This year’s Power of Narrative conference seemed to capture the #MeToo zeitgeist, with speakers like author Roxane Gay and the Boston Globe’s Sacha Pfeiffer talking about the uncomfortable truths of sexual abuse.
“The match we lit started a huge fire.”
Judging from the line-up at last weekend’s gathering at Boston University, it seemed like the male-directed conference was trying to meet the issues of women, and women of color, head on.
Gay charged straight into uncomfortable territory, saying that the subject of her acclaimed memoir, “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” fell squarely into the category of “What do I want to write about least?”
Yet heeding writer Dinty Moore’s dictum to “tell the truth artfully,” Gay began writing the book about her obesity, a story without the usual “triumphant transformation” to thin-ness. In it, she disclosed things she “needed to say, but couldn’t say” for so many years.
When she wrote about being raped as a child, she said in conversation with WBUR’s Lisa Mullins, she asked herself, “What do I absolutely need to say?”
Toward the end of the discussion, Gay admitted that she doesn’t like to give talks, suggesting yet again her willingness to endure difficulty for a greater purpose. But she said she remains determined to “have the courage not to pander” and to “say what I really want to say,” despite the army of trolls her honesty has attracted, along with her legions of fans.
She said she responds to about 5% of her trolls “because I am petty.” She called it a workout for her bitchiness.
When members of the audience got a chance to ask questions, a heavyset young journalism student at BU told Gay that she had been warned by friends, family and professors that it will be tough for her to succeed because of her size. Gay just gazed at her said: “Are you going to be discriminated against because you are fat? Yes. But you’re gorgeous. Write anyway.”
Globe Spotlight’s Pfeiffer won a Pulitzer Prize for her role in the coverage of widespread abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and the resulting cover-up. She shared the stage with The New York Times’ Emily Steel, whose reporting exposed a series of settlements related to sexual harassment allegations against former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. They talked about the cringey, disturbing details of assault and rape and how reporting their specificity began to bring down the likes of the Catholic priests, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein and O’Reilly.
In a sweet meta moment, Steel talked of how she attended a pilates class in order to coax the first woman, Wendy Walsh, to go on record about O’Reilly. She said she used the same language that Pfeiffer used in reporting the priest abuse story, by way of actress Rachel McAdams in the movie “Spotlight.”
Steel had studied the scene where Mc Adams/Pfeiffer tells a victim: “I think that the language is going to be so important here; we can’t sanitize this. Just saying “molest” isn’t enough, people need to know what actually happened.”
Steel discussed the similarities between the Catholic Church and the protection of its priests and Roger Aisles and Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein: “We were looking at a pattern of behavior.”
“The match we lit started a huge fire,” she said.
The feminine/feminist vibe had begun with the opening keynote by senior ESPN writer Don Van Natta Jr. After talking about covering men’s football and hard drinking and his male mentors, he was asked if there were any women journalists he admired.
Van Natta looked mildly surprised, and said, “Yes, yes I do: Jill Abramson” – the first female executive editor of The New York Times, who was fired after less than three years. The two worked together on the Monica Lewinsky scandal back in the 1990s.
The response was an anti-echo of a twitterstormed moment from two years ago, when Gay Talese was asked to name some female writers who had inspired him and he could not name one. He proceeded to make it worse by saying that women just “do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers.”
“I want all my paragraphs to function like paper dolls — you know, everyone holding hands.”
In his talk, Van Natta talked about the tools of his investigative trade.
“Research the heck out of folks… And get documents. Ask for copies of emails, tweets, direct messages,” said Van Natta Jr., co-founder of the The Sunday Long Read.
Due diligence, Van Natta emphasized, was how he scored exclusive access to Jerry Jones (owner of the Dallas Cowboys) for a memorable ESPN piece. Because Van Natta had done his (deep web) homework, he knew, for instance, that he was a single day younger than one of Jerry’s sons; perhaps it helped that Van Natta had the fortitude to pose his engaging questions while matching Jones glass for glass as they downed “smooth” Johnny Walker Blue.
Van Natta stressed that the best interviews are conversations. And he invoked the value of the barroom again, noting that when it’s time to turn research into a story, he prefers clean, colloquial writing: “Pretend you’re telling it to your friend at the bar.”
When Lisa Mullins asked Gay about her writing process, she said she’s not focusing on her audience when she writes. Instead she engages with her own questions like, “Where am I going to start this piece? How am I going to connect the beginning to the end?” She said, “I want all my paragraphs to function like paper dolls — you know, everyone holding hands.”
The round table that followed, featuring WBUR’s Bruce Gellerman and Sam Fleming, Huffington Post Editor Lydia Polgreen, Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski and Boston Globe Editor Brian McGrory was not an exhibit of journalists holding hands, but they did affirm each other as each took his or her turn expounding on the role of narrative journalism now.
Furthermore, they singled out examples of exceptional reporting to check out. Among them: Huffington Post Highline’s “FML,” and the Boston Globe’s “Chasing Bayla” and “The Tragedy that Boston Forgot” — all made possible, as Polgreen put it, “through grit, empathy and storytelling.”