Chapter 81: Andrea Elliott on Saying Goodbye
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“I’ve never been good at closure,” wrote Andrea Elliott. I had emailed shortly after she won a Pulitzer – her second, this one for her remarkable book, “Invisible Child.” I wanted to see how she was doing now that after eight years her telling of the story of Dasani Coates had come to an end.
The work had begun in 2012, when Andrea began reporting what would become a five-part series in The New York Times. Dasani was then 11. Andrea, in her signature way, immersed herself in the life of Dasani and her family. Andrea calls what she does “showing up.” A euphemism for being with her subjects seemingly everywhere and always, and through that assiduous and relentless reporting putting herself in a position to tell a story of homelessness, addiction, poverty, despair, hope, anger – the story of one child in one family for whom every single day is filled with peril and struggle. Also love, a deep and unshakeable love for one another, no matter how many times it is tested by life, circumstance, or the state.
And now, after all those years and having seen so much, it was time to bring the story to a close.
I have done immersive journalism, as have many of my friends. My immersions, however, were measured in months – nothing like what Andrea and journalists like Alex Kotlowitz and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc have done. When the reporting was over, I did not feel pangs of loss. Like my friends, I stayed in touch with the people who had been so generous in opening their lives to me. But the level of intimacy that Andrea had achieved, the connection she maintained with Dasani and her family – all while also maintaining her role as a journalist – was as alien as it was admirable.
Immersion journalism produces work that cannot be captured any other way. To read “Invisible Child,” is to find yourself asking, seemingly on every page: how did she get that?
A rhetorical question: she was there. And if she wasn’t she went back to those who were and asked, tell me what happened next? And next? And next?
So I wondered how Andrea was doing and feeling, the accolades, glowing reviews, and awards aside. No more days with Dasani. No more reading countless documents and case files. No more story to tell.
She did not reply immediately. She wanted to consider the question. I emailed to remind her. Okay to pester her. She called to remind me that when she was my student in 1999 and working on her capstone project, I grew so frustrated with how long it took for her to settle on a story that I told her if she didn’t choose one, I’d pick one for her. I winced at that memory. She laughed. I reminded her how she then went off to Chile and came back with a story about a town called Paine where more people per capita had disappeared during the brutal years of the Pinochet regime than anyplace else. A devastating story. I do not believe I changed a word. A harbinger of the work to come.
This time we agreed that once again she needed a deadline. She made it. Alright, a day late. Three actually.
Then she wrote (and again, I have not changed a word): I let interviews wind on, well past their natural end. I tend to treat deadlines more as friendly reminders than as dictums. I write and then tweak everything I have written. I no longer call myself a writer. I’m a rewriter.
And even after I have relinquished what I think is the final draft, I find that the reporter in me hasn’t gotten the memo. I don’t switch off. My phone beeps with the pulse of whatever life I am following, and – wham! – I am pulled back in. If this sounds unwieldy, I’m good with that. I don’t think the immersionist (the best word I know for the weird kind of reporting I do) is meant to stay in control. It is only through our writing that we impose structure on what is otherwise an innately chaotic, unpredictable, confounding, and mysterious process, much like the lives we are following.
I wrote the end of “Invisible Child” three different times. All three endings are in the book. (Two of them became chapter endings). The third ending stuck, but is it the real “end”? In most works of narrative nonfiction, the final passage is as much about the author as it is about the subject. It’s perhaps the most vulnerable moment in the writing process – the decision of where and when and how to depart. And the reader feels it with every book. “Oh, here is where you stopped.” It’s an abdication, a kind of quitting (no matter how well wrought!) And that’s because the author’s ending exists in stark contrast to the reality of nonfiction, which is that these lives we have been following carry on. They haven’t ended.
The scene that ends “Invisible Child” – a family barbecue on a summer night in 2020 – might have felt as ordinary to Dasani as countless other moments. But I knew, as soon as I witnessed it, that I had arrived at the end of the book. Every major thread of Dasani’s tempestuous and beautiful and complicated childhood had come together in that moment. And yet, writing that passage was bittersweet.
The sweetness had to do with relief. A big part of the relief was knowing that Dasani’s story, in book form, would finally come to fruition. And there was also relief in knowing that my life might resume a calmer rhythm after years – literally nine years – of the most demanding, exhilarating, depleting (and every other “ing” you can name) kind of immersion.
My reporting began in 2012, when Dasani was 11, and ended eight years later, in 2020, after she turned 20. (As I write this, I am reminded of my own reluctance to “let go” because, technically, I continued following Dasani’s family for another year as the edits came in, leading to a major event from 2021 being foreshadowed in that final passage… So, it’s nine years, not eight, if we’re being tediously exact!)
Here's the single greatest thing about following someone for so many years: the gift of seeing the passage of time. I witnessed things that happened to Dasani at ages 11, 13, 16, and then I got to watch her reflect on those things as an adult, looking back. A memoirist once told me that the beauty of his genre was not in the things that “happened,” but in allowing those things to do their “memoiring” in his head, the way “wine evolves with time,” so that the book itself was as much an act of reflection as an account of “facts.”
The last thing I would ever want to do is write a memoir. But I loved witnessing Dasani reflect on the very events I, too, had witnessed. There were things she could not articulate at age 11, though she hinted at them in our conversations. She liked being “invisible” because she could “slip through things.” She had taken something painful – the feeling of being unseen by the very people she could see – and she had reimagined it in her favor, as a “superpower.”
By talking about her “invisibility” (the title of this book comes from Dasani) she was not just articulating her own private experience. She was describing the public relationship between herself and her city, a place where the rich and the poor, the homeless and the housed, share many of the same spaces. And Dasani could see how these groups divided along racial lines, between Black disadvantage and white privilege. Her childhood was being shaped by the encounter of these two worlds, the seen and the unseen.
A year ago, I wrote this to my editor, Kate Medina: Dasani is now 20 years old, and her perspective on this has evolved. Just the other day, she put it this way: “I’m visible. But society doesn’t see me. And it’s not just me – there’s a lot of people like me who are invisible.”
It’s that constant evolution – the thing we all share as human beings growing up and then older and then, if we’re lucky, old – that is thrilling to watch.
So why was ending the book bittersweet? The bitter part has to do with a kind of grief I am only starting to acknowledge. I guess this comes with the territory. My work life had, for nearly a decade, revolved around this incredible girl and her family. And suddenly, with that final scene written, I would never get to do that again. I’d never get to witness another event as a reporter in their lives – a role that had gifted my own life with a profound sense of purpose. I’d remain close to the family, but my role would inevitably change.
At first, I didn’t let go at all. I found – through the fact-check process, the end notes, the run-up to the book’s publication – all kinds of ways to keep Dasani and her family in my daily work life.
Then, two weeks before the book came out, I lost my father unexpectedly. And two months later, my brother died of a seizure after a long struggle with alcoholism. The ensuing ten months leading up to this letter have been surreal. That’s the only word for it.
Dasani and Chanel knew my father and they knew my brother, and they cried with me at each juncture, much like I had cried with them when their family broke apart in October 2015. We use phrases like “bearing witness” without thinking about what they mean. You bear it. We love to say, as reporters, that our purpose is to “understand.” I looked up the root of that word and it comes from old English – understandan. It means “to stand in the midst of.”
If I did anything in all these years, it was to stand in the midst of Dasani’s life and it was one of the great privileges of my own life.
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