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“Pebbles in the Pond: Touching Hearts One Story at a Time”
by Jacqui Banaszynski | November 1, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the fourth and last piece covering this year’s “Power of Storytelling” conference, in Bucharest. For the setup, and to watch Esquire‘s Chris Jones talk about the intersection of storytelling and magic, go here. To watch and read Tom Junod‘s talk, on the price of telling true stories, go here. To watch National Geographic contributor Cynthia Gorney talk about moving from Topic to Story, go here. Today’s piece is by Jacqui Banaszynski, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. The setup for her talk, “Pebbles in the Pond: Touching Hearts One Story at a Time:” “The success of stories is often measured in impact — how many clicks they receive, how many laws they change, how many injustices they reveal. But stories have another purpose and power: the power to reach people, to reveal our shared humanity, and to create ripples that become waves that land on unseen shores. The emotional impact of stories can’t easily be counted. But it should never be discounted.” You can watch her presentation, or read the lightly edited transcript that follows.
I want to start by telling you a story about Bill Dorn Jr. I met him 27 years ago. There was a brief story in the newspaper on a Monday morning that said he had been dismissed from his job as the priest who headed the Catholic Church’s Newman Center on a state college campus in Minnesota. The story said that his supporters – he was very popular – were staging a demonstration that day in front of the bishop’s residence to demand that Dorn be reinstated. And it hinted that the reason that Dorn had been dismissed was because of something he had written in the diocesan newspaper, in which he challenged the church’s approach to the issue of AIDS and homosexuality, and the way it dealt with other disenfranchised people: divorced, homeless, non-Catholics.
This was in the mid-1980s, and Minnesota happened to be a hotbed of gay rights issues in the U.S. – very conservative on one hand, socially progressive on another. So we figured it was a story. My editor sat me down and said, “This guy is having a press conference and I want you to figure out what’s going on.” So I headed up to St. Cloud, about an hour away from my newspaper in St. Paul. There were 25-35 other journalists there for the press conference. My colleagues from the other media are standing around waiting for the priest to come out and make a statement, and because I had been covering gay rights issues and AIDS for quite a while, they looked at me and said, “Do you think he’s gay?” And I said, “Gosh, I don’t know, I’ll see if he’s wearing the neon.”
So Dorn walks out, and everybody is wondering one thing: Is this guy gay? But he doesn’t say anything (about that). He gives a brief statement that basically says he remains a priest in good standing. Then he goes back to his office. He takes no questions. The other reporters leave to cover the demonstration in his honor. I stay at the rectory where he gave his press conference, because I wanted to talk to Dorn. My driving curiosity: Why would a guy stand up, knowing he was going to sacrifice his career for an issue that was a no-win for him?
The way I saw it, it didn’t matter whether he was gay or not. Either he was gay and living a double life as a priest in the Catholic Church, so living a secret. Or he wasn’t gay, and he was Joan of Arc, willing to stand up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Either way he was a great story.
It took me seven or eight weeks to get him to agree to talk. I did several other stories along the way about his case, and then I finally wrote a story about him, with his cooperation. The first line was this: “From earliest childhood, Bill Dorn Jr. knew two things: He wanted to be a priest and he was gay.”
Bill Dorn was not only dismissed from his job at the Newman Center, but because of my story and other events, he appealed and was tried in a Vatican tribunal. In the end he was excommunicated and defrocked, expelled from the church he loved. He later tried to get ordained in the Episcopal Church, and was denied — not because he was gay, but because he was too public. There was too big a spotlight on him.
I tell you this because I think it’s important to own the fact that stories do make a difference in people’s lives. Tom (Junod) asked the question this morning, why do we do this? Does it matter? Is there a worth to what we do? And he says he doesn’t have an answer. I think it’s not important to have an answer; I think it’s just important to keep asking the question, because in our world the questions are much more important than the answers.
I have a few years on most of you, and what I’ve learned is I have no Big Answer. But I’ve come over and over and over again to small answers, and the small answers about whether what we do matters and how it matters tend to be embedded in individual stories that play out in ways you would never imagine.
