On the death of Dr. V

Sometimes a journalist will write something, and sometimes people will die.

This is a sad fact about this business, the small squeaking fear in the back of any reporter’s mind: you never know exactly how any story will shake out. You cannot know exactly what the repercussions will be, for the subject. Perhaps the spotlight will burn too bright, perhaps the feedback will too much for an employer — or for a human psyche — to withstand.

Yeah, you can guess how things might go, but until it happens you will never truly know.

So a few lights to guide a writer then, as they plunge into the unknown: first, any writer must thoughtfully consider what information they reveal. The natural instinct of many journalists is to disseminate information, but we must be curators too, weighing the public interest of a piece of information against its level of invasion, and against the chance of harm.

These scales will weigh out different ways, on different days.

For example, it is one thing to dig into the past of a police chief, or of the President of the United States. It would be quite another to dig into the personal life of the woman who owns an ice-cream shop down the way, when all she knew is that you wanted to profile her new sundae machine.

This should be self-evident: journalists do not enhance a public dialogue by prying into the lives of the quiet public. And most of all, writers must mind the line between journalist and badgeless detective.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, you stumble on to a trail of clues, and it lights a certain fire in you. That is the turning point: you can either harness that heat thoughtfully, and perhaps do some exquisite reporting. Or you can fan the spark into a personal flame, and begin to feel the star in your own detective story.

The problem with vigilante detectives is that they do takedowns, not journalism. They find proof to vindicate a hunch. Once that happens, you’re sunk. Once that happens, something is almost certainly going to go wrong.

I’ve fell down that path myself, once, when I was in news and following the breadcrumbs of some long con. I was lucky to have an editor who pulled me back, though I didn’t like it at the time; an editor who judiciously excised information that was too personal, too aggressive, too insensitive to what the story was actually about. “We do not want to appear as if this is a vendetta,” my editor said gently, and I pouted but knew he was right.

I see so clearly now how the idea of taking down a liar felt so romantic, in my mind.

So yeah, I get why sometimes journalists are suckered into veering off the path, and crossing that line, and also how that can open up the risk of harm. Exhibit A: this week, in Grantland, Caleb Hannan did not mind that line, and the results… well, they should not have happened. They didn’t need to happen.

Other writers have covered this awful situation far better than I could. The title of Melissa McEwen’s incisive “Careless, Cruel and Unaccountable” just about sums it up. Maria Dehvana Headley’s strong critique is an important read too. I don’t expect to add anything here that their voices and others  — particularly the voices of trans folks and allies on Twitter, of which you can find many on the hashtag #justicefordrv — have not already done.

Still, I’m all tied up in the thought of it, so I may as well let those thoughts out to run.

The basics are thus: a golf guru tipped Hannan off about an unconventional new golf putter, and Hannan jumped on the story, as he should. In the course of exploring the invention, he began to probe into the background of its inventor, Dr. V — despite forging an agreement with her to report on the “science” of the putter, “and not the scientist” — and discovered big inconsistencies in her purported education and professional credentials.

From there, he also learned that she was a transgender woman, a fact he proceeded to share with one of her investors.

This was not just unethical, but it flat-out dangerous. Trans folks, particularly trans women, are at a heartbreaking risk of harm if they are known to be trans: they are much more likely to be murdered, to lose their jobs, to end up homeless, to be pushed to the margins of society in every possible way. They are massively more likely to take their lives, as these harms add up.

Every year, in a grim refrain of how serious this is, the trans community grieves its dead.

So I will put in big bold letters now, just to make it clear:

It is never acceptable to out a trans person to anyone, ever. Full stop, end of story, nothing more to say.

If Hannan had realized this, if he had even paused long enough to think clearly about the harm he was about to do, maybe this story would have turned out differently. Maybe Dr. V would not be dead. Maybe she would have had reprieve from a writer who, after agreeing to write about her putter but not her personal life, proceeded to out her as a trans woman, call up her ex-wives, review a police report of her past attempted suicide and pry, pry, pry into things that had nothing to do with her putter, or about her professional or educational credentials.

Instead, he pushed forward with these explicitly unwanted invasions, and Dr. V took her own life.

Then, in a decision so poor it almost defies description, Hannan and his editors went ahead and published the story. Put it up online for everyone to read, for everyone to gawk at. In this story, Dr. V is presented as more sideshow than human, seen only through her clearly growing fear of Hannan’s dogged personal invasions.

And for what?

Look, I can completely empathize with a desire to explore the story of a mysterious inventor. That curiosity is what informs the best journalism, and helps dig up the most powerful stories.

But every time I review this story, what leaps out to me is this: at some point, Hannan started to take the reporting too personally. He tightened his blinkers enough to barge past every red flag that the subject was vulnerable, that he was trespassing on territory neither he nor Grantland’s readers had a right to know. He dropped the scales of responsible journalism, stopped balancing public interest against harm, and picked up the imaginary badge of a self-appointed detective.

