Since the end of my Soros Justice Fellowship in 2015, I have hoped and planned to continue focusing on how we respond to crime victims. Throughout much of 2016 I worked on a variety of assignments, all concerning criminal justice policy, but I realized this fall that unless I set aside that work temporarily, I would never find the time to focus on a book proposal. So that is what I have done since October.
I have been reporting on what I see as the core narrative in a book that explores urban violence, its victims, and our policies to help those victims and reduce the violence. I will continue that work in 2017 — with, I hope, a book contract at some point, so that I can afford to devote more months to the book’s reporting and eventually writing.
I am being deliberately vague at this point. Once I am sure of the direction this is taking, I plan to share glimpses of the work in progress. Stay tuned.
Whenever people confront a complex social problem, gut reactions might feel good and right, but they rarely provide true or long-lasting solutions. Few problems are as complex as crime. And so, when we think about crime victims, especially about victims of violence, our first reactions get it wrong so consistently that it’s remarkable we ever get anything about it right.
In the stories that I’ve told at Slate after a year’s work under a Soros Justice Media Fellowhip, I have tried to show that victims are not simply defined by their wound, nor can that wound be healed by lashing out blindly at those who harmed them — or encouraging them to find their only solace in such anger and simple retribution. These are natural emotions. Most of us have them, and no one should ever judge victims for grasping at punishment of their offender as their medicine. But we owe it to victims to understand them and their experience much more deeply than we do when we shed a tear, rage at the “senseless” crime that befell them, and then move on, secure in the belief that punishment is the primary response needed. And we must offer victims more options than just indulging their first reactions.
Though I have admitted doubts that my stories might change hearts and minds about the range of victims’ true experiences, I hope they did. I plan to continue reporting on these topics. Please keep watching this blog and my social media feeds for updates on my work. Thanks for reading. And thanks to the hundreds of victims and experts whose time and writings informed my work; to Slate and my talented editor John Swansburg for helping me sharpen the telling of these stories and for giving them great exposure; and to my friends, colleagues, and benefactors at the Open Society Foundations for supporting criminal-justice journalism through the Soros Justice Fellowships.
This coming week marks the official end of my yearlong Soros Justice Fellowship. After some long days, I just hit send on the sixth and final installment of my series. Well, to be accurate, it’s my draft of said installment. Now, it goes into the editing queue with all of the others, which are in various stages of editing and revision.
Typical of long-form reported narrative journalism, the first draft is the start of an often-arduous process between writer and editor to clarify, sharpen, usually shorten, and polish. Sometimes a writer must do more reporting, as has been the case already on some of my stories. Often it’s just about the writing. No matter what, it’s a lot of work, and enough to make even the most self-confident among us a bit queasy with doubt about our ability to tell a story. And, for the record, I am far from the most self-confident. So it’s a difficult process. Complicating matters is that the fellowship was my paying job for 12 months, but now I need other work to pay the bills. So the coming month promises to be a challenge in many ways.
But, as a longtime editor myself, I know the process makes stories much better. So, after a trip to New York starting tomorrow for my fellowship, I’ll return on Thursday to revising and whipping into final shape the series that I hope gets published in not so many more weeks.
The issue: Rather than justify sentencing reform with financial arguments alone — that the reason to let people out of prison is to save money, and nothing else — we should be asking about the morality of holding people well beyond any rational justification. And we should ask that about the hardest cases, not just the sorts that dominate the discussion (nonviolent and minor drug and property crimes).
There are many other arguments against excessive sentences, namely those based on all the evidence that they simply don’t work as advertised. Those typically get second billing behind the budget argument. Then, way down the list, you find a fringe minority voicing the moral question. By my way of thinking, the other arguments merely support the ultimate argument. In other words, because these sentences don’t work and cause all sorts of unintended problems, it is all the more immoral to hold people beyond what’s absolutely necessary for safety’s sake.
Anyway, I hope you’ll read and share my OSF post and discuss it on my Facebook page or on this blog.
OSF sponsors the Soros Justice Fellowships program, which supports my work for a year on an upcoming series of stories exploring crime victims’ perspective on criminal-justice reforms.
At the blog of Open Society Foundations, the parent organization of the Soros Justice Fellowship program that supports my yearlong reporting project on crime victims, I posted this short essay. It’s meant to provide one more perspective on the recent grand jury decision to no-bill a New York police officer in the death of Eric Garner: a question about when, or whether, the families of police shooting victims ever get proper consideration as victims. I describe a scene I witnessed in Los Angeles to make a point about our legal system’s handling of these cases.
In the essay, I quote one set of comments on a police officers forum, which Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly linked to shortly after the Garner decision. Here are a pair of other posts Reilly shared that night, providing glimpses of the mentality that results in the situation I wrote about.
