In “Grace in Broken Arrow,” our newest Notable Narrative, Brooklyn-based freelancer Kiera Feldman unfurls an investigative story about child sex abuse and institutional accountability at a private evangelical Christian school outside of Tulsa, Okla. The piece ran last week in This Land, a two-year-old web/print magazine in Tulsa that’s drawing acclaim for its long-form stories and bylines by established writers. We caught Feldman, 26, a former public-radio reporter and producer, and a newcomer to narrative, en route home this week to her native Portland, Ore. We chatted first by phone and then by email.
Storyboard: How did you come to do this story?
Feldman: If I were an evangelical I could just say I was “called” to Tulsa. Because for evangelicals, God speaks to you as loud as a loudspeaker. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it still felt like I was destined to do this story, somehow. A new magazine out of Oklahoma, This Land, invited me down to do a religion story of my choice. It was like this dream gig: We’ll put you up, we’ll cover your expenses, write about whatever you want. So I had a talk with the editor, Michael Mason. He’d read some of my reporting on evangelicals and right-wing Jews, and it was kind of clear that I was drawn to true believers. He ran a few story ideas by me, but they weren’t good fits. He was like, “Oh, you know there’s a big story with Senator Jim Inhofe refusing to attend Tulsa’s holiday parade last year because the city changed it from a Christmas parade. It was covered on The Daily Show. This year Inhofe is having his own Christmas parade in South Tulsa, the evangelical side of town.” But I was like: No, too easy. So he said, “Well what kinds of stories do you like?” And I said: Well, generally I like feeling like I have to enter a world unto itself and figure out how it works, learn the culture and the language of that place. There has to be something bad going on that I need to figure out. I like feeling like I’m going into the belly of the beast, and then I’m going to come back out and explain it to people. I tend to do stories about the nexus of youth, sex, and power. So Michael said, “Ah! Okay, I think we have a story idea for you.” Two people on staff at the magazine grew up at Grace –
Yeah, Josh Kline, one of the contributing editors, grew up at the church and went to school there. He’s a few years older than I am. He played on the school’s basketball team in middle school and hero-worshipped Aaron (Thompson, the convicted abuser). He and his buddies had sleepovers with Aaron and played videogames together. His mom would say, “Isn’t it kind of weird that he’s 19, 20, and he wants to hang out with kids?” And Josh was defensive: “Why would you say such a thing?” He wasn’t molested, none of his friends were; it turns out that most of the victims were quite a bit younger. Then Michael Mason, the founder and editor of This Land, he also has a Grace background but of a different generation. He’s just turning 41. His mom had taught there, he went to middle school there. So between the two of them, they knew that whole world. They felt that the truth hadn’t come out at the time and that Grace had never really been held to account. My sense was that they were angry about it. They also felt they needed someone on the outside to do this story — someone who would be able to approach it fresh.
At one point, the contributing editor was assigned to the story before me. He’d actually met with the other “Josh,” the first victim, and had had an interview on background with him – they were friends of friends –
Your access was pretty amazing.
Josh, the contributing editor, tried to do the Grace story at first, but it hit too close to home for him. He had all this emotional baggage tied up with everything. And my editor, Michael, decided it’d be better to have a more impartial reporter, somebody who’d approach it fresh. Josh put me in touch with that first victim, whose story I ended up weaving throughout the piece. Other than that, Michael and Josh gave me some guidance about how to approach those who’d been in leadership roles at Grace. I worked months and months of asking and re-asking plaintiffs’ lawyers to approach the victims and their families for interviews. A lot of things fell into place in a roundabout way. I talked with a trauma services provider who off-handedly mentioned that he’d heard, from friends who used to go to Grace, that the church circled the wagons after Aaron’s arrest. So I asked him to see if any of his friends were willing to tell me about that period. And the friend who volunteered ended up being a former Grace teacher named Laura Prochaska, who taught on Aaron’s unit and had a kind of a whistleblower role in the story. Laura asked her friend and former colleague, the anonymous Specials Teacher, if she’d talk to me. Once the teacher heard that Laura had already “spilled the beans” (her words), she was in. The two of them felt that the story needed to be told; they felt an urgency because the son of their friend/colleague was one of the victims, and they had seen how the abuse continued to reverberate in that family’s life.
So give us the time frame. When did this start?
So that first phone call with This Land was last June. I was really taken with the story and immediately obsessed with it. Right away, I felt like it was mine and was meant for me. I knew early on that the title would be “Grace in Broken Arrow.” Not long before publication, about a month or two ago, I sent my editor an email to catch him up to speed. I was like, “You should know that I’m really attached to this title, and that that’s what it is.”
I kind of tried to play it cool by acknowledging that I realized it wasn’t my call to make, but still, I was like, “Seriously guys, I challenge you to come up with anything better!”
