The Moral Dilemmas Of Narrative

Bill Marvel’s introduction from the 2014 edition of Ten Spurs.

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”—Janet Malcolm

So which is it? Are we stupid? Or too full of ourselves?

In the years since it kicked off The Journalist and the Murderer, her 1990 examination of the fraught relationship between writer Joe McGinniss and convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, Janet Malcolm’s now-infamous quote has gone largely unanswered, though not undisputed.

MacDonald, a former Army physician, was accused of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in a crime that was as widely publicized as it was bloody. The writer and the subject – actually the subject’s lawyers – struck a bargain: McGinniss would have exclusive access to the defendant and to the defense team during the trial and would write a book about the case. In turn he would not divulge the defense strategy during the trial, and MacDonald —and his lawyers – would share in whatever the book earned. McGinniss was quite a catch for the defense. He was a best-selling writer, author of The Selling of the President 1968. So the bargain was expected to benefit everyone.

There was one more thing: The book would show MacDonald in a positive light.

Any writer who is not too stupid or full of himself would instantly see the trap, and McGinniss almost immediately fell into it. MacDonald, he quickly concluded, was almost certainly guilty. But he played along, sharing beer, watching television and sizing up babes with the accused murderer, all the time warmly expressing his solidarity. The minute MacDonald was convicted, this show of support evaporated. In his book, Fatal Vision, McGinniss portrayed his subject as a narcissist, a calculating killer and a thoroughly loathsome human being. MacDonald, who learned of the betrayal on a television talk show, was shocked. And Janet Malcolm was off to write her own book.

One might have expected her to steer clear of the McGinniss-MacDonald affair. She herself had been accused of befriending, then betraying her subject in an earlier book, In the Freud Archives. In that book, after a number of seemingly sympathetic interviews, she had skewered researcher and archivist Jeffrey Masson as a person of dubious character and honesty, a narcissist. Masson sued Malcolm and after years of litigation lost. But by then everyone’s reputation lay in tatters.


“There is an implicit covenant between a writer and a subject; in return for whatever agreement you might make for the telling of the story, the subject must tell you the truth. If he lies, all deals are off.” — Gene Weingarten

Early this year a smaller but similar controversy erupted over a long-form piece posted on the website Grantland. The piece, by the very young and talented Caleb Hannan, concerned a mysterious Dr. V, aeronautical scientist, top-secret government researcher and inventor of an ingenious putter that seemed poised to revolutionize the game of golf. It was not entirely irrelevant to Hannan’s story that Dr. V was said to be a tall, gorgeous red-head.

But in the course of researching the story, the writer discovered that his subject was not everything she claimed to be. Aside from inventor of the putter, in fact, she was not anything she claimed to be. Not an aeronautical researcher, not a scientist, not a doctor, and not always a she.

Unmasked as a trans-gendered sometime garage mechanic with evident psychological problems, Dr. V committed suicide shortly before Hannan’s article went online.

Questions and accusations fluttered into the air like startled pigeons: Dr. V had asked that Hannan write about the science behind the new putter, not about the scientist. Had Hannan, then, betrayed his subject? Was the writer’s revelation of Dr. V’s trans-gendered personhood irrelevant and, worse than that, sexist? Did his story push the already unstable Dr. V into suicide?

Any writer who pursues the craft long enough and is not too stupid or full of himself – and by “him” I mean both “her and “him” — will sooner or later confront the moral dilemma: What do we tell? What do we withhold? What is our obligation to our reader? To our story? And to our subject? Where does ordinary morality, even decency, intersect with the journalist’s ethics?

Beyond devising a cunning lead, building a solid structure, working in the telling details, these are the most important and troubling questions we face. And yet they are the questions we seldom talk about. Even among ourselves.

