SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing

NOTE TO READERS: I corrected a couple errors in the below: “Transgendered” is changed to “Transgender” and I apologize for getting it wrong in the initial draft of this post. Suicide statistics (error in sentence formulation) were changed to suicide attempt statistics. If you see something egregious, and are a generous person, send me a tweet at @MariaDahvana, and I’ll try to fix it ASAP. Many thousands of people have seen this post, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and it would appall me to put an offensive term up by accident. If you see one, trust me, it’s an accident. I posted this because I spent most of a day feeling troubled by the piece it’s about, and by the ethics of writing and publishing a story from the angle it is written and published from.

Thank you for showing up.

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THERE ARE THINGS ABOUT BEING A WRITER THAT SUCK. One of them is that as a writer, you’re sometimes sold a bill of bullshit.

Here is a prime example: The Story Is The Most Important Thing. 

This line is a lie, but in order to make students pay for writing instruction – and sometimes in order to fuel our own egos as writers who often professionally neglect the people in our lives so that we can sit in silence making things up – we have to have a culture in which story matters more than anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a writer. I make my living at it. I think story matters – but I also think one of the ways story matters is TO ME. Being a writer is in many ways a wildly selfish way of spending my time. I’m not off building houses for those who’ve lost their belongings in storms. I’m mostly writing stories for comfortable people to be entertained by. I tend these days to write fiction, but when I write creative nonfiction, and I have – I work on a balance of telling my own story as it sidles alongside the stories of other people. I’m generally trying not to fuck other people over. I’ve not always been successful in this. There are some nonfiction stories I’m not going to get to tell, or at least, not for some time, because though they are about my life, they would irrevocably damage the lives of other people, and I can’t figure out a way around it.

So I’m not telling those stories right now. There are lots of stories to tell. The world is fucking full of stories.

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WRITE ALL OF THEM.

THE STORY, EVEN IF IT IS A GOOD STORY, IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

Which brings me to the things that inspired this post. This morning I read an essay in Grantland by Caleb Hannan, a writer I don’t know. It’s a sports story, a piece of Creative Nonfiction entitled Dr. V’s Magical Putter. It has echoes of its inspiration – there’s a kind of minor gonzo Hunter S. Thompson aspect to the piece (the author experiences no risk as a result of his self-assignment, but portrays himself as a victim of its consequences), but also some clear style and framing references to Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, published in Esquire in 1966.

This isn’t a surprise – that essay has long been lauded as the best piece of creative nonfiction ever written. It’s taught in journalism programs. Everyone’s read it. It’s a Thing. And it concerns a hostile subject, who refuses to grant an interview to the narrator, Talese. Talese trails after Sinatra for months, interviewing everyone around him, observing him at close range, never interviewing the man himself. He  ultimately writes The Profile, a piece which has been justly heralded as both badass and resourceful. It’s some really good writing. It’s also writing about a public figure, a person whose secrets, life, and lies had at the time of the profile been much discussed – Sinatra was insanely famous. His life was in the news. He was, in short, public on purpose. Talese was vastly less known than Sinatra, and anything he wrote about him would live alongside Sinatra, The Man, The Myth, as part of the greater Sinatran legend. If he revealed anything unknown about Sinatra, Sinatra would obviously have been able to publicly respond to it, at volume.

So, let’s talk about Hannan’s piece. It’s an essay, initially, about a new golf club, and (at first) peripherally about the woman, Dr. V, (or Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt) who invented it. Hannan gets interested in the golf club, and then in its inventor’s colorful backstory, which includes working on defense contracts, a degree from MIT, etc.

He approaches Dr. V, and Dr. V agrees to be interviewed, but is quite explicit about permissions. Dr. V. does not wish to talk about her life, nor to participate in a profile of herself. She wishes to talk about golf clubs.

So, she’s a hostile subject.

Mind you, Hannan doesn’t treat her as such, at least not to her face. He states that he’s worried she’ll be a difficult interview, so he goes around her, working at digging up her history on his own, while continuing to interview her about the topics she’s agreed to discuss with him. Well, okay, the “greatest piece of Creative NF ever written” was about a hostile subject, Sinatra –  and a much more hostile subject than this one, because Dr. V does in fact speak to Hannan.

So do Dr. V’s friends and colleagues. Hannan tests the club personally, and finds it to be very good – in fact, “magical.” It follows, according to the crap logic typically applied to innovation by the lazy, that the invention is magical because of Dr. V, rather than because of its actual properties. (The club, even in the piece, is described as something unusual, in terms of shape and handling – it is the journalist who is being lazy in this case. The seduction of Dr. V’s colorful story has seized him, and though he does state that independent professionals have found the club to be terrific, his most important analysis of it is that once Dr. V’s story collapses, the magic of the club is gone for him, the journalist, because of course he is the protagonist of this story, and his success or failure is the most important thing here) Dr. V is clearly a genius, and the story within the essay regarding the genius invention of the club is downplayed with sentences regarding Dr. V’s gender – she’s a woman, which makes the fact of her inventing a golf club all the more unlikely.

Really.

One of the magical things about Dr. V. is that she is apparently attractive and striking. 6’3″ and a redhead. In the piece, Dr. V. is discussed as capitalizing on beauty privilege in order to get her golf club noticed.

As the piece goes on, and Hannan digs deeper into Dr. V, it becomes clear that much of Dr. V’s backstory is unclear, contradictory, and that some of it is actively untrue.

