2010 Pulitzer Prizes: Chatting with Gene Weingarten
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; 12:00 PM
In March 2009, the Washington Post Magazine published Gene Weingarten's story about parents who accidentally left infants and toddlers in the backseats of cars, leading to the childrens' death. The story, "Fatal Distraction," was a heartbreaking look at good people who mistakenly did a bad thing. Weingarten described the story as the most difficult he'd ever reported and written. It touched off waves of support and abuse for the parents who came forward to share their stories.
On Monday, Weingarten won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his story. He'll be online Tuesday, April 13 at Noon ET to discuss his win and the story, a year after its publication.
Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.
Many people might wonder what a typical person might feel like winning the biggest prize in his profession, something that for many becomes a life-changing event. I wonder, too! I can only tell you what a complete neurotic feels like at such a moment. The following is a prioritized catalogue of the emotions that rose to the surface yesterday.
1. Abject shame. I am proud of the winning story for several reasons, the biggest of which is that there is a chance that it will save some young lives. So, on one hand, there is that: Saved babies. But on the other hand, there is this: Several weeks ago, re-reading the story for an anthology of my works coming out this summer from Simon & Schuster, I noticed that in the 81st paragraph, I had written this sentence: "In other types of cases, there is a history of prior neglect, or evidence of substance abuse."
"History of prior neglect" is a dreadful redundancy. That "prior" should not be there. From the moment I saw that, those were the only words in the story that had any meaning for me, and in my mind it was in blinking neon. The headline of the story was no longer "Fatal Distraction," it was "History of Prior Neglect," which suddenly seemed to sum up my life.
I began to pray that this story not win the Pulitzer and thus expose my incompetence to international scrutiny. As the day approached, I felt like Janet Cooke must have felt. When the prize was announced, I became certain that my obituary in The Washington Post will begin: "Gene Weingarten, who once shamed this newspaper by winning a Pulitzer Prize for an article containing an egregious redundancy..."
2. Profound Mortification. I resolved to deliver my newsroom speech without notes, which turned out to be a mistake. I'd intended to speak at length about my deep respect for the courage of the 13 parents who agreed to be interviewed for this story -- people who had nothing to gain except more humiliation and harsh judgments from a public that demonizes them rather than face the terrifying fact that this could happen to anyone. What I forgot to mention was WHY these people cooperated with me: the noble, frail, beautiful hope that by sharing their shame and pain, they might prevent this from happening to someone else. Without saying this, basically, I seemed to be congratulating "them for having the incredible wisdom to share their stories with me so I could nail a Pulitzer.
3. Feelings of Utter Inadequacy. Journalists who have closely followed the Pulitzers (read: all journalists) understand that on some level, it is a bit of a crapshoot. There's a lot of winnowing by committee, and committee work can be imperfect. The majority of winners are deserving, but some works -- objectively measured against others that did not even become finalists -- seem comparatively weak. In short, deep down we all know that in this process, luck matters. So when you DO win, there is lurking suspicion that maybe you did not deserve it; this suspicion is only compounded by the central irony of the situation -- that to others, a Pulitzer is taken as an immutable validation of your talent. As a result, in the center of your being, you harbor the deep suspicion that you are an impostor, a poseur, a craven fraud, a person to be secretly loathed.
I will admit this might not be a completely universal phenomenon; when I expressed this sentiment yesterday to David Finkel and Dana Priest, both Pulitzer winners, they gave each other nervous sidelong glances, as one might do in the presence of a dotty aunt, and slowly backed away. So, maybe it's just me.
4. Paralyzing Remorse. After the Pulitzer newsroom ceremony, there is a champagne party, filled with friends and colleagues joyfully celebrating your achievement in a gracious and collegial fashion. I hate it. I have a dreadful social dysfunction that makes me fear and dread all social events, which means that, basically, I spent an hour in extreme discomfort until I stealthily exited the room with my wife, like that saboteur who has left a bomb behind the sofa, only with a greater sense of guilt.
5. Intimations of Obsolescence, Irrelevancy, and Death. Of all yesterday's journalism winners, I appear to be the oldest. Kathleen Parker, oddly, does not give her age, anywhere, but she LOOKS a lot younger than me. (All the rest of the winners are, basically, children.)
Okay, we'll now get quickly into the chat, but please: Hold the kudos. I'm grateful for the thousands of e-mails and many dozens of posts you are already sent, and will answer them as I can, but need to keep this chat from becoming an oozing pit of treacle. Yell at me, please, or go into unrelated areas. Think of this as just an Ordinary Chat. We can talk porn, pooping, visible panty lines, whatever.
Above all, I guess my point is that I am the same grumpy, anxiety-ridden, old fud that I was the day before yesterday, nursing petty grievances and whatnot, which leads us pretty directly to today's Important Instapoll!
