Grief and Loss in “Unsafe”



`Daddy died.

I know.

Bad men killed him.

~Jim Dalglish, Unsafe, Act I, Scene i

Grief and Loss in the Wake of a Tragedy

September 11th lives on in our mind like a dull ache that won’t heal.  Time has passed, but the realities that the attacks have left us with still linger.  With the critical distance of 15 years, most of us can safely navigate through the day without even thinking about 9/11.

Thankfully, I did not personally know anyone who died in the terror attacks of 9/11, and yet the impact of the day resonated with me.  But what of those who had to endure the unimaginable in the days and weeks after September 11th?

Will, Lisa, and Georgie all lost someone integral to their lives during 9/11.  With only about 2 years between this loss and the events of Unsafe, these character’s pain is in many ways still very near and woven into the fabric of their daily lives.

Seeing the psychological scars these people carry through Jim Dalglish’s play got me to questioning the nature of grief and loss– especially in the wake of the cataclysmic attacks of September 11th.

How 9/11 Invited us All to Grieve

candle vigil

The vast majority of American citizens were nowhere near ground zero, nor were they impacted directly by the attacks.  The odds of knowing one of the roughly 3,000 casualties of the World Trade Center attacks is staggeringly odd when taking the entire population of the country into account.

And yet, subsequent September 11th, millions across the country join to observe a moment of silence.  Others still attend candlelight vigils commemorating the victims.

So what has caused this high level of communal grief?

Unlike other national tragedies– 9/11 was different in that we were immediately bombarded with the horrific images of the attacks via the 24-hour news cycle.  The United States received news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor slowly, and mostly via radio signal– so imagination played more of a role in understanding that tragedy.  News reports of Kennedy’s assassination trickled in, but by the the time it reached the American people, the event was through.  The Challenger explosion was telecast live, but there was nothing left of the victims in the space shuttle for us to mourn.

Instead, within two minutes of the first plane colliding with the North Tower, local New York City news station WNYW broadcast a ground-level live feed of the burning building.  These images then quickly spread to other newscasts until nearly every television set in the country was receiving images of the attacks, and the subsequent collision and collapsing of the buildings was shown live on television for all to see.

It all happened simultaneously– in real time.

(For those interested, a detailed minute-by-minute timeline of the events of September 11th can be viewed HERE.)

So as a country, we were stricken.  I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room at Butler University in stunned silence for hours as we watched CNN talking heads dissect and analyze the events, piece together the narrative, and hypothesize about the things to come.  And this was all because it was both on a scale previously unimaginable (we were, after all, the invincible America), but the events and aftermath were transmitted to us in such an immediate and constant manner.

We grieved, and we grieved together.

Defining Grief

So what is grief?

Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying outlines the longest standing model for navigating the rocky waters of grief.  According to Kubler-Ross, individuals having recently experienced a loss often undergo five emotional stages:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

kubler rossWhile the Kubler-Ross Model was helpful in illustrating some of the behaviors a grieving individual could exhibit, over the past several years, scientists and other psychologists have criticized the model as a misleading and over-simplification of the complicated emotions that accompany bereavement.  

For instance, Dr. Sidney Zisook has devoted his career to defining the varying levels of grief.  He indicates that there are four major components to grief, depending on the individual and the specific circumstances of the incident that triggers the grief:

1. Separation Distress: this is a soup of feelings like sadness, anxiety, pain, helplessness, anger, shame, yearning, loneliness, etc

2. Traumatic Distress: this includes states of disbelief and shock, intrusions, and efforts to avoid intrusions and the spike of emotions they produce

3. Guilt, remorse, and regrets

4. Social withdrawal

Zisook further outlines two different types of grief:  acute and prolonged.

Acute grief: this is a transient, yet powerfully painful state that includes the aforementioned components. As the grieving process continues over time, other things start becoming mixed in, including a) positive emotions like warmth and joy in remembering, or a sense of relief; b) acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion; and c) meaning-making about the loss and circumstances.

Prolonged Grief: this is when a person becomes emotionally paralyzed by grief for a very long period of time. They experience the components of grief, but instead of the positive thoughts and feelings emerging, they often experience:

-Strong fear of painful emotions and the possibility of “losing control”

-In bereavement, fear of forgetting the person or betraying them by moving on

-Strong belief that they will “never be the same”

-Excessive guilt or anger

-Persistent sense of disbelief

-Moral indignation

-Rumination and a commitment to avoidance

Grief and Loss in Unsafe

Unlike the majority of America, the characters in Unsafe were directly affected by the terror attacks.  In the two years between 9/11 and the events of the play, they’ve had time to linger in this loss and wrestle with it in their own way:  Lisa frequently listens to the last phone message of her husband and remembers the serene trip that he proposed shortly before the planes hit.  Will has descended into a cycle of destructive behavior and dangerous decisions that hounds him.  These are real people sifting through the emotional wreckage left when the planes leveled the World Trade Centers.