So that was in late June. It was a transition period for me because I’d just published my first long-term investigative story in The Nation about Birthright Israel. That story was two years in the works, off and on. It was basically my first big real post-college feature story, and I was very happy to see it make a pretty big stink. Then I had that post-articulum depression where you’re not sure how to fill the void. The prospect of immersing myself in evangelicalism was really appealing after swimming in the muck of ethnic nationalism. I do a lot of reporting about young Jews and Israel, and that’s exhausting and upsetting. I also worried about being a one-trick pony.
I was developing an interest in trauma reporting, but I didn’t have any experience at the time. I wanted to look at the long-term effects of sexual violence. There was the challenge of needing to work my way into an insular community. Plus I just have a deep love of public records and that feeling of going on a treasure hunt through stuff nobody else cares about. The Grace story brought everything together: the trauma reporting, the court records, the thousands of pages of testimony and primary documents, the kind of archival nerd-out that I really enjoy. So the magazine was like, “Come to Tulsa when you can.” I said, “I’m busy with other things but we’ll figure it out.” We were in touch on and off in early fall and then they said, “We need to get the story done or we’ll give it to somebody else.” Oh my God. It was like being told that my child was being put up for adoption without my permission. I was like, “NOOO! You don’t understand! This has been a part of my emotional landscape for the entire summer and early fall!” And I’d really studied up on Oklahoma. I read the definitive biography of Oral Roberts; I’d watched every movie that takes place in Oklahoma that I could find. I re-watched Silkwood like it was homework. I talked with a college friend from Tulsa who could catch me up to speed on the culture. But that was a different ball of wax because he did not share my newfound sense of Tulsa being this exotic wonderful place. I was like, “All your bitterness and love-hate hometown feelings are not gonna work for me right now.”
I do this thing where I overcompensate for my lack of experience in very useful ways. I always feel out of my league. So for the trauma reporting part, I read all the how-to literature I possibly could. I couldn’t recommend the DART Center for Journalism & Trauma more – I have such deep gratitude for them. I read all their manuals about how to interview survivors, how to focus less on perpetrators and more on the victims’ stories or survivors’ stories, depending on what terminology the victim/survivor uses. (In Oklahoma, everybody said “victim.”) This was the tension of the whole Grace story while I was working on it – balancing institutional accountability with wanting to put the victims and their families front and center. The long arm of Grace is really, to me, why this story matters. I didn’t want readers to walk away thinking: “What a bunch of assholes.” That’s not a story, to me. So I was wrestling with how to make the story larger than that. In October, I went to this amazing workshop at the DART Center on reporting on intimate partner violence. I’d gotten accepted to that with the intention of having it inform my Grace reporting, and then around September when This Land said they were itching to get the story done and might give it to someone else, I was like, “No, you don’t understand, I’ve been planning my life around this.” So I went to Tulsa for two weeks in November. The original timeline of the story was very, very different. When I ask permission to file long, I mean it.
So it was commissioned at what length and ran at what?
They originally said: Do your reporting in November and file around Christmas and we’ll run it Jan. 15; you probably can’t do the story in less than 4,000 words, so let’s aim for around 4,000. I just kept filing longer and longer – I think my first draft was 8,000 and that still had whole sections just outlined.
What’s the total word count?
Well, it depends on how you’re counting.
I have this whole neuroses surrounding the idea that no one was gonna read this story because it was too long. Even up to last week, when it came out, I had emotionally braced myself to be okay with things if no one read the story except for people in Oklahoma, and my mom. By the way, my mom was my No. 1 reader throughout the whole process. She commented on at least five drafts. As a pediatrician with a child abuse specialty, she was my in-house expert — the main member of my braintrust. She was really instrumental in shaping the story and encouraging me to take out certain details of the victims’ abuse experiences that might play into stereotypes and misguided notions that many readers might bring to the table. Most of all, she was a strong voice who was encouraging me to frame the story in an instructive way, like, “This is why you don’t self-investigate abuse suspicions.”
While I was in the thick of things, people kept saying, “How long have you been working on this?” I’d kind of fudge it to make it sound like it hadn’t been on my plate for so long. They’d ask how long it was, and they’d hear “over 10,000 words,” and they’d give me this look. Like I was wasting my time or being self-indulgent, writing that much. The whole time I was working on this, my deep, soul-crushing fear was that no one would read the story or care about the legacy of abuse, that I should’ve been able to tell the story in a tighter way but failed miserably and everybody would be like “Yeah, it was pretty good but too long – it got tedious.” I don’t know why I have so much shame wrapped up in the word count! So the timeline itself was 1,100 words. So if you count the timeline with the body of the story, it’s 14,000 words. But the story itself is just shy of 13,000 words so let’s say 13,000 words. No, no, back up – I’m gonna own it! Every word is important, and I’m gonna own it.
But 14,000 words — that’s about right for some long-form narrative territory, which can average anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 and longer.
True. I kept psyching myself up to write this story by reading others’ work. I was very studious about it – I’d read other pieces about abuse and trauma and copied and paste that text into a Word document and be like, “Damn, they just told that story in 6,000 words? In 8,000 words? How’d they do that? It can be done, but I’m just failing at it.”