So I’m going to tell you a few of those stories. I want to do this, since we’re also supposed to be about craft, in the structure of an essay. You just heard the lead or the opening.
Section two is the summary nut section that introduces the theme.
We are part of a continuum, as storytellers. Cristian [Lupșa] said this morning, “We live in story, we dream in story, we understand our past and our future in story.” That means we always need to be seeing stories, telling stories, sharing stories, hearing stories. If you do any form of storytelling or communication for a living, whether you’re a documentary filmmaker or a songwriter or a communications expert at a company, or a news or magazine or broadcast journalist, your job is not just to go through life, notice things, maybe let life happen to you. Your job is to see the story and share the story, because the story is the reflection of the continuum that we are and that we live as human beings.
Cynthia [Gorney] said this morning that there are all kinds of journalism that matter. I agree completely. Journalism is really a constellation, and the question is: What is our North Star? For me, the North Star for stories — all kinds of stories and bright lights — can be found at the center of humanity.
Consider this investigative story — about the 14-year-old who goes to a party with the 16-year-old family friend who seduces her. Any of you girls who were ever 14 know what it’s like to hang out with a 16-year-old boy. So he gets her into a room and 20 minutes later he walks out waving an empty condom wrapper. She goes home devastated and her family practically falls apart. With much time and effort, they pull their life back together. Two years later, the girls is sitting at her bedside doing some homework and her telephone rings: It’s the boy. He had been hustled away from the state when the family charged him with statutory rape after the party. The charges were filed in juvenile court. His parents got a smart lawyer, and sent him to another state to live with a relative until he was old enough to avoid the law. Now he was back, and calling the girl. We wrote that story, but we wrote it not just to tell the narrative of one little girl who was crushed by a traumatic incident. We wrote it to change a law, because there was a loophole in the law.
I could also tell you the story of the zealous animal rights activist, head of the Humane Society in Minnesota, who gained a big name for himself shutting down puppy breeding mills. I rode around with him for several weeks, and realized something was very wrong, because he carried a large revolver on his hip and constantly made comments about my breasts. So I started making some other calls, and I found out that five or six women who had worked for him had filed sexual harassment claims against him, that he was suspected of financial malfeasance for his management of the organization’s funds. I could never prove the harassment complaints, but got someone to leak documents to me about the malfeasance. I could have settled for the romantic narrative about a guy on his crusade. Instead, I looked more closely, asked more questions, dug into records — and got him fired.
Stories can right wrong. Stories can change policies. Stories can do all kinds of things to make a better society. And that’s the bread and butter of what we do: public service journalism in the United States. The question is: Where is the human center for these stories?
In this world that we’re in, everything has to be measured, and it’s usually measured by analytics, by clicks, by stickiness — how long does somebody stay on your website? Publishers are terrified that people aren’t reading, and because they don’t know how to monetize — monetize?! — human stories, the stories that we do. If you go through newsrooms in the United States, a lot of them have a big, digital board on the wall, and they’ll pull up something called Chartbeat. Chartbeat measures moment by moment by moment by moment who’s reading your story. And if you go to operations like Politico, or Reuters, they’re literally watching Chartbeat and competing with each other to get at the top of that chart.
That’s all fine, but I want to — and now we’re in the body of my essay — talk instead not about stories that reach the top of Chartbeat, but about stories that reach and touch the world. This is amorphous stuff, because it can’t be measured. It can’t be measured in any way that allows it to be monetized, which of course is why people in the U.S. are so freaked out. Tom (Junod) mentioned the conflict between this incredibly robust time for longform, this lusting for longform journalism, and this simultaneous collapse of the financial institutions that support it. And he gave voice to the core concern: What do we do about that?
I think what we do is keep telling stories.
And we learn to tell them better than ever. Because I can’t fix those other things. All I can do is focus on what I know how to do, and that’s to tell stories or help other people tell stories. I also think that in these times of chaos it’s really important to hold on to the stories that you know matter. I’m going to share a few of them with you, because I want you to all know that stories — even if you can’t track the change — can change things.
