When stories don’t feel good

I’m very late getting to this dissection of a StoryCorps segment last month but since I relayed it on NewsCut I should get complaints into the record, although it did not generate controversy on this blog.

It was the story of Dr. Joseph Linsk, in failing health at 94 and feeling regretful that he stole $2 intended for his family’s cleaning leady, who was African American and who couldn’t get another job in town after Linsk’s mother blamed her for the theft.

I didn’t frame it the way NPR did and perhaps that’s why it generated no complaints on this site. I placed it in the context of a subject I touch on from time to time: regret. NPR, on the other hand, asked if it’s ever too late to make amends. The answer is obvious in this story: Yes, it’s too late and the only issue is what’s left to do with regret at 94?

On her NPR website column, ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen relayed a letter from Wisconsin that objected.

Sometimes shame and shaming are appropriate feelings and responses to terrible evil, in this case keeping a secret for 86 years that likely harmed generations of lives. The act of an 8-year-old may be forgivable. Waiting nearly a century to try to seek amends is horrific. My complaint here, though, is NPR’s irresponsible reporting on this story. Only a white organization, with white reporters, white producers/editors, and white leadership would think this was a good way to report on the story. ‘Let’s help this poor old rich white man feel better.'”

StoryCorps posted this response on its Facebook page:

We want to acknowledge the tone of comments on this thread. This story is painful to hear. It is unsettling, not only in its specificity, but also in the fact that anyone with a sense of U.S. history knows that there are countless stories like this one that have never been told, countless people of color who have been taken advantage of, countless who have been suspect based on the color of their skin, and countless wrongs that have never been made right.

This story doesn’t include Pearl’s point of view or version of events. It’s one half of the story, since neither Pearl nor her children have a voice in it. We knew Pearl is no longer living, so we tried to locate descendants to see if they had heard this story and would be willing to tell what happened to Pearl after these events. When our search ran dry, we decided to ask for help from the general public locating her descendants. We are following up on your leads.

This is a story that was based on the memory of an 8-year-old child’s experience from more than 80 years ago; it is a slice taken from a man’s life and in no way a complete accounting of who Dr. Linsk has been personally or professionally throughout his life. But this story isn’t his alone — it’s part of our story as a country.

We value that Dr. Linsk shared his story and we are grateful for his openness. We hope this story, like the others that we share at StoryCorps, helps us make sense of our world and ourselves. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

StoryCorps is an exception segment on the radio with valuable intent. People’s lives need to be shared even if they don’t make us feel good. We’ve gotten accustomed to the Friday morning segment making us feel good. But life isn’t like that. Sometimes it fills us with regret and sadness and that fact shouldn’t make us shy away from the stories.

For her part, Jensen suggested the problem may have been that StoryCorps tried to stuff a non feel-good life’s story into a feel-good template.