Eric Leinung was 12-years-old when his big brother, Paul, went into work on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Paul didn't make it out. When adolescents are faced with a traumatic event research shows that they often vent their feelings through aggression and rage. Eric spent his teen years fighting, sometimes physically, with his mom. Now, ten years after the Twin Towers collapsed, Eric reports on how he found his way through his family's loss.
Eric has channeled a lot of his grief into being an actor and currently has a weekend gig in the "shadow cast" of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
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NARRATION: Families are complicated, especially mine. I like to think it wasn’t that way before my brother was killed, but it was.
MOM: Eric you were a pain in the ass always. Honestly, you just really were.
NARRATION: I had bad OCD and ADHD.
MOM: you were a complicated kid, you had a lot of issues.
NARRATION: And my mom was explosive
DAD: There’s a certain streak of stubbornness that runs in the family on both sides, which did not skip you [laugh].
NARRATION: My brother, Paul, was 10 years older. We used to play video games in his basement apartment for hours. He was the person I told everything to, and he listened to me.
MOM: and he was very protective of you.
NARRATION: Like this one time, when we had to go to my little cousin’s christening.
MOM: we had gone crazy to get you dress shoes. Finally I sent Paul to the store with you, cause I had just about had it, and he came home with these cute little hush puppy-type shoes. Nope, they bothered your feet. And on the way to the party you squeezed them out the window. Paul carried you part of the way, and I think I wanted to kill you. But he was like, “Don’t kill him, mom, just have a glass of wine, you’ll feel better.” So, that’s the kind of brother he was.
PAUL: Alright, let’s start. Here’s the show starting right now. Calling mom, she’s a big curser.
NARRATION: When Paul went away to college he had a radio show.
PAUL: Hi, it’s me.
PAUL: You’re live on the radio, no cursing.
NARRATION: I thought he was hilarious.
PAUL: Hi mom.
DAD: Ok, well now here’s your mother live on the radio
PAUL: Both of you stay
MOM: Oh, for crying out loud.
ERIC: Can I be live on the radio?
PAUL: Yeah, Eric can too.
ERIC: Hi Paul.
PAUL: Hi Eric, how are you?
ERIC: How you doing?
PAUL: Good, how are you doing? This is Eric, my 10-year-old brother.
How are you doing tonight?
PAUL: Eric, it’s 10 o’clock, why aren’t you sleeping?
ERIC: Baa, I’m going to bed! I’m not sleeping because I was watching Christopher Columbus.
PAUL: Oh really? You know Columbus actually stole the land from the Native Americans…Hi.
NARRATION: Paul got a job at the World Trade Center straight out of school. He was at work, on the hundredth floor, when the planes hit.
ERIC: And what was your initial reaction?
MOM: My initial reaction was my son is dead. Because I could see the plane had hit about where his office was so, I realized that I’d never find him, that with all that falling on him there wouldn’t be any him. I felt terrible that I had to tell you your brother was killed and never coming home.
NARRATION: My mother stopped going to work for the next couple of months. She spent a lot of time in her room.
DAD: And your sister kind of withdrew. She never wanted to talk about it…so that was hard.
NARRATION: I wanted to join the military, hop in a tank, and roll it over Osama Bin Laden. But I was a kid, and I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t even mention that I missed Paul because my mom would start crying.
So I would throw things and hit people, usually my mom, sometimes my sister. My mom and I would hit each other. Afterwards I would feel so guilty that sometimes I would throw up.
MOM: There were times you were so upset that you’d say things like, “I know you wish it was me that died instead of Paul,” every time you’d want to hurt me.
ERIC: Well sometimes I felt like when Paul died you forgot that Kristen and I were still around and it hurt me very deeply that day when you were crying and you said you have nobody and I said to you, “Mom, you have me.” and you said, “No I don’t, you don’t even have yourself.” And for years I thought that you didn’t want me around. Possibly because I had so deeply wished that it had been me instead. Because Paul was the person that made peace in our household and I was just making things worse.
MOM: Mothers don’t feel like that ever. Ya know, what I meant by, “You didn’t have yourself,” was, yeah you were still trying to find yourself, Eric, you were a baby and you were having a lot of problems already, so what I meant was, “How can I talk to you about my problems?” Obviously it was a painful statement and I’m sorry, but you’ve got to learn to forgive people and move on. Nobody’s ever gonna be perfect, Eric, and say always the right thing at always the right time. Ya know, and I was in a shock too. And it’s 10 years later and as a grown up now, or at least somebody who’s growing up, can you try to understand that much?
