We talked last week with Roy Wenzl, who wrote “Promise Not To Tell,” our last Notable Narrative for 2010. A reporter with The Wichita Eagle, Wenzl has a few other Notable Narratives under his belt, along with awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. His latest project interested us due to its style and structure, and because it is a classic print narrative done for a daily newspaper that has gotten a tremendous response. In these excerpts from our talk, Wenzl discusses getting the story, deciding how to tell it, and why he believes it will have a greater effect than the many abuse stories he’s written before.
Three reporters and an editor were going to do a project on physical abuse. We’ve had a lot of dead babies in Wichita – like eight murdered babies in two years – and we’d written dailies and little weekend follows about that. But we decided we really needed to figure out what was going on and whether the state social services were doing their jobs.
As part of that, I talked us into the detective unit that investigates child abuse, all forms of child abuse. They’d never talked to us before; they’re very secretive, confidential, and very good at what they do. They work in teams with the social workers, and they run in pairs, a cop and a social worker, and talk to families. The social worker is there not only to investigate, but they’re plugged in with all the aid you can bring to families, teaching them not to do this, or “Here’s where you can find free counseling” – that sort of thing.
They also investigate all the child abuse in the area, and they were the primary agency. They’ve never talked to us before. But they finally warmed up enough to talk to us, and they said, “You know, more than 50 percent of what we do involves sexual abuse. You ought to look at that.” And at first, I was like, “God. We’ve got so much to do with this other thing. This is going to take forever.”
I had done a lot of child abuse stories, because I started out as a police reporter at the Kansas City Star years ago, with police and courts. So I had actually done takeouts on child abuse. I knew how complex and complicated it was. And so I said, “Give me something. I know there’s lot of commonalities with these cases that people don’t realize.” And they said, “Yeah, there are.” For example, the public almost assumes it’s the stranger in the trench coat, and it’s almost always someone you know doing the sexual abuse – the boyfriend of the mom, the granddad, somebody.
I said, “Do you have a representative case I could do a takeout on?” I was thinking we could do that and then move on to do the giant physical abuse project with the eight homicides. And they gave me this one. At the time, I thought “Well, this will be a weekend toss-off.” But I kept backing it up. Where did the call come from? Well, it came from this detective on adult sex crimes. He was the moving force that got us involved. I asked him, “Who called you?” He gave me the neighbors’, the Vaseys’, number. And they said, “I don’t know if I want to talk with you.” The rescue family was very nervous. Then, I realized they were still in touch with the girls. I’m thinking, “I’m really going to push this and see how far we can go,” knowing as I did that hardly anyone ever writes about sexual abuse from the inside out, and especially incest. Everybody just gets creeped out.
The editors were nervous, but I knew how this stuff worked. I knew we were never going to be able to write a story about incest and put in the details, so I just decided there were lot of other things we could do with this, especially once I learned that the girls wanted to talk.
When did the idea of them being identified – the use of their names, their pictures, their retelling of events, their writing – come up?
The moment I asked the rescue family, “Could I talk to the girls?” they said, “Yeah, in fact, Kellie’s been saying for a couple years she wants to come out publicly.” She’s a kid but she wants to help victims and tell them, “It’s OK.” And so I was all over that. We talked with her, and she was all for it. And she was spilling the details, everything: how it affected her, how it screwed up her life, how it screwed up her relations with men after the rescue. I didn’t ask her anything about the sex, but she volunteered things. She was so totally fearless that I just thought, “You know, I bet she’ll pull along everybody else.” So I said, “Can I talk to your twin?” She said, “I don’t know if she’s going to want to do it.” But she did.
By then I’m going back to the cops and the social workers and saying, “Here’s what I’m doing with this.” And they’re freaking out: “We didn’t realize this was going to go this far.” They’re very worried and legitimately so, because the 15-year-old is still in the system. If I’m publicly identifying the two girls, what does that mean for the 15-year-old with his schoolmates, with neighbors, with his own feelings?
