The XX Factor

Using Other People’s Stories To Tell Your Own Story Is Always Risky 

Photo by PATRICE COPPEE/AFP/Getty Images

The Atlantic has weighed in again on the controversy over Mac McClelland’s reporting in Haiti, this time on the debate over whether the Mother Jones reporter had the permission of a Haitian rape victim to use the victim’s horrible experience as a vehicle for McClelland’s own story about suffering from PTSD.    

It’s probably time to stop rehashing this issue, but the discussion about the accuracy of McClelland’s version of events is an important one. We all know that a powerful news story can shape public opinion and influence public policy. McClelland’s reporting out of Haiti has indeed been powerful and widely read, and in my view her “personal essay” was a piece of journalism, not a memoir, that painted a distorted and overgeneralized picture of what is taking place there post-earthquake. American foreign policy in Haiti can make or break the place. Reporting that gives the impression that Haiti is an ungovernable and unfixable failed state can sway American lawmakers, who have significant say over how much money we send and spend there, to dismiss Haiti as not being worth the effort.

Those who’ve argued that the PTSD article was a personal essay that had nothing to do with Haiti are wrong. The piece was part and parcel of her body of work on Haiti. The rape she described was part of her earlier reporting for Mother Jones. McClelland was not the first reporter to write about her personal experiences covering a troubled country – many of us have – and she certainly won’t be the last. What got her in trouble was indirectly equating the real victimization and trauma of a rape victim with being the cause of her own supposed trauma, a claim that has since come into question.

This more recent debate brings me back to your post, Debra, asking if my criticisms of McClelland had more to do with her being a white reporter writing about a black country. Of course not, and that’s why the women who signed the letter criticizing the PTSD piece were a diverse group that included white American journalists who’ve written authoritative books about Haiti. For them and for me this is about truth-telling and accuracy, whether in first-person or general reporting. I do have a problem though with reporters who stereotype people, more often than not poor people of color, and McClelland did this in her piece. If McClelland had been black and written the same piece, trust me, I still would have taken her to task. And for the record, not all Haitian-American writers think alike on this issue, as these two pieces illustrate. 

You described McClelland’s piece as “fearless.” I’ll grant you that. You also called it “self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed, and grandiose” and described parts of it as “bullshit, wonderful bullshit” and “too pat.” I agree that there’s a lot of bull there. Of her account of having sex while being punched in the face, you said: “I just don’t buy the scene she describes, let alone that it was necessary, except as art; there it succeeds with flying colors.” And then you say: “I don’t suppose I’m the only non-fiction writer who fantasizes about writing fiction; I see pieces like this as being about that. This shtick will most definitely end up in her first novel, so give the kid a break. Haiti can take it.”

The rub for me is that I don’t see journalism as being synonymous with fiction. It’s not supposed to be. Are you saying it’s OK for McClelland to skirt the line between fiction and truth because it works as “art”?  This is precisely why so many people no longer trust reporters.

(And, BTW, check out this equally provocative piece, written by the ex-boyfriend who allegedly punched her in the face. It’s an indication that McClelland’s unconventional views toward sex – and I’m not judging her sexual preferences in any way here, just reaching for a neutral description – were not wholly shaped by her experiences in Haiti.)

Still, at this point, you’re probably right that McClelland deserves a break from all the criticism. Even I believe her intentions were not malevolent, just incredibly egocentric. Still, I worry far more for Haiti than I do for her because Haiti’s battered image is only worsened by her coverage of it. The country actually can’t simply “take it” if it’s ever going to improve its reputation, restore its tourism industry, attract foreign investments to prop up the economy, create jobs, and help raise millions of people out of poverty.

McClelland, though, will be all right. If what she wrote in her PTSD piece is to be believed, she’s one tough cookie. She can take the heat.