Lost stories

Henry R. Englert headstone

A few weeks ago, in Where journalism fails, I wrote about how journalism is interested only in stories, that all stories have just three requirements—characterproblem, and movement—and that journalism comes up short by tending to exclude facts that don’t meet those requirements and by being vulnerable to manipulation of by experts at feeding journalism’s appetites for stories. (Example of the latter: the current U.S. president.)

In this post my focus is on the vast abundance of stories that have never been told, or have been forgotten. The most abundant example of these is cemeteries.

All a occupants of every cemetery were, in life, characters. Each of their lives was a story, and within their lives were many more stories. But their problems are all over, and there is no movement toward a conclusion, since all their lives are done. In most cases their characters have been erased by time and the disinterest of the living, especially across subsequent generations.

For example, among the 300,000 bodies buried in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery is my great-grandfather, Henry Roman Englert, whose headstone is above.

To make him more real as a character, here is how he looked as a sharp young man:

His headstone says nothing about him, other than that he died at age eighty-seven, seventy-six years ago. Being a journalist, however, and knowing a bit about Henry, I tell some of his story in captions under the dozens of photos I’ve put in this album. For example, that he headed the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in New York, that he was what his daughter (my grandma) called a “good socialist,” that he had at least seven daughters and one son (Henry Jr., known as Harry, who died at age four), that he was married twice, and outlived both his wives and three of his kids, all by long margins.

There are also questions (or, in a more storylike way of putting it, mysteries) that have no answer or solution, or even a way to get one; so the story just stops, even if the facts matter. For example, Henry’s plot is marked only by his headstone, with no markers for five others buried in the same plot, in just three graves, including both his wives and three of his children, all of whom predeceased him:

Henry Roman Englert, wives and kids

My grandmother and her sisters used to take their families on picnic trips to this plot, which was unmarked until their dad died, and was then marked only for him. Why was that? (Henry’s brother Andrew, who also died young, and a cousin, are buried not far away in a grave that remains unmarked.)

The sad but true summary here is that today none of these people matter much to anybody, even though they mattered to others a great deal when they were all alive. The great-grandchildren of Henry and his wives are now all advanced in death’s queue, or have already passed on. The living ones, including me, are way too busy with stories of their own and long since past caring much, if at all, about any of the gone people here. And the same is pretty much true for all but the most recently planted dead among the occupants of Woodlawn.

For a very different example (one that hardly matters more), take the killing fields of Cambodia: the story about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed a genocide on a massive scale, wiping out between one and a half to two million people, or around twenty-five percent of the country’s population.

I first heard about this one day in the late 1970s, from Hughes Rudd, who was anchoring the CBS Morning News. He said, almost offhandedly, that there were reports coming in saying that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no conflict that was easy to describe, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant an interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

For journalism, however, what also matters about this is that years went by, with hundreds of thousands more dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this wasn’t the first or last time that massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ fled elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, you mostly just have statistics which, in telling without a story context, become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of it will be studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Like it is right now.

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