Note from Storyboard editor Kari Howard: Reporter Tom French recently spoke at the annual Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest, Romania. His speech, a remarkable feat of storytelling about storytelling, is so powerful, we’re running the entire transcript verbatim. Trust me: Read the whole thing. (FYI: He won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for his story in the St. Petersburg Times about the murdered mother and daughters he talks about below.)
Picture a boy at the edge of everything. Carlo Ottanelli is 13 years old, he’s in the seventh grade at the Booker T. Washington Middle School in Tampa, Florida. He’s a nice boy. One of his most distinctive features, which you can see in this photo [on the screen], is his hair, which he never combs. He doesn’t seem to know what a comb is. This is good for him because girls keep running up to him, whenever they can, and they’ll beg: ”Please, please, can I? Please, please?” And he’ll say: ”Hmm, OK.” And they’ll go [gestures ruffling his hair] on the top of his head and then run away.
“I love fiction — if there’s fiction writers in the room, I salute you. But there’s no need for those of us who write nonfiction to invent anything. Life defies categorization, it obliterates ideology; day after day, life exceeds invention.”
Carlo’s most distinctive achievement, here in the seventh grade, so far, is that he is a member of the Pink Dinos, which is Booker T’s now legendary rock band. Seventh grade rock band. They’re all 13, like Carlo they’re all nice boys, they have a certain puppy charm, and they make their world debut at the school, inside the school’s cafeteria, which also has a stage. This is a concert that follows two days of standardized tests. So it’s a concert of liberation. The boys’ mothers have all begged their sons if they can attend and they had to negotiate permission to attend. Shawn, the bassist, told his mother that she was not to come. And she’s like: ”Please! Please, please, please. I’ll stay in the back; they won’t even know that you’re my son. I won’t look at you.” The mothers take their place in the back, the boys come out on stage and they begin to play. These mothers love their sons, they’re proud of their sons for being brave enough to get out on stage, but to their ears the Pink Dinos are terrible. They cannot play at all. There’s two lead singers, both of them are singing in different keys, both of them are out of key. They cannot play at all. As they go through their brief set, it’s so clear that they are trying to be rebellious, but it’s not working. They play a Blink 182 song called “Damn It,” but without anyone telling them to, they change it to “Darn It.” And the moms, they’re just cringing, because their sons sound so bad. And yet, and yet, every girl in the room is going insane. They’re jumping up and down, they are screaming, they’re waving signs, “Kiss me.” One of the signs says, “Marry me, Ricky.” This is Ricky Reed, one of the two lead singers. Ricky’s mother is in the back, she sees the sign and she’s not really ready for her son to get married yet. But she and the other moms are watching these waves of joy that their sons’ playing is sparking in these girls. And these moms realize that the landscape of their sons’ lives is about to change profoundly. They also realize with a little bit of sadness that they’re not number one anymore in their sons’ lives. In that one instance they have lost that place. Ricky Reed’s mom calls up her husband in his office in the downtown Tampa, and then just holds the phone up. On the other end of the line, Mr. Reed can hear Ricky singing badly. And Geo singing badly. He can hear Shawn’s bass, he can hear Cameron’s inspired drumming. But what he hears most of all is wave, after wave, after wave of girls screaming for his little boy.
From that day forward the Pink Dinos are the rock stars of the Booker T. Middle School. Which is funny to me because their band name sounds like they’re the house band for Barney. But it’s true. I would walk down the halls with these boys, taking notes on what they were saying, on what’s happening, and girls were like throwing themselves, like hurling themselves in their direction. And talking about the boys as they walk by. Finally, these boys are appreciated for their ragged splendor. All of them have been transformed. If they want girlfriends, all of them have girlfriends. Cameron, the drummer, doesn’t want a girlfriend. He says: “I have my skateboard.” All of the Pink Dinos are now bathed in a golden, soft light of adulation. All of them that is, except for Carlo. The lost, and lovesick, and lonely Carlo.
To clear the record, Carlo didn’t actually play in this band. He was their manager. Now, why a seventh-grade band needs a manager, I can’t tell you. But he’s their manager and he’s their first back-up guitarist in case one of the other crummy guitarists gets sick, I guess. ‘Cause all the boys, once they saw the girls, even when the Pink Dinos were practicing every lunch time, down the band drum, girls would just line up and do the doe-eyed thing. And other boys saw this and said, “I want to join The Pink Dinos.”
