Every spring, I venture out to the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and briefly become an editor to a group of young journalists. Given my Tomdispatch life, I teach a class fittingly called “Strong Words.” I always hope my students pick up something about writing — and especially rewriting — from me, while I learn much that’s surprising about our world (and technology I’ll never be able to handle) from them. It seems like a reasonable enough exchange.
For the last three years, the pieces from this class have taken over the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Insight section for one week, as they will again this coming Sunday. I always get to preview one or two that best fit my particular Tomdispatch obsessions. Last year, for instance, I posted Chad Heeter’s “My Saudi Arabian Breakfast”; the previous year, Lisa Lambert’s “GodAssault, Morality as the Ultimate Game.”
This year, Meghann Farnsworth offers a window into journalism of a sort you don’t often see opened and I thought it well worth sharing with Tomdispatch readers. Tom
Girl on Fire
Confessions of a Former Journalistic Neophyte
By Meghann Farnsworth
I was the adult, a 25-year old journalism student on my first reporting trip abroad. She was the child, 16 going on 40. I had the translator, the driver waiting outside, a hotel room in the safest part of the city, a ticket out of the country in three days. She had her mother, fidgeting nervously in the waiting room, a multitude of STD tests, a house she rarely left in a violent neighborhood, and one of the most dangerous gangs in Guatemala City threatening her life if she talked.
A journalist’s job is to ask questions. Journalism school emphasizes the need to get “color,” “scenes,” “details.” Final articles are to be written in an authoritative, confident voice. And yet, what rules of engagement apply when a reporter — OK, in my case a young reporter — is faced with a source as vulnerable and traumatized as this girl?
Increasing violence against women in Guatemala City, that was what I had come down to investigate. Although I knew my subject, had read the literature, the government briefings and the daily local news reports, there was no way I could have prepared myself for the reality. Covering violence means being physically exposed to its final product: its victims, dead or alive.
Two weeks, visiting the morgue, the cemetery, prosecutors, police, human rights lawyers, forensic scientists, a women’s shelter, families of victims. A litany of horrors running through my head. Nearly 600 Guatemalan women murdered in 2006, according to the national police. Almost two a day. Only seven men put behind bars for murdering women last year. Witnesses to crimes threatened into silence, sometimes killed. Domestic abuse, still legal. Bodies buried alone, unnamed, without family, without prayers.
Until you see a man, woman, child slipped into the ground without a headstone or an identity you have no idea how alone a body can be in this world. But here it was and here she was: all the violence, all the statistics and one kid. One kid, in perfect honesty, that I was almost afraid of — her story so powerful that it threatened to overwhelm sheltered American me.
I began interviewing her confidently enough in that small room in a women’s center in the heart of Guatemala City, but soon I noticed my voice had become unrecognizably soft, motherly. I was all too aware I had abandoned my confident journalistic-authority voice for fear that she might shatter. Each of my questions — Who did this to you? What prison did they take you to? How long did they keep you there? What did they do to you? Did you go to the police? — pushed deeper into her still fresh pain. And yet — and this was the most unnerving thing of all — each of her replies came in that steady, flat voice of hers, as if she were the reporter and her subject were as dull as the weather:
They took off my clothes. Held me down. And then they raped me. Ten of them. Then ten more. Then ten more.
Do journalists comfort their subjects? I didn’t remember that from my J-school courses. Do journalists get this nervous? I didn’t remember my professors mentioning that either. Had I gone too far?
I kept thinking each question was inappropriate, too personal. I told her she could walk away anytime. Say something off the record. Refuse to answer a question. I said these things early on, almost as a prayer. Maybe I was trying to get her to stop. For my own sanity, did I really want to know the answers to these questions? Maybe I also wanted to protect her from the media, from me. Did she know what she was doing? In the end, do sources ever really know what they are doing? And what was I anyway — all these things were spinning in my head — just a parachute journalist, jumping into the ashes of Guatemalan violence to bring out this jewel of a story — the perfect example of one society’s indifference to women?