On those lines, here is something that sums me up nicely: A recent Twitter post from someone named autoclavicle:
"I really love that a guy who just won a Pulitzer Prize has a pile of s--- as his Twitter avatar."
(And, yes, I do.)
Okay, let's go.
Gene Weingarten: This just in from Anne Paris:
Writer Gene Weingarten
Just took his second fat
Accolades rain, although
Big Shot still looks like he
Can't find a comb.
Philadelphia, Pa.: The Pulitzer Committee apparently does not know that OTHER chat exists, or it would have been no prize for you. I am glad, it could not have happened to anyone more deserving. Congratulations.
But, to ask a question on a subject on which we continue to disagree amicably, I think, would you concede that although the winning article provides THE perfect example of a topic which cries out to be treated with compassionate "objectivity," there are many others in which honest reporting is not possible without taking a position on behalf of the truth?
I'm thinking stories about death panels and WMD's, or other he-said-she-said news articles which make no attempt to assign a veracity-measure to the included assertions, even when they are provided by anonymous sources with a personal interest in manipulating public opinion.
Gene Weingarten: Not sure what you think we disagree on here.
I am a leading proponent of stories dispassionately searching for the truth, and then passionately telling the truth. I have no patience for stories that are quote dumps, obscuring the truth with bogus moral equivalencies, giving equal weight to unequally valid opinions, and doing it all in the name of objectivity.
This story in particular didn't do that. At no point did I give any credibility to the viewpoint, held by many, that these parents are monsters. They're not.
Dress Co, DE: In deference to the solemn subject, I hope Liz is wearing pants today.
washingtonpost.com: Maternity jeans, in fact. Dead sexy.
Gene Weingarten: Rowr.
Washington, D.C.: Congrats on your win, and the article was very well written... however the article annoys me.
Your overall point seems to be: feel compassion for these people, they didn't mean to and it could happen to anyone.
Only it doesn't happen to everyone, it happens to very few people. Even very few people with stressful jobs/routines/tinted windows/SUVs/day care/etc.
I do not feel empathy for these people, as I do not see in myself the capacity for something like this to happen (and I have a stressful job/work more than 40 hours a week/have a routine/have tinted windows/etc)
Do these people not talk to their children during car rides? Even if when they are too young to talk? Even when I drive with my DOG I still speak to him, and I check on him in my rearview every couple of seconds. And when your baby is sleeping in the car ride, don't you still check on them in the rearview every few seconds? At what point did their children stop being precious cargo that kept their attention?
I also disagree that because something was an accident it shouldn't be prosecuted. I'm an attorney, so maybe that colors my viewpoint. Luckily negligence law allows us to prosecute "accidents." I'm sure someone has made the argument before -- but if someone other than a parent had left one of their children to broil in a car there would be less complaints about prosecution -- even though it's the same death, the same grief at realizing you caused the death.
Gene Weingarten: I think many people agree with you, and you are putting this well. And you MAY be the kind of person to whom this would be far less likely to happen.
But are you never stressed and sleepless?
The brain is a machine. It is not perfect. As Dr. Diamond tells me in the story, WE -- our conscious mind -- prioritizes things by importance, but memory does not.
Silver Srping, Md.: Re: the Instapoll,
I thought limericks were supposed to have the same number of syllables in lines 1, 2 and 5. But Line 1 has 8 and Lines 2 and 5 have 9.
Am I wrong about the rules?
Gene Weingarten: It's not syllables, it's downbeats. Some lines we have an unstressed first syllable.
Washington, D.C.: Are you the least mature Pulitzer winner ever? Farts.
Gene Weingarten: Dave Barry has a Pulitzer.
Cor, NY: Man am I lucky to have a Pulitzer Prize winner available to answer, what appears to be, a complicated question. Is it proper etiquette to wash one's sink offerings (cereal, toothpaste, etc.) down the drain while they are still wet, or just leave 'em be, let them dry, and deal with them during scheduled cleaning. Thanks!
Gene Weingarten: Wet. You're welcome.
Would this story. . . .: ewen be published in the new magazine? When the magazine got redone one of my first thoughts was that the article about babies in cars would not make it.
Gene Weingarten: Probably not. Not because it is too downbeat, but because it is too long. I'm hoping it would have found a place elsewhere in the paper.
Fairfax, Va.: I think this prize is richly deserved, but I am relieved, though not surprised, that your response to this award is neither smug nor especially joyful. The complexity of your reaction mirrors the complexity of the article, and your reasons for writing it.
Which leads me to wonder if, given some time, you view this piece differently than you originally did. That is, has your understanding of the significance of it changed in the year since it was published?
Gene Weingarten: No. My naive hopes were dashed, though, that it would have had an immediate profound impact on child hyperthermia deaths. The number in 2009 was only slightly lower than 2010.
Gene Weingarten: Er, only slightly lower than 2008.
