outfit. (“My dad is practically a celebrity in that community,” Jeff told me.)

Crucial to Bob Sr.’s understanding of September 11—that it was the cynical skulduggery of the U.S. government, not a grisly act of terrorism by jihadists using commercial planes filled with helpless civilians— is the work of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, which popularized the idea that jet fuel couldn’t burn at a high enough temperature to melt beams into molten steel. This is, it should go without saying, contrary to all observable fact.

But this theory is what Bob Sr. is eager to illustrate for me. He has visuals prepared, lots of building diagrams. I tell him we’ll get there; I just want to ask a few more questions about those early days—

He’s disappointed. “Everything I’ve done in my life is based upon those seconds.” This is something he very much wants to discuss.

And so we discuss it. Only a preplanned detonation, he argues, could bring down those towers, and only a lobby embroidered with explosives could explain the injuries to Bobby’s body. He has the full medical examiner’s report.

It is very upsetting to read. Most of Bobby’s head—that beautiful face—was missing, as was most of his right arm. The details are rendered in generic diagrams and the dispassionate language of pathology (“Absent: R upper extremity, most of head”), as well as a chilling pair of responses on a standard checklist.

Hair color: None.

Eye color: None.

But a subtle thing made Bob Sr. think something was amiss. The report describes many lacerations and fractures, but they appear almost entirely on the front of Bobby’s body. The back of his corpse is basically described as pristine, besides multiple fractures to what remained of his head.

The story we’ve told ourselves all these years is that Bobby had already left the building when the planes hit. Bobby didn’t work in the World Trade Center; from what we could piece together, he’d gone to Windows on the World simply to help a new colleague set up for a morning presentation at an all-day conference, not to attend it. So Bobby did his part, was our assumption, then said his goodbyes and was making his way back to nearby Merrill Lynch when he was suddenly killed in the street by flying debris.

Bob Sr. doesn’t buy it. If that were true—if Bobby were moving away from the World Trade Center—wouldn’t he have fallen forward? Wouldn’t there be injuries on his back? “If you’re running away, it’d be more of a crushing type of thing,” he tells me. “Probably every bone in his body would be breaking.”

I tell him I’m not a pathologist, but it seems just as plausible to me that he heard the roaring sound of a plane flying too low and too fast, or maybe the sound of a hijacked aircraft hitting the North Tower itself, and turned around to see what had happened and never knew what hit him.

He rejects this explanation. “My theory is he was walking into the building at the time, because he had the conference up there.”

“I thought his conference started at 8:30?” I ask. The first plane hit at 8:46 a.m. That would have meant Bobby was arriving late.

“I thought it started at 9,” Bob Sr. says.

“Isn’t there a way to find out?” I ask.

“You know, to tell you the truth, I never …”

He’d never checked.

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