“I thought I understood poor. I grew up poor in Athens, the daughter of a single mother of five,” Virginia Lynne Anderson wrote recently in a story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But while working on the story, she “came to realize there’s a big difference between being poor and living in poverty. When you are poor, you’ve got a shot at making it out. Millions of poor Americans become success stories. When you live in poverty, your best shot is just to stay alive.”
The story follows an Atlanta woman named Donna Woods, 45, a mother of six living in poverty. When we meet her, she is “thin as a straight pin,” with cheekbones that “were as sharp as the edges of her bedroom door. She wore a pink gown and the little black cap she favored when she didn’t feel like fooling with a wig.”
When Anderson introduces us to her, Donna has been suffering from breast cancer for 11 years. “Donna’s husband, mother and father were all dead. She had no siblings. All Donna had in the world was her children, and all they had was her. They were her sole caregivers — and her biggest concern,” Anderson writes.
So begins a 3,500 word story in which Anderson brings us into Donna’s life to show us that if cancer is devastating to people with means, it’s unspeakably worse to those without. Donna takes two buses and a train to get to her treatment. She has no siblings. And as Anderson points out in a gripping detail:
[Donna’s] support systems never were as reliable as those in ‘the casserole culture.’ Patients living in poverty generally are friends with people who are stretched equally thin. They do not own reliable transportation. They may work several jobs. They may not even own a Pyrex dish to tote chili or stew to a friend with cancer.
Anderson met Donna in 2012 and soon found herself stepping in to help Anderson and her children–because there was nobody else who could do it. The children range in age from 25 to 8. The oldest is studying to be a dental hygienist, and the next, who is 23, works two jobs to support the family and a child of her own. One day when Donna asked for help, Anderson realized this was a story she would never be finished with:
That day was when I figured out God had something in mind for me other than full-time work. I had been interviewing for jobs, having just completed my master’s degree in science, health and environmental journalism at Columbia University. My thesis was on the burden of cancer on the poor. It was inspired by Donna.
Anderson continues, in graceful and moving language, to let Donna’s story unroll until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. Was Anderson wrong to have become involved? Ordinarily, we’d say yes. We depend on reporters’ objectivity to get the straight story. But Anderson is writing at a time when we’re questioning journalism orthodoxy. And we should. Anderson’s decision to become involved with Donna and her family does not invalidate her work by any means. It changes it, but in ways that help her tell a story she could not have told if she’d kept her distance.
Anderson did not have to fight her editor to change direction–it was her editor who suggested it. “I didn’t know former AJC reporter Virginia Lynne Anderson when she pitched this Personal Journey,” Suzanne Van Atten, the Journal-Constitution’s Personal Journeys Editor, wrote in a short postscript. “We finally met the day Donna was buried, and Anderson explained how involved she had gotten with the family. That’s when I suggested this story was as much about her journey as it was Donna’s. She initially resisted putting herself in the story but eventually came around.”
Take a look. I think you’ll agree with me that Anderson and Van Atten made the right call. And don’t make the mistake of thinking this is longform journalism. It’s not. What we have here is simply a damn good story.