We, the stories

Posted by on Aug 1, 2011 in Creativity, Ingredients, Random Thoughts | 9 comments

Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to have a previous post, “The Femininity of Peacebuilding” published on the website Peace X Peace. As I was perusing through other contributors, I came across a woman whose point of view was particularly compelling, Roxanne Krystalli. Roxanne has the unique ability to demonstrate her expertise about peace and conflict without actually saying a word. As we all know, words often don’t do a sufficient job of expressing our true feelings, and those times they come up short are when we need to find a different medium of communication, to find inspiration without using language. Roxanne’s blog, Stories of Conflict and Love, with a simple photograph of a tree’s reflection captured in a cup of coffee, or a short story about rediscovering her love for oranges, breathes life into the true essence of building peace, the desire for connection with humanity.

There is a famous quote lifted from a poem by John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Donne’s quote carries special weight here because peace can and will only emerge from a collaborative process. Consequently, I want Critical Peace to be a medium for global collaboration amongst those who want to contribute to the pertinent and challenging discussion about peace. In an effort to support this initiative, and sustain the conversation, Roxanne generously wrote the following post for Critical Peace, in which she allows us to see the product of her inner musings about objectivity and personal storytelling. Thank you Roxanne.

We, the stories

“Don’t be the story. Write the story.”

A freelance journalist recently returned from Libya where she was held in captivity for six weeks, shared this piece of advice with the attendees of a panel at Harvard University earlier this week. It is a kernel of wisdom journalists often pass on to budding reporters: Write the story you came to cover, not your personal story.

What happens when those paths intersect? What happens when the story you came to cover seeps into your own life story, affecting you deeply and birthing a new set of stories? This is what happened to Mac McClelland, the Mother Jones reporter who went to Haiti on assignment and returned with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Mother Jones, McClelland wrote the story she had set out to write. For GOOD magazine, a few months later, McClelland told her own story: one of trauma and an unorthodox method of coping and recovery. McClelland’s GOOD piece was titled “How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.” Following its publication, a conversation has started about trauma, reporting and taboos.

I will admit I balked when I read the title of McClelland’s article on GOOD. As someone who works with women affected by conflict, and who has been affected by post-traumatic stress herself, the idea that one would willingly and deliberately simulate violence as a cure to an ailment was highly uncomfortable. What was more uncomfortable, however, was reading comments on McClelland’s piece which, as Amanda Taub at Wronging Rights has put it, fall under three categories. In Taub’s words, the critiques can be summarized as:
1. PTSD isn’t real, it’s just San Francisco therapy-speak for “having a bad day,” so McClelland must have been a self-obsessed narcissist to write about it as if it’s something to be taken seriously;
2. PTSD is real, but McClelland either had no right to develop it or was faking it, because reporting about other people’s trauma doesn’t seem like it should be that hard; or
3. McClelland was allowed to get PTSD, but isn’t allowed to write about it being triggered by reporting from Haiti, because that might give people the impression that bad things can happen in Haiti, and that is clearly racist and colonialist.”
At Wronging Rights, Amanda Taub has done a fantastic job of debunking this commentary. Jina Moore has also offered some excellent guidelines on trauma reporting and journalism. Ms. Magazine interviewed McClelland herself after the controversy to better understand her perspective on the story.

This story raises questions on storytellers’ responsibility, reporting ethics, trauma and recovery. In addition to the articles referenced above, Max Fisher at The Atlantic addresses and summarizes these concerns as well. The angle that interests me currently is the resistance to the idea that, in addition to a story of Haiti and of rape and of victims, it can be a story of McClelland too – a story about McClelland. In her piece at GOOD Magazine, McClelland did not set out to tell the story of Haiti — she sought to tell how her experience in Haiti affected her. It was a personal essay and the fact that McClelland herself is the subject does not rob it of its value. There seems to be another taboo lingering here: that of the reporter or photographer turning the scrutiny on herself. “The war photographer’s biggest story: themselves,” reads the title of a post on Duckrabbit, a portal for photography, film and journalism.

Our own life has a story, too. Our own life can be the story, affected and touched by the other stories with which it intersects. There is inevitably bias in telling, sharing, or publicizing that story — but that is a bias we can acknowledge and one that does not have to handicap the story. There are plenty of reasons to criticize McClelland and her methodology and many have done it. I refuse to be one of those who criticize her for telling the story or for having skewed priorities — for her story is one of overcoming as well and it affects the stories of others who empathize, understand, and are moved by her troubles.

We cannot extract ourselves from the stories we tell. We walk into them with our lenses, our preconceived notions, our pre-held perspectives and, even after we leave the war zones, the stories continue to travel with us and affect us. That which lends a story bias also lends it its life: the breath of human honesty and the vulnerability of telling a story about oneself.

