Jessica, Nina and Hanna, listening to you discuss the incendiary piece by journalist Mac McClelland on the DoubleX Gabfest this morning I was struck by your descriptions of her account in Good of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after reporting from Haiti and other violent locales and how she dealt with it by engaging in violent sex.
“Remarkable,” you said. “Brave,” you gushed. “Amazing.” “Swash-buckling.”
I wondered if I had read the same piece because the only adjectives I could come up with were: “Offensive.” “Shockingly-narcissistic.” "Intellectually dishonest.” To me the piece was a stunning example of journalistic malpractice, the kind that reinforces the public perception that deep down journalists think every story or major news event is somehow really all about them.
McClelland, who covered Haiti for Mother Jones, has provided us with yet another clichéd, egocentric article about documenting unimaginably terrible things experienced by powerless, broken, poor people who are victimized on a regular basis. But here’s the rub, we get a mere few lines about the pain experienced by a Haitian rape victim named “Sybille” but a long screed about McClelland’s pain, albeit with the provocative spin of needing violent sex to cure her of all that ails her. Sybille’s violent rape feeds McClelland’s need to feel victimized.
She writes of a violent encounter with an ex-boyfriend:
I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful, even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn't break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face. Two, three, four times. My body felt devastated but relieved; I'd lost, but survived.
Really? You need to get punched in the face by a man during sex in order to get over Haiti? So I guess mimicking a violent sexual assault is acceptable as long as it is wrapped in compelling prose and sold as self-healing.
As a journalist, I understand wanting to make sense of the senseless and trying to put events into some larger context. I’ve reported from Haiti for some 20 years now; I was also born there. I know something about the perils of working and living there. But McClelland has not spent that much time there and doesn’t seem to know much about the place so she gives readers a limited and flawed view. She does what most journalists do soon after they’ve visited Haiti for the first time – make broad generalizations drawn from personal anecdotes. Given that the earthquake occurred a year and half ago and there have been many stories written about life on the ground and rapes at the camps, she had to reach for something different and more sensational so she put a new spin on an old story and personalized it to the nth degree.
I’m annoyed that people are often more interested in a story about poor black people/poor black country/genocide in the Sudan/etc. when the central character in that story is a white person. I mean all of Port-au-Prince is suffering from PTSD and I’m supposed to care about some woman who parachutes in for a couple of weeks and has the luxury to leave whenever she wants because she’s been inconveniently traumatized?
These superficial pieces written by journalists devastated by what they experienced in troubled countries have become tiresome. They read like typical Hollywood scripts about a troubled country in Africa or urban America starring the noble, well-meaning white journalist, social worker, human rights activist, inner-city teacher, etc. If being in Haiti, or Bosnia, or Egypt, or Syria, or Libya is so damaging to these reporters' psyches, perhaps they should stop reporting from these places. Writing these woe-is-me pieces just doesn’t cut it anymore.
TODAY IN SLATE
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