During the Trump era, squabbles over politics disrupted a holiday that is more about togetherness than religion or gifts. Those divisions haven’t eased under Joe Biden, and have expanded into fractious arguments over mask and vaccine mandates. Conspiracy theories are pitched against science as responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 5.15 million people around the world, including 770,000 Americas. As colder weather sets in and coronavirus cases once again rise, a powerfully anti-vaxxer movement has taken hold in schools, workplaces and state legislatures, calcifying disagreements. Just 59 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with pockets of the country reporting far lower rates.
Peter Jamison, a local enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, and his editor, Lynda Robinson, wanted to tell the story of a family divided by its vaccination status. “It was becoming clear that this was not a rare scenario,” Jamison told me. “The right family could offer an emotionally charged microcosm of America’s broader rift over the coronavirus vaccines.”
That led Jamison and photojournalist Michael Williamson to the Haught family in the small, quirky community on Lake Chaweva, West Virginia, a state with a vaccination rate of just over 41 percent, the country’s lowest.
The pair couldn’t have hoped for a richer dynamic to profile. The story opens with Laurel Haught, a vaccinated nurse, leaving her home and vaccinated husband behind to escape the threat posed by her adult daughter Samantha, who has refused to get the vaccine. Its emotional through line hinges on whether she will ever return. When her husband Joel dies, from an apparent heart attack, the prospects of reunion improve — until she faces a sad choice after his funeral.
Jamison and Williamson spent a week embedded in Lake Chaweva: “The vaccine tore her family apart. Could a death bring them back together?” was published last week (Nov. 15, 2021). It relies on a blend of witnessed and reconstructed scenes, interior monologue and heartbreaking dialogue. The 3,600-word narrative is a timely and tragic tale not just about a family, but about a riven nation.
During an immersive week in Lake Chaweva, Jamison hung out with sources until they were ready to speak openly. He jotted details and descriptions in his notebook and with his phone camera: Sam’s car boasts an Infowars sticker; on his pontoon, Joel and his fellow “pirates” blasted REO Speedwagon and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hours spent with Laurel on a lakeside dock paid off when Samantha arrives and mother and daughter finally have a civil conversation about the vaccine issue.
The story takes a bizarre turn at Joel’s funeral: Pro-vaccine and anti-vaxxer friends come together to send Joel off in a Viking-styled funeral pyre, and Joel’s Stars and Stripes shorts are hoisted sent up a flagpole. But Jamison never condescends.
“I try to take the people I write about seriously,” he said. “That doesn’t mean pandering to wildly unreasonable beliefs, which is a form of condescension. To my mind, the value of the Haughts’ story lies not in its particulars but its universals — perhaps above all the theme of discord that well-meaning people try, and fail, to overcome.”
Jamison joined the Post in 2016 from The Los Angeles Times, where he covered L.A. city hall. He has spent much of the past two years trying to untangle the conspiracy theories that inflame American politics and imperil our society. “Fear, alienation, isolation, distrust of authority, the pernicious effects of social media, the good old-fashioned irrationality of our species — they all seem to play a role,” he said. “But I can’t pretend that I have anything resembling a coherent explanation. Further research, as they say, is needed.”
Nieman Storyboard talked with Jamison about his belief in the power of immersion reporting, dealing with sources who hold wild conspiracy theories, the importance of patient listening and keen observation. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the narrative.
What prompted this story?
Some fairly bland articles about family arguments over the vaccines had appeared — the kind that surveys the trend, quotes experts and maybe has an anecdotal lede featuring somebody at odds with a relative. We wanted to do something more concrete and more intimate: immerse ourselves in the life of a family falling apart over this stuff, complete with all the scenes of avoidance, resentment, awkward silences and inconclusive debates. The question, as always, was how to find people willing to let a reporter and photographer sit around while all that was happening.
This is a profile of a particular family in a particular situation in a particular place. What was your goal?
I wanted to show readers something they would recognize. Lake Chaweva and its culture are so distinctive — the pirate trappings, the Viking funeral pyre, the ridgetop purveyor of covid misinformation, who descends from his cabin in a white robe. And the Haughts would be the first to admit that they are a quirky bunch. But so is everybody else in the world. Flannery O’Connor made a memorable observation, albeit in a different context: “When you write about backwoods prophets, it is very difficult to get across to the modern reader that you take these people seriously, that you are not making fun of them, but that their concerns are your own and, in your judgment, central to human life.”
If a reader makes it through a story like this without that realization — if they fail to identify the subjects’ concerns as their own — I haven’t done my job well.
How much time did the project take from idea to publication?
When Laurel and I started talking, Joel was still alive. He died as I was finishing up another assignment before turning to this one. This obviously changed the shape of the story. The funeral would force the divided family back together, if only for a short while, and I wanted to be there to witness it. Laurel graciously invited me to attend, so I spent a week at the lake, arriving four days before Joel’s service and leaving two days afterward. My supremely talented colleague, photojournalist Michael Williamson, was with me the whole time. My editor and I were confident that Joel’s service would be the last scene of the story, so it was important to build in ample time beforehand to observe the family interacting and do the interviews that would allow us to reconstruct the back story — everything that led to Laurel moving out. When my own family’s schedule permits, I like to allow for a day or two more than I think I need on the back end of a trip for unanticipated or delayed interviews, trips to the courthouse for documents, driving around to improve my sense of place, and so on. I left Lake Chaweva on Oct. 26 and filed the week of Nov. 8. The story ran the next week.