Does this have bearing on the golf club? No. The golf club remains the golf club. But as the piece progresses, Hannan’s own angle on the club devolves into a sense of personal betrayal, that this subject, who explicitly did not grant him permission to write about her, has lied to him about the facts of her life (facts which he seems to feel are his personal property.) The club he previously treasured becomes a club he now finds unmagical, and its inventor, he decides, is a con artist. (Which con, exactly? She invented a better golf club. People like it. It’s good. We’re not talking about theft, we’re talking about selling a product that people like. That she is part of the product’s legend – though clearly not much: Hannan himself states that she doesn’t appear on the videos regarding it, and that her image is not actually being used to sell it, is apparently enough of a betrayal for Hannan that he feels provoked to actively harass the club’s creator in the name of journalism. Never mind that also in the name of journalism, he’s earlier represented himself as a journalist writing about the club, not writing about the scientist who invented it.)

It is during this section that it is revealed – with a drumroll –  Hannan’s discovery that Dr. V. is a transgender woman.

OMG, GIANT GENDER LIE.

Thus, in the skewed logic of the piece, it follows that Dr. V. is due a public shaming. She has lied about her gender. She has capitalized on the beauty privilege afforded a gorgeous woman. It is not fair. The public deserves to know.

Why the fuck does the public deserve to know this?

Some notes on the obvious from me, here:

1) Being transgender does not mean that you are “lying” about your gender.

2) Being transgender is not a con. It is not a lie meant to advance your social status. Suicide rates for transgender people are appalling- a 2010 study reported a 41% attempt rate! Transgender people have a hard damn time in the world, and regularly get killed, fired, beaten up, and generally fucked with for being transgender. Dr. V. is a woman who was born in a male body. Fuck it. This happens. So, the moment Hannan begins to sell the fact of Dr. V’s trans* status as part of the evidence that Dr. V. is a liar… well.

3) I get fucking pissed. Actually, I was pissed already.

Hannan goes to one of Dr. V’s investors, who sees her as difficult, and outs her as transgender.

Then, using what he sees as journalist’s rights, pressures Dr. V for more information, to “come clean” – she isn’t out as trans* and he feels, mysteriously, that it is his job as a journalist to tell everyone the “truth” about her, and her history. Because of his story.

He neglects to realize that his story is not the most important thing here. Dr. V. happens to be an inventor of a better golf club, and a woman with a complicated and difficult past. She is not a world-class dictator with a record of oppression of vulnerable minorities. She is not a religious leader who has spoken out against trans* rights. In these cases, perhaps it would be relevant to the story to unearth and publish the facts of someone’s gender history.

Hannan keeps digging. He finds evidence of her past life as a mechanic, and her birth certificate, referencing it as “She was born a boy.” (A cursory look into acceptable language on this would reveal that “born a boy” is a shitty formulation. “Born in a male body,” okay. But oh, dear ones, that would not suit the structure of this Creative Nonfiction goldmine: born a boy is more inflammatory, more startling, and the goal of this piece is ultimately to depict a journalist’s betrayal and shock that someone might wish to keep her private life separate from her public life, that someone might wish for a journalist to, indeed, depict the Science, not the Scientist, not to depict the complicated life of someone for whom basic existence has been a challenge. He finds evidence of a checkered employment history, and a suicide attempt in 2008. He chases her friends, family, ex-wives, and colleagues. Dude keeps digging.)

Why does he do this?

Because The Story Is The Most Important Thing.

What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?

In this case (and just a note on how crappy the above formulation is, again)? Woman invented a golf club, is not out as trans* and explicitly states to the author that the publication of this story will result in its author committing a hate crime against her. As in, she will kill herself.

There is a discussion of proof being provided of Dr. V’s history, in exchange for Hannan not writing about it. He states that he can’t take that deal, implying that he can’t not write this story.

Can’t? Because to Not Write this story would be some sort of betrayal of…what? Hannan’s own journalistic ethics? He’s already stalked an unwilling source, and outed her as transgender to an investor. He’s already chased her friends and family. He’s already informed her that he Knows Her Secrets.

Ah, he must write it, because to not write it, would be a betrayal of A Good Story.

He cannot betray his Art.

She sends him a final email, which he quotes from. It is both frantic and sad. It speaks of someone whose mental health is crumbling.

A few days later, Dr. V sent one final email. It had her signature mix of scattered punctuation and randomly capitalized words. Once upon a time I had brushed off these grammatical quirks, but now they seemed like outward expressions of the inner chaos she struggled to contain.

“To whom this may concern,” it read. “I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”

Ah, so this came out of nowhere. The chaos is her own creation, not at all the reaction of someone who is being harassed by a journalist.

Hannan concludes:

People had been hurt by Dr. V’s lies, but she was the person who seemed to be suffering most.

By people, I assume he mainly means himself – now unable to use the magical golf club, and betrayed by the fact that Dr. V was upset and harassed by a journalist digging into her private life, when said journalist marketed himself as someone writing a story about the club. Poor journalist.

Dr. V. kills herself.

Her ex-brother in law calls Hannan and says:

“Well, there’s one less con man in the world now,” he said. Even though he hated his former family member, this seemed like an especially cruel way to tell me that Dr. V had died. All he could tell me was what he knew — that it had been a suicide.

Again, poor journalist.  Someone has been cruel to him. Hannan goes on to write this article, an expression of his upset that someone has lied to him and not understood his feelings as a story teller, his responsibilities to the reading public. What responsibilities? Which ones? Why is Caleb Hannan the man assigned to out this woman? Why is he the person whose version of the truth matters?

Because he’s a Storyteller. And in the  version that’s been sold to nonfiction writing students – and to fiction writers too – if you unearth a good story, man, you have a Giant Responsibility to tell it.

Except, why?

Dr. V is not George W. Bush.  Dr. V is also not Ann Coulter.