Stirring something up again, even after five years, is a trigger for everything, emotional trauma, that kind of thing. I had a lot of meetings with the police, with the head of social services in Wichita, and they finally got to the point that if everybody is so OK with this, nobody knows anything about sexual abuse, so the flip side is that if these girls really want to talk, and this is such a representative case, this could do a huge amount of good. I ended up talking with everybody in that family except two of the three imprisoned characters. The 15-year-old and I had a couple of long conversations.
I talked with the mother. That was just really hard, because she knew she was going to be once again identified as the person who let this happen for a decade. And the third sister decided finally she didn’t want to be named, but she was glad the sisters were doing it. We had to make that adjustment. The more the family was so for it, the less worried the police and social workers were about having tipped me off to the thing. And so everybody right up to publication was on the same page: “Yeah, we’re going to do this.”
The editors were nervous all the way through until maybe a month before, and I kept telling them, “I’m going to write it so it can be read from the pulpit in church. I don’t need to go into the details. The details are implied. This is a story about how these things operate. This is a story that if we write it, readers are going to measure themselves against it, the way they always do with narrative: ‘How would I act if I was faced with similar circumstances? Would I rise to the occasion? Would I temporize? Would I delay?’ ”
When everybody realized that the cops and the social workers and the family were on the same page about doing this so openly, with names and faces, then it became, “OK, let’s get it together and do it.”
You got everybody on the same page, and you’re imagining that the story could be read from the pulpit. How did you approach the construction of the piece to make this something different from what everybody’s seeing all the time?
The other thing I knew from having done narrative for a few years, and from having done child abuse stories in the past as a reporter and an editor, the way that the media often does these stories is that they write about them in the abstract – your typical weekender, with an anecdotal lede followed by summary news nut graf, followed by fact, followed by fact. And they’re facts that are just facts. When you write about things in the abstract, it’s very difficult for readers to get engaged with it. “OK, there’s this massive problem, and there’s very little I as a reader or as a citizen can do with it, so I’m just not going to engage.”
But when you turn it completely on its head, the real theme of this story, the real unstated but obvious theme, is that this is how this stuff actually plays out in secret. When you’re hinting to the reader that this is how all these cases go – yet you wrap it around these central characters of the two girls and a hero once in a while, either the rescue woman or the detectives – it’s almost irresistible. People are just pulled along. They want to know what happened next to the girls. Which meant that I had to write it from the inside, so the reader was right there. I had to reconstruct scenes. I had to write an umbrella top, an all-encompassing top of whatever it was – 8 or 9 inches: “Here’s what’s happening. Here’s why we’re doing this.”
And then the second part of the story with the Vaseys, we first meet these little kids coming across the street. And then it carries through chronologically scene after scene, with cross-cutting. First they’re at the Vaseys’, and everybody’s happy, and the next scene is they’re home and getting molested. And then they’re back at the Vaseys’ on the trampoline. Contrasting the horror of what these girls are going through with the joy and peace when they went to play with toys at Shelly’s house. The whole idea is “What’s going to happen in the next scene?” So, you’re pulling people along.
Almost by default you’re giving people a little bit of an education, where with the traditional nut graf, weekender news takeout, you’re just telling everybody what happened, you’re not showing, and you’re telling them in larger numbers: “There are 6 zillion child abuse cases in Sedgwick County,” blah, blah. I’ve done those kinds of pieces before in that way, writing about them in the abstract, and nothing ever happened. Nobody ever called, nobody wrote, no laws were examined or changed.
This one, the comments are up to 650 comments now on the story, we’re well past 400,000 page views on the story – in Wichita.* When you write about people, and you write about them in a way where every sentence hints to you that you need to find out what happens next, you’re pulled along in this current, even if you’re not particularly interested in this topic, and you’re learning things about child abuse and sexual abuse and incest while wondering what’s going to happen to these two girls and how it’s going to turn out.
By the way, I haven’t done a search on the three stories, but I wrote it with the idea that I wouldn’t even use the word incest, and I don’t think I did. A whole story about incest without using the word at all.
