Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff tweeted the following yesterday morning:
This reminded us of an NYU course that Ted Conover has taught, called “The Journalism of Empathy,” in which graduate students are asked to deeply consider, and even inhabit, the lives of the people they’re writing about. Conover, author of books including Coyotes: A Journey across Borders with America’s Illegal Migrants and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing wrote, in his syllabus:
Empathy in narrative has roots in some of the earliest written stories—what is a literary character, after all, if not an imagining of the the world through someone else’s eyes? But empathy is not exclusively the tool of novelists and playwrights. In our time, journalists such as Alex Kotlowitz, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Anne Fadiman, Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean and Sebastian Junger (and earlier, John Hersey and others) have used a fiercely empathetic approach to create powerful nonfiction narratives, sometimes with social justice concerns.
Once asked about the role of empathy in his own work, Conover said, “I guess I see it as being about connecting to others unlike oneself. Part of that is an intellectual exercise and part is emotional; if you work at it, you can close the distance. An approach I’ve used is spending lots of time with my subjects, traveling and living and breathing the air they do and trying, as far as possible, to see things from their point of view. Empathy speaks to that connection. You can never completely understand another person, but there’s a lot you can do to close the distance.”
How does the challenge shift when writing about someone who has been convicted of a terrible crime? Is it possible to reveal the accused’s humanity without excusing the crime? Responses to Colloff’s question came steadily throughout the day. Here are some of the recommenders and their reading suggestions:
Melissa Segura, a Sports Illustrated staff writer:
“Crime and Punishment,” by Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated (June 1996), about a high school basketball star accused of sexual abuse.
Maurice Chammah, an Austin-based journalist:
“Death in Arkansas,” by Marshall Frady, The New Yorker (February 1993), about a death row killer who had shot himself in the head upon capture, rendering himself childlike.
Peter Flax, editor in chief, Bicycling magazine:
“The Source of All Things,” by Tracy Ross, Backpacker magazine (December 2007), about coping, as a grown woman, with childhood molestation at the hands of her stepfather. The book version was later excerpted in Outside.
Glenn Stout, an SB Nation contributing editor, author and founding editor of the Best American Sportswriting anthology series:
“Free Fallin,’” by Cory Johnson, The Village Voice (December 1992), about Mark “Gator” Rogowski, a professional skateboarder and budding stunt double convicted of raping, beating and strangling a 22-year-old California woman, and dumping her body in the desert.
“Why Did the Schaibles Let Their Children Die?” by Robert Huber, Philadelphia magazine (October 2013), about a devout couple who believe in “divine healing,” and who lost two sons to treatable bacterial pneumonia.
Gretchen Gavett, associate editor at the Harvard Business Review, and an editor at Longform.org:
“Rewrite,” by Robert Sanchez, 5280 magazine (May 2011), about a teenage driver coping with the aftermath of an accident that killed four people.
“Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.,” by Mac McClelland, Mother Jones (May/June 2013), about a family murder and the mental health system.
“The Man Who Charged Himself with Murder,” by Jennifer Gonnerman, New York magazine (November 2012), about a New York City man who turned himself in for a 17-year-old murder he suspected that he committed.
“The Tainted Kidney,” by Charles Graeber, New York magazine (October 2007), about the serial killer Charles Cullen.
“Jahar’s World,” by Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone (July 2013), about Jahar Tsarnaev, charged in the Boston Marathon bombings.
“Taken,” by Ann O’Neill, CNN.com, about the oldest cold case ever solved.
“Boy Crazy,” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, Boston magazine (May 2001), about the North American Man/Boy Love Association.
Evan Hughes, magazine writer and author of Literary Brooklyn:
“The Hit Man’s Tale,” by Nadya Labi, The New Yorker (October 2012), about an honors student who became a hired killer.
Daniel Fromson, author of Finding Shakespeare, and web copy editor at The New Yorker:
“The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts: The Confessions of Thomas Quick,” by Chris Heath, GQ (August 2013), about a criminal’s explanation of the horrors he committed.
Mark Armstrong, founder, @Longreads:
Among Murderers: Life After Prison, Chapter 7: “Job Readiness,” by Sabine Heinlein (University of California Press, 2013), about Harlem convicts preparing for a new life.