We're All Stories in the End: On the Moral Pitfalls of Narrative Journalism
“Juan? That was my man.”
I listened silently, unsure, for a moment, of what to say.
His voice cracked. “I’ll call you back.” The line went dead.
I sat still for a few seconds, phone receiver pressed to my sweaty ear. In the span of five seconds, my excitement at finally reaching a source had turned into dread at the thought of calling him again.
It was, at this point in the process, a familiar feeling. Juan Bernal, an unassuming 21-year-old poet, had been shot to death on a sunny day over Memorial Weekend. The police had ruled his death a homicide but had no suspects and only a shadow of a lead. It had only been two months since. At the start of my summer internship with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I told my editors I’d be interested in writing a profile at some point. An extended obituary wasn’t what I had in mind.
What I had in mind was something slightly more romantic, something akin to the reasons I fell in love with narrative long-form in the first place.
As a child so obsessed with fiction he wrote two 1200-page fantasy novels in high school and so obsessed with research he made a ritual of reading his history textbooks while eating lunch, I found literary journalism, when I discovered it freshman year of college, nothing less than a revelation. It combines the reportorial, fact-based style of hard news with the emotional resonance of fictional storytelling, all delivered in the dynamic vibrancy of creative writing. My love of literature and research found their marriage in the long-form journalistic article.
If life itself were the story, then the source material was endless, and endlessly fascinating. The convenience store could be as spellbinding as the castle, the clerk as enchanted as the wizard. I realized I can write a profile of my four-year-old sister every bit as compelling as one of Barack Obama. Gay Talese managed to produce one of the great feature stories of the 20th century on Frank Sinatra, a singer he never met. I live with my sister. Would it be difficult? Definitely. Possible? Absolutely.
I was disabused of my romanticized view of literary journalism fairly quickly, if only because the moral dangers of the genre are impossible to ignore. The danger is this: the writer, in translating a blood-and-flesh human being into sentences and periods, reduces his subject to a mere character and thereby dehumanizes him. In treating my subjects as characters and their lives as stories, I risked trivializing them. The moment writers presume to impose a narrative structure on a fellow human being’s life—converting their ugly impulses to “character flaws,” their psychological struggles to “character arcs,” their agonized perseverance to “character development,” their emotional wounds to “drama,” their worldviews to “themes”—the moment they do all of that, they risk obscuring the humanity they’re trying to illuminate, risk burying their subject by trying to unearth them. Forcing a person into a classical narrative model is like forcing a sheet of glass into a too-narrow frame: you might make it fit, but the resulting cracks prevent any recognizable reflection. What then is the point?
I’d grappled with these problems many times in my (admittedly brief stint) as a literary journalist. I’d written about so many captivating people—a quiet academic catapulted to national fame for his apocalyptic warnings about Trump, a mechanic trying to resuscitate a career as battered as the cars he repairs, a cynical socialist with a heart hardened by love—and every time I’d pondered the risks of trying to narrativize someone else’s life.
But no profile I’d ever written crystallized the moral pitfalls of narrative journalism quite like Bernal’s, for a simple reason: he was dead. He could no longer speak for himself. Like Talese with Sinatra, I couldn’t meet Bernal. Unlike Talese with Sinatra, most people who could tell me about Bernal were too grief-stricken to speak with me.
I thought it a matter of basic decency that I write as safe a profile as possible—one that would gingerly touch on Bernal’s virtues, dutifully regurgitating his loved one’s fondest memories of his greatest moments, all while gliding over the many pressure points of his short life, so as to spare his relatives any additional pain in this time of grief. Surely this is how I should respect Bernal’s memory?
But another part of me, one as indignant as it was guilty, rebelled. No, this part of me retorted. A safe, bland profile of Bernal would disrespect his memory, because a safe, bland profile would necessarily omit the aspects of Bernal’s life most essential to understanding him as a person. As is typical with most people, it was Bernal’s hardships, his rough edges and his thorny relations, that offered the most insight into the person he was: his familial troubles, his homeless high school years, his reliance on poetry to cope with the trauma of his upbringing, his aged perspective on his own suffering and how it fit into a broader sociopolitical context of systematic racism in Milwaukee, and his articulation of these thoughts and feelings in his performances in slam poetry finals. Even though I knew these details were but a glimpse of Bernal’s interior life, they enriched his character infinitely and deepened my respect for him, a dead man my age whom I had never known, ten-fold. It seemed a crime—against him—to render him a caricature.
But so many of these essential aspects of Bernal’s life concerned people who still breathed, and breathed with unimaginable pain and guilt every day Bernal’s body stayed underground: his family. I couldn’t reach them. The few people I did avoided talking about them, as though fearing the equivalent of a verbal minefield. I prodded and insisted and annoyed, as every journalist must, but even here with less obnoxiousness than typical. How sharply could I jab my pen before it drew blood?
