< Getting in Character

Transcript

Friday, July 25, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
Earlier this year, the television program, America's Most Wanted aired an episode featuring Julia Dahl, a reporter trying to help solve the murder of a young girl she knew formerly as a source. How Dahl ended up on the show is a bit of a twisted odyssey, and what she learned from the experience is the subject of her article in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

Dahl started her career at women’s magazines, like Redbook and Marie Claire, writing stories about body image, beauty queens and dating, a far cry from how as a student at Yale she imagined her journalistic career would go. And so, she quit because, as she put it herself, quote, “Every time I put together an article it felt like I was building a little lie.”
JULIA DAHL:
I decided that I wanted to at least try to write a little more seriously, but, to tell you the truth, I didn't exactly know how. Never had real, quote, unquote, “journalism training.” So, I left the staff job and thought, all right, I'm going to go freelance. I'm going to see what I can do this way.

And one of the first assignments I got freelance was from Seventeen Magazine to write about a young woman who had murdered her mother.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, you were living in Georgia at this point, and clearly that subject matter is far more somber and serious than the fluff that you had been doing in New York but it’s also a staple of women’s magazines, kind of the true crime genre.
JULIA DAHL:
Mm hmm. Well, I really enjoyed, at least at the beginning, the first couple I did, I really enjoyed the reporting. It felt like what a real journalist would do. I was going to talk to families. I spent a lot of time with cops and with lawyers and reading trial transcripts. I felt like I was actually learning something about a serious circumstance.

The problem was that the article that I had to turn in had a very rigid formula that I had to adhere to. It was 1500 words. It began with a simple introduction and then it had four sections, and each section had to be exactly the same for each article I wrote —early childhood of the person I'm writing about, the lead up to the murder, the murder and then the aftermath. And there was just no room for any of the nuance that I picked up when I was reporting. And, again, it just started to feel a little bit false to me.
BOB GARFIELD:
Even the simple significant details from the environment that you noticed, that your writerly instincts wanted you to include, were deemed superfluous by your editors.
JULIA DAHL:
Exactly. I remember very well sitting with a grandmother of a young girl who had killed her mother, and she lived in a small trailer in Western Virginia. Her home was choked with cigarette smoke. Photos of both her daughter and her granddaughter were everywhere. It almost felt like a coffin that she was living in.

And it was so dramatic to me, but it had absolutely no place in the story I was going to write. I knew that the hours I spent with her would essentially be distilled to two quotes.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, as a consequence of working on this piece, you ran into somebody else, and this would change your narrative substantially. Tell me about Tyeisha.
JULIA DAHL:
I was in western Virginia reporting this story for Seventeen when I got a call from my editor. Katrina had just hit, and she knew that I was living down South and that a lot of the Katrina refugees were being bused to Georgia. And she said - we want to profile a teenage girl who survived Katrina.

I sort of forgot about her request until I got home a few days later and went to volunteer at a church nearby where a couple hundred refugees were getting tetanus shots. That’s when I saw Tyeisha. She was exactly what I was looking for. She was a teenage girl. She was stunningly beautiful.

And I approached her and I said, hey, I'm a writer for Seventeen Magazine. Would you be willing to tell me your story?
BOB GARFIELD:
And she said yes.
JULIA DAHL:
She did, actually. She had a two year old daughter. They'd had their home destroyed. They'd had to swim through the storm to safety. They broke into a house and were rescued a couple of days later by a helicopter off a roof.

So I wrote a story called, I Survived Hurricane Katrina. It was in the as told to style that women’s and teen magazines use a lot where the writer interviews someone and writes the piece in the first person as if Tyeisha herself were actually writing the piece. And it ended with her being flown to safety, but that’s not how her story actually ended.
BOB GARFIELD:
How did her story actually end?
JULIA DAHL:
Well, her mother, who had her daughter, Daneisha, was in Texas and so Tyeisha decided that she should go to Texas. I took her to the bus station in Atlanta. And about four months later, I got a call from her sister, Quiana, telling me that Tyeisha was dead. She'd been murdered, shot in the back of the head and left in a ditch in Fort Bend County, Texas.
BOB GARFIELD:
Then a month and a half later you got a phone call from America's Most Wanted, the syndicated television program, that wanted to tell the story of Tyeisha’s murder, and they wanted you to join the project. Tell me what it was specifically that they had in mind for their narrative.
JULIA DAHL:
Well, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that they wanted me to be somebody I wasn't. To them, what was exciting about the story wasn't just that a young woman had been brutally murdered and her killer had not been found but that a New York City magazine writer was involved in her death.

And as we were doing an interview, they started feeding me lines like, so, as you were living in New York working at women’s magazines, it was a little like you were Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, right?

And when they finally asked me if I would not just do one interview but actually travel with America's Most Wanted to Texas to meet with Tyeisha’s family and meet with the officers working on her case, the point for them was that [LAUGHS] essentially Carrie Bradshaw had gotten caught up in the murder of a Katrina victim.
BOB GARFIELD:
So here you were, having made some progress in your aspiration to be a serious journalist, and the circumstances of the universe converged just as they do, in the middle of a very troubling story. And lo and behold, here comes a TV show that imposes on you the very kind of silly artificial construct that you had left New York to escape.

But I must say I've seen the tape of your interviews on the show. It looked like you were, you know, in with both feet on this concept. I mean, you were not a reluctant participant, were you?
JULIA DAHL:
I wasn't. Even though I was uncomfortable with how I realized they were going to portray me, I decided that that wasn't important, that what was important was that nobody seemed interested in a young girl who'd survived Katrina, been torn from her family structure, tried to start a new life and then met this brutal end. Nobody seemed to care about that, but what they cared about was that I, or some version of me, was involved in this.

And so I decided that Tyeisha deserves, she definitely deserves to have someone locked up for murdering her, but she deserves to have her story told, and if this is the only way that her story can be told, that I'm okay with that. I decided that it was my moral duty, if you will, to stand in front of the camera and be what they wanted me to be so that the story was interesting enough that they would put it on television.
BOB GARFIELD:
So tell me, Carrie Bradshaw, was it like the Sex and the City movie, something that had a happy ending?
JULIA DAHL:
No. Nobody’s been locked up or arrested for killing Tyeisha. I spoke a few months ago right after the show aired, with the detective on the case and he, even after America's Most Wanted aired, said he still had no promising leads. So far, my appearance on America's Most Wanted has not brought anyone to justice.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Julia. Thank you very much.
JULIA DAHL:
You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD:
Julia Dahl wrote “The Lives of Others” in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani and Nadia Zonis and edited — by committee. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. We also had help from Gina Gasper. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Bob Garfield.