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June 17 2013


Whitey Bulger: the Twitter trial narrative, by the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen

The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen isn’t just live-tweeting the epic Whitey Bulger trial, he’s telling a true Twitter narrative. We’ve Storified his version of today’s proceedings, from the “All rise” until 12:57 p.m., when testimony broke for the day. In case you haven’t been following: On the stand today was prosecution witness John Martorano, an ex-hit man who killed at least 20 people, spent only 12 years in prison and then turned on Bulger, declining a spot in the federal witness protection program. The Globe’s Shelley Murphy, John Ellement and Milton Valencia wrote:


Whitey Bulger

(Martorano) called (Bulger and and cohort Stephen ‘The Rifleman’ Flemmi) “my partners in crime, my best friends, my children’s godfathers.’’

Martorano said he decided to testify against Bulger, Flemmi, and corrupt FBI agent John Connolly after learning that Bulger and Flemmi were informants for the FBI, handled by Connolly, during their criminal exploits.

“After I found out they were informants, it sort of broke my heart,’’ Martorano testified. “They broke all trust that we had, all loyalty.’’

Kevin Cullen

Kevin Cullen

Today’s testimony also covered the nervous breakdown of a retired bookie “Dickie” O’Brien’s daughter, Tara, who once had to meet with Bulger and Flemmi about keeping her father’s business running. The Globe’s reporters are all live-blogging the trial, but have a look at how Cullen’s tweets hold up as a standalone Twitter narrative. There’s cumulative arc (onward pushes the story of how the hit man says the crime boss operated), plus dialogue, narrative tension, detail, description — pretty hard to pull off in a 132-character tweet. (The #Bulger and, usually, a space, eat eight.) The tweets are written. They have voice. You know you’re in the hands of a storyteller with:

Followed Indian Al’s Mercedes, pulled alongside and Johnny and Howie opened fire. “We gave him a broadside,” Johnny says.


Nicky Femia got six machine guns for them in New York. Southie and Somerville split the guns. “Whitey and his gang.”


“I walked in and shot him,” Johnny says. “We had to get someone to bury him.” Joe Mac and Jimmy Sims were the men for the job.

Cullen is tweeting from his iPad and emailed us a few minutes ago to say he’s been working mostly from the overflow press courtroom, “which has a camera that shows the witnesses and Whitey alternatively. It’s actually much better for my purposes to be in the overflow room, where I can sit at a table and tweet quicker and see more of the courtroom, and see the faces of the defendant and the witnesses and lawyers.”

Read our full Storify here:

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 1.24.10 PM


Cullen is a Globe Metro columnist and an alum of the Foreign desk and Spotlight team, and worked on the investigative team whose 2003 coverage of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal won a Pulitzer Prize. He is the author, with Shelley Murphy, of Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice. He’s a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard. You can follow him at @GlobeCullen.




August 17 2012


Jeneen Interlandi on “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind”

We’ve chosen Jeneen Interlandi’s recent New York Times magazine cover story about her father’s mental illness as our latest Notable Narrative. “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind” follows a sobering episode in the bipolar history of Joseph Interlandi, revealing flaws in the nation’s mental health and criminal justice system. We caught up with Interlandi by email as she was preparing to transition from her native New Jersey to Cambridge, to begin her fellowship year at our mother ship, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

How did you decide to write this story?


Very impulsively! When the Arizona shooting happened, and the news broke that people who knew the gunman Jared Loughner had suspected he was seriously mentally ill, my family was in the middle of navigating our own situation. I remember being so frustrated by all the conversations taking place about how somebody should have taken the initiative and gotten (Loughner) committed to a psychiatric hospital, etc. One day, as both these stories were unfolding, I sent my editor a pitch memo, out of sheer indignation. Then when it came time to actually do the story, I panicked – like “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?”

How did you report it? You used at least one court transcript from one of your father’s court hearings, and what else?

I tried to be as methodical as possible. I’d never written a first-person piece before and was very concerned about relying too much on my own memories, or letting my emotions overwhelm the larger points that I wanted to make.

