She won a Pulitzer for her story about a 'feral' child. Now Lane DeGregory has a heartbreaking update

When we last saw Dani, caregivers had hopes that a nurturing environment would lift her mind and body out of the quicksand of crippling neglect. Would she ever talk? Care for herself? Care for others? Learn to love and be loved?
 

Lane DeGregory, one of America’s most honored feature writers, won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2008 story “The Girl in the Window.” It was the story of a 7-year-old girl named Dani who, from the moment of her birth, suffered horrific conditions of abuse and neglect. Experts called her a “feral” child.

Finally, the authorities stepped in and Dani was adopted by a caring family. When we last saw Dani, caregivers had hopes that a nurturing environment would lift her mind and body out of the quicksand of crippling neglect. Would she ever talk? Care for herself? Care for others? Learn to love and be loved?

The answers to these and other existential questions become clearer from a new story on Dani by DeGregory. You will see that, at more than 4,400 words, this is more than an update or epilogue. It stands on its own as a story so complex that it manages to dishearten and inspire at the same time.
 
I read the story twice — first on my phone, and then from a printout. I read it without seeing photographs or other visual images. With the help of writers such as DeGregory, I try to learn something new about the craft of writing every day. She was generous in her answers to my questions, which I submitted to her in an email message. She answered in writing. The interview has been lightly edited for correctness and clarity.     

Poynter: I am struck by how often in journalism we capture the news at a moment in time. We focus tremendous resources on a person in trouble — as you did a decade ago with Dani. It is a rare occasion in journalism when we answer the question "whatever happened to." How did you decide it was time to do that and why?

DeGregory: When I first started working at the Times in 2000, and we had a daily Floridian section, we did a “Whatever happened to” story every Monday. Readers really seemed to respond to them. In the age before the internet, we couldn’t even re-direct them to the original story. So I imagine if we did more of these now, we’d drive traffic to older, timeless stories —and gain new interest in the “after the news” aspect. Sometimes the magnitude or sorting out of what happened can’t really come until long after the news is over. I had kept up with Dani’s dad over the years, sporadically, and he called me over the summer to “confess” that he couldn’t take care of her anymore and had put her in this nice group home. Of course I asked if I could come visit him — and see her. But I was planning on waiting until next summer —10 years after my story ran — to do an update. When I told (then Times editor) Neil Brown I wanted to go to Nashville for Dani’s 19th birthday, he said I should go ahead and write the story now, 10 years after she was adopted, the real measure, not the publication of my story date. So that’s why it’s running now. Plus the “news” of her new home gave a little peg: something had changed significantly for her in the last year.

Poynter: When you started your reporting, what did you expect to find?  And what surprised you most after the fact?

Lane
DeGregory

DeGregory: I knew that Dani had regressed after talking to Bernie a couple of years ago. But I thought that she would be more connected to him, happier to see him, at least able to recognize that he was hers. But when we got there, and saw them together, I couldn’t tell. Truly. It was impossible to ascertain if she knew who he was or was glad to see him. She was much less wary of me, and others, than she had been. And she was totally compliant, letting everyone lead her around and letting Bernie kiss and hug her. But she didn’t really respond, or seem to connect. It didn’t surprise me that he’d had to put her in a group home. I dreaded that, but felt it coming for a while — especially after the divorce.

Poynter: The first time I read this, I assumed it was about Dani and how she is doing. The second time I read it, it occurred to me that it was really Bernie's story, about his love and sacrifice — and everything he has lost as a result of his commitment. Does an author have to decide on whose story it is?

DeGregory: My new editor, Maria Carrillo, helped me decide it was Bernie’s story and not Dani’s. Of course, Dani is the central character, but since she can’t talk, and since the action had all pretty much happened in the past, all I could do was observe her for one day. All the insight — and impact of the adoption — really came from Bernie. As soon as I came back from reporting, Maria said the story is about the people Dani affected … especially her dad. And yes, I think it is important for the author to know whose story it is before he / she starts typing. I need that viewpoint to guide my camera to find my words.

Poynter: Some of the key figures in the first story would not talk with you. As a reader, I was disappointed not to be able to hear from Bernie's wife and son — and Dani's mother and brother. How do you report through the problem of lack of access?

DeGregory: Lack of access to the main characters sucked. I tried hard to talk to Dani’s adoptive mom, and her brother, and I know there was a big back-story there that I couldn’t dive into. And unlike Florida, criminal records and divorce proceedings aren’t public record in Tennessee, so I couldn’t track down their legal battles and allegations of abuse / neglect … it was tough to write around that. I mean, the story wasn’t about their divorce, but that certainly was a horrible by-product and obviously didn’t end well. I even tried the birth mother and Dani’s biological brother, but got nowhere there either. It’s totally frustrating not to be able to get the whole story.

Poynter: I know it is your tendency to want to see the good, even in the darkest corners of human experience. You once said that an editor had to coach you on how to look for the "bruise on the apple," the flaw that helps to humanize a character. How did you manage that in your depiction of Bernie?

DeGregory: I love this question, because it’s something I really struggled with. I know Bernie isn’t perfect. But without having Dani or Diane or even Willie to talk about him, it was hard to paint that bruise. I think his flaw is complex: He’s one of those people who really believes if you let go and let God, all will work out. He’s so trusting, so certain that the Lord gave him this broken girl, that — after they moved to Tennessee and the Florida adoption folks weren’t involved — he didn’t really seek out the therapy and help he could have for Dani. He thought his family’s love would be enough. And he underestimated the amount of care and time and patience Dani would take — and the toll that would take on Diane and Willie. He tried to do it all alone. And that was just too much.

