Since Mac McClelland published the article on PTSD that I discussed in my previous post, writer Edwidge Danticat has come forward with troubling allegations that McClelland did not have permission from “Sybille,” the rape victim she mentions in the article, to tell her story. In an article in Essence, Danticat writes:
In her essay, Ms. McClelland writes that K*’s trauma led in part to her own breakdown. Nevertheless, during Ms. McClelland’s ride along with K*, on a visit to a doctor, Ms. McClelland, as has been reported elsewhere, live-tweeted K*’s horrific experiences. The tweets put K*’s life in danger because they identified the displacement camp where K* was living–with details of landmarks added–her specific injury, her real name, and suggest that she is a drug user.
When K* found out about Ms. McClelland’s tweets, even before Ms. McClelland’s original Mother Jones article was published, K* wrote a letter to Ms. McClelland and Mother Jones magazine asking that Ms. McClelland not write about her. Her lawyer emailed the letter to them on November 2, 2010.
The full text of the letter in K*’s own handwriting is attached and is written in Haitian Creole. It says:
You have no right to speak of my story.
You have no right to publish my story in the press
Because I did not give you authorization.
You have no right. I did not speak to you.
You have said things you should not have said.
Ms. McClelland has stated on this same twitter account that she had K*’s permission and K*’s mother’s permission to ride along with them, but she certainly–according to K*’s lawyer, and the driver on the ride along, and K* herself–did not have K*’s permission to tweet personal and confidential information about her. And even if Ms. McClelland in some way thought she had K*’s consent, the attached letter should have made it clear that it was withdrawn and that she had, as the letter states, “no right” to write about K* anymore, especially in ways that her previous tweets had made K*’s and her location easily identifiable.
Obviously, if true, this is a serious lapse of journalistic ethics. Regular readers of this blog know that I have no patience for journalists who treat rape victims unethically in order to obtain a sensationalist narrative, and if Danticat’s allegations are true, then I’m deeply disappointed in Mac.
A few other thoughts:
I have had it up to here with people claiming to be “giving voice to the voiceless,” or that their own writing is allowing someone else to “speak.” I get that it’s just a cliche, but it seems to me that the by “voiceless”, we mean “this person is too poor/foreign/black/underprivileged to speak for themselves.” And “giving voice” seems suspiciously similar to “graciously filtering the story through my own privilege so that the the elements I think are important will become palatable.”
I can’t help but think that having one’s story told by someone else – by me, Edwidge Danticat, Mac McClelland, or whoever – bears the same relationship to telling it yourself as a $50 Barneys giftcard does to a $50 bill. With the giftcard, you’re limited by the giver’s views on where you should shop. So it might be better than nothing, but with cash, you can go wherever you want. Given the confusion over who said what, and what permissions were given, I wish that we were getting “Sybille’s” version of events from her directly.
[Update: in response to to some confusion expressed in the comments, I want to clarify that I'm not accusing Mac of claiming to speak for the victim - it was actually Danticat's statement that she was "add[ing] another voice to the conversation” by speaking for the victim that prompted me to write this – rather, my frustration is with the way that society generally tends to elide statements made by individuals themselves and statements made by others on their behalf. I wrote these paragraphs in the first-person plural because I count myself among those who speak for others, (in my case, as their lawyer), and hoped that it would be clear that I was frustrated with the general cultural trope, not casting stones at these specific writers. That apparently wasn’t clear at all – apologies. /Update.]
(And, on a related note, I think that in general, I might prefer the style of reporting Mac does, which is “voicey” and includes herself and her own experiences in the narrative. I understand that the convention is for reporters to be “neutral,” and not make themselves the story, but I’m not sure that anyone is ever really neutral. I find it appealingly honest for reporters to take ownership of their opinions, rather than pretending that they’re objective truth.)
All that being said, if the victim asked Mac not to write about her any more, then I think that Mac should not have discussed her in the PTSD essay, even under a pseudonym. For me, this is a somewhat closer question than it’s being made out to be, because it’s hard to draw a line between the victim’s experience of being assaulted, and Mac’s experience of riding with her that day in Haiti. If circumstances were different, then I might feel more comfortable with what Mac wrote in the PTSD article, which was relatively brief and focused on how Mac experienced the day’s events, rather than the specifics of what had happened to the victim. However, given that the victim apparently did not consent to the story in the first place, felt that the previous reporting had made her unsafe, and had specifically requested that Mac not write about her further, I don’t think Mac should have included the paragraph about “Sybille” in her PTSD essay.
(And this is old news, but for what it’s worth, Jina Moore pretty much sums up my feelings on the live-tweeting itself – at the time, it made me uncomfortable, even though I wasn’t aware of any of these consent problems.)
Finally, a question for my journalist friends: what do you make of the fact that Mac apparently asked her NGO intermediary for consent from the victim and her mother, and he assured her that they had consented? Mac doesn’t speak Haitian Creole, and the other women don’t speak English, so it sounds like an intermediary was necessary. I don’t like the idea that consent rules should be loosened for sources who don’t speak the same language as the reporters who write about them. But if you must rely on third parties, how can you be sure that consent has been given, and given meaningfully?