Not many people would imagine themselves doing what Linda White has done after losing a child in a violent crime. It’s perfectly natural to imagine taking revenge against the killer, or at the very least seeking his permanent removal from society.
And so one key point of my recently published story about White was to explore her reasons for moving from that typical starting point to a much different place. Her radical form of forgiveness for Gary Brown, one of two 15-year-olds who abducted, raped, and killed White’s 26-year-old daughter Cathy O’Daniel in 1986, did not happen by magic or fluke. It was a process. The story walks the reader through that years-long process — which famously culminated in a mediated encounter in prison in 2001 — and then observes as the two meet again, in 2014, at my invitation.
Another key point was to take what we see in White’s experience and place it in a broader context. As I attempted to show in the story, ignoring or marginalizing the Linda Whites of the crime-victim world has had a perverse effect on public policy and opinion. We like to say that we support crime victims, but in reality we want them to fit our preconceived notions of victimhood. All too often, we don’t truly listen to victims to discover the full range of who they are and what they need. We don’t pay enough attention to their journeys as their reactions change, from anger to questioning to various forms of letting go — which is, fundamentally, what forgiveness is all about. It’s certainly not the only way to come to terms with a traumatic injury and loss, nor should it ever be imposed on victims who aren’t ready or never will accept it. But it exists and should be understood for what it is: an important part of the victim experience.
So it was no small irony that many of the hundreds of comments that readers posted to that story not only rejected White’s views, they didn’t even try to listen to them. Many expressed disdain or revulsion toward White. One I saw even wished that Brown would kill White to prove to White how wrong she is (it was at that point that I decided to stop reading the comments for a while). It was evident to me that many commenters merely saw the headline and a photo of White and Brown smiling together and promptly reached their verdict on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. In other words, a story about how we don’t listen closely enough to all victims produced an outpouring of the same.
A public weaned on ideologically driven opinions masquerading as news is comfortable reaching snap judgments without doing the hard work of exploring, sifting through facts, weighing evidence-based arguments. It also isn’t clued in to the distinction between empathy and sympathy; between understanding others, even those with whom we disagree, and blanket endorsements. Why can’t we read about someone who contradicts our assumptions and accept that the world is more complicated than we knew? Instead, many reject it out of hand, and ascribe bad motives to the story subject, the writer, or both.
I was wrestling with all of those reactions to my story when I read this recent Columbia Journalism Review article by researchers Lene Bech Sillesen, Chris Ip, and David Uberti. They describe their work in seeking to understand how journalistic narrative evokes empathy, and how that might change when the narrative is read online rather than in print. They write:
We need a certain amount of information about another person, accumulated over time, before we start sensing that crucial similarity between us.
Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative. In magazine journalism, this makes perfect, intuitive sense. We know that longer narratives with complex characters and strong storylines can have a deep impact on readers who take the time to read from start to finish.
That is why my stories about crime victims — the one on Linda White is the first in a series — are told as character-driven narratives rather than as policy-argument essays. I can tell you, as the headline on the story does, what White did. But you’re unlikely to understand it and accept it (which is not the same as embracing it) if that’s all you know. To understand it, you must see her transformation, experience it as best one can reading a 6,500-word summary of 30 years of her life.
The best reaction I can hope for is to see a reader express surprise at reaching a new understanding of how the world works. Fortunately, I did see some of those sorts of comments, but they were often shouted down by others who clearly hadn’t bothered to read the story before reacting to it, or who flatly rejected White’s experience in order to describe their own imagined response; usually a violent one.
One of the moments I witnessed between White and Brown that didn’t make it into the story came during our lunch, when the two were loosening up a bit. They talked about how easily misunderstood their relationship is, how people feel compelled to tell them it’s wrong for White to have not only forgiven Brown, but to treat him as a friend. White told Brown that this is what she wants to say to those who judge and doubt her:
You do not know what you will or will not do in any given situation until you’ve been there. You just don’t know. For anyone to tell me, ‘Well I know I wouldn’t do this,’ or ‘I would do that,’ I say, ‘I don’t believe ya. I know you mean it. But you don’t KNOW always who you are and what you would do until you are confronted with it.’ And I just think it’s easy to say ‘I know what I’d do.’