100 Different Ways of Looking
Some thoughts about profile writing
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me. A newsletter about personhood and politics, written by me, a journalist living in red state America. This week’s newsletter is about profile writing. This year, I’ve written three big profiles for Insider, Vanity Fair, and MSP magazine.
When I write a profile, I become a little obsessive. I dig through yearbooks when I can find them. I track down obituaries for grandparents, trace out family trees, search newspaper archives. I go deep into social media posts of family members. I even have a couple of secret social accounts merely for viewing the lives of the people around the people I am writing about.
I ask my hairstylist for her opinion on their hair. I ask friends about their clothes. I sometimes dream that the person I’m writing about calls me up and asks me to their child’s birthday party. I sometimes dream they are chasing me.
It’s uncomfortable to look at a person that closely. You see and learn things that you can never write down. Mostly because they are impressions or maybe it’s an anecdote told by one person and can’t be verified or confirmed. There are often rumors of alcoholic fathers and absent mothers. Sometimes, the people I’m interviewing go off the record to speculate about mental illness or supposed affairs. Sometimes lawyers call to warn me about writing about those supposed affairs. Sometimes the subjects themselves call to yell at me. Or their publicists do. Sometimes there are threats of lawsuits. Sometimes people lose their jobs.
But more often, the story runs, and maybe people read it. But most often people don’t. And then, I move on to the next person.
I have made a career out of writing profiles. There is something I love so much about figuring out the puzzle of a human being. There are over 100 different ways of seeing someone — of knowing them and understanding the power and purpose of their lives and accidents of nature and the knuckle-bleeding effort that got them there. But what makes a person’s life a story worth writing is not just interesting bits of gossip, but finding out what their life reveals about us.
One of the things that is apparent is how little people change. In the profile I’m known the best for (although not my best one), I asked the question “What Happened to Tucker Carlson?” And traced his career from magazine writer to Fox News host who platforms and mainstreams racism and homophobia. The answer, of course, is that nothing happened; he was always that person. He just got better at the grift. Reading some of his early magazine pieces, it’s easy to see those ideas in his writing, just less overtly written. And how people looked the other way because there was no incentive to see the harm. Even now, people in power still look the other way. What made that a story was tracing out the complicity.
This year, I wrote three in-depth profiles and two shorter ones for the newsletter. But the hardest one was writing about Casey DeSantis.
When Claire Landsbaum, approached me with the assignment, I didn’t think I could do it, nor did I think I wanted to do it. It’s very tricky to write a profile. Especially when that person is not exactly in power. But not exactly not in power either.
It becomes a sticky morals game. Who deserves to be looked at and why? Who deserves to be examined so intimately that a reporter is calling up their high school boyfriend for quotes?
There is a line of logic that I often hear repeated, which is that if you write about someone or something, you are elevating that person and those ideas, even if they are reprehensible. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I don’t agree either. I think the danger comes in assuming that writing and journalism are completely amoral. They aren’t. This is where I differ from a lot of journalists. I think every subject deserves rigorous fairness, but I don’t think that means being amoral.
Our stories have real-life consequences. And we don’t get to walk away from those consequences. In a recent interview on MSNBC, reporter Ben Collins talked about how he wonders what he could have done differently when reporting on trans issues. “It has real-life impacts,” he said, referring not just to the internet he writes about but writes for. Journalists are not just dispassionate observers; the gaze itself can change everything. What is included is often as important as what is excluded. And those judgments do not happen in a moral vacuum. Pretending otherwise is the most dishonest thing a journalist can do. While no story can contain everything, more stories should try to contain more.
I am not pretending I’ve gotten the balance right every time. There are some profiles I wish I could redo. But I do know I am still trying.
So, I didn’t really want to write about Casey. I didn’t know what the real story was. And I was skeptical in my call with Claire, the editor (who is a genius, by the way). But as I watched Casey over the summer, I realized the power she held and how it was going unchallenged and unexamined.
One of my favorite profiles was written by the journalist Marjorie Williams about Barbara Bush in 1992. The profile so adeptly draws a compelling portrait of a person and examines their power and does it with lively writing that I often go back and reread it to learn. But she doesn’t sacrifice moral weight.
Toward the end of the profile, Williams observes:
But without Barbara, Americans might have noticed sooner that the self-styled “education president” had offered nothing meaningful in the way of education reform.
