“The Rapist Next Door,” by CNN.com columnist John D. Sutter, describes the approach through the harrowing prism of one family: a wife, daughter and the husband who raped the child. This remarkably detailed story blends a family’s tragedy and startling response with a policy-driven look at the state with the country’s highest rape rate, accompanied by absorbing videos. In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Sutter reveals how he reported, structured and wrote the story, grappled with ethical dilemmas, why he employs first-person storytelling and describes CNN’s unusual approach to choosing such stories.
Your lead is haunting, combining similes, metaphors and evocative details, such as the solitary sound of a plane cutting through endless silence and iced snowmobile tracks “that creak and pop like brittle Styrofoam,” vividly placing the reader in the Alaskan tundra. Why did you choose to open this way?
The central theme of the story is the silence that surrounds rape and sexual abuse in Alaska. I saw that reflected in the natural environment, so I decided to play with the idea of describing the silence and the few sounds that do break it. Almost all of the descriptions in the lede are of sounds. I got that idea partly because videographer Brandon Ancil and I spent a lot of time at this family’s house shooting b-roll and waiting for them to meet us there — which meant I had a lot of time to stand out there in the cold and write down what I was seeing and hearing.
You then shift to the puzzling sight of a dilapidated shack where, the reader discovers, Ruth’s husband, Sheldon lives. Only then do you reveal the heart of the story: For years, Sheldon had been raping one of her adopted daughters and that Ruth consents to his presence in hopes that he won’t rape again? Why did you take this approach and were there others that you considered and discarded?
Leading with any of the most shocking details in this story — the fact that it’s about a man who raped his stepdaughter; that he sniffs ammonia to defuse sexual urges; that he once had sex with a frozen seal — seemed way too blunt. When you hear those salacious details right up front it’s harder to consider Sheldon, the child rapist in this story, as an actual human being and not just a monster. I also wanted to keep people guessing about what was coming next.
There were several drafts of this lede, but all of them started with the environment and intentionally backed into the fact that this is a story about a “rapist next door.” The headline helps explain the subject matter, and without that it might have been tough to write this. Most of the edits were for pacing and paragraphing — and toning down some overwritten descriptive stuff. It’s hard to get it just right, and I’m lucky to have some really sharp editors. (Editor’s note: Senior Editor for Enterprise Jan Winburn, who teaches occasionally at Poynter as an Editing Fellow, and Senior Editor for Opinion Richard Galant edited the series.)
Many journalists recoil from using the word “I,” fearful that first-person would reveal their biases? Columnists like yourself regularly insert themselves in their stories as you do consistently in “The Rapist Next Door.” What are the advantages in using first-person narration? Disadvantages?
I used to be a first-person recoiled. And then, about a year ago, I started writing for the Opinion section of our site. And now I use it I like it’s going out of style — and honestly, it’s liberating. In the age of Twitter and all that, it feels more natural — and lets you bring readers through tough or complicated stories with more ease and familiarity. It gives you this “I’m here too and we can figure this out” sensibility that can really work, I think. But it’s not for every story and it can go too far. Even though most of my writing is first-person at this point, I still try to go through it and take out me-me-me references. Because it isn’t about me — and I hope it doesn’t come across that way.
I’m more of a facilitator or guide. And being honest about the fact that I’m a human who reported this story is helpful, I hope. I think there are way too many journalists who hide behind some veil of objectivity and use that as an excuse for not really engaging with or processing the subjects they write about. In the last year or so, I’ve really learned it’s much easier to stand at a comfortable distance from a story and judge situations from afar. If you try to wrestle with how you feel about what you’re witnessing, it’s much harder, and, when done well, results potentially in a more readable and more powerful story.
That said: I do think first-person can go too far and feel self-involved.
You stamp settings and characters in readers’ minds with strong descriptive writing, metaphors and similes. Sheldon’s “a friendly seeming guy with the face of a marionette – all eyebrows and cheekbones. Big smile, hard to read.” In Ruth’s kitchen, the “dried salmon strips…bowl of seal oil…skin mittens, which Ruth sews,” reveal their Alaskan Native heritage. How do you move from reporting these impressions to rendering them on the page?
