How long have you been planning this story?
I had many conversations with Helen about that diary for years afterwards. She had talked about it at length with me, my mother, and my father. I thought — there’s got to be another side to this story. It has to be more complicated. I had met [Jen], and she’s really sweet. In April, I woke up at 2 in the morning and realized I had a plot [for a story]. I thought, “Wait, wait — this has to open with the diary. And if I’m really, really lucky it will end with the diary.” I was influenced by the podcast “Heavyweight,” which goes back into people’s unresolved conflicts. I thought that this piece would be a written version of that show, if all goes perfectly.
Did you set out to get the diary from the beginning?
I wrote to [Jen] early on. I didn’t say I wanted to see the diary right off — I didn’t know if she had it. I didn’t know if she’d want to talk to me. I simply wanted to hear what was running through her head. I thought the McIlvaines might want to know. She wrote me a warm, gracious note back. I told her the McIlvaines have some papers and materials and that I might want to make this story a piece of literary resurrection. And she said, “I’ve got some of those papers.”
You’d known the McIlvaines for decades. Was it hard to be objective about their perspective?
I never thought in any conscious way that because Jen walked off with the diary she must be evil. It struck me as immature and a little clueless; how could she not understand that a mother would be desperate for that kind of stuff? But the second I thought about trying to get the diary back, I realized there was no way she didn’t have a set of perfectly rational, coherent reasons.
Read What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind in The Atlantic
What was it like being part of the story?
I didn’t know I’d be part of the story! I’m an old-school journalist who gets out of the way. If I ever make an appearance in a story, it’s two-thirds of the way down, in one paragraph, and then I get out. This was weird. It felt a little unseemly, but it seemed organic. The family wasn’t going to ask [Jen] for the diary directly. I was an outsider from The Atlantic. It wasn’t as painful for me to read it.
Bob Sr. has fringe views about what really happened on 9/11, but you write about him with such empathy.
It helps to really love someone you’re writing about. It would have been weird to have written about him in any other way. It wasn’t that hard, and it was an interesting journalism lesson: If you’re not writing about someone in power or someone who did something awful — like a serial killer — why not treat them as someone you really care about?
You posted on Twitter a recent photo of Bobby’s brother Jeff and Jen, saying it was the first time they’d seen each other in 20 years. How did that happen?
I took the picture. We went on Good Morning America, and I told the producers I didn’t want [Jeff and Jen] meeting the day of [the appearance]. Too Maury Povich. I took them out the night before for dinner. It went beautifully. There was never any tension between those two. They had a real, almost sibling-like bond, and they resumed it almost immediately. They were delighted to see each other and felt that they had been there for each other in a hellish time. I loved watching them.
When I read the story, I thought that the process of participating in it might have helped the family and Jen deal with what happened. Do you think that’s true?
Knowing the contents of that diary really helped Helen. [When he died], Bobby was still her young son. He was on his own, making good money, dressing in a suit, but he was still living with my brother, which still looked a little like college. Then you look at the diary and you realize he was already thinking about making his own family — he would get his own apartment, move in with Jen, have kids. [Through the diary], Helen got to live a minor version of what it would have looked like. What was hard was that researching and doing the story itself, all the interviews, stirred up so much stuff for her. It was hard for Helen to think for so long and so deeply about this time. We talked for hours on tape, and she had to go through old boxes of photos. That made both of us feel bad and good. But Helen and Jen were very generous with each other. They were genuinely contrite. It was nice to think that a piece of unresolved conflict was clarified.
EXCERPT: “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” published in The Atlantic’s September 2021 issue
By Jennifer Senior
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 media-relations 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 McIlvaines’ 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.
Interview conducted and condensed by Katherine Hobson ’94