Thursday, September 6, 2007

Writing Tragic History

My first journalism job after college was an editorial assistant for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I answered phones in the newsroom, typed agate (obits, military notices, events calendars, and so on), took dictation from reporters in the field, and edited stories for the community sections. I learned two valuable lessons in that newsroom.

1. There are only two things you are NEVER allowed to screw up: obituaries and winning lottery numbers.

2. I did not want to become a reporter for a daily newspaper.

I learned lesson #2 by watching the young reporters in the newsroom. Most cub reporters start by covering the police beat, because of the long hours and relatively straightforward nature of the reporting. There are no "insiders" or Deep Throats, just victims, witnesses, and cops. The reporter covering "cops" as we called it, would spend his or her shift listening to a police scanner. They learned the code numbers and geography of the city. If something went down, they would dash out and drive to the scene.

If the incident was significant (big car accident, shooting, home invasion, rape, etc.) the reporter would call in the story. Sometimes the reporter would have to yell amid the commotion of sirens, crowds of onlookers, and grieving family members. Although the excitement of the cops beat was enticing, I knew I didn't have it in me to approach a mother as her son lies dead on the pavement, riddled with bullet holes, and try to get a good quote.

In researching my novel "Plainfield," I am reminded of that time in my life. Along with studying the anthropology of Central Wisconsin at that time, I am also performing phone interviews with residents, asking them to recall a time in history they would much rather forget. Some are barely old enough to remember the horrific crimes of Ed Gein in anything other than scary bedtime stories and local lore. But some, such as sheriff's deputy Ron Thurley, remember that time vividly. Thurley served as the county's jailer for many years, and recalled the time when Gein was captured and spent time in the Waushara County jail.

The residents I've spoken to have been generous and insightful. And for that I am very grateful. But that is not to say everyone has been cooperative. As I expected there were people who refused to assist in my research. I tried to explain that I was not writing another sensationalized "true crime" book on Gein, but some felt that anything written on that subject only opened old wounds.
So the question of the week is whether anyone has had a similar experience while researching a work of fiction or nonfiction, and how you chose to deal with it. What are the ethical implications of writing about a tragic event either using or circumventing the people directly related to that event? I look forward to hearing your stories.