Dr. V. is not Frank Sinatra, and if Frank Sinatra had been born in a body societally designated Francine? If Gay Talese had discovered this in the course of research into a non-cooperative Sinatra? If Sinatra himself had told Talese that he’d commit suicide if said fact was revealed, and Talese had proceeded to reveal this to Sinatra’s record label, because Story?

I’d be judging Talese as harshly as I judge Hannan.

The final paragraph is as follows:

Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience. What makes it that much harder is that Dr. V left so few details — on purpose, of course. Those who knew her in her past life refused to talk about her. Those who knew her in the life she had created were helpful right up to the point where that new life began to look like a lie. The only person who can provide this strange story with its proper ending is the person who started it. The words she spoke came during our last conversation, when she was frantically trying to convince me of things I knew couldn’t possibly be true. Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”

He has not, of course, written a eulogy. He has written a condemnation and trivialization of the life of a transgender woman, who was harassed into suicide by a bully.

If we were talking about someone who’d harassed, for example, a trans* teenager on Facebook, a person who’d changed schools and started over, a person who, say, had attempted suicide the year before, who’d managed to make it work at a new school by saying that their voice was low because of a crushed larynx in a car accident, a person who’d lied about certain facts in order to live – if we were talking about harassing that teenager by stating that their non-public gender status would be disclosed in an open post?

What would we call that? Would we call it bullying? Would we call their subsequent suicide a suicide motivated by bullying?

Yes.

The story is not the only thing that matters. As a writer, it is not simply important to consider the repercussions of your research on persons who would otherwise be private citizens, it is important to consider that your source may be vulnerable. That your need for a good “tale” does not trump their need to survive. Do not, as a writer, value your narrative over someone’s life.

Your writing is not more important than someone’s life. It is only writing.

It is not the mandate of a writer to keep pursuing a private citizen’s secrets (secrets which have exactly no impact on the product you are writing about, nor on anything else public good) until they kill themselves. This is not an honorable act.

I have a lot of friends who write creative nonfiction, and they often deal with the lives of vulnerable subjects. I watch them work, and am very aware of the lengths they go to to protect their subjects, to obtain consent, to approach stories from angles that educate and increase awareness, while not contributing to the abuse of the already incredibly vulnerable. I’m appalled to see this piece alongside their deeply considered work.

For an account of a writer’s response to a subject’s suicide that goes in a quite different direction, I point you to this - a journalist analyzing her actions ferociously, as well as doing followup work in regard to suicide prevention, policy regarding same, and a variety of other related topics.

End rant. Do better, writers.

***

UPDATES: Grantland’s Editor in Chief, Bill Simmons has written this apology for the Dr. V article. It’s a more thorough apology than I would have expected – and I think this has a great deal to do with the power of Twitter/social media spreading critique like wildfire over the weekend. First, yay! Apology. There needed to be one. I won’t critique the whole thing, because it’s a pretty good self-critique of privilege creating blindness on the part of editorial staff. Second: There are some problems with it, namely that Hannan, the author of the article, who at 31 is not remotely a child, seems to have thus far chosen not to apologize publicly himself. Personally, I think that’s pretty questionable. Bill Simmons heaps a great deal of blame on his own head – which as the editor, he very much deserves. He’s the person under whose watch this article got published. But the writer owes the trans* community his own apology. Something that has gotten overlooked apology-wise are the lingering effects of a story like this on a community that regularly has to deal with prejudice, injustice, and profound disrespect from the media and otherwise. The impact of this story is huge – in both good and bad ways. I’ve been happy to see the widespread discussion of outing, and of trans* issues – but I’ve been less happy, possibly counterintuitively, to see the focus of precise shame on this one author. Hannan did several things ethically very wrong (as I say at length above) – but for this discussion to create lasting change, it needs to be bigger and longer-lasting than just the discussion of his & Grantland’s failings. What we’re talking about, or should be talking about, is a screwed up tradition of disrespectful and hurtful depiction, and damaging objectification, which happens everywhere from pieces like the Dr. V article, to places like Katie Couric’s interview with LaVerne Cox. (Which you should watch.)

As well, Grantland posted this piece by Christina Kahrl, on the many things the Dr. V piece got wrong.  I don’t need to tell you that it’s very good – it obviously is. One thing I’ll say about the discussion I’ve seen surrounding it, and the original article, however, is some critique regarding the concept of “stealth” – as in, being out as trans* – and some implied critique of Dr. V for not being out herself. There are, as noted in the Kahrl piece, so many reasons someone would not be out. As well, it’s a personal choice, not one that people who aren’t Dr. V should be critiquing. The foul tradition of outing comes from people feeling comfortable critiquing people whose shoes they’ve never walked in.  There are a lot of things we don’t know about Dr. V, but I think we can agree that being out does not guarantee one’s safety, mental stability, and success. Out trans* people are subject to awful things, and it is, I can only imagine, pretty scary in many situations to be out, just as it is scary to not be. CeCe McDonald is an out trans* woman. She defended herself from a violent bigot, got convicted of manslaughter and had to serve time in a men’s prison from which she was just released. 21 year old Islan Nettles was murdered – beaten to death by a stranger who catcalled her and then learned she was trans*, in NYC last fall, in front of a police station, with multiple witnesses. She was out. Outness is not any kind of guarantee of safety. There should never be critique, implied or otherwise, of someone’s decisions in that regard. We are not them. We do not know their individual challenges.

I have a couple of  suggestions for Grantland, and for others who realized, during this discussion, the depth of their analysis-fail.

