A man I interviewed last week told me people can take your words and bend them to fit the narrative they want to tell. You become a character without control of the ending. He is right.
When interviewing people I try to be careful not to hijack their story. When I was a newspaper reporter in California I wrote more than a few stories about people who died. Sometimes their deaths were the result of a plane or car crash, sometimes it was by the hand of another person. Regardless of the cause, when typing at my desk I always taped a photo of the deceased to the corner of my computer as a reminder: this was a human being and this is their story. And it may be the last thing ever written about them.
The reporter in me said to be honest and fair. There was always this other voice rattling around in the back that told me to be kind. Since quitting the cops and courts beat I don’t write a lot about dead people anymore. But I do employ a similar mentality when writing about a person.
The man I interviewed last week was adamant that that his story is not beautiful. He is right because he lived it. But he said it because it has the trappings of everything that makes for a good story.
He was just 16 when he crossed the U.S.-Mexican border to find work and help support his family. He gave a false name and never looked back. For four years he planted and picked lettuce, asparagus, strawberries, and tomatillos. He went to high school for the food. And he turned out to be a pretty good academic.
He now works as a professor and is working on building a new resume that doesn’t include manual labor. One day, he’d like to put the two together. Like two hands, each with a different strength.
I knew exactly where he used to pick strawberries. I was a reporter down the street from the fields in Watsonville. I remember driving past them and seeing the work crews dressed in long sleeves, hats, and pants squatting in the fields. I remember thinking they must be hot. I had no idea. I never stopped to ask.
The professor doesn’t like to tell his story because he doesn’t want people to think it was easy. He doesn’t want people to use his story and hold it as an example of how things can be. Because he knows he is the rare case of when enough things fall into place. So he fiercely guards his narrative. I don’t blame him for second.
But it is a strange thing to be told a story like that and not know what to do with it. It feels as though someone handed me a butterfly and said, here, hold this. I just don’t want to crush it. In some ways I am responsible for it now. And I think that sounds about right.