Our new Notable Narrative is “A young man’s fateful dance with death,” in which Thomas Curwen of the Los Angeles Times elegantly chronicles 19-year-old Jesús García’s struggle with a brain tumor. Curwen writes some of the finest features that can be found in newspapers, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2008 for a story about a father, a daughter, and a grizzly bear. He kindly talked to us about his piece on Jesús García by e-mail.
Storyboard: The story, about 2,300 words long, covers García from the moment he learned his latest MRI results. At what point did you come into the story, and how?
Thomas Curwen: I first met Jesús García last May. I spent the previous year profiling men and women who encounter death each day in their jobs – undertakers, embalmers, cemetery groundskeepers, teachers, even students – and it seemed logical to try to get closer to dying. Not that I am morbid: I have found in all these stories remarkable affirmations of life. My first piece in this new series was about a nurse who helped children with brain tumors. I followed her for a day at the hospital, and her last appointment was with Jesús. He and I had a chance to talk before the doctor arrived. I was impressed that he was alone, that he had taken the bus – more than an hour, with transfers – and by his style. For how he dressed and how he spoke, Jesús was, in a word, cool. That manner, the wit and charm, made the doctor’s news all the more difficult: There was little the hospital could do to help him. So the question – how does a 19-year-old live with the imminent possibility of death – became the reason for telling this story.
How did you decide to frame it?
From the beginning, my editor, Millie Quan, and I wanted this to be Jesús’ story and not a medical story. It would have been easy to spend time with the doctors and medical experts and to focus on their challenges. Indeed, there were moments in the reporting when I veered in that direction: It was simpler than facing the hard realities of the story. Yet we decided that anything Jesús didn’t see or think or feel – up to a point, of course – was extraneous. With that in mind, I tried to keep the story as close as possible to his experience, which meant capturing everything almost exclusively from his point of view. He had his first seizure when he was 11. During the last eight years – while going to school, hanging out with his friends, navigating the city – he had had three surgeries as well as radiation and chemotherapy. Given the complexity of his life, I knew I needed to keep the chronology tight. If I had tried to cover a broad swath of time, the narrative would have been too drawn out. Millie and I discussed the opening and decided to set the clock running after his appointment with the doctor. This meant that Jesús’ past would have to be told in flashbacks, which is something of a risk: Any digression from the narrative breaks the momentum of the narrative. The story would have to be anchored with strong scenes, each of which advanced his condition and the chronology, and any detail from his past would have to be brisk and concise.
Why did you want to tell García’s story? What about it appealed to you?
Stories about death and dying often focus on either the very old or the very young. The former try to say something about the wisdom of age, and the latter, about the capriciousness of life. Millie and I hoped to find something different, something we couldn’t anticipate. I once asked Jesús if he was scared of death. “Scared? Of what?” he shot back. “Monsters?” His answer came so quickly that I realized I had asked the wrong question. I was asking him to think like an adult, someone fully aware of the nuances of life. But Jesús was just a teenager, a young man whose reactions to life were still a reflex, a quick response to the world around him. He had no middle ground, no place to stand to contemplate life or death, and under no circumstances was he going to allow himself to think about death. We also found his personal circumstances profoundly compelling. The two-car garage where he lived with six other family members was a little more than five miles from downtown Los Angeles. The family income amounted to less than $2,000 a month, a little less than half going to rent. Jesús and his family had been buffeted around this city all their lives – from an abusive father to an apartment fire, from the lure of gang life to the challenge of being a teenager – all of which struck me as a powerful backstory to the illness itself.
What do you generally look for in a narrative project?
I like complicated stories. In this case, there was the straight chronology beginning with Jesús’ appointment in May. Add to that Jesús’ personal history, and add to that the family’s circumstances. Each element allowed for a certain amount of layering that makes the writing – and I hope, the story – interesting. I’ve also come to value access and willing participation from everyone involved. I need the freedom to ask a lot of questions and the freedom to sit quietly. I need to be kept informed of changes in routine and of special occasions, and I need to be told if and when I’ve overstepped. Stories like this require a commitment of time and patience from everyone involved. In this case, I met with Jesús and the family three times before pulling out my notebook. I wanted them to think about my request and to talk about it among themselves. It’s always a tricky negotiation. As much as I want a story, I have to be ready to walk away, and clarity in the beginning saves misunderstandings in the end. I even remember saying to Jesús, “This is a story that you will probably never read.” They were the most difficult words I ever said before starting.
What is the journalistic value of such stories?
