If your social media feeds haven’t bombarded you in the past couple of days with mentions of “My Aryan Princess,” then you follow different people than I do. It’s a seven-part, 18,000-word Dallas Morning News series about a government informant named Carol Blevins who helped bust a whole bunch of bad guys that ran the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Scott Farwell wrote it. You might recall his “Girl in the Closet” series. After staying up late last night to read this new piece, I’ve got some thoughts. Initially, as I tweeted while reading, I thought the thing was a minor disaster. Having digested the entire piece and then reread parts of it this morning, I’d like to walk that back a bit. But I do have some serious concerns.
First, the good stuff. The online presentation is wonderful. The photography is great, and the illustrations by Michael Hogue are moody and compelling. There is some GIF work that I don’t quite get. The one of Carol throwing back a fistful of pills troubles me. But the one of two ABT dudes fighting each other in a backyard is impossible not to watch five times.
It’s a good sign that the DMN supports this sort of work. Beyond the digital resources that went into the design, I’m told that Farwell worked on this story for two years. His last byline in the paper was a short piece, written with someone else, that ran in July 2016, which tells me that he worked exclusively on the story for somewhere around 10 months. He says in the story that he interviewed Carol over 17 months, hundreds of hours. So that’s all to the good. In this publishing environment, committing to long narratives isn’t an easy choice. Kudos to the paper and its managers who made that decision.
But why dedicate all that time and money to telling a long story and then publish it in a way that tells your readers you don’t think they like to read? I’m talking about paragraph breaks. Newspapers publish short paragraphs because they’re trying to appeal to an audience that reads at an eighth-grade level. This story isn’t for eighth-graders. It’s for adults. And adults can read paragraphs that run longer than a single sentence. In fact, they prefer it. Here’s what I’m talking about:
The investigation took six years and cost at least $5 million.
In the end, the feds wrapped up 36 ABT members in one case.
Carol’s work sealed 13 convictions, contributed key information to at least 16 others, and juiced the careers of her government handlers.
This is her story.
It’s like Farwell thinks he gets paid based on the frequency with which he hits his “return” key. If you think I’m picking nits, you are right. But these nits are the size of houseflies, and there are thousands of them. It’s ugly. An editor with a “delete” key was needed.
Okay, next up. If you’ve got a badass story, one that’s worth 18,000 words, then just tell the story. Don’t tell me how badass it is. In the first installment, after a taut, gripping lead and then some background about the ABT, the story reads:
My Aryan Princess is a seat-of-the-pants crime drama, a gritty and voyeuristic journey into drug dens, inner sanctums of power and the ritualistic savagery of avowed racists.
This report is anchored by volumes of public records and private medical reports, a dictionary-thick stack of confidential law enforcement documents, sealed court records, and more than two gigabytes of photos, videos and secret audio recordings.
Imagine if, in Rogue One, right after the opening scene where Galen Erso’s wife gets killed and little Jyn goes scampering off to hide in the cave, the movie stopped. And then Gareth Edwards, the director, stepped in front of the camera and said, “This movie is a thrill ride of an action flick. It took a long time to film, and we spent a lot of money making it. For example, we made all these costumes ourselves.” I apologize for the Rogue One analogy. I rented it a few days ago, so it’s top of mind. But you get my point. Some notes about the production of the story were probably called for. But they shouldn’t be in the story.
That’s a minor quibble compared to the problem with this story that really troubles me. The hero of this tale, Carol Blevins, is not well, and I think publishing this story screws with her life in two serious ways. First, it makes her a bigger target to the ABT. This graph appears early in the series:
She’s afraid of the ABT, but Carol said telling her story doesn’t put her in much additional danger — gang members already know who she is and what she did.
Sure they do. But now she has effectively taken a victory lap. If one of the biggest transgressions in the ABT is snitching, then how must they view snitching and telling the whole story to a reporter so that he can write a seven-part, 18,000-word story? And is she really fit to decide whether it was a smart move to tell her story?
That’s the other way I fear this story will screw with her life. Carol has several mental illnesses and she’s addicted to all sorts of drugs. In the first installment, Farwell describes watching Carol have a psychotic episode in her apartment:
On this October night, eight amber-colored bottles lie at Carol’s bare feet. Six are empty, a boneyard of antidepressant and antipsychotic prescriptions.
The whispers in her head have grown into howls, taunts and threats crashing in her ears.
“White bitch, we know what you did! Nasty whore! You’re dead!”
Carol leaps off the couch.
She’s fighting back, head wagging side to side, the “you want some of this?” posturing of the street.
Hands on hips one moment, finger jabbing the air the next, she spits vulgarities, strutting across her living room — two steps, bow up; pivot, back down — a war dance of the delusional.
She doesn’t last long, a minute maybe.
Winded, sweat collected in the creases of her neck, Carol seems frozen, taking in an imaginary insult from an imaginary opponent.
The indignity is too much. Eyes wild, she charges the locked front door: “Bitch, you don’t know who I am!”
Medical records suggest Carol suffers from a range of mental illnesses — bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder — as a result of her work as a confidential informant.
She’s been committed to psychiatric hospitals at least 20 times in the last decade.
Healthy, well-adjusted, sober people often have difficulty imagining how a published story about them will affect their lives. I can’t see trusting Carol with that calculus. The story suggests in two places that she might try to kill herself. If I were the writer or the editor of this thing, I wouldn’t want my work to push a troubled person in the wrong direction. Too big a risk.
That’s how it looks from where I sit, anyway. I’d love to hear from other people who’ve read the entire story.