Without Barbara, voters might have noticed from the start how disengaged Bush seemed from domestic concerns.
Barbara Bush successfully silenced the logical question that called out for response: Isn’t the president supposed to be the conscience of the White House?
I think about that passage often when I watch politicians at work. Who holds the power and who maintains the image? Who buys into the image and what is behind it? Casey, I realized, was doing this work for her husband.
For me, the profile was just as much about how the story is told as it was about the storyteller. And Casey is a storyteller. Even if you don’t like the story being told.
But the problem was that I do not live in Florida, and I wasn’t being flown down there unless we could get an interview (we didn’t). So, after months of cold calling and getting almost nowhere, Insider partnered me up with Kimberly Leonard, an incredibly diligent reporter who does live in Florida and was able to crack through the walls of silence.
There are two traps in writing a profile. The first trap is silence. Words are the raw materials of a story. Give them no words, and there might not be a story. Or at least a gaping hole where the story would have been. And a good storyteller would know that. Often editors will kill a profile if there is no interview. And if a person has enough power, they can silence the people around them. The second trap is too much information. When I wrote about Michael Sitrick, he smothered me in access. It’s his style. And I knew that going in (I’d read all his books), but it’s one thing to know that and another to be on the receiving end of it. Too much information can make a writer lazy. You take the subject’s word about themselves as fact without doing much digging. Write about people enough, and you realize they are the worst judges of their own character. Often a story is better or more honest when you don’t include their voices. Of course, this isn’t always true. But sometimes it is. Avoiding the trap means staying in control of the story.
But, that’s another trap too. Thinking you are in control of a story when you aren’t. I worried about that the whole time I was writing. Was I being fed lines? Was I being fed a story? Was I seeing everything? Was I looking at the story from every angle possible?
Okay maybe there are three traps. And the third is description. So often how a writer describes a person says more about the writer themselves than the subject. Getting those details just right is so hard. I will sometimes edit a single word over and over. Is her hair brown? Was she brunette? Is it chestnut? Why is hair important? Is hair important? Hair is definitely important. If hair isn’t seen as important, well that says something too about power and privilege and position and gender. You see what I mean?
In September, while deep in the reporting, I received a call from a Florida number. And when I answered, I heard nothing but breathing and then the caller hung up. When I called back, it went to an automatic voicemail box. No one called back. The next day, I got two calls from a security company based out of Miami. No one answered when I called back. No one returned my calls.
Were they accidents? Coincidences? Did someone else want to be in charge of the story? This moment wasn’t included in the profile, ultimately, because the inclusion of those details implies that it wasn’t an accident. And I have no proof of that.
There are so many moments like that in a life and in a story. They could mean everything, they could mean nothing. And some things, you don’t know what they mean until it’s all over.
All I know is that I was writing a story about someone who is themself working hard to tell a story — present an image — and getting behind that hardened glossy shell to the human beneath felt like pulling books off a shelf, hoping the next one would be a hidden lever that opened up a secret door.
Kimberly and I worked together for months picking at the wall of silence. It’s the first time I’ve worked with someone on a profile, and I was worried and a little protective over my words. My precious little words. But Kimberly was and is a dream to work with. It was like pairing two girls, who are used to being the only ones who do the work on a group project, on a group project together. She cracked the story open. I’d written a draft with holes, and she came in and filled them in and even got the scoop on the DeSantis wedding.
You can read the profile yourself if you like. Here is a link to get you around the paywall.
After the story ran, I heard from quite a few people who said that they’d never read about Casey. I heard from a few more people who said some pretty nasty things about her. I get it. Her husband is passing a hateful agenda that is actively causing harm. It’s not good. But also, I don’t think we can look away from the things we don’t like. I think we need to look at power in all its forms.
Days after the story ran, Casey’s husband won his re-election bid. And Casey came out on stage to celebrate her husband’s victory in a yellow dress that made her look like Belle in the Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. It was a stunning visual image — one that signaled that this story wasn’t over.
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As I said, I think that Marjorie Williams’ profile of Barbara Bush is one of the greatest political profiles I’ve ever read. Hands down, the best profile I’ve read this year is the profile of Clarence Thomas by Mitchell S. Jackson.
While writing about Casey, I read this really good profile of Columba Bush by Hanna Rosin.
I personally think Kerry Howley is the master of profile writing, so if you need more to read, read her profile of Jamie Spears. Or you can pre-order her book about Reality Winner.