Carie Lemack, 36, gave up long ago trying to make sense of the Sept. 11 attacks that killed her mother, Judy Larocque.
"That's not possible," Lemack says.
But she says she will never quit trying to prevent that kind of tragedy from happening again.
Ten years after her mother's unfathomable death, Lemack is on a mission that's taken her down a road she also never could have imagined.
"How bizarre is it," she says, trotting across the marble floors toward the office of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), "that the halls of Congress could feel like home. I never expected this. My mom would just think this was hysterical."
'I'm Not Afraid To Say What I Think'
Lemack's mom, a marketing executive who died on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, always used to say Carie would end up doing something interesting. But her eldest daughter, Danielle, was the political science major. Carie read the newspaper just for the Red Sox.
Back in 2001, she was a 26-year-old dabbling in marketing and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life — hardly the type you'd expect to end up on a first-name basis with top government officials helping to drive national policy.
"But here I am," Lemack shrugs, as she makes her way to the senator's office and greets him with a hug.
"You look fabulous," Kerry says.
"You too," she responds, engaging in just a moment of small talk before drilling down on business. She knows how these things work: Time is short, and she has no intention of wasting it.
"One of the 9/11 Commission recommendations that hasn't been acted on is congressional oversight," she begins. "And I haven't seen any members from either side tackle this problem."
Kerry begins to reply, "We've actually had major meetings on committee reform ..." — but Lemack is indefatigable.
"But how do we do something," she interjects. "How do we get people together to do it?"
A petite brunette, dressed down in comfortable flats, Lemack cranes her neck up at Kerry, who towers a foot-and-a-half over her. But with intensity in her eyes, and emboldened by a sense of nothing left to lose, Lemack strikes a presence much larger than her 4'10" frame.
What's the worst that can happen, she figures, when the worst has already happened?
"Ten years after my mom got killed, I'm not afraid to say what I think to anyone," she says. "A politician's job is to do what we want them to do. And so it's my job to tell them. So I'm happy to do that."
Fighting Fire With Fire
Indeed, she first made it her job just months after Sept. 11, when she called her first news conference as founder of Families of September 11, and began to stand up to everyone, from the Red Cross to the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund set up by Congress.
"Everybody grieves differently," Lemack says. "And I'm doing my own journey of grief. As I like to say, I want to grieve productively."
From her apartment in Washington, D.C., Lemack still runs Families of September 11 and another organization she founded called Global Survivors Network.
"I feel like the one thing my mom gave me in her murder was the moral authority to make a difference," she says. "And I need to use that moral authority very carefully; to go out there and make sure what happened to us doesn't happen again."
"[Lemack has] done an absolutely fabulous job turning [her] personal, and the collective, pain into progress," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, at a screening of a new documentary Lemack produced.
The film, called Killing in the Name, focuses on Ashraf Al-Khaled, a Jordanian Muslim who lost 27 members of his family when his wedding was blown up by an al-Qaida suicide bomber. Lemack decided it was a story that needed to be told.
"[Osama] bin Laden kept releasing videos, so we thought, 'Why don't we?' " she says. "Because people are only hearing the terrorists' side of the story. We just thought we should fight fire with fire."
Lemack shows her documentary everywhere she can — from small independent theaters to HBO, where the film will air this month; from schools in Jordan and Indonesia, to a gathering of academics and senior policymakers this summer at the Aspen Security Forum.
Already Making A Difference
Just moments before she was due on stage to introduce the film, Lemack sat fidgeting nervously in the front row. She's a pro at public speaking, so that wasn't what was bothering her.
"No, no," she explains. "What I am nervous about is that I hung up with my sister suddenly, and I haven't heard back from her, and I don't like — let me just call her real quick," she says, pulling out her cell phone.
It's one of the many ways Sept. 11 has changed her.
"I'm just more aware of what could happen, so I just want to make sure it hasn't happened," she says.