You mentioned the response the paper’s been getting. Could you talk a little about the response the Henderson girls have been getting?
With all the problems that my editors and I had to solve with this, the one I was worried about the most was how the girls were going to take this. As everyone pointed out, including my editors, who are very smart people, these are rape victims that we’re dealing with, and just the act of interviewing them is possibly going to be disturbing to them – even though the twins are saying emphatically, “We want to do this. We want to go there. We want you to take us there.”
But I couldn’t just worry about them. There’s their 18-year-old sister, who’s less willing so far to come out. There’s the 15-year-old boy who was beaten up repeatedly. These are four kids, 19, 18 and 15. They’re not only rape victims, or in the case of the boy, beating victims, physical abuse victims, they’re teenagers. They’re tough and hard because of what they went through, but they’re also vulnerable and have felt betrayed by the key people in their lives for most of their lives.
I’m a dad and a grandfather myself, and I was really worried about how they were going to cope. If there was public fallout, how were they going to handle this? What if a whole bunch of people donate to them? Is that going to go to their heads? All of these things are triggers for emotional responses, and they’re very fragile beings.
My way of dealing with that was early on, I was cluing them in about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Early on, I tracked down the younger sister and walked her through what I was going to do. And when I had early drafts done, which was about a month and a half ago, I started reading sections, big sections, to the kids. Not only as a way for them to fact-check, but as a way to get them so used to this damn story so that publication would be anti-climatic in a way, not entirely, but I wanted to deaden the impact and remove the suspense.
You were inoculating them.
That idea is not original to me – Roy Peter Clark taught me to do that 10 years ago, when he was coaching me on my first serial narrative. Get them on board, deaden the suspense. I did the same thing with the detectives, who were very protective of the girls.
So when I read these big chunks and sections, everybody realized not only that there wasn’t going to be a screw-up, but it gave them a sense of empowerment. They could give tweaks to fix minor factual things. It also became old hat. “Oh, I know what it says.” They liked what they were hearing, hearing me read aloud to them. They all did. They were kind of looking forward to the thing, even though it’s got to be a horrific experience.
I’m still worried. We’re not going to know for a while. I was confident enough and my editors were confident enough that we weren’t going to mess these girls up, or the young man involved, but I’m still checking in with them.
You mentioned that they’ve been getting direct response, too. Can you talk a little about that?
People are reaching out to them. They’re on Facebook, so people are contacting them that way. Friends are expressing shock. “I knew you, and I knew Andrew. I had no idea this was going on. I’m so sorry.” People are using the word hero and the word courageous frequently. They’re OK with that; they’re fine with that. And adults on the blogs are calling them heroes for speaking out.
I’ve got a follow story for this weekend, and it’s about all these people, some of them in their 70s, writing me or writing the Vaseys, talking about what happened to them, and that it’s the same thing that happened to them, and that they’ll never get over it. This one woman said she made a point of spitting in her stepfather’s casket after he died, decades after he abused her. That she showed up and made sure she got her spittle on him.
Going to dramatic scenes, there’s the scene with the mom in the story.
I read it to her, too.
Could you talk a little about that? You mentioned elsewhere that you did meet with the mom, and that was hard. In reading that scene, it feels like a scene that is ramped up in power by the fact that it’s so restrained.
Yeah, I used to really throw in exclamation marks in stories and italicize sentences. This one, it started with “I don’t even want to use the word incest,” and “I don’t want to say specific sex acts.” The older I get, and the more I do this sort of thing, the more I strip my stories down. That’s what older reporters do when they get more experience. You really try to strip all the artifice out and imply things. You try to write things in such a sequence and a position that things are implied, and you don’t have to use ramped-up language.
Starkness actually works to give it more punch and more power, especially when you’ve got a horror story like this. You want to create the effect in the reader that, “My God, did I just read what I read?” With a story like this, you just need to say what happened.
*In the 10 days since the first installment of the serial was posted, the Wichita Eagle has had more than 600,000 page views on the story.