To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald’s post, “Front Page Voyeurism,” (Dec. 28, 2011) critiques my article about young adults diagnosed with Asperger syndrome seeking romantic intimacy in the face of neurological obstacles.
Ms. Mac Donald did not like the subject of my story (“salacious trivia” with “no political import” she says), its front-page placement (belonged on the “Women’s page” she argues), or its style (“literary,” she calls it, in quotes). On those matters, she is of course entitled to her opinion.
I am writing only to address the doubt she casts on the integrity of my reporting.
“In an earlier age,” she writes,
an editor might have asked Harmon how she pinned down such details as Jack’s “fingers grazing [Kirsten’s] skin,” or Kirsten “pushing deeply with her palms” to illustrate how she wanted Jack to touch her. Did the couple show Harmon these gestures? Either these two Asperger’s syndroids miraculously manage to overcome their difficulty with intimate communication (to a reporter no less!), or Harmon simply let her imagination run wild — until now, a trait valued in creative writing workshops, but not in reporters.
Along with several of the commenters on her post, I do not know what Ms. Mac Donald means by “syndroids,” but I welcome her general question. I have said elsewhere that I wish there was a way to supply process footnotes for this kind of story, which seeks to inform through scenes and dialogue rather than direct quotes.
Ms. Mac Donald is right that this sort of communication was unlikely to unfold spontaneously in front of me, despite the many hours I spent with them. Yet Kirsten did show me, by using her hand on her own — clothed — arm, the kind of touch she likes, and the kind Jack prefers. Jack, as much a stickler for accuracy as anyone I’ve known, was present, and agreed. They both described, separately and on multiple occasions, the frequent conversations they have had about this issue, including the one Ms. Mac Donald suggests may be a figment of my imagination. I confirmed the precise phrases I used to describe it with both of them before the story ran.
Ms. Mac Donald and I do not agree on much. I think narrative non-fiction holds an informative potential that traditional news stories do not. To her, my attempt at it consists of “dumping … inconclusive, mundane details in the reader’s lap.” But I think she is right that the form can raise questions about how the reporter knows what she is reporting. And I appreciate the opportunity to clear it up the confusion in this case.