Coaches' Corner: How The Sacramento Bee told the story of a lonely death on the streets
Once upon a time, there were writing coaches in newsrooms across the country. Then, they began disappearing. In this monthly feature, we hope to help writers and editors by sharing advice about storytelling and enterprise.
The story: “Genny's World,” by Cynthia Hubert
From: The Sacramento Bee
When it ran: October 2015
Questions: Maria Carrillo, enterprise editor at The Houston Chronicle
Answers: Deborah Anderluh, senior editor, investigations and enterprise, The Sacramento Bee
What inspired the story: "A four-line obituary notice. Cynthia Hubert is a fabulous reporter and old-school. She makes a point of reading The Bee’s obit pages on the chance she might come across an interesting tale. This one read: 'Lucchesi, Geneive, 78. Homeless for the past 18 years. Died 2-11-15 in an alley between K and L Street, off of 30th Street in her sleeping bag. R.I.P. You were loved.'
Cynthia brought it to me, and we wanted to know more."
Time from idea to publication: Eight months
So, for starters, why did you say yes to this story? What was it that made you feel it was worth the investment? So many reporters/photographers are drawn to covering the homeless, but there's not always a fresh angle there.
It goes back to the elements of that obit notice. The age. The alley. The sleeping bag. How is it a woman of that age was living on the streets? Who had written the obit? If she were loved, how is it she came to die alone in an alley?
Cynthia and I didn’t know when she launched her reporting whether this was a poignant but pretty simple feature or something more. She was able, through our obits department, to get her contact information to the couple who placed the notice. Turns out they were among the people who gave Genny food and clothing during her years on the streets.
She called the morgue and learned Genny’s body lay unclaimed and that the coroner had no line on a family. It became clear pretty quickly that Genny had been a fixture in Sacramento’s midtown and grew old on its streets, publicly, in the company of functional people who tended to her and knew her, but didn't.
Within the first week, well before Cynthia had tracked down Genny’s family, we knew this was a life story we wanted to piece together, and that it was going to take time.
We were pretty sure she suffered from some sort of mental illness and wanted to understand how that played into her becoming homeless and whatever distance there was with her family. The nexus between homelessness and mental illness isn’t new, of course, but given Genny’s age and the circumstances of her death, we had a sense that the details of her life would resonate, that through her we could tell a far broader story.
And then there was the community of people who knew her as a homeless woman. There was something uplifting in the notion of all those small acts of human kindness that kept Genny alive. We wanted to explore the motivations of those who helped her, but also the limitations — why it was she still ended up dying on the street.
This story is basically two stories — the story of Genny’s life on the street and the story of what her life had been before — and I suspect it wasn’t easy to fill in the gaps in either story. How did you coach the reporting?
You make a great point. The reporting for this one was unusually challenging. All that description about how Genny spent her days, her routes and routines, took months of exhaustive reporting and interviewing. The network of people who knew Genny didn’t necessarily know each other. So Cynthia spent a lot of time knocking on doors, staking out business owners, moving from one puzzle piece to the next, slowly piecing together Genny’s world and the final months of her life.
Her family presented a whole different set of challenges. Through public records searches, Cynthia was able to find decades-old addresses for Genny, and over time — again with lots of dead ends and doorknocking — to track down one of her grandchildren. That led her to Genny’s brother and two surviving daughters, but initially none of them wanted to be involved.
The memories were painful, and they worried we were looking to celebrate Genny, or worse, make her the victim. Cynthia kept patiently at it, reaching out, building trust, explaining our goal. Ultimately, the fact that some of them agreed to cooperate became another painful rift in the family that remains unresolved.
Cynthia and I talked throughout the process about interview approaches and reporting tactics. But I think a key part of my role as far as coaching the reporting for this particular story was recognizing that all that time in the field, all that alley-trudging, doorknocking and rejection, made for tough, lonely, sometimes dispiriting work. So I made a point of being a touchstone, debriefing with her each day, helping brainstorm new options when doors stayed closed.
When the subject of your story is deceased and you’re dealing with mental illness, you probably have to reconcile that you’re not going to get all the answers you want. When did you feel as if Cynthia had enough in her notebook to be able to sit down and write?
There was a point at which I realized we were setting out to profile a woman who was unknowable to us. Could we trace the facts of her life? Yes. But not her feelings or motivations or what it was like to live in her brain.
She was deceased, and we had no one from her generation or older, still alive, who was willing to offer perspective. Our filters were her children, who saw her through their own prism of youth and pain. And the good Samaritans from her later life whom she kept at a cool distance.
But that observation became an interesting guidepost. We could still tell her story, but for it to have emotional resonance, we needed to tell it through the perspectives and experiences of the people she affected.
Many writers and editors struggle with story structure, and here, you’re moving around in time and shifting from caring acquaintances to family members and from Sacramento to Oregon and back. Did you discuss other options for where to start and where to finish? And what drove your decisions — in terms of organization — for the rest of the story?
From the start, we knew we would open with Genny’s death and initially planned to back up in the second section and tell her story chronologically. But, honestly, the first draft fell flat. It moved through time, but lacked emotional connection. You knew the facts of Genny’s life and what people said about her, but you didn’t care. It came across as a long “tell” about someone who was not particularly likable, as if we’d set out to solve a mystery and forgot to clue in our readers about why it was important.
And interestingly, for all that Cynthia and I had discussed her findings, it wasn’t until I read the first draft that I understood Genny’s granddaughter also suffered from mental illness. And that suggested a whole new dimension of echoes to explore.
We sketched out a new structure, adhering to the revelation I mention above: that for the story to connect emotionally, we needed to unspool it from inside the heads of the people Genny affected. It made sense to start with the death, and establish Genny as a fixture through the experiences — and reservations — of the retired couple who tried to help her. Then we proceeded through time chronologically, but setting up this dichotomy between the family’s experience of Genny and the community’s experience of Genny. In some cases, that meant sending Cynthia back for more targeted interviews.
Once we settled on this structure, the funeral became the obvious ending, the place where the two worlds came together, as experienced through the conflicted emotions of her daughter.
As you read about Genny’s World, there are so many echoes, in terms of how many people wanted to help but didn’t want to force an intervention. Obviously, you guys chose to strike that chord again and again. Why?
I mentioned we thought this was a story that could speak to something broader in several respects. And I find the community aspect of this fascinating in that regard. On the one hand, you have so many people who went out of their way to be kind — bringing Genny reading glasses and coffee, her crosswords, her cold cream, baked ziti, a subzero sleeping bag.
On the other hand, they can only go so far before wrestling with moral quandaries: How involved do I get? What does it mean for my life and my family’s if I bring this crazy woman into my home? If I have her committed against her will, is that helping or hurting?
We have come to accept people living on the streets in all sorts of circumstances. We don’t know the answers, don’t really demand answers. The repetition wasn’t meant to suggest a solution, but does work to crystallize the dilemma.