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How I Learned to Stop Pretending and Fear the Bomb

Fifteen years after surviving a terrorist attack in Moscow, I finally came to terms with how deeply the experience had affected me.
View from the former factory building of the Krasny Oktyabr in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Arthur Kondrakov/Wikimedia Commons)

View from the former factory building of the Krasny Oktyabr in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Arthur Kondrakov/Wikimedia Commons)

When I was eight years old, my father decided it was time I got to know my “grandmotherland,” as he called it. He pulled me out of school for two weeks to take me to Moscow, where he and my mother had spent the first 30 years of their lives. Video footage of our arrival shows me in the back seat on the way in from the airport, wide eyes behind lime green glasses, smiling and eager for the Moscow of the anecdotes I’d heard to come to life.

I was the youngest child and the only American-born. Around the dinner table with my family of Soviet émigrés, conversation inevitably turned to stories of the Moscow past, prefaced with the caveat that these things took place “B.T.,” meaning “Before Tanya.” I heard about stealing cabbage from Soviet collective farms, guitar-led folk singing, and amateur theater productions at summer dachas. I’d re-tell the stories to friends with a strange nostalgia, as if they were my own, as if I’d experienced them firsthand.

But on that first trip, instead of the magic coming to life, I hated the city. It was 1994, and Russia was in the midst of a long and devastating economic recession. Moscow seemed dirty, apartment buildings were dingy, and no one on the street ever smiled. My first experience at a dacha involved stepping on a rake and getting a huge bump on my forehead. I spent most of my time feeling bored and out of place, tagging along with my father as he shuffled between meetings and meals with his friends.

My father insisted on taking me back to Moscow for several summers afterward, and I in turn cultivated a sort of pre-adolescent stubbornness. I resented the annual trips and obligatory visits to distant relatives with yellowing teeth, and extended that resentment to all things Russian. I suspected that my being the daughter of immigrants was important to my sense of self, but I wasn’t sure why.

By the time I visited Moscow when I was 13, I finally knew people my own age. Liza and Masha, the daughters of family friends, showed me around. One weekday, the three of us took the metro to Manezhskaya square near the Kremlin, where the mayor had hastily constructed a new underground shopping mall to mark the city’s 850th anniversary. After strolling around the rotating glass cupola and glitzy fountains above, we descended into the mall to get something to eat. We made fun of the tacky American imports but chose Sbarro’s, the American chain restaurant, just the same. I was a snarky teenager, caught uncomfortably between mocking American norms—even as I knew I was inescapably a part of them—and never feeling at home in Russia.

As we approached the food court, a tremendous, deafening blast exploded through the halls. It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life. In an instant, people around me began screaming and running. To my right, I saw the faint outlines of rubble and a cloud of white dust suspended in the air like snow.

As the dust billowed from beyond the food court, a calm security guard in blue directed frantic people back up the escalators to street level. Liza, Masha, and I pushed through the crowds, too shocked to look back. We didn’t speak a word to one another until we were safely outside. It was like the whole world had gone mute. My brain felt empty.

We emerged above ground, where it looked like any other mid-afternoon day. None of the locals or tourists strolling by appeared to know what had just happened beneath their feet. This world seemed intact, even as one below it had been partially reduced to rubble.

I assumed the explosion was a bomb because the Russian news had been reporting about renewed war in Chechnya, which launched only a few days earlier. Indeed, a militant group called the Liberation Army of Dagestan later claimed responsibility for this and other attacks in Moscow. But these were things I didn’t pay much attention to, partly because I was young but also because I didn’t understand the political context: Why was Russia at war? Who were the bad guys?

The three of us were shaking with fear and adrenaline. We took a long walk to try to calm down, stopping to share a huge bar of chocolate. Masha made me call my father when we got back to her parents’ apartment. I kept nervously laughing—a byproduct of shock—while relaying what had happened. I couldn’t process the reality.

When I returned to Los Angeles, my mother and siblings hugged and kissed me and told me how nervous they were when they heard the news. But shortly thereafter, the experience slid silently into a drawer, with only passing references remaining: My older sister and I would refuse to step foot near a Sbarro’s. It became a kind of joke between us—the place must be bad luck. Other than this, no one in my family brought it up, except my father who occasionally told the story as a sort of anecdote about my time in Russia.

I internalized this punctuated silence and rarely talked about the bombing while growing up. If I did, I hedged and told a breezy version of the story: I was 13 and in Moscow when a terrorist put a small handmade explosive in a video arcade at a popular shopping mall. I saw it go off, but it wasn’t right near me. It wasn’t that bad.

Irony was the Soviet way, useful and joyful at times, but it left me without strategies to face the enduring impact of experiencing a terrorist attack.

While in college and graduate school, I wrote essays about my family’s past and their immigration. In my writing, I wondered if my adolescent stubbornness, my reluctant relationship to Russia and Russian-ness, arose out of a sense of contrast between my understanding of life in the Soviet Union and the reality. I wrote a series of essays exploring my own bicultural identity. In one, I explained: “The bombing shook some sense into me, made me ready to connect to my Russian inheritance, to finally grow up and take pride in my immigrant roots.” I wanted the essay’s title to make some sort of pun off How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I could acknowledge that the bombing was a pivotal experience, but I needed it to be useful, so I insisted that it gave me an experience in Moscow that was mine, not a secondhand story I heard from family. Even as I examined it, I kept the experience at bay. I didn’t know how to really process the event, nor did I know I needed to, so I distanced myself by depicting it in optimistic strokes.