A quick check and one "I love you" later, and Lemack slips her phone back into her pocket. Then, as the film opens with video of Al-Khaled's wedding explosion, she stares down at her lap.
"I don't like watching this part," she says, still looking down. "I don't need to see those images."
But the graphic display is deliberate and critical to Al-Khaled and Lemack's self-described mission "to break the silence in the Muslim world about the true cost of terror."
"If we [are] just gonna sit there and we are not going to say anything about what we have been through, this terror will never end," Al-Khaled says on screen.
The film follows Al-Khaled as he confronts the father of a suicide bomber, interviews a man who says he recruited the bomber, and challenges young boys in a Muslim school in Indonesia with teary testimony from women who were widowed in the 2002 bombings of crowded nightclubs in Bali.
Lemack says the film is already doing what she hoped. For example, when she showed it to a group of radicalized Muslims in the United Kingdom, she says one of the guys was startled when she said her mom was on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.
"He said, 'Wait a second! We were taught there were no people on the planes,' " Lemack recalls. "And his whole face changed. I didn't have to say anything else, but it's like ... we planted a seed."
Not A Normal Grieving Process
Lemack's documentary has also made an impression in the film industry; it was nominated for an Oscar. And talk about ending up on an unlikely path: Lemack got to walk the red carpet, in a strappy, silky, beaded designer dress, and more than $100,000 worth of borrowed "bling."
"It was just phenomenal," she says. "I got to meet all these stars — very out of my league. And having dinner with Anne Hathaway and her parents ... it was just mind-blowing!"
But then again, everything has been kind of surreal these past 10 years. Hers was not a normal loss, nor has it been a normal grieving process.
At any public event or private party, Lemack gets thrust from being the grieving daughter into a walking, talking national symbol of sorts. People want her opinions; they ask her to pose for photos; and everyone who knows her Sept. 11 story wants to tell her theirs.
There was the woman who went on about how she was on the same flight as Lemack's mother — on Sept. 10. Or the guy who shared that his wife — who had been away on business on Sept. 11 — couldn't get a flight back home for a whole week.
"Awww, that's terrible," Lemack offers, kindly. "That must have been hard."
It's her standard reply. But some days, she concedes, she delivers it better than others.
"It's just hard," Lemack says. "It's like telling Jackie Kennedy where you were when her husband was shot. You just wouldn't do that."
Losing her mom on Sept. 11, instead of any other day, means getting used to things like that — something is constantly jabbing at her wound. She could be grocery shopping, and catch an image of the burning towers on a magazine cover at the checkout. She could be having dinner, and get a phone call that they found another piece of her mother's remains. Or she could be interrupted at a family birthday party by a reporter looking for comment on breaking news, like the death of Osama bin Laden.
"Welcome to my world," she sighs. "It's always intense. And that's something I'm trying to learn how to accept."
Ten years after the fact, Lemack still finds herself constantly craving what she calls "The Before."
"It'd be so nice to go back even just for a day," she says. "That carefree-ness that's just not there anymore — I miss that part."
'I Can't Believe It's Been That Long'
Today, Lemack seeks solace in family — her sister and her father, who divorced her mom when she was young. And she takes special comfort in what she calls "the family she never wanted to be part of." She and other Sept. 11 children, parents and widows cling tight to one another, and comfort each other in ways no one else can.
At a recent Sept. 11 commemorative event, Lemack huddled with two close friends who both lost their husbands. They have shared many a tear over the years, but on this day they were cackling in a corner, at what Lemack calls "the black humor of 9/11."
"It's things that won't sound funny to anyone else, but we can let steam off by laughing," she says. "Sometimes we just need that release."
This time of year is always especially hard, Lemack says. But this year, it's especially so. She hates hearing it referred to as an "anniversary." "That's something you celebrate," she says. But it is a huge milestone. As she fiddles with a gold locket around her neck that holds a picture of her mom, she can't quite fathom that her mom has been gone 10 years.
