The hardest part of telling this story was deciding what to include and what to leave out. I didn’t want to excuse or justify the crime, but I did want listeners to know the full story. Too often, the opioid epidemic is told through obituaries. I wanted to tell the story of someone who lived it. And as much as possible, I wanted to let them tell that story.
I learned a lot as I worked on this piece. Most importantly:
You can let your subjects come to you. Most of the time in journalism, we seek out a subject. For this story, I posted on Craigslist. I asked former opioid users to email me if they were interested in being interviewed for a radio story. Many did. But a lot of them weren’t right for the story — it turned out some were still actively using. Others were eager to talk on the phone, but hesitant to meet in person. I ended up meeting two people for interviews and chose to pursue Bryan’s story.
Sometimes, it’s the normal stuff that makes a story compelling. While working on this piece, if I told someone about the crime Bryan had committed, they would say, “Wow, that’s a good story.” But I don’t think the crime is the story. I think Bryan’s relationship with his mom is. It’s great to have a story where something unusual happens (that’s a good hook), but it’s the everyday, relatable stuff that builds empathy.
Stay focused. When I first heard Bryan’s story, I was tempted to reach out to so many people — his sister, his lawyer, the judge — I even thought about trying to track down the tellers at the bank! I had to remind myself: this is a story about the two people who were in the car that day — those are the only two voices we should hear. By giving myself that constraint, it was much easier to know what I needed for the story to work.
Look for motifs and metaphor (but don’t force it). Today, Bryan works as a window washer on high rise buildings in Boston. I thought this was so fitting — after being locked in a cell for years, he now has a job where he has incredible views, as far as the eye can see. It also struck me that washing windows means that Bryan is on the outside, looking in. I thought that maybe that’s how he feels about life — that he’s missed so much — and it might feel like he’s looking in on lives that have passed him by. But when I ran these theories by Bryan, they fell flat. They didn’t resonate with him, so I didn’t use them. Instead, I realized that so many of the milestones in Bryan’s life were connected to Christmas. That became a motif in the story.
Statistics are boring (but important). Figure out how to make them not boring. Numbers usually don’t make us feel something deeply, but they’re important — they illustrate the scale of a problem. I wanted to show that Bryan’s story is part of a larger story, but I wanted to avoid just telling you that. I asked Nancy if I could come over to her house and look through old photo albums with her. This made it possible to have an ending scene with Nancy in Bryan’s childhood bedroom, flipping through his high school yearbook. The yearbook scene makes the story both much more intimate and more universal at the same time — we’re at home with Nancy, but she’s talking about how opioid addiction hasn’t just affected her family, but so many families.
About Sarah’s Sonic ID
I met John in a gas station. He was buying a single roll of toilet paper and said he needed to walk home before it rained. His nose was visibly crooked. I asked what had happened and he told me his story — you can hear the sorrow in his voice.