This is a story called “In Her Mother’s Shoes,” done by reporter called Paula Bock of the Seattle Times, published on the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day. There is an organization in Seattle called PATH that gets funding from the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is doing some of the most aggressive work around the world to try to combat AIDS. Paula wanted to write about PATH. She says: These PATH people are going to Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world, and I want to write about PATH. I was an editor in Seattle at the time, and the story pitch came my way. My reaction: Why would we write about PATH? Why don’t we write about AIDS in Zimbabwe and, by extension, the world? Not a local story in the geographical sense, but certainly one in the geopolitical sense.
What Paula was really wanting to do was to write about women and how in Africa — unlike in the United States, where AIDS was primarily a disease in the gay community, the Haitian community, and among needle-using drug addicts and prostitutes — the highest risk of AIDS is coming of age sexually as a woman and then getting married. That’s the story she wanted to tell.
So we brainstormed about what it is she could look for when she was there, and I said, “Well, ideally, you would find three generations of women.” When she and photographer Betty Udesen got to Zimbabwe, sure enough, they found that family: Amai Caty, the 58-year-old matriarch, who had 12 children; her daughter, Ruth, who was 24 (her husband had already died of AIDS, and she was now very sick with AIDS); and baby Martha, age 6.
When Paula and Betty were in Zimbabwe, Ruth got sicker and sicker and sicker, and they asked her mother, Amai Caty, what kind of precautions she takes while caring for her daughter. They wanted to understand how a country like Zimbabwe helped people protect themselves from AIDS. Amai Caty was very shy, reserved, and all she said was: “They tell us at the church to use bleach and gloves, and we don’t have any money for bleach and gloves.” And then what Paula and Betty had to do was decide: What do they do in a situation like that? Here’s one passage from their story:
On the brink of 6, she likes dressing up, playing pebble games, drinking tea with sugar if there’s sugar to be had, splashing her dishes clean at the outdoor sink, circling through endless rounds of ring-around-the-rosy until she’s so dizzy she collapses on the ground. She giggles. She pretends to be a bunny, hop, hop; a chicken, flap, flap; a warthog, snort, snort.
She is at that enchanted age when anything seems possible.
And that’s just the problem.
In 10 years, when Martha is Sweet 16, strolling home from school in a swishy pleated skirt, men will certainly notice, and if one fellow in particular says Hello, how are you, and the next day says Hello again and that leads to the next thing and the next—what then?
Who will take care of Martha?
What’s to stop her from following in her mother’s footsteps?
Faced with a global epidemic, what do you do?
Faced with a plea for one pair of rubber gloves, what do you do?
In impoverished Africa, people want and need to be paid for whatever they do, including sharing their time and their lives. But if we pay for information, a source might exaggerate or lie. Neighbors or relatives might grow jealous. If we buy gloves for one mother, why not bleach for another, drugs for a third? Where do you start? Where does it end?
Instead we tell a story, because that’s what we do.
In journalism, that’s ethics.
In the heart, it rings hollow.
This is the dilemma that Paula and Betty faced and that I think all of us face, because we don’t always know the boundaries of getting involved in the world, and yet making a difference in the world. I will tell you, though, that when this story was published, it became the centerpiece of a traveling international exhibit that has gone around the world to introduce people to the problem of AIDS in Africa, and tell about the efforts on the ground to get protection into the hand of women in cultures where the sexual dynamic belongs to the men. One story. One newspaper in Seattle, Wash. A story that’s gone around the world. We could not have predicted that, but that’s what happened. That story had shelf life. That story made a difference.