It was Lee Hancock, fresh from a graduate degree in creative nonfiction, and for that reason perhaps inclined to be a little more introspective at the moment, who dropped a word into the conversation one March morning in a Deep Ellum eatery. Four of us were having an early breakfast, trading gossip over migas and omelets and pancakes and coffee refills, when the strange story of Dr. V came up. Like most of our profession we were, if not strongly divided, profoundly ambivalent. Had Hannan gone too far in “outing” Dr. V? Did the journalist owe his readers the whole truth and nothing but the truth? What, then, did he owe his subject? Is it enough to report truthfully and fairly and hang the consequences? Was Dr. V’s transsexual personhood fair game?

That’s when Lee murmured something about empathy. I had to ask her to repeat the word.


“In the end, it doesn’t matter if one is writing about a huckster or a fraud. The best work still enables readers to experience their subjects as human beings, not as mere objects of curiosity.”– Jonathan Mahler

The writer of fiction has the advantage here and occupies the higher ground. Fictional characters have no right to privacy. They cannot be libeled. They cannot be outed. If they commit suicide, it is because the writer wills them to commit suicide.
One writer I know, a memoirist, was driven to fiction for this very reason. When her stories about her family got too close for the family’s — and her own — comfort, she backed off memoir and wrote a novel, a very good novel in which not only the names were changed but just about everything else. The novel grew out her family’s experience. But it was not about her family, not really.

We nonfiction writers, on the other hand, must write about real people, and therefore we have certain obligations.

Legality—the law—sets the bar low. We may not defame those we write about. The courts recognize two forms of defamation: libel (a written statement) and slander (an oral statement), either of which damages another’s reputation or character and is known, or ought to have been known, by its author to be false.

Ethics raises the bar a little higher. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to show “compassion” to those who might be adversely affected by a story. It recommends “sensitivity” when reporting on children or those unaccustomed to dealing with journalists and their probing ways.

Compassion seems simple enough. It requires we be aware of our subjects’ feelings, that we write in a way that, if possible, minimizes their distress. If the revelations become awkward, we try to balance the good the story does against the harm.

The obligation to be sensitive likewise requires us to be aware of our subject’s needs, for example, for security and privacy. Subjects who don’t know better need to be warned of the consequences publication of a story might bring. We might tell a subject, “If there’s anything that you don’t want your boss or family to know, tell us ahead of time so we can figure out how to handle it.” What we write should never expose children to ridicule, exploitation or danger.

Compassion and sensitivity thus tell us how to approach our subjects from the outside.

Empathy, the word Lee Hancock murmured that morning, is more difficult. Because empathy requires that we approach our subjects from the inside. We try to enter into the emotions, thoughts, the very lives of those we write about. We try to imagine what it must be like to be them. Only by living in their skin at least briefly, by walking in their shoes, can we begin to see that person as he or she is. This requires moral imagination. It is what the good fiction writer does. And it is, I argue, what we writers of nonfiction must do.

There are learned people who will argue that this is impossible, and they may be right. How can we ever fully know another person? But the impossibility does not erase the obligation to try. That obligation demands that our actions as journalists not only be ethically sound, but — taking a word from Janet Malcolm — that they be morally defensible. Ethics is the rules of the game: fairness, honesty and disclosure. Morality is what we owe one another, not as writer and subject, but as fallen human beings. It demands self-knowledge, humility, and charity.

This, I think, sets the bar on its highest peg.


The journalist “is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”— Janet Malcolm

The writer has a godlike power. The lives of other people pass through our hands into the reader’s imagination and memory. For better or worse those lives are transformed, because there is no way a writer can write without transforming. We do not, as we sometimes like to imagine, hold the mirror up to reality. We hold our minds and emotions up to reality, our personal histories and attitudes, our own mixtures of sin and virtue.

While we are not required to Mirandize our subjects (“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be held against you…”), perhaps we need to Mirandize ourselves.

There’s an ancient religious practice that might help here.

The examination of conscience is a kind of self-interview, but far more searching and rigorous than any interview we writers visit upon our subjects. Muslims call the practice Muhasaba. The Roman Catholic Catechism describes it as “a prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds.” St. Ignatius of Loyola prescribed such an exercise for all Jesuits. It is something we writers might be expected to be good at — except maybe the prayerful part — but we are not. We are so accustomed to being told that we are not the story that we often shy away from introspection. This is a great mistake if we are to write honestly.

