Screenshot from Grantland.com.Every journalist has worked on a story that started out being about one thing and ended up as something else entirely. That’s what happened to Caleb Hannan, who got curious about a weird-looking golf club he found on YouTube and started quizzing the inventor about her far-out scientific theories. Hannan’s essay for Grantland, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” documents the writer’s eight-month journey to unravel the truth about Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. In the end, as the piece twisted to a horrific conclusion, Hannan never quite figured out what his story was about.
Josh Levin is Slate’s executive editor. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.
If you haven’t read Hannan’s story yet, you should—I’ll be here when you’re done. In brief, the writer discovered that “Dr. V” was a con artist. She lied about her educational and professional credentials to Hannan and to a man who gave her $60,000—cash that investor never saw again. In the course of his reporting, Hannan also learned that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt “was born a boy.”
Hannan eventually sent Dr. V “an email trying to confirm what I had discovered.” The inventor got very angry, tried to get Hannan to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and wrote him a note saying that “his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies.” Not long after that, Hannan writes, he got a phone call informing him that Dr. V had committed suicide.
Over the last few days, Twitter has bubbled over with arguments about what Hannan did and didn’t do. At one extreme are the people calling Hannan a murderer, alleging that a trans woman killed herself because she believed a reporter was about to out her. At the opposite pole are those who say Hannan did what journalists are trained to do: report out a story until he unearths the truth. Jason Fagone, a writer I’ve worked with and respect very much, wrote that Twitter was “aggregat[ing] anger against a young reporter for his hard choices on a difficult story.”
Dr. V was a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan conflates those two facts, as if they both represent a form of deceit.
The journalists defending Caleb Hannan can relate to his experience. If you’re looking at the Dr. V story as a fellow reporter, you can understand that this must have been a difficult assignment—“impossibly difficult,” in the view of writer Brandon Sneed. Hannan’s subject was a liar, and it took him a very long time to piece together her life story. In a certain sense, Hannan accomplished what every writer wants to achieve: He vacuumed up an avalanche of information, and he sorted out what was true and what was false.
A member of the trans community, justifiably, would have an easier time seeing things through Dr. V’s eyes—to imagine how it might feel to have an eager reporter pry into your past, and possibly reveal your gender identity. I’d also venture that it would be impossible for a trans man or woman to read about Dr. V’s suicide without thinking of all the hardship and violence that so many trans people have lived through, and that many haven’t survived.
As much as we try to understand other people’s emotions, this is what empathy looks like in real life: It’s easier to relate to people who are just like us.
That’s not how journalism is supposed to work, though. Yes, every reporter strives to uncover the truth. But we’re also supposed to call on our reserves of emotional intelligence to comprehend the people we’re writing about. When someone like the New York Times’ David Carr, who is very much attuned to questions of journalistic ethics, tweets out Hannan’s story approvingly with no hint about the moral dilemmas it raises, it’s clear there’s a cavernous empathy gap between mainstream writers and trans people.
Hannan’s story, and the writer’s defenders, show the dangers of privileging fact-finding and the quest for a great story over compassion and humanity. One of the wisest comments I’ve seen over the last few days came from Steve Silberman, who wrote on Twitter that Hannan’s piece “has structural problems that turned into moral ones.” The Grantland story has the tone and pacing of a thriller. Section by section, Hannan lays out that Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt is not who she purports to be—that she didn’t go to MIT, and that she didn’t work in the defense industry. As part of that litany of shocking disclosures, Hannan also reveals that Dr. V—whom he never met in person—was born Stephen Krol. “Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine,” he writes, explaining the sensation he felt upon deducing “that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man.”
The fact that Dr. V once lived under a different name is not irrelevant to Hannan’s story—the name change complicated his quest to check up on her background, which I believe makes it fair game if handled sensitively. But presenting Dr. V’s gender identity as one in a series of lies and elisions was a careless editorial decision. Hannan makes no claim that her identity as a trans woman has any bearing on the golf club she invented or the scientific background she inflated. And yet it sent a chill up his spine. It’s this line that feels particularly inhumane. Dr. V is a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan, though, conflates those two facts, acting as though the latter has some relation to the former. It seems that, in his view, they both represent a form of deceit.
It’s impossible for anyone to say why Dr. V committed suicide. It is certainly way over the line to call Hannan a murderer. It’s also wrong to claim with any certainty that it was his reporting that pushed her over the edge, or to argue that it’s 100 percent clear that she was more concerned with being outed than with having her phony credentials exposed.
Even so, it’s very strange that the Grantland piece seems so incurious about the death of its subject. Though we’ll never know the answers, Hannan and his editors at least have a responsibility to ask themselves some difficult questions: What, if anything, should they have done differently? Should they have proceeded more cautiously once Hannan learned that Essay Anne Vanderbilt had attempted suicide before? Should they have published the story at all? (The Tampa Bay Times’ Leonora LaPeter Anton asked herself similar questions after the subject of one of her stories committed suicide. Her searching account is worth reading.)
I believe that “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was a story worth telling, but this was not the right way to tell it. “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,” Hannan writes after describing Dr. V’s 2008 suicide attempt, at once revealing his ignorance about trans issues and his protagonist’s utility as a fascinating narrative arc. When you reread the story knowing that Essay Anne Vanderbilt is dead, the whole thing feels cold-hearted. The subhead bills the piece as a “remarkable story behind a mysterious inventor.” The opening sentence notes, “Strange stories can find you at strange times.” Near the end, Hannan observes, “Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience.”
Remarkable, strange, odd. These are adjectives that place some distance between us and what we’ve just heard. It’s not how anyone would talk about the death of someone they care about.
I don’t believe that Caleb Hannan and his editors were willfully callous. This is the kind of story, though, that breeds cynicism about journalists. It is a piece of writing that treats its subject as a series of plot points rather than a person, and that seems concerned with little else aside from propelling itself toward a dramatic conclusion.
It’s easy for Hannan’s fellow writers to believe in a colleague’s good intentions, to see how they might have made a similar mistake, and to explain to outsiders that journalism is a tough racket. It’s also easy to wave away Hannan’s harshest critics, the ones who say with no caveats or shading that this story killed Dr. V. But as writers have circled the wagons around Hannan on Twitter, it’s felt more like a support group than a workshop—you get the feeling that many journalists are more interested in what Hannan’s detractors got wrong than what they got right. There’s a whole lot of criticism, however, that’s impossible to dismiss, the angry words of people who believe the outing of a trans woman shouldn’t be treated as some kind of amazing twist. That’s an argument that every journalist needs to listen to and try to understand. It is the kind of story that’s worth telling.
Update, Jan. 21, 2014: Grantland has now posted an explanation/apology by editor-in-chief Bill Simmons and an editorial by Christina Kahrl on the story’s many mistakes regarding transgender issues.