Why Context Matters: Journalists and Haiti

Earlier this week, the Ms. Blog interviewed journalist Mac McClelland regarding the much-discussed online article she wrote about dealing with PTSD after a reporting stint in Haiti. One of our Ms. bloggers wanted to weigh in with her thoughts about the controversial story.

As a Haitian American feminist anthropologist who has written much on both gender-based violence in, and representations of, Haiti, I have been following the Mac McClelland controversy with great interest.

McClelland, a Mother Jones reporter, recently wrote for GOOD magazine her personal story of suffering PTSD after witnessing the emotional outburst of a Haitian woman who had been gang raped. What was most provocative about the story, though, was embodied in the headline: “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me on This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

Because I believe dealing with experiences of trauma is a highly subjective process, I won’t question her chosen method of healing. She need not be judged. Besides, much is written about women’s fantasies of rape, starting with the groundbreaking and controversial work of Nancy Friday; the reporter is not unique in this regard. The difference, however, is that she refused the closet and publicly exposed her desire, couched in terms of it being an antidote to her mental suffering and her need to feel re-empowered.

That said, her essay–and responses to it from both critics and supporters–reveal much about the messiness of race, class and gender, and show us yet again how much Haiti is popularly misperceived. 

McClelland insists that in this piece, she did not set out to affect the well-being of the world she writes about, as she has in her other work. Rather, this confessional essay was all about her descent into an abyss, her way back from it and how she lived to tell about it. Do I fault her for this emphasis on herself? No. But I do understand the criticism she’s received from others for using Haiti as a mere backdrop, such as Haitian reporter Marjorie Valbrun, who reminded her that “what’s happening in Haiti is not about you.”

Valbrun calls out white journalists in general, and McClelland in particular, for a “woe-is-me” attitude that obscures the bigger problems they encounter on assignments. Haiti, like other troubled countries, becomes just a scene in an all-too-common Hollywood script. The issue of “using” Haiti was also raised in a letter to the editor of GOOD, published on Jezebel.com, that was signed by 36 women journalists and researchers (including Valbrun) who have tons of Haiti experience under their collective belt. The writers particularly called out McClelland for her lack of context:

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

This use of Haiti makes the republic a casualty of her healing process. When Valbrun took on McClelland again, in “Haiti Made Me Do It” on TheRoot.com, she decoded the ways the journalist “blames” Haiti for her trauma. Because McClelland’s experience in Haiti–particularly when she witnesses the breakdown of the gang-rape survivor–is what evoked her trauma and rape fantasies, Haiti is set up as the culprit. As Valbrun says:

[McLelland describes] rapes by marauding, “gang-raping monsters” in the tent camps that house homeless earthquake victims. Rapes at the camps are indeed a tragic reality of post-earthquake Haiti, but she paints a picture of Haiti as the site of collective male wilding. Never mind that she’s only talking about the capital, which before the earthquake had some 3 million residents, and not the entire country of 10 million.

Imagine for a moment that this incident had occurred in Stockholm. The very element of deviance that gives McClelland’s story its bravado and caché would have been entirely lost, because Sweden is known as a peaceful and sexually open society where the rule of law is abided. On the other hand, Haiti is understood primarily as a dark, chaotic place where bad things happen.

McClelland does not mention in her recent essay that at the time of the incident (September 2010), she actually live-tweeted about it, even disclosing the rape survivor’s real name in her original tweets. Mother Jones re-posted those tweets using just the victim’s initials, describing it as “real-time reportage.” In McClelland’s blow-by-blow account of the moment, you can almost feel the adrenaline–but who’s the victim here? In addition to other criticism, McClelland has taken flack from peers concerning issues of consent, protecting informants and the ethics of journalism, especially in new media. (For critical response to those tweets, check out reporter and producer Jina Moore’s pieces “Should We Tweet Rape?” and “A Roundup of Ideas on Tweeting Rape.”)

Do I think that criticisms of McClelland have turned her into something of a scapegoat? Yes. She certainly is not the first reporter to portray Haiti as a dark and chaotic place and she won’t be the last, as a writing colleague of hers, Ansel Herz, wrote in her defense. I completely agree. (For example, veteran journalist, Amy Wilentz, who also signed the Jezebel.com letter, not too long ago metaphorically referred to Haiti as a pile of shit in The New York Times.) But should McClelland get a free pass because, as she says, this was not a reported piece about Haiti but an essay on her personal issues? Absolutely not.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a seminar on reflexive anthropology entitled “Beyond Me, Me, Me,” and I can’t help but think that McClelland’s piece might serve as an example to discuss. Although it’s journalism, not anthropology, her essay could be seen as work that loses sight of the social context while focusing solely on an individual’s personal experience in the study of culture. In anthropology, such work is critiqued as navel-gazing that won’t serve a broader purpose. To be fair, McClelland, as a journalist, does shed some light on a larger dilemma that all female journalists may face in threatening situations–sexual harassment and assault–but aside from that her essay is all me, me, me.