Carlo, the manager of the Pink Dinos, has been in love with Kalie since the sixth grade. It is now the end of the seventh grade. This is Carlo’s way. When he was in kindergarten, he liked a girl, he wrote her name on a piece of paper, and he slept with that piece of paper under his pillow every night for the entire year. Kalie, as it turns out, is not interested. She’s going out with lots of different boys. Middle-school relationships, I don’t know if this is true in Romania, but in the U.S., the middle-school relationships, if they last an hour or a day, that’s pretty good. It’s rapid fire. And going out just means they walk the halls together and they hold hands. Maybe, if their moms are nice, they drive them to the movies so they can sit and watch the movies while the mom is a few rows back. And Kalie is going out with lots of other boys. She doesn’t want to go out with Carlo. Carlo talks about this girls like a goddess. I asked him, “What do you like about her?” “Her hair?”; “She could be nice.” He doesn’t even know her, but he talks about her like she’s just this ethereal heightened creature.
“True stories worthy of our attention are all around us; they’re pumping inside of us, we breathe those stories. The real challenge is choosing, deciding among all the possibilities, what to write inside the limited time each of us is allotted. For us to do that, first we have to recognize these stories and the power of those stories from our lives and the lives of those around us. We have to open our eyes and see what’s right in front of us.”
I go to interview Kalie, I want to make sure he’s not stalking her, bothering her, you know. The story’s not going to work if that’s true. Or I guess it’s a different kind of story. She says: “No, he’s really polite. I just don’t feel that way about him. I really just want to be friends with him.” And she’s tried to let him down easy, but I’m pretty sure that most of the women in the room are going to testify that doesn’t work. A lesson most of us learn in seventh grade or eighth grade. Carlo hasn’t learned it. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s talking, I’m trying to ascertain that in fact she is a goddess. She’s not. She’s a 12-year-old girl, she’s a cute little girl, she’s got a ponytail, she’s got braces. She’s eating potato chips as I talk to her, morsels of potato chips and fragments are stuck in her braces. She’s a girl. She’s a little girl trying to figure out how to handle something really difficult.
Carlo is undeterred. He and the Pink Dinos have a sleepover. I learned very quickly, reporting on this story, that the girls have slumber parties, but the boys have sleepovers, and God forgive you if you call the boys’ get-together a slumber party. So I go to the sleepover, everyone knows I’m a reporter, I’ve cleared it with all the Pink Dinos. I guess they might have thought I was one of the boys’ grandfathers. But everyone knows who I am. I’m there, I’ve cleared it with all the Pink Dinos, with the mom and dad whose house this is at. And I’m reporting and it’s crazy because what happens for the most of the night is that these boys just beat the shit out of one-another all night. There’s like a little pool and they pick up one of these hose things that cleans the pool and they pull it apart and whack each other on the head with it. No malice in this. At one point, I look up and two of them have what appear to be hunting knives at each other’s throats. I violate a cardinal rule of reporting and I interfere, I say, ”Boys, please don’t kill each other in my presence.” And they’re ”Oh, Mr. French, they’re just plastic,” and they show me. ”OK.” I look over at one point and Carlo is on the computer. And I walk up behind him, I’m not sneaking up, he sees me over his shoulder and says, “Hey!” I got my notebook out as I always do, taking notes, and he’s emailing Kalie. There were hardly any cellphones back then, they weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today. Mrs. Reed did have one. But the boys do not. So there’s no texting. So, he’s typing to Kalie, and Kalie has told him that the reason she can’t go out with him is because she doesn’t know him well enough to feel that way about him. This a really pathetic excuse she’s offering him, but it’s the best she’s come up with, and she’s trying, and he’s bought it. And he’s typing to her and he says, “I just really hope we can spend some time together, so that maybe you could think of me that way, and maybe you could be my girlfriend.” And I see him typing this. Oh, my God, I just want to hug this child. All my seventh-grade angst is coming back, I’m having flashbacks to my seventh grade, to when I tried to say something romantic to Terry Tucker and my voice cracked in the middle of what I was saying. And I’m seeing Terry’s face, and I’m still pissed off, and I still want to go into the deepest cave on earth and hide forever from the shame of Terry rejecting me. But I’m a reporter; I did violate the immersion rules by telling them not to kill each other, but what I want to do is hug Carlo. Carlo’s parents are both from Italy, they’re both from Florence, they’re both Renaissance historians. Every summer, Carlo and his little brother go with their parents to Italy and spend the summer. Carlo speaks Italian fluently. I want to tell him: ”Son, you’re going to be fine. It’s going to be OK.” I want to hug him, but I don’t. I push Terry Tucker and my seventh-grade bullshit down in my brain and I keep taking notes. And he sends the e-mail. And then he signs off, and he signs on again under his friend Eric’s screen name. And he e-mails Kalie again, writing as Eric. “Carlo’s really a nice guy, maybe you can give him a chance.” And then he sends it. Inside my head, only inside my head, I go “YES!” Yes, now I’m getting somewhere in my reporting. I’ve just witnessed Carlo, that he’s crazy enough about this girl to tell a lie, to pretend to be Eric. I ask Carlo what he wants from Kalie. He says, “A kiss.” He only wants a kiss and for her to say that she’s his girlfriend for like a day. He says, “A kiss,” and then he stipulates ”on the mouth,” which cracks me up that he has to stipulate that. And I say. “Well, Carlo, have ever kissed a girl before?” And he says, “Umm, does my mom count?” No, son, your mom doesn’t count. This is the problem, of course. So, they’re talking and Eric, whose sign-on he stole or assumed, they’re talking about his feelings for Kalie, Carlo says he loves her and Eric just scoffs, “You’re 13, you can’t even know what love is.” Carlo’s mother, when I interviewed her later, the Renaissance historian, has a different view. She points out to me that in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was only 13 years old. And we take that seriously, that love story. She says to me that what Carlo feels for this girl is not anything close enough to her adult understanding for love, but clearly her son is going through something profound. Something that matters to him deeply. And she’s going to respect that. I wanted to hug the mom too. “Will you be my mom?”