Give me some examples of what you were reading that you liked.
Okay, time for some hero-worshipping across the Internet: I read everything I could by Kathy Dobie, in both GQ and in Harper’s. Her story “The Girl from Trails End” is just haunting. I also read her book, The Only Girl in the Car. Her Harper’s story on sexual violence on Indian reservations is rightly up for a million awards this year. I also did the same thing of studiously reading Robert Kolker’s New York magazine stories. “On the Rabbi’s Knee,” his 2006 story on sex abuse in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, was groundbreaking and devastating (and we should all be pissed that the New York Times is only just now starting to cover Orthodox abuse). I still wonder if I should have structured my Grace story like his ultra-Orthodox story: like a survivor-accountability-survivor sandwich. He also had that great story that just came out, about Brigitte Harris, an adult survivor of molestation who accidentally ends up killing her father/abuser. Pieces that both do justice to the survivors’ stories and also treat people who’ve been through horrible things with a tremendous amount of dignity. Then, too, there’s JoAnn Wypijewski — who’s amazing all around — writing in Legal Affairs about Father Paul Shanley, one of the big villains of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. She was making a case for nuance and due process. It’s uncomfortable to read, because we usually think of sex abuse as pretty cut and dry. And oh my gosh! Kristen Lombardi, of course. There was her work on the Catholic church sex-abuse scandal. Same deal, very important for me to read her Center for Public Integrity work about campus sexual assault. It’s just terrifying to see the full extent of the extrajudicial make-survivors-go-away machine known as the American college campus judiciary system. She laid out all of the structural problems while telling the stories of rape survivors who were willing and able to speak out. It was heartbreaking and infuriating to read.
I also sought out crime reporting books but should’ve read more. I read Dave Cullen’s Columbine, trying to figure out how to pull together a million documents and interviews into a coherent narrative. I stayed up all night several nights in a row finally reading In Cold Blood. I found it to be a totally gripping and ultimately heartless book. Capote is an aesthete who thinks murder is fabulously ugly and beautiful – something to be studied if not admired on a formal level. The human dimension of murder is absent, as if the slaughtered family were just a prop to tell the story of how the murderers did it. Honestly, my sense is that Capote didn’t give a shit about real people. Which might explain why he invented scenes and dialogue.
So you flew to Tulsa and then what happened?
The first phone calls I started making were in late October. I really felt strongly that I needed to become fluent in the culture of Grace Church. What was it like to grow up in that church, what kind of worldview did it try to impart, what was it like to be there at the time? I started with Josh, my colleague from the magazine, and his sister, and heard about growing up in the church. Then I started working on the lawyers for the boys. I’ve been calling them victims but generally in trauma reporting I say “survivors.” But people in Oklahoma say victims, so if people refer to themselves as victims I use their language. I called as many lawyers as I possibly could and just started working on them, like, “Will you reach out to your client and his parents for me?” Those ultimately didn’t pan out, except for the father of the boy in jail. I had a number of mothers of different boys who had relayed that they really wanted to talk; they felt like they never got their say or they wanted to talk for whatever reason. They didn’t return phone calls, and I didn’t want to press them. I just said: I have to respect their wishes. Another of the mothers came through because she was a friend of the This Land editor’s wife. Oh gosh what did I call that mother? What’s her pseudonym? I think I called her Julie –
Wait, did I miss the part about pseudonyms?
There’s an editor’s note up top. No reputable publications will publish names of sexual assault victims, especially, especially, especially if it happened to minors (unless the victims themselves are totally gung-ho about being identified). The main character “Josh,” not to be confused with the Josh connected to the magazine, he’s just a dream subject because he was an enthusiastic participant. For the whole time I was working on the story he really wanted to be named. He said, “This is my way to have a say − Pastor Bob had his little pulpit since Aaron’s arrest 10 years ago, now I get mine.” (That’s one thing that I guess I could’ve played up more, that this was the 10th anniversary of the perpetrators’ arrest.) So with Josh, I was in a strange position of saying, “Well you might say that now but we really need to talk seriously about this; just remember, this story will be the first thing that shows up 10 years from now when a potential employer Googles you.”
In reporting, you’re often trying to sweet-talk people into telling you things they might regret later. But in trauma reporting, my approach – and having studied other reporters’ approaches – I really want subjects to give informed consent. I don’t want them to feel screwed over – again – by having chosen to participate in a story. I want them to fully understand what participation means. Josh and I got pretty close through the reporting of the story. Some of the stuff he told me came out over Skype and long g-chats of the soul, and in the story I chose to write “says” not “told me in a g-chat.” I stand by that decision even though some publications wouldn’t be down with that. So he’s really close with his parents; having that support system is probably a big factor in his well-being nowadays. His parents really didn’t want him to be named. They felt it would bring yet more community retribution and shaming. And they were scared of being sued. The two parents of the other victims were also just terrified of getting sued. In Tulsa the main industries are oil, manufacturing, aerospace and churches. The latter are rather litigious.
What documents did you have before you landed?
Nothing. Once I got there, I had an intense two weeks. I met with “Josh” and worked on the lawyers to get them to contact their clients and families. I went to church whenever I could, not just at Grace but at other megachurches around Tulsa for comparison. Wednesday night, Saturday night and Sunday mornings are when evangelicals go to church. I commissioned the court reporter to make transcripts of the testimonies from the Grace lawsuit that went to trial. I was also spending long days at the Tulsa County Clerk’s office, digging up public records. First I had to go through the criminal records, then there were all the files from the civil lawsuits. There were three massive boxes from the first lawsuit. From the testimonies to the depositions to all the flotsam documents, I easily had 5,000 pages of material. And it turns out they don’t black out the names in a criminal case.
So I was in the unique position of feeling really bad, like I knew things I shouldn’t know. If I’d been molested as a child, I wouldn’t want my name to be in there. Like, fuck no, I would not want someone 10 years later to find my name and find me on Facebook. Which is exactly what I did. So I had a dilemma: Do I Facebook message or not? Ultimately I decided not to. Now that I’m done with the story, even for the people I never talked to, I feel really attached to the kids and their families after reading their depositions and reading about them in the opening and closing statements of the lawsuit that went to trial. I know where people were in 2004, so I care about them, and I also felt like I shouldn’t violate their privacy. Maybe I was being overly cautious – maybe I didn’t reach out to people who would have really wanted to talk, and I denied them that opportunity to make that decision. But in any event, I decided not to cold-call any of the victims or their families. I wanted people to be approached by people they already trusted so it wouldn’t be an out-of-the-blue phone call that could be upsetting or shocking. Plus it turns out that people in Oklahoma literally can’t understand me on the phone. I talk too fast, I slur my words – I had no idea. That was some serious culture shock. I’ve never before felt like such an outsider. Tulsa’s a really small town when it comes down to it. I’d go down to the Tulsa County courthouse and get a sinker of a barbecue sandwich from the ancient canteen and then start going through these three massive files. And people were suspicious of me. At first I was like, “How dare you be suspicious, these are public records.” But I think it was because they worried I’d publish the victims’ names.
Speaking of that 10-year anniversary, why was it important to tell this story now?
It was long overdue. This should’ve happened years ago. It was such a big story and has affected so many lives, and at the time it got such a cursory treatment in the local press. I knew from the little news capsules what to look for – I knew there was a “do not fondle” agreement of some sort, I knew there were two anonymous letters. The more documents I found, the more shocked I was that more of this didn’t come out in the press at the time. The Tulsa World reporters presumably had many of the same documents I had. Then again, I’m not sure if any of the Grace teachers would’ve gone on the record till now(ish); it takes time for the dust to settle enough for people to talk. Plus, by now enough time has passed that I could check in with the victims and families and gauge the long-term impact of the abuse.
It was just a coincidence that the Penn State scandal broke while I was there in Tulsa in November. It created a ready-made conversation starter – an opening. There was almost an office betting pool at This Land about how long I’d last in Pastor Bob’s office before I got kicked out, but it turned out that he made the leap from Penn State to Grace’s ordeal on his own – he brought it up, and he was more than happy to talk. It was all water under the bridge for him.
Yours was the first actual narrative on the whole story, the first piece that connected all the dots.
Yep. I didn’t actually realize until I got thick into it just how little Grace staff and members knew even now, save for the people in leadership positions named in my story. I just assumed that people inside the institution, that everyone knew what happened. Basically, most of the stuff that you read in my story – no one really knew any of that. Now that the story’s out, I’m reading the comments on it and getting emails from former Grace members and staffers, and they’re just thanking me. They say my story filled in a lot of gaps for them, because they had a feeling everything didn’t quite happen the way Grace’s leadership had told them it happened. So for me the feeling of urgency grew the longer I worked on the story and the more I realized that even people on the inside at Grace had never learned the truth. At first I thought I was writing a story for people outside the institution; I didn’t realize until really late in the game, and especially since it came out, that Grace insiders are really grateful. And amazingly, some Grace readers have even wondered if I’m an insider. I got one email from a former staffer who said that the story was so detailed, and I’d gotten all of the personalities spot on, that at first she wondered if I was “one of us.” Being an outsider, I’d worried so much about getting everything about Grace slightly off, so I went overboard on cobbling together details and weaving them into the story. Being a progressive Jew from a coastal state, I never, ever, ever thought I’d accidentally pass as a conservative evangelical.
It is a very detailed story. How much did you wrestle with what to include, in terms of the more graphic details, and how much?
A lot. The short answer is, a lot. I had a mountain of great stuff I didn’t use for various reasons: It didn’t advance the narrative, or it felt self-indulgent to include it, or I worried it’d seem like it was there for the sake of titillation. During a deposition, there was one boy who had such a sad answer to the question of how much time his first incident of molestation lasted. Aaron had brought him to the coach’s office and given him a candy prize for something in gym class. The boy answered, “As long as it took me to eat, like, three or four pieces of Airhead candies.” They were red Airheads. It broke my heart, and I didn’t use it. I didn’t trust my own writing abilities enough to use it in a way that wouldn’t also kind of make a reader laugh a little like, “Ha ha, oh yeah, Airheads! I remember them!”