Were you masked the entire time you were in Lake Chaweva?
When I’m working, I’ll usually wear a mask if I’m indoors or in a car with people I know are unvaccinated. I don’t mask up outside. If I’m going to be indoors with vaccinated people, I’ll offer to wear a mask if it makes them comfortable.
Could you describe your writing process?
On any long or complicated story, I work from a detailed outline. I often end up deviating from it, but try to bring as much rigor as I can to thinking through structure on the front end. That process, and chiefly the discipline of assembling and prioritizing material, may be more valuable than the outline itself. I try to stay mindful of symmetry and proportion, for the story as a whole and within each section. I think a lot about section endings, and how they might propel readers into what comes next. And I like to dial in the top before going much further. Others think differently, but I feel unmoored without a strong first section that sets the tone and the pace for what’s to come.
What role does your editor, Lynda Robinson, play?
Lynda plays a huge role in everything I write. Among her many strengths is an ability to perceive, through the abundance of material a lengthy reporting excursion will inevitably produce, the basic shape of a story. I’ll come back from a trip to a place like Lake Chaweva and, if I’m lucky, I’ll have between half a dozen and a dozen full notebooks. Through a series of conversations, Lynda helps me distill that material. What is the importance of what I’ve seen and heard, and what is the most effective way to communicate it? She also plays a big role in the reporting process. During a trip I talk to her at least once every day — more if things are going sideways. Finally, she protects me from my own outdated pop-cultural references, which are frozen in time in the mid-1990s. Without her my copy would be stuffed with weird asides about grunge bands and old episodes of “The X-Files.”
Are there any writers or stories that especially influence your work?
The journalism of Anne Hull remains the gold standard for closely observed reporting on people and places. She achieves a mix of understatement and emotional heft that I can only marvel at. I admire the same qualities in the stories of my Washington Post colleague, Stephanie McCrummen. The work of Pamela Colloff and C.J. Chivers has always been instructive for me; their stories have a structural integrity that unfolds in ways that seem both surprising and inevitable. None of these journalists are show-offs. The power of their work comes from their fidelity to what they witness or discover. In the realm of fiction, Charles Portis is a perennial model; he captures the comedy and tragedy of American life with a straight face, and with every passing year his work seems more strangely relevant.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Jamison’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu or the individual gray boxes throughout the text, or at the top of your mobile device.
The vaccine tore her family apart. Could a death bring them back together?
Laurel Haught moved out of her own home to escape her unvaccinated daughter. Now they are facing a funeral, the coming holidays and the divide splitting many American families.
The Washington Post
Nov. 15, 2021LAKE CHAWEVA, W.Va. — Her text messages with links to medical research had gone unanswered. Her halting pleas at the kitchen table had failed. And by the time Laurel Haught pulled into her driveway to find her daughter Sam’s car newly adorned with an Infowars bumper sticker, she could only conclude that her campaign to persuade her child to get the coronavirus vaccine was going nowhere. Tell me why you chose this particular collection of details as the lede. There were several possible ways into the story, but in talking with my editor, we settled on an approach that we thought drew people most quickly and directly into the central conflict. That meant evoking details from Laurel’s experience to which others could relate — the links to medical research, met by silence from loved ones; the pained entreaties over breakfast. The discovery of the Infowars sticker and Laurel’s reaction to it show better than I could tell how ideological differences have invaded the family.
Laurel was vaccinated. Sam was not. They lived together, along with Laurel’s vaccinated husband and Sam’s unvaccinated boyfriend, in a tumbledown chalet above an artificial lake outside Charleston. It was a home with creaking floorboards, bulging photo albums and a fireplace that had burned through three decades of Thanksgiving nights and Christmas mornings. Why did you introduce the holidays this high in the piece? It’s not, at heart, a holiday story. With the holidays approaching, many vaccinated people are trying to figure out whether and how to gather with unvaccinated relatives. We make this point explicitly a little further down, but this reference sets the stage by showing the importance that holiday gatherings have for the Haughts, as for so many of us. It was a home the Haughts had always cherished, and it was about to come apart. Is the collapsing a home a metaphor for a family divided by whether or not to get vaccinated? The impending physical collapse of the house won’t be described until later in the story, so at this point the “coming apart” is purely figurative. When we later get to the house’s literal coming apart, I think of that less as a metaphor — metaphor is a literary device and an authorial invention — than as a resonant detail that reinforces the extent to which the family’s life is crumbling. I’m not somebody who usually nails it on the first draft, and this sentence was the product of revision.
