In February, 2010, Gigi Jordan checked into the Peninsula Hotel in New York where, she has admitted, “she intentionally gave her 8-year-old son a fatal overdose of drugs,” according to The New York Times. She described it as “a mercy killing.”
Her trial for murder is continuing in New York; the defense summarized its case on Oct. 27. Her son, Jude Mirra, had autism, and “she believed she was saving the boy from torture and sexual abuse” by her second husband, her attorney said. It’s a tragedy; the death of a child always is.
I expected the tragic nature of this story, and the complicated lives that led Jordan and Jude to that hotel room, to be reflected in an 11,000 word takeout on the case that appeared in Newsweek last week. But that’s not what I found. Instead, I found distractingly “clever” writing and long digressions on autism and research that obscured what could have been a compelling story.
The author, Alexander Nazaryan, began his story with this:
“To be a great hotel is to host fabulous lives but also, sometimes, spectacular deaths.”
The first “spectacular death” Nazaryan refers to is a 1938 suicide in which a man stood on a ledge at a New York hotel for 11 hours before jumping. The second “spectacular death” was Jude’s.
The connection between the two deaths? They happened at the same hotel.
The original headline on this piece was, “Did a Son’s Autism Drive a Woman to Murder?” That has since been changed to “Autism, Murder, and a Woman on the Ledge.” But the headline swap doesn’t come anywhere close to fixing this misguided and overwritten story.
Immediately after a brief description of the deaths–a total of four paragraphs–Nazaryan makes a disorienting leap into background on the causes of autism, in which he describes children with autism in the coarsest terms. These “children may sleep only an hour or two a night, may have no bowel control, may lack the language to express their inner or outer torments. Children who will never attend college or hold a job, marry or live alone,” he writes. That’s Nazaryan’s description, in its entirety.
Many parents of children with autism would describe their children in far more sympathetic ways. And on one point, Nazaryan is flat wrong: The number of children with autism entering college is expected to surge.
I can’t dismantle Nazaryan’s story paragraph by paragraph, or I’d have a critique even longer than his 11,000 words. One reason for the article’s length is that Nazaryan includes at least brief reference to almost everything he can find that has the even the briefest connection to autism: gluten-free diets, chelation therapy, discussions about causes, the genetics of autism, diagnosis, the DSM, Andrew Wakefield’s paper wrongly blaming vaccines, autism research, support groups, mistreatment, behavioral therapy, immune abnormalities in autism, global warming, and more.
Nazaryan hopscotches again and again between the murder case and long digressions on research. This is a story about a murder. Why do we need so much about research in a story about a killing? A reader can easily lose the thread.
And through all this bouncing around, Nazaryan reminds you that he is writing, as you can see here:
All science starts as bad science. Humors course through the body; stars and planets circle the Earth. Some of what we call truth today, others will in time condemn as heresy. What is mysterious to us will be obvious to them. Future generations may well laugh at our debate over global warming, our blithe consumption of red meat, or diet soda, or gluten, or something else.
The human species loves origin stories. Autism, thus far, lacks one.
Again, I’m puzzled. First of all, I’d question these glib assertions. All science starts as bad science? No, it doesn’t. Future generations may laugh at our debate over global warming? No, they won’t, any more than we laugh over Hurricane Katrina or World War II. Autism lacks an origin story? He’s already written that the cause is unknown, but he can’t resist saying it again the way a writer would say it.
And furthermore: What does any of this have to do with the murder of Jude Mirra? Remember him? And what does it have to do with his particular symptoms? Or this story? The connections that might justify these detours are never made.
Emily Willingham, a scientist and science writer who blogs at Forbes and has written often about autism, wrote an intelligent and detailed response to Nazaryan’s story, in which she was critical of much of what he wrote, including what he wrote about her–that she “seemed to take particular relish” in dismantling some of the research Nazaryan discussed, and a suggestion that she hadn’t read a paper she discussed.
Their disagreement erupted on Twitter, where, if you need a little edification, Nazaryan gives us a wonderful example of how not to respond to readers online. Willingham tweeted that the article “misrepresents #autism &misrepresents me.”
He replied, “We don’t owe you anything, Emily. I represented accurately what you wrote. Case closed.” When she disagreed, he tweeted, “You seem to work off an enormous sense of injury. I am not going to honor that. Take a journalism course.”
There was more–but you get the idea. Nazaryan displayed very bad manners.
I’ll give Nazaryan credit for one thing: He’s reaching. He worked hard on this. But he badly needs–dare I say it–a journalism course in which he can learn something about constructing a narrative and about trimming the fat from his prose. Nazaryan also needs a tough and knowledgeable editor to teach him when to hold his metaphors and when to fold ’em. And he needs an editor who can restrain him from writing about serious illness until he has developed some heart–some understanding of what the families of children with autism go through.
He needs an editor who can tell him that children with autism don’t drive their parents to murder. And they don’t die spectacular deaths.