Such an examination must begin with what might be described as a frank confession of sin. We writers tend to equate sin with bad writing or errors of style. With a failure to attribute quotes or to credit sources. Or, the most serious sin, to get the facts wrong. Once we’ve nailed down the facts, we’ve nailed down our story. Dr. V not a doctor? Check. Not a scientist? Check. Not a “real” woman? Check. Jeffrey MacDonald self-absorbed? Check. Calculating? Check. A murderer? Check.

We writers sin, I think, not just if we fail to run through the checklist, but if we fail to run ourselves through the checklist, fail to perform muhasaba.

How does it change our attitude if we find out that gorgeous red-haired “she” is a “he”? Does it enlarge our understanding of our subject, or narrow it? How does it affect the story that we write, our reader, our subject? Or is it just one of those “gotcha” moments?

What about the narcissism we discern in the heart of a killer? Could it be anything like the narcissism at work in the heart of a writer? Because if we are not too full of ourselves, we have to see that there is at least some narcissism in every act of writing, especially in nonfiction writing. We nourish our craft on the stories of others. The family memoir, the traumatic childhood recollected in tranquility, the profile of an inventor or a murderer: We are the readers’ only way into these stories. But we are also our subjects’ only way out to the reader.

Would an examination of conscience have kept Caleb Hannan from outing Dr. V, or would it have saved Dr. V from suicide? Perhaps not. But it’s worth asking ourselves every time we write: Why are we writing? Why are we putting this in?

This is not an excuse to gloss over or skip unpleasant facts. It is a call to face all the unpleasant facts, about ourselves as well as about our subjects. The fact that the writer’s calling is also always a temptation. To easy judgments, to pride and arrogance. To lay aside compassion and empathy.

This is I think what Janet Malcolm had in mind in that incendiary indictment of our craft. She knew what we are about and the temptations and evasions that come with the territory. (She was, after all, the daughter of a psychiatrist.) The writer who does not acknowledge the relationship he shares with the person he writes about, no matter how loathsome, cannot be writing honestly. And every dishonest piece of writing is a betrayal.

Lee Hancock recalls the time when, as a “baby reporter,” she was assigned to cover the funeral of writer Willie Morris’ beloved dog, Pete. No less than William Faulkner’s niece read the service, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Then Pete was buried in the local cemetery, a fact that Lee left out of her story lest the local blue-hairs demand that authorities remove the dog to unhallowed ground.

“Willie Morris loved that dog,” Lee recalls.

A trivial example, perhaps. But Lee also recalls those journalists who during the bloody struggle for civil rights withheld certain information that could have meant the difference between life and death to their subjects.

To acknowledge what we owe our subject is not just being high-minded, Lee says. “It’s a more sustainable way of going about the craft. You’re going to make a better story. The reader will get your emotional connection or your lack of emotional connection.”

She points to the recent New York Times’ profile of Leo Sharp, a 90-year-old Michigan man who ran drugs for the Sinaloa cartel. But Sam Dolnick also wrote sensitively of Sharp’s life as a respected hybridizer of dazzling day lilies. And as possibly the victim of dementia. What was the “truth” about this Leo Sharp? That he was a drug mule or a cultivator of flowers or an old man sliding into senility? Or all three, one neither less nor more than the others.

Closer to hand as an example of empathy is the book by one of our keynote speakers, Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. The author is a trained physician and an excellent writer, which makes her book, about the terrible days after Hurricane Katrina when doctors and nurses in a New Orleans hospital had to make life-or-death decisions, authoritative and useful. What makes it extraordinarily deep and human is the sense on every page that its author knows that she might have found herself in that same hospital alongside those doctors and nurses – and their patients — forced to wrestle with those same decisions. Unlike some newspaper accounts of the days at Memorial, Dr. Fink offered no facile judgments. The book fully engages the ethical and medical issues involved. But its author never lets us forget that frightened and fallible human beings were making those decisions, human beings like herself and like us.