I take a lot of notes about what I see, hear, smell, etc. when I’m in the field. I try to make time to do that, which is something lots of smarter journalists have told me to do. It really helps. It also helps that I usually work with a videographer because it occasionally gives me stand-there-and-write-down-everything-around-you time. They shoot b-roll and I write it down.
I always try to describe people I write about in detail in part because I’m a bad reader — and I easily forget names, especially when I’m reading news stories. For me, visual cues help.
Some of the descriptions in this were toned down because we were worried they could be identifying. With Sheldon, we cut it down by about half, and you’re left with a sketch of him that hopefully still has meaning. That’s the essential part about moving descriptions from the notebook to the Internet: You have to think hard about which details are the most meaningful, and add to the story in a way that supports your theme, your argument, or expands on important character traits. Alaska is a place where you can go into observational overload pretty easily. It’s hard to pick and choose. And, again, this is where genius editors really help.
Your story deftly blends a family’s tragic narrative with the larger picture of the rape epidemic in Alaska. What were your strategies to structure the piece so that readers didn’t lose sight of the people and bog down in the statistics, approaches to the problem of rape and multiple experts?
The feedback I got on the first draft of the piece was that it didn’t do a wide enough sweep of the statewide issue, so I beefed up those sections on round two. This story was part of a series, but it was important, since it was featured most prominently, that it touched on the themes of the other pieces — so I referenced the “lawless” village I visited, but didn’t include much of the detail that’s part of that sidebar, called “The lawless ‘end of the land.’”
I used a standard broken narrative structure to try to keep both tracks going — cutting from Sheldon’s family story to sections about my experiences elsewhere in Alaska or how the state as a whole is trying to address what the governor has called an “epidemic” of violence. When a story is long like this and jumps back and forth, I sometimes will highlight the cutaway sections in color in Word so I can see where it’s going and figure out the best way to order everything.
How did you find Sheldon and his family?
I went to Alaska knowing I was interested in focusing on rapists rather than just rape victims. But I didn’t have this story and I didn’t know about Sheldon or this program. I started at a conference on violence prevention in Juneau — talked to lots of people there and eventually was connected with a few sex-offender treatment programs. The trip was very last minute because a story I’m out on now got delayed for logistics, so all of this was networking on the ground, pretty much. One of the people who runs this program was extremely helpful and told me that if I visited she could help me meet convicted rapists who were trying to reform. I met Sheldon through her, and then Sheldon introduced me to his family.
You interviewed Ruth, Sheldon and Alice, Sheldon’s victim? How did you secure their cooperation?
There was something in this for them: They wanted the awful acts that have haunted their family to have larger meaning, and I think everyone in the family was driven by a genuine sense that telling their story — breaking the silence — might help people who are going through or have gone through similar things. I told them my motivation for writing this story was in line with that. Time also helped. We spent several days with the family and let them ask questions of us. I had a couple of conversations with them more or less playing devil’s advocate and trying to talk them out of it — saying how many people would see it, how permanent it would be — to be sure that they really understood the ramifications of being so open. They’re very brave. And they opened up more the longer we were around.
What lay behind your decision to shield the identity of the family and their community?
It essentially came down to Alice, the victim’s, wishes. She wanted to be anonymous, and CNN has a policy of keeping rape victims anonymous that supported that request. It would have been impossible to keep her anonymous without removing details about the town and her family members. We also killed an 8-minute video about the family because it was impossible to do it in a way that would offer enough protection. Alice, as the story discusses, has had problems with drug and alcohol abuse. We wanted to do everything possible to support her telling her story but also to protect her from harm.
This story is the latest in CNN’s “Change the List” project. Please describe it.
The idea behind Change the List is to get CNN.com’s readers involved in pushing for change in places that need it most. Readers voted on the five social justice issues I’m covering as part of the project — income inequality and rape are the two that have been reported and published — and the gist is that I go to the place at the “bottom of the list,” so to speak, and try to figure out what’s going on and how people can get involved in trying to change that.
I see it as a series of underdog stories — places that are struggling but that we all can and should root for. I trust the wisdom of our readers to identify issues they think are most pressing — and then I use data to find the most pressing case study.
What’s the value of letting readers dictate coverage?