What punches you in the gut about Dalglish’s play is how the characters feel remarkably real as they grapple both with the danger and circumstances of the play; but with the past they have yet to truly come to grips with.  Will and Lisa reside soundly in a state of prolonged grief where they are trying to find ways to emerge from the long, dark tunnel of their loss.

What makes this pay so vital today is the tragic humanity it shows.  As Will, Georgie, and Lisa, work through their own grief, they invite us to revisit the grief we all felt in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.  Grieving is working through loss, and while we may not have lost a loved one during the attacks or cleanup and rescue process; the entire country still worked through loss of another kind.  The loss of safety, the loss of security, and the loss of innocence.

All things worth grieving over.

tiny flags coping

~Tyler J. Monroe, dramaturg

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Security in an Unsafe World

A Bit of a Rambling Preamble

I’m a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at a charter school in Boston.  I work hard, but not nearly as hard as I demand that my students work.  I’m currently smack-dab in the middle of an argumentative writing unit where each week, I provide my students with some short texts to read over the weekend– and over the course of the following week, they plan, draft and revise an essay.  This process then repeats the following week.

I designed this unit months ago and the prompts have been chosen for weeks.  But this weeks prompt has me thinking about Unsafe quite a bit.

After providing my students with some news articles on high schools tracking their students via data chips in their student ID cards and others who allow retina scans for adults who pick up students, I gave them the prompt:

What is more important:  Security or privacy?

The interesting thing is that after weighing both sides of the argument, the majority of my students lean towards valuing security over protecting their own privacy.  Their logic and their reasoning is pretty sound (I mean, I did teach them how to build an argument after all), but I couldn’t help but consider why this is the case.

Why are my 12 and 13 year old inner city students willing to sacrifice their location, personal data, and physiological makeup in the interest of remaining safe?

That’s when a thought occurred to me:  these are young people living in a post-9/11 world– and that’s when I began connecting my writing curriculum to Jim Dalglish’s Unsafe.

Security in a World after 9/11

In the days and weeks following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States implemented a bevy of procedures, protocols, and programs– all in the name of maintaining security for the American people; for keeping us all safe.

Seemingly overnight, the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress in an attempt to tighten security measures in myriad ways across the country.  The American people were dealing with a new sort of threat and a new level of paranoia in the months following 9/11– and these threats required swift and sweeping measures to combat terrorism, both domestically and abroad.  The Patriot Act did seemingly have the best intentions in mind:  tighten border security, firmly outline punishment for crimes of terrorism, allowed for better cross-department communication when it came to investigating terrorism.  However, “Enhanced Surveillance Procedures” were implemented under Title II of the Act–which allowed government agencies to monitor computers, cell phones, and other communication systems in instances of suspected terrorism.  This obviously gave rise to concerns about the loss of privacy and abuse of this power.


Thanks, Uncle Sam!

Hot on the heels of the Patriot Act came the Aviation Transportation and Security Act which gave birth to the TSA.  Multi-hour security lines at airports and full-body pat-downs became common place seemingly overnight.  Certain “random” travelers who exhibited suspicious behaviors would receive increased scrutiny during the security screening process (read:  “Certain suspicious people would be subjected to blatant racial profiling”).  We forgave this– because:  security.

Beyond this; an entire new cabinet of the federal government was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  The Department of Homeland Security in 2002 whose mission was to…

“…develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks. The Office will coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States.”

Apart from restructuring several existing government departments, the Department of Homeland Security created wide-reaching public campaigns to help increase the awareness of potential terror threats among citizens.  The See Something Say Something campaign deputized citizens in the fight against terrorism and asked that they remain vigilant and report suspicious activity.  However, due to the wide spread paranoia and fear in the months and years after 9/11, See Something Say Something contributed to examples of profiling and harassment in marginalized or minority populations.  Instead of reporting suspicious behavior, more often than not “suspicious” skin color, language, or religious markers became the criteria for reporting.

And finally, the Terror Threat Level became a popular means of communicating the overall perceived threat of a terror attack.  You could log onto a website, watch any 24-hour news program, or hear a repeated recording outlining a days given “Threat Level.”  While a means to create caution about potential threats, this system caused undue stress and paranoia about a potential repeat attack.  I cannot count how frequently I would wait in a security line at O’Hare in Chicago with a repeated reminder that the day’s threat level was “orange.”


Today’s Threat Level is… Orange Sherbert


The New Normal

This brings me back to my 7th graders– these are the realities my students have been living with their entire lives.  They do not remember a time where they could meet their loved ones at their gate in the airport.  They don’t remember a pre-TSA era.  They seem to value their security so highly because they’ve been told that security is paramount.  Privacy and personal freedoms are abstract ideals they’ve never had to contend with.

This is the same world in which the characters in Unsafe are living.  They exist in a world just gone mad– Where people are Seeing Something and Saying Something, regardless of the impact their actions have on the accused.  These characters exist in a world where people breathe sighs of relief when a man of Middle Eastern descent are escorted from their security line in a “random” screening.   They’re watching the world around them plunge deeper into paranoia and fear and being dragged along into the mire.

