Journalists who have reported from Haiti know that it's not an assignment for the weak of heart. Parts of the country — particularly the capital, Port-au-Prince — are tough places to work and even tougher places to live.
This is especially true for poor Haitians who were made homeless by the earthquake last year, who don't own cars to help them get around, who don't have jobs to help them make ends meet and who don't have the means to do anything about it. For American journalists working in Haiti, who live in relative luxury compared with most Haitians, the burden is more existential: how to cover a place wracked with economic problems, crippled by an earthquake, weighed down by never-ending social challenges and political turmoil — and not be consumed by it.
Most of us develop coping mechanisms and push on. We try to tell stories that capture the nuances and complexities of the country. We try to give voice to ordinary, powerless people. We try to chronicle their daily struggles without robbing them of their dignity. We try very hard to keep our emotions in check.
Many of us avoid making sweeping generalizations that stereotype the entire country and marginalize its citizens because we know that even after many years or decades of covering Haiti, it's a complicated, fluid, still-evolving place.
Then there are journalists like Mac McClelland, who has reported on Haiti for Mother Jones, who parachute in for a couple of weeks; are horrified by what they see; form quick, uninformed impressions; and then return home and write breathtakingly self-indulgent stories about how terrible their experiences were on the ground.
While she isn't the first journalist to do this, and certainly won't be the last, her recent piece that ran in Good magazine, titled "I'm Going to Need You to Fight Me on This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD," was way beyond the pale. A short summary: She goes to Haiti and is so traumatized by the sight of guns and violence that the only way she can feel whole again is to solicit and engage in a sexual assault upon herself.
Needless to say, others who have written about Haiti for far longer than McClelland, and who know the country far better, were very disturbed. We promptly took her to task in an open letter issued Friday.
What's galling is that even as she uses Haiti as a vehicle to write about her post-traumatic stress disorder — I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt that she's being honest about having PTSD after two weeks in Haiti — she turns Haitians' very real suffering into the source of her sexual fetishes. She does this by describing rapes by marauding, "gang-raping monsters" in the tent camps that house homeless earthquake victims.
Rapes at the camps are indeed a tragic reality of postearthquake Haiti, but she paints a picture of Haiti as the site of collective male wilding. Never mind that she's only talking about the capital, which before the earthquake had some 3 million residents, and not the entire country of 10 million.
I'm betting that this self-promotion-as-therapy angle will get her a book deal in no time because, after all, there aren't enough books out there written by white journalists "undone by black people's tragedies," as one friend put it. McClelland complains about "the shocking lack of sympathy I got from some industry people I talked to about my breakdown … " It's hard to feel sympathy for someone who seems so skilled at placing herself at the center of attention. She writes of covering the Gulf oil disaster: "I was having a weepy little fit because a white oil-spill worker threatened to lynch any black oil-spill worker who hit on me."
I believe that McClelland has real problems; I'm just not convinced that they have to do with Haiti or other trouble spots she has covered, as much as they have to do with mental issues she brought with her to Haiti. She says of her agreeably violent, good sport of an ex-boyfriend, Isaac, who punched her during sex: "We'd done this sort of thing before." I'm betting the other times had nothing to do with Haiti.
She says that a Haitian man who propositioned her for sex 87 times (Really? Did she actually keep count?) finally got her attention when he suggested, "We can do this at gunpoint if that sells it for you." She writes: "And actually, it did, yeah." Alas, the gun had no safety lock, so she changed her mind. I wonder if this scenario occurred before, during or after the time she was in the throes of PTSD.
In more than two decades of witnessing and chronicling all manner of violence and sadness in Haiti, I've been outraged, frustrated, depressed, traumatized — you name it. I never once felt the need to be the voluntary victim of violent sexual assault as a mental salve or the need to unload all my burdens at Haiti's feet. When I couldn't handle things, I went home to the States and decompressed, saw a psychologist. When I felt better, I went back and went about the business of covering Haiti.
McClelland writes that she cried on the plane on the way home to San Francisco, while checking her email, while at work in her office, while in the shower and through most of a 1.5-hour yoga class. I get that; I do.
Crying jags are a familiar response that I experienced, too. I hid out at home and let them flow, embarrassed that I could not control them, and guilt-ridden that I could return to my life of comfort while so many in Haiti suffered. Still, feeling depressed about the state of the country is entirely different from using its suffering to advance one's career.
Apparently the acute mental anguish that McClelland suffered is over, now that she has exorcised her Haiti demons via sexual beat-down and overly self-aware article. On the same day the article ran, she cheerily tweeted, "Happy National PTSD Awareness Day, everyone." And this: "Alright. I got a lot of valid warnings about writing this, but I did, so I'm going to go ahead and tweet it." And this: "In which post-traumatic stress disorder ruins my life, and my sex life, and I get punched in the face. su.pr/5EeWN0."
Haiti has broken the hearts of many reporters, but there have also been days when it made our hearts sing. For me this occurred last March when I saw three little girls in crisp starched school uniforms, ruffled white socks and patent leather shoes, holding hands and laughing and talking as they walked to school. They had just left the dusty, depressing encampment of tattered tents where they have lived since the earthquake.
I don't know why, but in that moment I was filled with a sense of hope for those girls and for Haiti. They seemed not to have a care in the world; they were simply happy children on their way to school, and seeing them made me feel happy, too.
Marjorie Valbrun, a native of Haiti, is a contributing writer for The Root who is based in Washington, D.C.