I’m wary of making any claims for a story like this, but I’d like to think that by opening the door on such a world as Jesús’ – a world caught between this disease and the family’s poverty – I can add a chapter to the history of this city, indeed to this moment in time. Of course I had heard about people living in converted garages, but not until I saw the sunlight gleaming through cracks in the unfinished walls or felt the broken concrete beneath the rug in the back room, did I know what that experience was like. And of course I knew people died of brain tumors, but not until I heard Jesús in his delirium, see the anguish on his mother’s face or experience the brief happiness when he rallied, did I know what this was like. Stories like Jesús’ strengthen feelings of empathy. This is, I believe, the reason we read – to walk in another’s shoes and see the world outside our own narrow perspective – and this is, I believe, the reason we as writers need to set our standards high.
The multimedia treatment was a big part of this: “The Thin Gray Line” video (9 minutes, 12 seconds) shows us parts of García’s life that prose can’t capture as powerfully. Can you talk a little about the L.A. Times’ approach to multimedia and why it was important to include it in this project?
For a number of years, photographers at the L.A. Times have shot video in addition to making stills. The work always complements the story, offering a perspective that words cannot convey. “The Thin Grey Line” is no exception, and while its photographer, Arkasha Stevenson, and I worked closely during the reporting, we worked independently in our approach to our stories. From the moment Arkasha and I met Jesús, we were drawn into his world. Given all that he and his family were facing, there was more material here than the written word could possibly capture. I especially admire the small details that she brought into her story: the sheets on the clothesline, the food on the stove, Jesús’ mom dancing with her youngest child. Plus she incorporated a voice-over narrator – the hospice nurse – who provided commentary for what the readers were feeling. It’s a powerful combination. And because I wanted to stay focused on Jesús’ experience, Arkasha had room to explore the family’s experience, paying particular attention to Jesús’ mother, Valentina. Arkasha wanted readers to see what it was like for a mother to slowly lose her son. The more Valentina tried to stay optimistic and stoic, the more her grief showed itself visually, in how she carried herself, in what she didn’t say out loud.
This story is full of wrenching sentences. “For Jesús, the world was just coming into focus, and no matter how difficult the treatments or debilitating their effect, he was determined to live,” for example, and “He wondered out loud about all the other girlfriends he could have had and all that he could have done in his life.” How did the story affect you emotionally?
There were times when I resented this story, when I didn’t want to go to the hospital or listen to the doctor or take further note of Jesús’ decline. Arkasha felt the same way. From time to time, we would meet to talk about the work, to help each other along, and we soon realized that our discomfort mirrored, albeit in a small and limited way, the family’s discomfort. Watching someone die is an awful, heart-wrenching experience – no question – and for all the moments we were able to slip away, we gained a little more empathy for what Jesús and his family were going through, for what they could not escape. I also allowed myself to be buoyed by Jesús’ confidence and his family’s confidence. He was convinced and they were convinced that he was going to be all right; his experience in the past gave them no reason to think otherwise. I might have thought they were in denial, but I’ve learned not to trust my own interpretations or judge any circumstance beyond what the people I’m writing about tell me. Anything more is presumptuous. The first time that I visited the family after the story was written, I walked into the backyard, and I started to cry. The memories of that space – all the meals the family shared out here, the young children running around, Jesús laughing and teasing everyone – rushed back to me, and I was overwhelmed by the stillness and quiet.
What did you learn from doing this piece?
I have often thought it incongruous that Jesús would let me into his life. Some 35 years – and a gulf of opportunities – separated us, but he was always generous, less interested in our differences and guided instead by what seemed to be an impulse to trust. I attributed that impulse to his mother, who always kept their door open to us. One October night, I visited them late at night. It was past midnight. The younger children were asleep in the front room, and Valentina and Jesús’ sister, Claudia, were in the back room, watching their favorite soap opera on television, “Corazon Valiente.” They sat on one bed, and Jesús was lying in his bed, tossing and turning in his own twilight, that cross between wakefulness and dreaming. As he would talk to them, playfully insult them or ask for the ice cream cone that he saw on the floor, they would tease him and laugh over what he said. They would also cry over their memories, and as I listened to them, I imagined the TV as a fire we were huddled around, trying to keep warm, trying to ward off the inevitable. For a few moments, it felt like we might succeed. I had approached this assignment on that spring afternoon hoping to understand how a young man like Jesús would live his final months, and by the end, I gained a greater understanding of faith and love undiminished by poverty or disease. The night that Jesús died, a neighbor built a fire in the backyard to ward off the cold for the friends and family overflowing from the house. Others gathered inside to make coffee, doze on the empty bed, stand beside Jesús and share memories. They kept vigil like this all night, and moving among them, I realized how fortunate I was to have been a part of this community.