EDITOR’S NOTE: Read an annotation of the prologue and first act of This American Life’s “Anatomy of Doubt.”
CAUTION: The stories linked to and discussed in this package describe details of sexual assault, which some readers might find disturbing.The 12,000-word investigation, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” produced in a partnership between ProPublica and The Marshall Project, is as memorable a narrative as they come. It has the fusion of elements that make a true story gripping and unforgettable: a compelling main character, suspense, systemic abuse, a quest for accountability. At the feature’s core is a horrifying and remarkable — aptly named, an almost unbelievable — plot.
Yet after reading it — or if you missed it — you could encounter it again and come away with fresh insights from an audio version, produced by This American Life. In “Anatomy of Doubt,” you hear the lead character, Marie, tell in her own words about being raped by a stranger who broke into her apartment. You hear voices tremble as loved ones describe why they doubted her story. You hear a police officer who dropped the case wonder, years later, if he should leave his profession; his words are thick with remorse.
This story was sliced and diced across several platforms:
- Text produced by The Marshall Project and ProPublica (You can read more about the surprising origins of that partnership here, but in short, T. Christian Miller of Pro Publica and Ken Armstrong, then of the Marshall Project, were working different threads of the same story until, inevitably, their work overlapped. Rather than cave to the long-held journalistic instinct to compete, their editors decided to collaborate.);
- The audio version, a partnership between the Marshall Project, ProPublica and with additional reporting by Robyn Semien of This American Life;
- A Netflix limited series docudrama, “Unbelievable,” starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever);
- And a non-fiction book, by Armstrong and T. Miller, first published as “A False Report” and republished as “Unbelievable.”
Each of these pieces found acclaim in its own right: The print story won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and the 2015 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting, while the audio story won a Peabody Award in 2016.
But another testament to the power of this saga is that it found successful homes across storytelling platforms. Even if you leave out the dramatic license of docudrama television, both the audio and text journalism versions are emotional and authoritative: As disturbing as the content is, the stories compel with tight weaves of flawed humanity and flawed systems. Each hinges on much of the same reporting, yet each telling feels novel.
I wanted to understand more about how those distinct storytelling methods worked for the same story. So I spoke with Semien, a producer at This American Life, and Armstrong, who co-wrote the text piece with T. Miller and waded into the world of radio to work with Semien. Our conversation may prove instructive for narrative print reporters trying to conceptualize stories for sound, or radio reporters aspiring to move into longform writing. Semien, Armstrong and I talked about what each form can do best, why they reported this story together and how to suss out a story’s most effective form.
Our conversation, like the stories that prompted it, mentions numerous characters who played various roles in events over several years. It might help to know the primary ones:
- Marie: The main source in both text and audio stories. She was raped in Lynnwood, a suburb of Seattle, Washington, in 2008 and reported it to the police, but was pressured by police to recant her claim and not believed by many of her friends.
- Shannon: A foster mom who helped raise Marie during her high school years. She had doubts that Marie was telling the truth about being raped.
- Peggy: Another foster mom who also helped raise Marie during her high school years. Like Shannon, Peggy had doubts that Marie was raped and shared those doubts with the Lynnwood police.
- Project Ladder: A program designed to help young adults who had grown up in foster care transition to independence. Project Ladder provided subsidized housing to Marie.
- Elisabeth: Another member of the Project Ladder program, she was at a meeting where Marie was pressured to tell her peers that she had lied about being raped. Despite that, Elisabeth stuck by Marie throughout the ordeal.
- An unnamed woman in Golden, Colorado, who told police there that she was raped in 2011.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is followed on Storyboard with an annotation of the script of the Prologue and Act One of This American Life’s “Anatomy of Doubt,” which first aired Feb. 26, 2016.
How did you come to collaborate on this story? What did you hope to achieve together that you felt like you couldn’t do alone?
ARMSTRONG: This started out as a partnership between The Marshall Project and This American Life. The Marshall Project was just launching and didn’t have an audience; This American Life has one of the largest audiences of any news organization around. It was an incredible opportunity to reach an audience that otherwise would not have been available to us. And for me, individually, it was an opportunity to learn storytelling in a way I had never done it. I had no experience in radio whatsoever, and learned lessons that I’ve now been able to use in print.
Radio interviewing is different from print interviewing. Robyn and I would script out interviews beforehand. Just the way you ask questions is different. In print stories, we’re often asking for information. I had a tendency to ask a lot of yes-no or closed questions. ‘What color was the truck?’ I was asking people to fill in holes as opposed to telling stories, and radio is all about telling stories. I also had to check a lot of my impulses, because they really hurt a radio interview. I interrupt too much. I don’t let silences sit; I step into them. Once I started absorbing instructions and lessons, the interviews really benefited.