So I started with the documents: several court transcripts – from the commitment hearing, the restraining order hearing, and the sentencing hearing; a dozen or so police reports, from all the various incidents; hundreds of pages of medical records; my own email exchanges with various social workers, etc.; and last but not least, both of my parents’ journals. From all of those I constructed a detailed timeline of what happened when, and what the doctors, police officers, psychiatrists, etc. were saying at each point along the way. Then I tracked down the other families. I talked to about 30 families in all. Some I found through this one nonprofit that advocates for stronger involuntary commitment statutes across the country. Others I found from newspaper archives and from congressional hearings where families like mine had testified in support of, or opposition to, various involuntary commitment laws that were being proposed in one state or another.

One of Joe's sketches. (courtesy Jeneen Interlandi)

After I had all of that, I looked into the research on involuntary commitment: talked to the academics and public health folks who were focused on the issues surrounding community mental health, mental illness and violence, etc. I saved the folks who worked directly with my father – the representatives of the specific agencies that we came into contact with – for last. I wanted to make sure I had all my ducks in a row before confronting them with anything. I also didn’t want the story to be overly focused on my parents’ hometown. I wanted it to be clear that these problems are national in scope. Also, I interviewed my parents, several times, throughout the reporting. And checked in with my siblings and with one childhood friend, to verify certain details against my own memory.

Hold on. How did you get your parents to let you read their journals?

I asked them, or rather told them, when they first agreed to do the story: “Hey, I will need all of your journals, both of you. Also, pop has to sign all these forms granting me access to all of his medical records.” (Also, “You won’t get to see what I write about you until the story is out in print. So you’ll just have to trust me until then.”) They didn’t even flinch. Of course, it helped that I am their daughter. It also helped that I had done this story on minimal consciousness a few months earlier that they both read. That piece had also come out of a personal experience with someone very close to me, and to my parents (not the person I focused on in the story). My parents knew from that piece what kind of story I was looking to write, and understood how it could maybe help other people to know about what we went through. So they were pretty fearless.

How did you choose not to include material from the journals, particularly your father’s?

I thought at first that I would. There is this big huge stack of them and even just looking at the writing, without reading the words, you can tell that it’s manic. But as I read through them, I found that they didn’t add any essential details. I wanted the reader to understand that my father was very sick at the time that the story takes place. But I didn’t want to, like, beat them over the head with it, or add a ton of gratuitous details just because I had access to them. Because ultimately this story is about the mental health system more than it’s about any one person’s particular psychosis. (I also admit to being protective of my father here. I think it’s enough to say that he was paranoid and delusional—that he hit my mother, and tried to jump out of a moving car, and threatened to kill himself. To include more than that felt exploitative).

How did your family ultimately feel about the piece and your decision to write it?

They were incredibly supportive. My mother especially, felt very strongly that other people should know what families like ours are going through. She said over and over that the story would help other families feel less alone, and that maybe it would trigger some changes in the way things are done (she’s an optimist!).  My father and siblings just trusted me implicitly to do right by them. I think I asked my parents every week, for like six months straight, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” and every time they said, “Yes. We’re sure. Stop asking.” I didn’t show it to any of them before it closed, so I was super nervous when it finally went live. But they all had the same reaction: They laughed, they cried, they were proud. My father said, “You hit the nail on the nail!” Which is about as good as it gets.

What didn’t make it into the story?

The journals, for the reasons I just mentioned; and all but a small handful of the many families I spoke with whose experiences were so eerily similar to mine and to one another’s; and a whole article’s worth of anecdotes and descriptive details about my parents as characters (which I will resist the urge to include here).

Maybe just one?