“How far can I go?” is the question that loomed over my phone handset. I seemed to be battling Jupiter-level gravity every time I lifted the phone and wading through water every time I punched in a digit. Bernal’s family and friends made clear that my inquiries were unwelcome. One friend of his finally picked up the phone after I dialed her number and left a voicemail every day for three weeks straight. “Hello?” she asked. I began to introduce myself. She hung up. Bernal's girlfriend initially appeared grateful for my interest in Bernal. But scarcely a day after we agreed on an interview time, she called ahead, her voice shaking, to cancel. She wasn’t ready after all. Mourning the loss of a treasure trove of information but unwilling to exacerbate her pain, I didn’t call her again.
If I felt uncomfortable bothering uninterested grievers, I felt almost distressed in the interviews I did manage to secure. I kept pushing, for details major (how was Bernal's family life?) and minor (what kind of music did Bernal enjoy? Favorite movie? Favorite color? Favorite sport?) I forced my interviewees to recall Bernal with distressing vividness, because I needed that vividness to bring him to life on the page. I needed crystal-sharp memories, dialogue, scenes, analysis. But the more recalcitrant my interviewees and the more elusive such details remained, the thought kept recurring: do I want to tell these details to tell a good story, or to do justice to Bernal? What did I care about more: the narrative or the journalism?
The protracted hand-wringing inspired by Bernal’s profile echoed the moral questions raised by possibly my favorite piece of literary journalism: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. It’s an astonishing piece of work, a meticulously researched, decade-long examination of poverty in the slums of Mumbai India. The sources that Boo is able to interview, the scenes that she is able to document, the culture that she is able to capture, the corruption that she is able to uncover—this project, with its mouth-watering research and beautiful narrative delivery of said research, pretty much represents my dream project as a journalist. Fittingly, it also best encapsulates my misgivings about my favorite genre of journalism.
Boo writes the book as a novel, excising herself from the narrative in favor of the traditional omniscient third-person narrator. Certainly the stories of these characters—sorry, people—are related to us with the confidence of a third-person narrator, complete with extensive internal monologues that no single human being could have access to. Personalities are dissected, conflicts set up and paid off, lengthy arguments transcribed verbatim, all with the theatrical flair of a talented novelist. Boo omits attributions to preserve the novelistic aesthetics of her narrative, and in doing so practically encourages her reader to treat her work as an engrossing piece of fiction rather than a heartbreaking documentary of reality. She thus, quite curiously, undermines the ostensible advantages narrative journalism enjoys over hard news: namely, its ability to emotionally invest the reader by adopting the dramatic conventions of fiction. Boo commits so completely to the mechanics meant to immerse her readers that she alienates them from her subjects.
It’s quite the paradox—and it’s only one of the many pitfalls of narrative journalism that Beyond the Beautiful Forevers exposes by “succeeding” in its approach. Another is whether Boo essentially exploited the suffering of her subjects, by profiting off their misery, and trivialized them, by dramatizing their suffering for narrative (and, arguably, financial) purposes.
I stumbled over both dilemmas with the Bernal profile. They were “resolved,” ultimately, by my editors. They halved the length of the piece, eliminating everything pertaining to Juan's familial troubles—that is, the meatiest chunks of the article. My initial indignation gave way to an interrogation of said indignation. Why was I upset? Because I had lost the dramatic linchpin of the piece, or because my sourcing had not been thorough enough to justify the inclusion of such an explosive linchpin?
Honestly? I was upset for the former reason when I should have been upset because of the latter. I hadn’t known how to navigate the precarious terrain of grief, and as such I hadn’t sourced as well as I should have. It would be irresponsible to present my take on Bernal's troubled family life as ironclad fact, to narrate it with a Boo-style confidence and flowery prose. It would be a redux of the Rolling Stone and the University of Virginia story scandal, if not perhaps on the same scale.
There isn’t really a “happy” ending to this story, or much of an ending at all. I completed Bernal’s profile with my editor’s changes and audience feedback was quite positive, but I don’t consider it one of my better efforts. Perhaps I could have spent this space discussing one those better efforts, but I feel that my experience writing Bernal’s profile better is more instructive as the narrative journalism dilemma.
I don’t know if it’s possible for the reporter’s pen to pin down something as nebulous and immaterial as the human soul. Creative nonfiction, for me, probably cannot ever truly pinpoint someone’s essence—it can only approximate it. Like all art, it’s more calibration than calculation. But that’s okay. Narrative journalism challenges me as a writer, as a researcher, and as a human being. Maybe I’m a masochist, but there’s something enthralling in grappling with that.