Being there.

Posted: July 14, 2010 in The job

Monday brought a story about a young woman — smart, promising — stabbed and then set on fire. With Tuesday came a story about a woman who said her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend whacked her in the head with a golf club, bound her wrists and ankles, gagged her, rolled her up in a quilt, then tossed her into the trunk of her own car for a long drive and a toss over a guardrail in a rural county.

Fun, I know.

Both stories are about something awful. They even read sort of the same: accusation, dry recitation of criminal charges, details, context and reaction. But they are stunningly different to put together. In only one of these stories is a lengthy interview with the person these things actually happened to.

In the Monday story, the grisly details come from a detective’s report to her boss after arresting a suspect and the original incident report. Anything else — about the woman having been a cheerleader, majoring in broadcast journalism, planning to join the Air Force as an officer, how she might have known the dude in custody — comes from other people. Maybe it’s deep and moving and illuminating, but they can’t tell it to me like she would have.

They can’t tell me what happened to her.

The Tuesday story is different. I went to that woman’s house. I saw the dried blood clinging like rust to her fingers. I saw her swollen face and the ghosts of the spots of blood that still colored her gray hair where the golf club split her head. She could tell me herself about her relationship with her daughter and this boyfriend.

She could tell me what happened to her.

And she did. I could hear her pause or cry or catch herself or think to choose certain words. I was right there on the couch next to her overstuffed recliner.

That makes it a different story, both in the reporting and the writing. Makes it different for me, too, because I’m that much closer to what happened. The person’s pain — physical, mental, etc. — is not an assumption I have to make. It’s right there in front of me.

I wonder how much even close readers of these stories think about distinctions like that. I probably don’t think about them often enough.

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