Washington, D.C.: Are you at all worried that a second Pulitzer may give you the sort of gravitas that makes you attractive to women, not only on this chat, but -- notwithstanding your appearance or voice -- also in person? If so, will you be able to resist when virtual panties give way to actual panties, or will you become just another Tiger Woods-like philanderer?
Gene Weingarten: I have successfully fought this terrible problem my entire life.
Richmond, Va.: Hi Gene, I heart you forever.
My question is about your decision to include some of the more gory details. One in particular (hint: hair) literally haunts me so much I've never been able to speak of it out loud, even to tell my sister or husband what it is. How did you decide how much to include, which details to include and looking back, would you change anything?
Gene Weingarten: I would take out "prior."
No, seriously, you are asking about something that I addressed once before in the chat: Did I consider not including the fact that one child had pulled out all her hair before she died?
Yes. I went back and forth on that, and talked to editors. We decided to include it because it represented the only moment in the story that acknowledged these deaths were not just tragic, but excruciating. I'm shivering as I type these words.
We used it as a quote from an expert, to give it some distance and context; I would not have, for example, re-created that moment as an anecdote.
I'm still not sure the decision was right. I know of one person who got to that line and threw up.
Other finalists: What did you think of the work of the finalists in your category?
Gene Weingarten: Haven't read 'em yet! Yesterday was really hectic.
New Father, Md.: Gene, My daughter is 8 months old and I am scared that I will forget her. I have attempted to use the tricks that you put your article such as placing my bags in the back seat and having a stuffed animal that goes in the car seat if she is not there or the front passenger seat if she is there, but I have forgotten to do them many times.
So far I have only once gotten into the turn off lane to go to work instead of taking her to daycare. She is rather quiet and falls asleep during most car rides. Summer is coming up and that is the worst time for leaving a child in the car.
Congratulations one your well deserved award.
Gene Weingarten: This is a scary post.
You must not forget to put your purse in the back seat. You need to make it your normal routine, never varying, even if you have no child in the car.
I-270, Exit 1: Now that you've won two Pulitzers for the Post, will they try to buy you back in with a truckload of cash and antique clocks? Also, you should re-consder the title of your upcoming book "Essays That Won Me More Pulitzers Than Dave Barry."
Gene Weingarten: I actually send an email to my publisher at Simon & Schuster demanding that they change the name of the upcoming book from "The Fiddler In the Subway" to "Dead Babies In Cars." Just wanted to give him a moment of panic.
Your Gift: Gene,
Is there a part of you that is reconsidering your creative focus right now? I'm looking forward to your comic strip project, but two Pulitzers in three years might be a sign that you have a gift for feature writing. Selfishly, I hope you return to them even if only occasionally.
Gene Weingarten: This may be the most common question I get in my chats, though you are phrasing it more diplomatically than most people. I usually don't answer it, but this seems like a good time.
Mostly, the question I get is more along the lines of: Why are you wasting your time and ours writing marginally funny humor columns when you are clearly better at the serious?
The answer is kind of complicated.
Humor is an enormous challenge to do well, and I enjoy that challenge. It is also extremely subjective -- the best example of that is the reactions I get to the Gene-Gina columns I write, and the ones where I call customer service agents and behave like a jackass. Invariably, these columns get a lot of mail, and invariably the mail falls into two types, in about equal proportions: These are my favorite columns that you do, and these are my least favorite columns that you do.
I do know that some readers don't love my humor columns. I know others really do. It's a pretty lonely and scary place to be, in the middle of this. I can only follow my gut. I know I still try; I believe I still succeed; I hope I'll known when to stop before someone else has to tell me.
But in a larger sense, I really like writing humor and drama, at the same time. I proud of the versatility, but I also think they keep me nimble. I think one informs the other. I think I'd be less happy if I was doing only one.
Thanks for the question. I won't be answering it again for a while!
State College, Pa.: Congrats. Hey, if you get another one you can teach yourself to juggle.
Any advice to writers out there, while not aspiring to Pulitzers, would like his or her work to be be compelling and well-written?
Gene Weingarten: I strongly advise that they buy The Fiddler In The Subway! My introduction tells you how to write, an A to Z less that can turn anyone into a great writer. It is four pages long.
Gene Weingarten: Er, apparently I just told a new "father" to put his purse in the backseat.
Okay, you get the idea, though.
New Bern, N.C.: Still think you should have won the Pulitzer for your Y2K piece. Best piece of explanatory writing I have ever read.
Hey, but lay off the fat people, OK? We have feelings, too. And ridicule makes a serious health problem even worse.
Gene Weingarten: Thanks! I liked that Y2K story; we were going to nominate it for a Pulitzer, but then... uh, the whole Y2K thing sort of died, and any writing that took it seriously was doomed.
Okay, ixnay on the atfay.
Washington, D.C.: Gene-
Congratulations on your second Pulitzer prize! Now that you have as many Pulitzers as Bob Woodward, maybe you can prevail on the powers that be to publish the piece you did on child pornography that was scuttled.
