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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”