The other Pink Dinos are just so fed up, they just can’t believe that Carlo’s still hanging in there with this unrequited love. Shawn, the bass player, the sage of the group, says to me, “It’s just so sad to watch what he’s become.” He says this. He says, “He still believes in happy endings.” They’ve given him some very sad romantic advice; they’ve explained to him: “You do not throw yourself at the feet of a girl. ‘Cause it’s not gonna work.” So, Carlo’s friends are just fed up. But Carlo doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to play games, he doesn’t want to go out with them. And then, one day, after I’ve followed him for a while … Carlo’s mom always makes him lunch and she always cuts the crust off his sandwiches. This is part of the problem. And on this day she’s put a little dark Godiva chocolate in his lunch. Carlo doesn’t eat the Godiva; he’s saving it for Kalie. They pass briefly through the halls between class periods, and his plan is to give it to her as they pass. Strangers in the night. Or in the hall. He doesn’t give her the chocolate, though, because later that day a rumor sweeps the school. A rumor that turns out to be true. Kalie has a new boyfriend. Another one of the Pink Dinos.
Let’s keep going.
Picture a tiger on the verge of extinction. This is Enshalla. She is a Sumatran tiger. Sumatrans are amongst the most endangered subspecies of tigers in the world; there’s only several hundred of them left in the wild. So, she’s important at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Her survival matters; it matters if she produces more baby tigers, if possible, so we can try to fight those odds for the Sumatrans. Enshalla is easily, I guess this is a subjective thing, I’m giving you my opinion, I’m labeling it as such, Enshalla is easily the most beautiful animal at the zoo. Writers, when we’re on deadline, we really learn very quickly how inadequate words are for a lot of the things we are trying to write, what blunt instruments they are. And if you’re trying to describe just how a tiger walks, there are no words. I tried, but I failed utterly. Everything she does carries this lethal beauty, this sense of so much potential for wonderful things and terrible things. Enshalla was born and raised at the zoo, she has never been free. She’s also never been tamed. Even now, after she’s grown up in captivity, every time the keepers turn their backs on her, they never get in the enclosure with her because she would kill them, but there’s always a thick mesh between them, and when they turn their back she hurls herself against the mesh. Jacqui [Banaszynski] gave you really good writing and reporting tips, I’ll just give you a survival tip. If there are tigers in the area, don’t turn your back. That’s when tigers attack, that’s how they attack. And Enshalla is up for attacking. Her keepers, they still just love her. In fact, they love her wildness, they told me, “She’s true to her species.” In the mornings, before they let her out in the exhibit, they go out in the exhibit, and they leave gifts for her. Big cats, tigers, like house cats, they love scent. So they go out and they sprinkle cinnamon, they sprinkle peppermint, ’cause they know she’s going to roll around when she gets out there ’cause she’s going to love it. And they also spray perfume. They’ve learned by this point by watching her that her favorites are musk perfumes. Her absolute favorite is Obsession.
They’re working very hard at this point to have her mate with a male Sumatran tiger. The male Sumatran tiger’s name is Eric. Eric is considerably younger than Enshalla, he’s from the national zoo in Washington, D.C., he’s never mated before, he is a tiger virgin. Tigers have different personalities, just like humans do. And by tiger standards, Eric is completely laid back. Which is not what the keepers want. So, they allow them in the same enclosure, they watch from across a little moat with more mesh protecting them, and they have beside them a giant fire hose. Because in the wild and in captivity, tiger sex can be fatal. The males, they will sometimes break the neck of the female and kill her. Enshalla’s father killed Enshalla’s mother in the same enclosure at one point. So they’ve got a fire hose in case. It doesn’t appear to be a problem though because Eric is so timid at first that he barely gets up. Finally, he’s roused and Enshalla begins to circle the enclosure and Eric is padding behind her.
