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 The timeline of when consent was given and withdrawn seems complicated.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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation