A remembrance read: Tom Junod’s “The Falling Man”

On the 11th anniversary of 9-11, I think it’s easy for us to look up at the flags outstretched between the columns of the MU quad. It’s easy to don the America t-shirts and write prolific Facebook statuses and tweets throughout the day. I’m not saying it’s easy for us to stomach what happened or look back at the day that we’ll all remember as our generation’s Pearl Harbor. I’m saying it’s easy to show that we remember. Because we do, no matter how emotional that remembering can be for us.

But today, instead of writing what I remember from that Tuesday in 2001 from a 10-year-old perspective, I decided to do just the opposite.

I decided to read.

In September 2009, Esquire magazine published a story that has gone on to become one of the most revered 9-11 articles, at least in the magazine journalism world. Tom Junod’s “The Falling Man” documented the stories behind the photographs of people falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center on the morning of the attack.

When I saw Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger speak last fall, he said this was one of the most-read stories ever published in Esquire.

Oftentimes labeled as “jumpers,” these victims have been immortalized unknowingly in the frames of photojournalists such as Richard Drew, who took the iconic picture in the spread. They’re just as equally victims, but because of that one label, “jumper,” their deaths sometimes are categorized as less noble than those who died in the flames or collapse of either tower. One blogger in the story says he was appalled at the number of people who landed on his page because they were Googling “How many people jumped on 9-11?”

It’s hard to write about Junod’s piece today. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a student at the Missouri School of Journalism who hasn’t at least heard of Junod’s iconic look at these specific photos from 9-11, but very few of us can say much more than how influential the word choice is or how much we admire the deep reporting and characterization of the subjects.

There’s something about reading this piece today, however, three years after it was first published and eleven years after the attacks, that makes the story eerie and a different kind of reminder:

But now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up speed.

In a way, we’re all that “falling man” tumbling through the air to escape the memory but faced with a “vast space” of nothing but. We push ourselves to both remember the events of 9-11 and heal from them, to never forget but never become like those who perpetrated it by refusing to forgive. We’re all still working on the forgiving part, and it will probably never happen for me as well as for most of us, but we try with the caveat that forgiving doesn’t equal forgetting.

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