“Fatal Distraction” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Four)

Miles Harrison

Miles Harrison, a father who left his son to die in the back of his car.

(Photo by Rebecca Drobis)

I started reading Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction” in March 2009. I didn’t get to the final page until yesterday.

My first attempt to read the story stopped at page six. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. “Fatal Distraction” is about people whose children die after being forgotten and left in cars, something that happens 15 to 25 times a year in America. I had a 11-month-old baby at the time I first tried to read this piece, and the story — which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2010 — was so tragic and devastating, I had to set it aside until it didn’t feel so close to home.

Gene Weingarten is one of my favorite writers. He’s talented and versatile: a humorist, a master of feature writing, and the author of the best personal profile I’ve ever read, “The Peekaboo Paradox.” He can write short. He can write long. He can make you laugh or make you cry.

And then he writes something like this, which doesn’t really fit into any clear category. The story is nearly 9000 words, a sweeping look at the tragedy of men and women who left their kids to die in cars. His story isn’t judgmental, but it also hides nothing from the reader, providing graphic descriptions of what the children suffered and how they were found. He profiles several parents who made these horrible mistakes and looks at how society and our legal system deals with them:

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer — beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone — he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.

It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.

At one point, during a recess, Harrison rose unsteadily to his feet, turned to leave the courtroom and saw, as if for the first time, that there were people witnessing his disgrace. The big man’s eyes lowered. He swayed a little until someone steadied him, and then he gasped out in a keening falsetto: “My poor baby!”

A group of middle-schoolers filed into the room for a scheduled class trip to the courthouse. The teacher clearly hadn’t expected this; within a few minutes, the wide-eyed kids were hustled back out.

Weingarten zooms in close on a few individuals like this, men and women who made these devastating errors, but he also tries to explain how this can happen. Weingarten pulls back the lens and shows that this isn’t just one tragic story; it’s a pattern:

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

One thing that makes this story so effective and powerful is its scope. Weingarten moves back and forth between the personal stories and the larger question of how these tragedies happen. He also looks at public reactions to these events. He reports on technologies and reforms that might prevent similar tragedies in the future. Research, interviews, and first-person observations give this story tremendous depth.

Weingarten takes his time, holding back judgment and asking more questions than he answers. The story overflows with tragedy, but also a few glimmers of hope and humanity. He doesn’t try to soften the story with sentimentality, but he hints that it is possible for some good to emerge from the aftermath of unthinkable tragedy.

This is a very tough read, but it is a tremendous example of the best work in longform nonfiction.

Read “Fatal Distraction” →

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Two)

This story, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing this year, has haunted me since I read it. It has lingered in the back of my mind and prompted me to double check the locks on my doors and windows before I go to bed. As a father, a husband, and a man, it has shaken me. It’s rare that a story can stick in your head like this, but this one did.

Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is riveting, horrifying, and (unexpectedly) inspiring. It’s about a terrifying crime of violence, rape, and murder, and the woman who survived (that’s not a spoiler; Sanders reveals the outcome of the crime in the fifth paragraph). The story is really two parallel narratives: the story of the two women before, during, and after the night of the crime; and the subsequent testimony of the survivor in court, where she recounted the gruesome details of that night. Those details are devastating enough. But Sanders gives you a rich sense of the two women though specific details (big and small) and anecdotes. The reader gets a sense their personalities, their relationship, and their plans for the future. But we also learn the little details: their favorite booth at a neighborhood restaurant, what they drank that night, what they ate. And as the narrative leads up to the night of the crime, the “normalness” of it all sets up the reader for the painful blow of what we know is coming:

Dinner. Then a movie that had been lying around the house for a while, a musical that made them both cry. It was around midnight. Butz checked the locks multiple times (like always), she brushed her teeth multiple times while flossing in between (like always), she took the left side of the bed (like always) right next to her water and her lip balm. Her partner took the right side of the bed (like always). They said good night.

The article doesn’t spare the reader the grim details of what the criminal did to the two women, just as the survivor didn’t spare those details to the jury and the courtroom observers. The reader is trapped there with the two victims, trying to will a way out of the nightmarish situation. Sanders takes the reader towards the end of the night, when, despite everything, there seem to still be fleeting moments of hope and humanity, a possibility that the worst is already over:

She said: “Please don’t hurt us. We’re good people.”

He said: “yeah, you seem like you’re good people. I wish we could have been friends.”

Butz replied: “yeah, I wish we could.”

“Which,” her partner said on the stand, “is exactly what she would do… Even in that moment, she wanted to make some sort of connection. She said, ‘Maybe we still can.’”

He asked: “Do I seem like a good person to you?”

