Tampa Bay Times reporter Kelley Benham went into labor four months early and delivered her daughter, Juniper, at 23 weeks: a baby who weighed 20 ounces and was no taller than a Barbie doll. Doctors told Benham and her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and University of Indiana and Goucher College instructor Tom French, that the tiny infant was almost certain to die and would suffer from severe disabilities if she lived. Juniper spent six months in a NICU — a place Tom describes as “an almost alien place, a very science fiction world where these babies who were meant to be inside their mothers are suddenly out.” Last December, Benham published “Never Let Go,” a searing, intimate narrative series on her experience and the larger questions it raised about the cost and ethics of extreme medical interventions. Benham and French are working together on a book about the fight to save their daughter. Benham and French spoke together at the Mayborn, interspersing conversation with photos of their daughter. The text has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tom French: It felt as though, the term we had used with one another, we had been dropped inside a tunnel. And our whole understanding of ourselves had changed instantly. Your understanding of what is possible with a baby, as you can see in this photo — it took me a long time to begin to process a creature so small. This little baby was actually our daughter. As Kelley said, the doctors made it very clear what the stakes were, and even if they hadn’t quoted all of the ominous statics to us, we knew because in that first week or so two babies died in incubators a few feet away. So it was pretty clear just what it was we had to deal with.
I started taking notes very early, not because I wanted to write something but because as a reporter, that was comforting to me, to take notes, to sort of get that little invisible shield where you’re observing something. I started writing down not just what was happening with Juniper, but what was happening with these other babies and with these other families around us. And I started writing down what the nurses were saying to one another at 3 a.m., and I started writing down what they weren’t saying. When the incubator across the way suddenly was empty, I would ask them, “What happened to that baby?” and they would just quietly make an excuse to walk away. I was taking notes on all that.
Kelley Benham: One of the things I learned from going through this with Tom: We’re very, very different people, and also very, very, different reporters and writers. There is just no right way to do anything. (She took notes only twice.) Obviously, if I’d known I was going to write about this, I hope I would’ve done more. (She journaled only a couple of times. Her notes were “very different from Tom’s. For one, they’re more legible, but they’re much more internal, much more about what I was thinking, crazy thoughts I was having. I would pass people in the hallway and imagine what was wrong with their baby and if their kid was more screwed up than my kid and if I would trade with them if I could. Of course the answer is always no.”) I proposed a series to my editor. And as I started to report — I mean I’d never done any personal reporting, ever. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid it. I found out that when you are writing things personal, things that are really simple tend to become really, really hard. My first instinct was to make this story as dispassionate as I could. My fear was that it was going to be really sentimental and really Hallmark-y, a Lifetime movie about the miracle baby and hope and love and the healing power of love. I was just so afraid of that that I really resisted that and I thought, “This is going to be a really science-y, very medical story.”
Tom: (laughing and prompting audience laughter) God forbid you talk about the healing power of love.
Kelley: I got pretty far into not just the reporting but the writing of this thing. And one day, I was sitting there like, “I don’t even know who my main character is.” I had busied myself with so much reporting that I was avoiding some central questions. I was like, “Who’s the main character? Well, it can’t be the baby, because she lays in the incubator and doesn’t talk. It can’t really be Tom. That would be weird. Why would I write it if he’s the main character? The doctors — I felt like the doctors had all the power and all of the control in this story, but it just seemed strange to write it from the point of view of one of the doctors. The only thing I knew for sure is it wasn’t me, because the main character needs to have some control, needs to have some power and really influence the outcome of the story, and I felt like I not only had no power, I was a big giant failure. (There had been fertility issues.) I had a horrible time trying to feed her in the hospital. I couldn’t hold her. I just felt like a complete disaster as a mother. I just went to Tom, my writing coach, and told him, “I don’t even have a main character.”
Tom: I told her she was flat-out crazy. She had willed this baby into existence. She had believed in this baby and had seen herself holding this baby years before she got pregnant. She had gone through all of these treatments. She dealt with all of my crazy uncertainties. She had fought and fought, and then when the baby was born she refused pain meds so that she could express breast milk. She wandered through the labyrinth of this hospital the day after surgery without her pain meds because she was so eager and desperate to get milk to this baby. She had read her Winnie the Pooh. She sung to her Johnny Cash — “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That’s the truth. She had done all these things to will this little girl into existence and to let her know she wasn’t alone. The way you become a mother is by doing the things a mother does. It’s not a title that’s handed to you; it’s an action. It’s a series of actions and she’d done them all. She was the most ferocious mother I’d ever known, already, and the baby wasn’t even out of the hospital.
