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A Reporter's Life
All my life I have been a reporter.
In second grade, my first byline appeared in Scriblets, the elementary school newspaper.
In high school, I tacked a photograph of Lisa Howard, blond, beautiful, smart – one of the nation's first women television news correspondents – on my bedroom wall.
I dreamed of covering the White House. The Mayor. The day's events.
When I first began working for a real newsroom, I longed for the hard assignments. A bank robbery? Send me, please! Getting to cross the police lines? A thrill.
And through it all, there was one cardinal rule: The reporter is not the story. The story is the story. You are there to stand to one side. Watch. Pass on what you see and hear. Shape it. But do not insert yourself.
For years, I lived my dream, especially as an anchor/reporter for all-news WINS Radio in New York, and then as a TV correspondent for the short-lived, long-named show, "ABC-TV's Lifetime Magazine." For radio, I ran around New York City with a microphone in my hand. For television, I flew around the country meeting up with camera crews. And still, at no time, was I ever anything but an interested observer. The person asking the questions and revealing the subjects' answers.
Truth be told, that suited my personality. I had no wish to reveal myself. Best to keep that private.
That is why I find it worth sharing---to say now, after four decades of making my living and my way through life telling other people's stories and keeping quiet about my own---how surprised I am to find myself with the tables turned. In the last years the most fulfilling work has come, not only drawing from the lives of others, but reaching inside and pulling out from my own. And in telling stories that come out of the deepest places in my own life, I discover I am touching other people in ways I never did before with a bank robbery, blizzard, election night return, subway strike settlement or car crash.
In 1999, after wondering all my life where my grandfather had lived before he escaped conscription in the Tsar's Army and headed off alone at 16 for America, I found myself with the freedom to investigate. My grandfather had died 40 years before, in 1959, when I was 12. He'd never told me one childhood story. But years after his death I learned the name of the city was Kovno, Lithuania. And once it was no longer behind the Iron Curtain, I dug in. Like a woman possessed. In a matter of months, I had an address for his father's house in 1911, the year before he left, a camera crew, an idea for a documentary, and off we went. The resulting film, "My Grandfather's House," now plays regularly on The Dish Network's Documentary Channel.
When I began, I asked myself, "Who would care about my family's story?" But people do. They even write to tell me. And that becomes the greatest satisfaction.
A man who calls himself a "crusty old warhorse who served in Vietnam and then worked in hard news" e-mails to say how much he was moved.
A rancher in Texas says he is compelled to let me know he realizes my journey "was the fulfillment of a very personal need, but your desire to share that experience with others reached all the way to a very modest cattle ranch in Texas and forever touched the heart of a grizzled old cowboy who never knew his father."
A woman in Illinois who watched not once but twice writes, "Your narrative touches in me that common thread connecting those of us who also had grandparents that came to America from places they would not talk about, even when asked. You have honored them all. Thank you."
This I also found true as I revealed the most painful of losses.
When I was 29, I came home from work one day to find my husband a suicide in the upstairs bedroom. Dead at 32, he left me alone with a 4-year-old who now had no father. This was a loss I mourned and a hurt I kept to myself as I moved to New York and began the climb to the best years of my news career. One day, sitting in the newsroom, with a rare free moment, I began to type, "Rachel would cry sometimes, like when it was her birthday and she remembered how he used to put the decorations on the cake. And how he wasn't there to do it anymore." That line went into a file. The file went into a drawer. Over time I added other lines. And they went into the file. One day, I pulled it all out and in two nights wrote what became the manuscript for "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart." The manuscript went back into a drawer. Ten more years went by before I found an agent and then a publisher.
In the last decade, "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart" has helped thousands of bereaved children. Now in its second printing (available at www.newleaf-resources.com), leading therapists have praised it. Major institutions use it in therapy with children who are grieving. People buy it for a child who has just lost a parent.
I am still a reporter. I will still happily tell other people's stories. And I will not insert myself into that process.
But I have learned you do not need a mike flag or newsroom call letters after your name to tell stories that matter to people. Sometimes you need look no further than your own heart.
© Eileen Douglas
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