The night Big Tom died: teaching students to use personal experiences

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The night Big Tom died: teaching students to use personal experiences. Ken Pratt, University of the West of Scotland

The night Big Tom died I was watching The Holocaust programme on TV. It was the episode where the Nazis were executing mentally handicapped people in one of their concentration camps.
I’d been thinking about my friend at the bottom of the street who has quite serious learning difficulties and what they might have done to him. And then I heard my parents talking in the kitchen about Big Tom’s tragic and sudden death. He was one of our closest family friends and neighbours and he was only in his forties. I grabbed a cushion from the couch and buried my head in it, crying sore for Tom, for the mentally handicapped during the war, and for my pal Jim at the bottom of our street. It was one of the saddest and most traumatic evenings of my life and I was only twelve years of age.

The horrors of Nazism stayed with me in a personal way, weirdly connected to the death of our beloved friend. I watched episode after episode of The World At War on a Sunday afternoon, wondering when the time would come for me to play my part in this global shakedown. It didn’t take long. In my first job as a trainee reporter on a Sunday newspaper in Scotland I routinely had to gather news and feature ideas for Tuesday morning conference. This would involve scouring local papers, reading notice boards, listening to gossip, and exploring any possible story source I could find. Imagine then the outrage I experienced when a pal of mine showed me a BNP magazine he’d innocently purchased at a Rangers game. In the small ads section there was an advert selling Nazi and Ku Klux Klan regalia. In these pre-internet days there was only a PO Box number, Alabama, USA. And so began my lengthy correspondence and subsequent infiltration of the KKK tracing their origins to Scotland and interviewing the Grand UK Wizard himself for The Scotsman newspaper. I made the front page, the headline ran: Opening Up The Bigot’s Secret Society and so began my career as an investigative journalist, specialising in political extremism. The energy and determination it took to uncover the Klan in Scotland I put down to the early emotion of that eventful winter night as a boy crying on the couch. It quite simply fed my burning desire to find out what made people on the extreme right tick.

Other big exclusives soon followed: BNP Infiltrate St Andrew’s Day Celebrations; an exclusive interview with John Tyndall; Scots Join Secret Rally To Celebrate Hitler Centenary (The Observer); Alarm Over Race Hate Game (The Observer); School Books Move To beat Nazi Propaganda (The Observer); Anger Over ‘Fascist Peeress’ TV Debate (The Observer). Memories of The Holocaust programme as a child took me further a field – to infiltrate English neo-Nazi football hooligans at The World Cup in Italy 1990; to the Dhasehi refugee camp near Bethlehem to interview Palestinian families living under Israeli rule in conditions they claimed were similar to early Nazi concentration camps during World War 2; to Russia too where extreme white nationalist groups were linking up with religious charities from the West. Even in later life and as part of my PhD, I analysed hitherto uncollected prose by Hugh MacDiarmid, in particular his Plea for a Scottish Fascism (and was relieved to discover MacDiarmid’s ideas of fascism were very different, though no less radical, to those I’d witnessed on the night of Big Bob’s death) and merged my findings with a further analysis of Caledonian Antisyzygy to spotlight the contradictions at the heart of Scottish Literature, especially under the stress of foreign (particularly English) influence, my eventual contention that this emerging literary language was in fact Scotland’s New 21st century Fascist Voice (a renaissance of the MacDiarmid tradition).

It was only when I began to connect my own experiences with that of other more renowned journalists that I began to think of applying new techniques to my teaching style. In Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkley, the Middle East Foreign Correspondent Robert Fisk explains the impact his father’s First World War soldiering experiences had on him and his decision to become a war correspondent. Fisk explains: “When I was ten my father and mother took me on my first trip abroad, which was to France. My father wanted to go back to the Somme and find the places where he’d fought and of course almost died, and to find the house which he spent his first night of peace in, on November 11, 1918. He did find the house and he didn’t look in. He was too shy. I went back later with a film crew, many, many years later, and knocked on the front door, and the granddaughter of the old lady who looked after him is still living there. So, he introduced me to the history of the twentieth century, the terrible twentieth century.”

As with The Holocaust programme Fisk, aged 12, was heavily influenced by the movie Foreign Correspondent in which Joel McCrea plays an American reporter, Huntley Haverstock, who is sent off from New York just before the beginning of the Second World War. He uncovers the top Nazi agent in London, he’s chased by the Gestapo through Holland, witnesses a political assassination, is shot down by a German pocket battleship over the Atlantic, and lives to not only file a scoop to New York but wins the most gorgeous woman in the movie.

