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Try This: Seduce & Betray
What people aren't talking about
Back to college for a beat…
In my senior year at the University of Oregon, a professor told us this anecdote: a former student of his went on assignment to interview Joan Baez. The singer, Joan Baez. The reporter wore a skirt and heels, and, while climbing a flight of stair to the interview, tripped. She fell forward, gashing her knees, and arrived at the interview with her legs bleeding and her clothes torn. Ms. Baez jumped into action, washing the cuts and binding them, responding to questions as she knelt at the reporter’s bruised feet.
The magazine profile that resulted was a masterpiece. Per our professor, the reporter had made herself seem vulnerable, therefore Baez didn’t hesitate to open up and reveal aspects of herself she’d never talked about in public. This bloody anecdote was the springboard for a whole course based on the practice of “seduce and betray.” Meaning that a journalist—really any storyteller—should reveal a small weakness in order to coax the interview subject into revealing a greater weakness or secret.
It's called “seduce and betray,” because you gain the subject’s trust. You mask the fact that an interview is in progress, and you appear to be a friend. A confidante. Not someone being paid to unearth the subject’s deepest secrets and make them public.
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In the years I worked as a small-town newspaper reporter I never grew facial hair. The other reporters had beards and mustaches, and my editor said older, powerful people in the community didn’t trust them. If a bank president or a society dowager needed talking to, the newspaper sent clean-shaven me. Stupid as I was, I could make steady eye contact, and my lack of questions created a painful silence. The interviewee rushed to fill that silence.
There’s a legend about some Old Master painter who’d force his subject to sit for days and weeks. The subject would pose, presenting their best self. Smiling or regal. But as the weeks dragged on, the subject’s will would break. Their mask of calm or confidence would slip until they revealed their anger or frustration with the process. Only then would the painter actually begin to paint.
My dog sits outside a rat’s burrow with the same patience. As for me, it wasn’t being cagey, just lazy. I never had to throw myself down some stairs. I’d only need to turn my hairless attention on a timber tycoon for long enough, and eventually the dirt would surface: the marital resentments, the estranged kids, the longed-for high school sweetheart, the drinking, the stuff my editor craved.
Nowadays, I can tell an impatient journalist by his readiness to spill his own guts. More than half the time I’m just a listener. On the phone or in person. As the reporter talks about being tormented as a child by his deranged mother. Harrowing stories, but a ploy I’ve seen too many times to fall for. A truly smart reporter won’t resort to such crude bait. A smart reporter will tell you the secrets of someone else. Someone famous.
Bet you don’t think this is going somewhere, but it’s going somewhere. Just not soon.
Most journalists are stymied by decorum. Big news outlets can only print the “news that’s fit to print.” And that means the oft-repeated true stories about the famous actress who’s infamous for pooping on hotel room carpets1 won’t get published. The people who read newspapers don’t want their breakfast sullied with anything so lurid. Likewise, the advertisers who buy full-page retail display space don’t want their car or bank butted up against something celebrity-poo related. Upstaged, so to speak.
Back in the day—my glory days as an eighteen-year-old kid in the Ad Services department at The Oregonian—the moment we heard a plane had crashed we knew to pull all the display paste-ups for airline ads. No airline wanted to advertise for days after a big airplane disaster, for fear their brand would become linked to death in the public mind. Instead, the airlines would pay for the space, but for days after the newspapers would go out with full-page, in-house ads to recruit paperboys and give to the United Way. Those reserved ad holes still needed to be filled.
This same self-censoring leaves reporters brimming with secrets. And to gain your trust, they’ll sacrifice other people’s.
For instance, Margie Boulé. Pronounced Boo-LAY. Decades ago, Portland, Oregon was a very DIY city. The same people who ran City Hall also acted in local theater. One annual event was the Babes on Burnside revue. Burnside Street was/is the town’s skid row, and in less-aware days the arts community would stage a Ziegfeld Follies-themed song-and-dance show with lyrics such as:
Down on Burnside Street / Where people throw-up on your feet / Junkies saying “Have you got a dime?” / “Show you a good time?”… yes, you can mix with society’s elite / down on Burnside Street!!
Showgirls would parade the stage in garbage-based costumes, to songs like Get Yourself a Recycled Girl! It was a very different time.2
The shining star of Portland musical comedy was the lovely and vivacious Margie Boulé. She co-hosted the morning television program AM Northwest. She sang and danced. And she wrote a column that appeared on the front of the Living section in our daily paper. Boule was pretty and talented and everywhere. Then she wasn’t.
