“Elroy lives here. Tiny, half-blind, mentally retarded, 39-year-old Elroy. To find him, go past the counselor flirting on the phone.”
If you had been in the Georgetown University cafeteria back in 1999, you might have seen me with my baby blue tray carrying mass-produced scrambled eggs and a copy of the Washington Post. The story spread across the front page that day was about the large number of developmentally disabled people who died of abuse in the city’s taxpayer-funded group homes.
I’ll never forget the article, because reporter Katherine Boo did something remarkable: She resurrected lives that had been obliterated from the public ledger by the people meant to love and care for them. More than any piece of newspaper journalism I’ve read before or since, it opened up the possibilities for what investigative reporting can achieve. It inspired me to try to do the same in my own career.
In the series, which won the 2000 Public Service Pulitzer, Boo shows us how to do a different type of investigative story. Instead of the usual bullet points and sweeping hard news introduction, these were character-driven tales with a clear beginning, middle and end. And by placing the closely observed narrative first, Boo’s stories more directly confronted the complexity and darkness of her subject.
The intimacy of Boo’s stories somehow managed to make them feel more authoritative than other investigations’ “voice of god” narrators. She erased the sense that this was a tale brought back from afar, and thereby implicated the reader more.
Her first story began this way: “Elroy lives here. Tiny, half-blind, mentally retarded, 39-year-old Elroy. To find him, go past the counselor flirting on the phone.”
Unlike so much reporting on the poor, these stories had a tone that was neither bleeding-heart sentimental nor cynical; instead, they had a combination of the sweet and the sour. These were stories with a grand humor and deep melancholy in response to the corrosive darkness that engulfed the victims. How many other newspaper investigative reporters would have ended their story with the plastic grave marker for one of the subjects, Desmond Brown, and described it comically? “On that marker, another joke Brown might have gotten,” she wrote. “No name, just the digits 137. A number, as if someone were counting.”
But that comedy was the hard-won product of deep reporting and an ability to reach far beyond the subjects’ limited words.
Brown “was retarded,” she wrote. “He was blind. And what of it? He cranked his favorite Santana tape and decided he could dance on his knees. If fate had played a trick on him, he seemed to get the joke. Among so many limits, said his presence, there may still be so much life.”
Over these years, it’s been remarkable to hear how many fellow travelers on this road have mentioned Boo’s work as a key guidepost in the quest to hold the powerful to account for what they have done to the powerless. The voice she established in these stories is so indelible, I hear it often during interviews on ghetto streets and under dim office lights at the keyboard later.
Time after time, Boo manages to translate her subjects’ physical language, expanding upon what they cannot articulate. To do this, she might go 700 words or more without a single quote. When it finally comes, it can be the sort of spare, broken dialogue that other reporters might discard in defeat, but in Boo’s hands it flows like Elroy’s thoughts themselves:
“God is a friend of mine,” he says. But absent divine intervention, “you just gotta do what they say.” Just got to add soap powder, and more soap powder, turn the dial to hot. “Gotta not let the worries pluck your nerves.”
Trying to understand the structural underpinnings for misery can be like trying to figure out the shape of an elephant through a pinhole. There is so much unknown or distorted, and reliable information is broken free one tiny piece at a time.
Many reporters use nonprofit advocates and government records as their starting point, and phenomena that can’t be easily documented is discounted; Boo’s reporting starts from the premise that some of the most wrenching suffering leaves absolutely no trace on the public record, and she uncovers connections that others don’t.
In my own career, I’ve tried to return to some of her foundational choices again and again while reporting on children who died of abuse or neglect, or on poverty pimps who turned to the foster-care business to get rich from other people’s misfortune. Over these years, it’s been remarkable to hear how many fellow travelers on this road have mentioned Boo’s work as a key guidepost in the quest to hold the powerful to account for what they have done to the powerless. The voice she established in these stories is so indelible, I hear it often during interviews on ghetto streets and under dim office lights at the keyboard later.
In the “Invisible Lives, Invisible Deaths” series, Boo’s writing and reporting are unabashedly steeped in moral outrage. It’s a tone that might be rejected by many newspaper editors these days out of concern that it contains too much attitude and is vulnerable to charges that it ventures into editorializing. But when the evidence is as meticulously documented as this, it feels less like old-style advocacy journalism and more like the plainspoken truth about injustice.