I have studied the phenomenon known as autobiographical memory since I was in graduate school. Autobiographical memory is a distinct type of memory due to its shared meaningfulness to many people. For example, most people of a certain age can remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. This tragic event was shared by people all over our country and those of us who experienced it are unlikely to forget details about it, including where they were when they heard the sad news. (If the reader is interested in learning more about autobiographical memory, there are many scholarly publications on the topic, most of which are widely available.) A more modern autobiographical memory than President Kennedy’s assassination was the terrible events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, now known as 911. Many people who are alive today can recount, in surprising detail, where they were and what they were doing on this fateful morning. I am one of those people. I was doing what I have done many times, selecting a jury. I was selecting a jury in the Broward County Courthouse, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when we received word that, effective immediately, the courthouse was going into lock down mode, meaning no one could leave, no one could enter, and all communications with the outside world (for everyone except judges, law enforcement officers, and court personnel) would cease. None of us, at that time, knew what had happened; the only thing we knew was that whatever happened was bad, really, really bad. Time passed, minutes turned into hours, and we were finally released and told to go home as soon as possible, not stopping en route for any reason, due to a national emergency that had just taken place. As soon as I could, I called David on my cell phone to ask what had happened. It was only then that I realized there had been multiple terrorist attacks in our country. At the time of this writing, almost 20 years have passed and I still remember where I was, what I was doing, and other events that occurred on 911. My crazy courthouse story, as it turned out, was the worst terrorist attack in America’s history. A somber reminder of the temporary nature of our existence.
Also sometimes called “flashbulb” memories, events such as 911 tend to stay with us with some degree of accuracy. I was attending a meeting near the Broward County Courthouse on that fateful morning. We were meeting in an office which had considerable video capabilities. Though the news was not turned on in the conference room we were using, the receptionist interrupted our meeting to say we might want to see what was on the news. We stared, speechless and in shock about what was happening, for a few minutes before realizing we needed to adjourn and go our respective ways, quickly. I knew Melissa’s whereabouts, and quickly learned the courthouse was on lock down. For some time, many people were concerned additional attacks were likely, such that there were many uncertainties, other than the need to get to a safe place and find out what was unfolding. It wasn’t that many years ago, but texting and the use of smartphones with email, internet access, etc., was nascent. I could not reach Melissa via phone, I tried, and so I had to await her call as I headed back, first to my office, then home. Other terrorist attacks have impacted our work; the Oklahoma City Bombing happened on one of our research days. We’ve worked around/in hurricanes and in other difficult circumstances. And, we know we’ll never completely understand what New Yorkers, in particular, experienced that day. Yet, we’ll never forget where we were when these events occurred and or the experiences which followed, forever changing the world.