To Be Read, and To Be Understood

Recently, I noticed a flurry of views on a post I wrote in January. The post was my reaction to an article in the Washington Post Magazine, an article about a writer, Cynthia McCabe, who was e-mailed by a man, a complete stranger, announcing his intention to commit suicide. The reasons this man gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.”

It was an article to which I had a visceral reaction, and I don’t mean a positive one.

I won’t summarize my reaction–you can read it for yourself–except to say that I felt McCabe, as the writer of the article, was missing the bigger picture. I also figured that she had said what she needed to on the subject and that the story would be laid to rest.

Not so.

I was curious about what was behind the uptick in views of my post, so I decided to find out. The recent increase in views, evidently, was provoked by the story reappearing on the radio program Snap Judgement. Don’t get me wrong, I like the program and have listened to it on several occasions. But I question the resurrection of the story in a new format, the motives behind it, and the approach taken by the producer of the piece, Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

The story, in my opinion, should have been that a person named Dennis Williams (aka Katry Rain) had dedicated a lifetime’s worth of energy and effort into a body of work that has been essentially ignored, and that this emptiness led him to end his life.

I’m not alone in this. One commenter on the NPR website had this to say about the handling of the story:

I found this story very troubling. Not because the writer committed suicide, but because the producer, Julia DeWitt, seemed to so completely fail to respect or understand his decision…. It doesn’t sound like Ms. DeWitt read a single thing he wrote beyond the letter. How is what he died for not the story here?

And a commenter on my January post said this:

My uneasiness with reading The Washington Post article…was [from] the writers’ callous tone (listing her course of options rather than expressing genuine sympathies, or her semi meta-judgmental of the publishing world, yet failing to recognize her part in it).

It appears that McCabe has not given any further thought on the matter.

In the radio show, however, Dara Horn–the one who called the incident an “emotional mugging”–says this:

You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it’s not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren’t as successful as I’ve been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.

Interestingly, many writers–successful ones–have felt exactly what Williams felt, that their writing was vitally important to their lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be ‘the Author’….”

John Updike observed that the embodiment of the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, “was like a god to me, the guardian of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words and paid a grand or so for tales he liked. A thousand dollars then meant we could eat for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes. My life, my life with children, was a sluice that channeled gravelly water to my pan; by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I at the end of day might find a fleck of gold.”

Here’s the thing: why did DeWitt feel the need to re-warm this story for the radio? Was it because it really needed to be told again, that radio would provide something that print could not? I doubt it.

Yes, Dennis Williams has received a boost of attention from these events. But DeWitt seems to have no interest in Williams, and she admits that the people interviewed for the story don’t either. I rather think it was because it was a nifty story to tell, and DeWitt would get some feathers in her cap for doing it.

Williams was not looking for fame per se. He just wanted to be read, and also to be understood. DeWitt and McCabe and Horn clearly don’t understand.

[updated Jan. 31, 2017]

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14 thoughts on “To Be Read, and To Be Understood

  1. Just so you know, regardless of Julia DeWitt’s intentions she has gained him at least one reader. I just heard the Snap Judgment story today, and I’ve been obsessively looking up stuff all evening. I found your blog, and a few other blogs, and of course Katry Rain’s blogs, and his complete works (except, ironically, his one published book) on the Internet Archive, as one big zip file that I’ve already downloaded.

    I haven’t actually read any of his own stuff except for some of the blog entries, but I’m going to give him a try. So it *is* a good thing that Snap Judgment did the story, in my opinion.

    • Thank you Stephen.
      I guess my complaint was not about what was done but the way it was done. If folks can look beyond DeWitt’s and McCabe’s fumblings and see the larger story, then that’s great. I feel, however, that unlike you, most will give a nod and a shrug and move on to the next interesting thing of the moment.
      I too would not have known about Katry Rain except through these published stories. But it struck me as a bit like Angelina Joli visiting Burma/Myanmar. Is the story the people of Myanmar, or is the story Angelina Joli? It’s all in how you write it.

  2. This is a thoughtful post and I appreciate your empathy for the guy.
    Matthew: Can I have your email address? I have some questions for you regarding the Katry Rain/Dennis Williams case.

