Coaches’ Corner: The story behind ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’
Once upon a time, there were writing coaches in newsrooms across the country, and then, there weren’t. In this new monthly feature, we hope to help writers and editors by sharing advice about storytelling and enterprise.
The story: An Unbelievable Story of Rape, by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project.
From: The Marshall Project and ProPublica
Questions: Steve Wilmsen, enterprise editor, The Boston Globe
Answers: Joe Sexton, senior editor, ProPublica
What inspired the story, and time from idea to publication.
Sexton: T. Miller and other reporters at Propublica had spent much of 2015 looking at flawed rape investigations. Serial offenders were a particular menace law enforcement had struggled to address effectively – through ignorance, incompetence, laziness. Marc O’leary was a known serial offender, so we started to look into his awful trail of damage. And found the story of Marie. I’d say roughly 4 months from idea to publication.
The opening section is quite powerful but in an unconventional way. It’s a somewhat after-the-fact court hearing, with not a lot of inherent drama. What told you this was the place to start, and how did you arrive at the elements that would invite readers into the heart of the story?
Sexton: we thought it might be effective to begin with a moment that was both novel and ambiguous. Charging women with false filing of rape claims is rare. And always fraught. Truth was an elusive element of the story. Why not begin in a way that left that unsettled. Maybe readers would read on to find out.
The piece places two storylines in parallel, Marie’s story in Lynwood, Wash., taking place largely in 2008, and the investigation of a series of rapes in Colorado three years later. The narrative jumps around in time and, in key places, breaks from the moment to include an independent fact. There’s purpose in all of it, building to the final, damning convergence. There was a lot to manage there. How did you settle on structure and then how did you execute? Did you map the story before writing? Did your ideas change midstream?
Sexton: First and foremost, the project had the benefit of two incredibly gifted reporters and writers, a combination that is rarer than we’d like to think. The appeal of the parallel story lines lay in the notion that a reader could, all but simultaneously, experience the worst rape investigation imaginable along with an absolute model of a rape investigation. Experiencing those contrasting realities in something like real time felt particularly potent. Ken wrote the chapters that took place in Washington. Miller wrote the Colorado chapters. They shared drafts as they worked. We thought it important that they each maintain their own distinctive writing styles. It emphasized the contrasting worlds. It’s a story without a nut graf (let the celebrations begin!) but there are essential and illuminating bits of context sprinkled throughout.
There’s a restrained, almost clinical quality to the writing. Was that deliberate? To what extent did the nature of the material dictate the voice of the story?
Sexton: At Propublica we had just had Jennifer Gonnerman in for a brown bag lunch to talk about her story for the New Yorker on a young man jailed for three years without his case being adjudicated. We agreed it was a model of letting the facts carry the narrative. When they are as damning as they were in Jennifer’s story and in our story, they can do all the work of storytelling. What carries great narratives more than anything else – more than lovely turns of phrase or great quotes – are simple, breathtaking facts.
This story inevitably brings to mind Rolling Stone’s piece about a woman who claimed to have been raped at a University of Virginia frat house. I’m not suggesting there’s a comparison, but the aftershocks of the Rolling Stone piece hit as hard at journalistic credibility as they did at credibility of women who charge rape. How did you weigh that when considering things like whether to attribute sourcing within the text?
Sexton: The Rolling Stone story was tremendously unfortunate. But, for me, it factored not at all in our story. We did think it helpful and prudent to create a sidebar item detailing our reporting and sources of information.
The excruciating details of Marie’s rape are told without flinching. On one hand, that was necessary to underscore the totality of her ordeal – both the attack itself and her treatment by the justice system. But some publications might have dialed back, obscuring some of the specifics either for considerations of privacy or simply to spare readers. Did you debate how much detail to include? What were the deciding factors?
Sexton: a tremendous amount of thought went into it, and Ken and T agonized over what was the right call. They even wrote alternative versions that did some of what you mentioned. Since it was largely put together by two male reporters and two male editors, we solicited the input of women, those who were familiar with the story and those without any inkling of it. With only one exception, the women voted for the more detailed account. Our brilliant copy editor, a woman who had edited other stories about rape, cinched it for us with the following note:
“I waited about 10,000 words, up to Chapter 8, to know what exactly happens to Marie. I needed to know — not to imagine it — the hard, and, yes, tough facts about her story. And I wasn't disappointed. I was captivated, sick to my stomach, angry, and I couldn't stop reading — all the things I was supposed to feel. The writing of Marie's rape was simple — not dramatic for the sake of drama or dry like a police report. It was raw, but polished. I saw everything, but not the uncomfortable details. It moved fast, but not too fast. I felt all the pieces of the story (the similarities and the previous mentions of her rape) fall into place after reading it. It was quite, quite powerful. And more importantly, it made her "no" at the end and her rapist’s sentencing all the more satisfying to me.”
A note from Sexton:
It’s flattering and important to be invited to talk about how the story came together, and then how it was told. Maybe there is a lesson or two in all that. But there’s also a risk I’d like to acknowledge – that journalists talking about what they do can seem overly self-regarding. There was only one person really essential to this story being done and done well, and that was Marie. She waited a long time to tell her story. And all of our legitimate ideas about how to tell it most powerfully would have been for naught without her courage to go ahead and open her life to our reporters.
Steve Wilmsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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