Yes, I’m gonna talk about tiger sex now. You didn’t know that was going to happen today, did you?
And at a certain point Enshalla does what they call presenting. Which means she lowers down and then she raises her hindquarters a little bit, which is in tigers’ language, “Come aboard.” And Eric will try to do so, but every time he starts to, she gets up and runs away. And she goes around, and around, and she keeps presenting, and he keeps trying, and she keeps running. At one point he just gets frustrated. He’s like, ”Fuck it! That’s enough!” He goes over the corner and he slumps down. Enshalla is still running, but she looks over her shoulder, I’m not making this up, and you can almost read her face, she’s like “What?!” And she goes over, and I swear to God that she takes her paw and she thumps him on the shoulder. It’s like, “Dude, come on!” So he gets back up and he resumes his pursuit, if we can call it that. Meanwhile, I’m sitting beside Enshalla’s favorite keeper, the keeper who loves Enshalla best. Her name is Carie. Carie loves this tiger, and she’s, first of all, explained to me in tiger terms what’s happening, but she’s also comparing tiger mating rituals to human mating rituals. Which she actually doesn’t need to do much of, because it’s pretty obvious. But she’s also calling out encouragement to the young lovers. ”Eric! Eric, you need to be forceful with her! She wants you to be forceful with her.” ”Enshalla! Enshalla, sweetie, just let him do what he needs to and it will all be over.” At this point I wanted to interview Carie’s husband. She does everything but play Barry White for them. Finally, Enshalla presents, Eric again tries to come over and do what he’s supposed to do, and as he’s about to do that, she starts to get up and now he’s pissed. Even if tiger sex that doesn’t end in death, the male bites the female on the back of the neck and holds her down. And that’s what he does. Bites her on the back of the neck and holds her down, and they mate. What was wonderful to write about when I got to write this scene, and I’m pretty sure it’s the best tiger mating scene ever, is that when they finally get to it they’re right in front of this huge picture window. And there’s a mom with a little boy right there. And the mom sees what’s happening and she goes [gestures covering his eyes] over her son’s face. I think it is really funny what’s happening, but it’s really important for the future of this planet’s biodiversity if we can get some more baby Sumatrans. So they keep at it, the keepers. The keepers are more diligent than Eric. But they really want Enshalla to get pregnant. It has not happened yet, but they keep trying. Well, they’re trying to get Eric to try.
One day, late that summer, the head keeper in that section of the zoo, she has a son who I think is in second grade, he has an asthma attack at school, and she has to leave to go take care of her child. What that means is that in that section of the zoo, the zoo’s newest keeper is left by himself with the animals. And late that afternoon he’s preparing some food in a little cul-de-sac, next to the tigers’ dens. Again, there’s mesh separating. And he hears this sound behind him. He turns around and Enshalla is out. And she’s right there at the end of this cul-de-sac. There’s nowhere for him to run if she’s going to kill him. And he holds his breath. You know, he’s left a latch unlocked that was supposed to be locked. And he holds his breath, and then Enshalla keeps walking. And she pans out of the building and she goes into an exhibit outside that is still under construction. And just beyond that exhibit is the front of the zoo, where there’s a sculpture made of manatees. It a water fountain and you’re supposed to get in the water fountain. And it’s a place where little kids flock, especially in the summer, because they love to get down in the water that is coming out up from the ground by the manatees. My children, especially my sons, used to play at that fountain. And that’s where Enshala is heading, towards the mothers and the toddlers. The keeper pulls out his walkie-talkie and he says the three words that are the most feared words at the zoo: “Code one tiger.”
We’ll stop that one there.
Picture a young woman in the last hours of her life. Michelle Roger is 17, she’s close in graduating from high school in Van Wert County, Ohio. She and her sister, Christe, live with their mother and father on a dairy farm. They’re in rural Ohio. And when this picture is taken, Michelle and Christe and their mother are on their first and last family vacation of their lives. Their husband and father, Hal Rogers, has stayed behind to take care of the farm with some other help because the cows have to be milked twice a day. But Jo and the girls have managed to get a week. And they go down to Florida, and they cross into the Magic Kingdom, and they want to shake Mickey’s hand, and they want to go to all the theme parks, and lay on the beaches. And they also want to go to Bush Gardens in Tampa. So they pull into Tampa. By the way, Michelle is, like I’ve said, 17, Christe is 14. And they get lost on the highway, they get on the wrong lane of the highway, and they’re accidentally off the highway before they mean to be. And they go to a McDonald’s that is right there because it looks safe. And they’re going to go there to get directions. And their bad luck is that, while they’re at the McDonald’s, they do get directions, and the man who gives them directions invites them out onto his boat that night for sunset cruise on Tampa Bay. Where he will kill them one by one. Tie them up, sexually assault them in front of one another, use the love that they feel for one another to hurt them, and then he drops them alive into the bay one by one. Has anyone ever seen Tampa Bay? It’s beautiful. So he’s using these two beautiful things, this love that these three women feel for one another, and this body of water, this beautiful glittering body of water, in the most perverse way possible.