“Y’all got to move out,” Laurel, then 57, told her daughter. But Sam, then 32, appealed to her father, who didn’t share his wife’s alarm about the risk of contracting the virus. The eviction was overruled. So Laurel decided there was only one thing left to do: She moved out herself.
She drove just eight miles away, finding refuge with another daughter, this one inoculated. Did you reconstruct this scene? Who were your sources and how did you verify this was what happened? This exchange was reconstructed through interviews with Laurel, Samantha and Lisa, the inoculated daughter. But across that short distance was a rift that is dividing households across America.
With Thanksgiving approaching, infections high or on the rise in many parts of the country and the vaccines now widely available to children, family breaches over immunization status are reaching new levels of rancor and intensity. On what do you base this conclusion? We searched diligently — with help from Scott Clement, The Post’s polling director — for national polls that get at the question of intra-family vaccine disputes. There are some relevant polls out there, but none that meet our standards for citation. By the time we published, stories were dropping regularly about relatives’ vaccination status and the challenge posed by Thanksgiving. We were also hearing about it from friends and acquaintances, and seeing people discuss their personal situations on social media. My editor and I reached the conclusion that, in this case, observational and anecdotal evidence could buttress a general statement of this kind.
Summer is over, and fall is ending — seasons when many gatherings could be held outdoors. Now American families must simultaneously confront the time of year when all respiratory viruses spread most easily and the challenge posed by loved ones who have rejected the best way to protect themselves — and others — from a respiratory virus that has claimed more than 750,000 lives in the United States. You step back here from the narrative for a nut graf, actually two. There’s a debate between narrative writers and their editors over this device. One side argues that it’s necessary to orient the reader. The other says it breaks the storytelling tone, the other side retorts. Where do you land? I think it’s important to promptly tell people why they should read the not-so-short story you’re putting in front of them. We can call that the nut graf, but I don’t view it as a formal convention, and I don’t think it has to interrupt the flow when handled well. A graf or three that orient the reader should increase, not decrease, the story’s interest and urgency.
No firm estimates exist for the number of American families riven by conflicting views of the vaccine. Why did you feel the need to acknowledge the dearth of solid facts, followed by a qualifier? When possible, I like to answer readers’ questions at the place where I suspect they will arise. It’s natural to wonder whether the prevalence of this phenomenon has been quantified. But the topic is clearly top of mind for many people — and for the nation’s foremost infectious-disease specialists. Chief White House medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci last month urged the tens of millions of adults who remain unvaccinated to get their shots to safely enjoy the upcoming holidays.
Laurel understood how stubborn people could be in the face of that advice. West Virginia was among the first states to make the vaccines available to its general population. Yet its 41 percent vaccination rate is now the country’s lowest. Is that why you went to that state in search of a story? Was this an assignment, or did you pitch the idea? My editor and I were interested in examining a family divided by the vaccine, but we were agnostic as to what that family’s circumstances might be, or where the story would be set. Laurel was the most compelling of several potential subjects I interviewed, and she just happened to live in West Virginia. That said, the state obviously provided a particularly compelling backdrop — it has suffered enormously because of its residents’ reluctance to get the vaccine. Vaccine resistance led to the state’s summer wave of hospitalizations and deaths from the delta variant. It also led to the fear and strife afflicting the Haught family. How did you find the Haught family? Back in the spring I spent time in an intensive care unit on the Virginia-Tennessee border where the nurses, in addition to coping with the crushing demands of their jobs during the pandemic, were struggling against covid denialism and vaccine resistance among their patients and neighbors. One of the people who got in touch with me after that story ran was Laurel Haught, who was interested in the topic for reasons that later became obvious. Laurel initially mentioned that she was losing friends because of arguments over pandemic misinformation. When we spoke for the first time over the phone I realized her situation was far more dramatic. The clincher came when that daughter, Samantha Haught, agreed to talk as well. This story wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the whole family. How did you get them to cooperate with you? I did what I always try to do: Explain at the outset, along the way and as straightforwardly as I can what I’m up to, and address any questions from subjects. I have a somewhat fatalistic approach to access. People either say yes or they don’t, and that decision has more to do with their prerogatives than mine. I respect and admire people courageous enough to invite someone like me into the middle of their personal crises.
As a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, Laurel had received her shots early. But as evidence mounted that the vaccines were less effective against mutated strains of the virus, she worried. She worried about the vaccinated members of her family — herself; her 56-year-old husband, Joel, a heavy drinker and smoker; her sister, Aline Lavigne, a stroke survivor whom Laurel helped to care for and dreaded infecting. And she worried about Sam, who is young but has an autoimmune disorder that could make her more vulnerable to the virus. Your description of Joel is blunt. Were there any ethical dilemmas raised by the way you portrayed him? Many people who loved Joel described him to me in these terms. The Haughts, as I hope the story makes clear, are not people who mince words. The details are relevant to Laurel’s concern for her husband and to his later death.
Her concern extended beyond Sam’s physical safety. Laurel couldn’t make sense of what she saw as her down-to-earth, bitingly funny daughter’s departure from reality. Why was it that neither Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies nor a mother’s pleading were enough to bring her around to the facts — that the vaccine for most people was safe, and might just save Sam’s life, or the life of someone she cared about?