They’ve responded positively to the effort. The Alaska story had more than 1 million page views. A reader started a petition to get public safety officers in every Alaska village. I also encouraged readers to donate to vetted nonprofits and to share their stories in a project we called “We are the 59%,” in solidarity with the 59% of women in Alaska who suffer from intimate partner or sexual violence. The stories readers submitted were raw and stunning — and my feeling is that by speaking out these readers are helping end an epidemic.
So the overall idea is to try to close the loop with readers — to bring them into the coverage, make them a part of it, and to give them some tools to help make this world a better place instead of just reading about how bad it is all of the time. There’s hope in all of these stories.
A note at the end of your story describes “Change The List” as “journalism as democracy.” What does that mean? Do you believe more news organizations should adopt this approach?
I mean that in the literal sense that people voted for this coverage. I’m their representative — going out to “bottom of the list” places to investigate because they asked me to. I do think news orgs overall need to do a better job of acting on the feedback readers give them. Everyone has comments and Twitter and whatever. But not everyone listens. And not everyone who listens actually shapes their coverage based on what readers say is important.
Do you have any concern that this approach cedes a news organization’s editorial independence?
Journalists do have special training and editorial judgment matters — but there’s also an elitism in our industry that’s upsetting. That we, as Journalists, know the world and what matters and no one else has a say in that. This project doesn’t hand over editorial control — I still choose how to report these topics. But each story is inspired by readers, and depends on them to succeed. I think that’s a healthy symbiosis that makes sense given how the Internet works.
You spent two weeks in Alaska. How much time in all did you spend reporting, writing and editing the story?
I traveled to Alaska in mid-December. And then the stories published in late January. So it was two months in total, with some other columns in the mix. And Christmas.
A lot of that time was in review to be sure we were doing the stories in a way that was safe and fair. And in video production. Scripting and editing is very time-intensive.
What role did your editors play in the process?
I have great editors, and they helped this story immensely. They made the writing tighter, removed some of my overwrought descriptions and, most importantly in this case, helped me weigh the ethics of reporting on this topic fairly, including how exactly to go about not identifying the family. That was a difficult process, but it made the piece much stronger.
What were the greatest surprises you encountered during this project?
I love reporting for those moments when you think, “How in the world did I end up here.” I had one of those when I was sitting in a church lobby with Sheldon and the other sex offenders in his program. I was surprised by how forthright they were, how many of them matter-of-factly admitted what they had done. I was surprised that I would get a Christmas card from the wife of a rapist and that that would feel normal. I was surprised by how much I really started to care about this family, including Sheldon, the rapist, and their painful journey to try to recover. I was also shocked at how common rape and domestic violence are. Completely shocked. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised, but these crimes too often are invisible and unspoken. Once you start hearing the stories you realize they’re everywhere.
What was the most important lesson you learned as a writer?
That rape is one of the most sensitive topics you can report on and the writing has to take a backseat to the content when it comes to issues of safety and identification.
Columnists generally write to a prescribed length, 700-800 words or so. Your main story is 7,600 words long. What did a wider canvas allow you to do with this story? What strategies did you employ to keep readers with you to the end?
I think the length gave me the chance to make this more human and complicated. It’s not a story about a hero; it’s also not a story about a villain. It’s not a story that could be used to make a 700-word case for a particular policy outcome. And it’s a story that’s so draining emotionally that it needs to be paced slowly in order for it to have a chance to sink in and actually be considered. Seven-hundred-word op-eds can be done very, very well. But I couldn’t think of a way to do this story — to explain an issue this big — without more breathing room.
My hope was that readers would be interested in the why and how of a victim’s rapist living next door and that prompt would help carry people forward. The most jarring details — the ammonia jar Sheldon sniffs from when he gets sexual urges; the dead seal he had sex with — are spaced throughout the piece. And there are subheds and large photos in the online presentation that help give readers an idea of what’s coming to keep them interested. I also tried to play with the tension of whether or not Sheldon can or would re-offend to keep driving it forward. Hopefully that worked.
Throughout the story, you are open about your involvement and your reactions, but never more so than at the end when you have returned home and remain haunted by the story and its horrific details. Why do you choose to be so transparent?
I thought sharing a little about what I took away from reporting this story might help people understand it from my point of view. It’s also just the honest thing to do: I came away from this experience very haunted and very conflicted. I wanted to help guide people through my thought process as a way to get them thinking about the origins of sexual violence.
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