In an epilogue that could as easily apply to the writer’s vocation as to the medical profession, Dr. Fink writes that such stories reveal “our vulnerabilities; our grappling with uncertainty, how we die, how we prioritize and divide what is most precious and vital and limited; even our biases and blindnesses.”

If we are not too full of ourselves.

A Whiff Of City Life

Robert Samuels: Justin Green stands on the Anacostia Metro platform, ready to work. A belt stretches across his chest, holding 33 tiny bottles filled with colorful liquids. On his back hangs a leopard-print bookbag, carrying 50 additional pounds of his product.

The train is approaching. Green speaks in a gravelly voice.

“Every businessman has different style,” he says. “Some are loud people who want to be seen. Some are more subdued, you know what I mean? My style?”

The train doors open.

“People call me sophisticated.”

Green walks to the back of the last car, then begins walking forward, muttering: “Oil man. . . oil man . . . oil man.”

‘Why Do You Want To Kill This Boy?’

Alexandra Zavis: BOSSEMPTELE, Central African Republic — The militia fighters were hunting for Muslims when they found the father and son at their home in this mud-brick town. They shot the man, then turned their guns on the 10-year-old boy.

A willowy figure in a black robe rushed up. On his chest was a large red cross.

“You can’t be so inhuman,” Father Patrick Nainangue pleaded. “Why do you want to kill this boy?”

The boy would soon be a man, they answered, and he would take up arms against them. Nainangue stood his ground.

If they wanted to kill the child, he declared, they would have to shoot him first.

One of them swung around and pointed his gun at the priest.

(thanks, Mark)

Little Man

Jessica Lipscomb: His first kiss happened long after sunset, illuminated by headlights and perfumed by exhaust fumes on a swath of land in Punta Gorda known as the Redneck Yacht Club. Ethan Arbelo had not yet turned 12; the blonde was 26.

The Redneck Yacht Club was a compromise of sorts. There’s an adage that if you want a dog, first ask for a pony, and following suit, Ethan, 11, had asked his mother if he could have a stripper for his birthday.

She thought it over for a while, wondering if she could pull it off without the Department of Children and Families showing up at their Lehigh Acres duplex. It was hard to turn Ethan down, not knowing how many birthdays he had left.

“Well, I can’t get you a stripper,” she told him. “But I can get you as close as possible.”

So this was Ethan’s early present, three months ahead of his August birthday. This was how Maria Maldonado and her son ended up in the back of a swamp buggy on Memorial Day weekend 2013.

As the two rode around the mud park, monster trucks blared a strange mix of Southern rappers and country crooners. Women with dirty feet flashed their breasts for beads. A tumor continued to silently invade Ethan’s brain.

Maria taught her son some basic redneck etiquette: It’s OK to look, but don’t stare. Throw your beads and get on with it.

The two rode with Timmy Mock, a 26-year-old from Lakeland they’d just met who was sympathetic to Ethan’s predicament. He sipped Busch Light from a koozie that read “IT AIN’T GONNA LICK ITSELF” as he carted mother and son around the mud park.

Ethan whipped his beads back and forth as they drove around the property. Before long, a girl on an adjacent buggy motioned for him to throw them over. Ethan pantomimed a lifted shirt, but the girl refused.

She did not earn Ethan’s beads.

From Schoolhouse, To Symbol Of Servitude, To Dust

Dan Barry: ATALISSA, Iowa — The old schoolhouse on the hill had announced the farm town of Atalissa to the Iowa flatness for more than a century. But a couple of weeks ago, the prehistoric claw of a John Deere excavator took its first swipe, and soon the building existed only in the landscape of memory.

It was just bricks and mortar in the heartland, and yet also a rare landmark of conflicted emotions. In its final years, the schoolhouse had devolved into a squalid dormitory for dozens of Texas men with intellectual disabilities who spent decades here, eviscerating turkeys for exploitative wages at a nearby plant, enduring abuse, growing old.

The turquoise schoolhouse came to represent the men’s plight and figured in various news accounts. It appeared in a front-page photograph in The New York Times on March 9, as well as in an online documentary, to illustrate a detailed “This Land” report about the case.