"I can't believe it's been that long!" she says. "It makes me almost want to be ill to think I haven't talked to my mom in 10 years. If I think about it that way ... it makes me upset. I can't ..."
Lemack will spend Sept. 11 with her sister, close to where they grew up near Boston. They will keep the TV off and take refuge in the quiet outdoors that their mother loved.
Lemack often looks up to the stars or in the garden behind her childhood home to feel her mom's presence. One of the most powerful moments was 10 years ago, on Sept. 12, 2001.
"I was walking my mom's dog in the woods behind her house," she recalls. "And there was no breeze, and all of a sudden these ferns just started blowing. But there was no breeze."
Lemack and her sister have since built a bench at that spot. It was one of their mom's favorite places to go and "be part of the day," as she used to say. It's one of the places Lemack will be, during the day, this Sept. 11.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
NPR's Tovia Smith has her story.
TOVIA SMITH: There is perhaps no one more surprised by what Carie Lemack is doing these days than Carie Lemack.
CARIE LEMACK: How bizarre is it that walking the halls of Congress can feel like home? I never expected this. I mean, my mom would just think it's hysterical.
SMITH: Ten years ago, at 26 dabbling in marketing and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, driving policy on Capitol Hill was never even a thought.
LEMACK: Hello, Senator.
SMITH: So sorry we're so late.
SIEGEL: It's all right. I'm glad to see you
SMITH: Hugging Sen. John Kerry like an old friend.
KERRY: You look fabulous.
LEMACK: Thank you.
SMITH: ...Lemack small talks for a minute and then it's all business.
LEMACK: One of the 9/11 Commission recommendations that hasn't been completed or really even acted on is congressional oversight...
SMITH: A petite brunette, dressed down in comfortable flats, Lemack's intense big eyes and sheer mettle strike a presence much larger than her 4'10" frame.
LEMACK: Ten years after my mom got killed, I'm not afraid to say what I think to anyone. A politician, you realize, their job is to do what we want them to do. And so it's my job to tell them. So I'm happy to do that.
SMITH: Indeed, she's been doing it now full-time ever since she called her very first press conference just months after 9/11.
LEMACK: I lost my mom on a plane and then I lost my rights. Everybody grieves differently. And I'm doing my own journey of grief. And hopefully, as I like to say, I want to grieve productively.
SMITH: Lemack is passionate about family - her sisters, and nephews, and her dad, who divorced her mom when she was little. And one day, she hopes to start a family of her own. But these days she wakes up in her apartment in D.C. singularly focused on trying to help victims and prevent more terrorism.
LEMACK: I feel like the one thing my mom gave me in her murder was the moral authority to make a difference. And I need to use that moral authority very carefully, to go out there and make sure what happened to us doesn't happen again,
D: You have done an absolutely fabulous job on turning your personal and the collective pain into progress.
SMITH: That's Joseph Cirincione, head of the anti-proliferation Plowshares Fund, greeting Lemack at a screening of the new documentary she's produced. It focuses on Ashraf al-Khaled, a Jordanian Muslim who lost 27 members of his family when his wedding was blown up by an al-Qaida suicide bomber. Lemack decided it was a story that needed to be told.
LEMACK: Thank you. Enjoy the show.
SMITH: Today, Lemack shows her film, "Killing in the Name," everywhere she can - from schools in Jordan and Indonesia, to a recent gathering of senior policymakers at the Aspen Institute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello everyone. We're going to get started.
SMITH: Just moments before show time, Lemack fidgets nervously in the front row. It's the umpteenth time she's done this, so that's not it.
LEMACK: No, no. What I am nervous about is I hung up with my sister and I haven't heard back from her. And I don't like it (unintelligible). Let me just call her real quick.
SMITH: It's one of the many ways 9-11 has changed her.
LEMACK: Hey. I'm okay. I just want to make sure everything okay 'cause we didn't say goodbye. All right, I love you.
