We’re a few days away from the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. I wanted to use this edition of The Press Box to revisit two magazine stories about the attacks that have lodged themselves in my mind since I first read them.
One of these stories is Tom Junod’s “The Falling Man,” which ran in Esquire in September 2003. After the attacks, there was a push within the media not to show certain images from September 11. The TV networks stopped showing endless footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, feeling it was exploiting the victims.
The day after the attacks, several newspapers published Associated Press photographer Richard Drew’s image of a man who fell or jumped to his death from the North Tower. Readers recoiled. The newspapers, Junod writes, “were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography.”
Junod’s “The Falling Man” has two parts. It’s his attempt to find out the identity of the man in the photograph. And it’s a reconsideration of whether we should look at those pictures, as horrific as they are. Here’s a portion of my interview with Junod, edited and condensed for clarity.
Bryan Curtis: How’d you come across the picture of the man jumping out of the North Tower on September 11?
Tom Junod: I had just come back from a trip out to Oregon for a different story that I wrote, about oil field workers being held captive in Honduras. We were in Shelter Island, [New York]. My wife came out to where I was, to the deck, and said, “I don’t know if this is like a War of the Worlds kind of hoax, but there’s a report on the radio. NPR is saying that a plane hit the World Trade Center.” And then that day began.
The next morning, I was hungry to read a newspaper. So we went to the drug store on Shelter Island, and we picked up the Times and the Post and the Daily News and Newsday. All the papers. We came back home to look at them. The Times had the headline “America Attacked,” which was one of those things that gives me shivers, even today.
I opened it up, and there was the picture of a man who had fallen from the building, had jumped from the building. I think it was on [Page] A7, if I’m not mistaken. It was like immediate recognition, for a couple of reasons. It put me on notice that the world had changed in some sort of fundamental way. It also put me on notice that one day I would want to write about the story.
Curtis: The man’s identity—that was the question for you?
Junod: At the time. But the thing about it—it wasn’t just his identity. It was what happened behind him, and what happened above him.
That summer, I went to the top of the World Trade Center for the first time. I ate at Windows on the World, and I went with David Granger, my editor at Esquire. We went to the top, and we looked out the window. I remember the view to the south, and the feeling that, “Holy cow, I can see Philadelphia.” Having had that experience of being there in that room, and knowing that somebody came out of the windows that I looked through, made me wonder what had happened to propel them. If they had made the decision to jump, what had influenced that decision?
The thing about the photo that is haunting to this moment is that, when you look at the photo, it looked as if a decision had been made. There was a certain resolute quality to it. There was a certain peace to it that drew me in immediately.
Curtis: You wrote of the falling man: “Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity’s divine suction or by what awaits him.”
Many of the things written right after 9/11 were in an almost funereal tone. It feels like you’re doing something a little different there, right at the top of the piece. What were you thinking of, starting that way?
Junod: I wrote the first sentence. The hair stood up on my arms. From then on, in the account of the picture itself, it was a little bit like writing by Ouija board. It wasn’t like I was trying to do anything. I mean, the guesswork that is part and parcel of just about any story I’ve ever written was not there.
Curtis: Guesswork, meaning?
Junod: Guesswork like, “What am I trying to do here?” “Well, this sounds good.” Or, “This sounds shitty.” All of the things that accompany you as a writer did not accompany me at that moment.
Curtis: What conclusion did you come to about why these pictures should not be suppressed?
Junod: I think that there was a judgment being made about how to die. About the deaths that people suffered, and that some were honorable and some are not. And the story, if it has any purpose at all besides telling the story of all the people that photo represents, it was to go against that idea.
I went into that story totally thinking I was going to call people up, and they were going to yell at me for calling them. Hang up and say, “Don’t ever call me again.” It was completely the opposite. Because the fact is that people had no information about how their loved ones died. They had no idea. And they wanted to know.
Curtis: You said you wrote the beginning of the piece as if by Ouija board. How about the rest of the piece?
Junod: It was like World War I trench warfare, man. I wrote the beginning. I handed in the beginning and then handed in a very rough draft of the end.
Granger was like, “Great. The rest of the two-thirds of the story needs a lot of work.”
I was like, “Yeah, I know that.”
We finished that story at the last possible moment. That story closed on the day the magazine closed and went to the printer.
When I finished writing it, I handed it in. It got fact-checked. Granger signed off. Then he gave it to an editor named Peter Griffin. Peter was like the ninja editor at Esquire. He just cut the last two paragraphs. He said, “The story ends here.” I don’t even know what those last two paragraphs said anymore.
It was one of the great editing moments that I’ve experienced in my career. There was not even any argument about it, at all. And then, boom, pretty much they hit send and it went to the printer.
Listen to the full interview with Junod and another interview with James B. Stewart about his New Yorker story “The Real Heroes Are Dead” on The Press Box.