A "writer's paper," as The Washington Post assuredly is, invites more risk than others that a story's reach may lose sight of its intention. That, in any case, was the judgment of a significant number of readers about "Mother Kills Child: Sorrow Shatters a Neighborhood," a magazine-length article, highlighted by a six-column picture of a street pierced by a bullet, in Style, May 16. The child's death occurred two months earlier in the family's home in Friendship Heights and was reported straightforwardly the following day.
Style Editor Lee Lescaze says the piece was intended as an assessment of the impact on a neighborhood--"a compelling case to examine"--of a tragedy in which a mother killed her 10-year-old daughter, then turned the gun on herself. The mother, Leslie deVeau, remains hospitalized and faces a homicide charge. The father, Anthony deVeau, who was not at home when the shooting occurred, continues his job at a savings and loan while reportedly seeking to rent the house.
Complaints about the story, written by reporter Stephanie Mansfield, came from neighbors--some named in the story, some not--and from others. One asked: "Why . . . must your paper reopen all the pain and fear that everyone involved with the family suffered?" A neighbor said: "Ms. Mansfield grossly misrepresented the kind of article she was planning. . . She said she was going to write a story which focused on the support people in a community affected by such a tragedy give to one another. She assured me she was not writing a story on the deVeau family."
Here, it seemed to me also, the story went off its proclaimed reservation. After a readable survey of community reaction, the story introduces "The Perfect Family" subhead, then delineates the couple's backgrounds prior to and into marriage and goes on to probe father-mother-daughter relationships based on comments from neighbors, some identified, some not. In the process the emphasis shifts from the tragedy's effect on the neighborhood to a search for why it happened.
Mr. deVeau told me he found a "number of inaccuracies" in the text, including a remark he said he never made, but was "most troubled by the appearance that I did not try to help my wife. The reporter pumped my neighbor who couldn't have known." Mr. deVeau and others dispute the context of remarks attributed to a neighbor about his wife's attitude toward the 12-gauge shotgun used in his daughter's slaying. In a letter to The Post, Jane Kramner Powers, a close family friend, says: "It hardly seems likely that Leslie disapproved of Tony's having a shotgun; she had given it to him as a Christmas present."
Vera Chadwick Sky, a friend whose daughter and Erin deVeau were classmates, criticized The Post for its "haste to compile a maudlin case study" with its treatment of "The Thing in the Woods," which Erin had written for the school magazine. As described, "it tells of a young husband and wife who buy a haunted house . . . and described the woman as 5 feet 6, weighing 110 pounds, blond hair and blue eyes, a near-perfect description of Leslie deVeau. The story ends when the wife (who had gone out horseback riding) is found. 'She had been killed by a thing which left deep claw marks on her face,' the child wrote. 'There were globs of flesh hanging out. It was a gruesome death.'" Introducing this, The Post reports "some parents say" the story "eerily foreshadowed the child's own violent death." Mrs. Sky writes, "a glance at the magazine's contents would have revealed that Erin's piece was one of many such stories submitted as part of a Halloween assignment in the class."
Several critics drew comparisons be tween the Mansfield piece and the usual content of the National Enquirer, "as malicious and gory," one put it. "Excrutiating...more numbing than informative," said another. "I imagine," wrote Mrs. Powers, "that each one of our lives has an episode that might not fare well if subjected to public scrutiny, especially if the 'facts' upon which the judgment is made are supplied by those who choose to see only that which supports a preconceived notion. This type of writing, so common now in The Washington Post, is designed to titillate rather than in form."
Is a newspaper entitled to ransack a family's affairs and defend it as someone else's right to know? I think not.