Getting as Close to the Anguish as Possible

February 20, 1994|By MICHAEL OLLOVE

The morning after 10-year old Tauris Johnson was shot to death outside his East Baltimore rowhouse, I was at his bed, examining his teddy bear and a school spelling certificate; vestiges of a little boy's life.

On the night of Kerry O'Neill's funeral, I was in her girlhood bedroom listening to her parents mourn their gifted daughter, a young U.S. naval officer murdered by her former fiance.

I am not a cleric drawn to the scene of tragedy to lend support to bereaved parishioners. I am not a policeman, searching for evidence to solve a crime.

I am a newspaper reporter.

My job is to get as close to the embers of anguish as I possibly can, to gather them in, to absorb them, and then to re-create them for you, our readers.

I do this for you. I do this for my editors. I do this for me.

There is nothing I hate more.

There's nothing I find harder to justify.

And yet, more times than I can remember in the last 16 years, I have found myself planted in front of some grieving relative, trying to distill the enormity and meaning of their pain from their halting words and their defeated eyes.

In almost every case, I have hated myself as I went about this morbid work. I have yearned to refuse the assignment or to fail to show up or to quit my job and my profession.

Instead, I inevitably have pursued the story as aggressively as I could, trying to reach the grief-stricken, trying to devise the rationale that would convince them to expose themselves to me, a stranger, at this, the worst moment of their lives.

To my endless surprise, much more often than not, they have spoken to me. I cannot explain why. Some of my colleagues have suggested that, during these terrible times, families desire to influence a lasting memory of their dead. To me, this has the ring of rationalization, though I don't doubt there is some truth to it.

It also has struck me often during these interviews that the conversations themselves have been comforting to the survivors, that it is therapeutic for them to re-create the person they are mourning and to give expression to the tragedy that has befallen them.

I have been told that I should take satisfaction that I can provide this outlet. It only troubles me more. After all, I am not conducting these interviews to comfort the saddened. I am not there to help them. Other than being honest and accurate, I have no obligation to them at all.

It is you whom I serve, your interests, your enlightenment, your entertainment, your curiosity.

I wonder whether you are a good enough reason for me to inject myself into these tragedies. Are you better off on your Sunday mornings for having these tragedies dissected by me? I assure you, I am no tabloid reporter. I believe I write sensitively. I am capable of conveying complexity. But I am not a poet or a novelist. I do not claim to write in a way that will influence you profoundly. I am a newspaperman, and there's nothing more disposable than what I provide. You will read my stories and then you will put them aside. In a moment, you'll be on to the box scores or your bowl of Wheaties.

I wonder then, why do I inflict myself on those in despair?

On a raw and rainy Sunday afternoon in December, I climbed into my car to drive four hours north of home. At the other end, I knew, was a funeral parlor in Wilke-Barre, Pa., where hundreds of mourners would file by Kerry O'Neill's casket and embrace her family members.

I dreaded my presence there, but I knew, for the story, it is where I had to go to meet the people who knew this young woman -- a star athlete and accomplished student -- and could help me reimagine her life. Of course, I was not yet part of their consciousness that day; I didn't fit into their ritual of mourning.

Hours later, there I was, steeling myself to approach some of them. The words I used to introduce myself seemed hollow justification compared to the weight of their unhappiness. "I'm a reporter with The Baltimore Sun. I'm writing a story about Kerry. Would you tell me about her?"

Some did; others didn't. But I couldn't help feeling that none of them should have been subjected to such a choice. It was only the urgency of the newspaper that required me to be there. It was an urgency that had nothing to do with their lives.

As I roamed the funeral home that night, I noticed a perfectly composed young woman sitting in one of the metal chairs forming rows before the casket. From beneath her hands poked the top of a notebook. In an instant, I knew what she was, just as Anne Rice's vampires so readily recognize each other. And just like Ms. Rice's characters, we two reporters stood apart from the business of these proceedings. We were not there to mourn. We were not there to comfort. We were there to observe, to gather information.

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