Reflexive anthropology is important, as it calls for a more self-critical and self-reflective approach that examines power relations in fieldwork. Indeed, many early researchers treated their “informants” as though they were just that–sources of information, rather than human beings. That, and the swashbuckling overtone in the work of many early anthropologists, was decried by leftistsfeminists and other minorities, who wanted to decolonize the discipline. (These issues are at the core of my first book). It’s hard not to see that old swashbuckling tone in McClelland’s piece, as she suffers-but-soldiers-on despite the violence and the predatory men she encounters. Haiti, in that sense, becomes the last frontier; it ceases to be about the people and the human rights issues, and becomes just another a terrain to be conquered.

The Atlantic Wire reporter Elspeth Reeve, another supporter of McClelland, wants us to believe that McClelland’s Haiti critics are  just too sensitive. As she put it, the critics feel that “reenacting rape is fine, just don’t call Haiti a hellhole.” To bolster her argument that Haiti still is such a horrible place, her piece includes a couple of photographs of flimsy tents in a Haitian refugee camp and of men carrying guns.

Honestly, we don’t need to see any more pictures about Haiti. Everyone knows and agrees that Goudougoudou shattered an already fractured country that already had little to no infrastructure. The affected areas, in too many ways, are still a mess. Hunger and cholera continue to wreak havoc. The state barely functions while NGOs rule but fail. Haiti should not be reduced to solely its conditions, yet without violence, gangs and rapes there is no Haiti story. And without our victim status, we Haitians have no allies. Therein lies our biggest dilemma.

Given the poverty of the government, people in need in Haiti are forced to rely on organizations that are pitted against each other (at both local and global levels) for resources. The gender-based violence field is also competitive, which fuels a value system based on a hierarchy of horror: The more horrific the story, the more attention it gets and the more likely that the victims in the story might get access to limited support. Progressive Haitian organizations are in trouble precisely because they refuse to be dependent on foreign NGOs. They are not even courted, because partnerships in the aid business are code for “as long as we hold the pursestrings, we determine the solutions.”

So much more could be said, but I will stop here. Except for one more thing:

Since this story broke, the issue of Haiti’s representation has become a key focus while the trauma of the woman McClelland calls “Sybille” has been swept aside. While I’m sympathetic to the trauma McClelland faced, I can’t help but thinking back to “Sybille”–the woman who, it turns out did not want her story told, whether in tweets or an article. In fact, according to Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat (also one of the 36), “Sybille” wrote a letter of protest to McClelland. (So no, Pandora Young, the “politically correct female journos”–as you dubbed them on FISHBOWLLA–are not “ganging up on the PTSD essayist,” but instead speaking up for this and other “Sybilles.”) For me, this moment brings the question of access and power of  journalists to the table: Who gets to tell someone’s else story? How? And what happens when the subject talks back?

The conversations that have ensued around this essay are important and overdue. People are actually talking about the roles of Haiti’s allies–how do they see and represent Haitians?  Such conversations tend to stay behind closed doors, where they might be safer, but now they’re out in the public sphere. And we don’t all agree on everything, but we are all concerned about our rights. Without such public discussions, the undisclosed tensions threaten to reinforce the very problems we all seek to solve. These discussions are a very crucial first step toward productive solidarity work. It is my hope that we have the courage to move beyond this stage and have the most important conversation of all: the conversation about solutions. Haiti desperately needs a non-partisan space where Haitians from all walks of life, along with their committed allies, can work together to gather, assess and rigorously analyze gender-based violence in the country. Then we can take the next step to collectively address and eventually eradicate it.

Photo of license plate used by foreign international organizations in Haiti, from Flickr user woody1778a, under license from Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. I read this, thinking perhaps yet another academic approach to the McClelland bru-ha-ha would lead me to change my mind from “McClelland did nothing wrong; she’s entitled to write an essay” to “oh, no, I was wrong and McClelland was too”.

    This piece didn’t do that. It doesn’t matter that her essay is about her; it’s about PTSD — of course the essay is about her! Good God. You insinuate that somehow McClelland isn’t aware (enough) of the power relations in reporting — but if you read any of her work (including the essay in question), she is VERY aware. Journalists strive not to be the story; in writing her essay she was quite clear about how she felt “guilty” or somehow “wrong” for having PTSD (a condition that should, theoretically, be reserved for victims like Sybille). Yet any of us who study PTSD know that *observers* of violence are almost as likely as victims themselves to suffer from PTSD. Reading her account, it came as NO surprise to me that she acquired it (which, in my opinion shouldn’t even be called a “disorder” because it is so very predictable — one who has PTSD is responding to trauma in a way that is likely biologically useful and so is not suffering from a bodily system that has, like cancer, gone “awry”). It’s a painful condition to have, often difficult to get over, but is the body’s way of trying to force the sufferer not to be in situations like the one that triggered the PTSD. Thought of in those terms, PTSD is a way that the body/mind attempt to protect itself.

    It’s OK that she describes Haiti as she saw it; does McClelland think ALL of Haiti consists of raping mobs and victims? Doubtful. But she was reporting on EXACTLY that — the chaos, the violence. Her piece was true to the reality she saw — and true to the pain she experienced as a result of having a job that forces her to be right in the middle of it.

    Bottom line: journalists can write essays, for God’s sake. And they can tell it like it is, even when it’s politically incorrect to do so. Perhaps being more truthful about *what one sees* rather than *what academic concepts* tell us we should see is something all of us can work on. Academics can write about intersectionality and the need for neutral organizations to help Haiti; McClelland’s job is to report what she sees.

    And when she writes a personal essay, both journalists and academics would do well to remember the distinctions between “report,” “journal article” and “personal essay”. Hers was the latter and doesn’t take away from her reports or others’ academic analyses of Haiti.

    (The one thing that I might agree with is that it probably isn’t a good idea to live-tweet about rape victims…even if they were to give their consent, I would think in their traumatized state it would not be reliable.)

    • So, as long as anyone who’s journalistically inclined claims PTSD, they can use it as a cover to say anything they want, and they don’t have to be held responsible for how their writing does further damage? I see. So, explain to me what’s the value of McClelland’s essay, again? How does this help anybody who suffers from PTSD, or wants to understand PTSD? I bet you can’t; as Gina noted, take out the specific references to Haiti, and all you have left is a journal entry that was better kept private.

      It’s very convenient for Euro-American women to ignore the critical issues about representation that Gina’s analysis points out. After all, you don’t have to deal with any of the consequences of such. In fact, the more folks like McClelland ignore these issues, the better they can take advantage of the “pile of shit” that is Haiti to build their careers and move up the ladder.

      See, that’s the difference between an ally and one who pretends to be such. The former doesn’t just trot out verbiage about awareness of power dynamics to remind us 3rd world folks that they are on our side. They actually act *as if* such awareness can bring about transformation and help move us towards viable, just solutions. Show me again how McClelland is doing anything useful for anyone else besides herself. The speaking engagements should be rolling in, as I write this.

    • Amy Williams says:

      The problem is that we can’t separate personal narratives from hard “reporting” so easily. Memoir writing, personal narratives, pieces that are “true to the reality” that visitors to “third world” countries see — all of these things shape the way that we think about “third world” countries and people. Even if they’re not explicitly ABOUT these countries and people. McClelland’s intentions, however good, are irrelevant. We can (and should) be frustrated by the fact McClelland projects a rather simplistic vision of Haiti; that Sybille’s experiences are mediated through McClelland (not only is it not a good idea to live-tweet about rape victims, but it’s not a good idea to live-tweet when the victim hasn’t given her consent!!). I’m not interested in an “academic analysis” of Haiti, whatever that is. I’m concerned about language. Who gets to speak for whom; what details and voices are privileged over others.

  2. Janell Hobson says:

    Thank you, Gina, for writing this sensitive piece. I don’t think the issue, as Elaine posted above, is whether or not McClelland should be able to write about her experience with PTSD and her violent fantasies; it’s about how Haiti as a backdrop gives her piece a more “gritty reality.” It’s about the continued way that the sites of black nations/neighborhoods/communities and the bodies of women of color become the “bridge called my back” to support white women’s own gendered experiences.

    Because Gina’s right: had McClelland experienced PTSD in Sweden or some other “tame” place, her editor would tell her that the location is “unnecessary” to the story. I’m quite sure “Haiti” gave her essay much more salience to an audience hungry for “poverty porn” and the horror stories that often come out of “underdeveloped nations.” Such chaos and social breakdowns feed the imaginations of people in “developed nations” who can compare themselves by contrast and feel some kind of economic, political, and, yes, racial superiority.

    I, like Gina, also wonder when will the Sibilles get to tell their own horror stories about rape, without their nation, race, ethnicity, or culture used to “explain away” the violence. When will THEY get to express their own traumas without a white medium infiltrating on how the rest of us will perceive their story, usually through a racialized lens?

  3. Fyre Chylde says:

    I have to second Elaine on hoping this much-needed, nuance-infused piece that has some things with which I very much agree would change my defense of Ms. McClelland.

    I just keep coming back to the personal essay part. By that very concept, Haiti was always going to be a backdrop. So would Stockholm. I keep up with international feminist work too much to think of Stockholm as a peaceful paradise for women–especially Muslim immigrant women, thanks to the Swiss government.

    She never claimed to be speaking for the woman she called “Sybille,” or Haitian women in general. While I definitely agree that as a society, we should be hyper-vigilant about keeping out of colonial mindset in anthropology, this wasn’t an anthropological paper. It wasn’t even her reportage. She did remind Ms. readers of this in the posted interview.

    Her journalism? Oh, please believe I’m going to keep a skeptical eye on that. However, again, this was her personal story of battling with PTSD. As someone with trauma issues herself (though not as severe), I’m grateful she was willing to shed light on an issue that gets too little attention.

    Speaking of too little attention, I will call McClelland out for live tweeting the woman called “Sybille’s” PTSD episode and for ignoring her requests to be left out of the essay. Wrong, wrong, wrong McClelland!!! Unacceptable. I will be letting Mac know, too. All trauma survivors have the right to say when, where, how and by whom their stories are told.

    Thanks so much for writing this article, Ms. Ulysse.

  4. McClelland’s article helped me. I’m a survivor of sexual violence who used to suffer from PTSD. Reading McClelland’s article made me feel less alone; it made me feel more connected to “Sybille” and the people who are suffering in Haiti than I did before, because the issues there are so significant it’s hard to continue to feel it at all–a very personal story like this brought it back into focus; it made me feel more connected to McClelland, who is apparently a person of privilege so someone I would tend to dismiss as not experiencing life in the same realm as I do–her story helped me see our connection; and it made me more hopeful that things might change for women in general regarding sexual violence, because here was a women dealing with it bravely and publicly. The fact that McClelland wasn’t raped didn’t really seem to change the impact — the threats of sexual violence and witnessing of trauma she experienced seemed to me to have put her into the shared space survivors of rape tend to occupy. I think it’s awful that McClelland published “Sybille’s” story without her permission, and I thank you for letting us know about that and discussing the issues around it, but all the rest of the concerns expressed in this article sound like the safe, detached musings of someone who is not directly involved in any of it and sees her position as superior because of that. You (Ulysse- great name, btw) open your article with “As a Haitian American Feminist Anthropologist who has written much…” and you go from there to describe the safe distance between you and your subjects and how you seem to believe that makes your opinions on oppression more valid. I disagree. I’m all for a thinking response to sexist and racist oppression, but not at the expense of a human response. That doesn’t help anyone’s cause.

  5. Brian Concannon says:

    I am concerned that the commenters who focus primarily on the value of McClelland’s handling of her PTSD are missing the point. She has the right to the therapy of her choice, but only as long as that does not harm anyone else. No one would defend her if her therapy involved beating children, for instance. Betraying a victim’s request to privacy, and perpetuating stereotypes that have been used to justify centuries of imposed trauma on Haiti are more remote from us, but just as damaging to Haitians.

    It is also important to note that McClelland’s trauma, although real, was experienced voluntarily, while the people her essay hurts have no choice.

  6. Thank you all for responding and engaging in this discussion. I appreciate the different views expressed here. Since this piece went live, Edwidge Danticat has also published a piece on Sybille with her consent. Mother Jones editors and Mac McCelland have posted comments that might be of interest to those of you who want and to know where this story is now. http://www.essence.com/2011/07/09/edwidge-dantica

  7. Thanks for your nuanced piece: and I think nuance has not been common in the debate on McClelland’s piece.

    I think McClelland’s choice to publish this story is not ethical. This has nothing to do with herpersonal self-revealing (all very good), or her stereotyping of Haiti (all very bad, but surely her tiny contribution will be lost in the flood.)

