Truth and Fiction On Haiti: The Real Victim Speaks

What Women Really Think
July 11 2011 6:23 PM

Truth and Fiction On Haiti: The Real Victim Speaks

Finally someone has shifted the focus of the debate over Mac McClelland’s controversial piece in Good, "How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD," back to where it belongs—on the rape victim McClelland carelessly exploited to advance her own story.

Edwidge Danticat, the prize-winning Haitian novelist and one of the signers of the letter published in Jezebel taking issue with McClelland's piece, wrote this post at Essence.com over the weekend recounting how victimized the raped woman felt by McClelland’s reporting. The victim (called variously K* and Sybille by McClelland) says, and her lawyer confirms, that she never gave McClelland permission to report her story or use her name.

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I’m not surprised. As I noted here and here, I thought McClelland was dishonest. Last week she was unapologetically self-righteous about the criticism she received from me and other women writers critical of her piece. She said the criticism "just proves even more how important it is." She also said: "Nobody would be slut-shaming me [if I were a man]." Note how she completely ignores the criticisms about the accuracy of her reporting and instead focuses on her gender and sexuality.

By Saturday, however, McClelland was apologizing in the comments section of the Essence.com piece and claiming miscommunication between her, an interpreter, the rape victim, and her lawyers. McClelland did her original Haiti reporting for Mother Jones, and she used material from those trips for her piece in Good.

Mother Jones editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, who also weighed in in the comments section at Essence.com, defended McClelland’s reporting but were also careful to distance Mother Jones magazine from her PTSD piece. They say they had no prior knowledge about the essay until it was published. "Mac understands that this was a serious lapse in judgment. We are reviewing our policies regarding freelance work by staffers." They also say that after receiving "a letter from the victim that requested we not use her story, we cut any direct account of this victim from the story." What they don’t say is that they took months to agree to take down McClelland’s tweets from her earlier reporting trip; the very same ones she tweeted while supposedly traumatized by the rape victim’s anguished wails during the ride to the hospital.

McClelland wrote of that experience in her PTSD essay:

The way her five attackers had maimed her in addition to sexually violating her was unspeakable. The way the surgeon who was going to try to reconstruct the damage yelled at her, telling her she'd got what was coming to her because she was a slut, was unconscionable. And the way Sybille went into a full paroxysm when we were on the way back to the post-quake tarp city she lived in was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. We were sitting in traffic and saw one of her rapists, and she started just SCREEEAMING a few inches away from my face, her eyes wide and rolling in abject terror...I lost the ability to locate myself in space and time in the backseat. It's called dissociation, and is a common and quite unsettling response to extreme trauma.

I’m trying to understand how one could lose oneself while tweeting and multitasking during a dissociative out-of-body experience. She also named the victim and described her location in those tweets, further putting her safety at risk. The victim had to be moved to a safe house as a result.

This latest development in the McClelland controversy raises troubling questions about personal journalistic essays that skirt the line between truth and fiction; in this case the true extent of the rape problem in Haiti and Mac McClelland’s questionable “truth” about her personal experiences there. I believe pieces like hers, when unmasked as more fiction than fact, further undermine the public’s trust in journalists. I’m also worried about the people who might take fast and loose reporting by McClelland, and others like her, as gospel and base their opinions on it. Far from benefiting from the public service that journalism is supposed to provide they are being irresponsibly misinformed.