    • Hi minorcarpentry, thanks for your comment. I really don’t know that much about Dennis Williams beyond the published accounts that I have responded to in these posts. What did you have in mind?

      • I’m a freelance writer (albeit a struggling one…who isn’t?)…I’ve been working on a long article about Williams/Rain for about three months now, one that gives a more complete profile of the guy, along with a summary of his writing. I’m just trying to get as many different perspectives as I can about what happened, and have spoken to some of his friends. Like yourself, I was taken aback by the callousness of the WaPo author, but your two articles are thoughtful and empathetic and provide a nice counterpoint to her comments.
        I just wanted to ask you a few questions about the story, but if you feel you’ve said all you can about it on this blog, I’m asking your permission to quote it. If you’re interested in exchanging a few ideas, please message me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/danny-lindsay-5097187a) or email me. Google mail: littleghostrecordingco

  3. Pingback: Wanting to Be Seen | The Seeker

  4. Hi Folks,
    I was a friend of Katry’s from about 1995. We met in New Zealand after moving there about the same time. I was interviewed by DeWitt for the show on my views of Katry and his death. I was given the impression the purpose of the show was to help better understand Katry. Apparently not. The show was mostly about McCabe.

    David
    bridge_road@yahoo.co.nz

    • Thanks David for your personal perspective on this.

      You are obviously right that the show was mostly about McCabe. McCabe’s own article was about McCabe. The fact that they interviewed you about Katry and still ran the story the way they did only confirms my initial impressions.

      In case you didn’t see it, McCabe herself commented on my first post about her article, which was before the DeWitt interview originally aired, so she had to have been at least aware of some of these alternative viewpoints. DeWitt should have incorporated them into the radio piece. That’s journalism, is it not?

      • Hi Matthew,
        I went back and reread the comments in the original WP story. I made a few myself. Cynthia contacted me about an interview, but she did not follow up on it. I have emails from Katry, and stories, that I might share with sincerely interested people. If any of your readers/writers want to contact me, email is bridge_road@yahoo.co.nz
        Cheers,
        David

  5. Hello Matthew,
    Just wanted to add a few comments to this thread, as I too knew Katry and am shocked to learn just now about his sad end. He was a delightful person, and had a huge impact on my life when he (acting on behalf of a language school in Tokyo) hired me. It was a life-changing decision that he made for me, which ultimately led to my current career in newspaper and book publishing. I owe him a debt of gratitude; the irony is not lost on me that he was unable to open doors for himself in the publishing world.
    What hasn’t been publicized is what his sweetness, intelligence and generosity. I am devastated by discovering this news about him.
    Thank you for the sensitive way you have defended this lovely man who did much good in this world.
    Roger Dahl
    The Japan Times

    • Thank you, Roger, for these personal memories. And sorry to hear that you are only recently finding out about his tragic decision.

      I’m learning more about Katry through these comments than was ever provided by the so-called journalists who provided the original article.

  6. Randomly came across this follow-up in searching for a link related to my original piece. There is an error in your piece that merits updating/correction, given that it’s pointed to as evidence throughout the piece that I don’t get it, don’t understand, and am fumbling. You quote me from the NPR segment as saying I’ve had a fair amount of success as a writer and never really thought that would be my most important contribution. Problem: I didn’t say that. Writer Dara Horn did. You’ve misrepresented the interviews, although I’m guessing it was an inadvertent fumble, not evidence that you don’t get it. In any case, I’m always happy to take a comparison to Michael Phelps, no matter how misdirected or backhanded.

    • I stand corrected. My bad.

      However, Cynthia, did you read any of the other comments here, from people who actually knew Katry Rain, someone referred to in your article as narcissistic and selfish? They say he had “sweetness, intelligence and generosity” and that they appreciated the “alternative reading” I supplied in response to your article. One even says he was contacted in connection with the radio program, but I guess his take on Katry Rain/Dennis Williams didn’t fit the pre-fabricated mold.

      So you can quibble all you want about who said what in the radio interview. The case still can be made that if all anyone knows about Katry is your article and DeWitt’s radio show, then it seems a lot like you are stepping on his character for personal gain.

      Also, Michael Phelps is an ass. The comparison was not intended to be a compliment.

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