|Photo by Richard Drew|
Surviving the Fall
The tooth came last. It came home two years ago, and once it did Eulogia Hernandez knew that the rest of her husband Norberto would never follow. She knew that he was gone because she knew that he was complete, and she could finally stop dreaming of his return.
It was the dream that had kept her alive, in the days after Norberto disappeared when the buildings fell down, and it was the dream that had started killing her in the years since she and her three daughters had began returning pieces of him to the grave in Puerto Rico. All she had ever wanted — the only mercy she had ever asked for — was the knowledge that her husband was trying to come home when he died, that he was trying to reach her and the girls. That's why they suffered so when that newspaper reporter looked at that terrible picture of the man falling through the sky and said that the man was Norberto. The man in that photo wasn't trying to come home. He was falling. The man in that photo wasn't Norberto.
Eulogia feared for her sanity, when people kept saying that it was — that she didn't know what she knew. Her daughters, too. The youngest, Tatiana, was fifteen at the time. She began hearing voices, because she began listening to the people who said that her father was the man in the picture. "I thought it was true," she says now. "It looked like him, with the uniform and everything. So I didn't know who to believe, who to trust. I didn't know who was who, and if I could believe my own family..."
It got better, after it was proven that the newspaper reporter made a mistake — after, in the words of Tatiana's older sister Catherine, "my father's name was cleared." And it got better when they began bringing Norberto back home to Puerto Rico. "It sounds morbid," says Catherine, "but we have him almost complete. We have his legs, we have his skull, his torso, and an arm. And it means a lot to us, because he's there. We alternate every year, at the anniversary — one year in New York, at Ground Zero, and one year in Puerto Rico. This year, it's New York. But when we go to New York, it's out of respect for my father and for the others who died. When we go to Puerto Rico, it's for comfort. There is much more comfort in the place where he's at rest than in the place where he was killed."
And yet even when Norberto began going home to Puerto Rico, Eulogia couldn't let go of the dream that he still might go home to her. "My mother couldn't talk about him, and you couldn't talk to her," Tatiana says. "She would get so emotional. She was stuck in her own little world. She kept wondering, 'What if he's lost somewhere? What if he's wandering the streets and doesn't know he is?' The false hope of him coming home was driving her crazy."
The tooth lifted the curse, even more than the article in Esquire that said he wasn't the man in the picture, the Falling Man. After the tooth was sent to her two years ago, she decided to talk to someone — to do what she'd always refused to do, and get help. She even called Norberto's sister, to tell her that the last of her brother had made it home. She hadn't spoken to Norberto's sister in eight years. She hadn't spoke to her since Norberto's sister had responded to the newspaper reporter's entreaties, had looked at the picture of the Falling Man that had been proffered to her and had said, "Yes, that's my brother. That's Norberto." Now Eulogia called her about the tooth, and kept calling her until, as Catherine says, "little by little, they came back together. They reconciled. They don't talk all the time, like they used to, but they talk. My father's sister is my aunt again."
They brought the tooth down to Puerto Rico last year, and buried it with the rest of Norberto Hernandez, in the place where he was born. And now they are what Norberto wanted them to be, together. They all live in the Long Island town where they moved after 9/11, Eulogia living in the same house with Tatiana and Jackie, her oldest daughter, and Jackie's five children; and around the block from Catherine, who's married with two kids of her own. Jackie's a doctor's assistant, studying to become a nurse; Catherine's a police officer in Queens; and Tatiana's studying to become a commercial pilot on Long Island after putting aside her dream to join the Air Force — after realizing that she could never leave her mother, or her sisters, or the memory of Papi.
Are they healed? They are not, even though Eulogia can now whisper on the phone that "I accept the reality that I am here alone with my three daughters." For one thing, they still do not think that the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man should ever have been published. "I won't look at it," Catherine says. "For the families, it should have been kept in a vault, kept for themselves. And I think that every family would agree. It's a horrific image. The first time I saw it, my heart dropped; I literally felt sick to my stomach. To think that someone had to go through that. And then when people started saying that the man in the photo was my father..."
For another, they believe that they are expected to feel different somehow, with the arrival of the tenth anniversary. They do not feel different. "The tenth feels the same as the ninth, feels the same as the eighth," Catherine says. "And it all feels the same as the day after. My father's gone, and he's never coming back. That's what it feels like."