There was a whole section about a teacher’s amazing correspondence with Aaron while he was in jail, and I chose not to include it because I knew it would make readers feel even less sympathetic toward Aaron, the perpetrator. When really, I think Aaron deserves way more sympathy than his counterpart, Pastor Bob. How much to reveal and how much to withhold – I agonized. I’d go for a jog late in the evening to air out my crazy, and these questions would be running through my mind. It seems like it makes for a better story the more information you have – but really, does it?
Right. Right, right.
For the boys I didn’t interview, like the boy in the lede who moved 1,200 miles away, with every draft, I took out more details about the actual physical mechanics of their sexual abuse. First, I wanted to respect their privacy, and I didn’t want to give identifying details unless the people involved gave me explicit permission. I know this stuff is already in the public record, but fuck it, I have to be able to live with myself. Especially for vulnerable sources, I often fall back on the Golden Rule. And I already had plenty of heartbreaking material that’d been freely given to me by sources directly. Part of why it’s so hard to write about child sex abuse is that you have to be really careful not to be lurid, not to be sensationalist. A child sex-abuse story is kind of the article equivalent of driving by a massive car crash: Readers have a morbid fascination. The challenge is to bring readers into that car and make them grieve for the people inside.
I knew that at some level the tension of any story like this is that a reader kind of just wants to know who put what where. So I tried to be really honest with myself and understand that people keep reading longer than they might read for another kind of story, because they have a voyeuristic desire to know the taboo sex bits. The challenge in the writing is to make it as unsexy as possible, because it is not sex – it’s violence against children. So I wanted to focus on the emotional impact over the transitive verbs that sound like things grown-ups can consent to. Less is more was my motto. With each draft, I leached more details of physical parts of the abuse. So “Josh,” the main character – it was really, really, really hard because the story he first told about himself really emphasized his own resilience and downplayed his suffering. It wasn’t until we reviewed his material shortly before publication – I’d given him veto power over everything that made it into print – that he told me he oversimplified things: He hadn’t told me about his two suicide attempts, he hadn’t told me how his guilt and shame had just eaten him alive. It was only in reviewing the material that he told me, basically, “I don’t want a reader to think that I’ve got this forgiveness tattoo and I’m fine now and okay with what happened to me.” Early in our reportorial relationship, he very much conveyed that he’s in a good place now and wanted to own his experiences by baring all.
Sounds like your reporting on reporting trauma informed so many of these decisions. How would the story be different, do you think, if you hadn’t done so much backgrounding in trauma reporting?
Wow, that’s a hard question. That backgrounding really ingrained in me the idea that a good trauma story focuses on the survivors’ experiences and not the perpetrator or the bad guys. Without having that in mind, I probably would’ve been more gleeful in detailing Grace’s leadership’s actions. I probably would have given more space to developing Aaron’s character and sympathizing with him − which I probably should have done anyway. It just seemed like the story was already too long, and I wasn’t going to take verbiage away from my families to give Aaron more ink. I also fought against an edit that would’ve cut from the sections that told the family impact from the perspective of the mother and the father of two different abused boys; without that background, I might’ve just deferred to the editor’s judgment and not trusted myself. And without that research into the field of trauma reporting, I don’t think I would have known or thought to really intensely review material pre-publication with “Josh.” That’s what led to revamping his sections so that, I think, they contain an emotional truth. Those passages then were particularly resonant with readers. I got an email from a woman after the Grace story came out: She described her sexual assault and her evangelical college’s egregious mishandling of her complaint, and she said she’d be willing to go on the record. She trusted me and felt like her story would be in good hands. I cried when I read that.
I remembered hearing Kristen Lombardi talk at that DART Center conference about how she does three whole interviews with assault survivors, and how she reads back quotes and asks people, “Are you okay with this or that detail?” I’d talked with other reporters who said they sometimes even read whole paragraphs or passages to their survivors. At first Josh – I put something in there – there’s a big thing I can’t talk about that was part of his experience that’s not in the story. When I read it to him, he told me it was painful for him to hear it in the story, and that it made him cringe. I said, “No, no. I don’t want you cringing.” And he said, “Leave it, leave it – it’s the truth, that’s what happened.” So I was in a very interesting place of being like, “Well, I’m not sure if you want that, actually. A reader doesn’t have to know every single thing that happened. And that’s not possible, anyway.” I told him, “You tell me 1,000 things, and I’ll pick a handful of them to shape into a story.” I added, “You’re going to art school, your art is starting to take up themes from your childhood experiences of abuse.” He’d sent me some of his recent work. I said, “You’re going to tell your own story in your own way someday – it might be in a different medium. Right now, you’re entrusting me with your story, but it’s still going to be my version of your story and the institution that wronged you.” And he got that.