“She put the tips of her fingers on his chest — I will never ever forget this — and said, ‘I am sure there is some good in here.’”

He said: “No more questions.”

I won’t go further about what happens next or how the story ends, but it’s powerful and compelling.

The structure of the story makes it devastatingly effective. The reader starts out with the knowledge of what happens by the end of the night, but not the details or the people involved. Then Sanders winds back the narrative and introduces us to the victims, making them very real people, with hopes, passions, and plans for the future. And after that, the crime itself is unveiled in an unblinking fashion, through the testimony of the survivor on the witness stand. We can only imagine the courage and pain it took for the victim to recount her story in front of her family and a room full of witnesses. And it tells us even more about the woman we met earlier in the story, before all this happened.

I’m not surprised that this story won the Pulitzer. It’s a difficult story to read, but a fine example of a nonfiction feature that can tell a story with genuine depth and emotional power, without being sentimental or over-written. The language is very spare and direct; there are few artistic flourishes or showy literary techniques. Sanders smartly avoids all that and delivers a devastating story with raw, simple language and a methodical, unflinching chronological narrative. The story doesn’t need clever wording or phrasing; the truth is enough. More than enough.

Read “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” →

Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day One

At the Nieman Conference, everyone talks about “storytelling.” It’s what most writers here aspire to, rather than everyday news journalism. So when I walked into the main hall for the Connie Schultz keynote address, the story of the state of the journalism industry was told in the size of the room itself. The welcome and keynote was in the same hall as last year, but a room divider had been added. There were still hundreds of people, but by the looks of it, about half as many as in 2008. Schultz’s speech was great, but the welcome session felt, at times, like a funeral.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Schultz shared some inspirational stories and encouragement for writers. “Being scared,” she said, “sometimes is a really good thing.” I wasn’t familiar with Schultz, a Pulitzer -Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but I’m a fan now. She blended personal stories with professional insights and humor. She talked about her father, a working-class man who hated his job and once said to her “you could teach a monkey to do what I do,” and how he dreamed of giving his daughters the life he didn’t have. I almost teared up. (Being a new father tends to make me a sucker for fatherhood stories). She closed with a word of encouragement to the audience, some of whom lost their jobs in the past year: “Every narrative has a beginning, middle, and an end… including yours.”

The fact that I’m here, at this conference, trying to reinvent myself as the writer I always should have been, is a testament to that idea.

Tom French

Tom French

The first session I attended was “Narrative Archaeology” with Tom French. As I expected, having seen French last year, it was a great session, filled with practical tips and techniques for doing narrative journalism. French, another Pulitzer Prize winner, recently left the St. Petersburg Times to take a job teaching journalism at Indiana University. His departure from daily journalism is sad, but also makes sense: He’s a natural teacher, with a tremendous conversational style and a wealth of experience as a feature writer and editor.

His handout, “Hunting and Gathering” (PDF) covers some key ideas about the how to report for good featuring writing. Here are a few of the best gems from his presentation that didn’t make the handout:

  • When trying to do narrative on deadline, “choose a scene and zoom in tight
  • When in doubt, under-explain” (let your readers put the piece together; they’re usually smarter than we expect)
  • French says that after reporting for a story, he typically has ten times as much content as he can use. How to select what makes the cut? Make a “greatest hits” list: quotes, scenes, details that you would “die” if they didn’t make the story, and start from there. Most likely, he notes, even all of those won’t make it.

Next, I attended Walt Harrington’s session on “Intimate Journalism: How to go from “sources in a story” to characters who reveal the human condition.” While I have tremendous respect for Harrington as a writer, this session was disappointing. Harrington was the opposite of French: formal, scripted, and, it seemed to me, somewhat aloof. For the first half of it, Harrington basically read from a prepared speech on the merits of deep, sophisticated narrative journalism and how hard it is. It was an interesting piece that I’d like to read, but I’d rather he had talked more informally about his process and how he learned to do his work. The Q&A that followed his speech was a little more interesting.

Harrington is skeptical that anyone can become a good narrative journalist by taking workshops and reading about techniques. Instead, he argues, you have to “learn to do it only by doing it.” His other simple suggestion, other than years of experience and hard work, is that if you want to be a good nonfiction writer, you need to read a lot of good nonfiction. I think he’s right on all of this, of course, but it still would have been helpful to hear more stories and examples of the lessons he learned along the way of becoming a great writer himself.

After that, I roamed around the reception for a bit (I’m terrible at these things), ate crackers, and met Modou Nyang, who came all the way from Gambia to attend the conference. Very nice guy. Made the trip from D.C. seem like a short walk…

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