In Which I Wade Further into the McClelland Morass, Demonstrating That I Have No Sense of Self-Preservation

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.
Thank you

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 McClelland in some way thought she had K*’s consent, the attached letter should have made it clear that it was withdrawn and that she had, as the letter states, “no right” to write about K* anymore, especially in ways that her previous tweets had made K*’s and her location easily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?

8 thoughts on “In Which I Wade Further into the McClelland Morass, Demonstrating That I Have No Sense of Self-Preservation

  1. I said it at the time and I'll say it again: regardless of communication issues (of which clearly there were many), I don't think most very recently traumatized people can truly give informed consent in the heat of the moment. Given what this woman was going through at the time, it seems extremely unlikely that she could have fully processed and understood the full implications of letting a reporter come along and write about what was happening. That's not saying that "women are overly emotional and can't think rationally" or other nonsense like that, but rather recognizing that trauma messes up most of our abilities to think straight as a general rule. If I had done this as an academic, the IRB would've had my a**, and for good reason. I have to exercise good judgment when my subject cannot. And I find it really appalling that McClelland and her editors failed to exercise good judgment by thinking about it from the victim's perspective at the time.

  2. There's a lot to say to your questions, Amanda, and I'll probably touch on a lot of this in the next day or two, but I want to respond directly to two things here:

    1. "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."

    I think you're right to point out that a journalist's version of a person's story is limited. But so is a story told by the person who experienced it, though limited in a different way. I did a story a few years ago about a lawyer who was doing resettlement interviews in northern Kenya. One of her jobs was to ask questions that get at details or stories a person wouldn't think to tell — sometimes, those details improved their claims (or flat-out qualified them), even though they wouldn't think to have offered the information themselves.

    I DO think that writers need to be careful with other people's stories. I DON'T believe that failing to be careful is an argument against writers telling other people's stories. I think it's an argument against irresponsible writing.

    I hate to see an discussion about how to make journalism better turn into a binary argument that says "autobiography is better than journalism" or vice versa. It doesn't need to be that way, and the best journalism reflects back to readers what that basic best practice of living: genuinely and generously listening to other people teaches us things we did not know, about them and about the world, before we encountered them. That *can* happen as easily in a good piece of journalism that is about another person as it can in a first-person story recounting one's own experience.

    2. "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."

    No one believes in that neutrality, even though the profession demands a tone that uses it. That's a conversation for another time. But being part of the story as a character — especially as the primary character — is different than not being neutral. It is possible to make yourself into a character and maintain your neutrality; the "I" simply acknowledges a presence, but many writers use that to great ends without altering the balance of neutrality.

    Also, the use of a journalist as a narrative device is different than the use of a writer's additional tools — tone, pacing, description, detail, and voice — within a narrative. Mac's Haiti reporting does both. But her "voice" isn't always — and perhaps isn't most powerfully — where she is saying "I." It is in fact a masterful use of voice to write, as she did in her Haiti feature, this description: "they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on."

    This uses a lot of other important writer's tools that are part of what we call "writer's voice," and this writing is part of the reason Mac is called a "voicey" writer — even though the "I" doesn't appear here at all.

    Journalists often get distracted by the "I" debate. The rule of its absence is a sacred cow, which gets traditionalists excited, and disobeying that rule gets non-traditionalists excited. But it's actually just a craft choice, and the purpose of a craft choice is to make the final product as effective as it can be. It needn't be normative.

  3. Jina (and Laura), thanks for your comments.

    With regard to my "voice to the voiceless" discussion, Jina, you make some excellent points. I didn't mean that it's never legit to tell someone else's story – as you point out, we lawyers do that often, and journalism definitely has a great deal of value when done well.

    But I hate that particular construct – the insistence that someone else lacks a voice, or that a more privileged journalist or lawyer is bringing their voice to the world. I find it particularly frustrating in this situation, where it seems like part of the problem is that the victim is having her consent, her wishes, and her story filtered through third parties, who have agendas and interests of their own.

    (Perhaps the reason the "voice of the voiceless" construction bugs me so much is that it takes possession of the narrative, but doesn't accept responsibility for its content?)

  4. Amanda, I'm confused about the relevance of the "voice to the voiceless" construct. Is this something McClelland actually said about her work? Or implicitly said? Or just something you think journalists like McClelland often use to justify themselves? (Sounds more like a Kristofism to me).

    If it's not something you ascribe to McClelland, I think you should make this more clear, since the rest of the post is about her. It's ironic that the whole McClelland Morass was started by McClelland failing to provide appropriate context to rape victims in her work and yet a lot of her critics seem to be pretty fast and loose about providing such context in writing about her.

    Overall, I've enjoyed the discussion immensely and learned a lot from it.

  5. Hi Jersey,
    Thanks for your comment. I can see how what I wrote might have been confusing, and have edited the post to try to make it clearer.

  6. Amanda, here's a new post at my place that gets at some of your questions about how journalists can get consent. Five Ideas for Meaningful Consent.

    For the record, consent rules are NOT loosened when you don't speak the same language. Just had to say that outright. But you ask very good questions, and I hope my brainstorm offers some insight from my part of the professional world in how to think about them.

    I would really hate it if the takeaway in this conversation were that good journalism in these sitautions is undoable. It's not.

  7. Pingback: Everyone has a voice « Hands Wide Open

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