Isabel Wilkerson on Interacting with Subjects

Wilkerson at a speaking at University of Nevada, Reno.

Wilkerson at a speaking at University of Nevada, Reno.

In her essay “Playing Fair With Subjects,” from the book “Telling True Stories,” Isabel Wilkerson writes on narrative writing and its treatment of a story’s subject. Her essay focuses on a piece she wrote for the New York Times in 1993, called “The Manful Life of Nicholas, 10.” The narrative describes a 10-year-old boy bearing the weight of a father figure in an impoverished family on the South Side of Chicago.

In Nicholas’s story, Wilkerson describes the family’s everyday tasks, the mother’s college classes, the comings and goings of the five children’s separate father’s, the grandmother’s sermon-like lessons, and Nicholas checking to make sure each sibling has gotten to class. Wilkerson didn’t gather these details from mere interviews, she would arrive early and stay late to see the family, following their daily life for about a month. Her first day with them was spent folding socks at a laundromat.

In her essay, Wilkerson wonders whether or not her presence had some kind of effect on the family and thereby the story. After school, Wilkerson would take the boys out to eat at McDonald’s. Some, she says, would argue against her doing that. If she was there helping with laundry and buying the children food, was she not changing there situation? By becoming almost like one of the family, was she not changing that family’s dynamic? Wilkerson argues that it is typical for journalists to treat their subjects to food, and the children deserved no less. However, Wilkerson also admits in her essay to moments when she had to be careful not to intervene, such as when the children experienced abuse, particularly from their mother.

We must learn the subtle rules and hierarchy of the world we have stepped into, adjusting ourselves to it and finding a place in it by responding in natural and human ways.” -Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson points out that a journalists will always be intervening in and in some ways changing the life of a subject. Why not then, try a method of immersing oneself in that subject’s life, soaking in all the vital details necessary for a genuine article worthy of their subject.


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