“The Sam I know is the Sam that would be looking at how they’ve been studying and researching and trying to develop a vaccine, and she would know that she’s more at risk,” Laurel said. “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.” What a great quote. When did you get it? Laurel said this to me while we were driving to visit her sister, Aline. An ironclad law of journalism, taught to me early in my career, is that good stuff comes out of interviews with people who are driving when the reporter is in the passenger seat.
The frustration had turned to anger, and the anger had spurred Laurel’s decision to flee from her own house in May, when it became clear that neither Sam nor her boyfriend planned to get the shot. Joel stayed behind. Why didn’t Joel leave with his wife? Joel — and I hope this comes across — is a more mellow and conciliatory figure than some others in this story. He was sort of the hub of both the Haught family and the larger community on Lake Chaweva, which is part of what makes his passing so tragic.
Laurel knew that her escape was temporary: Come the fall, she would have to decide what to do about the family’s tradition of gathering at the lake for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
What she didn’t know was that an unexpected loss would force them back together much sooner than that. You end this section on quite a cliffhanger. Tell me about that. When you have a genuine plot twist at your disposal, you should use it to the story’s advantage. But you have to be careful — first-section cliffhangers of this kind are almost a cliché of narrative journalism, so you have to make sure they’re not hokey or forced.
Pirates and propaganda
The Haught house sits on Lake Chaweva, a 42-acre body of water that was dammed in the 1930s under the leadership of a visionary fountain-pen salesman. Its name, suggestive of a backwoods sleepaway camp, is an abbreviation and combination of the words “Charleston, West Virginia.” Where did you learn the history of the story’s setting? Why didn’t you name the founder? The backstory came from online sources, including the website of the Lake Chaweva Club, and from an interview with a long-time resident, Ruia Roberts — she isn’t mentioned in the story — who has kept track of the area’s history. We are already dealing with a sprawling cast of characters in this story, and it didn’t seem necessary to burden readers with one more name. The lake is narrow, extending in the shape of a cupped hand whose fingertips brush the eastern edge of Interstate 64. Fabulous description. Is it from observation or an external source? That came from my firsthand observation of the lake and of maps that show its shape. When all else is quiet, the drone of passing automobiles can still be heard. Is this your personal observation? It is. One of many things I’ve picked up from my colleague Michael Williamson, who made the pictures for this story, is the importance of wandering in a place to notice small details and orient yourself. So in between stretches of focused reporting, I just walked around the lake trying to take it in.
Neither especially bucolic nor remote, Lake Chaweva (pronounced shuh-wee-vuh) had nevertheless bred an intensely close-knit community on its shores by the time Laurel said her wedding vows there on a July day in 1989. At its center was her new husband, Joel Haught.
Joel had grown up at his family’s lake house, and loved it so much that he returned as an adult. A night security guard by profession, he served stints on the lake’s official governing board and was the neighborhood’s go-to handyman. But his real vocation was as captain of the self-styled Lake Chaweva Pirates’ Association, whose members’ primary duty was to float around having a good time.
Boosted by a range of intoxicants, the pirates festooned their docks with the Jolly Roger. They plied the lake in homemade, glacially slow pontoon boats, blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd and REO Speedwagon. Above you note that you don’t want to add one more name. Here you name specific bands. Why? It’s easy to overdo small details, but I thought that naming specific bands would be more evocative for readers. They can imagine the scene, complete with a soundtrack. Their kids roamed freely and happily from the baseball diamond at one end of Lake Chaweva to the Huskey’s Dairy Bar at the other.
Sam, one of seven children raised by Laurel and Joel, knew she would never leave. Why paraphrase here instead of quoting Sam? I try to be judicious about using quotes, which can slow down a narrative if used too liberally. And so when she struck up a romance during a 2017 vacation in Florida with a man who shared her love of Rob Zombie movies, she invited him to her home for a visit.
Deyontae Richardson, 27, spent the early years of his life in Liverpool, England, and moved to the United States upon the death of his father, a Somali immigrant and (genuine) ex-pirate. Were you able to verify this? D’s biographical details came from my interview with him. But never had he found a place that felt more like home than the lake. Richardson, known to everybody as “D,” was often the only Black person in sight. But he never felt unwelcome. On the contrary, he sensed that he was at last surrounded by free spirits and free thinkers after his own heart.
“When it comes to how everybody perceives the world, I am about as open-minded as you can be,” he said. When you talked to Richardson, who brought up the topic of race? He brought it up, and it was clearly important to how he perceives America’s political landscape. D resents what he thinks are some people’s expectations that he should hold certain opinions simply because he is Black, and takes pride in not conforming to those expectations. He is a fan of former president Donald Trump, for instance, and not a fan of Black Lives Matter protesters. Fully exploring those dynamics would have taken us too far afield, but that’s the context.