Many of you know this next story, one I wrote, about Dick Hanson and Bert Henningson — “AIDS in the Heartland.” I’m not going to go back through it chapter and verse, but this is a story I never would have predicted would have touched the world the way it has. Dick and Bert fell in love in the middle of the apex of the AIDS crisis in the United States, in the middle of conservative farmland. They had the courage to tell their story out loud, and we wrote it as it was happening — as they were both dying. It changed several people fairly immediately, including their families. One family changed to the good, a family that became activist about going to small schools and churches and communities and teaching them how to deal with AIDS, insisting that churches welcome AIDS patients, hospital staffs get training to deal with AIDS patients. The other family was irrevocably destroyed by it, and for the next 25 years remain estranged, three brothers on one side, a sister and another brother on the other side. But the story had other effects in the broader society, including at my newspaper, where we were among the first in the nation to include gay partners as named survivors in obituaries. We didn’t set out to do that, but how do you write about a couple for 14 months, and then when one of them dies, deny that relationship? We changed our obit policy, and now I don’t know if there’s a newspaper in America that doesn’t include surviving partners in obits. If I could track these unmeasurable analytics, I’d put this story on the continuum that has led to the legalization of gay marriage in the United States.
That’s not what I set out to do. In a democratic society, the public gets to make that decision collectively. I simply set out to have people understand what life was like for people living with this disease in the middle of so much revulsion and discrimination.
So stories touch the world. You can’t measure them. There are no analytics. But if you watch and you wait, and you believe, things happen.
I mentioned that one of the families in ”AIDS in the Heartland” was fairly destroyed by the story. I mentioned that Bill Dorn, the priest, lost his job and his standing in the priesthood. There are other ways, though, that stories touch subjects, and we have to know that we do affect people. I think any journalist who says that we must take a hands-off approach and we don’t affect the story, is denying reality. Sometimes those effects are really surprising and really sweet.
I did a story several years ago about a man who lost his wife and daughter in a pipeline explosion. A pipeline burst outside their house, caught fire in the middle of the night and set massive flames through his neighborhood. His wife ran to a child’s bedroom and grabbed their 7-year-old daughter, and ran out the front door. He grabbed an 8-year-old daughter from another room and ran out the back door. The wife and 7-year-old ran into a fireball. The father and 8-year-old ran to safety. Everybody wanted to know why that decision was made in that house, that one moment that changed everything forever. He wouldn’t talk to the press; I finally got an interview with him after about eight days. I did a story about what happened that day, why they made that decision, what the effect was. And one of the ways I got that interview was by letting him know that if he talked to me, because there was so much curiosity about his case, we could put the story over the wires and he wouldn’t have to talk to anybody else – all of the press would have access to it.
Two days after my story was published, there was a promo on television for an interview with him. And I called him up and I said: “I didn’t think you wanted to talk to anybody else.” And he said: “I had a good experience with you, and it surprised me, so I’m going to let one TV report it.” So, one story in the newspaper, one story on TV. He received floods of mail because of those two stories. And one of the letters was from a woman who had lost her husband and one of her two children in an accident two years before. She told him she knew what he was going through, she didn’t want to impose, but she had found herself very lonely and resistant of help at first, and then finally found some support groups that were really helpful, and if he ever wanted to talk to let her know. They met for coffee. They’ve now been married for 20 years.
A story did that. A story did that.
We have to trust that stories do touch people, and they touch the subject too, and that’s the balance. Tom (Junod) talked about respecting and honoring the story of the individual that you’re telling about. But we also have to respect the reader, and there is the constant tension: When do we say what and how much do we hold back? That’s a second subhead in the body of this essay.
The other part, though, that I really want you to hold on to, as you go out of here, is this. Third subhead: There are stories that touch us, the storyteller, that change us.
And when we are changed, it’s possible that we finally find stories that are worth telling, so we can help change other people without having an agenda about what that change is. Again: What I’m urging you to do is to own the reality and the impact of what we do, trust it and not deny that it happens. Because then we have to be responsible for it.
“AIDS in the Heartland,” of course, touched me. Twenty-five years later I’m still telling the story around the world. I have become a close friend with a niece of Dick Hanson, the first of the two men who died in AIDS in the heartland. She now lives in Washington state, she’s written her first book, she’s an incredible photographer, and she went back and reconnected with her parents, who have long since divorced, after she finally found and read “AIDS in the Heartland” online. She never knew what had happened to that part of her family’s history. She never knew why her parents were always arguing when she was a child, or why her uncle was never talked about after he died. Twenty years later she found my story online, read it and sent me an email.
