In my last blog, I wrote about the death of my friend, Dennis Oliver. I mentioned that he was a reporter who covered Michaela’s story with such tenderness, he ended up becoming a valued friend. But I don’t want you to have to take my word for this. Below is a column that Dennis wrote for the Hayward Daily Review newspaper after he had been covering Michaela’s story for a number of months. It was titled, “The horrible icy spot inside a reporter has finally thawed.”
There is an undeniable cynicism that is born in reporters whose job it is to write about crime and human suffering, a nervous laughter that comes form an icy region that forms inside once we have spent a certain amount of time hearing about nothing but the bad things that happen in the world. We laugh at murder, and horrify our family and co-workers with the gory details of crime scenes that no editor in his right mind would allow us to print. Half the pages of our notebooks contain things that are unfit for publication, because they are the part of the truth that we have the responsibility of keeping to ourselves.
We watch the friends and family of crime victims suffer through the worst of times and do no more than to ask stupid questions like, “How do you feel?” Then we make such assurances as, “I understand,” before going to print with a day in their lives — in black ink on white newsprint — for thousands of people to read. Emotionally, we are not supposed to feel anything, and if we believe that for long enough, it often becomes the truth.
We make ourselves believe that we are walking blocks of ice. We build walls to protect ourselves, and the walls keep us from going insane.
Those are probably the reasons that I was caught off guard the evening of November 19, 1988, when I was called to work on what was supposed to be my day off, to cover what I thought would be just another crime — the kidnapping of a little girl from a corner grocery story in Hayward. I did not know at the time that I would end up spending the ensuing month in the living room of Michaela’s parents’ Cornell Avenue home, watching the scope and magnitude of the search for their nine-year old daughter intensify — and witnessing their once-normal lives crumble, with pieces and shards falling in all directions.
The first time I saw Michaela’s mother cry, on the third day of the ordeal, I just sat there and wrote something absurd in my notebook, as if I would have forgotten that it had happened unless I did so. That notation is on a scrap of paper somewhere in a drawer of my desk now, and I have not looked at it since the time that I wrote it down. I have not pulled it out because, somehow, the image of real tears and real feelings about what was supposed to be just another story has remained vivid in my mind.
The drawer contains a mountain of information about the story that melted the icy spot I had worked so hard to keep frozen solid. Sometimes I hope the drawer and toss more scraps of paper into it, but nothing ever comes back out. Often, I have gone through times when I haven’t wanted to admit that the drawer is there. Sometimes I try to convince myself that it isn’t, or that the things that are written on the scraps of paper inside have not really happened or were never really said.
“I’m not going to pretend that I know how you feel, because I really don’t.”
I have said those words to Michaela’s mother a number of times, probably because so many people have insisted to her that they do know. Her daughter’s picture is on milk cartons and billboards. About 1,000 people she doesn’t know came to a birthday party for the child. Michaela’s Christmas presents sat in a milk crate under the Christmas tree and are still waiting for her. People Sharon has never met before that awful Saturday in November have taken up a post in her dining room. Her phone rings day and night, and sometimes there is only faint breathing on the end of the line.
I do not know how she feels.
It was on January 24, 1989, Michaela’s 10th birthday, that I knew for sure that the ice spot had melted. I had my notebook in my hand and all around me people were crying. We had watched Sharon blow out the ten candles on her missing daughter’s birthday cake at a benefit concert held for the girl at Neighborhood Church. I wondered if I should write something in the notebook or just concentrate on rubbing my burning eyes before someone noticed that I was crying. When I looked around, though, I did not feel ashamed, even though I was supposed to be an objective observer whose icy professionalism does not thaw. It was the second time I had seen Sharon cry, but this time it was in front of 1,000 strangers. They all seemed sympathetic.
Objectivity. We reporters strive for it and sometimes try too hard to achieve it. When we attain it, there is no emotion in the things we write, and perhaps at times it causes us to lose some aspect of the truth. I have learned that there will be times when you can drive yourself insane if you try to keep your objectivity intact. There are times when we should feel the hurt of others, instead of making notations that we will only lock away in a drawer, never to look at again.
For two months, I tried the best I could to remain an iceberg in a turbulent ocean of hurt. Battered by a wave of the ugly truth, it is my job to report that I have failed.
I do not feel guilty.