Whether warning her was the correct thing to do journalistically, it felt like the only thing to do humanly. She was risking her life speaking with me and I could offer her no protection other than her anonymity.
In the end, she answered every question. Willingly. And she seemed to grow bolder with each statement.
I want you to print this. Tell my story. Print it in Spanish so they will know I told.
She was, of course, just one girl, one story amid hundreds, thousands. And certainly, impunity for rape and violence is not unique to Guatemala. It occurs in every country around the world. But she was the one sitting in front of me. And her story was no cliché: Kidnapped by armed men, she — a petite 16-year old — was taken to a notorious gang prison and raped for hours by dozens of inmates.
The methodical way she recited the details was terrifying: a description of the outfit she was wearing, her favorite; the pillow they put over her face to muffle her screams; the paper they tore out of her school book to smoke weed; her sore, scratched, bruised body; the two buses she took and the miles she walked to get home; the one guard she saw, only one, only on her way out.
Her crime for this punishment? Growing up in a gang neighborhood. Being friendly with an inmate at the prison. Trusting him when she should not have. Being a lonely teenager who believed, naïvely, that he would be satisfied just talking to her when she should have known he would want more. And when she did not want to give it, he had her kidnapped. He, and everyone else, would have her whether she wanted it or not.
A story like this will inevitably be scrutinized. Called unbelievable. I needed things I felt certain she would not give me. I asked for the name of the man who had her kidnapped. She gave it to me. I asked if I could use her name in print. She gave me permission.
Lawyers at the women’s center are working on her case; her therapist gave me details of her weekly treatment; and she was given a physical examination at a hospital shortly after the attack. The prosecutor’s office is supposed to be investigating, though not with any sense of urgency — her primary rapist has been released from prison.
Journalists, by definition, are people of privilege. We dip into the lives of our subjects and always leave them in the end. We ask perfect strangers to trust us with their most intimate, personal, embarrassing secrets. In return, they get their story told. To be in this line of work you must believe, almost religiously, that this is a fair trade.
I can still see the two of us. Me: baggy jeans, clunky clogs, long-sleeved shirt. Her: loose, provocatively low-cut white top, tight jeans, and opened-toed black stilettos. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t have to. It was a reversal of roles, her outfit a proverbial middle finger to the men who, she says, raped her. Mine, an attempt to avoid unwanted sexual attention.
While I was impressed that she had the courage to speak to me, that same strength was evidence that this most recent trauma was just one of many she had suffered over the course of her short life. What was, to me, a litany of horrors was her daily reality.
I do not regret my nervousness, my warnings, my shock, the tears I cried back in the safety of my hotel room. To this day, she remains more to me than just words on the page. She was my loss of innocence. My real education.
Here are a few instant truths about journalism from a former neophyte: First, there are some sources you cannot treat with objectivity. Their vulnerability, their story, their plight, sets them apart from other sources. Second (surprise!), journalists are human. When someone tells about being raped, abused, or otherwise brutalized, their very real trauma and fear can be inadvertently transferred to you. It’s like second-hand smoke: You don’t have to smoke the cigarette to get the cancer. Lastly, as journalists, we will all one day be forced to leave someone behind. We have to move on to the next story. But in her case, it hurt.
I left her behind three days later. Since I spoke with her, she has moved to a secret location. The threats have increased since her rapist’s release. Personnel at the women’s center who help her receive death threats. Fearing for her life, she has dropped the charges against the man who kidnapped and raped her. I have no idea what I did for her, but this is what she taught me: There is journalism school and then there is journalism. May we all strive for the latter.
Meghann Farnsworth is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. She is writing a chapter on violence against Guatemalan women for the book “Forgotten Battlefields: What Happened to Central America After the United States Left?”
Copyright 2007 Meghann Farnsworth