Gene Weingarten: It was not scuttled by the Post. It was scuttled by me because I could not get the sort of access to the central character that I felt I needed to make it good.
I've never really talked about this in detail. Not going to do it now, either!
Springfield, VA: Gene,
Have you heard from the subjects of your story? How are the Harrison's doing, have they been able to have another child?
Gene Weingarten: I have kept in touch with several of them. I think it's important to a healing process that their lives remain as private as possible. If an when they want to publicly update things, I think they should do it on their own.
Phoenix, Ariz.: Gene, this was an extraordinary piece of work. As a fellow feature writer, I'm wondering how and why you decided to insert yourself into the story. We heard your questions, saw you looking around at Starbucks, basically followed your entire reporting process. It seems you wrote it as organically as it unfolded, and the story felt infinitely more real. Many editors discourage this, but I found it key. That said, why did you keep yourself from adding your own element to the piece: the day you almost forgot Molly?
Gene Weingarten: Usually, when you see me inserting myself in the story it's either because it will seemed forced and unnatural to avoid it, or because it's necessary to get to the truth of the story. When I wrote about The Great Zucchini I had to be a character because so much of the important revelations in the story happened in conversations between us.
In this case, it was more of the former; the language would have been stilted if I made efforts to pretend there was no observer. And I really wanted that moment where John Zwerling, the lawyer, swiveled to his computer and asked me if I wanted to hear the 911 tape. You can't write that without a reporter's implied presence.
Actually, throughout this story, if you read it carefully, my presence is implied, not direct.
Bennett Point, Md.: Isn't the whole Pulitzer charade just a bunch of liberals giving other liberals awards, sort of like the old Politburo giving military ribbons to Brezhnev, Chernenko and Andropov?
Gene Weingarten: Nah.
Kathleen Parker is not liberal. Last year's cartooning award went to Michael Ramirez, who is anything but liberal. And most of the prizes go to things that are ideologically neutral.
But you were just baiting me, right?
Gene Weingarten: Sorry, Ramirez was two years ago.
Alexandria, Va.: Have you left a mocking voicemail for Dave Barry yet about his obvious lack of talent know that you have double his Pulitzer total?
Gene Weingarten: Yes, Dave and I talked. He kindly pointed out that I have yet to win won for humor....
fairfax va: You didn't allow me to opine on the poll question, as a result, there is biased wording. The question asked: "Is this too suggestive to me published?" Obviously it is not. There are all sorts of places where even hard-core porn would not be inappropriate to publish. The question should have been: "Is it too suggestive to publish in a Metro newspaper's Sunday Magazine." Thank you for your kind attention to this matter.
Gene Weingarten: I see.
You guys are being tough on that poem. I expected 80 percent to say it should have been published. Tom will be gratified.
History Of Prior Mistakes: From your introduction: Gene Weingarten, who once shamed this newspaper by winning a Pulitzer Prize for an article containing an egregious redundancy...
"Egregious redundancy" is a redundancy. You should be doubly embarrassed.
Gene Weingarten: It is not. Besides, I didn't write that. Some obit writer wrote it in the future.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Congratulations on the Pulitzer. Your article made me think long and hard about these kinds of incidents. I am enormously judgmental by nature, but you definitely made me think twice about people like those profiled in your article. So thank you for giving them the humanity they deserve.
I also just read another of today's Pulitzer winners - the article about the doctors in New Orleans during Katrina. Like your article, it makes you think long and hard about unfathomable situations and people who have to suffer the consequences of their actions - not legally, but morally.
IMHO, both articles are worthy of their Pulitzers and both accomplished similar things. They made you look at people whose actions at first glance seem criminal, but when you really delve into the situations (through brilliant reporting and writing), you realize nothing is black and white and humans are flawed.
Thanks to you and the other winner for writing brilliant stories about compelling subjects and for the Pulitzer organization for shining a light on them.
Gene Weingarten: I loved this Times piece. I figured it would win whatever category it was entered in. I sort of was hoping that wasn't Features.
New York, N.Y.: Congrats Gene! My sister and I were talking yesterday that to us it feels like a good friend or family member won even though we've never even met you. I'm curious -- what is your opinion on the winner for editorial cartooning? I'm kind of torn about it being animated instead of traditional panels.
washingtonpost.com: Mark Fiore's winning cartoons.(Warning: The site starts auto-playing an animated selection -- with sound -- and there is no pause or stop option.)
Gene Weingarten: I love Fiore's work. I am finding some of these a little hard to follow -- with the point not as crisp as you'd see in a conventional political cartoon. But I worry I'm just being a hidebound old fud.
I love that the Pulitzer board went here, though. It shows real flexibility.
I also love that they weren't stampeded into giving the Enquirer love for the Edwards stuff. I think that was the right decision.