Legal merits of any prosecution aside, the lack of basic decency and humanity is breathtaking. The man was selling cigarettes and resisted arrest without assaulting any of the officers. Can’t we at least recognize the tragedy and that he and his family are victims?
The Soros Justice Fellowships, the program funding my work this year, support both journalists and advocates. We journalists might think we have the corner on storytelling. But an event at last July’s annual conference of fellows past and present demonstrated that the advocacy folks can tell a hell of a story — especially when it’s about their remarkable lives.
The conference was packed with panel discussions and presentations. But one evening we kicked back for entertainment that had been kept a secret. All we knew was that some of our fellow fellows had volunteered to go on stage and tell a story about the law. The result was a breathtaking series of stories about the speakers’ lives and work.
The Life of the Law podcast videotaped all of the speakers and will feature them in a series in the coming weeks. The first, with Nashville advocate Clemmie Greenlee, was to my mind the most remarkable of the evening. Alternately funny and horrifying, pointed and poignant, Greenlee’s story traced her growth from abused child to sex-trafficking victim, drug addict, street person, bereaved mother of a murdered son, and oft-jailed advocate for the people she didn’t forget once she was saved by a woman who, Greenlee says, “gave me a hug before she gave me a bath.”
At one point, Greenlee asks her fellow sex slaves, “Why nobody save us?” She couldn’t believe that no one cared what happened to them. Now she devotes her life to caring.
To say that crime often stems from abuse and victimization is an abstraction. Clemmie Greenlee makes it real and riveting. Watch:
It’s been a little over a month since I last posted about my work in progress on my Soros Media Fellowship project, a series on crime victims. I had hoped by now that the first installment would have been published by Slate, but first I missed my self-imposed deadline and then changes at Slate delayed us further (the series originally was to be edited by Dahlia Lithwick, but now it’s being overseen by Slate’s deputy editor, John Swansburg). I’m not complaining — this is the nature of this work, especially when dealing with long stories and big projects — and I’m certainly not lacking for things to do.
Which brings me to the point of this post, beyond simply noting that I still can’t predict exactly when the series will go public (but soon!). When I’m not reporting on the six remaining stories (and updating the first installment as it sits in a queue) — tons of reading for research, talking to people who work in this field, lining up and conducting interviews, setting up my next road trips — I’m transcribing. And transcribing. And more transcribing.
Because I record most of my interviews and the scenes that I observe in the field, I’m left with lots of transcription work afterward. Even if I could afford to farm that work out, I wouldn’t because of the value I get from listening to the recordings. As I replay them and take notes, I jot down ideas and notes in the various story outlines. This person might be quotable on this point in this story. This idea needs to be explored in that story. And so on.
The transcripts themselves are not really transcripts. They’re paraphrased notes and observations — as I listen, I’m reminded of what I saw as the words were spoken, and I refer back to my handwritten notes for more observations of what I saw — and then exact quotations only in cases when I think I might end up using a quote. Along the way, I note the elapsed time in the recording, so that I can easily find a specific passage again. I tend to overestimate what might end up useful to me later on, in part because I hope to turn the project into a book after my Soros year is over. So, if a conversation is particularly helpful to my stories, a one-hour interview might take three hours to transcribe. From my weeklong trips in Texas and California, and from dozens of phone interviews since May, I have more hours of recordings than I can count. And nearly every day I add to them.
That all adds up to a mighty backlog. So, while I wait for my new editor’s thoughts on part one and the plan for the rest of the series, I stare and type.
Sounds awfully exciting, I know. Actually, the good news is that I find my subjects’ voices, words, and messages inspiring, even on rehearing. I hear things I didn’t notice the first time, or need to be reminded of when I finally get around to transcribing sometimes weeks or months after the fact.
I’ll give you a taste of what I mean from an interview I’m transcribing this morning. The person speaking is David Guizar, who lost two brothers to street violence in South Los Angeles and now devotes his life to helping survivors and working on gang intervention and violence prevention. Here are two brief snippets from my talk last month with Guizar at his home.
In the first excerpt, he talks about the trauma of losing his brother when Guizar was only 10:
Then Guizar speaks of his reaction at age 39 when another brother was murdered, and he faced a choice in how to respond:
When I tell Guizar’s story, I’ll explain how his and his family’s experiences in two separate murders many years apart colored their perceptions of justice, both bad and good, and how Guizar channeled his emotions in a more positive direction the second time around.
Last week, I attended my first conference of Soros justice fellows. The meeting, spanning four days in Albuquerque, reunited me with my fellow 2014 fellows three months after we first met. And it exposed me to the remarkable breadth and depth of the fellowship’s members, dating back to the inaugural cohort in 1997. I felt humbled, inspired, and challenged.