While many in this town of 300 simply thought that the schoolhouse had outlived its usefulness, a few did not want their horizon darkened by this reminder of unsettling things. It had to go.

In Butte, You Get Back Up

Leah Sottile: When the kid backed up to the end of the street, a thousand pairs of eyes looked his way. Straddling his bike — a red, white and blue machine covered in stars and stripes and his name, Levi Renz — he kick-started the engine, let the machine cough to life and hunched forward as he rode its chainsaw buzz toward the ramp.

When Renz hit it for the first time, he flew up and up and up, higher than the light posts, higher than the flat roof of the auto shop, higher than he had ever flown in his whole life. And every face in the crowd — folks with cans of cheap beer and cigarettes in hand, bikers in leather vests, girls in bikini tops, moms with strollers — turned to watch the kid fly like a bright white shooting star crossing the afternoon sky.

Butte, Montana, held its breath.

The Case, And A Search For Justice

Ashley Luthern: After only four months as a homicide detective, Rose Galindo thought she had the case.

Every detective has at least one.

The case that eats away at you, haunts you. A victim you never forget.

The April 7 shift-change briefing at the Milwaukee Police Administration Building outlined the basics: A woman was driving. She was shot. No suspects.

And, most likely, she wasn’t the intended target.

A half-second earlier or later, an alternate route, any other twist of fate and Fredricka Hodges would not have been killed that day.

Three weeks after Hodges’ death — after the few initial leads had dried up and fresh homicide cases had come in — Galindo pored over the case file and searched for any detail that could be checked again. She came upon more than a dozen 911 calls that had been reviewed soon after the incident happened.

She slipped her headphones on and listened. For hours.

Pushing The Limits

Charlie Scudder: Flies landed on the beast’s back as the cowboy got ready for his ride. He pulled a flank strap around the bull’s backside and a bull rope with a leather handle around the animal’s shoulders, letting it sit loose. He still had time before they would meet again in the chute facing the arena at the Mesquite ProRodeo Series.

It’s the most dangerous 8 seconds in sports, but on this recent evening in June, McKennon Wimberly was smiling. He used to shadowbox behind the chutes to get more pumped before strapping himself onto 2,000 pounds of angry beef.

But after everything he’s seen the last few years — the coma in 2011, the trigger he pulled in 2012, the birth of his son in early 2014 — he takes it easier now.

“I ride better when I’m that way,” he said. “Why not have fun at your job?”

Shipped Away

Tony Rehagen: On any given workday, the stretch of Georgia 9 that cuts north-south through Roswell is a four-lane wall of cars. Almost as old as the city itself, the thoroughfare was once little more than a dirt wagon path called the Atlanta Road, connecting this mill town to the burgeoning railroad hub some twenty miles south.

The road also serves as a dividing line. To its west sits the tree-canopied town square, its centerpiece an obelisk water fountain bearing the names of Roswell’s founding families. Repeated on nearby street signs—Bulloch, Pratt, King—these are the surnames of wealthy planters and industrialists who, in the 1830s, moved inland to escape Georgia’s muggy, mosquito-infested coast. At the southern end of the square, a squat stone monument commemorates their leader, Roswell King, a banker, politician, surveyor, and plantation manager, “a man of great energy, industry, and perseverance: of rigid integrity, truth, and justice.” And on the hilltop beyond looms Barrington Hall, a columned, whitewashed mansion built for Barrington King, Roswell King’s eldest heir. The antebellum manor, like Bulloch Hall due west, has been restored as a museum, a memorial to the romantic affluence that for some is synonymous with the Old South.

On the east side of Georgia 9, as the hill drops toward the creek bottom, the architecture changes. The structures are smaller and more tightly packed together. One storefront with broad single-pane windows is dated 1854; it provided goods for employees of the Roswell Manufacturing Company, the King family’s cotton mills that once drew power from Vickery Creek and the labor of hundreds of women, children, and men to make cloth and thread and candlewicks. Farther downhill, you will find a cluster of brick row homes that housed the millworkers. These buildings line places with no-nonsense names like Factory Hill and Mill Street, but they once were home to the Woods, Sumners, Kendleys—and countless other families whose names have since been lost to history.

