Reporting and writing “Never Let Go” — inside Kelley Benham French’s remarkable series
Kelley Benham French’s “Never Let Go,” about the extremely premature birth of her daughter, Juniper, was included in Storyboard’s Best of Narrative list for 2012, and our final Notable Narrative of the year. The five-part series ran last month in the Tampa Bay Times. French’s colleague and close friend Ben Montgomery spoke with her recently about the story. Here’s their conversation:
Ben Montgomery: What was the very first moment in the birth process when the thought struck you that this was a story that you might want to tell the world?
Kelley Benham French: My husband and I are both writers – Tom is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of three books. So even before the baby was born – probably around the time the neonatologist visited us and asked us to decide whether to try to save her or let her die – we knew we were in the middle of a powerful story. We see everything around us through the lens of story, so nobody had to say that out loud. But we couldn’t think or talk about it then. Even if we had, it would have been a pointless conversation, because a story like this demands a happy ending, and the odds of that were so remote. So we just lived through the whole thing as terrified parents, and not as journalists. After we’d been in the hospital several months, after the nurses all realized we were writers, from time to time someone would ask, “Are you going to write about this?” And we had to say, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t long after we got home from the hospital that Tom and I started talking seriously about writing it all down. If I’d known I was going to write about it from the beginning, I sure would have taken more notes.
So, when did you start taking notes? Was that instinctual? Was it comforting? Was it therapeutic at all when you began think of what was happening to you and Tom and your baby as a story, if there was any distinction?
Tom took more notes than I did, and he said it was therapeutic. He said things got so scary at times that switching into reporter mode was a kind of coping mechanism that gave him the distance he needed to function. His notes are what I would call external: They describe the ventilator settings, the nurses’ scrub tops, the comings and goings of other babies. Those were incredibly helpful, especially in Day 2. I took notes on just a couple of occasions, such as the day of Juniper’s surgery. My notes are more internal, like a journal. I wrote about trying to guess what was wrong with the kids I saw in the lobby, and about the prayer cloud hovering over all of us. I wrote those things down not because I thought I’d write a newspaper story, but just out of a sense that I should capture some of this, either for us or for Juniper.
How did you pitch this story to (Managing Editor) Mike Wilson?
Mike is a great friend, and he was with us in the hospital at a lot of the worst moments, so I didn’t have to explain to him what a powerful story it was. I gave him a one-page memo that mirrors the arc of Day One. I wrote it in about 15 minutes. A lot of the language from the memo made it into the published version. I think that’s a sign that I’d been gestating that part of the story for a long time, and I knew what I wanted to say. At no point did I have to beg for space or for time to write. This project got the full support of the paper at every step.
When you say full support of the paper, what do you mean? How much time did you spend on this story? Can you break down the time spent writing versus reporting?
I just mean that every answer was yes. Yes to the story. Yes to the timeframe I proposed. Yes to publishing it as a special section. Yes to 20,000 words. Make that 20,002. You know from our work together on “For Their Own Good” that when the paper believes in a story they allow you to forget, for a little while, that these are hard times. I reported the story from February to May, but only worked part time. I turned in Part 1 in early August and Part 3 in mid-October. Then came the editing, the graphics, the video, more photos. It was published in early December.
What kind of reporting did you do? How much did you trust your own memory?
I reported it as if I didn’t know the main character at all. I started by requesting Juniper’s medical chart from the hospital, and was shocked to discover that it was 7,000 pages. I hired a high school student to organize and index it. It was incredibly detailed, so if I knew what day I was writing about I could find out who the nurse was, what Juniper’s vitals were, how she was positioned in the bed, what her mood was, even what time she pooped. I got the log showing every time Tom and I signed in and out. I had a ton of photos and video, so I put them in chronological order and made a whopper of a timeline and worked off of that. I interviewed as many of the doctors and nurses I could, and those were all two- and three-hour interviews because we had so much ground to cover. I interviewed Tom, of course, constantly, about what he remembered. I read as many journal articles and books as I could. I went back to the hospital and retraced my path through all the rooms I was treated in – triage, antepartum, operating room, recovery. I retraced my steps past the fat baby nursery to the NICU. I verified all the sections with the sources quoted in them. I verified all the medical stuff with doctors. I verified the financial stuff with economists and the hospital’s chief financial officer. I found a BBC documentary that showed a C-section of a 23-weeker, and showed the death of one, so I had an idea of what those scenes looked like. So few babies are born as early as Juniper that there is not a lot of research specific to them. A lot of the studies lump together babies born at 28 weeks and below, but there’s a huge difference between a 23-weeker and a 28-weeker, so I had to dig much deeper. Just to figure out roughly how many 23- and 24-weekers are born each year, I had to get birth certificate data and a calculator. That number just isn’t available on Google. I called various experts, and I found one in particular, a pediatric bioethicist named John Lantos in Kansas City, who steered me to the most relevant studies and who helped shape my thinking, my research and my writing. It’s a very different story because of all the reporting that went into it. It’s much more muscular and relevant and rich. And the reporting probably gave me some of the distance I needed to write in first person without being indulgent.
Why did you decide to do this story now? Why not three years from now, or five or 10, when you have more distance, or a wider frame?
I know it’s often a good idea with personal writing to wait, to get some distance on it. One reason I was able to do this now is because it has a happy ending, and I could return home from writing each day to a smiling, mischievous, joyful toddler. Even so, I did not want this to feel like a diary entry, like I was working out my issues on the page, so I saw a counselor while I was writing. If I had anything to work out, I tried to do it in the proper place. It was important not to wait to write this story because the technology changes so fast in the NICU, it would not be as relevant in five or 10 years. One of the reasons I felt so strongly about doing it is that Juniper is an example of the very leading edge of what is possible in medicine right now. Mike and I went back and forth about the right balance between the personal and the universal in the story. I pitched it as a little more of a science story than a memoir, but it kept shifting with every draft, as my editor and my husband encouraged me to make it more personal. That was a stretch for me.
Speaking of technology, was it difficult to keep readers in the dark about the outcome? There were recent images of Juniper on Facebook, for instance, and a video of her out there somewhere, but one of the sources of tension was: Will the baby survive? I know some readers went in search online of the answers. How did you try to keep that secret? Did you ever consider giving that information earlier, then retelling the story?
Maybe I should have put more effort into it, because people did find the video of her online. All I did was make my Facebook profile and photos private. I guess I figured there might be five people in the world who would care enough to go searching, and if it was THAT important to them, I’d let them have their moment. I underestimated the power of the cliffhanger. People were absolutely freaking out on my voicemail, needing to know if the baby was okay. Many of them were crying. They told me they were praying. They were experiencing the story as if it was unfolding in real time, as if Juniper were still so close to the edge and their prayers could still influence the outcome. This was my first series, and it was much more rewarding than any one-shot story, because of how the readers’ investment built over the course of the week. It astounded me.
Did you ever consider giving that information earlier, then retelling the story?
Oh, hell no. Why would I do that?
As you were writing, were you thinking that Junebug will read this someday? If so, did that have an impact on the story?
Definitely. That was one reason I wanted to write it. This story is, in many ways, a love letter to my daughter. But at the same time, the audience is not my daughter, so I had to be as honest as I could, to tell the things I might not tell if I were writing it only for her. There are some lines in there that she might cringe at later. But I hope what she will take from it is stone evidence of how hard she fought and how much she was loved.