They do not feel comforted by what is supposed to comfort them — by the completion of the memorial and the construction of another tower in the place where the towers fell — for what the world regards as an act of memory, the Hernandezes regard as the start of the inevitable forgetting. "I personally disagree with them building another building there," Jackie says. "I personally feel that that piece of land should be sacred, that they should build a cemetery and leave it alone. But nobody cares what the families say, to be honest with you. They do what they want to do. The government doesn't take us into consideration for anything. Their consideration is getting the finances back up. It's beyond painful. They build again, and God forbid there's another attack. Then what? They should just leave it alone. Just leave it alone."
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum
Jonathan Briley's pager is supposed to be getting back home soon.
Gwendolyn Briley Strand works in Washington, D.C. — what she calls "the epicenter of memorials" — and knows what cold comfort memorials bring. "They're never the way that the families, the grieving people, deal with their loss," she says. "They're the way the world deals with its loss. They're not for us. They're for the rest of the country, and they're for history."
Nevertheless, Gwendolyn is going to be in New York with her family on Sunday, to see the memorial, and to hear, once again, the reading of the name of her brother Jonathan. "I've gone every year," she says, "because of the feeling that's there, among the families. You know, everyplace I go, if I tell people I lost someone on 9/11, I hear the same thing: 'Oh, you're the first person I've met who has.' Well, at Ground Zero, everyone's lost someone. It's the only place I can go where I'm not the odd man out."
And yet there's something that distinguishes Gwendolyn from all the other grieving family members who will observe the tenth anniversary of the attacks on Sunday morning — the fact that her brother, Jonathan, has been made to stand for all. She and her family have changed places with the Hernandezes; the same Esquire article that "cleared" Norberto Hernandez of being the Falling Man made the provisional case that it was Jonathan Briley. The memorial that will stand for all the others murdered that day is on the ground; the memorial for Jonathan is in the sky, or in the infinitely replicable pixels of a digital photograph.
"The first time I looked at that photograph, it took my breath away," she says. "Now I am quite at peace with it not being Jonathan."
You see, she has Jonathan, in the same way that the Hernandezes have Norberto; and at the same time she knows that no one does. A few days after the attacks, her father, the Rev. Alexander Briley of the Shiloh Baptist Church in New Rochelle, made, for the first time in his life, a public demand of God. He demanded that God restore his son to him — that God deliver the miracle that would deliver to him a body to bury. God answered his furious prayer; and from the dust and the rubble came what Gwendolyn calls "Jonathan's full form." Afterwards, Reverend Briley used to say that God gave him exactly the miracle he asked for, but he asked for the wrong one. He should have asked for the return of Jonathan, alive.
Now Jonathan is buried in Mt. Kisco, next to his mother, who died in 2009. But Gwendolyn doesn't visit him there, because he is not there, any more than he is there in Richard Drew's photograph. "I believe in the trinity of the human being — mind, body and spirit. And I know that after the death of the body, he's not there. He's in God's hands."
In the same way, he's not in the photograph of the Falling Man. "People have to get over wondering who this man was," she says. "He's everybody. We're so stuck on who he was that we can't see what's right there in front of us. The photo's so much bigger than any man, because the man in the photo is clearly in God's hands. And it's God who gives us the grace to go on."
Gwendolyn does wonder, however, about her father. Reverend Briley was diagnosed with Parkinson's shortly after the death of his wife, and the disease has progressed rapidly. "He hasn't been out of bed in a year, and I'm not sure if he knows what's happening on Sunday. But maybe that's another of God's mercies. I think of Jonathan dying at forty-three, and then my father getting to this stage in his life. Which is the better way? Jonathan's death took so much out of my father. Maybe it's good where he is right now."
As for Jonathan, he is everywhere, and he belongs to everybody. "They recovered some of his personal effects, and they're at the Smithsonian," Gwendolyn says. "I have the bracelet he wore that day. But they have his pager, his ID card, and his keys. And they have gone all over the world, in a traveling exhibition. It started here, in Washington. But it's traveled all over the world. It's supposed to be getting back home soon. Maybe it already has."