The world is interconnected. “You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate the breeze from the wind,” Mitch Albom writes. That breeds a responsibility in storytellers of all kinds to the subject of their stories. I am not a journalist and I am not a reporter; I do, however, wear the photographer, storyteller and writer’s hats among others. In claiming those labels, I also claim my story, my biases, the magic of storytelling, and the dangers of it as well. In writing the story, I give you part of myself – inevitably or consciously. As such, I am willing to acknowledge that in every reporter, in every journalist, in every photographer — in everyone who is in the business of documenting other people’s stories — there are no airtight compartments: The stories on which these people report intersect with their life stories, the threads interweave, and new personal stories are born. Those personal stories distinguish the personal essay from reportage, the memoir from a biography, a first person account from an exposé.

Journalists, reporters, war photographers are more often paid for the latter, for the reportage and the facts over the “being the story.” I am just as fascinated by the story they live in, the story they are, and, far from critiquing them for sharing it, I am anxious to hear it. In a post titled “The Next Phase of Storytelling”, Global Fellows Manager for Acumen Fund Blair Miller states:

“We, the storytellers, need to let some stories go so that the voices of the world can truly be heard.” Indeed. We, the storytellers, also need to, as Ray Bradbury would have it, tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. Our voices are voices of the world too.

About the Author

Roxanne Krystalli shares her experiences of conflict management and storytelling at Stories of Conflict and Love.


  1. First thought, what an awesome picture. I didn’t realize it was a tea cup. Simply beautiful.

    • I just realized you were refering to my photo and not the image Ray Bradbury paints. I had a good chuckle after that. Thank you, dear Kim, for your kindness. It is one of my favorite photos ever taken.

  2. The stories that we tell, which are our lives, are meant to be told. Everyone has a story and it is through the sharing of each other’s stories that we find a common thread which invokes a sense of community and camaraderie. A thought process of “I am not alone in this feeling” or perspective gained from hearing someone’s story. I love this piece, ladies. Share and share alike.

    • Ali, thank you for posting this — it is such a privilege to share your space with you for the day.

      Kim, isn’t that a stunning Ray Bradbury picture? It is one of my favorite excerpts of writing.

      Your points about a common thread are very salient; that is indeed a step to enhancing empathy. Thank you so very much for your kind words!

      • Roxanne, thank you for your beautiful contribution. I have received nothing but positive comments on it and would love for you to contribute something else to Critical Peace.

  3. This is a beautiful post, as always, Roxanne, with some deep insights. I completely agree that all of us have stories, and that is why blogs like yours are so deeply touching – we can all relate to personal stories. But this is what I think: our stories and the way we tell them affect popular opinion too. I’m not saying McClelland did this, but for people who traveled abroad, like bloggers who are paid to go to Bangladesh, indulging in telling their own stories can sometimes leak into “poverty porn.” Taking away a meaningful experience from your travels is one thing, but portraying the people you meet as “poor people who need help” is not positive.

    Our stories are important, but we still have to be conscious of the way we tell our stories and our experiences, because they can have real world implications when dealing with stereotypes, for example.

    • Akhila, I completely agree with you and am so glad you brought up the issue of poverty porn. Being mindful of what stereotypes one is walking into when portraying others who affected his or her story is essential for responsible storytelling. I love Jina Moore’s guidelines for trauma journalism and I think they can be applied to non-trauma situations as well.

  4. Roxanne, it has taken me a long while to get around to reading this because I wanted to read Ms. McClelland’s article first and have not had the appropriate presence of mind to do that until today. I found it compelling and unpleasant and challenging, and reading as much as I could of the comments took a while, and then I read some of the supplemental links.

    I’m all read-ed out.

    I would never have read all of this if not for you directing me to it, so thank you (and Ali too for hosting you). The English major in me regrets that the GOOD piece does not return to Sybille or Haiti; they are the Chekhov’s gun in Mac’s story and I feel they’re too big to not reappear, to echo or contrast against Mac’s achievement of closure. But I agree with you that she had the right to tell this part of the story and to bring others into it. Had she not, the piece would not carry such resonance. And I think she was as respectful as online storytelling demands.

    But I do believe that the salacious subject matter and title served to attract pageviews and links, and I’m not surprised that people were upset by what they read. That generates comments and new articles that link back to the original piece. And I’m sure that benefits both GOOD and Ms. McClelland (who intends to keep speaking on this subject according to one of the supplemental links). So I think the provocative nature of the piece is just a touch distasteful, but that’s a purely subjective response and completely separate from the politics of it all.

    Thank you again. You teach me so much.

    • Kim, I chuckled at your commenting as “another Kim.” I am so thankful for your photo that made me recognize you. You put your finger exactly on how I feel about the piece: I thought the title was sensational and, as someone who has struggled with similar issues to McClelland, I found myself balking at squirming at various points in time. In a way, that detracted from the value of the piece and the power of McClelland’s story. That said, I admire her courage in telling it and will defend her right to tell it to no end. She has started a valuable, necessary conversation and it is a privilege to be continuing it with you.

      You, my friend, teach me an enormous amount as well. That, too, is a privilege.


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