We were teenagers, playing ball in the street in front of the house. And the ball goes into the neighbor’s yard. And the neighbor, who is like totally obsessed with his lawn, comes out and starts screaming at my brother,  calls him a racial epithet (remember we are Colombian, and my brother is pretty dark). My dad is standing nearby, and doesn’t really say anything. Just tells us to go inside or go play somewhere else, and lets it go. (Which is not like him at all). Late that night − like 2 a.m. − I happen to look out my bedroom window, and I see my dad sitting at the edge of our yard, in a lawn chair, facing the neighbor’s house. He’s drinking a beer, got a cigarette dangling from his lip, and a Super Soaker (one of those high-powered water guns that were so popular in the ’90s) sitting in his lap. And every couple minutes he pumps the thing up and sprays it all over the neighbor’s yard, and just sniggers to himself like a kid. It turned out he’d put bleach in the thing, and he was like destroying this guy’s precious lawn. The next morning it was all streaks of brown and yellow. I still can’t tell if that’s only funny to people that know my dad, but it cracks me up to think about, even to this day.

What was the writing process like? How do you organize? How do you work?

The overall workflow was the same as it usually is for me. I organize all my interviews and notes in an order that vaguely reflects the structure I’ve envisioned, then have them bound into a spiral book at the print shop (this one was something like 75 pages, which is about average). Then I read through it like a book and highlight what I am going to transfer into the outline (that will eventually become the first draft). By the time I’m done with that, I usually know how I want the story to start, and what the key contextual sections need to consist of. I did have many more throat-clearing drafts for this piece than I’ve had with any previous pieces. By that I mean, I wrote pages and pages – that my editor never even saw – describing my parents as parents, and going through all the anecdotes and incidents that have loomed so large in my mind for so many years. Then I walked away from it for like a week. And then came back and forced myself to whittle that section down from 2,000 words to like 500. I was very worried about being gratuitous in my descriptions; obviously I know these people so well that I could really weigh the piece down with all the details in my head. I was also worried about being too defensive, i.e., I tell you some unpleasant things about my dad, and to compensate, I want to tell you like 10 times as many good things. It took some time to get over that.

I admired the sectional cliffhangers, like this one:

We considered our options. We could lift the restraining order and bring him home. But if he spun out of control, we would have no way to protect our mother. Friends and relatives suggested that we offer no assistance and let him “hit rock bottom.” But it was now early January, and we could not bring ourselves to leave him with nothing in the biting cold. So we fashioned something of a compromise. We kept the restraining order but dropped off some money and a suitcase full of clean clothes at the front desk of the short-term facility. We crossed our fingers and waited. 

How did you arrive at the story’s structure?

I think this is the only piece I’ve done so far where the structure wasn’t a huge challenge and didn’t change much from first draft to last. It really came straight out of the timeline that I constructed from the documents. On one hand, there was all this monotony of, “He went to the hospital. Then he went to jail. Then he went to the hospital again,” and on and on. But on the other hand, there were a couple of really dramatic moments, like the commitment hearing, and when he called my mother threatening to kill himself. It was clear just from the timeline that those elements needed to balance each other out. And that if you wrote it any other way than chronologically, it would be unnecessarily confusing, because there was just so much to-ing and fro-ing.

How did you choose this particular episode to write about?

This particular episode happened to coincide with this horrible incident – the shooting in Arizona by Jared Loughner, who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – that had sparked a wave of national interest in the issues surrounding involuntary commitment. It also happened when I was in the process of leaving my staff writer job at Newsweek to freelance and to pursue longer-form narratives. More importantly, though, it was the first episode that I really saw up close (that we recognized as an episode, anyway). When my father was first diagnosed as bipolar, back in 2005, he went through a very similar cycle of repeated hospitalizations. But I was in the Arctic Circle, on Alaska’s North Slope, at the time, and so didn’t really grasp the forces that were shaping those events. I remember thinking that if only I had been there and had been proactive – made phone calls, sent out emails, confronted doctors and judges – things would have gone more smoothly. As it turns out, I was totally wrong.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered about the mental health system?

That my family’s experience was not even remotely exceptional. Before I started digging around, I really thought that we were somehow missing something (by) not contacting the right agencies, or not providing the right information to the right people. But after not very much time, it became clear that this was the norm, not just in New Jersey where my parents live but all across the country.

I found the ending to be exactly right for the subject matter, and full of tension. Did others agree? Did you or your editor worry that it was too open-ended?