“At the heart of every issue, there’s a human level that leads to the three most beautiful words in the English language: What happens next?”
This photo [on the screen] is from their last afternoon alive, in their motel room, right by the bay. They’re getting ready to go for their sunset cruise. The look on Michelle’s face still haunts me. The police got this picture from a roll of film that was undeveloped that was inside their motel room. And their bodies were found floating in the bay, and then the police were trying to figure out who they were, and they got a report of three women checking into this motel room and never coming back. So, they go and they get the film. They also confirm that it’s Jo and Michelle and Christe. They didn’t know because their bodies were so disfigured from the water. But they take their fingerprints and they match them on a Sesame Street tube of toothpaste. Something about that detail bothers me as much as anything else. Who wants proof of our death to come from a Sesame Street tube of toothpaste? It’s like a sick joke.
It’s a terribly difficult case for the detectives. Because they were killed on the water, there is no crime scene, the boat is gone, the man is gone, there are no fingerprints other than the ones in their room who aren’t of the man. There’s no fibers, there’s no DNA, there’s nothing. As best they can tell, Jo and the girls met this man at random, which makes it all the harder. Because they don’t even know from where to start to find the guy.
There are some people, up in Van Wert County, who are spreading the malicious and very sick rumor, as far as I’m concerned, that Hal had something to do with the murder. They know that it’s not possible for him to have gotten down to Florida to murder them himself, because he was seen on the farm in the mornings and the afternoon, but they’re spreading the rumor that he has somehow arranged for their murders. One of the people spreading this rumor is their minister. It makes me mad. The detectives don’t believe that Hal had anything to do with his daughters’ and wife’s death. He had no life insurance to speak of, Hal and Jo had a good relationship, there was nothing, there was no motive. But these rumors just keep going, and while people are spreading these rumors, they’re finding their way down to Tampa Bay. The Tampa Tribune publishes a story about this rumor. Which I don’t understand why they did that.
And so the detectives basically want to eliminate him for sure so they can put these rumors to rest, so people can start helping them look for whoever really did this. So the way to do that is the detectives go up to Ohio and they spend a week there, and they want to interview everybody who ever knew the girls or worked with them or went to school with them. Before they do that, they go straight to Hal’s house, they don’t tell him they’re coming. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. It’s late on a Sunday when most people don’t expect people to be up and about. So, the theory is that if you have arranged for the murders of your family, and three homicide detectives show up unexpectedly at your door, something is going to flash on your face, right? Hal opens the door and sees the detectives. Nothing is on his face. He just says, “Come on in.” They step inside and they realize that this is not a home anymore, this is a place where Hal exists to get through day to day.
He can’t bear to sleep anymore in the bed he shared with his wife. Most of the nights he goes to the houses of friends and they let him fall asleep on their couches and, after he’s asleep, they put a blanket on him. Every time he hears the phone ring, he thinks it might be them. He’s still holding on to a belief, this magical thinking that is very common when we lose someone unexpectedly, this magical thinking that they’re still alive. There’s just been a terrible mistake. One of the things that haunt him is that, because their bodies were in such bad shape, there were no open coffins or caskets, and he didn’t get to see the bodies. So he somehow convinces himself that the three people who ended up and the morgue and the mortuary, and are now buried in the cemetery, are not his wife and daughters. They’re somebody else. This idea plagues him. So one night he grabs a shovel and a hoe, and he drives out to the cemetery. And he goes to their gravesite, and he’s just about ready to start digging, when this thought stops him. And the thought is, “This is exactly what those bastards at the newspaper would like me to do. This would really be a good story for them, wouldn’t it?” When he shares this with me, years later, I, with some shame and embarrassment in my head, say, “Yes, that would have been a powerful and memorable story.” I’m not proud of that. But that thought stops him, thank God! And he puts the shovel and the hoe back in his truck and he drives home.
