When a story takes on an unfamiliar face

Published 7:11 pm Friday, February 4, 2011

She was reasonably collected when I picked up the phone and introduced myself with the customary greeting.

Her speech was pressured at first as if she were hoping to talk quickly enough to outpace the emotions boiling inside of her. But it seemed merely a matter of seconds before much of the spectrum of human emotion erupted through the surface and spilled through the phone lines.

“I’m calling because your article about the rapist made it seem like it didn’t happen,” she said without identifying herself. “But it did happen.”

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Then came the cracking of the voice and the subsequent tears.

I had spent much of the last several days chasing or concentrating on either verifying or dispelling viral rumors of a police impersonating rapist who had allegedly struck in Marengo County.

Then there was this moment — somewhere between her assurance that the rumored assailant was real and the evidence of his existence in her dismayed tone and labored breathing — in which it became abundantly clear that I was on phone with the victim.

It was surreal. Daunting. Paralyzing.

We chase stories in this business. We do not often have their principal figures reach out to us in such an open, unexpected manner.

We call them stories because that is what they are. But the phrase allows us to dissociate from the subjects in a lot of ways. The key figures become characters, the why, what, when and how take on the role of plot devices. And all we are left to do is follow the chronology to its end. We can keep doing it over and over again only because of a somewhat twisted and altogether necessary ability to keep from becoming emotionally attached to any part of the saga.

But when the victim in an alleged rape is suddenly on the other end of the phone, the story becomes real. Emotional attachment is a given. One of the principal characters took on a face, a name, a family and an identity.

I did what I could do. I listened. I listened and occasionally passed out words intended to comfort. They were admittedly futile. How do you comfort someone who has been through such things? A handful of psychology courses and nearly two years working in a psychiatric hospital only equipped me to survive the conversation, not play any significant role in it.

The phone call probably lasted some 30 minutes. Though it felt much longer.

Somewhere in the midst of it all, I noticed my hand was shaking. And I caught myself thinking about hypotheticals. What if it were my fiance or my mom?

Useless thoughts for practical purposes. Necessary ones for manufacturing the sympathy needed to adequately feel emotionally connected to the story and to the person on the other end of the phone.

Over the course of the conversation it became increasingy difficult to think about what questions a journalist might ask this woman. Instead, I found myself marveling at her strength. In her largely frantic state, struggling with feelings she had never previously imagined, this woman found the wherewithal to phone the local newspaper and tell a complete stranger her story.

“I’ll tell every detail if it will keep somebody else from making the same mistake,” she said, defying the desire to hide somewhere within herself.

And there it was. My role in all of it. Why she had called to begin with. It was my job to tell her story.

Jeremy D. Smith is the community editor of The Demopolis Times.