Richardson was even willing to listen when Samuel Scott — a former tattoo artist and aspiring reggae musician who lives in a cabin near the Haughts — began talking about Sumerian tablets revealing that aliens genetically engineered the human race hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was Scott who eventually warned him against taking the coronavirus vaccines, citing videos from the conspiracy-mongering website Brighteon.
Only fragments of these discussions made their way to Sam, but she, too, began to worry about the vaccines. She trusted her mother, but didn’t trust the information that Laurel shared with her about how the injections worked. Sam was convinced pharmaceutical companies and the federal government were hiding something.
She had suffered since her teen years from an immune system disorder that gave her outbreaks of painful skin lesions, and knew that her body’s haywire self-defense system might put her at greater risk from covid-19. Still, she decided to wait.
“I’ve said stuff to D at night, freaking out, because I can’t afford to get sick. But I’m also afraid of getting that vaccine,” Sam said. “Do the mask mandates. I’m all for that. But don’t try to force the vaccines on people.”
When speaking to her mother, Sam usually abridged her concerns, simply saying that she worried the vaccine could affect her skin condition. Laurel was bewildered. She had always assumed that Sam and D would get their shots when they became eligible. Now she suspected, correctly, that there was more to their resistance than they were telling her.
Was Donald Trump to blame? Laurel, an ardent Democrat, loathed the former president. But she knew that Sam was uninterested in politics; in fact, her daughter had never voted. The more she thought about it, the more exasperated Laurel was by the inability of Sam and D to explain what she saw as a decision that endangered the entire family.
“F— it,” she said to herself. Why not spell out the expletive? Bad things happen to those who defy The Washington Post stylebook. “I’ll go stay with Lisa.’” Laurel’s decision to leave the family home seems to be the thematic through line that leads the reader so effectively from start to finish? How did you settle on that as the story’s structure? Joel’s funeral is a fulcrum around which the action swings, but the movement of the story consists in Laurel’s leaving her house and coming back to it. In the lede, she departs, angrily. In the kicker, she returns, sadly. Everything in between is about the family’s disintegration and their efforts to stop it.
Lisa Underwood is Laurel’s younger daughter from her first marriage. Lisa, 39, had grown up on the lake, and now lived in Bancroft, about eight miles north along the Kanawha River. A nurse case manager for an insurance company, she was vaccinated, as were her children, Lexi and Beau. But her home was less of a refuge from familial vaccine tumult than Laurel had hoped.
Around the corner lived Acy and Katy Underwood, the parents of Lisa’s estranged husband. The couple, who declined to be interviewed, doted on Beau and Lexi with home-cooked hamburger dinners and outings to buy jeans. How many times did you reach out to them before you gave up? Twice, in person. The first time I talked to Acy as he was coming to pick up his grandson, Beau, at Lisa’s house. A couple days later, just before leaving West Virginia, I knocked on the Underwoods’ door. They said no, very politely, and I offered my contact information, which they refused. I left it on their porch. But since the 2020 election they had descended into a conspiratorial underworld — especially Mamaw Katy, an avid consumer of Facebook misinformation trying to convince her grandchildren that former first lady Michelle Obama is a man, or that the coronavirus vaccines are lethal.
Lisa tried to limit interactions with the unvaccinated grandparents, but in September was obligated to enter their house in a gown and N95 mask to help care for them when they developed covid-19. Laurel was livid about the situation, but relieved when Lisa did not contract the virus and the in-laws recovered. Were you able to determine why they clung to those theories after they both fell ill? I can’t speculate since they wouldn’t talk to me. Generally speaking, after interviewing many others during the pandemic who hold similar views, I’ve learned that certain beliefs can become absolutely central to a person’s identity. This has become true in our time of beliefs about politics, and about the politicized realm of public health. When abandoning those beliefs means the dissolution of who you think you are and the end of the world as you understand it, even a life-threatening illness doesn’t seem so scary.
By early October, Laurel began preparing to head to an outdoor music festival she and Joel had attended in North Carolina every fall before the pandemic.
Nothing about her family’s dispute over the vaccine was resolved. But Laurel, fortified by a booster shot, hoped to ignore it a little longer, seeking solace around a campfire in the hills with friends.
Four days before the festival she was in training for a new job at a hospice center when her phone began buzzing. But Laurel was in the middle of assessing her first patient, a covid case, and wasn’t able to pick up until after she had removed her PPE.
That’s when she learned that Joel, her husband of more than 30 years, was dead. Wow, this is abrupt. No warning, which makes it even more disturbing? Why did you place Joel’s death here? My thinking was that the transition needed to be abrupt to achieve the hoped-for effect. Things are calming down, Laurel is reaching a better place, and then she is walloped by a horrible loss. Joel’s death is a natural halfway point for the story — here we move from past to present — and my hope is that curiosity about what happened to him will draw readers immediately into the next section.
‘Pray you don’t get covid’
Joel’s body was discovered in a portable toilet at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, where he was setting up camp in advance of his wife’s arrival.