The publication of this essay was, as discussed by Grantland editors and everyone else, a really bad choice. The reporting of this essay led (I’d love to say that there is doubt of this – I’ve reflected on this a lot, and I don’t think there is any)  to the death of its subject. It is only reasonable that profits made from this piece – ad revenues from THE MANY page views, etc – be donated to an organization such as GLAAD or Transmedia Watch, to help support the living. This article engaged in a tradition of depiction that endangers trans* people. Period. The publication of it made things worse. I hope the discussion makes things better, but nothing about that changes the fact that a woman is dead, and that the article went out into the world full of damaging material. Do some good with the profits. They are profits earned from damage. It is not okay to make money off this, Grantland.

For a useful piece on writing about trans* people – read this. For a basic rule, this one from me, remember that the people you are writing about are people, not something else. To assess trans* subjects as other than human is an incredibly hideous tradition. Do not be the writer who continues it. One of the saddest and most upsetting factors in the Dr. V piece was the way people initially (and in some cases continue to – look at some of the comments here, allowed up for their educational value) reacted to the suicide of a person by valuing “crazy story for my entertainment” over “person died for my entertainment.”

95 thoughts on “SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing

  1. Telling other peoples’ secrets without their permission is despicable, and “my art” is no excuse. “Outing” is often (if not mostly) accompanied by additional surmises about the person outed, surmises and accusations that are not related to the original topic of discussion–as in Hannan’s pieces as quoted.

    “Outing” of political malfeasance, of insider trading, of criminal activity by those not known to be running (say) a blackmail business IS a matter of the public interest, and in those cases the outing *of those activities* is a legitimate part of investigative journalism. But whether the politician or hedge fund manager or accountant-with-sideline-of-blackmail cross-dresses at home, engages in consensual BDSM with a spouse, has a mentally ill family member, or is hiding some other personal secret…is not.

    Hannan’s own excuses, his imputation of bad motives to Dr. V-, his name-calling, etc., suggest not only a narcissistic attachment to himself as the only protagonist allowed in his life, but also his own deep bias against (at least) transgendered persons.

  2. Good article, except for your use of the word transgendered. In the trans community, the term transgender is preferred, as transgendered suggests an illness or disease and is considered fairly offensive.

    As a trans person myself, I’ve seen too many of my brothers, sisters, and friends killed due to being outed. For shame, grantland

  3. One could say it’s a case of losing sight of the original story when finding something more interesting, but any sane person should have realized at some point far earlier in this process that this was heading in completely the wrong way.

    I’m still not sure why Hannan would do something as shameful as this. If he had any journalistic integrity he would have realized that at no point he had any evidence of any wrongdoing on the side of Dr. V and thus nothing to pursue there.

    Part of this issue is sadly also the fact that for transgenders their past is generally seen as something shameful; something which needs to be hidden from the public view and maybe only revealed to their best friends, if at all. This makes it into a powerful weapon to be used against them.

    I myself am not transgender, but intersex, yet even I can understand why people would want to keep their past out of their current life. Still, as I discovered years ago, this isn’t necessarily to your own benefit. In some way it’ll always come back to haunt you. It may be best to keep it out in the open, though this raises the question of how one’s society will respond to it.

    There of course it’s probably true that if transgender individuals remain this invisible, they’ll rarely if ever be accepted. Thus they can be outed by enterprising journalists and this whole cycle begins anew. A depressing thought…

    • “One could say it’s a case of losing sight of the original story when finding something more interesting, but any sane person should have realized at some point far earlier in this process that this was heading in completely the wrong way.”

      I think this pretty much nails it. Hannan’s story goes off the rails & he very obviously had many misgivings while writing his piece. However, I certainly never detected a hint of malice or bullying.

      And it IS a fascinating story (in a vacuum) & Dr. V was obviously very troubled before Hannan crossed her path.

      • Yeah, when I say bullying, it has very pointedly to do with publicly disclosing someone’s gender status when said someone is not out (in this case, to an investor, but the journalist clearly plans to publicly reveal the subjects gender status – it’s discussed in the piece). That’s a big deal. It’s not okay. I’m not sure I can think of a version in which it *would* be ok – but in the case of a subject who is a public figure with a record of mistreatment/statements against trans* persons, who is revealed to be transgender themself? Maybe that disclosure would be relevant to a journalistic profile. This piece, as you mention, is supposedly interesting because of an invention, not because of the person who invented it. So, disclosing someone’s (secret) trans* status would be inappropriate, right?

  4. Thank you for writing about this, Maria. The Talese connection is revelatory, because it would explain Hannan’s motivation. His article was nothing more than act of ugly self-promotion steeped in ethical blindness. How the Grantland editors ever approved of such maliciousness is beyond me. Like you, I deplore the philosophy of “The Story Is The Most Important Thing”. But for Hannan, that’s what it became; reducing Dr. V to a prop, making her life invisible…save for her outing and death.

  5. Thank very much for sharing this story and your thoughts about it. I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon the piece. It’s touching, enlightening and sad. I can relate to Dr. V.

  6. I’m a journalist and just this week I had a story take an unexpected turn, a dramatic one at that. Yet for all the stunning stuff I (unwittingly) uncovered, the fact remained that it had nothing at all to do with what I was writing about and why I was talking to this person in the first place. It’s been a hard week with some sleepless nights and conversations with editors and revisiting the source, but your piece gives me peace that we did the right thing. We’re leaving it lie for now, knowing that it might become relevant someday, but that this is not the time and this is not the story.

    On behalf of my profession (and the close friend of a trans man) this Dr. V situation makes me sick to my stomach.

  7. I had read the story you reference at the end of your article, and found myself thinking of it as I read here. Such a difference in approach and morality. One wonders what this man has to tell himself in order to sleep at night.

