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Lullabyby Chuck Palahniuk
They ask you just one question. Just before you graduate from journalism school, they tell you to imagine you're a reporter.
Imagine you work at a daily big-city newspaper, and one Christmas Eve, your editor sends you out to investigate a death.
The police and paramedics are there. The neighbors, wearing bathrobes and slippers, crowd the hallway of the slummy tenement. Inside the apartment, a young couple is sobbing beside their Christmas tree. Their baby has choked to death on an ornament.
You get what you need, the baby's name and age and all, and you get back to the newspaper around midnight and write the story on press deadline.
You submit it to your editor and he rejects it because you don't say the color of the ornament.
Was it red or green? You couldn't look, and you didn't think to ask.
With the pressroom screaming for the front page, your choices are: Call the parents and ask the color. Or refuse to call and lose your job. This was the fourth estate. Journalism. And where I went to school, just this one question is the entire final exam for the Ethics course. It's an either/or question. My answer was to call the paramedics.
Items like this have to be catalogued. The ornament had to be bagged and photographed in some file of evidence. No way would I call the parents after midnight on Christmas Eve.
The school gave my ethics a D.
Instead of ethics, I learned only to tell people what they want to hear. I learned to write everything down. And I learned editors can be real assholes.
Since then, I still wonder what that test was really about. I'm a reporter now, on a big-city daily, and I don't have to imagine anything.
My first real baby was on a Monday morning in September. There was no Christmas ornament. No neighbors crowded around the trailer house in the suburbs. One paramedic sat with the parents in the kitchenette and asked them the standard questions.
The second paramedic took me back to the nursery and showed me what they usually find in the crib.
The standard questions paramedics ask include: Who found the child dead? When was the child found? Was the child moved? When was the child last seen alive? Was the child breast- or bottle-fed? The questions seem random, but all doctors can do is gather statistics and hope someday a pattern will emerge.
The nursery was yellow with blue, flowered curtains at the windows and a white wicker chest of drawers next to the crib.
There was a white-painted rocking chair. Above the crib was a mobile of yellow plastic butterflies. On the wicker chest was book open to page 27. On the floor was a blue braided-rag rug.
On one wall was a framed needlepoint. It said: Thursday's Child Has Far to Go. The room smelled like baby powder.
And maybe I didn't learn ethics, but I learned to pay attention. No detail is too minor to note.
The open book was called Poems and Rhymes from Around the World, and it was checked out from the county library. My editor's plan was to do a five-part series on sudden infant death syndrome. Every year seven thousand babies die without any apparent cause. Two out of every thousand babies will just go to sleep and never wake up. My editor, Duncan, he kept calling it crib death.
The details about Duncan are he's pocked with acne scars and his scalp is brown along the hairline every two weeks when he dyes his gray roots. His computer password is password.
All we know about sudden infant death is there is no pattern. Most babies die alone between midnight and morning, but a baby will also die while sleeping beside its parents. It can die in a car seat or in a stroller. A baby can die in its mother's arms. There are so many people with infants, my editor said. It's the type of story that every parent and grandparent is too afraid to read and too afraid not to read. There's really no new information, but the idea was to profile five families that had lost a child. Show how people cope. How people move forward with their lives. Here and there, we could salt in the standard facts about crib death. We could show the deep inner well of strength and compassion each of these people discovers. That angle. Because it ties to no specific event, it's what you'd call soft news. We'd run it on the front of the Lifestyles section.
For art, we could show smiling pictures of healthy babies that were now dead.
We'd show how this could happen to anyone. That was his pitch. It's the kind of investigative piece you do for awards. It was late summer and the news was slow. This was the peak time of year for last-term pregnancies and newborns.
It was my editor's idea for me to tag along with paramedics.
The Christmas story, the sobbing couple, the ornament, by now I'd been working so long I'd forgotten all that junk.
That hypothetical ethics question, they have to ask that at the end of the journalism program because by then it's too late. You have big student loans to pay off. Years and years later, I think what they're really asking is: Is this something you want to do for a living?
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