I was in a Kurdish refugee camp in 1991 after the first Gulf War, in a hospital in northern Iraq that Canadian medical units had taken over to rescue back into a real hospital. During the war, it had been turned into a hellhole. We were there just ahead of military that created the no-fly zone. The Canadian medics had cleaned up one room in the hospital. The rest of the hospital was for corpses and bodies. Mattresses covered with feces, rats everywhere. They had one room they had cleaned out. I went in that room, and there were 18 people there, most of them with tuberculosis and cholera and other unspeakable diseases and injuries and things. And in the corner was a young woman, and next to her, in a basket, a baby girl, only a day old. I sat down with a translator to interview the young mother, who was maybe 17, and at some point she looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said: “Please, take my child!” More than 20 years later, the war in Iraq to me has always been about that baby, Zosan. I didn’t take the child, of course. I was tempted. I was 39 at the time. I knew I’d never have children of my own. I would have loved that baby. But on a deeper level, that exchange — that story — changed the way I looked at that global and political situation, because it forced me to see it through the experience of another person.
A lot of people ask: What is the most profound story, the most important story you’ve ever done? Tom (Junod), again, mentioned he’s known most for “The Falling Man.” I could tell you about “AIDS in the Heartland.” I could tell you about “Trail of Tears,” my Pulitzer Prize finalist story from the African famine in 1985. I could tell you about refugee camps on the borders of Iraq. I could tell you about Antarctica, where I tracked an international dogsled expedition that was the first to cross the entire continent by foot.
But I want to tell you about the story that, oddly, is the most important to me.
Several years ago I got one of those classic newspaper assignments — yawn — to do an anniversary piece for Memorial Day. We always have to do these pieces, and they’re usually pretty boring. This time it happened to be the 10th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam, and the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. And I thought: “Hmm! What if I find father and son veterans who fought in each conflict?” So I went looking, looking, looking, and ended up talking to a Vietnam vet who worked with other Vietnam vets who were struggling with postwar trauma. I was just talking to him to try to find other people. Remember Cynthia (Gorney’s) method: Get to the big hats — “Help me find somebody to talk to.” Well, it turns out that this vet’s father had been a veteran in World War II. Just what I was looking for. The trouble was that his father had fought in the Pacific Theater, and the anniversary we had tagged the story to was closer to E Day — victory in Europe day — not victory in Japan.
So I cobbled up another story for the Memorial Day assignment. Then I went back to the Vietnam vet and said: “Could I tell your story?” And he said yes, but said I couldn’t interview him and his father together. I asked why not. He said because they seldom talked, and only when he went home for holidays to make peace for a few hours for the sake of his mother. The father and son had been estranged since soon after the son came back from Vietnam. So I said: “OK, can I talk to each of you separately?” He says: “Well, I’ll talk to you, but it’s up to my father, whether he does or not.” So I did a bunch of research on Vietnam and I talked to this guy for quite a while, and then I got his father to talk to me. And here is what I learned:
The younger son, Reed, was in a Sneaky Pete unit in Vietnam. Sneaky Pete units were the long-range reconnaissance teams that went behind enemy lines in small patrols, to scout out the enemy. He was on a mission when his squad was ambushed, and he was one of only a few who came back alive. Thirty years earlier, his father was on a long-range reconnaissance team in the Pacific, and he was caught in a firefight behind enemy lines, and was one of the few in his squad who came back. I found out that just before the father left for the Pacific he met a young woman, fell in love with her, courted her, and made her promise to wait for him. And he told me that when he was in the Pacific theater, at the end of a long day of war, he would sit down away from the other men, and reach into his top left-hand pocket. He would pull out a piece of paper, unfold it and read it. It was the last letter this woman wrote to him before he got on the ship to go overseas. He talked to me about the letter being creased to the point where the seam creases were splitting. The paper was stained with sweat and salt from his tears. He read it every night. Then he came home and married the woman. She became Reed’s mother.