The medical examiner did not conduct an autopsy — which would have delayed the return of his remains to West Virginia — but said he probably died of a massive heart attack. Did you interview the M.E. for this? I didn’t. This was described by Laurel and Lisa, who interacted with local authorities in North Carolina, and in contemporaneous emails Laurel sent to her in-laws when she was collecting Joel’s remains. But Jake Haught, Joel’s younger brother and next-door neighbor on Lake Chaweva, had his doubts.
Like his niece and her boyfriend, Jake had rejected the coronavirus vaccines. His Internet research had led him to conspiracy theories about “death shots” meant to thin the U.S. population to avoid Social Security expenses. How do you react when a source voices things like this? It isn’t the strangest conspiracy theory I’ve heard during the pandemic, or even during this particular assignment. There is a fine line to toe here. Journalism isn’t debate club, and my role isn’t to talk people out of their ideas. That said, it is both patronizing and insincere to simply smile and nod along as the conversation takes increasingly bizarre turns, and I don’t let subjects’ wilder assertions go unchallenged. These challenges serve a journalistic purpose: I am probing people’s beliefs in order to better understand them, but I am not trying to lecture them or shout them down. I never pretend that I buy into conspiracy theories in order to win a subject’s confidence. If — as happened while I was reporting this story — somebody asks me what I think about the theory that coronavirus vaccines “magnetize” people so that spoons stick to their bodies, I’ll reply that it’s nonsense. My experience has been that people react well to that kind of honesty. I’ve never had someone cut short an interview because of it. Now he wondered whether one of those shots might have killed his brother.
He couldn’t be sure, but was worried enough to voice his suspicions to their father on the night of Joel’s death. The claim made its way to Laurel as she and Lisa were driving to North Carolina to arrange for Joel’s cremation, and she quickly sent an email to her in-laws.
“Joel did NOT die of his second shot,” she wrote. “Jake had no business assuming that. Joel was vaccinated in April.” She noted that her husband was a “long time drinker and smoker whom I could never get to go to a [doctor] in our 34 years together.”
“You will never hear that this shot is Killing people or that the object that hit the Pentagon was a missile,” Jake wrote back, referring to a separate conspiracy theory about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Keith Richards and Ozzy have drank, smoked and done drugs for decades — not dead.” This exchange reads like dialogue, yet is electronic. How did you obtain the email? Laurel shared the emails with me. Jake later said the same things to me in person, but I thought it was more compelling to present his views as they were expressed in the back-and-forth with other family members. There is a level of tension and emotion in the emails immediately after Joel died that doesn’t exist in an interview with a reporter weeks after the fact.
But Laurel had a bigger problem on her hands than her brother-in-law. Joel’s death meant that her self-imposed exile was over. She would have to return to the house on the lake to sort through her deceased husband’s possessions. Sam and D were still there.
Laurel’s most sustained interaction with the couple over the summer had not been face-to-face. When she moved out, she had surreptitiously ripped the Infowars sticker off her daughter’s car. Sam and D slapped on new Infowars stickers in its place, including one that read “THE MEDIA IS THE VIRUS.” But Laurel again secretly tampered with the bumper, adding stickers saying “Hillary is my homegirl” and “Biden Harris 2020.” Sam and D removed them, and the proxy war ended. The family had never spoken about it.
Avoidance remained the family strategy once Laurel returned to West Virginia with her husband’s ashes. She holed up in her bedroom, waiting for her unvaccinated housemates to depart for work, and then ventured out to organize things.
It was slow work, made more difficult by the deteriorating condition of the home itself. The heavily engineered landscape of Lake Chaweva was geologically unstable, and a collapsing ridge above the Haughts’ home was effectively severing the place in half. Long cracks were visible in the wooden stairs leading to Sam’s bedroom in the back.
Laurel preferred to spend time on the dock, which is where she was on a Thursday in late October, several days before Joel’s funeral. Were you on the dock with Laurel on that particular day? The scene on the dock took place on my first full day at the lake. Laurel was down there, cleaning stuff up and getting some fresh air, and I joined her. It was the first time we had met in person, so we spent a few hours just chatting. I wanted to let her become comfortable with me. Sam showed up after work, and at that point I just tried to fade into the background and capture their interaction. All in all I spent about 8 hours that day with Laurel and Sam, a lot of it sitting around on the dock. The service would be at the lake; in accordance with the wishes of the deceased, a portion of his ashes would be placed in a six-foot-long replica of a Viking ship with piratical accents that would be launched into the water and set ablaze.
Laurel sat on her late husband’s pontoon, The Joely Roger, smoking the last of his Natural American Spirit cigarettes. It was cloudy, and the trees around the lake were beginning to take on a copper tinge. Do you note images like this in your notebook in the moment, or pull them up later when you’re writing? I noticed the details at the time, and they went into my notebook, but I didn’t attach any special importance to them. I write down a lot of stuff like this as I go, not knowing what I’ll ultimately use. I also try to do as much “visual notetaking” as possible, through photos and videos on my phone. I came back from Lake Chaweva with nearly 600 such images, some of which were useful in recreating scenes I witnessed. A life-size toy skull stared at her from atop a piling.