Now comes the hard part for me: proving my work is worthy of the program’s support, and of my fellow fellows’ (I just like writing that) respect. Since my work officially began in May, I’ve been reporting on the series that I describe in this category of posts (and more specifically in this post). Closer to the time when my series’ curtain-raiser gets published, scheduled for September, I’ll describe in more detail what each installment will seek to show through narratives focusing on particular crime victims and their advocates.
I owe my editor a draft of the series-starter in just under two weeks. So it’s panic-attack time. In the coming days I’ll have to pull together all the loose threads and turn them into a story of considerable length. I’m the kind of journalist who loves reporting to a fault — I never feel I have enough to get started writing — and who hates the first, fourth, and eighth drafts of anything I write.
For pre-writing therapy, my wife and I extended our trip to New Mexico by visiting Michael Haederle and Leslie Linthicum, two dear friends whom I worked with at the Houston Post in the 1980s. They live and work now in Albuquerque, and have a gorgeous house in the mountains near Taos. My wife and I spent three days with them there, hiking, eating, drinking, and talking — a little about work, and a lot about our lives since we were at the dawn of our careers and family-raising. It was just the sort of respite I needed before starting the torturous journey to finish part one of my series.
As recently as the 1980s and ’90s, writers like me could reasonably aspire to a career and a living wage. I was dispatched to costly and difficult places like Iraq, to work for months on a single story. Later, as a full-time book author, I received advances large enough to fund years of research.
How many young writers can realistically dream of that now? Online journalism pays little or nothing and demands round-the-clock feeds. Very few writers or outlets can chase long investigative stories. I also question whether there’s an audience large enough to sustain long-form digital nonfiction, in a world where we’re drowning in bite-size content that’s mostly free and easy to consume.
What set Horwitz off is what he calls a “cautionary farce” of a tale in which he, the oft-published author, couldn’t make money from his Byliner Original, Boom, which was deemed a best-selling e-single despite sales that strained to reach 1,000 copies. I feel his pain. Though I am constrained by my contract with Amazon not to disclose sales figures for my Kindle Single God’s Nobodies, I will say that my own best-seller status — seven weeks in Amazon’s non-fiction top 10, reaching as high as No. 3, just behind Steven King and The Onion — conferred on me and my story sales in the mid-five figures, both in copies sold and dollars earned. Years of work; mid-five figures. Yeah.
Still, I am proud of having been selected as a Kindle Single author and would do it again. First, there’s the Lotto factor: just because I didn’t make a decent amount the first time doesn’t mean I can’t win if I play again (as Laura Hazard Owen has shown, some authors — particularly those who get efficient and prolific at e-singles — can make far more than if they were trying to peddle their stories as one-off sales to magazines). Next, there’s the irrational-ego thing: I did way better than Tony Friggin’ Horwitz! Finally, the rational reason: We’re coming through a rough transition in the writer market, where business models have not yet found their new footing but there are enough signs — including e-singles — of potential success that it’s only a matter of time.
Meantime, those of us fortunate enough to find patrons like the Open Society Foundations can invest the needed time in long-term projects, eating and paying the mortgage while doing the work that we love. None of this proves anything — not my anecdotes, nor Horwitz’s — but I cling to the belief that under no circumstances will we wake up one day in a world where there are no surviving professional journalists.
By the way, I still highly recommend Horwitz’s Boom. It’s only $2.99, you can read it in a few hours, and it’s a hell of a story he worked his ass off to tell. This market needs readers who will pay for quality. Do your part.
With one more interview this evening and a return flight home tomorrow, I wrap up the first of multiple reporting trips for my upcoming “Victim Mentality” series at Slate, this time in and around Houston. In meetings with victims, survivors, and prisoners past and present, I believe I set a new personal record for witnessing (and occasionally shedding) tears.
Ordinarily, I would apologize for making someone cry. Indeed, I have apologized over and over, only to be reassured, as one of them put it: “It’s OK. This is me. This is who I am.”
Who are they? Mainly crime victims who, even decades after the fact, willingly tap into their pain for its power to heal others — and themselves. By telling their stories to those who hurt them or hurt other innocent victims, they say they regain a sense of control that’s lost when one is targeted in crimes of violence. And they feel a sense of accomplishment by holding wrongdoers accountable and showing them new ways to live and respect others’ right to life and happiness.
That’s not all that these stories will be about, but it’s at the root of all the stories I’ve been privileged to hear, and cry over, the past week. There’s nothing quite so wrenching as to see a mother, asked to describe her child, look up and away, her eyes filled with tears, 20, 30 years after the fact. It never ends. But that’s not a bad thing, something they want to run from, because they use it instead of wallow in it.
I only hope that I can tell their stories in such a way that others can truly understand this side of the victim experience. If I do my job well, get ready for a good cry.