The Falling Man

The picture is grotesque in its nature, yet beautiful in the depth of what it captures. In it, we see the small glimpse of a man in the most vulnerable state of his entire existence, an existence that is soon to be over, done at his own doing. He is captured in mid air, like a super hero descending to the Earth, ready to save the world from the impending doom that has caused his reaction in the first place. The photo of the Falling Man was shown once, and then taken down, hidden from the sight of conscious eyes, because to look at it, stare with eyes wide open, one will soon struggle with the decision that he had to make, the reason he is falling in the first place. To understand the picture means you will have to understand what fight he had to endure in his mind, seconds before, as he stood at the edge of a metal grave, looking down at the concrete tomb that stares back at him from below. The Falling Man photo is a picture of a man that had to choose the way he wanted to die, and in doing so, reminds us of how scared we can be to live.

When the photo was released, it was met with shock and anger, by a society that was fresh in dealing with the attack of the World Trade Centers on 9/11. People gasped at the thought of a photo capturing a man in death’s grasp, the picture of suicide by necessity, not by desire. Newspapers that ran the photo were called to take it down, face boycott, because the lookers of the outward lens were unable to fully understand what the inward dialogue of this man could be. Or perhaps they were scared to know what it was? The Falling Man is a man that decided to jump rather than stay and burn. No one can argue the decision he made, because it was his and his alone. There is no rationalization of what he did because no one was there, standing in the room, feeling the temperature rising, smoking gathering, death nearing. It is easy to apply personal opinion to his situation, as one sits in the comfort of their own home, but to put oneself in his shoes, is to put yourself in a bad place, a dark room where no one likes to sit alone, or admit they have gone there before. The Falling Man made the decision to be just that, falling, instead of staying behind and becoming the Fallen Man moments later when the towers collapsed under their own weight. 

I am fascinated by the picture not for what it is, but because of how it happened to be. It is as if I am watching a sunset and curious about the goings on of the day preceding. The beauty of the situation is there, in the perfect framing of the photo, but it is the story behind it, the unknown portion of him and who he is and was, that makes the Falling Man the perfect picture. People have discussed the audacity of it all, how the photo is dishonorable, to capitalize on this man’s death. But that really isn’t the reason, if we are to be truly honest with ourselves. We have seen the different faces of death in the past, the bodies laying in the streets from war torn areas, carnage from the places of famine. The uncomfortableness of the photo comes from its subject matter, the topic of not his death, but how he went about doing it. We don’t like to talk about the man falling because we don’t want to think about the fact that he had to have jumped, to taken the leap himself, and in doing so, reveal a subject to the world that we are not comfortable with in the first place. And maybe this is the perfect time to start talking about it, to bring the dialogue to the forefront of human discussion. How many lives could we save? How many people would reach out, if they thought someone would reach back?

Whoever the man is, there is a good chance he did not wake up on the morning of September 11 expecting to die. And he certainly didn’t have the thought of suicide in his head. No one knows what was going on with him because we still don’t know who he was, but chances are, he was just a man, going to work, thinking it was going to be a normal day, like the day before and the weeks preceding. He was probably thinking of his family and tasks at hand. Even when the first plane hit, he was in shock, like the rest of us, and then came the other plane, and then the smoke. And then a decision. To see the picture, you need to rewind time back several minutes. You need to see the world as he is seeing it, hundreds of feet above the city, smoke and flames consuming you, not knowing if a third plane is on the way, not sure if help can even make it. There is no right answer to this question, to try and make a run for the stairs may have not been an option, for if it were, there is a good chance he would have taken it. He is faced with two choices, and he chose one, and we, the people a thousand miles away,  safe in front of our televisions watching, have judged him by it. 

I wonder what that thought is, the last one he had right before the moment he acted out his decision? To put myself in his shoes is to put myself in the true soul of another human being,  a person who may have struggled for minutes, fighting back tears of anguish as he fight back flames of fire.  To actually think of the process, to try and understand is almost impossible to do. Is it the decision you would have made, and if not, why? But to stop and ponder, to actually put yourself in the mind of the Falling Man while he was still the living man, is one of the hardest and scariest places to visit. We are morally handcuffed of what happens to those who choose death on their own, and maybe rationalize what the universe does to them in this situation. We ultimately don’t know, and maybe that is what scares us the most. 

Tom Junod’s article about the Falling Man in Esquire magazine is a journalistic masterpiece, and quite honestly the reason I write. The Great Gatsby opened my eyes to reading, but Junod and his ability to take history and make it personal, is the reason I wanted to write. The article brings me a strange happiness because it makes my mind work, and my heart pound, all because I am drawn to a person whom I have never met, nor will ever meet in this lifetime, but somehow feel for.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, the 7356 words used to describe the story behind the Falling Man is not nearly enough. His article goes to great lengths to paint the picture of a person we don’t know anything about, but somehow learn to love. The article does something that no other piece of journalism does these days, it tells you the facts and lets you decide what to do with them. It is void of extreme commentary and opinion. He does not try to sway you to think one way or the other about who the Falling Man was, just that he was a man who probably had a story to tell, and the greatest disservice we have is that we don’t know the full telling of it. 

The picture of the Falling Man haunts me, but in the way the cherished memory of a former lover might. I see the photo and I am instantly humbled, reminded of the fragility of the world, and the people in it. The picture and the article take me to a place of human discovery, a place that puts me in the heart and minds of strangers, and makes me wonder about the lives they lead, the loves they have and the pains they have suffered. We are all connected, our stories intertwined, and yet we treat strangers with the same hate we treat loved ones, a hate the shouldn’t exist in the first place if we only took the time to see ourselves in others. But maybe that is the key, that we have learned to hate others because deep down we haven’t learned to love ourselves. The Falling Man if nothing else, shows us that we all must step back, look deeply into what we see in ourselves and realize that the same hope and despair we have is present in others. I think back to what the Falling Man must have went through, the pain and the process of making his final decision, that in this man’s final moments, in this man’s death, I find life. 

Writer’s Note: The Falling Man was in an unwinnable situation, but for many, the people that choose to take their own life, they see themselves in the same manner. They do not see with the same clarity that someone outside their situation sees, but because the talking of self harm is taboo, the shame rises in them like the smoke rose in the Twin Towers that day, and the person soon finds themselves, like the Falling Man, on the edge of a decision to make. We all must do better to not allow the shame to rise, the pain to burn hotter. Make talking about problems the norm, and allow others to see that they do have options.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255