Keeping Secrets Is as Important as Digging Up Secrets

By Mike Kessler

Author’s note: Mike Kessler, a journalist in Los Angeles, is the former articles editor of Denver’s 5280, where he worked with Max Potter.  A former staffer at Outside and Skiing magazines, he has been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards (2008, Public Interest; 2012, Reporting), and won the City and Regional Magazine Award for Civic Journalism in 2008. He’s a regular contributor to Los Angeles, and has written for Outside, Wired, and GQ. He knows a lot about his subjects and sources that he promised to keep secret—and did.
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The Bill Simmons letter about Grantland’s Dr V story misses so many things and feels so disingenuous. Big of him to take the blame, but I find it strange and sad and maddening that as many as 15 Grantland staffers couldn’t understand the moral consequences of what they were doing.

As journalists, we have so much power—to make and break reputations, to change policy and behavior, to hold others accountable and to forgive them and to exercise compassion, either in writing, or by keeping secrets, which is as vital a skill/trait as digging up secrets and writing the truth.

Anyway, I won’t be able to get on with my day till I type this out.

Lemme get this straight: Young and hungry reporter (whom I don’t know, but have met over email and am told by a mutual friend is first-rate) has a decent idea for a piece that shouldn’t warrant more than a 1,000-word personal essay. Testing the infomercial product. Nothing new there. He then discovers the subject is a fraud—and by that I mean the bullshit about degrees and work experience. (FTR: I don’t consider personal privacy re being trans to be fraudulent.) Fair enough. Follow the biz fraud thread. Who wouldn’t? But then he finds out the person is trans and in the closet about it—hence, the mysterious past. I’m not sure why a chill ran down his spine. I mean, it was 2013. What should have run down his spine—no, his heart—was a bolt of compassion. “Oh man, now I get it. Must be tough. I better think long and hard about this one, the pen–or threat of the pen—being so mighty and all.”

Anyway: He confronts the subject, who pushes back and demands that her secret remain a secret. The piece has nothing to do with gender politics etc. (i.e. he wasn’t profiling a gay-hating, closeted megachurch pastor or the likes of Larry Craig). Subject betrayed no one on this front. Tran status has nothing to do with anything.

Subject, for many reasons we’ll never understand b/c the writer just scratched the surface of her very complicated, very tormented life, which included, a) all of the pain and social discomfort that comes with being born in the wrong body, and then changing genders, and, b) whatever other very real psychological factors that led this woman to lie about her business bona fides—the subject goes and kills herself.

Is Caleb to blame? No. Nothing’s that simple with suicide. Did his impending story and his refusal to keep an irrelevant secret cause this person a lot of distress and help fill a bucket that was probably a drop away from overflowing. Sure looks like it.

Okay, so Simmons, in his letter, says that Caleb never threatened to out Dr. V. As I read it, that’s accurate. But so—and correct me if I’m wrong here—is this: Caleb didn’t threaten Dr V; he simply informed her that he’d be outing her. Alrighty then.

I’m not the first to say this, but what pissed me off about Caleb’s story was how little empathy he displayed. He says at one point that watching Dr. V squirm made him “sad.” That’s it? How about: “It occurred to me that I was dealing with someone who not only likely had a psychological affliction, fueled by past events I couldn’t even dream up, that led her to become a compulsive liar, but on top of that she spent much of her life feeling trapped in the wrong body, and the remainder of her life hiding the fact she changed her body.” If ever there’s a story that called for a writer’s own voice and presence in a piece, this is it.

There are a few lines that really bummed me out. Like this one: “The darkest discovery was something that occurred after Krol had decided to live as Dr. V.”

“Darkest discovery”? Really? Yes, suicide attempts are dark. The problem is, calling this discovery the “darkest” suggests that Dr V’s trans saga was somehow dark to begin with. The author had no right to characterize it that way—not w/o hearing it first hand from the subject.

Or this: “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”

“Invented a new life for himself”? That’s one way of looking at it. But best I can tell, Dr V was only ever one human, with one life. I don’t claim to understand what it feels like to be trans or born in the wrong body, but I think it’s pretty reckless to casually say that someone “reinvented” herself after a “previous life.” No, Dr V took measures to help herself, plain and simple. Wherever you go, there you are. Same (but slightly altered) body. Same heart, guts, brain, and soul. To suggest she reinvented herself, to me, is dehumanizing and cruel and just cheapens her struggle—the struggle of one human. Caleb did, of course, acknowledge Dr V’s suffering, but look at the context and tell me it doesn’t sound like he’s trying to justify his decision to out her: “People had been hurt by Dr. V’s lies, but she was the person who seemed to be suffering most.” Who did she hurt? Some investors? That can’t compare to the hurt she must have felt when learning she was about to be outed.

Simmons said Caleb’s biggest mistake was outing Dr V to an investor, which is done so cavalierly in the piece that it stung. I’d like to know why Caleb thought this outing was okay? I guess that’s a rhetorical question. I suspect he did it for reasons I understand, but that he might not: He’s young and hungry and had a juicy new detail that might convince a big-league publication to run the piece. Career move. (I’ve made a few myself, some good, some regrettable.)

But this is where things went wrong. This is where those 15 Grantland staffers turned into a bunch of boys in Lord of the Flies, devouring the juicy bits w/o realizing it might later give them a case of public diarrhea. I’ve been the writer and editor on stories that get so delicious you just can’t contain your excitement. Fortunately, I’ve always had thoughtful, rational editors—and what I hope is my own sense of decency—and have managed to dodge scenarios like this. I hope that continues.

Yes, they could have shown the piece to someone familiar with this very sensitive topic. But you’d think at least one of 15 editors would have spoken up. Or the writer, who, according to the tone of the piece and his twitter remarks (more on that in a sec), hasn’t fully grasped what’s happened.

At the end of his piece, Hannan writes, “Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience.” At the risk of repeating others: WTF? First of all, this is no eulogy; it’s an exercise in grave dancing. Second, Dude, is that all the emotion you can muster—that it’s “odd”?

Simmons answers like this: “Had he shoehorned his own perspective/feelings/emotions into the ending, it could have been perceived as unnecessarily contrived. And that’s not a good outcome, either.”

I call bullshit on that excuse. This is longform narrative journalism, in what many would consider to be a Golden Age (or at least a Plentiful Age) of said form. This is on Grantland, which I know doesn’t shy away from editorializing. I can speculate on the reasons why the piece ended so abruptly and with so little compassion, but instead I challenge Grantland and Caleb Hannan to figure that out. They’re the ones who seem to have played a part—maybe big, maybe small—in a person’s death. But from what I can see via Caleb’s tweets, he hasn’t yet acknowledged just how heavy this whole thing is. Am I crazy to say that? I mean, I’d be in therapy for years as a result of something like this. And I like to think I’d respond in a reflective way—say, a thoughtful essay—not with Twitter snark like “Hello to all my new followers! Or as I refer to you, “the people who will be disappointed in everything I publish from this day forward.””

I hope everyone learns from this, as Simmons says they will. I hope Caleb keeps it up. He’s obviously a good reporter. With any luck he will—to borrow a term from Max Potter—nudge the universe in a better direction than he did with this story.

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