Of course one of the greatest examples of a traumatic childhood experience leading to a later- in-life journalistic specialism is that of Karl Fleming, author of Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir. Born in Virginia in 1927 his poverty stricken mother sent him to an orphanage in North Carolina, aged 8. It was there he witnessed the bullying and racism that was to later influence his journalistic life, and as a redneck underdog, he began to find compassion for other underdogs, both black and white. In Childhood Experiences Shape A Reporter’s Journey Lester Sloan writes:

“By the time he reached Atlanta, married with two children and where he worked briefly as a magazine writer for the Atlanta Constitution, he came to the attention of Newsweek magazine and began covering the unfolding of the greatest story of the 20th century: the civil rights movement.” Sloan adds: “But for the aspiring journalist, Fleming’s book could be used as a primer on how to become a good reporter. From his early years at the orphanage we see him evolving into a person who desires to expand his world. The library becomes both a refuge and a repository of ideas and examples of life’s vagaries. Beyond the orphanage, when he enters the military at the age of 17, and later as a young reporter for a paper in Wilson, North Carolina, he learns from both the skilled and the scum. Riding with a local cop who is both a bigot and a bully, he witnessed firsthand the suffering, degradation and murder of blacks in the South, his South.”

Fleming, of course, later risked his life covering James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi and the deaths of three civil rights workers in 1964. He was badly beaten after the Watt’s riots in 1965 but soon became known as the former Newsweek reporter who helped draw national attention to the civil right’s movement in the 1960’s and risked his life covering it with perceptive stories about its major figures and the inequalities that fueled it.
While research is already underway at Sussex University to determine the precise therapeutic effects of writing fictional autobiography, how can this be applied to the writing of journalism? What range of journalistic talents are we sitting on in the course of journalism teaching among what Alan Young describes in The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “people tormented by memories that filled them with feelings of sadness and remorse, the sense of irreparable loss, and sensations of fright and horror”? In Incest, War and Witness Elisabeth Hanscombe points to the work of Paul John Eakin who makes the point that narrative identity is built upon rules of self-narration that we are taught as children. Clearly, he adds, the experience of trauma impacts on a person’s capacity or preparedness to abide by them. In the course of my own teaching there are some basic case studies that at least indicate the worth of engaging with the student hinterland in order to inspire their best work. There was, for example, the student who had witnessed domestic abuse at home in which his mother had methodically bullied his father. He went on to write a series of exclusive news/features for a British tabloid on that very subject. Take also, the example of the student whose older brother had been involved in football hooliganism and who had witnessed the consequent trauma brought to the home as a result. He went on to investigate hooliganism and successfully contributed to a number of publications. It isn’t rocket science. Sometimes all that is required as a journalism tutor is an extra ten minutes to discuss what is happening in our students’ lives. As a formative exercise I routinely ask students to extend by 500 words their essay on ‘why you want to be a journalist’ taking into account reflective issues such as describing their own ideological bias and focusing on events that moved or influenced them as children. The next step is to build further reading around their experiences, sometimes works of journalism, and sometimes works of literary fiction to illustrate the varied expression of such experiences. As journalism educators if we perhaps move forward by building up research into the experience of students taking journalism courses at universities throughout the UK we can arguably illustrate that writing reflectively at an initial stage of the student experience and sharing the results in small groups can enhance motivation to cover certain types of story material and indeed highlight a new range of possibilities for journalistic specialisms. From a curriculum perspective this also has the added benefits of assisting students with module options and even dissertation topics at a later stage of the course. In the context of writing fictional autobiography Celia Hunt, in Therapeutic Effects of Writing Autobiography refers to two different kinds of writing techniques, referred to as ‘semiotic’ and ‘dialogic’ which, it is argued, when used in conjunction with each other, can provide a framework for therapeutic change. Hunt writes: “These techniques, it is suggested, are suitable for use in therapeutic settings, whether psychodynamic, humanistic or cognitive behavioural.” Short of engaging in a complex discussion of sociolinguistics or semiotics, and without directing our analysis into ‘the psychology of the journalist’ we should still be able to create our own simplified model for the teaching of journalism. There exists, for example, a strong interdependence between literary theory and life writing. The subtext of this concludes that in isolation each offers restricted forms of expression, yet when blended can exhibit an independent intelligence free from the shackles of both conventional autobiography and traditional academic enquiry. Taken in the journalistic context it could be argued that there exists a strong interdependence between childhood experiences (best explored by autobiographical reflective writing) and an analysis of how this is ‘expected to appear’ in traditional print structure and in convergent driven platforms.

In her essay Memory and Imagination, Patricia Hampl writes: ‘Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past. We should learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us.’ Hampl may be right. In a discussion on sources of journalism the Irish journalist Fergal Keane refers to the importance of journalistic hinterland. In The Power of Storytelling (an appraisal of radio Four’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent,’) Keane writes:

‘It is quite simply the best programme we have in news. It seeks out the thoughtful and literate and sets them apart from the cliché-spouting, whiny voiced clones that abound in today’s news environment. It is a programme that promotes storytelling rather than story processing.’

Keane further points out that it is a chance to report from a deeper, richer hinterland. It is a term he uses a lot to explain the importance of young journalists knowing who they are and where they are from. It is certainly a very important point for journalism educators. If we can tap into that deep, rich hinterland of our students and encourage them to seek inspiration for stories from that source and to think carefully about the way in which they tell those stories then maybe we can begin, post-Leveson, to change the culture of newsrooms also.