I also found out that just before Reed, the son, shipped out to Vietnam he met a young woman, courted her, asked if she’d wait for him. He went off to war, and when he was sitting in the jungles of Vietnam, at the end of the day he would remove himself from the rest of his troops, and he would reach into his top left-hand pocket, and pull out a letter. He’d unfold it and look through the sweat stains and the salt from his tears, and he’d try to be careful with it, because the creases were starting to split, and it was the last letter that the girl back home had written to him. He came home, he married her. Later they divorced, but the letter kept him hopeful through that war.
The father and son told identical stories. Almost word for word. And they had identical experiences, with one exception: One went to World War II, and came back as part of the “greatest generation.” Forty years later he still couldn’t go into a bar without people buying him a drink. The son came home from Vietnam and was spit on and called a baby killer. He became an anti-Vietnam war protester, and the father didn’t understand.
I wrote their story in passages about their parallel experiences – the father, the son, the father, the son, the father, the son. I contrasted the differences, but mostly I wrote about what was the same. I never interviewed them together. But after the story was published, they got together, had dinner and began to finally understand not only their differences, but how much they shared. That story never won an award. I don’t even know if anyone but me remembers it. But boy, it mattered to me, because it made that difference. And if you can make that difference in two people’s lives, what else do you need?
Subhead: There are stories that get away, stories that go unreported, stories that we see and don’t find time to cover.
Subhead: Stories also go on without us.
I wrote about a father and son, war veterans; I don’t know what’s happened to them since. Shame on me. I don’t know what’s happened to Martha back in Africa. I do know what’s happened to Dick and Bert’s families because I keep in touch with some of these people. But the thing to remember is that stories are part of a continuum, and they do go on, and that’s why we need so many of us to see them and constantly be telling them, and not worry about where they’re going, but to recognize that the beauty is in telling the story of the moment, and that story will do what it does, if we tell it well and we honor it. And the best thing we can do to honor it is to not worry about where it’s going or what awards it’s going to win or where it’s going to lead, what the clicks are — just what the story is. Don’t let the stories get away. Let the stories touch you.
One of the most important stories that I ever did was in Africa in 1985, at a refugee camp in Sudan on the Ethiopian border. I wandered into a hospital clinic and there was a woman there, with a little 9-year-old girl, and 6-month-old twins. A doctor was showing her figure out how to feed one of the twins, who was too sick and too weak to suck. So the doctor showed her how to lean over the baby’s mouth, and squeeze her nipple, drop by drop by drop, with breast milk. I watched her do this for a while, bent over in this difficult position. There were no chairs, no beds. She had the 9-year-old, who was scared, and she had this other baby on her hip. So I took the baby. And I sat for the next 12 or 14 hours holding her other infant, who was healthy enough to eat from a bottle. The 9-year-old curled to sleep on my lap. And finally the sick baby the woman was feeding – her nipples were now bruised and sore and bleeding, because she was squeezing them so much to get milk out – started to cry. The baby had gotten enough nourishment to cry. A baby’s cry is a good sign.
That story touched me. I don’t know if it made a difference in anybody else’s life. I just had to tell it and trust that maybe it would show people the humanity that comes into play when people are trying to keep their children alive. That’s a universal story.
So let those stories touch you. Dare to believe that your stories, well told, will touch others. They’ll start as a small plunk, a little tiny drop in an eternal ocean, a second in endless time. They will ripple out, they will reach forward, they will reach backward. They will connect us with our history, they will reach forward to help us create hope. Maybe they will change our understanding of something. Maybe they will show us a new view. Maybe they will challenge what we thought was true. Maybe they will open our minds. Maybe they will touch our souls. Maybe they will change our hearts. I can’t measure that on Chartbeat.
Essay ending: The turn.
But how do we do that?