Then it became very much a collaborative thing, where we’d have like a five-hour g-chat conversation — “Do we want to include this, do we want to include that?” It was right before the story closed, which was when I got all those incredible quotes about his suicide attempts. It felt very much like doing a documentary radio piece as opposed to a magazine story, the former being known as a more collaborative process. Even though I was never a documentary audio producer, I’d admired the craft. So the part of his story I didn’t include in the final piece, that’s a big part of why the abuse was such a mindfuck for him. We wrestled with that and ultimately decided against including it, not wanting to give a reader any ammunition to say that he had somehow “seduced” his abuser. It was also just an incredibly complex concept to try to convey to a reader – one that would have required a tremendous amount of nuance – and I just didn’t think I could do it properly in a relatively short space. If the whole Grace story had been a profile of him, if there hadn’t been all the accountability stuff to deal with, then maybe I could’ve pulled it off.
I also have to say, the end game of going over material with “Josh” and with the father of the boy in jail was incredibly time-consuming and wonderful. I think I disappeared from my life for a week. And I had major freak-outs. Like: Oh my gosh I’m breaking the rules, I’m letting sources see parts of the text in advance – does this mean I’m a hack? I had this whole internal debate with myself but ended up fully accepting what I already knew: Trauma reporting is a whole different animal. Grace was my first experience reporting on vulnerable sources, where you have to throw out the rules and forge a kind of intimacy. That was the most rewarding time of the whole reporting process, because I was engaging with the people I most cared about, making sure that I wasn’t blundering their stories. Those were the conversations that filled me with a tremendous sense of gratitude. What a privilege, what a responsibility to be trusted not to screw up something so big. These are people’s lives. That was a period when I just thought, “Yeah, this is why I do this. This is why I want to write.”
What’s your reporting background? What brought you to this point in your career?
I graduated from Brown four years ago. I came from a public radio background. That was very much a part of my identity. I did student radio in college and hosted an alt.NPR podcast – Brown, alma mater of Ira Glass, has a very strong radio culture. I went to the Third Coast International Audio Festival twice, and I very much thought I was going be a public radio reporter forever and ever. I graduated and moved to Brooklyn because everybody else was doing it. As a post-college extracurricular, I joined this lefty radio collective called Beyond the Pale, a show affiliated with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice that broadcasts on New York’s Pacifica station. The radio collective has several people who work in print. It turned out that my first articles initially came into the world as radio stories that that crew incubated. So there’s Esther Kaplan, who edits the Investigative Fund – she’s the one who goaded me into going on a Birthright Israel trip so I could do a story for the radio show; later, she ended up being my editor on my Birthright story in The Nation. Meanwhile, I worked as a fill-in producer on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and also had a research gig on a PBS documentary.
But it became clear that the stories I like to do are long, reported essays. And that doesn’t exist on public radio except at This American Life. Most of my heroes do long-form narrative journalism. I like troublemakers. Public radio is not the place to be a troublemaker. The work I do now feels like it’s 1,000 percent un-public radio. But I can still see the radio reporter in me: I have a really good ear for dialogue and quotes, and I love chatting people up and getting them to say things in ways that are very quotable. Reporting comes naturally to me. Writing is a different matter.
I guess how I started making the switch to print was that I did a Beyond the Pale radio story about Jews for Jesus, which led to a print version for n+1. Then I met the Killing the Buddha circuit of religion writers – we’re all half-Jews, it turns out. (I identify as a fullsy but have lots to say about my baptism when I want to pass among Christians.) Then I spent much of 2010 as Jeff Sharlet’s researcher on his book C Street, and that was investigative reporting boot camp.
How do you mean? What did you learn?
When you’re investigating something, speak the language of that community. But it’s not like you’re trying to pass, you just want to convey that you’re proficient. Learn a few key words and phrases, reflect people’s language back to them, speak to people’s best perceptions of themselves, and they’ll project what they want on to you. (With the family, the key words were like “reconciliation” and “principles of Jesus” and “bridges of understanding.” Sample sentence: How do you think the principles of Jesus help build bridges of understanding that might lead toward reconciliation?) It helps people let their guard down, and then they tell you what they really think and feel: the ideologies that enable powerful people to do terrible things. Some people call this “faking friendly” (I later learned). I got so good at it that I scared myself.
Nowadays, I’m learning – rather belatedly – that I’m still growing into my own as a reporter. The Jeff Sharlet method is not the Kiera Feldman method. For a long time, I took his method as gospel. I remember Jeff once introduced me as “one of the most manipulative young reporters I’ve met in years.” I was just thrilled and thought it was the best compliment I’d ever received. But now I’m learning that’s not really who I am as a reporter – or who I want to be. Of course, I delight in the gamesmanship of it all. And I basically buy into the Janet Malcolm hypothesis (reporting as a morally indefensible betrayal of sources). But I’d like to forge some kind of middle ground in which I play it straight, at least some of the time. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to trauma reporting – there’s no artifice when I approach someone who’s gone through something terrible.
