Our latest Editors’ Roundtable looks at Michael Mooney’s story “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph Basketball Scandal,” from the July issue of GQ. Mooney, a staff writer for D Magazine, previously worked for the Village Voice south Florida weekly New Times and has contributed to Outside magazine and Portfolio. His work has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists and has appeared in the “Best American Crime Writing” and “Best American Sports Writing” anthologies. I sat down to talk with Mooney last month in Texas at the Mayborn Conference. In these excerpts from our conversation, he discusses being persistent, revealing mystery and depicting consequences.
How did you first hear about Jerry Joseph?
I was in south Florida when the controversy first happened, and the Sun Sentinel was one of the first papers to cover it. It was late April 2010. So I followed it from the very beginning, and thought it was interesting. The newspaper coverage kept going up to a certain point, and it didn’t really go beyond that. So I had this sense that there was something more to it, that there was a great narrative magazine story there.
When did you approach GQ?
I had a relationship with GQ before then; we had talked about doing various stories. I pitched a story that they liked but in the end felt wasn’t right for them. They asked me for more pitches, and it was on the list – it was actually the first one in a list of three stories. Very early on, they were like, “Yes, this is a good story for us.” And then it was, “Can you pull it off?”
The facts were essentially out there, even if they didn’t have a full treatment then. How did that affect the way you approached the story?
It was a difficult situation. Most of the main people involved didn’t feel comfortable talking. There was a media inundation at first, and then a lot of people kind of wanted to shut down. The church people didn’t want to talk at all until the trial was over. I just kept at it for months, calling and checking in. Finally around Christmas, people became more responsive and started talking to me some more, and eventually I started going out there and talking with people involved in various aspects of the story.
To give perspective to people who haven’t written a story like this before, can you tell me how many times you had to approach, let’s say, the family?
The coach? I probably called five or six times over a period of four or five months, at least, before we made any kind of substantive connection. Then we talked on the phone three or four times before I went out to meet him and hang out with him there. I hung out with him for two or three days.
Was Joseph’s mother responsive – his biological mother?
No. She was extremely turned off by the story very early on. She would give very, very spare comments to newspapers. She was the hardest person for me to get ahold of, actually. I lived in Fort Lauderdale at the time, though, so it was convenient for me to visit. Finally, the time we ended up talking the most, I went out there on her birthday and brought her flowers.
I think she had spoken to ESPN at some point – Wright Thompson was also working on this story. And Tom Lake told me he had been working on the story, too.
She was the most difficult person to get access to for the story, because I think she had suffered an enormous trauma, which was very raw and very painful for her. We could speak about almost anything, and then as soon as this topic would come up, she would get very quiet. She would tear up, and it was a very difficult situation.
The way you ended up writing the story, you make it clear from the beginning that the story you’re telling is not one that the reader should totally accept.
Yet you still have to do these reveals in the story. How did you approach that?
I knew the arc of the story pretty early on. In the middle of the reporting, I knew the way I wanted to tell the story in terms of direction, starting with an event that seemed like something it might not have been.
The birthday party.
Right. We had also talked about starting it with the Christmas scene – something that included the sense of happiness, but through the writing, through the prose, some sense of uneasiness, too, a sense that things are not as they seem. And then I basically wanted to write it like a movie would unfold: to start with some set piece brief and then chronologically go through what happened, and then as the reveals happen, explain the necessary backstory. My editor, Mike Benoist, helped me a lot with that, too.
The language you use is interesting, too. At the beginning, it seems to me that you’re working in a little humor. This situation is so ridiculous, if, in fact, it is what it seems to be …
There’s this line where you say that in “Wright’s house, kids are kids and the adults are adults, and there would never be any confusion on that.” I think you were paraphrasing him.
He actually said something like that himself.
It was close to a quote then?
There was some version of that he said many, many times.
And as far as the humor, it’s a little bit of absurdity, but some of the humor is just the irony of the situation. And for that, I wanted something that could convey not only the coach’s personality but also his sentiments toward this. He felt a sense of being violated in a very major way, because he is so strict and so stern about the role of children and the role of adults. We went over for hours his feelings that children need the opportunity to just be kids. Adults will take on the responsibilities, and the children, all they need to do is to obey and just be children.
That is such an important part of his life and something he’s believed for a very long time. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to put that in there, because later, I think it showed the traumatic effect these events had on him, and the effect they’ve had on his family.
And then you feel all the absurdity falling away at the end when you get to the section about the girl.
That feels like the inevitable climax of the story. Did you see that as a climax of the story really early on?