SEMIEN: Our senior producer at the time, Julie Snyder, met with Ken and founding editor Bill Keller to discuss the work that The Marshall Project was doing. They went over a small selection of stories that Ken had brought to us. Ken or Bill said something like, ‘There’s this other one that we’re really excited about, but we’re not sure it would be good for radio. It’s really hard. It’s dark.’ Julie was interested, and learned Ken had already done very real reporting and outreach to the main characters. She brought the story to me.
We work with a lot of contributors. But when a contributor comes to you and says, ‘I’ve talked to this woman, and she has a really delicate, important story. She hasn’t spoken about this to anyone, but she’s agreed.’ So I came on as a producer knowing that we had access to Marie, Peggy and Shannon. Those are the first interviews we did. Ken also had so many of the documents from the Lynnwood police department. I got to start with the ball already rolling.
How did you avoid redundancy in the ground that each version covered? I’m eager to understand how plugged in you were to the other’s process, in terms of actually crafting the narrative.
ARMSTRONG: The print story was published two months before the This American Life story aired. In print, we suspended the reader — we had layers of reveal, where we didn’t let them know what had really happened inside Marie’s bedroom until the end. We played with the timeline, the chronology, and did this braided narrative where we were telling the Colorado story at the same time as the Washington story, weaving in and out.
In the radio story, there was a decision not to hold back the core event, but to tell the listener right from the outset, ‘This is the truth of what happened. And now we’re going to tell you how that happened, and why.’ Radio is so visceral and emotional. There’s a difference between reading Marie’s words and hearing Marie’s voice. Sometimes the way people speak reveals the truth of what really happened. You can hear it in their inflection, in their verb tenses, in their tone.
SEMIEN: From the beginning, the discussions I was having with my editor, Joel Lovell, and executive producer Ira Glass, was around the fact that we had these three interviews — Marie, Peggy and Shannon. We assumed it was possible we would not be able to speak to any police officers, and wanted to try and get in front of any potential complications that could arise as a result.
We felt that this woman (Marie) had gone through something horrible and remarkable, and it’s important that she’s trusting us to tell her story. We didn’t want to play with our listeners’ curiosity about whether or not she was telling the truth. We thought, ‘Let’s just not mess with this question, in some structural way, of re-litigating what she has already survived.’
Our intention was to deliberately focus on the doubts of the people she was surrounded with. So we needed to tell the details early on. That allowed us to think about framing and consider which questions we would be asking if we were not following the thread of, ‘What’s the audience thinking right now?’ We decided to ask a different question.
There are so many under-covered stories, particularly related to sexual assault. The industry has fewer reporters to tell them, and fewer resources to follow leads that need to be chased. Why did you feel it was important to tell this particular story in multiple forms, and what value did you hope to add by helping audiences experience it in more than one way?
ARMSTRONG: We knew conclusively that Marie had been telling the truth from the outset. She had been not only accused of lying, but had been charged criminally with it. She had been victimized two times over. It seemed like being able to reconstruct what had happened, and to figure out where the doubts started and how they spread, would provide lessons to all of us.
When we interviewed Shannon in her kitchen, she was crying about what she had done. Hearing her revisit why she had done it is such a different experience from reading that in the story.
For me, the fact that we could take different approaches in print and radio was another reason to do it. I thought the two stories were different in ways that played to the strength of each medium.
SEMIEN: There’s something to listening to everyone in the radio version just tell their story, in their own words, as best we can, in the time that we have allotted. This ideally gives you a three-dimensional imprint of who they are — not just how they functioned in this one moment in time. It gives you something that reveals a true sense of character, purpose, complexity. That’s really what I’m listening for during interviews.
How do you think the print and audio versions showed different sides of Marie?
SEMIEN: This was a challenge. We say in the script that Marie is a very dynamic personality. She is fun and funny. She’s bubbly, warm. Ken and I knew that from spending a day interviewing her. But we were interviewing her for radio about the single most difficult thing that has ever happened to her, and one of the more difficult things that I’ve ever heard. If you look closely at the script in the beginning, you might see where we are trying to make sure that we create a full picture of this woman who was more than this thing that happened to her, while giving her all the space she needs to tell that story.
ARMSTRONG: In the print story, we introduced Marie in a court setting, where she’s before a judge taking a plea deal in a case where she’s been accused of filing a false report. Those were very different introductions. But I think each worked for the purposes of the story.