SMITH: Lemack slips her phone back into her pocket...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: ...and as the film opens with video of the wedding explosion, she stares down at her lap.
LEMACK: I don't like watching this part. I don't need to see those images.
SMITH: But the gory reality is critical to their mission, as al-Khaled puts it in the movie, to break the silence in the Muslim world about the true cost of terror.
ASHRAF AL: If we just going to sit there and we are not going to say anything about what we have been through, this terror will never end.
SMITH: Afterward, onstage, Lemack explains how the film is already doing what she hoped, like when she showed it to a group of radicalized Muslims in the U.K.
LEMACK: At the end, one of the guys said, well, hold on a second, you said your mom was on the plane on 9/11. And I said, yeah. He said, but we were taught that there were no people on the planes.
SMITH: Lemack's film was nominated for an Oscar. And talk about ending up on an unlikely path, Lemack got to walk the red carpet in $100,000 worth of borrowed bling.
LEMACK: It was just phenomenal. I got to meet all these stars and very out of my league - having dinner with Ann Hathaway and her parents. And it was just mind-blowing in that sense.
SMITH: But then again, everything has been kind of surreal these past 10 years. Hers was not a normal loss, nor has it been a normal grieving process.
MAN: Can I interrupt for a second? Do you mind doing one more pose for me?
MAN: This time with...
MAN: ...the flag in the background.
SMITH: At any public event, or private party, Lemack gets thrust from grieving daughter into a kind of national symbol. And everyone who knows her 9/11 story wants to tell her theirs.
MAN: My wife was actually out in California. I didn't see her for a week.
LEMACK: Aw, that's terrible.
SMITH: Some days she handles it better than others.
LEMACK: It's just hard. It's like telling Jackie Kennedy where you were when her husband was shot - you wish you wouldn't do that.
SMITH: There is always something jabbing at her wound - an image on TV of the burning towers, a phone call that they found another piece of her mother's remains, or a reporter looking for comment on breaking news...
MAN: Now, and I want to bring in Carie Lemack. Her mother...
SMITH: ...like the death of Osama bin Laden.
MAN: Carie, what are you feeling right now?
LEMACK: Welcome to my world.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: It's always intense.
LEMACK: It's always intense. And that's something I'm trying to learn how to accept.
SMITH: Ten years into it, Lemack still finds herself constantly craving what she calls the before.
LEMACK: It'd be so nice to go back, even just for a day. That carefreeness that's just not there anymore and I miss that part.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nice meeting you. Your mom's name was?
WOMAN: Judy, she'll be in my prayers.
LEMACK: Thank you.
SMITH: Today, Lemack seeks solace in what she calls the family she never wanted to be part of. She and other 9/11 children, parents and widows cling tight and comfort each other in ways no one else could.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WOMAN: Like Carie called it this morning: the black humor of 9/11.
LEMACK: Yeah, things that won't sound funny to anyone else. But to us, we can let steam off by laughing. Sometimes we just need that release in a way that no one else would ever understand.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: Lemack fiddles with a gold locket around her neck that holds a picture of her mom, and says she's bracing herself for the 10-year anniversary.
LEMACK: I can't believe that it's been that long. It makes me almost want to be ill to think I haven't talked to my mom in 10 years. If I think about it that way, actually it makes me upset like it does right now. So I can't.
SMITH: Lemack will spend September 11th with her sister, close to where they grew up near Boston, taking refuge in the quiet outdoors that their mother loved.
LEMACK: Isn't it gorgeous? Hmm.
SMITH: One recent night, Lemack stopped under a starry sky to feel her mom's presence, as she has many times ever since September 12th, 10 years ago.
LEMACK: I was walking Mom's dog in the woods behind her house. And there was no breeze and all of a sudden these ferns just started blowing. But there was no breeze. It was the weirdest thing.
SMITH: It'll be one of the places Carie will be on September 11th. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.