Washington, DC: "My naive hopes were dashed, though, that it would have had an immediate profound impact on child hyperthermia deaths. The number in 2009 was only slightly lower than 2010."
I hope you take this to heart, then. After the piece was originally published, I was chatting with some friends about it, and also the suggestions you offered, like putting the teddy bear in the car seat. To a tee, every one of them thought that was a brilliant idea, and every one of them with small children at the time implemented it. I heard from one that said the teddy bear in the passenger seat has "snapped him back to attention" on at least one occasion. Would he have actually left the baby in the car? Did the teddy bear save a life that day? Glad we will never know for sure.
Gene Weingarten: I am hoping the piece has saved at least one child. We'll never know.
London, UK: Hi Gene. Do you have any idea of the international statistics for child hyperthermia deaths? Sure America has more cars, but is it simply an American problem?
Gene Weingarten: Absolutely not. I haven't seen international stats, but I know it is a yearly horror in Israel.
Hey, Chatwoman -- can you find that amazing, chilling surveillance video from a chat about a year ago, in which we see an Israeli mom get to her car and find the child?
The child lived.
Herndon, VA: Gene, for the dad who is terrified about leaving his daughter in the car: If you have an automatic transmission, you can put your left shoe in the back seat next to your daughter. You'll have an awfully hard time getting far from the car without it and her.
Gene Weingarten: Well, yes, but he was saying he'd forget to do that.
Credibility to monsters?: Gene- Doesn't your assertation you were objective by NOT giving a voice to the people who think these parents are monsters prove the opposite? To be truly objective you need to show all valid sides to a topic, and those that think the parents who killed their children through 'forgetfulness' or negligence is a valid side.
Gene Weingarten: Oh, they had a voice. I quoted their vicious emails, and let them marinate in their own poison as we saw the truth of who these people really are.
I also gave a voice to the reasonable prosecutor who decided to charge Mr. Harrison.
What I did not do was set up some moral equivalency between the haters and the parents.
Fairfax, Va.: In a perverse way, that deaths have not gone down supports the thesis of your article: That these were entirely involuntary mental lapses. No amount of external motivation is really going to matter.
Gene Weingarten: Up to a point.
After I almost did this to Molly 25 years ago, I was never in serious danger of doing it again. I went into the car scared, every time.
Rockville: "Kathleen Parker is not liberal."
Got that right. I hardly ever agree with her. But she is to be congratulated.
Gene Weingarten: I like her column. I seldom agree with her. She's right that Palin's a nitwit.
Chesterfield, Virginia: Seems like this happens to fathers way more than to mothers? Do you have any research that shows what percentage are men and what percentage are women?
Gene Weingarten: It's 50-50. That probably means men are slightly more likely to do it, proportionately, since women are more often in charge of the kids.
Richmond, VA: Did you do any follow-up research to verify that more poor and/or minority parents are prosecuted for this than white professionals? My memory of every story that makes the paper is that the white skin/white collar parents go free and the poor black parents do time. I'd love to see the numbers.
Gene Weingarten: The numbers are most dramatic when they are distinguishing parents from paid caregivers. Daycare operators are way more likely to be prosecuted and punished with jail time.
There is a racial disparity, too, according to some studies.
A place writers know all too well: Oh, Gene... how perfectly you described a writer's hell. In my years as a newspaper reporter (I'm in PR now, heaven help me), I would sometimes wake in the middle of the night, sit straight up in bed, realizing well after the press had run that I'd RUINED, yes RUINED, an otherwise fine story by the wrong choice of word or some slip just like the redundancy you described. I was convinced, every single time, that I would walk in the newsroom and people would say, everyone would say, "WHY did you choose that word? Why didn't you say THIS, it would have been so much better?" Or they'd laugh because of something like the redundancy that would have entirely obvious to them and every single other reader (beyond the ACE and copy editor, who'd missed it, too).
It just feels good as a writer and former beat reporter to know that even someone as talented as you experiences the exact same emotional turmoil.
And congratulations, of course!
Gene Weingarten: It's the most overused quote about writing, and attributed to all sorts of different people, but it is true: "I hate writing. I love having written."
Sydney, Australia: My problem with the limmerick in the poll isn't that it isn't funny or that it is offensively suggestive -- it's that the last line doesn't really qualify as a clever double entendre. Its strongly sexual implication vastly overpowers its gently sexual declaration (i.e. going down = bending over), so instead of a clever double entendre, it's just an excuse to say something dirty. It's funny, and it's not obscene at all, it's just not as clever as it might have been.
Gene Weingarten: Uh, but specifying "ladies" and that he is handsome surely suggests an alternative meaning of "went down," no?
washingtonpost.com: Sorry Gene -- can't find that vid again, although I do remember it. If anyone else out there has better luck, send in the link.
Vienna: Gene -- who among the journalists you read regularly would you say have been neglectfully overlooked by the Pulizer Committee?