  8. How do you think this way? Dr. V tried to commit suicide long before the author started interviewing for this piece.

    And what mental gymnastics has to take place for you to assume by writing “born a boy” the author is expressing betrayal? I’ve read that piece about 5 times and I thought the author went out of his WAY to be overly sensitive to the issue of sex. No one in this world asks a pregnant mother: “are you birthing a human with a male body or a female body?” My God.

    It’s funny how this response sounds exactly like the history of “Dr. V”. Frivolous lawsuits and accusing people of hate crimes. It’s like – it’s OK to lie now as long as you can be perceived as a victim. Reminds me of the waitress in New Jersey.

    I can only assume you are a neither a golfer, nor a scientist. If you were, you would have found the story interesting for a thousand reasons. I’m still struggling to understand how this all falls away into an angry “f-word” laced tirade about outing Dr. V’s gender.

    This is a story about golf equipment. It’s a story about positive thinking on the putting green. It’s a story about how readily people can be conned. It’s a story about wanting to believe conventional wisdom is wrong even if it’s not. It’s a story about how so many prominent people will not only believe something “scientific”, they will go as far as to suddenly abandon their own understand of a subject (this is revealed in the youtube clip) because someone “from MIT” or “a secret military aero physicist” says something so it must be gospel. It’s about how you can use a thesaurus to deceive.

    And no. Dr. V or whoever is really behind all this, did not invent a great putter. That you and others still think that is a testament to the power of this piece. That even after the facts emerge and the house of cards collapses into a heaping lie people will still insist on what they believe.

    If you wanna be angry and feel self-righteous that’s one thing, but implicating the author in the suicide is shameful. Harassed by a bully? This is what Dr. V did to con people.

    • That’s true: I’m neither a golfer nor a scientist. I’m a writer. So, you know, I write about people, myself, people in the real world, people I invent. As a writer, I’ve got common ground with the writer whose method I’m critiquing. That’s pretty fair, I think. He and I have done (and do) the same job. This should have been a story about golf equipment, and became a story about story. It became a story about a writing outing someone’s gender – and sorry, sensitively isn’t how this is written. I don’t know if it’s a great putter – I only know what the writer told me, that a couple of people who are unaffiliated with Dr. V or her story really dug the putter. What I know is not much beyond the facts the journalist chose to publish. I think they’re enough to critique the ethics of the piece on. Her gender wasn’t relevant, if indeed this was a story about golf equipment.

      • Dr. V’s LIES were not only relevant, they are the lynchpin of everything in his piece. I don’t pretend to be in solidarity with those dealing with gender issues, but the tone of the piece convinced me that the author didn’t find some glee in “outing” anyone, so I don’t understand why you spew so much anger at him – like you know his intentions. He was, in fact, very respectful.

        As someone obsessed with science and golf equipment (not claiming to be a scientist or golfer) I found the story compelling for every reason OTHER than the gender issue. The gender issue was simply another example of the lie: a woman named “Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt” was NOT a member of the esteemed Vanderbilt family, she was NOT an aero physicist, she did NOT earn any of the accolades she heaped upon herself, she did NOT uncover some errant scientific paradigm about putters, and she CERTAINLY didn’t work on the B2. So, by claiming all those things, in order to con people into believing she had the secret sauce for a putter, and people not only bought it, but actually putt WELL with the damn thing because in their mind they had an “edge” is the story.

        Obviously it’s tragic that Dr. V chose to end her life, a fact that the author reinforces multiple times. I also found the crass comment from the family member (in addition to being crass) indicative that there is probably a lot more lies in Dr. V’s past that the author did not publish nor try to dig up in order to pile on. I never got the sense he was trying to create a villain out of Dr. V. It seemed like he felt sorry for her in fact. He could have dug into that $800,000 that a judge ordered Dr. V to cough up instead of presenting it free of judgement.

        I might be willing to entertain your opinion that it was ethically irresponsible if there is evidence that the author knew that publishing his expose was going to directly lead to her death. Is there? Show me. It’s more likely he was worried that she might come after him if he published it, given her threats.

        Why is it assumed that Dr. V choose to end her life because of the gender issue? Could it not have been the lawsuits that would ensue because of the junk science and lies about the product development? Why did she try to committ suicide before this ever happened?

        I ask this in all honestly. If Dr. V had in fact been born a girl (or born in a female body or however you would say it) and everything else in this story was static, would you feel even remotely as strong as your are presenting? Would the author still be implicated in her suicide?

        Also, what is the threshold upon which it’s OK to be a liar and cheat and fraud?

        How many people must be deceived? How many millions must be stolen? How many lawuits must be lobbed, how much pain must one cause before it’s ethically ok to say “here’s the facts of the matter”?

      • The writer makes the case that the person and science behind the putter are important. It’s what the “positive contagion” aside is demonstrating: that credentialism for whatever psychological reason matters in golf. I think also that the investment into Dr V’s company depends to some extent on those credentials.

        As such, an examination of Dr V’s credentials and back story is entirely relevant. The apparent lies about education and job history are pertinent.

        Even the name change I think is relevant. The Vanderbilt name carries with it some amount of history and prestige, and while I suppose we cannot know for sure that she was trading on that name, I think it would be a little silly to suggest that none of its cachet was helpful when attempting to attract investors and so on.

        I don’t think that the author could have done a decent job of telling the story without describing the truth. An article that said in essence, “I discovered that Dr V’s claims about her education and work history were all lies; she’s not even a Vanderbilt. I will not elucidate further.” would be woefully incomplete.

        I suppose you would say that the solution then is to simply not write the article at all. I find that troublesome, because the story of this magical putter, and the arguably fraudulent misrepresentation of Dr V, strikes me as quite legitimate for an article.

