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Writing That Works

I’ve been taking a closer look at writing that I admire lately, to better understand why it works. Here are my notes on a recent piece by Larissa Macfarquar in The New Yorker, titled 'When should a child be taken from his parents?

Killer opening in second person perspective

In the opening two sections MacFarquhar does something unusual for investigative reporting. She uses second-person perspective. First, it’s the perspective of a parent being investigated by child protective services,

What should you do if child-protective services comes to your house?
You will hear a knock on the door, often late at night. You don’t have to open it, but if you don’t the caseworker outside may come back with the police. The caseworker will tell you you’re being investigated for abusing or neglecting your children. She will tell you to wake them up and tell them to take clothes off so she can check their bodies for bruises and marks...

The second section, flips point-of-view to the worker knocking on the door,

When should you take a child from his parents? You must start your investigation within twenty-four hours of the hotline call. Go at night—people are more likely to be home. As you look around, you have to be very, very careful, because if you miss something it will be partly your fault if a child ends up hurt, or dead. You may be shocked by the living conditions you encounter, but you’re not allowed to remove children solely because of poverty—if, for instance, there’s no food in the kitchen because the parent’s food stamps have run out—only for “imminent risk” due to abuse or neglect. But it’s often difficult to draw a line between poverty and neglect...

While second person perspective is typically used in marketing copy and presentations, here it immediately puts the reader into the experience of a subject in the story; the decisions they need to make and the circumstances in which those decisions need to be made. 

The other reason it works here is because it so effectively illuminates the central conflict of the story straight away. By the end of the first two sections we know who's involved, what's at stake, the decisions that need to be made and even a little of what it must feel like to be in those positions.  This conflict is the engine of the story and it's roaring right away. It entices you to read on.

Case study driven structure

After the opening two sections hook us in, MacFarquhar moves to third-person perspective and begins to tell the story of Mercedes; what happened when her children were taken away and how she has tried for 8 years to get them back. The piece is built around this case study. Here's a summary of the structure of the piece:

  1. Hypothetical parent (second-person perspective)
  2. Child protection worker (second-person perspective) 
  3. Case study: Mercedes - circumstances that led to children being removed
  4. Case study: Mercedes - background, description of childhood
  5. Case study: Mercedes - history of interaction with system, and what it meant for her life
  6. Judge, Carol Sherman - outline of who she is professionally, as told by peer Martin Guggenheim. Section also includes historical development of family law, and excerpts of court transcripts to demonstrate Sherman's concerns and character.  The distinciton between abuse and neglect is explored and the difficult aspects of each type of case.
  7. Case study: Mercedes - what happened to her after her children were taken away, description of visitation, negative conduct of the foster mother, financial benefits paid to the foster mother, Mercedes' perception and experience of courts and hearings.
  8. Defence lawyer from Bronx Defenders - description or role, high turnover because of nature of job, how matters were scheduled; class and race issues e.g. treatment by court of minor things like smoking marijuana.
  9. Case study: Mercedes - maijuana use; rehab; housing (things look hopeful); thanksgiving, followed by allegations of physical abuse, coached by foster mother. Reports that foster mother is abusive; description of impact of trauma on the children.
  10. Conclusion - includes quote from Martin Guggenheim and a Dostoyevsky novel and brings us back to original question - when should a child be taken from his parents? 

You can see how the case study dominates the structure. By giving it this prominence, MacFarquhar invites the reader into complex systemic issues through a single, fathomable story. The perspectives of a judge and a defense lawyer broaden and deepen our understanding of why the system operates the way it does, who benefits, and who and how people are damaged by it. The systemic issues raised by the professionals, are then presented for the reader to re-examine the individual case.

What I loved about it.

I particularly loved MacFarquhar's resistance to creating a hero. Sherman is a prime candidate: a well-meaning white female judge who wants all children to be safe and have the advantages of middle class children. But, by resisting this framing, MacFarquahar illuminates something far more interesting: the damage a system can do, even when everyone in it means well. 

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