That ending took a bit of work. Originally it was much more discreet. I just said, basically, “My dad is all better, we played cards, we forgave each other and that’s the end of it.” But fortunately, my editor, Vera Titunik, pushed me to rethink it. She kept saying, “You’re missing something here.” And she was right. Because bipolar disorder is obviously a lifelong condition, I think we actually wanted it to be more ope- ended. That’s the reality of it: You don’t know when or where another episode might occur, and beyond medication and therapy there is nothing to do with that uncertainty but live with it. For my parents, that means putting their characteristic spin on things: “Here is one more wacky misadventure for our personal archives. Now let’s eat some lasagna.”

How’s your dad?

He is great! Really back to himself right now, which means that my parents are back to themselves – growing old together and enjoying their grandkids and counting their blessings.

Jeneen Interlandi is a New Jersey-based health and science journalist who writes about biomedical research, public health and environmental science. She has written for the New York Times magazine and Scientific American, and spent four years as a staff writer at Newsweek. In 2009, she received a Kaiser Foundation Fellowship for global health reporting and traveled to Europe and Asia to cover outbreaks of drug-resistant tuberculosis. She has worked as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School and studied climate change in Alaska. She holds master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, both from Columbia University, and is an incoming Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

April 24 2012


“Why’s this so good?” No. 39: Gay Talese diagnoses Frank Sinatra

Just shoot me now.

That might be a normal journalist’s reaction to news that the subject of a mega-profile for a magazine cover story has declined to be interviewed for the piece. But in the mid-1960s Gay Talese was anything but a “normal journalist.” When Frank Sinatra offered not so much as a “Buzz off!” in person, Talese kept reporting in his meticulous way as the persistent eyewitness, eventually writing a Sinatra story that caused a national sensation and pioneered a narrative style of nonfiction later dubbed the New Journalism.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” appeared in Esquire in April 1966. In October 2003, for the magazine’s 70th anniversary, editors pronounced the Talese piece the best story Esquire had ever published. And of course the story appeared in Talese’s classic story collection “Fame and Obscurity,” which New York University’s journalism department named No. 43 among the 20th century’s top 100 works of American journalism.

Why’s it so good? I could point to any of the usual signposts for superb literary nonfiction – scenes, dialogue, characters, interior monologues, the beginning, the ending, digressions and a structure that suggests a larger meaning. The 15,000-word story is as finely crafted as Sinatra’s (and Talese’s) custom-tailored suits. I prefer today to praise the humble but honest work that should come with any journalism, new or old: reporting.

Talese’s curiosity fuels his research in such an expansive way that we learn the paradoxical tale of Sinatra the arrogant, tempestuous celebrity and Sinatra the lonesome, sentimental man, a part of whom, Talese writes, “no matter where he is, is never there.” It required prodigious reporting to write with such confidence a crystalline description that serves as the essence of this piece.

The mastery begins with Talese reporting on Sinatra’s origins and family life. Biographical details abounded. Sinatra had been the subject of published articles for decades. How could Talese bring something fresh to the task? First, he was Italian-American. He understood Sinatra’s culture from an insider’s point of view. He knew the relevant layers of cultural experience and where to mine the telling details, the “remarkable juxtaposition of the pious and the worldly” − the photographs of Pope John and Ava Gardner, the statues of saints and holy water, and a chair signed by Sammy Davis Jr., for instance, all in Sinatra’s parents’ home. Best of all, he landed an interview with Dolly, Sinatra’s mother, “a large and very ambitious woman,” an agile player in Hoboken’s Democratic political machine and not the sort of Italian mother who could be appeased “merely by a child’s obedience and good appetite.”

Without saying it outright, Talese underscores the region’s historical political tensions when he writes:

In later years Dolly Sinatra, possessing a round red face and blue eyes, was often mistaken for being Irish, and surprised many at the speed with which she swung her heavy handbag at anyone uttering “Wop.”