ERIC: Of course.
MOM: But you haven’t let it go.
ERIC: Now I will sing “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from Guys and Dolls.
[singing: “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”]
NARRATION: That’s me, at age six, hosting the PS 312 annual talent show.
Around that same time my mom started me in acting classes because she thought it would be good for me. And she was right.
When I was in high school I started using some of the exercises to control my anger. I would picture myself sitting on a swing at our house in the Poconos…and I wouldn’t feel like fighting.
I remember the first time I didn’t lose control. My mom and I were yelling at each other, I threatened her, and then realized how out of control I was.
I went to my room. She came in furious and started throwing stuff. But instead of hitting her, I climbed out the window onto the fire escape.
DAD: We were in a situation that was seriously screwed up wherein a member of our family was murdered.
NARRATION: I’m in the car with my dad, driving home from college.
DAD: You had to grow up and I had to try to help you grow up within that context.
NARRATION: He’s always been a peace activist. So his reaction to 9/11 and to our family’s pain was to try to solve the bigger problem. While I was fantasizing about revenge my dad was lobbying to get us out of Iraq. He joined a group known as 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
ERIC: What was it like being a member of Peaceful Tomorrows and knowing that your son still wanted to personally go in and obliterate the people who had done this?
DAD: Look, I could understand that completely! Because I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I didn’t have fantasies that you know, if I happened to find myself in a room with Osama bin Laden and a gun that I wouldn’t have picked it up and pulled the trigger. I mean I’m not pretending that I’m not human.
ERIC: Do you feel at all, as I know Mom feels and as I felt sometimes in the beginning, that you got a little too wrapped up in the work with Peaceful Tomorrows and forgot about our family?
DAD: Y’know that’s a hard thing to say…because, I had to try to find a little bit of time to try to take care of me too.
NARRATION: For a long time I felt completely alone, so in sophomore year of high school, I asked my dad to teach me how to play guitar.
[Eric and Dad playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” on the guitar]
NARRATION: I also asked him to take me on a Peaceful Tomorrows retreat with him. I was the only kid there. Everyone had lost family; so they knew what it was like. They didn’t know Paul but they were willing to talk to me about him. It was the first time I ever heard someone tell me that I was strong. They also talked about how many civilians were being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mothers were losing sons and brothers were losing brothers. It wasn’t just about my family anymore.
I’ve come a long way, but I still get angry
MOM: It was hard for you to control yourself for awhile, but you’re doing very well with that, you don’t lash out at people or break things anymore.
NARRATION: I still yell sometimes, so does my mom.
MOM: Ah, you and I can talk somewhat. But it’s still kind of hard, it’s still an absence.
NARRATION: I’m still ashamed of how I acted back then and afraid if I stop feeling guilty I’ll slip back into the same habits.
MOM: I think every one of us feels we could have done better. There wasn’t any road map on how to get through something like that and so everybody just did the best they can and everybody has to forgive themselves first and then just forgive each other and move on.
DAD: Ok, what time do you have to go to leave for Rocky?
NARRATION: I’ve just moved back home, I’m living in Paul’s old basement apartment.
MOM: So what did you do yesterday, anyway? You had Amanda, here?
ERIC: Um hmm
MOM: So how’d that work out?
NARRATION: I’m still acting. Right now I’m in the New York City Cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
NARRATION: My sister moved out and got her own place.
MOM: I mean you know, give me like a little detail…
NARRATION: My mom went back to school for her PhD and teaches nursing, and dad joined the church band.
MOM: I don’t want to know we got naked or anything.
MOM: Well I said I didn’t want intimate details!
NARRATION: But we still miss Paul every day.
DAD: I like to tell people that it’s like losing an arm. Now you never grow your arm back, but you do all the things of daily life that most people do with two arms, you learn how to do with one.
NARRATION: I feel like Paul is still there. I’ll always look up to him.
He still motivates a lot of what I do, including making peace with my mom. And sometimes, when I’m on stage, I even think I can see him in the audience.
FOR WNYC, I’M ROOKIE REPORTER ERIC “GRAYSON” LEINUNG