I stood in the packed Community Hall, microphone in hand, my piece had just played. A man in the audience asked me, “At any point when you were reporting this story did you think that this was too much, it was too hard of a topic?”
I took a breath and started, “Before I started reporting this story, I wondered if I was doing . . .” I could feel a lump forming in the back of my throat, my face got hot, my eyes were tearing up. “This is very hard to talk about, but to answer your question, yes.” I shuffled away, handed Viki the microphone and tried to collect myself.
What I wanted to say is that, before I started reporting this piece, I wondered if I would be doing more harm than good by pursuing this story. I was asking a man to talk about the worst day of his life and the pain of living without his son. And for what? My own education? How incredibly insensitive and selfish.
When I first called Gerry I told him about the story I wanted to tell — less about the day of the shooting and more about what he had gone through since. He was hesitant, but said I was welcome to meet with him the next day. I drove out to his sandwich shop, gave him a rundown of the time commitment I would need from him. Explained some of the logistics and told him if he wasn’t interested I would understand.
He responded by launching into his story, talking for close to 45-minutes uninterrupted. He talked about his son, how he was upset with the systems that had failed Dave: the police, the lack of mental health services available, the fact that Dave was able to buy a gun legally. He cried remembering the ways people criticized him for not moving on. I listened. I didn’t record. I sat quietly nodding my head. Proving to both Gerry and myself that I wasn’t there just to learn how to make radio. That I was a person. Who had heard about a tragedy and wanted to better understand what it was like to live through it. When he was done, Gerry took a breath, looked me in the eye and said, “I suppose you can come back.”
I talked to Gerry over several days. The first time was at his sandwich shop, and while we talked about Dave we also talked about his business, what were the popular items on the menu. To lighten the mood and help me better understand Gerry as a person, when we next spoke he showed me the cars he’d worked on with Dave. The third interview was the hardest. But by then we had spent hours together. We knew a little more about each other, I understood Gerry’s sense of humor (it’s dark) and I knew when he was mulling over his words and would finish his thought if I just gave him the time.
I made it clear that he could stop the interview when he wanted to, warned him when I would be asking hard questions, told him we could take breaks if he needed them. For journalists tackling stories with a similar intensity, I would recommend looking at the resources at the Dart Center. This tip sheet was particularly useful to me.
One of my last questions was, “Why did you decide to talk to me?” He said, “Sheer stupidity,” (he was kidding, see, dark sense of humor). He continued that it’s not bad for him to talk about Dave; if it was bad for him to talk about his son therapy would be of no use to him. And now at least one more person knew about Dave and knew what had happened to him. Gerry hopes that if more people know about his son’s death they can be advocates for change, for better police training, for improved mental health services.
I wasn’t doing harm by talking to Gerry, he wanted to be heard. I listened.
About Erin’s Sonic ID
Approaching strangers on the street is not something I enjoy, something I do enjoy is meeting dogs. When deciding the best way to tackle our vox pop assignment, I tried to think of the way I could get the most enjoyment out of the process. Enter the Falmouth dog park. Asking people about their dogs’ personalities and quirks gets a lot of great tape.