Without that aspect, if he hadn’t had a girlfriend, and had not been charged with statutory rape, it’s a much funnier, much more all-American story. What person has not thought about what it would be like to relive their youth? I remember I was in ninth grade, thinking, “Man, if I played seventh-grade football now, I’d crush everybody.” Mitch Hedberg says, in one of my favorite jokes, “I wish I could play in little league now. I’d kick ass!”
Without that aspect, it’s a very different story. So I wanted to set that aside almost in a separate section, just for itself, that would come and hit people, remind people of the personal effects of this, of the children involved, and the very serious turn that the story did take. It was very serious for the town and the school anyway.
You get that across. There’s a guy on the high school basketball team who doesn’t get to start because of Joseph.
Exactly, and a lot of people felt like they lost their whole senior year. But it still would have been an absurd, strange story without the girl. She racks up the seriousness of it, and that’s why he’s in jail right now. Had that not been an aspect of the story, I don’t think he would be in jail.
When you went into this, did you think you were going to solve the mystery, be able to lay out why he did what he did?
I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. I certainly didn’t know if I was going to get to speak to him. There’s so many people affected and so many different perspectives on what happened, I knew there could be an interesting story, even if we didn’t get exactly the reasoning behind it all. And in reality mysteries don’t unfold all the time. Things are not transparent for every story. I kind of like a little bit of ambiguity in stories that I read, so there was never a time I was worried it would be too ambiguous or too unanswered.
Have you ever had a subject like him before who –
He seems really singular.
I’ve never met anybody like him – ever. I’ve never met anybody who had that effect on me or on the people around him. Singular is a good way to describe him.
I believe that no matter what other aspects are involved, he believes he is Jerry Joseph. He was baptized Jerry Joseph. He’s very devout religiously. I’ve met him at the jail, and we’ve spoken many times since then. He has never wavered. There’s been no hint that he is propagating some large scam – he’s never hinted at that. He has at least convinced almost everybody I know who has spoken to him that he believes he is who he says he is.
A lot of people in town believe he suffered some sort of psychological trauma that was so bad he forgot his entire life. That’s probably the most common belief in Odessa among the people who have known him.
I certainly didn’t know what to think going in, and even after meeting him, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. Over an extended period of time and thinking about it, he has convinced me that he believes he is Jerry Joseph, everything else be damned.
Is there anything else you want to say about the story?
I wanted to be fair to every aspect of the story. I knew the story would probably run before the court case took place. I just wanted to make sure that every perspective in the town was covered and that readers got a full sense of the community and the effects of what transpired.
It would be more convenient if I could sit here and be like, “Yeah – I’ve never seen somebody who was so conniving,” but there really is mystery to exactly what he’s thinking. Outside of him, people may never know.
How do you deal with that kind of mystery in a story? You said that from the beginning, you knew that however it went, there would be something interesting there that you could write. But how to handle mystery is something writers struggle with.
I wanted to tell people, essentially, a concise version of everything that I knew about it, ultimately without a lot of judgment, because there are so many different takes on this story. People in this town believe that there’s a 17-year-old in the adult jail. Certain people believe that he came in as a predator and sought out the town of “Friday Night Lights” to take advantage of hillbillies. And so I wanted something that would be complete and all-encompassing and fair. Not necessarily balanced, but fair to everybody involved. Everybody who had direct relation to the story, I wanted their perspective to come across in some way.
You thought the mystery would take care of itself if you presented those perspectives?
At some point, it’s just all the information that’s there, whether it’s a mystery or not anymore is dependent upon the reader. Somebody might want a personal essay from Jerry Joseph on why he did this, but I don’t think that’s going to come.
He seems convinced of who he is. Five years down the road, there could be a book where he talks about everything that happened, but I’d be pretty surprised if his perspective on this changes anytime soon, if ever. This guy says who he is, and these people say he is this person, and these people say, “No matter who he was, we love him, we forgive him.” There’s almost no mystery.
If you believe it’s the same person beginning to end, then there’s some sort of missing year, and that would be interesting to know more about. But as much as I wanted to go to Haiti and just start asking people if they knew the guy in this picture, I can’t see how that would be tremendously effective.
I think you want to tell the information in a way that every part of it is going to be as memorable as possible. So if you let everything out right away, then the details that build up might not seem as memorable or important. And vice versa, if you save everything and then have some kind of “Oh, it was all a dream” surprise at the end, then people are going to feel cheated. I just wanted to tell the story for what it was, in as straightforward a way as possible.