Let’s pause here while I ask Jeff Sharlet what he thinks of Feldman. His response:
“I’ve found that the problem with hiring bright young people from fancy schools is that they tend to confuse manners with ethics. They have lovely manners, and they think having these lovely manners makes them ethical. It doesn’t, of course; all it does is prevent them from doing tough investigative work, which isn’t polite. Kiera’s the best of both worlds, a wonderfully pleasant and genuinely kind person with a killer instinct for when somebody is lying or hiding something. And she uses her pleasant, seemingly naive manner to make interview subjects let their guard down. Is that manipulative? Of course. Is it justified when talking to alleged gangsters, cheats, crooks and snake oil salesmen? Absolutely. But that talent would be useless if it weren’t connected to a truly dogged determination to get the facts. She’s the best fact checker I’ve hired − maddening, in fact, which is just what a fact checker should be. And, maybe most important, she has the ability to empathize and really hear sources who are frightened for good reasons. She’s a natural, self-taught.”
Now back to our chat. What kind of resistance did you run into, from Grace?
Not as much as you’d imagine. I honestly think if I’d been a different person there would’ve been a lot more resistance. I thought I was going to get a lot more pushback than I did. The doors that got slammed in my face they weren’t really slammed, it’s just like – people didn’t reply to emails or Facebook messages. Senator Jim Inhofe’s office never returned any of my calls (your tax dollars at work, everybody). Otherwise: People let their guard down around me because I look like I’m still in college, and I get nervous and smiley around strangers and seem like the last person on earth who would be an investigative reporter. I seem nonthreatening and chatty, and I kind of work that. I look like a nice Christian girl if you want to think that. No one knew what I was up to, really. I flew under the radar. I’m sure gender was a factor. When I approached Pastor Bob in the receiving line after church, I was wearing my nice Christian clothes; I just complimented the sermon, said I wrote about religion, and asked if I could pick his brain sometime. He said, “Sure, call my secretary.” Really, all I do is speak to people’s best conceptions of themselves. This is from the Jeff Sharlet school of reporting. The only really hostile time that I had with the Grace story was when I called Mary Ellen Hood, the former principal. She hung up on me twice, actually. I really wanted to make sure I was doing due diligence, so I called her back. Then with Grace’s lawyer, Mike King – I was saving him till the very end and just planning to lay all my cards on the table. But what was interesting, he actually called me and said, “I hear you’ve been asking some questions. How can I help?” I don’t think he understood just how much reporting I’d done, because over the course of the conversation it seemed like he started to realize how much I knew and how much I’d actually done, and then he started shutting down.
You know what surprised me the most? That the D.A., Tim Harris, said that as a criminal prosecutor he “(looks) at the Ten Commandments.”
People (there) don’t bat an eyelash at that. That’s the thing I learned in Oklahoma – that’s not anything. My friends from Oklahoma are like, “Yeah, this is just what our politicians are like.” They have strong ties to the Christian community and that’s why they’re in power.
Tell me if I’m reading this wrong but I detect anger in the writing, even in descriptions such as: “Up close, Pastor Bob’s skin had a purplish putty quality. His bulbous pug nose was a few shades darker than the rest of his face.”
For me, it felt like each successive draft was really trying to tone down the writing and make it less over the top – no frills. It was such a challenge not go overboard with descriptions of Pastor Bob. I’m not used to trying to describe people. This sounds really dumb but people’s faces are hard to describe!
Very hard to describe.
Someone should have told me that!
You did a good job considering no one ever told you that.
It felt like I was really trying to tone it down – as a person in the flesh, Pastor Bob is over the top. I was like: How am I going to write this, because he’s beyond belief. If you watch YouTube videos of him, he just sounds like an angry, nasty man. I actually felt like I had to dig deep to find the nice stuff about him to try to understand why so many people think he’s this great Bible teacher. I couldn’t think of any ways to describe him except for beady eyed, paunchy, exaggerated pores, prone to fire-and-brimstone-sounding crescendos on the pulpit. I had this long list and I was like: Okay, I can only pick one or two of them or otherwise it’ll sound like caricature.
But I know what you’re getting at, with the anger in the writing – I wouldn’t call it anger. I guess the more I found out and the more I realized how much Grace got away with it, I was like: Wow, this is really a story about getting away with it, once I learned from the horse’s mouth how they had justified it to themselves. To top that off, I felt so attached to – I called the victims and families “my families” – even people I hadn’t talked to felt like “my families” – and once I started learning how much pain they’d gone through and how cruel Pastor Bob had been to them and how unrepentant he was – I would say the emotion was more like incredulous and indignant. But then trying to tone it down and be like: I can’t be over the top. I was worried it was already too preachy as a story, that there was too much editorializing. All that stuff like “This is a cautionary tale” and “Here is why you do XYZ” and “Here is the lesson of that.” But then again I really felt like I was obligated to have that stuff: It might not be pretty writing, but it’s a way to make the story bigger than itself. But maybe there was some underlying anger beneath the writing, like I felt angry on behalf of “my families.”