First, of course, craft. We need to get better and better and better at craft. Caring about craft and trying to be good at it. Everything that you heard today was about process, and what we do, and how we need to be constantly thinking about it and practicing it. It doesn’t get any easier with time or experience. It just starts to make more sense, because you start to trust the process. So craft is important, but I want to leave you with three other things. The three things we need most as storytellers are creativity, courage and compassion.
Creativity to stand somewhere new when you’re telling a story, to see it through fresh eyes, to find the way around the problem, to find a way to pitch the story and get it published, to ask a new question, to find a way to make a living. To find a new way to tell a story. Tell a story in tweets and tell a story in songs. I write narratives now on Facebook when I travel. It’s taught me a new way of writing. Where’s the creativity in what you do? Don’t just go out and do the same old thing, and the same old thing, the same old thing. This is why so much journalism is so boring. None of the people you heard from today do boring journalism. They’re creative about it, they’re working on it, they’re thinking about it.
You know the kind of courage it takes to be in a war zone. The kind of courage it takes to stand up to corruption and power. But I also want to encourage you to have the courage to be bold enough to ask the tough question, the sensitive question, the painful question. That takes real courage. When I did “AIDS in the Heartland” I had to sit down with two men and ask them if I could watch them die, because any less honesty about my intention would have been unfair. I then had to ask them who brought the virus into their relationship, so who might be responsible for killing whom, and how they handled that in a committed relationship. That was a hard question to ask but it would have been dishonest not to ask it. I had to ask the man who lost his wife and daughter what he tells his other daughter about what happened that day. I covered the Olympics twice, and I once asked the 16-year-old American who slipped on the balance beam what it was like to be the one who lost the medal for her team. It’s what people wonder; it’s our humanity. Have the courage to ask the question.
We don’t talk about compassion much in journalism, but here’s my deal: You can’t be afraid to care. And too often we are afraid to care, and hide behind this false wall of objectivity and distance. I’m not like Mona (Nicoară), an advocacy journalist, a human rights journalist. I need for my professional purposes to divest myself from what the larger public decides. But I need to care that they know, that they understand, that they might have the possibility of experiencing new ways to see something. You’ve got to care. If you don’t care about the people you write about, or the stories you do, why would anybody else? You can’t do immersion journalism unless you care about people enough to spend that kind of time with them, and really try to listen to them and understand them. Our stories aren’t just part of a timeline. They are part of human legacy. They are the things that connect generations. They connect geography, they connect culture, they connect ethnicity and race. So care about the subjects of your story. Care about the people who receive and hear those stories. Care about your craft. Care about what you do.
Creativity. Courage. Compassion.
Now the climax of this spoken essay.
I want to read you a quick little top to a story.
The story is by Cara Salmon of the Seattle Times. I was privileged to edit it. The back story is that a photographer had been following this little kid around a neighborhood in suburban Seattle for about six months, and the kid was a spunky little thing in a wheelchair. And the photographer got fascinated with him, and then we realized at the last minute that this kid was about to turn 13, and was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners’ baseball game. So suddenly we have a news hook, and we have to chase this story. So Cara gets sent in to do it, and she came to me and says: “But I don’t want to write the typical spunky-little-kid-in-a-wheelchair story.” And I said: “OK. What do you want to write about?” And she says: “I don’t know, I just don’t want to write that story.” I said: “OK, what is the bigger theme here? What’s the bigger idea? What does this kid have in common with everybody else? What am I going to relate to?” I’ve never been in a wheelchair or had to live with a physical disability. We brainstormed a bit until I said, “So he’s about to turn 13. What’s the thing all coming-of-age teenagers have in common?” And Cara looked at me and she said: “Oh my God, do you mean sex?” I said: “Well, he’s turning 13. He’s entering that part of life. Find out first from his mother if he knows about sex, but why not?” So this is what she wrote and I want to offer it to you as an example of creativity, courage and compassion in journalism, and I also want to offer it because it’s the story I read whenever I want to remember what my relationship is with the story, the story subject and the story receiver. That relationship is embedded into the two characters in here. It’s called ”Growing Up Gabe,” by Cara Solomon:
For years, they sat behind him in class. They brushed past him in the hallways. They giggled in corners of the cafeteria.