For decades, the two halves of Roswell coexisted in relative harmony. Then, in the summer of 1864, war came, exposing a divide almost as deep as any clash between North and South and setting the families of Roswell on divergent paths.

Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Results

Congrats, one and all. From The Mayborn:

DENTON (UNT), Texas — For the second year in a row, an article in The Washington Post by reporter Eli Saslow received the first place award in the Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest sponsored by the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Saslow’s “Into the Lonely Quiet,” published in June 2013, followed the family of a 7-year-old victim of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, six months after the shooting. In 2013, Saslow won the inaugural Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest for “Life of a salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized,” an account of a Manassas. Virginia, swimming pool salesman experiencing a summer of disappointment.

Co-sponsored by The Dallas Morning News, the Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest was first offered by the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in 2013. The conference has been hosted each July since 2005 by UNT’s Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism.

From its first years, the conference has held its Personal Essay, Book Manuscript and Reported Narrative contests to recognize extraordinary literary journalism and narrative nonfiction from writers who had not published their work. The conference and The Dallas Morning News launched the Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest to honor previously published work and to encourage narrative nonfiction storytelling at newspapers across the U.S. Long-form narratives published during 2013 were eligible for the 2014 competition.

In addition to selecting first-, second- and third-place winners, the contest judges also select runners-up entries and any entries they believe are “notable narratives.” The three top entries, the runners-up and the notable narratives are published in a print and e-book anthology, “The Best American Newspaper Narratives.” The first anthology, which includes the 10 honored articles from the 2013 competition, was published in May.

As the first-place winner, Saslow, who recently joined the Portland, Oregon, bureau of the Post, receives $5,000 and free registration to attend the 2014 Mayborn conference, which will be held July 18-20 (Friday-Sunday) at the Hilton DFW Lakes Executive Conference Center in Grapevine, Texas.

Eric Moskowitz, a reporter at the Boston Globe, received the contest’s second-place award of $2,000 for “Marathon Carjacking.” The article followed “Danny,” who was carjacked by the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombing three days after the bombing. “Danny,” a Chinese national, agreed to speak to no other media representatives about being held hostage except for Moskowitz, who identified him only by his American nickname. “Marathon Carjacking” was published April 25, 2013.

Mark Johnson, a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, claimed the third place prize of $1,000 for “The Course of Their Lives,” an account of first-year students at the Medical College of Wisconsin as they take a human dissection course. “The Course of Their Lives” was published in October 2013. It was also a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. Johnson was honored in last year’s Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest for “I Boy: A family’s challenge to understand gender,” which was named a notable narrative.

The contest judges were Maria Carrillo, managing editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; Roy Peter Clark, a writer instructor and former dean at the Poynter Institute; Roger Thurow, a former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal; Michele Weldon, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School; and Kelley Benham French, former reporter at The Tampa Bay Times, now a faculty member at Indiana University, French received the 2013 contest’s second-place award for “Never Let Go,” her personal account of the months following the birth of her daughter, who was born more than 12 weeks premature.

The runners-up are:
•Christopher Goffard of The Los Angeles Times for “Manhunt,” published in December 2013.
•Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post for “A Cloudy Feeling,” published in May 2013.
•Michael M. Phillips of The Wall Street Journal for “The Lobotomy Files,” published in December 2013.

The notable narrative winners are:
•Aaron Applegate of The Virginian-Pilot for “Taken Under,” published in October 2013.
•Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for “Rob Sweeney,” published in July 2013.
•Michael Kruse of The Tampa Bay Times, for “The Last Voyage of the Bounty,” published in October and November 2013.
•Shaun McKinnon of the Arizona Republic, for “Alone on the Hill,” published in December 2013.
•Mike Newall of the Philadelphia Inquirer for “Almost Justice,” published in June 2013.
•Sarah Schweitzer of the Boston Globe for “Together, Despite All,” published in October 2013.