        I also wonder about your claims of trivialization. I was not primed prior to reading the article; I thought it was merely about a golf club. The only sense in which it trivialized anything is that it gave the impression to me that being transgender was a rather run-of-the-mill, unsensational thing.

        In practice, Dr V suicided before the article was even published, and if she offered any reason for killing herself, the article does not disclose it. Blaming the author for the death seems a little unfair, given the lack of information that exists.

      • Well, I’m a writer, so I’m vulnerable to the same potential for bad decisions when it comes to my subjects, yes. Are we the same? As in, am I bullying Caleb Hannan by posting my critique of his piece? The thing I’m critiquing him on, specifically, is his outing of his subject’s gender history without his subject’s permission. Pretty sure I’m not doing that to Hannan, and I’m also pretty sure anything I’m doing is on my personal blog, not on a national news site. Am I speaking loudly in a public place about it? Yeah. I am. Am I hounding a subject to suicide? I absolutely hope not. Hannan isn’t my subject. Journalistic ethics are. I think he did a severely wrong thing. I also think the profession of story-telling has some entrenched wrong ideas about which stories are necessary to tell. I’m part of the profession: I’m critiquing my own impulses here too.

    • Tom, from your later comment, both David Frost & Kelvin Miyahira found the science behind the putter to be sound.

      The “positive contagion” stuff was IMO clearly the weakest part of Hannan’s article. Like you, I was interested mainly in the “outsider upends golf world” angle.

    • Wow. If this comment isn’t the height of indignant, offended cis-male privilege, I don’t know what is. A woman is DEAD, thanks to Hannan, and you can’t stop sputtering that this is all about “golf equipment”? And whine that the OP “wants to feel angry”? Hello, derailment?

      BTW, I wonder how often you waggle your finger at male bloggers who use “the f-word” the word fuck. So, here, Tom: Fuck you, you fucking fuck. There. Now you can whine at me for using “unladylike” language; i.e., language that makes me less fuckable in the eyes of sexist, transphobic shitbags like you.

  9. I am a steadfast supporter of the LGBT community, yet I feel the need to come to the defense of the article, at least to a certain extent. With all of the spot-on criticism of Hannan for his glib and fetishistic treatment of Dr. V’s gender (and as a regular reader of Grantland, I must note that this glibness starts at the top with editor-in-chief Bill Simmons: a prolific, powerful, engaging, yet immensely bro-ish and old-fashioned entity) I am not so ready to lay Dr. V.’s tragic death entirely at his doorstep. What was lost in the Twitter echo-chamber of shaming and counter-shaming (and what does Twitter do better than providing a forum for those who love nothing more than shaming?) was the (perhaps misguided) point of the article- that Dr. V, while undoubtedly brilliant, was not a Vanderbilt as she claimed to be, that she had faked her academic credentials and misrepresented herself as a rocket scientist, that she had a history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies well before the publication of this article, and was, for lack of a better term, somewhat of a con artist. On the strength of these lies and exaggerations she recruited powerful allies and sold millions of dollars worth of product. With all that considered, is this truly a story that should have been buried? And for that matter, is it possible that Hannan would not have outed Dr. V had she not committed suicide before the publication? I do not know the answer to these questions, and I would love for Grantland to address them. Knowing their political tone-deafness I truly doubt they will, which is a shame.

    • Hannan did – at least according to his article – out Dr. V, to her investor, before she committed suicide. Whether he would have outed her in print had she not committed suicide is an unknown. The fact that he felt compelled to out her to a person with the ability to impact both her financial and mental well-being BEFORE her death seems to be a part of his own record of events. And I have to say, outing someone against her will is a big deal. I have a feeling Grantland might feel compelled to address quite a bit of this, actually. Not just because of me writing about it, obviously, but because lots of people have.

      • I understand the need for some analysis of the writing conventions of the Hannan piece make for another dimension to your rebuttal; however, it lends the feeling of distracting from the main point of your arguement. I am far from being able to provide the technical angle which you’ve offered up (sister was the English major. I went the Math route) but the feel you created for me with the comparison was that this was a pale imitation of a famous NF profile, both in form and art. A vague sense of sniffing your nose at the attempt, if you will, if not really overt. The set up (in my mind) distracts from the main point and makes for an atmosphere where you had to belittle his style first to knock him down a peg before you handle the meat of the issue.

        That issue, of course, has to do with the handling of this odd, and ultimately tragic, set of circumstances. As far as the author’s original motives, there is little disagreement that they were benign and maybe an inch below the surface of being a puff piece about a new putter and it’s quirky inventor. Through what appears to be rather routine fact-checking of the fairly minimal background information of the interviewee (provided by the subject), he finds numerous reports to the contrary and the journey down the rabbit-hole begins. Ultimately, there are a series of deceptions, exagerrations, and mostly downright lies that lead him, as it would any good journalist, to the discovery of her past life as a man.

