Part 1—Kristof’s latest story: Ma Joad, Tom Joad and Preacher Casey? These were fictional characters.
The events of their lives were described in The Grapes of Wrath, a prize-winning book which everyone knew was a novel.
Those events were meant to capture the experiences of a great many people. But no one thought the Joads’ experiences had happened to actual people bearing those names out in the actual world.
No one tried to find Rose of Sharon so they could help her with her baby. No one tried to find Tom Joad to give him a place to hide.
You can learn a lot about the world from a well-written novel. A novelist’s story can help you conceive the real events which take place in the world.
That said, a journalist shouldn’t invent a novel—a perfect story—then present that story as fact. That may be what Sabrina Rubin Erdely did with the story she presented in this month’s Rolling Stone.
To a lesser extent, it may be what Nicholas Kristof did in yesterday’s New York Times.
Erdely told a perfect story about heinous misbehavior on a college campus. Kristof told a perfect story about a saint-like victim of s shooting who knows what it is to forgive.
Kristof’s story starts in 1990. In Florida, a 13-year-old boy with sixteen prior arrests shoots a woman in the face as part of a gang initiation.
The woman in question is horribly wounded; her youthful assailant is soon apprehended. Despite his youth, a judge sentences him to life without hope of parole.
In this passage shown below, Kristof describes the saint-like act of forgiveness which drives his perfect story. The youthful shooter was and is named Ian Manuel. Debbie Baigrie is the person he horribly wounded:
KRISTOF (12/14/14): Manuel found himself the youngest, tiniest person in a men’s prison—by his account, abused and fearful. One day as his second Christmas behind bars approached, he placed a collect phone call to Baigrie.“Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades,” Kristof writes. A bit later, he describes Baigrie advocating for Manuel’s release from prison:
Baigrie debated whether to accept the charges. She said her dentist had wept when he had seen her jaw, for the bullet had torn out five teeth and much of her gum. She faced 10 years of repeated, excruciating surgeries, requiring tissue from her palate to rebuild her gum.
Still, she was curious, so she accepted the charges. Manuel said he wanted to apologize for the shooting. Awkwardly, he wished her and her family a Merry Christmas.
“Ian,” she asked bluntly, “why did you shoot me?”
“It was a mistake,” he answered timidly.
Later he sent her a card showing a hand reaching through prison bars to offer a red rose. Baigrie didn’t know whether to be moved or revolted. “I was in such pain,” Baigrie remembers. “I couldn’t eat. I was angry. But I’d go back and forth. He was just a kid.”
Thus began a correspondence that has lasted through the decades. “You are about one in a million who would write to a person that’s tried to take their life,” he wrote in one letter.
“I wish I was free,” he wrote in another. “To protect you from that evil world out there.”
KRISTOF: Her husband and friends thought Baigrie was perhaps suffering from some bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome. “People were saying, ‘you’re an idiot,’” Baigrie recalls.Kristof uses his story to illustrate a wide array of points. In comments, many liberals praised Baigrie for her act of forgiveness, thanked Kristof for telling her story.
Yet she persevered and advocated for his early release. When the Supreme Court threw out life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who had not committed murder, she testified at his resentencing and urged mercy. It didn’t work: Manuel was sentenced to 65 years. He is now scheduled to be released in 2031.
One commenter said something different. She said she had clicked on the links Kristof provided in his column. When she did, she found a somewhat different story being told about this case in Florida newspapers.
Kristof offers a range of ideas in this column. Some are straight from the 1970s, which doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. Some of his (apparent) ideas are very poorly explained, quite lazily argued for.
How should society treat Ian Manuel now that he's in his mid-30s? More generally, how should society deal with children like Manuel, who had been arrested a dozen times by the age of 13?
Those are important questions. They’re also hard to answer. We wish Kristof had spent a bit more time giving those answers, a bit less time tugging our heartstrings with his perfect story.
Rolling Stone told a perfect story about heinous misconduct on campus. As it turns out, the heinous events Rolling Stone described may not have occurred.
Kristof tells a perfect story about forgiveness. In its basic outlines, his story is certainly true, though he may have improved the facts a bit to make his tale more perfect.
Steinbeck told a great story too, but he told us it was a novel. In this, our brave new polarized age, many “journalists” no longer do that.
Debbie Baigrie has shown a great deal of empathy for the person who shot her. Much of our broken politics turns on an important question:
Among all the people and groups in our sprawling society, how many people, how many groups, can you feel empathy for? Can you empathizes with some? With others, not so much?
Tomorrow: Clicking Kristof’s links