Pat Beall’s distinguished career at The Palm Beach Post has been marked by exhaustive and meticulous investigations.
“I knew I did not want to create a parade of horrors, and in so doing, not only contribute to the canon of 21st century victim porn, but also get in the way of an intended message.”
A 30,000-word probe of privatized prisons; a multi-part series exposing vulnerabilities in U.S. voting equipment; a deep dive into the emerging heroin crisis –all earned a mantle’s worth of awards, and all spurred vital government reform. And all were the sort of projects where every word, every comma, is vetted and challenged by a horde of editors and lawyers before being published. As Beall puts it: “In my day job, clarity is everything.”
Earlier this year, however, she took a sharp turn. She not only jumped into the world of first-person writing — and experimented with, as she put it, an 18-inch lede – she made the decision to bare the depths of her soul and write about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. The result was one of the bravest and most powerful pieces of journalism I have encountered in a long time.
I worked in daily newspapers for 23 years, most of them at the Los Angeles Times. At risk of oversharing, a therapist once told me that being a reporter was the perfect job for me. I was a professional empath, to borrow a science fiction term. My job was to hold up a mirror to other people, to probe other people’s lives, to always look outward, not inward.
As a result, and by design, I suppose, among the thousands of articles I wrote, exactly two were written from a first-person perspective. Both were written only at the request of my editors, and I was never comfortable with either. I cannot imagine taking the step into public vulnerability that Beall took.
This difficult decision, spurred in part by what Beall saw as a rush to defend Donald Trump after the then-candidate’s notorious “Access Hollywood” comments, prompted her to throw out her sturdy playbook. When composing her investigative pieces, she told me, “If a reader pauses or has to think, … then I haven’t succeeded.” Her first-person piece, however, made me pause repeatedly – and I’m still thinking about it, months after reading it for the first time. Some lines were almost enigmatic. “Once in a while,” she wrote in describing her secret, “I had to work hard to forget to remember.” I read it four times before I figured it out, and once I did, I thought – that’s exactly right. And somehow, there wasn’t any way to say it better.
What follows is our conversation, lightly edited:
I’m going to ask you shortly about your motivations for writing the piece and choosing to share so much of yourself with your readers. But I’d like to focus first on the mechanics of the writing, which was rather striking. What was your writing process like? How long did it take? How much of a departure was this from your typical duties and work? How difficult was it to convey the weight and the pain of carrying this secret?
I have kept journals for years. Romney has his binders and binders full of women; I have my dusty wire-bound notebooks. So there were pieces of words, half-concepts and thoughts I could draw on. You used the word enigmatic. I wanted the reality of the abuse to unfold, just as it unfolded for me. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t cognitive. It was mysterious, confusing and experiential. I wanted the story to reflect that. So, I wanted to start with what I saw, and felt, as a young child, which is why the first section is written from a child’s point of view.
Trouble is, children don’t see the world through nut graphs. So, that entire first section never mentions abuse. And it’s a long first section. Which is why my editor and one reporter/reader worried over pretty much the same thing: “The reader doesn’t know where you’re going with this.” Because it was somewhat mysterious and confusing: enigmatic.
“The most difficult response came from an older family member, who cried when I told her what I would be writing. She wasn’t crying for me. She had been abused when she was 5. She had never told anyone. And she was in her 70s. She had spent all those decades, alone.”
We had an editor-vs.-reporter moment. It does ask a lot of a reader, especially in a daily newspaper, to trust you to walk them through 18-20 inches without any idea of where they are going. The headline helped, of course. But to insert a nut graph at that point would be to insert an adult voice in a child’s memory. I balked. I declined clarity.
So, I crafted a next section that more clearly summarized the story topic. Which was surprisingly hard, because it raised the issue of relevancy, and why I was writing this, now. And I was entirely fuzzy on my own motivations. I still am.
I love your question about choosing words, because I flashed back to the mid-1990s, when I worked at the Florida edition of the Wall Street Journal. One of the first things WSJ told me was that I did not know how to write; however, there was nothing I could do that they couldn’t fix. So, I would turn in my story, and go into my brilliant editor Rob Johnson’s office, clutching my files. Rob would take out two Tylenol, put them near his computer, sigh, and thus it would begin: “So. Why did you use…this….verb?”
He should have given me the Tylenol. I never knew. I don’t know now.
The memoir was light years away from my regular duties. As an investigative reporter with The Post, I am working under some pretty strict marching orders to get the nut graph in before the jump. (Though that internal discipline has helped me declutter some ledes, no matter how much I grumble.) But my cardinal rule in investigative writing is the opposite of what I did with the memoir. In my day job, clarity is everything. If a reader pauses or has to think, if I make the reader work in any way, then I haven’t succeeded. Which is why an awful lot of pretty writing gets cut.
Plus, my reporting typically involves deciphering and translating dense paper: spreadsheets, contracts, medical records, audits, SEC and business documents, etc. As a result, I am sweating clarity and crafting coherent structure. And logic flaws. Always with the logic flaws. Contrast that with the memoir, in which I was asking the reader to wander.