        Therein lies the crux of the problem: Has the road to hell been paved with good intentions, or is this the road to hell in the first place? Certainly, there is no honor in outing people to the general public for no reason. And also certainly just for the telling of a good story is not reason enough, either. There are, however, some dangerous assumptions made in both your piece and the S.I. Rosenbaum edit (http://si.arrr.net/device/2014/01/18/dr-v-an-edit-after-the-fact/). First, this obviously isn’t the story that is released if Dr. V is still alive at print; not just from the obvious content aspect but from the point of view that there very possibly would have been editing similar to the Rosenbaum edit. Secondly, I don’t know if I see the point of running the piece as the Rosenbaum edit is constucted. It offers no answers as to the source of all these probable falsehoods and is, quite frankly, a fairly unsatisfying and empty conclusion to the piece. It devolves into a story questioning if this equipment is really an advancement in technology or just an exercise in the power of hucksterism (and the golf industry doesn’t have that market cornered; any product touting an improvement in any aspect of life has that element embedded ito the pitch. “Eat fewer calories than you burn” has a sexiness shelf life of two seconds in the diet industry but somehow a multi-billion dollar industry exists). Without exposing the huckster at their core there’s no real resolution. Lastly, even if he had told her that the gender portions of this piece would be excised to the point of the Rosenbaum edit, how would this have staved off the eventual reveal? Surely those parties involved with the putter (or to be involved) financially would find this piece and think to start asking their own questions. Where does the obligation of the writer to the subject end and the obligation to the people that person has duped/lied to for financial gain/hurt begin? It seems as though these facts make the moral waters a bit more murky than put to pen here. I can sympathize with the agony caused by outing (and possibly empathize; my best friend came out to me as at least bi, probably gay, last year and I’ve been the shoulder for manyof the ensuing events in his life), but Dr. V may have forfeited some of those considerations when she involved so many other unknowing parties in this deception through the creation of this elaborate back-story with it’s foundation in fantasy.

        One last point. Which is more dishonorable: going forward with this story as-is or burying it once he heard about the suicide? I’m pretty sure I know which path would have been easier. At the very least, there has to be a certain amount of courage and introspection involved in the decision to print this in the aftermath. The author may be many things, but stupid doesn’t ring true, and he certainly had to know the blowback would be harsh. I’d like to hear your opinion on that as, regardless of how the previous four paragraphs came off, I found your piece insightful at many points and very informative.

    • What gets lost is that she might have not been lying about the government projects. They mention the golf commentator vetting her by talking to his general buddies but the piece never bothers to follow up on it after the death occurs. We also don’t know whether the offer to verify the credentials was legitimate or not but I think this is a piece that is ripe for a follow up.

  10. I came to your post a full day after reading Hannan’s piece. I was appreciative of Grantland for offering it up. Even though I am not currently a golfer, I genuinely wanted to know about this putter and looked forward to reaching the end to learn how Dr. V upended the conventional wisdom about MOI.

    In short, I pushed on because the topic was sports and sports technology, and I was learning something. Hannan told the story with a nice touch of suspense and with the break-outs to talk about the process, it was clear that I had best be ready for a long-form story – the kind of thing I used to read Sports Illustrated for back in the day.

    I expect a lot from creative nonfiction and found myself enjoying it. The long form is less and less available on an Internet that is filled with click-bait, listicles, and rewritten wire copy, so I read on with even greater appreciation.

    Honestly, I could have done with less of Dr. V’s backstory and as the story moved away from the putter to the process, the whole piece faded in quality, to my mind.

    But … it really never occurred to me that Hannan had crossed a line. I didn’t recognize that I was being manipulated (no judgment intended) to “like” and then “dislike” Dr. V. I’m still not sure that a “smoking gun” was presented for whatever case the writer intended.

    I’m glad to have been directed to your post today. I’m not quite ready to join you in chastening Caleb Hannan. After all, I wasn’t moved to do so myself. However, I am ready to stand chastened myself.

    What you have to say here is valuable. Thank you. As we read on the Internet, we’re feeding a voyeuristic appetite that websites are only too happy to satisfy. Frankly, the sum of my reaction was “Ah, too bad. Wonder if the putter is actually good.” You’ve reminded me to read with more discernment and compassion.

  11. Very interesting article, Maria. Much like Randy Smith, I was much more interested in “outsider upends fossilized golf world” rather than “6’3″ striking redhead” in Hannan’s article.

    I suppose I will have to re-read it, though I never got the idea Hannan crossed in ethical lines. I did think he lost the plot so to speak & became unduly obssessed with Dr. V’s backstory, tho IMO that’s at least somewhat understandable. Again, I will re-read Hannan, and then yours as well.

    However, you lost me completely with “Dr. V is not George W. Bush. Dr. V is also not Ann Coulter. ” Well, she wasn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Glenn Greenwald either.

      • An interesting article. I have a couple questions: what does one do with information that a subject doesn’t want written? Wether or not Hannan should have written about Dr. v, hat should he have done once he knew she had been born into a male body? To what degree should people control what is written about them if it has a factual basis? Outing someone can be an aggressive act and I believe that it was unnecessary in this case. There is no lie to Dr. V calling herself a women. And not wanting to open herself to a reporter is understandable. Dr. V did mislead people, but not about her gender. Misleading investors about her science should have been looked into. But we all have a past that we get to keep to ourselves. Even in this day age we still get to have privacy. But I would love your thoughts on what a writer should avoid saying, once they discover it. Thank you

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  13. You’re not the first person I’ve seen write something along these lines – that the only time it’s ethical to “out” someone is if that someone has committed transgressions against the transgender community. Is that not incredibly narcissistic?

    Sounds just like – freedom of speech must never be infringed upon unless someone says/writes something I don’t agree with.

    Do modern journalistic ethics demand that nothing be exposed or published if it causes a person shame that leads to suicide? Is there even any evidence in this case that that is what happened?

    Hypothetically, if it were to emerge (from some testimony) that Dr. V. in fact killed herself because the “magic” was gone now that the balloon popped on the narrative that she created and reinforced, would you and everyone else implying that the author has a person’s death on his hands feel the same way?

    Is this post about journalistic ethics or liberal ethics? Maybe I should ask if there is even a difference?