I feel like you can tell the exact moment this happened, while reading Hannan’s piece. It’s right here:

He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.

“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”

So, upon realizing that Dr. V might be trans, “a chill actually ran up (his) spine.” But for what? And why?

The fact that Hannan’s “chills” hinged on learning Dr. V was trans is telling. This is the point that pushed Hannan from a writer fact-checking an inventor’s purported professional background, and into an aggressive investigation into a private citizen’s personal life. He is clearly titillated by the discovery that she is trans, a feeling that lingered in his Tweet announcing the story last week: “the strangest story I’ve ever worked on,” he called it.

We use other words than “strange” for stories that are inextricably linked to a woman’s death: “tragic” usually works.

Because Hannan’s evident titillation drove the rest of his investigations, the harm that flowed next was inevitable. After that point, the story is no longer about a putter, or even about professional misrepresentation by its inventor. Suddenly, it is about “a troubled man (sic) who had invented a new life for himself (sic),” even though Dr. V’s personal life — her trans identity, her past relationships — is irrelevant to the putter or the company.

Hannan didn’t pause, and apparently no editor made him pause, and ask what really mattered here, and whether it weighed enough to justify the risk of harm. From where I stand, it doesn’t, and it never could.

Here’s how those scales balance out, to me: Dr. V was a private citizen, who ran a small and struggling business selling a unique type of golf club. She was not the mayor of Toronto, and she wasn’t bilking people out of millions through a sketchy hedge fund. She had a handful of investors who bought in to her company in part because they believed she was a Vanderbilt and a physicist, but the investor Hannan spoke to didn’t seem especially wounded by the loss. He loved the putter, after all.

Oh God, remember, this could have been a great story about a cool new golf club.

Look, I won’t go on too much longer. Suffice to say this: journalists should always aspire to speak truth to power. Where there is no power, though, and little justice to be done, journalists should always aspire to remember who truths ultimately belong to.

Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”

If only the author, in this case, hadn’t indeed argued with that conclusion.

“We do not want to appear as if this is a vendetta,” my editor told me. It was the best advice he ever gave.

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On New Year’s Eve

Bookends, I like bookends, hard shapes to frame the stories that we made.

I like bookends, these long hard shapes to say: here, you wrote a sentence, a lyric, a love song and a year. I like forgetting where I am to live forever in how I got here. Usually, it involves a yawn and a ketchup stain, salted cheeks and a cat purring the refrain — life goes on, so life it goes on.

Two-thousand-thirteen began in a wasteland for me.

Bookend on the last side, what now lies behind, is the devastation of last winter. Jobless, hopeless, mouth filled up with bitter bile and the thought that things very well might never get better — feeling aging, old, feeling hollow and cold, a scarecrow perched on a sagging couch to warn the young away.

Then there was this day –

The second day of March, and everything changed –

This is what happened on that day, two separate items so long awaited and only coincidence birthing them the same: I went back to work, and I first held my love. He found me in a pile of wreckage, he found me in a junkyard, he dusted me off and picked me up and saw we were the same.

I stood (and stand) on slight and trembling legs.

But would you believe, that after all the destruction of how it began, the right bookend of 2013 upholds the most beautiful moment of my life at its end. I did a lot of things. Cleaned up, stood up straight, started working, fell in love, moved into a space I can finally call home, laughed a lot, wrote a lot, struggled to stay afloat. But still. But still.

I like bookends to remind that things to change, in fits and starts.

So on the shelf I now file all the people and places that sheltered this fractured heart. Some gratitude is due.

To the sports writing crew, who welcomed me and propped me up when I was too scared, or shy, and made me feel like I may yet carve out a niche somewhere in the middle of this sportswriter life: among others, Darrin Bauming, Patrick Williams, Gary Lawless, Steve Lyons, Paul Friesen, Kirk Penton, Ken Wiebe, Paul Wiecek, Ed Tait, Jim Toth, Scott Billeck and all the others I will leave to ellipses but most assuredly have not forgot.

To Josh, my forever best friend, my buzzy bee and the light of my life.

To Lao Thai green curry, and to Lucky Penny white wine, and to The Sexual Politics of Meat. To the Tall Pines lodge in the Whiteshell where I threw my worries into the lake, and to the Rundlestone Lodge in Banff where I hurled them again into the mountains.

To Twitter and every Tweeter who comes there to play with me, our little Twitterpond made me laugh far more than was right. Taught me things too, but you’d be amazed how often our little Twitter comedies would pull me out of a funk and into a hot bath and a comforting night light.

And above all, to Greg, upon whose smile my words always trip and slip away. It’s something to still be left speechless when you share one bedroom and a bathroom with a person. But I am tongue-tied by him every day — my love, my partner in crime, and the finest man I can imagine.

