"The Importance of Being Uncomfortable" by Elise McGovern '18
Elise is from Livingston, New Jersey.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a novel written by Jonathan Safran Foer. The main character, Oscar, is a nine-year-old boy living in New York City. He is on a quest for the owner of a mysterious key, that he believes contains a hidden message -- or lost memory -- of his father who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Oscar is obsessed with his father’s last moments, and wants to know what exactly happened to him and how he felt. One of the many possibilities that Oscar contemplates is that his father was one of the “jumpers” like the falling man in the picture taken on 9/11 (Figure 1), an image that is woven into the book’s narrative. Oscar, however, likes to look at the pictures in reverse order to imagine that the man is flying upward back into the building.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close displays the image in a sequence of photos, each taking up a page. The effect is like a flip book (Figure 2). The man is shown jumping from the burning, smoke filled north tower of the World Trade Center. As the reader flips through the pages the man slowly falls down, and finally off, the page.
This image is iconic and has come to represent the unimaginable events that took place above the impact zones of each tower. Accounts from this day describe intense heat and smoke. Floors were buckling, ceiling pieces were falling, and smoke was everywhere. All the stairwells and elevators were blocked or broken. People were trapped. Phone calls to loved ones and police dispatchers from those trapped in the World Trade Center tell stories of not being able to see more than a few feet or even being able to breathe. Many were driven to the edge of the buildings by the intense heat and smoke. Some hung from the sides trying to escape the inferno; some were blown out of the windows, and others just jumped. In all, some 200 people fell to their death from the burning building before it finally collapsed, imploding upon itself.
There is an interesting history to the image of the falling man. It appeared in the New York Times the day after the attack and was immediately criticized for being inappropriate. Periodically, the image is published in one context or another. There are many photos similar to this one readily available on the Internet, but generally it has not been enshrined in the publicized memories of 9/11.
Images of falling people make others uncomfortable, and are disturbing because they tell of the reality of death and horror that took place on that day. The horrific images of 9/11 are not talked about or published for fear they are insensitive to the memory of those who died or for the disturbance it might cause the reader. These images are unsettling and a concern over their impact most certainly should not be disregarded. However, by not showing the images of death and horror we forget those who died as well as those who are forever affected by that day. There is no way to sugarcoat these photos to not show death and horror and still remember everyone who lost their life or health that day. Many media sources and individuals choose to focus almost entirely on the community support that formed in the aftermath of 9/11. While it is important to always see the positive points of a negative, horrific situation that negative, horrific situation must not be forgotten. In the case of 9/11 the loss of life and health, newfound fears about security and the lasting impact of trauma should not be overlooked. These stories and images might make readers and viewers feel uncomfortable and that’s okay. To feel pain and hurt is uncomfortable but it is also necessary for a greater understanding of 9/11 and other horrific events that happen around the world every day and throughout history. When photos, stories and events are sugarcoated they disconnect us from what these events mean to those who lived through them.
Survivors in the south tower recall being told to stay in the building and that everything would be fine. However, the sight of people falling from the north tower created a sense of urgency that something was terribly wrong, causing many to ignore the announcements to stay, and flee instead. More than 1,400 people escaped from the upper floors of the south tower before the second plane hit.
Stories and images of death, trauma, and horror, emotionally affect people even if they did not experience the actual trauma itself. To avoid awareness because it is uncomfortable is not okay because then there is never a chance to learn the full story or experience the world fully.
The sensitization of horrific events goes beyond 9/11 and can also be seen in the way people talk about and view the holocaust, slavery, war, rape and other violence that takes place around the world every day and throughout history. ‘Shocking’ photos make the news become well known because they often cross the barrier of what is an acceptable topic of conversation. When images cross that barrier -- as long as it’s not for ‘shock value’ -- that is how individuals learn about the world and history.
When images, stories and events are sugarcoated they change the existential narrative of the event from understanding the horror that took place to exclusively accentuating the positive. Discomfort is necessary to appreciate horror and its effect on people’s lives. We must never forget that the world is not all happy and good because otherwise how will we be able to prevent more horrors from happening in the future.
Like Oscar, I was a young child on 9/11. Unlike him, I did not lose a parent that day, but I knew classmates who did and many who are forever affected by that day. I continue to be fascinated by the book not only because it recreates how a child tried to make sense of 9/11 and its images, but also because it reminds me as an adult of my responsibility to remember as much as I can of the terrors of life. Acknowledging the horror and power that images can convey and learning from them educates us about the world and can help us improve the future.