In many ways, these characters are coming to grips with the world my students are comfortable with.  And this confusion as the world around them shifts beneath their feet, creates a hectic and confusing given circumstance for them.  They live in the heightened fear, perpetuated by myriad governmental agencies and campaigns, that their world is going to radically change yet again– just as it did on that Tuesday morning in September.

-Tyler J. Monroe, dramaturg

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Setting a Play on an Infamous Date in History

Time: The play begins on the evening of February 5, 2003 – the day that Colin Powell testified before the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It ends six months later.”  -Jim Dalglish– from the Setting of Unsafe.

I always like to start at the beginning when providing some context for artists and audiences.  Dalglish conscientiously sets his play on this particular date in time.

For those interested, the full text of Powell’s speech can be found HERE, via the Washington Post.

So what is the significance of this given circumstance?  Well, it was after Powell’s security briefing that “diplomacy had failed” and that the United States would proceed with a “coalition of the willing” to rid Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  The 2003 invasion of Iraq began a few days later.

What clear now with the hindsight of history behind us, is that Powell knowingly mislead the UN and either omitted or lied about the intelligence briefings he received.  You can read a summary of some of the alleged lies HERE, via the Huffington Post.

Dalglish’s choice to set his play on this date is interesting.  I feel as if it speaks to the widespread fear and paranoia that the United States leveraged against its citizens and its people in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks.

Further proof that the world is Unsafe.



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Is it Time to Feel Unsafe?

Asking “Why?”

When considering plays for production, one of the foremost questions that gets asked is “why this play, why now?”  This question helps to anchor every choice– artistic or business– surrounding the play from the top down.

Sometimes the answer to this question is indicative of a current zeitgeist:  “this play sparks an interesting conversation about such-and-such current event/social issue.”

Sometimes the answer is reflective of an organizational goal: “this play helps us to develop the voice of so-and-so, who is a playwright we value and respect.”

And, all too often in the American theatre, the answer is sometimes along the lines of: “this play will make our theater a lot of money during the holiday season.”

But the question of justification is not always so simple.  Sometimes a theater company or producing organization knows a play to be important and necessary and vital now, but the “why” is harder to articulate.

When I first read Jim Dalglish’s Unsafe, a play centering around characters who have all experienced loss after the terror attacks of September 11th and who are all attempting to grapple with these memories,  I instinctively knew the play was important.  It struck me in the gut and resonated with me days after I finished it.  This alone is enough for me as a dramaturg to enjoy the story and the script– but theatre is meant to be a shared encounter between audiences and actors.  So, I found myself coming back to the old production question:  “Why?”

“Why now, fifteen years after 9/11, do we need Unsafe?”

An “Unsafe” Distance

According to Dalglish’s notes, Unsafe “begins on the evening of February 5, 2003 – the day that Colin Powell testified before the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”    So while Unsafe is indeed a “9/11 play,” it is set a relatively “safe” distance from the widespread panic, disruption, and destruction that occurred on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

It was then, in thinking about this very conscious “distance,” that got me thinking more about Unsafe’s current relevance to an audience today, in 2016.  There really have not been many artistic explorations of the events of 9/11.  There was Neil LaBute’s 2002 play The Mercy Seat in which a man who works in the World Trade Center contemplates running away with his mistress when he was with her during the attacks.  There was also the 2006 Oliver Stone World Trade Center film.  But beyond those two works, there are very few notable artistic explorations of this particular event.

So back to “why?”  Why have there been so few writers attempt to grapple with these events?  Certainly the 9/11 attacks marked a moment in our nation’s history that truly united us– both in the horror and fear we experienced, but in the heroism and solidarity that it demanded.

Playwright Jim Dalglish was in New York on a business trip on September 11th.  (His own vivid account of this story can be viewed HERE.)  Afterwards, he wrote Professionals, a short play reflecting his experience making a business presentation, despite the fact that the World Trade Center was in flames a few blocks away.  It was produced in Provincetown in 2002.  Audience members felt that Dalglish was being opportunistic and insensitive to the memory of the events of 9/11.  It was clear that audiences were not quite ready to relive and experience the events of September 11th on stage.


A New, Unsafe Normal

So what is enough enough critical and emotional distance? Five years?  Ten?  Fifteen?

I think that what Dalglish has done in Unsafe is provide audiences with a built-in distance from September 11th:  the play is set after the world has returned to “normal.”

But the sad, profound truth is that the world is no longer normal.  9/11 still impacts our lives today.  We now stand in long security  lines in airports.  Our country got embroiled in armed conflicts over the events.  The United States is still waging a seemingly endless “war on terror.”

But beyond that– terrorism hit America at home on September 11th, and the results were catastrophic.  Over 6,000 people wounded and nearly 3,000 people killed.  The events caused a paradigm shift in our nations consciousness– we were no longer invincible.

We were no longer safe.

Unsafe addresses this central concept, with the appropriate distance required for audiences to feel comfortable enough to engage, yet with the absolute right level of ever-present danger to speak of the new world in which we’ve been living for the past 15 years.

This is why we need a play like Unsafe now.

Fence 13


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