Skip to Content

Nadja Spiegelman: Growing up in the Age of Terror

A teenage girl refuses to give into the fear created by recent terrorist attacks in France.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/15607722454_feb9e270e8_z.jpg
Image courtesy of Flickr user Keno Photography - Kenan Šabanović.

By Nadja Spiegelman

Like many Parisians, we left town over the long weekend. On Thursday evening, we were at a friend’s country home, sitting around a table playing cards, when everyone stopped to look at their phones. The news from Nice came in a slow-building wave. Information, real and false, was read aloud. The death toll mounted, the driver had a gun, there were several men, they shot at the crowd. Fourteen-year-old Louise Frilet, the daughter of a friend of mine, did not get derailed from the game.

“It was the same thing again. And certainly it’s sad, but in my opinion it’s going to keep happening,” she told me the next day. Her blue eyes, made cartoon-character huge through her glasses, were steady and serious.

Louise’s middle school was not far from the Charlie Hebdo offices. When she first heard there had been a shooting, she did not think much of it. She went to the Place de la Republique with a friend, got food, watched TV. It wasn’t until later that night, when she saw the outpouring on social media, that she realized the scale of what had taken place.

A few months later, when the news broke of the November 13th attacks, Louise was sleeping over at another girl’s house. The majority of her classmates lived in the affected areas. One lived in an apartment that overlooked one of the cafés. Another lost her best friend at the Bataclan. That night, Louise called her best friend Romaine, over and over, frantic. The calls went straight to voicemail. Finally, Romaine called back in tears. She had been at the movies. She was safe.

I remember the next morning: the burnt pieces of paper that drifted down our sidewalk in SoHo, the stunned look of the pigeons who would not fly.

The next morning, Louise’s step-father came to pick her up. The metro was still shut down in some areas. Louise told me how strange it was, to see the familiar streets of her neighborhood deserted.

I remember the deserted streets. I remember the next morning: the burnt pieces of paper that drifted down our sidewalk in SoHo, the stunned look of the pigeons who would not fly.

“What does September 11th mean to you?” I asked Louise. Louise was born on August 20th, 2001. She had been three weeks old. I had been the age Louise was now. My high school was a few blocks away. I’d stood along the West Side Highway. I’d watched as the second tower fell. I’d left my body and hovered above it. I’d called my best friend, whose home was at the base of the towers, and left her an indecipherable voicemail of hiccupping sobs.

“September 11th was the event that set off the 21st century,” Louise replied promptly. “We studied it in school this year.”

For me, it was the day I stopped being a child. It would have happened anyway, around fourteen, gradually, but instead it happened that day. Before, I had lived in a world in which I was safe. Afterwards, I did not.

“Do you feel safe in Paris?” I asked Louise.

“Yes,” she answered, with a calm I could not muster. I did not. At every concert, I listened for gunfire under the music.

When I asked her if she felt changed, she told me she did not. She told me these events had only made her more sensitive to news of violence in other countries. In Baghdad, in Syria, she said, in Turkey, in Bangladesh. I remembered then my anger at the social workers who had interrupted my history class to tell us about post-traumatic stress disorder. I had raised my hand to say that it was the children in Afghanistan who now needed their help, not us. Who wants to be told, at fourteen-years-old, that they are damaged? It would take me years to realize that not everyone dreamed of cities on fire.

“What do you think the likelihood is of another attack happening in Paris this year?” I asked. Louise blinked at me for a moment before answering.

“75 percent,” she said steadily. The number seemed to me terribly accurate, and my face must have flashed with fear. Louise added, as if to reassure me, that many attempted attacks were deterred.

“Is there anything you avoid doing?” I asked.

She told me that she avoided crowds. She no longer attended protests or went to open-air concerts. She tried to remain attentive to any strange activity. But, she told me emphatically, we had to continue living. She still went to movies, to concerts, to cafes. She refused to be afraid. The Monday after the November 13th attacks, she’d taken the metro to school by herself, defiant.

I’d hugged my elbows against the cold night air and, even then, I’d thought about how fireworks were not so different from bombs.

For one friend’s upcoming birthday, Louise and her group of friends bought tickets to a concert in November at the Zenith, one of the largest venues in Paris. The birthday girl’s mother, worried about a potential attack, insisted she would accompany them.

“I mean, it’ll change nothing if she’s there or not there,” Louise told me. “But it will reassure her. So…voila. Me, the Zenith, I think it’s pretty safe. The security is high. But then…I guess, we thought the Stade de France was safe too.”

On Thursday, before we’d received the news, we’d walked to the far end of the garden to watch the fireworks. We could see the explosions above the small town in the distance. The noise woke the cows. Their low moans filled the valley. I’d hugged my elbows against the cold night air and, even then, I’d thought about how fireworks were not so different from bombs. I’d worried about war. I’d wondered when the next explosion would come, and how far away I would be this time. The show ended, a grand finale of white against the sky. I shook off the thoughts, as I’d done many times before. We turned back towards the house. Louise took off across the grass at a run, laughing, racing a friend. The beam of light from her phone bounced across the dark field. We went inside to play cards.

Nadja Spiegelman is the author of the forthcoming memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting