Mac McClelland and ethical story-telling

Last week, I responded to some of the, I believe, unwarranted criticism Mac McClelland has received for her recent essay on PTSD. Over the weekend, Edwidge Danticat wrote a piece charging that the Haitian rape survivor called K* or Sybille in McClelland’s writing did not consent to having her story told.

She says that after McClelland live-tweeted her ride along with her, which put K*’s life in danger by giving identifying details, K* wrote a letter to McClelland and Mother Jones magazine asking that they not write about her. The letter said: “You have no right to speak of my story.”

In the comments section of Danticat’s piece, the co-editors of Mother Jones, McClelland herself, and K*’s lawyer have all responded. The timeline of when consent was given and withdrawn seems complicated. There appears to have been some miscommunication. But it’s pretty clear that, given the backstory, McClelland should not have revisited K*’s experience in her recent essay. She has apologized to K* for that.

K* wrote in an email to Danticat last week: “I want victims in Haiti to know that they can be strong and stand up for their rights and have a voice. Our choices about when and how our story is told must be respected.”

A belief in that right to decide how to tell our own stories is, in fact, the very reason I’ve so adamantly defended McClelland’s piece from critics who’ve seemed eager to dictate how her story should be told. And so, in light of this new revelation about K*’s wishes, that is the only criticism of McClelland’s piece that I agree with. Many feminist thinkers have explored the ethics of “speaking for others.” McClelland, with her large platform and microphone, had an obligation to recognize that in telling her own story, she denied another woman her right to define how her own story was told.

As journalists–and as human beings–our stories intersect with others’ in complex ways. Indeed, McClelland’s trauma was intimately connected to absorbing the trauma of others. But I believe ethical journalism requires not cannibalizing the stories of others–particularly those less privileged–when we tell our own. McClelland’s right to tell her story should be respected. And K*’s should as well.

Editor’s note: It should be acknowledged that McClelland’s editor at GOOD, Ann Friedman, is a former Feministing editor.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Sarah

    May I ask why it is of importance that McClelland’s editor at GOOD is a former Feministing editor? I do not come from a place of criticism but honest confusion.

    • Maya

      That note was just added in the interest of full disclosure.

  • Lori

    “…ethical journalism requires not cannibalizing the stories of others–particularly those less privileged–when we tell our own.” I totally agree. Well said, Maya!

  • Lizzy

    Hi, Maya.

    I signed up so I could comment on this post. You know, I’m glad to see this, but I am also wondering if we can take it a step further: Try to imagine a situation, under any circumstances, where someone in K*’s position would be happy to let someone in McClelland’s position use her horrifying story as “background” for the reporter’s story of second-hand trauma. It’s tough not to try comparing the two stories, even when you believe that it’s important to let all women speak in their own voice. And even without having to dig up the evidence that K* did not want McClelland or MoJo to use her story, McClelland’s use of K*’s story seemed tone deaf and callous in relegating K* to the background, given the the gross scale of what K* evidently suffered if we are to take McClelland’s reportage seriously.

    Let’s say that everyone should be permitted to tell her story her own way, but I can’t under any circumstances imagine feeling positive, in K*’s shoes (which does not mean that it’s not possible… just that it’s very difficult to imagine), about hearing that someone I had trusted with my story had turned it an opportunity to make rape into rough sex by proxy–healing or not–and in a very public way. No matter how healing MacClelland found it, she completely ignored that for K*, no such representation was likely to be so, even as she attempted to produce her narrative with K* as background. I can’t imagine what it might feel like, being involuntarily and unknowingly dragged into such a usurped representation of my own transformed (“absorbed,” as some have put it) victimization. It’s not that McClelland does not deserve to tell her own story, but that she really kind of mishandled the whole thing. I can imagine any number of ways to weave her story and K*’s together with sensitivity and if McClelland’s defenders could have positioned themselves as a K* relative to the reporter in some sense, the solipsism of McClelland’s approach might have been evident from the start. I don’t know. It’s upsetting.

  • Stella

    I think the following is important to the debate:

    Let’s be clear here — this woman McClelland sodomized the guy “Isaac” who “raped” her with a fake ***** a few years ago. It was described in detail online by “Isaac.”
    So there is a pattern of self-promotion in describing unusual sex acts between these two to get attention… what adds a layer of utter cynicism is McClelland’s use of a woman’s rape in Haiti to make the whole thing “transgressive.”It has the real effect of turning upside down the pretenses McClelland has as a human rights journalist, and if you stare long enough at this whole story and read the various accompanying articles–it’s actually an on-ramp for all of us to see that human rights journalism as we know it is part of the imperial project.

    Read more:

    I admire people who write honestly about their sexuality, but from the start I have hated the way Sybille seemed to be added to the story as a titillation.