What happens when you become part of the story

Public Editor

January 28, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Journalists are usually observers but sometimes they are also the observed - such as when they discuss their own experiences to illuminate a facet of the human condition.

Sun reporter Michael Hill's Jan. 21 Ideas section essay, "Grief: On the printed page and, suddenly in your life," an assessment of five books that explore the consequences of loss - was informed by Hill's straightforward acknowledgment of his own pain and struggle after his wife's recent and sudden death. The essay is an excellent example of a journalist using his personal experience to give readers a look at the varied effects of death.

Most journalists are reluctant to talk about their own lives in their work, which I think is the right approach. Good writers understand that it is their reporting about other people that frequently moves readers, and good writers also know that one can lose perspective when injecting too much of themselves into a story. In his essay, Hill avoided this potential problem by remaining first and foremost a journalist.

He analyzed the books with precision while using his own circumstances to point out the shared feelings and "the subtle - and not so subtle differences." Hill described his own experiences lucidly and honestly - and connected with a significant number of readers.

Alice Ann Robinson, whose husband of 40 years died suddenly eight years ago, wrote: "Thank you for your wonderful article. Hearing about other experiences with grief helps normalize things a bit. ... I thought after all this time I had things in perspective and had done a good job of letting Jim go - but it seems that, as you so beautifully put it, `Each step is off an unseen curb, a potential lurch into an abyss.'"

From Angie Boyter: "I have not yet read any of the books you reviewed in your article, but none could be more moving than the introductory paragraphs. They told me a lot about you and about your marriage." (Hill began his piece with a description of changing the status from "married" to "widower" on a jury duty form.)

R. Turnball said: "At first glance I did not want to read this story because of the subject matter. But once I started I couldn't stop."

In the essay, Hill first analyzed the content of two books - The Goldfish Went on Vacation by Patty Dann and About Alice by Calvin Trillin - and explained how the situations the authors described were similar to and different from his own experiences. In both of these books, the writers' spouses died after lengthy illnesses, which allowed them to say goodbye.

Hill did not get that chance.

"We had no goodbyes," he wrote. "On Wednesday, Nancy had a sore throat. On Thursday, a cough. On Friday, the flu, but not too bad, still thinking about the two of us doing an indoor cycling class the next day. But a night of vomiting led to a trip to the emergency room on Saturday morning. It was too late. The meningococcal bacteria - the same one that causes meningitis - had invaded her bloodstream, gone septic. Within 20 hours, this completely healthy 54-year-old woman was dead."

Hill went on to describe how and why Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2005, affected him the most. Didion's book deals with her reaction to the loss of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, who died at the dinner table of a heart attack. One of Didion's themes is the enormous difference between what people imagine grief to be and what grief is really like.

Hill wrote that he knew immediately how much he would miss the daily interactions of his marriage, but what he did not know, he said, "was that this was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. When what lay below the surface - complex and textured, developed layer by layer over the years and decades - disappeared, its absence seemed - seems - almost infinite."

Since it was published, colleagues, friends and readers have told Hill it took courage to write the piece. He responded: "I don't know about that. Writing is what I do. It would have been more difficult for me not to have had the opportunity to write about something this important to me."

By examining books about loss and grief, Hill was able to gain a bit of distance from an incredibly personal event - tempering grief with his professionalism. It showed how a newspaper can speak directly to readers about difficult issues without becoming maudlin.

Reader Cheryl Duvall said: "I related to everything that you wrote. I thank you for listing books to read. As you suggest in your article, widows and widowers belong to a special club."

Hill, a 33-year Sun veteran, said later: "I have never received anything like the outpouring of reaction that this story inspired. Obviously, I wish I had never been put in the situation where I could write this piece, but I am gratified by the response to it."

This shows that journalists and newspapers should not avoid stories about painful personal subjects that really matter to readers.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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