Off the record, there is no off the record. Not anymore. I was trading secrets with a reporter, and he told me Boulé had written a column in 1989 castigating Cat Stevens for his remarks about Salman Rushdie. At the time, I’d read the piece. Boulé pointed out the irony of the singer-songwriter who’d recorded Peace Train and the soundtrack for Harold and Maude and who was now piling on with a fatwa. Mild or not, according to the reporter who told me, the column brought down a raft of death threats on Boulé. All-singing, all-dancing Margie Boulé dropped off the map.
In Galway, an organizer of their arts festival once told me that while the fatwa was hot on the heels of Rushdie, he’d been quartered in a safe house on the west coast of Ireland. A far-north, isolated cottage. Later, when Michel Houellebecq3 was getting roasted over his novel Platform, that author, too, was stashed in the same safe house. Boulé hadn’t gone that far, but she’s kept a low profile since.
That’s the best part of talking to reporters: To find out the stories they’re not going to print. Not long after I left the Oregonian, a host of my co-workers were busted for selling drugs out of the newspaper’s company cars. That story never made it into print, either.
That said, I love the stories that are too indecent, too tasteless, too untoward or unspeakable or cringe for the legacy media to tell. Those are the stories only fiction can tackle. People don’t want to believe such things can be true.
Another example, this one from London. My publisher sent me to meet a freelance photographer. We met on the mezzanine of a cavernous art deco government building and sat in overstuffed leather club chairs, and after he took some pictures he busted out his secret.
One by one, he handed me black-and-white glossy pictures that looked as if they’d been taken in 1932. Here were group shots of smiling families, mom, dad, and all the kids wearing Nazi swag. Arm bands, swastikas, the works. Other photos were of Nazi soldiers in full uniform with period weapons. But instead of 1932, these pics were brand new. The photographer had shot them only a few weeks before showing them to me. He’d managed to infiltrate a secret group who met on a regular basis to restage WWII battles so that the Germans would win.
When he told me “group,” he meant thousands of people. Much of what they brought with them was homemade, but much was antique, relics they’d collected for decades. Carefully preserved Nazi-branded wooden matches, for example. For these most-recent reenactments, the photographer told me the group had bivouacked on a large tract of land in western Ireland. He told me the rural Irish were no great fans of the British, and many had rooted for the Germans, and these folks were a big contingent among the cosplay Nazis.
The entire operation was patrolled by sentries, and unknown to the world at large, but our photographer had conned his way in by posing as a kindred spirit. These photos were the result. Among the many details he told me was that—in order to stage the battles—some participants had to fight as Americans, Brits, and even Canadians, if only to die ineptly. In order to choose the Allies, they drew lots. As per the photographer, if a soldier had to fight for the Allies, the first choice was to be an American. Second was to play a Brit. A distant and laughable third—his words, not mind, and consider that we’re talking about wannabe Nazis, here—third choice was to be a Canadian soldier.
Regardless, the Allied troops always lost. The Nazis kicked ass while their Nazi families applauded. The pictures were nothing short of amazing.
It wasn’t lost on me that both persecuted writers and larping Nazis went to northwestern Ireland to hide out. Funny how that goes.
Now the sad part. Our photographer? He couldn’t sell his pictures. At the time, no publication would touch the subject. It looked to be an immense hornet’s nest. Our guy had gone out, certain that some major magazine would buy his work, but the MSM shied away. After that he’d gone to galleries. The photos were art, and controversial art, and technically perfect. But again, no gallery wanted the risk. True or not, the photos were a truth no one wanted to believe. No museum or maven wanted this stuff on their walls.
The sad-sad part was that now he was showing them to me, a near-obscure American author, in the hope that I might know of a market for them. I did not. Nor did I want to buy them.
I wish I could tie a feel-good bow on this. Something along the line of Bravery is rewarded. Or, Truth will always find a buyer. If I did I’d be lying. If anything, maybe the lesson is The best fiction is the truth people won’t talk about.
That might not be the ending you want, but it’s the ending you’re going to get. For now.
And I’m not being cagey here, just lazy. Nonetheless I have patience. I can wait, and I’m willing to be proved wrong. In fact, I’m praying to be.
And, no, I’m not going to give her name here. But I’ve heard this story a half-dozen ways from journalists all over the world. And she’s not Amber Heard. The big poo is always deposited on the floor.
In a sad way Portland has always tried to copy San Francisco. The “Babes on Burnside” revue was an attempt to copy the magic of “Beach Blanket Babylon.” The Oregonian newspaper even ran a short-lived serialized novel called Pillars of Portland that was clearly riffing off the Armistead Maupin serialized novel Tales of the City. The Portland version fizzled after a few weeks.
Hence the photo, above.