When it comes to reporting on sexual assault, I often think about how gender and lived experiences may influence how journalists approach those stories. For example, I’ve wondered whether the Harvey Weinstein reporting would have come out in the way it did if the two lead New York Times reporters hadn’t been women, and hadn’t been able to connect with sources in particular ways. I’d love to hear about if, or how, your identities influenced the questions you asked Marie or the ways you went about your reporting.
ARMSTRONG: The partnership between The Marshall Project and ProPublica on the print side was not arranged from the outset. T. Miller started working on the story independently while Robyn and I were working on it. So ultimately, you wound up having two men writing a print story. Both of our lead editors were men. Fortunately, both managing editors at The Marshall Project and ProPublica were women, the copy editor was a woman, and we had a lot of women come in as cold readers because we were really worried about blind spots. We were worried that we might be phrasing things in a way that we shouldn’t, because we weren’t recognizing something that a woman would immediately see in a way that we didn’t.
On the radio side, I don’t think that was as much of an issue because Robyn and I did just about every interview together. Marie and I had a good relationship, and continue to have a good relationship. But I do think that that can be an issue, when a woman might be much more comfortable talking with another woman about this experience.
SEMIEN: I like the question. I’ve never thought of this exactly this way before. My lasting impression of “Anatomy of Doubt” — the story, the people who are in the story — is that it’s a woman-y story. The majority of the people we interview, who are the focus of the piece, end up being women — with the exception of the Lynnwood detectives, who Ken got access to very late in our reporting.
A lot of the editors I worked alongside were men. This American Life is a tight-knit group and we bounce ideas off people in the hallways. When I was feeling confused about a direction that may or may not have been gender-specific, I asked people I trusted, who sometimes were women. But I have such a healthy working relationship with Joel Lovell and Brian Reed. And Ken’s a lovely person to co-report with. I felt like there were enough people chewing on this that I wasn’t worried.
Do you think your presence put Marie at ease, Robyn, or impacted how she responded to questions?
SEMIEN: I don’t know. Ken really did the outreach and secured the interview. We went there together as a team, but she’s really Ken’s source. But there are a few other interviews that are coming to mind. One is with Elisabeth, one of Marie’s friends. She said during a studio interview I was doing that she, too, had been sexually assaulted. I don’t know if that’s something that would have come up otherwise. But it also really might have, as Ken is very thoughtful and sensitive.
I felt that the interview with Elisabeth was one of the most compelling in the episode. The way Elisabeth paused, the way she seemed to really work through her thoughts with you. But that scene with Project Ladder gets just a short paragraph in the text piece, and by all accounts, Elisabeth is not crucial to the story in terms of news gathering. Robyn, I’m wondering if you can share what it was about that conversation that struck you as powerful for radio.
SEMIEN: There’s a practical answer here, which is that Ken and I were very deliberate about reaching out to Project Ladder, Cocoon House (another name for the same organization) and all of the friends or people who were with Marie. We were trying to speak to the manager and anyone involved. Marie had this story of telling so many people and no one believing her. It was a community turned against her, to paraphrase, with some exceptions.
So the mission was: ‘How many people can we talk to that will ideally tell us something about ourselves?’ This is not about a community you can’t imagine, with people who don’t exist. This is a cautionary tale.
Then honestly, Elisabeth came through. That really is a joy of making radio: You just never know if you’re going to have a great time talking to someone until you do it. She was reflective and thoughtful. She had a wonderful memory. She could put us in a scene that we wanted to be put in. Ken and I wanted to hear an account of what happened when Marie went to Project Ladder and had to stand in front of her peers and tell them she had lied.
ARMSTRONG: It’s also one of my favorite parts of the radio story. You can hear how much Elisabeth cares for Marie and how much she’s troubled by the way Marie was treated. Because her affection and concerns are so genuine, I think it works in radio in a way that is more powerful than in print.
With the print story, we had to make a lot of tough choices about what to excise because the story was so long. Our draft was 15,000 words and we wound up publishing at 12,000. We were losing material that was very dear to us.
How do you think about what pieces of reporting, like voices or anecdotes, are most compelling for radio versus print? As you went along, was it clear what would go where, or which bits wouldn’t make it into the other piece?
ARMSTRONG: We were writing to a detailed outline. We had a good sense of the structure before we started writing actual sentences, which helped enormously in making decisions about what to keep and let go. Joe Sexton, an editor at ProPublica, suggested how to move parts around to make it really effective emotionally. T. Miller and I were writing individual chapters — you could think of them as book chapters, even though each are maybe just 500 to 1,000 words long — and individual scenes. Anything that makes that chapter and scene work, you keep; if it doesn’t, it goes. And then you have faith in the architecture of the piece. We had such a detailed plan on the front end, so we weren’t lost on side roads.