Gabe Murfitt didn’t really see them. And then, one day, he did.
It was the first dance of his junior-high-school career. The girls were clustered in a knot at the center of the gym. Gabe’s best friend cut through the crowd. He picked out a tall, thin, brown-haired one with braces on her teeth. He asked the question: Will you dance with Gabe Murfitt?
OK, she said. But only if he asks me himself.
Gabe left his wheelchair by the edge of the gymnasium. He moved toward the girl on his knees. He ignored the queasy stomach. He asked her to dance.
She said yes. And then she asked how.
Even now, six months later, he can’t believe she did it. He asked her, and she did it. She got down on her knees and danced.
“I looked over, and all these girls were staring at me,” said Gabe, who asked her later for a second dance. “They were looking at me like, ‘How can he get a dance and we can’t?’ “
Gabe Murfitt is ready to turn 13 today — ready to pull away from his parents, ready to start dating girls, ready to become a teenager. But his body is not built for independence. He can’t go to the bathroom alone. He can’t dress himself in time to catch the morning bus. He can’t comb his hair without help from his mother.
This is a fact of Gabe’s life: He was born with malformed legs, and with hands but no real arms. It is a fact Gabe has acknowledged, then ignored. He has played baseball. He has played the drums. He has danced. He has done all these things differently from the average seventh-grader, but he has done them nonetheless.
It takes some thinking, that’s all. Some strategizing. Like the after-school dance at Leota Junior High in Woodinville. The machine-powered wheelchair was too risky, Gabe thought: What if he drove over the girl’s foot? So he went with walking that day, using his knees like his friends use their feet.
When the music kicked in, Gabe could not reach far enough to touch the girl’s waist. But her arms were long enough. She could touch him, and she did, resting her hands on his shoulders. They swayed back and forth on their knees.
“I was freaking out just to ask her,” said Gabe. “The second time, it was no biggie.”
Gabe and this little girl, to me, show the kind of courage and creativity and compassion that I would like to think we, as journalists, can and should be showing almost all the time. They didn’t flinch from reaching out to the other and they figured out a way to communicate. And isn’t that what we should be about? And just so you know, Gabe just graduated from college and is now a motivational speaker, being sought after by foundations and inner city schools around the country.
A story did that. Because every time someone calls him and asks him to do that, they cite the fact that they read the story, or a teacher uses the story to teach.
A story did that. A story that can’t be measured with clicks.
One last story to bring this home.
I mentioned Bill Dorn, at the very beginning, the priest who arguably could say that the story I wrote about him pretty much ruined his life. Bill and I stayed in touch. I covered some of his Vatican tribunal. He ended up getting kicked out of the church. He was a licensed therapist who started doing counseling of troubled children and families. He opened an award-winning restaurant, and eventually moved to Washington state, where I live. We saw each other maybe once a year, at Christmas or the holidays.
I got a call from Bill Dorn eight weeks ago. I happened to be in the hospital recovering from an emergency surgery. He had no way of knowing that, but when I answered my phone he said, “Are you OK? We have been trying to send you e-mails, and you haven’t responded.” I told him I was in the hospital, but asked what was going on. And he said “Norm and I are getting married on Aug. 18, and we want you to be there.” He had been with his partner, Norm, since a year after my story about him. Now they lived in Washington state, which had just legalized gay marriage. So they planned to get married on the 26th anniversary of their original commitment ceremony. Of course I’d be at the wedding. And then Dorn asked one more thing: “We’d like you to be our witness. Would you stand up for us?” And I said, “You have much closer and better friends. Why would you want me to do that? I’m honored, but you don’t need to do that.” His response: “Norm and I talked about it, and you’re the one who was there from the beginning. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for your story.”
Three days after I got out of the hospital, I went to their wedding, stood up and bore witness to love:
A story did that.
A story did that:
We can’t measure it in clicks, but that’s what stories do, and that’s what we as storytellers can do. Believe in them, trust in them, and believe in yourselves. Thank you.