Falling (Mad) Man
On September 11, 2001, Richard Drew took a picture. He was a photographer for the Associated Press, and he'd been dispatched to downtown New York, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were on fire — were, indeed, already ruins, even before they fell. When he staked out his place near the police perimeter, however, Drew focused not on the fire but on the falling. People were jumping out of the towers in droves, and after they jumped, they fell. Drew pointed his lens at them and followed them down. He shot them en masse and he shot them individually, and at 9:41 AM he shot a man in a white shirt and black pants tumbling in the air, scrambling in the air, but appearing to manage one blessed moment of consonance before completing his fall out of the camera's view. This photograph — the photograph of a man falling 1,000 feet headfirst somehow righting himself before joining the ruin — is the photograph that appeared the next day in the New York Times and in newspapers all over the world. It had no title, and after readers protested its publication, it was withdrawn from view.
Six years later, AMC broadcast the first episode of its drama about the Golden Age of Madison Avenue, Mad Men. The title sequence portrayed a man — the stark silhouette of a man — in a suit and a tie, falling from the window of an office tower. Was the image a reference to Drew's photograph? Absolutely. Did the entire show exist within the peculiar set of quotation marks that 9/11 furnished, and travel back 50 years in order to reckon obliquely with the last ten? It did, which accounts for the almost forensic nature of our fascination with it. The show doesn't merely begin with a sequence portraying a man's fall. The show begins with a man's fall to tell us that it's about a man's fall — to tell us that as it begins, it will also end.
And now AMC stands weirdly accused of making reference to 9/11, in its promotional poster for Mad Men's fifth season, set to commence on Sunday, March 25. On the one hand, the poster is merely a continuation of the art that has accompanied the show since its inception — a bit of shorthand that refers as much to the viewing public's impatience to get Mad Men back after its extended hiatus as it does to the existential consequences of Dick Whitman impersonating a dead man named Don Draper. At the same time, the poster dispenses with the corporate context specific to Mad Men, indeed with context altogether, and, by concentrating on one falling man, seems out to remind viewers that the show is really about the Falling Man... that for all its American-Century trappings, it's set squarely in the age of American decline.
As a result, bloggers have created something of a controversy around the poster, suggesting that unnamed "people" are "upset" with it, when apparently the only people really upset with it are the bloggers looking to create controversy. Still, when a television network is accused of exploiting a sacred 9/11 image for its own purposes, it's worth looking once again at the image in question to see what those purposes might be. In particular, it's worth reminding ourselves that the guardians of American culture have been exploiting sacred 9/11 images since at least 9/12, and that Drew's photograph was initially deemed anything but sacred — was declared "exploitative" — because it told a truth that could not be easily exploited. At a time when the country was greedy for heroes and martyrs to give purpose to its pain, Drew's photograph portrayed a victim representative in his fear, his desperation, and in his solitary resolve. At a time when the country was desperate for images that were communal and redemptive, Drew gave it a man left to the mercy not of God but of gravity, and dying utterly alone.
The photograph was not called "The Falling Man" back then. It was called leering pornography, and sentenced to an invisible career as cultural contraband. It did not resurface until Esquire published a story entitled "The Falling Man" in its September 2003 issue, whereupon the photograph gained its title, and its symbolic status. You see, by that time it was clear that despite the best efforts of the American government and the American media, the legacy of 9/11 was not going to be moral clarity but rather moral unease — an almost vertiginous sensation of the ground giving way beneath our feet, along with just about everything else. That sensation, alas, has never gone away, and it is what has been mined brilliantly by the makers of Mad Men. If, in 2003, America was finally able to look at a two year-old photograph suggesting that it had to revise what it thought it knew about how people died on 9/11, by 2007 it was primed to watch a prime-time melodrama suggesting that it had to revise what it thought it knew about how people lived in 1960. It was ready to hear that what it had always regarded as American exceptionalism got its start as American entitlement, and was always fated to fall back to earth.
After I wrote "The Falling Man" in 2003, I got a call from a friend of mine, who said, "Well, now you have a book." I asked him what he meant, and he told me that anyone I wanted to write about could be written about for a book called "The Falling Man," because, in his words, "We're all falling men now." I never wrote the book, but I remember what my friend said every time I look at Richard Drew's photograph or, for that matter, the credit sequence for Mad Men. We're all falling men now. Drew's photograph became a symbol both specific and universal because it dared to tell us that 9/11 was not the beginning of something but rather the end, that it didn't constitute the "victory of the American spirit," as presidents and pundits tried so hard to tell us, but rather a loss, final and decisive, with which we'd always have to reckon. The "controversial" Mad Men poster has some of the same resonance, because it reminds us that the reckoning goes on — who could not imagine the figure of Barack Obama silhouetted against that limitless white background? — and started before most of us were even born.