This year, 2013, began in devastation, and ends now in delight. It was a good ‘er. Hopefully the next will continue on so right.

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On Violence.

I knew the jokes were coming, before I even saw them made.

That’s is the normal order of things, in the competitive jokesterism of the social age. A famous athlete, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov is arrested, charged with assault and kidnapping for an alleged act of violence against his girlfriend.

In the typical sequence of events, the Twitter jokes are the most assured next thing, before evidence is known or facts have been heard. Before we have a clue what happened, or who was hurt.

Because the Avalanche’s coach, Patrick Roy, was once arrested for the same.

And because fans were concerned Varlamov’s arrest might fuck up their fantasy team.

For the most part, people don’t make jokes because they actually find domestic violence funny, I don’t think. They make those jokes because to them, domestic violence is an abstract concept.

It was once also an abstract thing, to me.

The second that it wasn’t: a heartbeat, a sudden lunge, not long enough to scream. The hard dull thud of a fist against my cheek, I am slammed into the couch cushions now, all I know of him is weight and shrinking space, I can’t see and I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe –

And now there is no time –

And now the time has stopped –

It lasted ten seconds, maybe. But in those ten seconds I learned a lot, as my lungs stood cold and my cheek screamed hot. I learned that he could kill me, and that there would be nothing I could do. I learned what the pain of total nakedness felt like. And helplessness, too.

Let me be clear: I was lucky. For me, time started again, more quickly than it seemed, and I fled the house and ran away and tilted the rearview mirror checking for visible injuries. There were none. He didn’t leave a mark.

So I’m lucky like that, where so many are not.

I didn’t even leave him, then. I stayed. But that’s another story, more muted in the telling: I never told it, really, not for years. In the cold accounting of these things, there was too much to lose, and when I imagined telling it I imagined telling it towards suspicious eyes:

“But he would never…”

Yeah, he did.

“He’s such a fun guy, though.”

Yeah, he is.

That’s enough about that. The point is: Evgeniya Vavrinyuk went before media today, and told them that Semyon Varlamov drank, and beat her. That he had done it before. And that this was not accident or misunderstanding, but the fury of him dragging her to the floor, where –

No, not now, that’s enough.

If Varlamov is indeed guilty of these things, then she is almost impossibly brave. Because we all know what is said of women who allege abuse against rich and powerful men. Because we all know what is said of women who fuck up someone’s fantasy team.

“Innocent until proven guilty!” someone screams –

Yes, yes I agree with that. I would defend that concept with all my heart, that courts must prove guilt, that a person is innocent in the eyes of the law unless the evidence against them is strong enough to push past the threshhold of reasonable doubt.

I do not deny this, and would never give it up.

What “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean: that life must continue on the same. That we cannot recognize that these are serious charges. Or that we do not acknowledge that if the crime is real — and on that, time will tell – then there is a victim at its heart. Someone who felt, in that moment, time stop and pain bloom and fear send out its cold and stabbing shoots.

But here’s a strange thing: how some who shout “innocent until proven guilty” as a defense against the crime, should then convict the alleged victim of false accusation, without evidence or charge. Well, except for the evidence that she is a woman, and the suspect a rich and famous man.

Sports reporter Slava Malamud went on in this vein for quite some time.

Sports reporter Slava Malamud went on in this vein for quite some time.

 

I could do a lot of things, now.

I could dredge up a further dozen examples from Twitter, a hundred, even more, all people declaring the charges bullshit and lies, and naming she who went to police a liar and a whore.

I could post statistics on domestic violence.

I could elucidate how it so often goes that nice people, in public, hurt their loved ones behind closed doors. Because abusers are often charming, like that. They know how to make people like them, believe them, trust them. They know how to get control, and this is part of how they are able to wound.

Because now, who would believe you —

Who would ever believe such a cool guy could do –

“Oh, she’s just vindictive / broke / a bitch / she’s bored.”

God, the guy who did it to me wasn’t even famous and on someone’s fantasy team.

So yeah, I will leave those parts of the dialogue to other folks. Instead, I end this here: I do not know if Semyon Varlamov is guilty or innocent. His case will be decided, after some fashion, in the courts. That is the best that justice can do, since nobody who wasn’t there and didn’t see it can ever really know.

Before the courts, he is innocent until proven guilty.

And before me, Evgeniya Vavrinyuk is someone who has reported that a horrible, terrible, terrifying thing was done to her, as it was to me. And she is someone I do not know and have no factual reason to discredit or disbelieve — and who Denver police evidently believe enough to carry their investigation forward to the courts.

So I respect her as a victim of abuse, which is how she enters the records now in those same courts, and I will respect her words.

If she is, instead, a lying money-hunting bitch already to you –

Or if this is funny to you –

I hope that you never have to feel the moment where time stops, and pain blooms, and you realize that the only thing between you and the abyss is whether or not he has the will to kill you.

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