You’ve mentioned to me that you wrote more than a dozen drafts. Talk about that, and about the editing process.
My early drafts were a mess. I left whole sections just sketched out as outlines, because there was so much material to try to pull together. I was totally overwhelmed. And I was continuously doing more reporting, right on up to closing time. Michael Mason, my editor, gave really great structural comments. He didn’t do as much line editing as I was used to in other stories. That was new for me; I’m used to having every sentence I write go through the wringer and come out different on the other side. He very rightly pointed out that the piece needed a richer sense of character. I’d been so focused on just pulling together facts that this whole cast of characters just got jumbled together. He made what proved to be a crucial suggestion, which was to think about Grace Church’s building as a character in the story, to show how it changed over time. Originally, the “gilded carousel” final line came at the end of a kind of long 1,200-word lede, but then I moved it to the end of the piece. And the whole time that I was revising (while doing more reporting), I was working toward that gilded carousel. At the same time, I figured out that I needed to start the piece mid-scene with the “do not fondle” agreement. So that was a fantastic place to be: I knew where it began, and I knew where it needed to end up, and everything else would get figured out.
Michael also encouraged me to make Pastor Bob a looming presence throughout the whole story, to let the reader meet him in the flesh only at the end. As such, I don’t think I wrote that scene until, like, “Grace8” (out of “Grace13,” drafts). Before that, thinking like a radio reporter kinda, I just assembled a bunch of Bob’s quotes I wanted to use and left them there, as a placeholder. With the Pastor Bob scene, Michael encouraged me to really pick and choose – less is more. Which I think was spot-on, although it took some serious restraint to not use all this great Pastor Bob material. The weekend before the story closed, I revised Josh’s sections like five times; it was really intense. He’d just told me about the two suicide attempts. Plus, in reviewing material with the father of the boy in jail, he gave me permission to use the more recent developments with the baby and the girlfriend. So I wrote that stuff at the very end as well.
How and where did you learn how to report?
I never took a journalism class. I took creative nonfiction classes in college and, um, learned how to write some mildly amusing personal essays about my family? Ugh. The David Sedaris turn in culture, in which the young were ruined and made to be less curious about the wide world outside themselves.
I guess I’ve DIY’d it. I apprentice myself to people. There was Jeff Sharlet bootcamp. Of course, there’s Beyond the Pale, my radio collective, which I still love dearly. Alisa Solomon teaches at Columbia J-School and is in my radio collective and has very generously advised me on projects over the years. I have a couple Legitimate Journalist friends I g-chat when I’m in need of quick-hit advice, generally along the lines of “I’m freaking out, I don’t know any of this stuff, please help – is this ethical??” I went to the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference last year, which was a crash course in and of itself. Also and importantly, I have on occasion reached out to people by email who are doing the kind of work I’m doing or want to be doing. Thank you for all the advice, generous strangers on the Internet! They are nice enough not to mention that my emails are all time-stamped, like, 4:55 a.m.
What do you wish you’d done differently in “Grace?”
I really regret not getting to talk with the main second-tier members of Grace’s leadership: former principal DeeAnn McKay, head administrator John Dunlavey, and former youth pastor Mike Goolsbay. I did due diligence in requesting interviews with them, and then some, to no avail. But then I gave up because I was just swamped. I should’ve been beating down their door. I wish I’d given them an opportunity to surprise me with their decency. This week, I heard through the grapevine that Goolsbay is responding really well to the article, like a true Christian. Now I feel like an asshole.
What are you working on now? What’s next?
I really don’t feel done with Grace. I feel like I’ve done the first step, and it was a good first step. I’m delighted and also shocked that people are reading it outside Oklahoma. I emotionally braced myself in case nobody read it or cared. What I really want to do is tell more of the victims’ stories and their families’ stories – it feels like I have the accountability part of it out of the way. Sure, if insiders contact me that would be wonderful – if they say, “Look, I was on the inside and here’s all the places where someone was lying through their teeth in depositions,” I take it and run with it. But really, my heart is with the families and their stories. I’m really interested in the long-term effects of abuse and how it can impact the fabric of someone’s life and have a ripple effect on the whole family. Another thing I want to get into is the idea of the cycle of abuse and why some kids who’ve been abused go on and become perpetrators and others do not.
Why not a book?
I know right? I haven’t used the b-word yet. This is the first time someone’s used the b-word. Yeah, of course I want to write a book about Grace. But, like, I’m 26. I guess 26-year-olds write books. Ok. Yeah. I could write a “long, long, long reads.” That’s actually what I call books now.
Do the book.
Of course. Plus, people in the community are even more likely to talk now that they’ve seen the article and know what I’m about. It’s not like everybody from Grace hates me now. The predominant response seems to be: Thank you; finally, we know; this story needed to be told; you got it right.