In Stories From The Hinterland: Community Journalists go hyperlocal, The Press Trust of India reports that a Community Correspondent Network (CCN) has been launched by the Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS), a UK government initiative which trains community journalists in video production. Stories of neglect, deprivation and discrimination, which often fail to get into the mainstream media, are now being captured on video by a network of community journalists, reporting on issues like waterlogging at a local school, the struggle for clean drinking water or even how poor health facilities are forcing people in another district to fall back on dangerous ritual practices. This reportage contains one important feature for our discussion – the journalists involved all have first-hand experience of the community issues they are covering. And many are introduced to the craft of journalism by firstly expounding their experiences, sometimes in a basic form of memoir, a technique that then allows them to examine the wider social and political context of their situation, its impact on self, family, community, region, and nation. It could in-fact be argued that some of the best journalism stems from this technique. In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn uses his family history as well as letters from a great uncle to explore the fate of his family during the Holocaust, subsequently recounting the story of thousands of Jews who also suffered. In The Cost of Hope, Amanda Bennett knits a sensitive elegy for her late husband with a rational examination of the cost of keeping him alive while dying from cancer, a personal recollection that became a national journalistic issue. In Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan tells of her experience with a mentally debilitating illness and combines it with reportage about the nature of the illness itself. And in The Night of the Gun,” David Carr’s recalls his memories of addiction and his hard battle to recovery. In so doing the writer meticulously researches every memory he had of his years of addiction. It should be noted that three of these four books are by very successful journalists. Bennet for example is a former Wall Street Journal bureau chief. And in true Wall Street Journal style she recounts the harsh practical economics of the situation to allow her story to flow seamlessly. Writing for the New York Times memoirist and award-winning journalism professor Susan Shapiro explains how she encourages student journalists to look into their own lives for material. Shapiro, who lectures in feature writing at New York University, argues that students should not only look into their lives for journalistic inspiration but should specifically concentrate on the humiliating and painful experiences of the past in order to flourish in the future. Some ethics departments in the UK might cringe at this advice but some argue that facing up to your own reality is a crucial stepping stone towards facing up to the realities of all societies and cultures, a pre-requisite for every serious reporter. There are some conditions to this theory however. As Professor Michele Weldon (author of I Closed My Eyes, Revelations of A Battered Woman) explains in Journalists and Memoir: Reporting and Memory: ‘The story must move beyond a verbal regurgitation of hastily recalled anecdotes. You need to report live from your life, researching with interviews, data and documents that support your recollections.’

She continues: ‘The point of the memoir, as it is for most memoirists, is to artfully illuminate a corner of the world to empower and educate others. My motivation to write the memoir in stolen moments while teaching and working as a freelance contributing columnist to the Chicago Tribune was because I felt foolish and hypocritical telling other people’s stories as a journalist every week when I was afraid—and embarrassed—to tell my own.’ USA Today columnist and ABC and NPR commentator Christine Brennan writes: ‘It’s quaint now to think about the days when you didn’t want to be part of the story. With all the social media—Twitter, Facebook and everything being about me, me, me—it’s now such a personality-driven journalistic world.’

The night Big Tom died was a turning point in my life. But I’ve never written about it until now. Looking back I remain convinced the combined trauma of The Holocaust programme and that tragic news, heavily influenced the story material I chose to cover in later life as a journalist. There is one important caveat to underline in all of this though. Encouraging our students to think about or use their hinterland in their pursuit of a journalistic specialism may be useful. But it has to be combined with most of the other disciplines we already teach. The pursuit of facts; solid research; intelligent interview techniques; striving for balance; an understanding of objectivity; knowing your readership; empathizing with the public interest and understanding the fact that it may not be your memoir in particular that is of interest but the issues surrounding your memoir are all of paramount importance. As journalists progress through their careers they tend to increasingly reflect on what has driven them through the tight deadlines, the long shifts and the millions of words written. Some will awake to the harsh reality that they have been part of a crazy PR machine and will wonder what difference they have really made. But for those with clear reflections on what inspired them to do it at the outset, a greater peace of mind awaits and with it a vocational satisfaction that will carry them high into the latter stages of life.


Bennet, Amanda (2012) The Cost of Hope. US: Random House
Cahalan, Susannah (2010) Brain on Fire. US: Penguin
Carr, David (2009) The Night of The Gun. US: Simon and Schuster
Fisk, Robert (2011) ‘Conversations with History.’ Institute of International Studies, UC Berkley
Fleming, Karl (2006) Son of The Rough South, US: PublicAffairs
Hanscombe, Elisabeth (2008) ‘Aspects of Trauma: Incest, War and Witness’, UK: Routledge
Hunt, Celia (2010) ‘Therapeutic Effects of Writing Fictional Autobiography’. Life Writing, 7 (3) pp.231-44
Keane, Fergal (2005) ‘The Power of Storytelling’ BBC Home
Mendelsohn, Daniel (2008) The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, US: Harper Perennial