This article about Mac McClelland’s piece documenting her PTSD and how she used violent sex to cope illustrates pretty well why too many women who experience trauma don’t speak out, and why the varied truths about women’s lives are too often missing from public dialogue. Marjorie Valbrun writes:
I wondered if I had read the same piece because the only adjectives I could come up with were: “Offensive.” “Shockingly-narcissistic.” “Intellectually dishonest.” To me the piece was a stunning example of journalistic malpractice, the kind that reinforces the public perception that deep down journalists think every story or major news event is somehow really all about them.
McClelland, who covered Haiti for Mother Jones, has provided us with yet another clichéd, egocentric article about documenting unimaginably terrible things experienced by powerless, broken, poor people who are victimized on a regular basis. But here’s the rub, we get a mere few lines about the pain experienced by a Haitian rape victim named “Sybille” but a long screed about McClelland’s pain, albeit with the provocative spin of needing violent sex to cure her of all that ails her. Sybille’s violent rape feeds McClelland’s need to feel victimized.
McClelland didn’t have a “need to feel victimized.” She spent years reporting from war-torn and devastated countries, and she become psychologically overwhelmed. It’s not narcissistic or intellectually dishonest to discuss the very real impacts that can result from seeing suffering day in and day out.
Really? You need to get punched in the face by a man during sex in order to get over Haiti? So I guess mimicking a violent sexual assault is acceptable as long as it is wrapped in compelling prose and sold as self-healing.
As a journalist, I understand wanting to make sense of the senseless and trying to put events into some larger context. I’ve reported from Haiti for some 20 years now; I was also born there. I know something about the perils of working and living there. But McClelland has not spent that much time there and doesn’t seem to know much about the place so she gives readers a limited and flawed view. She does what most journalists do soon after they’ve visited Haiti for the first time – make broad generalizations drawn from personal anecdotes. Given that the earthquake occurred a year and half ago and there have been many stories written about life on the ground and rapes at the camps, she had to reach for something different and more sensational so she put a new spin on an old story and personalized it to the nth degree.
I’m annoyed that people are often more interested in a story about poor black people/poor black country/genocide in the Sudan/etc. when the central character in that story is a white person. I mean all of Port-au-Prince is suffering from PTSD and I’m supposed to care about some woman who parachutes in for a couple of weeks and has the luxury to leave whenever she wants because she’s been inconveniently traumatized?
Criticism that McClelland focused too much on herself at the expense of actually covering the situation in Haiti would be more warranted if the piece about PTSD was one of McClelland’s only journalistic contributions. But she has covered human rights issues tirelessly. She wrote a book about Burma. She has written dozens of articles about Haiti, including articles about sexual assault. She is not the central character in the vast majority of the pieces she’s written. The GOOD piece has gotten more attention that most of the other articles McClelland has penned, and that’s a worthy criticism, but it’s not McClelland’s responsibility or fault. To suggest that she used her time in Haiti just to write a narcissistic sex piece is wildly inaccurate. To further suggest that there’s something selfish about leaving after recognizing that you’re traumatized? That’s cruel and irresponsible. The argument that “Haiti is not about you!” is one that I’d usually be sympathetic to; but here, the article wasn’t about Haiti, it was about Mac and her experiences and her mental state and the strange position she found herself in. Haiti was a backdrop for that, but I don’t see how she was under any obligation to fully represent the complexities of the situation there in a personal piece about her own mental health.
Other criticisms seem to be that she painted Haiti stereotypically; I didn’t get that from her article, but I can see where that point comes from. Again, though, that criticism ignores the rest of McClelland’s work, and ignores the fact that this piece was about trauma — so yes, she emphasized the more traumatic aspects of her time in Haiti.
Ansel Herz defends McClelland, pointing out that there is a wealth of bad Haiti coverage to criticize, but for some reason journalists have jumped on McClelland for relaying her experiences. I suspect that the reason so many people are offended by McClelland’s piece isn’t because she’s a bad reporter or even because she wrote about Haiti in a way they didn’t like; it’s because her narrative goes off-script for female journalists. It’s because the article can be read as saying that Mac couldn’t cut it. It’s because if Mac couldn’t cut it — even though Mac very much did cut it, but let’s put that aside — then maybe female journalists generally can’t cut it. And that suggestion understandably makes a lot of female journalists very angry.
Female journalists have it rough. They face a different set of threats than male journalists, and they don’t have the exact same experiences, and their levels of access vary. They have more access to certain communities, and less to others; many live with the persistent threat of sexual assault, while male journalists live with the persistent threat of other physical assaults. But female journalists who are assaulted, or who speak out about any fear of being assaulted, quickly have their stories twisted to fit the Why It’s Dangerous To Be A Female Journalist narrative. Male journalists are assaulted and killed in the field with some regularity, and no one points out that it’s because they’re male — even though it’s very possible that female journalists are less likely than male journalists to be murdered or beat up. When a female journalist is sexually assaulted in the field, though, it opens up a conversation about whether or not it’s safe for women to even be reporting in the first place, and inevitably someone speculates that women bring assault upon themselves by having the audacity to be female and go into “dangerous” places (never mind that there are already women in all of these “dangerous” places).
So most female journalists, as far as I can tell, don’t talk about their fears publicly, because those fears will predictably be used against their entire gender; instead, there are behind-the-scenes networks and support systems. That’s not a bad thing, but it can’t be all there is. Female journalists have to be able to step out of that agreed-upon silence if anything is going to change. And when other women speak out, our first reason shouldn’t be to punish or criticize our own. Where there are legitimate criticisms of course flesh them out, but leveling accusations of “narcissism” and “selfishness” because a woman had the audacity to write about her very complicated experiences in a nuanced and somewhat imperfect article? That is the same shit women have always gotten for talking about their own lives, or taking care of themselves, or not putting everyone else’s needs before their own. When men write about their personal experiences and their observations and their roads to recovery and self-discovery, it’s a great American novel or a shining example of journalistic bravery. When women do it it’s narcissistic and selfish.
The piece by Mac was about Mac and her mental state, and how she coped with the trauma she witnessed. That’s very real, and it’s not selfish to recognize that observing horrible events takes a toll. We don’t need to treat female journalists with kid gloves, and there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of Mac’s piece (and of any piece). But suggesting that female journalists are selfish if they exercise self-care? Saying they’re narcissistic for centering their experiences in one story that was not at all advertised as a reported news piece? I can’t get behind that. I can’t see how that’s good for journalism.
And this piece is just about the best thing you will read on this topic, so do go read it.