Laurel thought anxiously about Sunday, when she would be in a large crowd for the first time since before the pandemic. She thought about the pro-Trump flags that her grandson, Beau, had reported seeing on the wall of Sam’s bedroom after he snuck in for a glimpse of Monkey, her pet ferret. Laurel thought about her mix of feelings toward Joel — the grief, but also the anger. Her husband had chosen not to take better care of himself, and now he was gone. Who had the right to do that to a loved one? How do you know what she was thinking? After a few hours at the dock — once she had become accustomed to my presence — Laurel just started thinking out loud, sort of free-associating. This is a stage I’m always eager to reach with subjects, when the structured question-and-answer ceases and they begin to say what’s in their head as it occurs to them.
“Mama-Dee!” A voice rang from the top of the staircase to the dock.
“Sammy,” Laurel called back.
Her daughter appeared with a half-full cup of Mountain Dew from Sheetz, her hair newly dyed dark blue. Again, why name the brand of her soft drink? It’s another detail that helps create a picture in the reader’s mind — everybody knows that bioluminescent color of Mountain Dew — but also to convey something about Sam’s attitude and mental state. She was off work, had just picked up a cold drink and was relaxing. That relaxation, of course, is short-lived, as she and Laurel are unable to avoid the topic that has driven them apart. This the only time you physically describe a character. Why didn’t you do so for Laurel and others? Physical details are often meaningless, and physical description is overused. There are important exceptions, but I like readers to form their impressions of the people I write about based on what they say and do. In this case, the color of Sam’s hair is less important than the fact that she had just dyed it — she explained to me that this was part of her grieving process for her dad, but I hoped readers would pick up on that possibility without my having to explicitly state it. It was about 4 p.m., and she had just finished her shift at Goodwill. She sat down on the pontoon across from her mother and began vaping.
Laurel and Sam talked about how much Joel did for the lake, how Sam would sometimes see him picking up trash along the shore before dawn, as she was driving D to work. They talked about the need for everyone to pitch in on those kinds of chores now that Joel was gone. During a lull, Laurel watched her daughter over the burning tip of her cigarette.
“We’re talking more since your dad died,” she said. Now they talked about Laurel’s favorite recipe for catfish bait, and their mixed feelings about Joel’s funeral — how they were ready for it to be over, but also weren’t, because then he would really be gone. And eventually they started talking about the reason they had stopped talking: the vaccine.
“It was just too quick for them to come up with it,” Sam said.
“But it wasn’t quick,” Laurel said.
“My biggest thing is my skin …”
“That makes you more medically in need of it.”
“I’m gonna wait and see how it goes with the people who got the shot, and when I’m comfortable with it, I’ll talk to my dermatologist,” Sam told her mother.
“I’m just gonna pray you don’t get covid and die in the meantime,” Laurel said. This extended stretch of dialogue puts you there on The Joely Roger. Yes, and I let it roll as long as I possibly could. A story like this depends on these moments — when your subjects momentarily seem to overlook your presence and address each other with minimal self-consciousness. Dialogue is the prize.
Raindrops were clattering over the pontoon’s tin roof. Sam excused herself to go pick up some dinner with D, who had just finished work at the Rural King farm supply store.
Part of Laurel wanted to drop all the restraint that she tried to bring to these conversations and scream at her daughter that she was being stupid, that after losing Joel she couldn’t bear to lose her, too. But as Sam walked up the road Laurel sat there saying nothing, smoking her dead husband’s cigarettes and watching the rain.
‘Weirdest group of people’
What earrings matched a pirate widow’s weeds? This is an old-fashioned term. Beyond the fine alliteration, where did you learn about “widow’s weeds” and why did you use it? Oddly enough, I learned that term from a historical reenactor in Gettysburg, Pa., which Michael Williamson and I visited last fall for a story during the election. I didn’t like the alternatives — widow’s garb? — but in retrospect, this term may have been too archaic. I like it, Peter. It’s an evocative phrase. Laurel tried to decide as she stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom that Sunday, wearing a black-and-white, tie-dye skirt and crimson blouse. Atop her hair was a garland of fake wildflowers and blinking, multicolored lights.
Just before 6 p.m. her phone rang.
“Hey, mother,” Sam said on the other end of the line. “We’re all waitin’ on you.”
“I’m still early,” Laurel replied.