Radio writing is an entirely different experience because you’re writing for the ear. I found it incredibly liberating. Sentence fragments are just fine. You can split infinitives; there’s no grammarian on your shoulder. You’re writing like people talk, and it’s wonderful. You’re also writing sparsely, in and out of audio clips, because you want other people to tell the story. Often, the best writing in radio — from what I could tell — is when you’re doing the least writing, when you’re able to really economically turn the story over to the people in it.
SEMIEN: I love that summary. Similarly, we have an extensive structuring process to every story that airs on This American Life. Ideally, it starts before interviews and finds its way into the questions — the way they’re asked, the order they are asked. Hopefully, that structure is infusing its way into all of the actual tape-gathering.
Structure is also influenced by the tape. We start with selects of what the recordings will be and use our strongest — something that you find surprising, something that is giving you an answer to something.
So it involves a level of reveal that ideally happens in the tape, but also can happen in script. I want to know that this person is going to answer some kind of fundamental question for me, even if it’s Elisabeth, who is saying, ‘OK, yes, there was doubt everywhere. I wasn’t fully doubtful of her. I just thought something weird was going on.’ I really want to know all of the nuances of how the doubt functioned, big and small. So Elisabeth has a place there.
What is your method for determining what medium a story should be expressed in to find its most natural form? What elements does a story need to make you say, ‘Oh this should be a narrative, not a news story,’ or, ‘This should be a narrative, but in this particular form?’
ARMSTRONG: Robyn mentioned that when I started at The Marshall Project, I had a number of story ideas for which I was trying to answer that very question: What would work best as a magazine piece? What might work best as a partnership with The Washington Post? What might work best in radio?
I sat down with Julie Snyder of This American Life, and Bill Keller of The Marshall Project, and just pitched ideas. The stories that Julie was drawn to were ones that hinged on a voice, or an experience, that you rarely hear — on an interview that would be very difficult to get, because it was from someone who is not eager to talk about the experience.
SEMIEN: I really want an original question to be answered by someone that may be hard to get to. I want there to be a very aggressive, driving question that is laid bare. Almost all of my favorite audio stories are compelling because of their transparency. The story question is very transparent, and you listen to the end because you have to admit that if someone would speak to this thing, it might be something you haven’t heard before.
Lots of things in Marie’s story are shocking and surprising. But I don’t think it’s surprising that people doubted her. Statistically, it’s known that women often don’t report. When they do, they’re often not believed. But we wanted to know the nuts and bolts of exactly how people didn’t believe her — the hows and whys. Because that’s something you don’t usually hear.
The women in the story who didn’t believe Marie were willing to go back in time, deeply consider where they were in their minds in that place, really chew on what was going on, and put words to it. It’s remarkable they did that. There’s regret, pain, a lot of soul searching. That’s not something you can just pull a quote for. As Ken mentioned, you get it in the pauses and the pain and the word choices.
Narrative reporters may look at an investigation of this scope and sweep, and think about their own ambitions to explore wide-reaching issues or investigate systemic problems through the lens of one person’s experience. Do you have any tips for finding compelling characters who can carry a long audio or print story?
ARMSTRONG: I think actually you sometimes get in trouble when you have the story in your head and set out to find a character to fit it. That’s what happened with the Rolling Stone rape story that went so wrong. You don’t try to find people to fit your conception of the story; instead, you find people and let them tell their story, and then you report it out. If you’re fortunate, their story then takes you to those systemic issues that provide the context where you can say, ‘This is not an isolated incident. This has happened to other people in other places.’
SEMIEN: I agree. And to put it very simply, I’m looking for plot. Not all radio stories have to be plot-driven. But if there is some topic or system you are hoping to document, and you’re trying to look for a way to illuminate that in a radio story, look around for interesting people. Is there a character here who has something to say? Look for the interesting, complicated, necessary surprises that happen when people find themselves in a situation that is challenging, or difficult, or in pursuit of something that is good for them or good for the world for any number of reasons.
After we read a bunch of pitches for This American Life, we’ll often say: ‘I’m drawn to this pitch; I don’t know what this story is about.’ That’s the next step, figuring out how to tell it. But just knowing that you’re drawn to something — that something you see is propelling you into a world or a circumstance and, ideally, a person, for reasons that you can’t shake — then I feel like you’re well on your way.
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.