She threw a shoe at her son when she learned he wished to become a singer. “Later, finding she could not talk him out of it – ‘he takes after me’ – she encouraged his singing,” Talese writes. Such reporting on family history forms the foundation that allows us to savor revelations that Talese deftly introduces through scenes in Las Vegas, a New York saloon, a poolroom, a recording studio and a movie lot. We have context for our character because Talese has shown us the origins of Sinatra’s world.

Now pay attention to the minor characters. Talese assigns them illuminating roles to help us understand Sinatra. Here is how Talese deals with a dreaded story obstacle: the press agent. In this case, the anxious flack is Jim Mahoney, and we learn Mahoney has plenty of reason to worry:

Still, Sinatra seems ever present, and if Mahoney did not have legitimate worries about Sinatra, as he did today, he could invent them – and, as worry aids, he surrounds himself with little mementos of moments in the past when he did worry. In his shaving kit there is a two-year-old box of sleeping tablets dispensed by a Reno druggist – the date on the bottle marks the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. There is on a table in Mahoney’s office a mounted wood reproduction of Frank Sinatra’s ransom note written on the aforementioned occasion. One of Mahoney’s mannerisms, when he is sitting at his desk worrying, is to tinker with the tiny toy train he keeps in front of him – the train is a souvenir from the Sinatra film, Von Ryan’s Express; it is to men who are close to Sinatra what the PT-109 tie clasps are to men who were close to Kennedy – and Mahoney then proceeds to roll the little train back and forth on the six inches of track; back and forth, back and forth, click-clack-click-clack. It is his Queeg-thing.

We are wringing our hands by the time we finish reading about this poor guy and his woes. Yet by developing Mahoney as a character, even only slightly, we somehow see Sinatra more clearly.

And in the following passage Talese relays some old news, but settling his unerring eye on a nameless, minor character reveals more than the standard tattler fare:

He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week.

(Talese anticipated our curiosity about that paycheck. Today, her salary would be roughly $2,800 − not bad for toting hair.)

These minor characters surround Sinatra as agents who serve, protect and sometimes fear him. Examine each one, and you will come away impressed by the intense reporting that Talese had do to unearth their stories. He doesn’t overwhelm us with their presence; each one’s appearance, carefully placed, deepens our understanding of Sinatra he approaches his 50th birthday.

Talese’s gift for observing detail gives us immediate, vivid imagery that put us right there in the room with Sinatra. The tension is palpable as Talese recounts the poolroom scene in which one of “coolest” in the bar, writer Harlan Ellison, drew Sinatra’s ire for wearing Game Warden boots, “for which he had recently paid $60.” Talese has Sinatra gazing at those boots, turning away, focusing on them again and then firing questions at Ellison about the provenance of the boots. “I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” he tells Ellison. Throughout the slowly evolving, hostile scene, Talese conveys the precise action in the background −  from the man who was bent low with his cue stick and then froze, to the “hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes” as the singer made his way with a “slow, arrogant swagger” from his stool to face off with Ellison. In simply writing what he saw and heard, Talese built scenes around straight action, which builds drama, emotion. In one scene, Talese conveys the “kind of airy aphrodisiac” of Sinatra’s music through young couples moving languidly on a dance floor, holding each other close.

By giving us a portrait of Sinatra, Talese also gives us a portrait of L.A., “a lovely city of sun and sex, a Spanish discovery of Mexican misery, a star land of little men and little women sliding in and out of convertibles in tense tight pants.”

Without such relentless reporting none of this would have been possible. Who cares if the subject won’t cooperate? In the right hands, there’s always a story.

Maria Henson (@mariahenson), a 1994 Nieman Fellow, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1992 and edited the Sacramento Bee’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial series about Hetch Hetchy. She teaches journalism and serves as vice president and editor-at-large at Wake Forest University, which last month screened “Editor Uncut,” a documentary in production about WFU alumnus and Esquire editor Harold T.P. Hayes. Created by Hayes’ son, Tom, the film includes an interview with Gay Talese about “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

For more from our collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

April 19 2012


Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.


As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”


“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.


The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.


Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.


The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”


This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

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