Poynter: When I asked myself "What is Lane's story really about?" I came to realize that you decided to answer that question — not with a theme statement or nut paragraph, but with — excuse me for this — a series of "nut quotes" from key players, such as "Of all the cases I've ever dealt with, hers was the saddest" and "It's discomforting to think that love can't conquer all" and "There's a person locked in there that we'll never know." Talk about this as a strategy.

DeGregory: Oh, that was exactly what I was doing, Roy, trying to let the other stakeholders weigh in with the sentiments I knew readers would want to hear, or would wonder about. I knew I wanted to revisit all the folks she had touched, but I didn’t realize how much she had impacted them, or how superlative of a case she was in so many of their professional fields. So when I started hearing these perfect quotes that encapsulated the situation so well, I knew I wanted to string them together as a sort of nod to a nut graph — which I have never been good at.

Girl
Dani as she appeared in the original story. (Photo by Melissa Lyttle)

Poynter: Lane, you are giving us an update on an old story. Many people will read this who did not read the original. Things are happening now, and things happened in the past. I notice that you have divided your 4,400 word story into nine discrete sections, alternating (mostly) from present time to past time. Can you say a little on how you chose that time-shifting strategy?

DeGregory: I kind of thought about the past / present structure in the plane on the way back from Tennessee. I knew the meatiest part of the piece would always be the past, and I’d have to recreate that and weave it in somehow without being repetitive. There wasn’t that much to wonder about in the new story, beyond: How’s she doing? And it surely wasn’t as dramatic or happy an ending as anyone had hoped. So I thought that if I could keep the present into that single day, and make readers want to know, at least, if she’s happy, I could carry that narrative and observed scenes around everything I wanted to bring back and update. I flip-flopped with the present time for those scenes, and am still not sure I made the right choice, but since it happened in September, and the story didn’t run until December, it felt weird pulling the readers into present time three months later.

Sign up for a Poynter NewsU master class on storytelling with Lane DeGregory.

Poynter: While you are not afraid to write in the first person, it is not your main approach to storytelling. You use it here, but in a limited way.  At one moment, Dani holds your hand.  But you are mostly an observer — our eyes and ears. How did you decide on how much of you should appear in the story?

DeGregory: Neil Brown wanted more me. I hate being in my own stories, unless it’s a first-person piece, and then it’s usually about my kids or dogs or something, seldom about me. But after Neil read a draft of the story, he said exactly what you wrote: That I needed to be the readers’ eyes and ears, their guide to what’s really going on. And since I hadn’t seen Dani in seven years, I had a much different perspective on her progress than her dad. I didn’t plan on taking her to the bathroom. In 30 years of journalism, I’ve never gotten THAT involved, but Bernie asked me to, and I was surprised how willing Dani was to go with me, to let me help her undress and change her diaper and put her back together again. She would never have done that seven years ago, so I guess that’s some progress / connection.

Poynter: You make a helpful catalog of all the good consequences that resulted from the original story. I was surprised and delighted to know that you could write a story and that many children would be adopted as a result. As you wrote the sequel, did you have in mind what might flow from this update, learning that "Dani didn't come as far as everyone had hoped"?

DeGregory: I hoped only that this update, and the re-sharing of the original story with a new audience, might inspire others to adopt, or at least look out for their neighbors’ kids. I seem to write such sad stories about things that possibly could have been prevented if only strangers had stepped in when they saw something. I hope, too, that it might push some people to pay more attention to their own kids, to realize how important those early years are for development. It kills me to see people pushing their toddlers in strollers, scrolling through their phones instead of showing their kids trees and birds and lizards all around.

Poynter: I have been paying attention these days to a narrative technique that one author calls "the satellite." It is a minor plot element that recurs, usually to develop character. Example: The detective tracking down the serial killer feeds the stray cat that shows up now and then. The talking helicopter gives you a chance to do that. It becomes the object that correlates to the most hopeful feelings in the story — right up to the end. When did you know you would use that?

DeGregory: Oh, I’ve never heard the term “the satellite.” But I love that idea. And I guess that is what I did. Honestly, that helicopter was driving me crazy. She wouldn’t stop pushing the button and that voice was so grating but it made her so happy no one would make her stop. So I just kept hearing it, for the whole half-hour drive home, while I was trying to talk to Bernie, and then again at the group home where I’d hoped to get some interaction but instead she disappeared back into herself and that helicopter. That’s when I started writing down the insipid words. Short strings of them. I didn’t really realize that would be a theme until I re-read my notes and realized what was happening and that, in my quest for hope, there was the helicopter. And the idea that at least she was happily regaining a childhood that she’d never had. She was connecting, at least, with that toy — if not its symbolic message.

Poynter: I first read this story on my iPhone. I understand it will appear in the paper in a special edition of "Floridian." When I worked at the Times, the Floridian was a daily section, which became a weekly section, which became a monthly section, then disappeared. I have argued that newspapers need to create a habitat for good stories. As newspapers across the country have shrunk, what advice would you offer editors on creating spaces where such enterprise work can appear?

DeGregory: I am so thrilled that the Times still values these long-form stories. And we’re bringing back Floridian especially to showcase them. So instead of having several stories, a puzzle and a column in a monthly magazine, Floridian will be a special section, a few times each year, whenever we have a project to showcase — not because it has to meet some deadline or fill a Sunday section, but because the storytelling and art are excellent. I think if editors are really picky about what enterprise work is worthy, and invest the resources on those projects, and display them with enough space and design elements, the readers will respond. Although I’m an admitted techno-dunce, it was pretty exciting to go from the slide-show audio presentation with the story in 2008 —the first online web component we had done — to having a real documentary-style video produced this time, and a gorgeous online presentation that is even inviting on your iPhone. I hope newspapers realize how much readers still crave these long-form, human stories that make you feel and think and care.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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