    First, she is a journalist. As a journalist, she is a professional. As with any professional — doctor, lawyer, engineer, journalist — she has to be held to a higher standard than the “woman on the street”, should her actions should prove harmful to others.

    There are two other groups who may have suffered harm from this article.

    The first is the sufferers of PTSD. Though I’m sure treatment is particular to each person, and though this particular treatment may have proved effective for her (this is not in the least clear from the article), the overall effect of broadcasting this extreme form of self-therapy is to make it harder for sufferers of PTSD to get their condition pubicly accepted as a legitimate medical condition. People are not going to think of PTSD as a medical condition if it’s portrayed as something you can cure with violent sex. She should have left PTSD alone, unless she was going to do a more serious and considered piece on it.

    The second group is the victims of real rape. For decades, perhaps longer, the prejudice that they have been fighting is “she was asking for it.” Well, McClelland did ask for it. That’s her right. But why, as a journalist, did she broadcast this fact, surely knowing the prejudices and images that surround rape, and how dangerous her story is out of context of a more serious and balanced treatment. Again: she should have left rape alone.

    Could she have told her personal story without mentioning PTSD, or rape? I doubt it. But then, as journalist, she doesn’t have some special right to tell her personal story. She has a responsibility to tell stories that inform the public, in a balanced, considered, researched and ethical manner.

    It’s only because she has been entrusted with the profession of being a journalist, that her story was published. It’s why she was in Haiti. It’s why she has privileged access to publications.

    But the piece itself is an abuse of that trust.

    • Context does matter. As a journalist, even if this was a personal account, McClelland failed on many fronts to provide context. As damaging as her use of Haiti as a backdrop for her article may be, of all the comments I have read David Week’s is the first to come close to expressing two equally critical issues.

      First, in addition to his point about PTSD sufferers having “their condition publicly accepted as a legitimate medical condition”, for McClelland to tell the world that as a PTSD sufferer her therapist supported “violent sex” as a method to overcome this mental health condition is dangerous. Imagine readers who may not have ongoing access to medical/psychiatric care who may now see this as a viable method to treat PTSD and the risk to which they may expose themselves and others.

      Second, McClelland, according to her account, was never raped. Yet, she appropriated the specific experiences of a rape survivor – without her consent – to provide a point of reference for her story of trauma. Many comments attached to her article from rape survivors express outrage – and rightly so. The trauma of rape lives with an individual throughout their life and in fact, they may never “feel better”. McClelland trivialized this with her telling of how a single violent sexual role-play instantly alleviated her vicarious trauma. Did she consider the message she was sending to rape survivors who struggle for years to resume normal lives? Did she consider the message she was sending to those who continually blame and question the circumstances, amount of violence, terror, and life-long trauma experienced by rape survivors? Embedding the story of a rape survivor into her personal account took the focus away from survivors of rape who could benefit from the space to tell their individual stories.

      David Week is correct, as a journalist McClelland’s piece is an abuse of trust.

  8. Ms. Ulysse, thank you for this wonderful column.

    I appreciate the link to Edwidge’s piece in Essence. It was startling to learn that Mac McClelland had never spoken to Sybille. It was horrifying to learn that McClelland’s unauthorized use of Sybille’s story put Sybille in danger by suggesting she was a drug user and revealing her location through the description of landmarks. It was very hard to understand why Mother Jones and McClelland would think it’s OK to write about Sybille when Sybille had requested in writing they not do this.

    I appreciated learning of Sybille’s beautiful singing voice and was so sad to learn that at the young age of 25 she’s been widowed twice, and that the earthquake left her homeless.

    As someone who’s survived gang-rape and struggled with devastating PTSD, I find it strange that as a woman struggling with PTSD Ms. McClelland would be so callous about a trauma survivor’s wishes.

  9. I loved this article. I was so disgusted with McClelland’s piece. I understand about fantasizing about rape as a way of dealing with PTSD yet her use of Haiti and someone else’s story just read as sensationalism to me. These type of “helpers” in Haiti make me sick!

  10. Context does matter a lot, but not only Haiti’s… it is also the role of the USA Administration and Mr. Clinton’s role in Hiati’s situation… and your response, while very good is many aspects, left the USA respopnsibility off the hook once again.

    Shock Doctrine leads to PTSD too, and the answer to that is political!

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