So these detectives, when they get there, they ascertain very quickly that Hal’s not a murderer. Just so they have something to convince everybody else of it, they have him take a polygraph. They fully expect him to pass it. And when he does, they want to be fully able to announce to everybody down in Tampa: “He didn’t do it. Help us out in finding the guy who did it because he’s in Tampa.” So they interview all these people, and at one point these three detectives decide that they need to go to the cemetery and see the graves. They know there isn’t going to be a lot to see, because to this point Hal hasn’t been able to purchase tombstones for their graves. Because to purchase the tombstones, and to have their names etched into that stone would be to admit to himself that they’re really dead. He’s just not ready for that. There’s just these little copper markings in the ground. But the detectives want to see it anyway. They want to see it and they want to burn it into their brains, so they would remember it when they go back to their desks, and they’re not getting anywhere and they’re tired. So, there’s a fresh snowfall, and they walk down the roads towards to how Hal told them to look, the heels of their boots and shoes crunching in the snow, their breath is making these little puffs of air, puffs like little clouds. And they get to the gravesite, and they realize there’s nothing they can see, because the snow is covering the graves. One of the detectives drops to his knees and with his bare hand he begins to dig through the snow.
Let’s stop that one there.
I’m not trying to torment you. OK, maybe just a little, just a tiny bit. Most of what I’m trying to do is make a point about the mystery, and the magic, and the power inside this engine of unfolding. It’s worth just taking a moment to ask why this narrative matters. For me, it begins with the simple definition. We follow the news to learn facts, to learn information, but we’re drawn to stories again and again because we need to know what it means to exist inside those facts. Homo sapiens have been chronicling their lives for tens of thousands of years. Eons before writing was invented, before the first words were scratched onto papyrus. We were grinding minerals, and grinding the burnt bones of animals to create pigments of ochre and amber and charcoal, and we were using those reds and yellows and blacks to finger-paint on the walls of caves. We were depicting images from our dreams, we were chronicling the latest antelope hunt. Stories are a matter of survival. They are a way of making sense of ourselves, and if we can’t make sense of ourselves, we are lost. They are a way of helping us to hold our world together and hold ourselves together. Katherine Lanpher’s ears are going to be burning because Jacqui just quoted her a minute ago and I’m going to quote her here too. She puts it this way: “Stories are the connective tissue of the human race, whether you are discussing a school levy or South Korean politics. At the heart of every issue, there’s a human level that leads to the three most beautiful words in the English language: What happens next?” This is the elemental question that I just left all of you with when I cut off those stories. I reported and wrote all of those stories in The Tampa Bay Times. Readers followed the stories quite closely and very avidly. If I had reached those points in the stories and then just stopped them like I did right now, unresolved, readers would have come down into our newsroom and torn the building apart with their bare hands. I’m not kidding, they would. And yet, why should that be? Why should readers care? Why should any of you care? Why did some of you make that sound of “Ahhh” when you heard that Kalie was dating another Pink Dino? No one in this room is likely have ever seen the Pink Dinos perform, none of you are likely to have met Carlo, you have no particular reason to care whether a 13-year-old boy gets a girl who he adores to talk to him. Few of you in this room are likely have ever visited the Tampa Zoo, to behold Enshalla with your own eyes. None of you probably ever knew Michelle Rogers or Christe Rogers or Jo, their mother, or visited their farm in the American Midwest. Or stood at their gravesites. All you know of all these people, of all these individuals, is what I’ve shared right here right now. And yet, once these stories begin washing over us, we long to see where they all carry us. This curiosity animates every hour of our every day. In even the smallest of ways. What’s the weather going to be like? What’s for lunch? Will the woman in the elevator smile to me again? Will tonight’s final wrap-up speaker have anything to say that hasn’t already been said these past two days of brilliant and beautiful testimonies?
“Inside any church or school, inside the quiet corners of all of our lives, entire continents of love and loss and experience are waiting to be mapped. All of it is waiting for us this afternoon, it’s waiting behind this hall, it’s waiting inside us. If we don’t chronicle these stories, who will?”