Gene Weingarten: Until they finally won a few years ago, both David Finkel and Anne Hull had been finalists so many times they lost count...
Joel Achenbach should win every year for Explanatory Journalism.
It makes no sense that David Von Drehle never won. Except in the sense that, yeah, it is a crapshoot.
Sydney, Australia: "I'm sure someone has made the argument before -- but if someone other than a parent had left one of their children to broil in a car there would be less complaints about prosecution -- even though it's the same death, the same grief at realizing you caused the death."
I actually think 'Washington, D.C.' has a point here. I'm definitely someone who empathizes with the parents in your story (and I even think I could conceivably do the same thing, which is scary to consider), so I don't mean this as a dismissive gesture or anything, but I'd never thought about the fact that others (e.g. babysitters, nannies) could make the very same error and yet be more susceptible to legal retribution because they are not the parents. I understand the reasons for that contradiction (e.g. the parents love the kids more, so it's more unbelievable/horrifying/sympathetic), but I don't know if I buy them. If it happened to a nanny, it could be just as honest of a mistake.
So what are your thoughts on that? Should nannies/babysitters who make the same mistake as the parents in your story (so it's the same situation, nothing overtly negligent or irresponsible) be differently treated, or do they deserve similar sympathy (if, obviously, less intensely)?
Gene Weingarten: That's a hard one. The prevailing sentiment is that the caregiver doesn't suffer the same emotional trauma, but I'll bet they often do.
Washington DC: Has there been any progress on efforts to prevent these deaths, such as a sensor?
Gene Weingarten: Good question.
The extraordinary Janette Fennel of Kids and Cars is lobbying for a rear-seat sensor requirement for all new cars, as part of a car-safety legislative package now in the works. I think she is hopeful the additional publicity this story is now getting will help her make this happen.
Arlington, Va.: Congratulations Gene. That story was one of the hardest I've ever read and I don't have children. Are you still writing features or are you just doing the column and the chat (and the cartoon and being the poster boy for Eastern Market)?
Gene Weingarten: Column, chat, new comic strip (Barney & Clyde debuts in The Post on June 7), and a movie with David Simon. They'll be a book deal too, I think. I'm busy!
byool, IN: Congratulations on becoming - if that Joel Achenbach guy is to be believed - the only (!) two-time winner of a Pulitzer in feature writing.
One thing I do wonder about, though, is if you and/or whoever sent the "See you next Tuesday: I see what you did there, Gene" thing in the update you posted last week had some secret foreknowledge. Because here it is, next Tuesday, and here you are.
Gene Weingarten: Well, you would have seen me in the updates, anyway.
Taxachusetts: I'm pleased that you/your article won, but more from a publicity standpoint than anything. I'm a Pediatric Emergency physician (and a mom to a seven month old daughter) and anything that can bring instances like this to light and possibly reduce deaths is ok by me. Congratulations.
Gene Weingarten: Yeah, I think Janette feels the same way. A LOT of people are reading this story today for the first time.
Washington, D.C.: Not to take anything away from the piece about Joshua Bell for which you won the other Pulitzer, but would you agree that this piece on child deaths was more deserving of the Pulitzer in terms of shedding some light on a horrific type of event -- an event that leaves people trying to understand just how it could happen? I know it has caused a lot of debate (including one in my workplace) about what type of punishment, if any, parents should face if they allow this to happen.
washingtonpost.com: Pearls Before Breakfast, (Post Magazine, April 8, 2007)
Gene Weingarten: Good question!
I think this story had greater consequence, yes. The first was an unabashed stunt. But both, I think, succeeded in making people think differently about their lives.
I think they're so different I'm not sure any comparison makes sense. And I don't presume to know what is "deserving" of a Pulitzer. I feel honored to have won both. With all of the attendant anxieties expressed above.
Not Washington, D.C.: I thought this at the time, and still do: Lyn Balfour was very lucky to have you. Any lesser writer might have made her come off as heartless. Congrats on the Pulitzer, Gene.
Gene Weingarten: There is a lesson in Lyn Balfour, a lesson for writers: Don't be afraid when the facts are different from what you initially expected, or want them to be. The truth is ALWAYS the best story.
My initial impression of Lyn was that she was unlikeable, which was an extremely daunting realization for the person who I knew would be a central character in the story. I solved that by getting to know her as well as I possibly could; she was not unlikeable at all, she was extremely complicated, and complicated in a way that made the story deeper and more powerful.
Hey, writers: Don't be afraid of the truth. In the end, it's your only friend.
Gene Weingarten: Oh, I want to answer a question that was in a previous post, but that I accidentally ignored.
I didn't include in the story the fact that I had almost done this to my daughter because it would have seemed to be comparing my non-disaster to what these parents have gone through. I tried to put it in; it was jarring. Also, it would have forced me to be an even stronger character in the story, and I was moving away from that, not toward it.