Tell me a bit more about your decision to do this. Did you have much experience in writing in the first person? How much did you wrestle with it? How did you decide where to draw the line on what you would and should share with the world?
Just a few months earlier, I had been commiserating with a fellow reporter over news reporters writing first-person articles. So professionally dicey. So unnecessary. If you want to be a columnist, be a columnist. Do not drip your inner self all over the page. It gets in the way of the news. It gets in the way of your credibility. So I went and did it. Of course.
Over the years, I have written a few first-person columns. I wrote the most recent one for Features several years ago. They were in a bind – a columnist was on vacation, as I recall. But while the columns might touch on the personal, they were not revealing.
I knew I did not want to create a parade of horrors, and in so doing, not only contribute to the canon of 21st century victim porn, but also get in the way of an intended message – you know, form follows function. So I only wanted to include stories that were illustrative of a very specific type of journey, and the particular horror associated with societal denial. Picking those out wasn’t too hard, once I knew where I was going.
“We had an editor-vs.-reporter moment. It does ask a lot of a reader, especially in a daily newspaper, to trust you to walk them through 18-20 inches without any idea of where they are going.”
A few years back, I did an investigative series on the privatization of medical care in prisons. What I found was so horrific that my editors and I decided pretty early on that we were going to withhold a great many examples. There is only so much you can ask of a reader. If we were to detail everything, we risked numbing the reader, or creating a story where the horrors overwhelmed everything else we needed to get across: the rising rate of deaths following privatization, the national pattern and state history of inmate medical abuse, etc.
Readers found the stories shocking and difficult to read. But from my perspective, the published stories didn’t rise to the level of personal emotional distress because I was aware of what I had chosen to omit: the truly bad stuff.
In my own story, I made a choice to omit bad stuff. So, coming from that perspective, what I shared did not feel painfully, overwhelmingly revealing.
I want to ask more specifically about Trump and his comments regarding women. In this arena, I recognize that I’m freer than you are to talk politics. But I guess that’s sort of my point – when that tape came out, I didn’t think it was about politics at all. I was stunned, not so much that he said it, but by the mental gymnastics required of people to excuse it. To the degree that you are comfortable, can you tell me a bit about your response to both Trump’s words and to the reaction from America?
I guess the proximate cause came in the wake of Trump’s comments.
Abusers, would-be abusers, people who endorse certain types of abuse, are always going to be with us. But I experienced the widespread efforts, and not just by Trump supporters, to recast the comments as typical/or acceptable as a deeply personal rebuke. And even for some who found the comments objectionable, it was clearly a footnote concern.
Still, I wasn’t going to write until I came across two tweets from tween-age girls recounting their own experience with being groped. One was 13. I remember 13. And I got angry in a way I could never have been at 13. At 13, I was trying, not very successfully, to make sense of being a woman in the world of my experience. I so wished someone could have told me then that the arc of a life is long, and that it comes empty, so you get to fill it. But have you ever known a 13-year-old to sit still for that sort of adult babble? (I’m an adult, and I wouldn’t.)
So I just told her a story.
Normally, I would ask about the reaction from readers. In this case, your piece was so vulnerable and intimate, I find myself wondering as much about the response you received from people you know – from friends and family. Can you tell me a bit about the response?
I don’t think anyone who writes memoir, but especially this type of memoir, has one motivation. I am not sure my motivations don’t remain a secret even to myself. There were many reasons not to write it. Here is the short list of people who said: Why would you do such a thing?
A trusted editor. Two friends. A therapist. My mother. My son. Other people’s first-person accounts were appearing in papers. What would another one contribute to the discussion? Why would I open my family to grief?
I was concerned that an editor might look for extensive detail on the abuse itself – victim porn. I was braced for trolls. Trump trolls. I was concerned because the concept of child abuse is “sticky” – it has the power to not only alter a person’s concept of your identity, it has the power to do so for a long time. It was entirely possible some people, including friends and colleagues, would now see the abuse first, then the person.
At the other end of the “trolling” spectrum, I worried people might express the (nervous) compassion one might extend to a friend of long standing who had freshly sprouted three heads. I shouldn’t have worried. No trolls, no treacle.
The most difficult response came from an older family member, who cried when I told her what I would be writing. She wasn’t crying for me. She had been abused when she was 5. She had never told anyone. And she was in her 70s. She had spent all those decades, alone.
With a bit of time behind you: How do you feel? Anything you might do differently if you were starting from scratch today? Did you ever hear anything from local law enforcement there? Do you want to? Do you feel that any of the weight has been lifted off of you, or at least that you had the opportunity to remind other girls and women that they are not alone?
I did not hear from law enforcement. I am not sure I expect to. Still, there are things I want to know, about that small town with all those kids and all those sex offenders, about the brothers and their own memories. It all feels a bit unfinished. Just like life.
As for doing things differently. I wouldn’t have waited so long. There’s a very strong case to be made for not revealing too much, too soon. I worry about young women in particular who are early in recovery and feel pulled to share everything, and with everyone. Though absolutely understandable, it can also open them up to comments and incidents that are profoundly triggering. But I have been in a place for a few years now where I knew I could write about my experiences openly. I knew the power of connection.