Last week, Grantland ran a long story about a woman who had purportedly invented a new, superior putter that had become something of a legend in the golfing world. This past fall, when the writer, Caleb Hannan, dug deeper into the story of this putter and its inventor, questions and problems began to arise. As Josh Levin wrote in Slate, “[i]n brief, the writer discovered that “Dr. V” (Essay Anne Vanderbilt was her full name) was a con artist. She lied about her educational and professional credentials to Hannan and to a man who gave her $60,000—cash that investor never saw again.” But, and this is where the controversy has erupted, Hannan also discovered that Dr. V was born a male. When Hannan informed her that he’d discovered this fact, she became very angry. And a few days later, she committed suicide.
There has been an avalanche of commentary since then and, to be frank, I don’t have anything particularly useful to add. Except to say this – I’ve been extremely impressed with the intelligence and sensitivity of much of that commentary (I guess I am feeling particularly bullish on sports media this week – at least a segment of it). For example, I learned from Outsports’ Cyd Ziegler that trans people have suicide rates perhaps twenty five times as high as the general population. Grantland itself published a piece by Christina Kahrl, the baseball writer and transgender woman. Kahrl was unsparing in her criticism:
“when you’re a writer, you want something you create to have a long life, to be something that readers will remember and revisit for years to come. If such was Caleb Hannan’s wish, it’s been granted, because his essay on “Dr. V and the magical putter” figures to be a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.”
She also shed light on her own decision to live as she believed she was born to live and about the particular difficulties facing a trans individual living, as Kahrl understood Dr. V to be, in “deep stealth” – someone who did not want to be identified as transgender publicly or even, likely, in her personal life. In his own mea culpa (which has come in for lots of criticism), Grantland impresario Bill Simmons acknowledged that he and the Grantland editors “were not sophisticated enough” to ask the right questions. As the media critic Jay Rosen noted on twitter, that’s “a rare admission in journalism.” Deadspin’s Tim Marchman reconstructed and dissected the writing and editing process in order to highlight the failings in Hannan’s piece.
I especially appreciated what IronMikeGallego, also of Deadspin, had to say in his critical take on the story:
There’s a certain cowardice in passing moral judgment about others in the way I’ve done here. The floodgates are already open. Caleb Hannan has taken a beating from people far more significant than me. Part of me wonders why I’ve even bothered to write this. It isn’t because I think I’m a better person than Caleb Hannan. It isn’t because I think I have some unique insight into morality or journalistic ethics – I don’t claim to know much about either. It’s just because someone is dead for a simple reason: no one stopped to really think about what they were doing. I believe – I have to believe – that neither Simmons nor Hannan would have knowingly pressed ahead with this non-story had they known the harm it would cause this person. Maybe by writing this out, someone will think about that next time, even if the only person who does so is me. That’s reason enough for me to write, and as fitting of a eulogy for Dr. V as I can offer.
I appreciate both his humility and empathy here. And I mention those qualities because, like most folks, I have a lot to learn about both and something about this story – tragic as it’s been – has elicited in many what strikes me as an especially good faith to try to come to terms with their (our) own prejudices and limitations.
Back to more frivolous stuff – like just how sucky the Knicks are – soon…