    • Of course it possible that this artice had nothing to do with dr. V’s death. And I don’t think that outing someone is the only subject on which writers should be hesitant. I think a writer should be able to write on anything. The first amendment is important and should never be restrained. But the freedom to say anything comes with a responsibility for restraint at times. Would the article that Hannan be as strong without the gender issue? Does outing inform the audience about an issue of importance? And can we all admit that the fear shown by dr. V, regardless if its origins, makes us queasy? Maybe Hannan should have mentioned her transgender nature, maybe he shouldn’t have: there is reason for a discussion here.

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  16. Wow, excellent analysis on why this story was so wrong. The woman’s background is irrelevant to writing about the putter—and since she clearly asked him not to write about her personal story right from the start, he should have respected that. I’m sure he probably claims he had an obligation to dig into her background for “journalism” or the sake of the story – but come on, he was writing about a damn golf club, not investigating some issue of national importance or uncovering crimes against humanity.

    In my journalism career, especially during my time as a daily newspaper reporter, there have been times when I inadvertently discovered things that would have been very damaging or hurtful to someone if published – things that had no relevance to an important issue or anything that affected the public in a meaningful way. I know each writer must abide by their own moral code and make these decisions based on what they think is right, but I could not in good conscience cause potentially serious harm to someone just for the sake of a story that frankly wasn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things, so in each case I ended up either killing the story completely or leaving out the potentially harmful details. If that makes me less of a reporter than someone who is willing to cross that line, I’m fine with that.

  17. Like others I was disturbed by how Hannan phrased the discovery of her being transgender as an almost horror movie scare, I have a hard time with the idea that her transition wasn’t relevant. After all, Hannan’s piece relies on the lynchpin that Dr. V was a fraud, that she had never attained any of the credentials she had claimed, and in fact has taken people’s money and made no significant effort to recoup their investments. In order to prove that she was not who she said she was, one would have to confirm that she has not attended those schools nor worked those jobs. In order to prove that to be so you have to point out, not wrongly, that she had lived under a different name for a significant portion of her life and that she worked other jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with what she claimed. This is not a situation where someone changed say their first name to “fit” their gender, but rather someone who invented a whole new persona from whole cloth not to fit their transition, but to construct a new and fraudulent life. If he did skip her transition, how could he possibly prove that she was a fraud without himself lying about what he had found?

    Also I have to question people’s reading of the article if they claim she had invented a great putter. The whole thrust of the article is that golf and by extension golf equipment is a sport dominated by psuedo-science and a kind of mysticism around equipment. The allure of a magical putter is not unlike the idea of corked bats in baseball; just like how corked bats don’t actually help anything, neither really do magical putters. The fact that her putter “worked” was because it gave an imprimatur of being backed by science and a bunch of physics gobbedly-gook. So people read into the results they got and ascribed them to the putter, as opposed to realizing that the whole thing was really all in their heads. As the poor guy who got bilked of his money said, he wasn’t sure if the thing worked or if he had just come to believe it because she had sold him on it.

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  20. Really great piece here- absolutely spot on and a fantastic read. In addition, I like that you tackled the ethics of writing from a writer’s perspective.

    The issue of this woman’s gender was pretty much completely irrelevant to all the (possible) scam behaviour.

    I only have one criticism and it is that I found it incredibly difficult to read your article from a design/readability perspective due to the background image being very high contrast while the article is a thin, small font in light grey on a black background. As a result I ended up having to open your article in Pocket to read it.

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  30. Thank you for your well-written article. I’m glad someone finally countered this “journalist’s” assertion that he was writing a eulogy. How does one become a journalist and not know the definition of eulogy, communique or collogue? I’m not a journalism major, I majored in science, but even I know the definitions to these semi-frequently used words. I also know a eulogy when I read one and his 8,000 word personal expose was neither a eulogy nor a sports article.

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  35. This is one of the best responses to this issue that I’ve seen. Thank you. One of the saddest and most frustrating codas to this is that Caleb Hannan is still playing the victim card–a look at his Twitter account shows zero remorse and thanking people for liking his article. So he still is claiming some measure of professional pride in his endeavor; I can see nothing else but a man who “experiences no risk as a result of his self-assignment, but portrays himself as a victim of its consequences”.

    • In all fairness, he hasn’t been on Twitter since the s*** hit the fan. His most recent tweets were thanks for praise of the article, all from last week.

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  51. Thank you for your wonderfully insightful article.

    I am from a sheltered community in South East Asia, where homophobia is shunned and transgenders are punishable by law, and as a result, am woefully ignorant of the problems the trans community faces.

    One thing I would say is that what Hannan and the editors who reviewed the piece lacked was empathy. They could not – not refused to – see how the publication of/further research on this article would affect the already fragile source. And after shit hit the fan, I think Hannan went on the defensive because he could not see where he went wrong. Many people are ignorant of the trans community and just cannot relate to them because their problems are almost never discussed in mass media (in comparison to other issues). Although homosexuality is increasingly championed today, transsexuality is still something too taboo to even begin to battle.

    People do not how to react when they encounter something so foreign to them, that empathy cannot even apply. They cannot even IMAGINE being in their shoes, and that can perhaps come off as apathetic and in this case, cruel.

    No, I do not defend what Hannan did or did not do, but I think that instead of getting into an uproar of “HOW COULD THEY HAVE DONE THAT, WHY ARE THEY SO HEARTLESS?!” we would have to understand that some people (like me) just are not exposed to different communities the ways others are. And when this is the case, The Story takes precedence over the source.

    I think Hannan and the people at Grantland would take this as a lesson worth learning, and the people observing this debacle from the sidelines would be able to glean a little more understanding of LGBT and other sensitive issues. Dr. V cannot be brought back to life, but the living can be brought to a place of more understanding.

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