That last question, I worried a lot about this morning when I woke up at 4 a.m. I felt Nikole’s righteous rage surging inside of me at that hour, reverberating inside of me, along with Sarah’s radical empathy, and Jenna’s jaw-dropping glimpses of the future, and Valeriu’s invocation of love and lust. That slap of his uncle’s palm on his cheek, I felt that at 4 a.m. How the hell am I supposed to compete with that slap? At 4 a.m. the window of my hotel room was open and I woke to church bells ringing, and voices squabbling on the street bellow, and the murmur of the city’s early traffic. Tires rolling over pavement still wet with dew. I gathered myself in the darkness and slowly remembered where I was, and then I realized that I was still lost inside the gorgeous soundscape that Pat has created from the voices of a father and the laughter of a young child. I woke remembering the quiet urgency of Finbarr’s voice as he showed us those beautiful, terrible, heartbreaking photos. I woke with a sense of awe from Mindy’s faith that the entire world is encapsulated inside each of us and our homes and our neighborhoods. I woke thinking about Ioana’s and Rares’ animation that opened yesterday morning’s events and today’s. And the way that animation invited me and everyone else in this room to circle around that fire deep in the woods under the moon and stars. I thought of Cristi. My God, Cristi! My God, thank you! And I thought about all the attention, and the creativity, and the ferocious joy that Cristi and his team summoned to make possible this astonishing conference. Of course, as the darkness faded and it gave way to the light, I couldn’t help thinking about Paul and Murray, and their lifetime of bearing witness together, from Johannesburg and then across the world. I thought about how thoroughly they owned this stage last night, pacing and breathing, and arguing, and apologizing, and singing, and confessing and resurrecting the dead. How do they do that, I wondered. How do they conjure an entire constellation of stories, and burn them into our collective consciousness? As I thought about that I recalled the rapt faces of everyone around me and of myself listening. The tears we wiped away when the two of them took their bows, the gratitude and wonder radiating in great waves that swept the room. I asked myself, “What right do I have to stand there later today? What the hell am I supposed to say that hasn’t already been said with more eloquence?” So then this afternoon I realized how the hell am I supposed to compete with Vera and those gorgeous crazy drawings of hers, which I’ll beg her to send me. And the fox? The guy in the fox costume? And her as Peter Pan, whatever indignities and indecencies she might have suffered? I want to read that when you write it, OK? How do you compete with somebody dressed as Peter Pan? And then there’s you two [pointing to Elie Gardner and Ziad Altaha]. Holy… Am I supposed to go on after Romeo and Juliet? You know, not the Capulets and the Montagues, but Syria and North Dakota. Elie’s from North Dakota and Ziad is from Syria, two star-crossed lovers. Promise you’re not going to take your lives, OK? But what do you do? Then, of course, how am I supposed to follow Jacqui? Only a fool follows Jacqui. “Our fairy godmother,” everyone keeps calling her. How the hell am I supposed to hold my own with a fairy godmother, who has a mane of snow-white hair, and she towers over me, literally and metaphorically. And sees straight through me and every small thing I’ve ever done with her arctic blue truth-seeking eyes. Just breathe, I just have to breathe.
A few minutes ago I mentioned the smaller questions that run beneath our everyday lives. But then there are the deeper questions, the ones hanging over us all the time. How did I become that strange person in the mirror? What should I do with the rest of my life? And the biggest question of all: How long have I got? We need to know how all unravel, we need to see the next chapter. Not only of our own lives, but the unwritten chapters in the lives of those around us and those we’ve never met, except inside a story. This need gets us out of bed in the morning. It propels us through our days and deep into the velvet black expanses of our nights. If we no longer care about what happens next, then we’re ready to die. If you’ve ever spent any time in a nursing home, you’d know that this is a fact. You see a lot of people who don’t care anymore what happens, and very often they die right away, or very soon after. Our mutual friend Don Murray used to say, “We swim in an ocean of stories.” True stories worthy of our attention are all around us, they’re pumping inside of us, we breathe those stories. The real challenge is choosing, deciding among all the possibilities, what to write inside the limited time each of us is allotted. For us to do that, first we have to recognize these stories and the power of those stories from our lives and the lives of those around us. We have to open our eyes and see what’s right in front of us. Nikole pointed this out in her talk. She said, “We’ve got to shine a light on the terrible truths that we’d prefer to not face.” Which is very, very true. We have to make room inside of ourselves to acknowledge the world wrongs and its rights, and its sorrows and its joys. There’s no need for us to invent anything. I love fiction — if there’s fiction writers in the room, I salute you. But there’s no need for those of us who write nonfiction to invent anything. Life defies categorization, it obliterates ideology; day after day, life exceeds invention.
“All you know of all these people, of all these individuals, is what I’ve shared right here right now. And yet, once these stories begin washing over us, we long to see where they all carry us. This curiosity animates every hour of our every day.”
This is what I know. The world is an impossible realm, more wonderful and more terrible than anything beyond our imagining. As storytellers, our duty is to try to capture just a little of the world’s sprawling unthinkable nature inside our work. Every time we walk outside, we leave our newsroom or we leave our home, we need to open ourselves to what awaits us. Because all of it matters. The segregated schools built on denial of our past, the true story of a girl whose body was pulled from a lake, the photos from the front lines of war and the hidden realms of famine. The huge stories about the referendum on same-sex marriage, here in Romania. The countless investigations into the hidden workings of the White House in Washington. All of it matters. We have to recognize the sacred nature of a 13-year-old boy aiming for his first kiss, the beauty of that tiger padding away from her keepers. The dedication in the body of those detectives’ decision to dig through the snow. How is it possible that Carlo’s love for Kalie can exist in the same universe as the black heart of the man who dropped Michelle and her mother and daughter alive into the water? How is such sweet kindness and devotion possible, how can it exist in the same universe as such perversity? I don’t know. As writers, our duty is to try to reconcile these contradictions.