She left her house, with its clutter of open boxes and its crumbling foundation, and walked out of the hollow to the shore. About 100 people had showed up. Some clustered around a table with photos and mementos of Joel. Others were dropping handwritten notes into the cardboard ship that carried his ashes. When Joel’s signature stars-and-stripes shorts were hoisted up a flagpole, the mourners placed their hands over their hearts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
They were young and old, vaccinated and unvaccinated, a cross section of a country as profoundly unsure as Laurel was of how to bridge a divide that now ran through many families. Very nice line! There was Russ Harris, a 60-year-old Marine veteran who was vaccinated, and trying to figure out what to tell the unvaccinated relatives who usually came to his house for the holidays. There was Amy Thomas, 57, who had taken her 13-year-old grandson for his vaccine when she tired of waiting on the boy’s mother to do so. And there was Samuel Scott — taking a break from Brighteon videos that falsely asserted the coronavirus vaccine contained a parasitical and possibly self-aware organism — so that he could attend the service of his lifelong neighbor. Scott had descended from his ridgetop cabin in a white robe and red clerical vestment, and was now singing reggae songs through a PA system. This is quite the gallery of supporting characters, and you use just three to demonstrate varying attitudes towards vaccines. How many in the crowd did you interview that day? I interviewed probably a dozen people in the crowd. That included a few I had met and talked to the previous night, at another bonfire, attended just by lake residents, that isn’t described in the story. The assembly of people on the beach, saluting Joel’s shorts, seemed like a good opportunity to zoom out and indicate that the scope of these disagreements is not abstract — a bunch of nameless families across the country — but immediately affects other people in Laurel’s community. I chose Russ and Amy (as well as Beth, mentioned below) because they are dealing with family vaccine situations. Samuel Scott, who we know has helped to spread COVID misinformation among people close to Laurel, demonstrates yet another perspective, as well as a vivid spectacle. This is a motley crew, vaccine-wise, but they have come together because, at bottom, they still care about one another. That is a point I try to illustrate again in the concluding bonfire scene.
Thomas’s pontoon, the Drippy Hippie, wobbled as the vessel with Joel’s remains was brought onboard, followed by Laurel. Eye-watering fumes rose from the Viking pirate ship, which had been doused in kerosene.
“No smoking on this boat,” Laurel barked at Amy and her husband, Darrell, who was piloting the pontoon toward the middle of the lake.
As they eased Joel’s ship into the water a thought occurred to Laurel, whose funereal preparations had included generous amounts of hair spray.
“Amy, I’m afraid to light it,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m going to light my hair on fire.”
And so it was Thomas who set fire to the ship, which went up in flames as a cheer erupted on the beach: “Arrrghh.”
The sun had dropped out of the sky by the time the pontoon crept back to shore. Here you use a few natural details to convey the passage of time. If we consider what the reader is seeing with the mind’s eye, conveying the passage of time with a descriptive detail such as this is much more effective than saying that it was 7:30 p.m. by the time the pontoon returned to shore.
“How’d that look, guys?” Laurel asked.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” said Sam, who stood beaming at the water’s edge.
Joel’s vaccine-despising brother, Jake — who had been blaring Celtic drum music from his car on the other side of the lake — stopped by to pay his respects. Laurel held her breath as she embraced him, then stepped back and said they needed to work some things out. The crowd quickly dwindled, and soon was down to about a dozen people warming themselves at a fire on the beach.
Laurel sat with Sam to her right, and Lisa to her left. D was there. So was his friend Russ Blanchard, who said he would rather go to jail than get the shot. Beth Middleton, a Lake Chaweva resident who had gotten herself and her children inoculated without informing her anti-vaccine husband, joined the circle. And Samuel Scott appeared, having ditched his white robe for a warm jacket. Laurel just laughed when he warned of a chip implanted in President Biden’s brain.
“This is the weirdest group of people here right now,” Sam said, looking around.
Laurel was content, surrounded by her children and staring into the fire. But she was also sad, because even now she was taking the measure of her losses: the loss of her husband, whose remains now lie at the bottom of the lake; the loss of understanding and trust among the members of the family that remained. How did you report this scene and Laurel’s thoughts? I watched and listened as this scene was unfolding, standing across the fire from Laurel. Later she described what was going through her head. Anytime I seek to convey a character’s interior state, I will go over the description with them in minute detail during the fact-checking stage — Were you feeling this? Did you think that? She had not begun thinking about Thanksgiving, let alone Christmas, but she knew she would not remain in the house with Sam once Joel’s affairs were settled.
Yet she would sleep there tonight, and soon, because she was suddenly tired. Laurel stood up and stepped carefully into the darkness beyond the bonfire, returning toward her slowly collapsing home.This is such a powerful ending, with Laurel returning to a broken family in a broken-down house. It leaves unanswered questions about Sam, her boyfriend and whether they decided to get their shots. Why did you close this way? In my mind, the story is ultimately a sad one. Laurel and Sam love each other, and are trying in their own ways to understand each other, but are split by differences they realize can’t be reconciled or ignored. At the story’s outset, there is a suggestion that an unforeseen loss — Joel’s death — might force the family to bridge its divide over the vaccines. We now know that isn’t the case. The promise of a lasting reunion was illusory. The story begins when Laurel flees a house that is coming apart, and it ends with her going back to the same house. There is a lot of uncertainty about what lies ahead for the Haughts — how the holidays will play out, whether Sam and D will ever choose to get their shots — and I try to allow for that. But the note I really want to hit here at the end is one of melancholy and exhaustion: the exhaustion so many of us feel after two years of crisis that, instead of bringing Americans together, has driven us apart.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, copy editing by Karen Funfgeld, design by Twila Waddy.
Storyboard contributor Chip Scanlan is an award-winning reporter who taught at the Poynter Institute for for 15 years. He now writers and coaches other writers from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida.