ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
by Brian Doyle
Following the death of Brian Doyle, Assay asked me to offer a tribute using “The Paragraph of the Week” format that I created for my website The Humble Essayist. All of us who knew or met Brian or read his essays are aware that he had a huge heart—but how big was it? I chose a paragraph from “Leap” which is set against a backdrop of one of the world’s greatest atrocities on 9/11 so that we can take its measure. The essay is about a couple who held hands as they leapt to their deaths from a burning skyscraper.
"Their hands reaching and joining is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here." —Brian Doyle
The brief essay “Leap” is for me the most moving piece of writing about 9/11. In it Brian Doyle gathers a series of details that suggest the enormity of the event. The bodies “struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.” A child, riding the shoulders of his kindergarten teacher running away from the tumbling buildings, sees falling bodies and thinks “that the birds were on fire.” Doyle gathers quotations from a handful of eye-witnesses who described people “jumping,” “leaping,” “flailing,” and “falling,”—“too many people falling” but the phrase that makes real the number of victims to me, perhaps because it is so unobtrusive, is that people were “lining up” to jump. These metonymies of the much larger horror bring us to our knees, and Doyle offers three passages from scripture on destruction, love, and peace as a solace. But the true coming together of hands in prayer belong to Jennifer Brickhouse and Stuart DeHann who held hands as they jumped. In the face of mass death, Doyle holds onto this gesture. It confirms his belief in God and in people who “have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires.” To him, the gesture provides evidence that “love is why we are here.” They hold hands and he “holds on to that.” —THE