I’m going to wrap up here, but before I do I’m going to give you the actual endings of those stories because you’re not allowed to ask questions. I’m just going to tell you really quick.
Carlo does not get his kiss. Kalie does agree to be his girlfriend. She dumps Geo, the other Pink Dino. Geo is the traitor. The other Pink Dinos shun him and kick him out of the band, which they all lie about except for Shawn, the truth teller, the sage. He says, “Of course that’s why we pushed him out of the band.” They told me literally it was just personnel changes, but Shawn gave me the truth. And he says, “We’ve known Carlo since kindergarten, we just known Geo for a few months”. Kalie dumps Geo and then she agrees to be Carlo’s girlfriend. I know what she was doing. There were only like nine days left of school, and then Carlo was going to head to Italy with his family. She was using the calendar to do that, the heavy lifting. And she admitted this to me: “I’ll just say I’m going to go out with him, I won’t even have to hold his hand if I don’t want to. He’ll tell people that I’m his girlfriend, he’s not the type of boy to make up some gross stories like I gave him a kiss when I didn’t, he’s a nice kid. And then he’ll go to Italy and I’ll go about my life, and it will be good.” She couldn’t even hold it out until the end of the school year; she just dumped him before he got the kiss. I don’t want you to feel to bad for Carlo, because the next year, a little bit more experienced, a few more scars, he did get a girlfriend and I am informed that there was a great deal of kissing.
“Every time we walk outside, we leave our newsroom or we leave our home, we need to open ourselves to what awaits us. Because all of it matters.”
Enshalla’s escape. I said that the three most feared words in the zoo, and that many keepers, in the years before, when they’re doing practice drills for code one, for escapes, told me that of all the animals at the zoo, she was the one they feared the most if she escaped. But the zoo got lucky, Enshalla goes out to that half-finished exhibit, she goes 20 feet further to where the moms and the toddlers are waiting, she just slumps into the grass at the construction site and just lays down. The keepers try to lure her back inside with food. It doesn’t work; she doesn’t appear hungry. I guess if she would’ve been hungry she would have gone down to the fountain. It’s getting dark, there’s a neighborhood surrounding this zoo, there’s news helicopters hovering overhead and they’re agitating Enshalla. The sound of their props. So the decision is, OK, we’re going to dart her. We’re going to shoot a tranquilizer dart and try to get her to go to sleep, so we can take her back to her den safely. Murphy, Dr. Murphy, the zoo’s vet, goes up in this little platform, Murphy’s a good shot and he hits Enshalla with the dart just above her shoulder. But it’s not like in the movies, where the animal just drops instantly. Sometimes it takes longer, it depends on the animal’s emotional state, on where the dart lands, there’s a complex set of variables. Enshalla does not go down, instead she gets mad. And she turns and she starts to try to climb the platform towards Murphy to try to kill him. Lex Salisbury, who is the CEO of the zoo, has been covering the vet with shotgun. When Enshalla goes for the vet, Lex shoots her down and kills her. This was not easy for Lex. Afterwards, on the Internet, he was called a murderer and this heartless person. It wasn’t true. He had been at the zoo and was there in the den the day Enshalla was born. He loved Enshalla, he didn’t want to kill her.
The detectives in the snow. So these detectives, they dug through the snow, clear it away so they get to see these copper markers, and they stood up, and they looked around the cemetery, and at this country road stretching beyond in a straight line like a ruler. And they looked across the street, at the church, where Michelle and Christe had gone to Sunday school and learned about heaven and about forgiveness. And they burned it all into their brains, and they dusted themselves off, and they went back to Florida, and they kept working until they found the son of a bitch who killed those three women.
Inside any church or school, inside the quiet corners of all of our lives, entire continents of love and loss and experience are waiting to be mapped. All of it is waiting for us this afternoon, it’s waiting behind this hall, it’s waiting inside us. If we don’t chronicle these stories, who will? The task is humbling. It requires all of our skills and all of our heart. It requires openness, strength. Radical empathy is a great term. I just had empathy, but radical empathy is even better. It requires that, it requires courage, and faith, and stillness, and cunning. It requires that each of us surrender to the hypnotic transforming nature of the world. Someone has to paint on the walls of the cave. Let us light the fires together. Let us dab our fingers with ochre and amber and charcoal, and reach out towards the blank canvas of those stonewalls. Let the telling begin, let it never end.