Saturday, September 10, 2011
I’ve been thinking about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 for a year, especially about a 2003 story by Tom Junod, published in Esquire, called “The Falling Man.“ The story is about a photo of an unidentified man plunging from the World Trade Center — one of the many people who jumped from the buildings to die in the open air rather than die in flames inside — and how people reacted to the photo. Some thought the photo was too disturbing to be published. The family of one man who was thought for a time to be the Falling Man reacted with anger. They saw a deliberate jump as a “betrayal of love,” in Junod’s words. To them, the man in the photograph wasn’t doing everything in his power to get home to his loved ones. He had given up hope and left them, even if it was just a second or two before he would have been torn from them anyway. They wanted to think of their relative fighting to return to them until the very last second.
Junod writes of “essential acts of witness” in a paragraph about the role of photo-journalism, which starts out with a reference to the photos of Nazi death camps in World War II:
“… the pictures that came out of the death camps of Europe were treated as essential acts of witness, without particular regard to the sensitivities of those who appeared in them or the surviving families of the dead. They were shown, as Richard Drew’s photographs of the freshly assassinated Robert Kennedy were shown. They were shown, as the photographs of Ethel Kennedy pleading with photographers not to take photographs were shown. They were shown as the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack was shown. They were shown as the photograph of Father Mychal Judge, graphically and unmistakably dead, was shown, and accepted as a kind of testament. They were shown as everything is shown, for, like the lens of a camera, history is a force that does not discriminate. What distinguishes the pictures of the jumpers from the pictures that have come before is that we — we Americans — are being asked to discriminate on their behalf. What distinguishes them, historically, is that we, as patriotic Americans, have agreed not to look at them. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of people died by leaping from a burning building, and we have somehow taken it upon ourselves to deem their deaths unworthy of witness — because we have somehow deemed the act of witness, in this one regard, unworthy of us.”
“Witnessing” has always seemed crucial to me. The post I wrote last year about 9/11 was called “Thoughts on 9/11: The Devil Is in the Details.” In it, I wrote:
“It’s easy to become inured to any big story, no matter how horrifying. Eventually, it becomes something in a history book. But an individual’s heart-breaking story — one that might never merit a line in a book or a newspaper article — is always a shocking reminder that the disaster is made up of hundreds, thousands or even millions of stories just as unbearable.”
I then wrote about some WWII and 9/11 stories of which I’d recently heard and by which I’d been very affected. (It was shortly after that, while still thinking of the need to record individual stories, that I re-read and bookmarked “The Falling Man.”) My preoccupation with the small-scale story isn’t anything new. I’ve written about it in terms of the Holocaust more than once, including this post about Polish Jews and Auschwitz from September 2008.
But I was preoccupied with the concept way before that, even when I was in high school in New Jersey in the ’80s with an internship of sorts at a local newspaper. It wasn’t much of an internship. I came in just once a week and tried, but completely failed, to make myself useful to some music critics. I was too young to drive, there was no public transportation, and I sometimes had trouble getting a ride. After I missed one too many internship days because no one wanted to drive me, a critic and editor took me aside and berated me for not being serious enough. “Why do you want to be a journalist anyway?” they said. I didn’t know how to answer that. I’ve always had trouble saying why I like the things that I like. I just like them! It comes naturally to me. In my mind, other people should explain to me why they don’t like these things. Anyway, as I recall, I answered, “I like true stories better than fiction.”
One true story is that on September 11, 2001, I worked for Lehman Brothers, then located at the World Financial Center, across the street from the World Trade Center. After I left our building, I stood on the street in a crowd and watched people falling from the towers. I still remember what they were wearing. One man wearing khakis, a white shirt, and a tie, but no jacket — I thought he had to be a bond trader — made movements like he was trying to resist the fall. Around me, people were getting hysterical. I get hysterical after emergencies, when it’s safe. Getting hysterical during emergencies can be fatal. I instinctively went with the spirit of an old punchline, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own lying eyes?” and decided that my eyes were lying. The people weren’t jumping deliberately, I reasoned. They must have been killed in the crash and afterwards fell from the big hole in the building. That was terrible, but not quite as terrible as someone deliberately jumping. I stuck to this fiction for days. But I think deep down I knew it was a fiction, so I studied the scene carefully for several long minutes, unlike one of my colleagues who turned her back the moment she realized what was happening. She said to me, “How can you look?” and I answered, “How can you not look? This is what is happening!” I felt that someone, somewhere, might someday need information about these poor people who were plunging into history, and what if everyone looked away or forgot? So I watched long enough to memorize the scene, until I had to get back to the business of communicating by BlackBerry with the London-based colleague who fortunately told me to start walking away from the buildings, meaning my little group of people was out of danger when the Trade Center collapsed.
To me, telling the true story — even belatedly — is a way to honor the dead. I think it shows respect for what they had to endure. I felt that way five years after 9/11, when I was on the scene of a terrible accident. I was walking the dogs around midnight early in May when I heard what sounded like an explosion. Across the street, a motorcycle had collided with a bus. I ran over and saw the motorcyclist lying on his back. Another man who had been right on the spot was already on the phone with emergency services reporting the accident and trying to control the crowd that gathered, most of whom were also calling for help. So I sat down with the motorcyclist. He was breathing in a raspy way and his eyes were open. I was scared that I might hurt him if I held his hand, so I patted him very carefully and told him help was almost there. I kept patting him for what felt like ages. A fire engine finally roared up and I got up in a daze (saying nothing helpful to the rescuers to my lasting regret), went back home, washed the blood off my hands and stayed up all night convincing myself that there would be a happy ending. I kept checking the local news sites for reports of a man being saved after an accident. I wanted to know what hospital he was at so I could bring him flowers and tell him how glad I was that he was okay. Instead, I found an article saying that he died after hours of efforts to save him. He was an FBI agent, and his boss was quoted about how devastated his colleagues were by his loss. His survivors included his parents, siblings and a girlfriend. I cried, and then I called the FBI and left a message for the boss. I said I’d been there and he could call me and I’d try to answer any questions. When he called, I wasn’t able to answer every single question and I had to tell him some upsetting details, but I was also able to tell him that the agent wasn’t alone, not for a second. A lot of people were worried for him and there were easily a dozen who stayed until help arrived. That was the thing I thought was most important. The boss asked if he could give my number to the family, and eventually the girlfriend called. The parents never did. When it’s your own personal loss, you might not want to know everything, but that doesn’t mean someone else shouldn’t be prepared to testify as to what happened if needed.
It might seem contradictory, but I’m not linking to the obituaries or providing the name of the victim, lest family or friends stumble upon it unexpectedly and feel upset. They’ve already taken the opportunity — or deliberately passed on the opportunity — to hear what happened, and because this isn’t part of a larger event that’s relevant to large numbers of people, I won’t give every detail. But if anyone were to come across this and figure out who I’m talking about, s/he should know that not a week goes by when I don’t think of the agent and hope that his family and friends are doing as well as can be expected, just like not a week goes by when I don’t think of the people who died on 9/11. I feel like it’s my job to remember them all, just so there is one additional person on earth who does.
I will have another post on the actual anniversary of 9/11. Here is a list of my previous posts on the topic.
- September 11 Is Here Again
- Laughing While Crying
- The Prodigal Bumpe Returns
- Three Old Posts and a Little Story (aka The Other Wendy Brandes)
- Thoughts on 9/11: The Devil Is in the Details
- “I Thought Everybody Else Was Lost.”
And, going back to some of my remarks at the beginning of this post, here are links to my posts about bearing witness to the Holocaust.