Movie?: Hi Gene,
Congratulations! Can you tell us more about the movie you're doing with David Simon. You may have told us before but I am having a complete brain fart and have no memory of this.
(By the way, last night I had a dream that I interviewed David Simon about his new show Treme. Which is strange, since I'm not and never have been a reporter. Anyway, he was very nice to me in my dream, which I appreciated).
Gene Weingarten: You know, I can't remember if we are permitted to talk about this movie. So I can't. We're writing it for Ron Howard.
Columbia, Md.: I'd forgotten the detail about the hair. I'm now struggling to be A Normal Person, when all I want to do is cry and rush to my son's daycare and hold him. Which he would find annoying, since it's nap time, he's 2, and is cranky when woken up prematurely.
I'm still not sure how you managed to write this story without being a complete mess; one sentence and I'm undone. You deserve the Pulitzer. Congratulations.
Gene Weingarten: I was a complete mess.
I kept waking up in a cold sweat at night. The rib finally asked what the hell was wrong with me. It was only then, for the first time, that I told her why this was so incredibly upsetting to me.
Baltimore, Md.: Does it feel weird to win an award for a story that is SO depressing? I have never cried that many times while reading an article (the first time, and again today). I send it around to everyone I know, not just parents of babies, but part of me feels bad doing it because I know it is likely to haunt them for a long time.
Gene Weingarten: One of the few things I actually got RIGHT in my newsroom speech was this: It takes courage for a newspaper to publish stories that we know readers may not want to read but that we know they need to read. It's the most important work we do.
Washington, D.C.: I'm in the crowd that is incapable of understanding how a parent, even on the worst of days, could forget that their child is in the car. I know that there is a multitude of factors in life that can come into play, but for a parent to lose memory just seems alien to me. Perhaps those parents who think they are prone to making this mistake should be examining their life habits, or consulting professionals who can help diagnose such propensities. While the little actions you can do to prevent forgetting can be of great help, they really only address the symptoms. Think it should be noted that finding the root of the problem is equally important. The root of this forgetfulness mostly likely manifests itself in a person's life in more than one way.
Gene Weingarten: Hm.
A guess here: You didn't read the story, did you?
The prevailing sentiment is that the caregiver doesn't suffer the same emotional trauma, but I'll bet they often do.: I'll bet they always do. There can't be anything more horrible than the knowledge that you killed a baby.
Gene Weingarten: Yes, you would think so; but it may depend on a person's ability to rationalize away his or her own complicity. Some people are brilliant at that.
What do you say to someone whose child has died?: Gene, I came to know that an acquaintance of mine suffered a terrible tragedy just recently - their two year old boy fell out of an open upstairs window while playing. I have a boy the same age and am shaking with the thought that something like this could happen to me. Does one reach out to the parents? Or leave them at their time of grief? What did the parents you spoke to feel on this issue? Thanks.
Gene Weingarten: You reach out gingerly. Respect their privacy. A note with a phone number.
London, UK: Hi Gene. Went back and looked at the surveillance footage of that case in Israel as you suggested. You can feel her panic.
washingtonpost.com: Ah! Thank you for finding this.
Gene Weingarten: This is an absolutely amazing video. It looks almost like a piece of shadow art. It's hard to watch, but it is utterly compelling. It helps to know the child survived.
Blink of an eye, PA: Hi Gene, congrats on your award. Two great articles, both made me cry.
Anyways, totally off the subject. Knowing that you are the "first line" for many ailments, I have a question.
I recently developed a "twitch" under my left eye-like maybe a nerve? Blood vessel? I can't stop it, and it doesn't happen all the time. No big deal? If it helps, I'm 48, wear glasses, and am not in terrible shape (but could be better).
Gene Weingarten: Boy, people who are unfamiliar with my ordinary chat are going to not have any idea what this is all about.
So long as it is intermittent and not getting appreciably worse over time, it's not worrisome and likely diet-related.
In my Hypochondria book, I did helpfully point out it can be a very very early presenting symptom of Lou Gehrig's Disease, but the changes of that are minuscule.
Fairfax, Va.: By not including that detail that this had almost happened to you, haven't you compromised your objectivity? Of course, you're sympathetic to the folks this happened to because but for a bit of luck, you would have done the same thing.
Gene Weingarten: Good question. I was just discussing this with another writer. Had I written this story 25 years ago, I might have put that in. But when I wrote it I knew I would be chatting the day after the story, online, linked to from the story, and that I would have ample opportunity to discuss that at length, which I did. Liz, can you link to the chat?
Washington, D.C.: I cried reading this story. and was incredibly mad at the same time.
There was another WaPo article I had a similar reaction to--it was about the Mayor in Maryland whose home was set upon by PG swat team and their dogs were shot as they ran away and hid because drug dealers had used their house as a place to deliver packages. Was that article submitted?
washingtonpost.com: Deadly Force, (Post Magazine, Feb. 1, 2009)
Gene Weingarten: I'm not sure. It was a terrific story. April Witt is a fabulous writer.