Kelley: He’s telling me this — I’m sitting in bed and I’ve got my laptop — and he’s starting to get kind of pissed and he’s like clenched his fist and he’s like pacing around and he’s talking and he’s telling me this and I’m like, “This is good.” So I start typing. This is sounding like a nut graph to me and I’m trying to capture it as fast as I can. And I’m congratulating myself on marrying this person because he’s so brilliant and he’s so sweet and he’s so insightful. And he’s a great writing coach. I’m just patting myself on the back but he keeps going, and this is what he says: “I just want some credit at some fucking point when you’re on Oprah or whatever and you’ve become the symbol of motherhood. I want you to look into the camera and say, “‘My husband is the one who helped me to see what I’ve done.’ Will you say that? Will you fucking say that?”
Tom: I can’t believe she wrote all that down. And I can’t believe she saved it. A lot of what the story is about is how, when you have this baby conceived in a petri dish and is now living out — what should be the part where the baby is living out the second half of the womb — in this raving world of the NICU, how do you as the father become a parent. What do you do? How do you handle that? And I bring all that up because Kelley was talking about the difficulty of figuring out who the main character was in her part of the story. And another question in any kind of nonfiction writing that we do is: What is your story really about? What is this piece really about beneath the surface? And for us, it was really about this idea of creation. How do you create new life, and new life in these difficult, unusual circumstances?
I wanted to talk about this idea for just a second, of figuring out what your story is about in a personal story. It seems like it would be easier, but actually it’s harder. Because as journalists, when we write about people’s lives we automatically have critical distance. We can evaluate the subject with some critical distance and understand what we’re going to write about, what matters and what doesn’t. If it’s yourself, it’s harder to achieve that critical distance. You have to figure out a way — I tell the writers who are also working on personal stories — to split yourself in two. You have to be simultaneous — both with the protagonist but you have to be able to step back and be outside that protagonist as the writer and see yourself with some distance. And achieving that critical distance is hard. But you have to do it because, for a personal story to work — when it works, personal stories are probably the most powerful stories there are. When they don’t work, they’re probably the most terrible stories to read. They’re just awful. For it to work you have to achieve that critical distance and you have to figure out, “What am I trying to say? What’s going to matter to someone else?” Not just what mattered to me, but what’s going to matter to somebody else.
Kelley: When I went to actually starting to report this thing, I had to really think hard about who this main character was, to recognize that I was writing about somebody who was very flawed and who was very scared and just very imperfect. And I had to write about that character who actually was at that hospital with my daughter, not about this noble figure of motherhood that I might want to believe that I was, or that I might want Juniper to grow up believing that I was. And this was a different story than if I had written something just for her. I could have self-published something just for Juniper that would have been a very different piece. I wish I had taken more notes. I wish I could’ve read more of Tom’s notes. But it was a little bit of a good thing that I felt that panic, that terror that I didn’t have enough, because it drove me into the reporting, and that’s where I needed to be.”
(Benham recounts asking for her daughter’s medical chart and being stunned to be presented with 7,000 pages of records, a pile so large that it took two carts to wheel it out. The records showed how more than 200 people had taken care of her daughter, and Benham used them as a road map for dozens of interviews. She said she had to set a rule to stop each interview after three hours because of the intensity of their conversations. She also learned quickly about the difficulty of finding any good statistics on children like hers — largely because survival of 23-week-olds was still so rare.)
Kelley: I found that finding just the right expert put my daughter’s story, and therefore my own experience, into a totally different context; helped me make sense of everything. And these are people that I didn’t even quote — maybe once, you know. They weren’t parts of the story, but these parts of the story were important to me. At the end, I fact-checked like crazy. I learned my fact-checking technique from Tom. I did read back sections to people who were involved. And I had every section that was medical or science-y at all — I had interviews by every doctor that was in the story and some that weren’t and they were checked multiple times. And funny things started to happen. I would’ve put my hand on a Bible and sworn to (things) that turned out not to be true. There were lots of things, but things would be flat out conflicted by the chart, or by other people’s memories.
(Benham offers an example: She and her husband both remembered that one nurse who regularly cared for their daughter wore scrubs that had distinctive cartoon characters: cats drinking martinis. Yet when she later called the nurse, a woman named Tracy, to confirm facts and descriptions, the nurse insisted she didn’t own any scrubs like that. The woman even checked her closet and gave a count of the dozens of scrubs she did own with a cartoon cat. “So the cats drinking martinis had to come out,” Benham said. Both parents also were sure that Tracy had helped them weigh the baby. But Tracy told them that wasn’t accurate, and Juniper’s medical charts backed the nurse up; she hadn’t ever weighed the infant during her time in NICU.)
Tom: There is something that is so important to me to keep in mind: Kelley and I are journalists, are trained as journalists, have a very bedrock faith in the absolute rigor of facts, and that’s crucial to what we do, and I think that if you’re going to turn that reporter’s eye to your own work, you’ve got to bring that same rigor. You still have to check those facts. You know how the cliché is, “If your mother says she loves you, check it.” Well, if you’re sure that Tracy wears these damn martini-drinking cats on her scrubs, just check it. Because you might both be wrong. Even though you saw it with your own eyes.
(Benham shows a photo of Juniper taken in the hospital, one in which she is wearing a hot-pink tutu and headband and black leather jacket. The nurse, Tracy, had gone and bought clothing that would fit a Chihuahua to dress Juniper up and help the parents see her as their unique little girl.)
Kelley: Sense of humor is so important when you have a story that is so grim or so tense. If I hadn’t had Tracy or hadn’t had, you know, moments where we weren’t thinking about the doctors and nurses screwing in the closets, the story would’ve just been impossible to wade through. I already had people calling me up, crying, freaking out, “I just … I’m old … I don’t know if I can … I read really slow … I don’t know if I can get to the end of the story. Please tell me what happened.” People would get really upset. And you’ve got to take your foot off the gas sometimes and give people a little healing moment.
(In the book they’re now-co-writing, each parent is writing alternating chapters.)
Tom: But when you put the two of them together, it becomes a different kind of creation; it becomes a different kind of DNA where the way Kelley sees the world and the way I see the world, which by the way we experienced this very differently. When I started reading her section, what she went through, and I was looking at my section, they were completely different. And I think that’s one of the things I was excited about. This idea of the intertwining of the two perspectives. And I think that’s going to make it very different from Kelley’s series, as beautiful and powerful as it was. And I think that’s the key, for those of you who are interested in moving from magazine-length work or series work or enterprise work at your newspaper to books, is the story has to have something more. It has to go deeper and have something more to say.
(Benham shows more photos of a smiling, growing little girl. She tells the audience that Juniper came home with no medications or supplemental oxygen and is so far on no oxygen. She’s developmentally on track, with no measurable delays.)
Kelley: When I started doing the reporting, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma, like PTSD. Because what I was afraid of is that I would be sort of working out my own stuff in the pages of the newspaper and just for a little help compartmentalizing, I thought it would be good to have somebody else to talk to about that stuff. But what I found is that I — it’s not like I wasn’t revisiting it anyway. I revisited it every time I put her to bed. Our bedtime routine is, “Mommy loves you and Daddy loves and Nat loves you and Sam loves you and Muppet loves you — that’s our dog — and Tracy loves you and Dr. …”
(In response to an audience member’s blurted comment that he had “run out of Kleenex” listening to their talk:)
Tom: We are describing this difficult window of our lives. But honestly it was certainly the most harrowing few months of my life, and Kelley’s. But it was also, simultaneously, the most transcendent. It was astonishing, what happened. And I’m really grateful that the two of us can work together to try to describe this, certainly for our daughter — that’s what we do as writers: see something that matters in other people’s lives, or our lives, and describe it so that readers can see it with us and be transported inside of that wonder. I’m grateful for that.
(In response to a question about how much they’ve thought about the impact of the newspaper series and the eventual book on their daughter, once she is old enough to read, and whether that has affected how they’ve approached their projects:)
Kelley: My editors and my husband, my agent, they kept pushing me to get more and more and more personal. That mean it got more and more scary for me. And so I began putting in things that I wouldn’t share with Juniper if it was just about her. (She describes a period in the hospital when her baby looked misshapen, like a stillborn puppy that she delivered on time.) I loved her but I had to find ways really to be really consciously trying to connect with her. A lot of the story is about how do you connect with a baby you can’t even hold, that’s behind glass, that doesn’t necessarily look like a baby. I don’t know when Juniper’s going to be ready to read that. But I just know that as a journalist, I’m all in now.