As journalists and other writers try to make sense of the terrorism and slaughter in Orlando, they should take wisdom from Jim Dwyer, who covered both attacks on the World Trade Center for The New York Times. Speaking to reporters at a Poynter seminar, he passed along advice he learned from an editor: “The bigger, the smaller.”
How do we stretch our little arms around a story as big as 9/11 or mass shootings of the type we have seen in too many American cities? Dwyer’s strategy after 9/11, which I have written about and taught countless times, was to look for small physical objects that served as details for a larger theme or narrative.
He wrote about a window washer’s squeegee, used by a group trapped in an elevator to escape before the building tumbled into rubble. He told the story of a man who found a pristine photograph in the ruins and was determined to return it to the family pictured in it. He even wrote about my cousin Theresa, who escaped from the 57th floor and walked the length of Manhattan to the safety of home. Along the way, a stranger handed her water, and she saved the Styrofoam cup.
Squeegee, photo, cup: these were objects with stories hiding inside them. In their particularity, they stood for universal human virtues: resilience, community, empathy. The move to capture them was journalistic, to be sure, but also poetic. It was T.S. Eliot who argued that the poet was in constant search for the “objective correlative,” the object that correlates to the emotion he or she is trying to express.
Last night, I discovered a powerful example of this form of expression in the work, not of a journalist, but of a doctor treating the wounded in Orlando. He had taken a photograph and posted it on Facebook, along with a powerful text.
On the day after the massacre, Dr. Joshua Corsa came back to work at the Orlando Regional Medical Center and noticed his brand-new pair of Keens athletic shoes had been soaked, and were now stained, with blood.
Here is what Corsa, a senior resident in the department of surgery, wrote Monday on his Facebook page:
“These are my work shoes from Saturday night. They are brand new, not even a week old. I had forgotten about them until now. On these shoes, soaked between its fibers, is the blood of 54 innocent human beings. I don’t know which were straight, which were gay, which were black, or which were Hispanic. What I do know is that they came to us in wave upon wave of suffering, screaming, and death. And somehow, in that chaos, doctors, nurses, technicians, police, paramedics, and others, performed superhuman feats of compassion and care.
“This blood, which poured out of those patients and soaked through my scrubs and shoes, will stain me forever. In these Rorschach patterns of red I will forever see their faces and the faces of those that gave everything they had in those dark hours.
“There is still an enormous amount of work to be done. Some of that work will never end. And while I work I will continue to wear these shoes. And when the last patient leaves our hospital, I will take them off, and I will keep them in my office. I want to see them in front of me every time I go to work. For on June 12, after the worst of humanity reared its evil head, I saw the best of humanity come fighting right back. I never want to forget that night.”
This post was read by more than 300,000 on Facebook before it was taken down. I first encountered it Tuesday on the NBC Nightly News when Lester Holt read from it and showed the image in the final segment.
After 9/11, I interviewed my cousin Theresa and wrote a narrative for the Poynter site that described her catastrophic experience in her own words. As she spoke, she kept referring to these details, these objects that had become almost sacred talismans to the power of survival: the rosary beads in her purse, that Styrofoam cup, a pair of flat “sensible shoes” that allowed a tall woman to escape and walk the length of the borough. Again the shoes.
On September 16, 1963, a column appeared in the Atlanta Constitution by the man who hired and mentored me, Eugene Patterson. The day before, Gene had received the news that four little girls had been killed in a dynamite bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Struggling with his anger and tears, he wrote his most famous work, “A Flower for the Graves.” It began:
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
Such was the power of Gene’s words that he was asked by Walter Cronkite to read them in their entirety on the CBS Evening News. They now hang near the Eugene Patterson library at The Poynter Institute. Nearby are four glass cubes that signify the lost lives of the four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair.
That mother holding the one shoe after the murder of her daughter in Birmingham; my cousin finally removing her sensible shoes that carried her from the ruins of the World Trade Center; and now the bloody shoes of the surgeon who waded in the blood of the victims he worked to save.
It turns out that “the bigger, the smaller” is only half the equation. The most powerful details prove that in life, literature and journalism, the smaller often turns out to be the bigger — at times the biggest of all.