In those essays, I always debated which verb to use to name my relation to the event: I survived a bombing when I was 13 years old. I lived through a bombing. I witnessed a bombing. A bomb went off nearme. I saw a bomb go off when I was 13 years old. I worried about assigning too much violence or painting myself as a victim.

I’ve learned not to judge myself for compartmentalizing or downplaying the bombing. I’ve learned that you’re not ready to handle things until you’re ready, so to speak. In fact, for a child, even a single traumatic event can be so overwhelming it exceeds their ability to handle what has happened. A child or adolescent has fewer cognitive and emotional resources to cope with trauma, or to know how to process traumatic events like the random and violent targeting of civilians. The resulting stress may be immediately visible, but it may also reveal itself more subtly, over time. The bombing stunted me, and the unprocessed and unacknowledged grief came out in unexpected ways.

During my first job out of college, I started having sudden bouts of vertigo and occasional hearing problems. I didn’t pay much attention, or I assumed these episodes were the result of sitting at a computer all day long. They went away for a few years but returned abruptly after graduate school, so I made an appointment to see a hearing and dizziness specialist.

I sat in a waiting room surrounded by elderly patients to whom the receptionist spoke in a very loud voice. The doctor came out, a friendly redhead, and we took an elevator down one level to an exam room. After some initial intake questions, she began the test.

All the lights were turned off. The unfamiliar room felt like a windowless basement. The doctor switched on a machine, one that made a very loud mechanical rattling. She placed a heavy metal mask, like one a welder uses, over my eyes and forehead. Then she warned me: “I’m going to have very strong blasts of air blown directly into each ear. This is meant to disorient you.”

We got through the right ear cycle, and she began setting up for the other ear. I began crying under my breath. I unlocked my clenched jaws and asked haltingly, struggling to push out the words: “Do we have to? Can we skip it? I don’t think I can handle that again.”

She pulled off the apparatus and I immediately began to sob heavy, uncontrollable heaves.

My reaction made no sense—the doctor was not trying to be unkind, and in fact she had warned me and explained everything thoroughly. I felt irrational and out of control. But I also knew more confidently than I’d known anything that I couldn’t go through with that again, couldn’t handle the inhumane levels of noise, the subsequent sensations, the darkness, the stranger enacting all this.

We stopped the test. She gave me time alone in the exam room to collect myself. Suddenly I knew: This is about a bombing that happened nearly 15 years ago. That old essay was never true. The truth was still inside my body, a landmine at the ready, waiting to be triggered and to make me feel violently unsafe. I walked out of the unfinished appointment and allowed myself to sit in the sun and cry for a few hours.

The facade of well-being I’d constructed around myself was cracking. Why had I been ashamed to admit that this was a powerful event in my early life? I was afraid that acknowledging the hurt meant I would be subsumed by victimhood, rendered immobile, overwhelmed by devastation. I was raised in a family that relied largely on dark humor or avoidance to manage difficult emotions, so I always feared that facing them would unleash an unending torrent, leaving me out of control. And while humor can be instrumental in resilience, it’s not enough. Irony was the Soviet way, useful and joyful at times, but it left me without strategies to face the enduring impact of experiencing a terrorist attack.

The facade of well-being I’d constructed around myself was cracking. Why had I been ashamed to admit that this was a powerful event in my early life?

I now understand that admitting I continue to be affected by the explosion does not make me weak or broken. In fact, writing about the experience and social connections with family and other trusted adults have been shown to help manage distressing (and often unexpected) reactions in young trauma survivors. These skills and protective factors contribute to resiliency and recovery and can prevent a slew of behavioral and emotional problems. It sounds counter-intuitive to me, because I always felt that the monster of trauma would grow large and unmanageable if I gave it credit and a name instead of pushing it aside.

After all those years, I began to mourn. I was 28 years old, an adult, and I had finally chosen to ask for the support of friends and to see a therapist. I needed to stop feeling guilty claiming these truths, stop feeling like I didn’t have it that bad, or that other voices were more important to hear than mine. I wanted to honor the stories of those who had suffered far more than I had, while still giving myself the space to heal. I needed to try something different, to slow down, to step back.

On a hot and humid Sunday in Washington, D.C., exactly 15 years to the day after I escaped from the site of a terrorist attack in Moscow, I biked to a park on the edge of a creek, sat on the rocks, and traced my fingers along the water. This felt more spacious, more honest. I cried for the one person who died and the 40 people injured by flying glass and metal in Moscow’s fanciest shopping center. I cried for the hundreds of people killed and injured during a string of terrorist attacks that continued after the one I experienced, and for the many more who died during the ensuing war in Chechnya. I cried for myself and for Russia.

As I stood to leave, I dipped my hand into the stream one more time.

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.