In thinking about why journalists gather to discuss storytelling about trauma, Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, recalled a book he’d read in a college class while he was learning how to be a reporter. It was Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” and Shapiro used this novel as a way to talk about the concept of “inside narrative.” Edited excerpts of his remarks follow:
Set on a battleship in a time of war, the atmosphere is thick with fear of mutiny and subversion. “Billy Budd” tells the story of how a much-beloved sailor is provoked by an authoritarian malignant officer into lashing out in violence and everything that flows from that event culminating in the sailor’s hanging. Interestingly, Melville called his book an “inside narrative.”
Near the end of this very short novel there is a newspaper account of the killing of the officer and of Billy’s hanging. What’s relevant is that this news story, reported from official sources, misses everything and gets everything wrong: the facts of the murder, the manner in which the killing happened, who the bad guy was, the good guy, how it was perceived by the crew, and what it meant politically. Melville makes clear that those reading that news story would perceive the events on this ship as something they were not. Melville says this is the ultimate outside narrative.
Very often, as journalists, we end up telling these kinds of outside narratives when we go to official sources for the most difficult and intimate stories. Why is this important? Melville’s answer is that the reader of that article would think that there was about to be a mutiny on the ship and might arrive at some political conclusions. Melville wants us to see the story differently. That’s why he calls his an “inside narrative”—the attempt to grapple with evil and violence and sorrow and with the ineffable lingering suffering from terrible events that leave no one unscarred.
Some journalists have lived inside narratives by being part of communities, families or neighborhoods where they’ve known intimately the lives and stories of the people they’ve reported on, whether their stories were about community catastrophes of civil conflict and disorder or intimate sorrows of tragedy that struck families in close-knit towns. Some have sought inside narratives after landing in a strange and complicated place where they have encountered acts of violence that demanded accountability or explanation.
Journalists learn ways of telling true stories by gaining a kind of humility in recognizing that there are other deep roads to truthful storytelling. Here, too, I think Melville’s little fable has something to teach: In “Billy Budd,” that news story—the corrupt outside narrative—appears in the second to last chapter. The novel ends not with that news story, not even with one of Melville’s wonderful cascading paragraphs, but with a folk ballad. It’s a poem of an anonymous sailor who imagines Billy on his final night and captures the weight and sorrow of that occasion in a way that’s beyond prose.
Melville’s book issues a double warning to us as journalists about the danger of relying on official stories to tell unofficial truths and about the inadequacy of prose itself to tell the truth about these kinds of events. He is telling us and himself that we need to put our conventional toolbox aside and learn from others, such as poets and singers, artists and filmmakers.