Silver Spring, MD: "Humor ... is also extremely subjective."
I don't think you've ever admitted this before.
Gene Weingarten: Good point. I don't really think it is. I think it is objective, and measurable, and that I am the only qualified judge. But in this case I was talking about how OTHERS perceive it.
washingtonpost.com: Chat Transcript: Fatal Distraction, (March 9, 2009)
Not THAT type of person: What I took away from your fantastic, heartbreaking story was that we ALL think we would never be the type of person to leave a child in a car. That's exactly the point of what these parents were saying and why they talked with you, right? It's a split second brain malfunction that could never be explained away.
Logically, yes, many people cope with stressful lives/jobs/relationships, etc. Many people also lock themselves out of their cars, forget to stop at the store on the way home, or can't remember exactly why they walked into a room. No one's brain is infallible. Sometimes the consequences are minor and sometimes they're tragic.
People are just people.
Gene Weingarten: Please remember, Lyn Balfour's job involved juggling 20 things at once. She was great at it. She got a bronze star in Iraq for handling a 40 million dollar project without mislaying a penny.
Washington, DC: Do you think parents have a stronger reaction to this story than people without children? Or does the reaction vary person to person? I found it disturbing and sad, but I don't think my reaction to it is to the extreme of some of the people writing in to the chat. I wonder if that is because I don't have any children to project as the victims into the story.
Also, Congratulations on the prize.
Gene Weingarten: Oh, the people who react to it most viscerally are parents of small children. Many simply told me they couldn't read it.
The editor of my anthology has a young child. She didn't want to include this story because she didn't want to have to read it. Hank Stuever persuaded me to persuade her it had to be in there. I think she's happy about that today.
New York, N.Y.: "So what are your thoughts on that? Should nannies/babysitters who make the same mistake as the parents in your story (so it's the same situation, nothing overtly negligent or irresponsible) be differently treated, or do they deserve similar sympathy (if, obviously, less intensely)?"
I think the big argument for the prosecution is that if you're a nanny or a babysitter, your sole job is to watch that kid. Being absent-minded myself, I'm sympathetic toward anyone who experiences this awful situation, but really, where are these people going in the middle of the day WITHOUT their charge?
Gene Weingarten: I think that's a fair assessment, yeah.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene, First, I want to thank you for the look on my dad's face in response to my description of your Twitter avatar.
More seriously, I know from reading the story and from what you've said here in the chat that the subject is something you personally feel strongly about. (But how could you not?) My question is, which of your own stories that's been published has meant the most to you on a personal level? Does this take the cake?
Gene Weingarten: Actually, yes. Because of its potential to do tangible good. I think my favorite story -- the one I think I may have nailed the best -- was the one about the Great Zucchini.
Chicago, Ill.: Greetings, When the article first came out, I passed along my "there but by the grace of God" story for myself and that I had made a passing comment to a Dad in a parking lot about to close his child into a parked car.
Remembering his eyes when he realized what he had done haunt me.
Yeah, the stats don't show a dip. There's a kid in Oswego, Illinois, who is alive today.
Gene Weingarten: Thank you for telling me this.
Bethesda, Md.: How can I send this piece on to my friends and family who have babies without implying that I think they are liable to mistakes like these 13 parents made?
Gene Weingarten: By saying that it persuaded you that ANYONE could make this mistake?
Washington, D.C.: No offense, but in a shrinking newspaper world does a Pulitzer mean what it used to? How many newspapers even have foreign correspondents or full-time arts critics? And doesn't it really depend a lot on the personal quirks of the judges that ONE feature story, out of all the feature stories written by all the reporters in the country, can be anointed as THE BEST? To a non-journalist, the Pulitzers look a lot like those awards you see in insurance offices for things like exceeding sales quotas: insular self-congratulation.
Gene Weingarten: Noted!
Providence, R.I.: To any guy out there that doesn't think something like this could ever happen to them, I ask: Have you ever been taking a shower, pause for a moment and then realize you have absolutely zero memory of whether or not you have shampooed your hair?
This happens to me probably once every two weeks and I am pretty sure I am not alone in this phenomenon. And every time I do, I am reminded of your story and think "Yup. that could definitely happen to me, were I in that situation."
To me, it seems the same thing is going on. You get in a routine, thinking about what the day is going to hold for you, and then...
Gene Weingarten: Yep. It's bullying from the basal ganglia, as Doc Diamond explained. It's the same way that you can suddenly realized you have driven many miles without a clear recollection of having done it, or the scenery you passed.
Okay, we're done. Thank you all, and thank you so much for your kind emails. I am trying to return them all. May take a while.
See you all next week in the updates. The next chat is April 27.
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