GOOD magazine recently ran a piece written by Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland in which she details her disturbing experience in Haiti, subsequent PTSD, and her healing process. The crux of her story — that engaging in violent sex helped aid her recovery — is deeply personal, complicated, and unsettling. But so is PTSD, and recovery is never simple.
For all of its raw honesty, however, there's a real issue with the article: a lack of context. In absence of any real details about McClelland herself, it is all too easy to conclude that it was Haiti itself that pushed her over the edge. The dark and violent imagery she uses only serves to further that conclusion.
To 36 women who would know, that's a problem. Herewith, [our] open letter to the editors of GOOD.
To the Editors:
As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland's portrayal of Haiti in "I'm Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD."
We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland's story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.
Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath. We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female "journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time," women who have "chosen to be around trauma for a living," who she says "rarely talk about the impact."
In writing about a country filled with guns, "ugly chaos" and "gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments," she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic's DNA.
Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland's piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.
Ms. McClelland's Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there. This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.
Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization. While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.
In our own writings, we have gone to great lengths to try to understand and address the issue of trauma—as well as sexual violence—with sensitivity. As women who know and love Haiti, we are deeply troubled by Ms. McClelland's approach.
Lisa Armstrong, freelance reporter, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee
Amelie Baron, freelance reporter, RFI and Radio France
Pooja Bhatia, journalist and lawyer
Edna Bonhomme, PhD Candidate, Princeton University
Carla Bluntschli, Haiti activist
Natalie Carney, multimedia journalist, Feature Story News
Edwidge Danticat, writer
Alexis Erkert Depp, Haiti activist
Natasha Del Toro, video journalist, TIME
Isabeau Doucet, freelance journalist and producer, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, CSMonitor
Susana Ferreira, freelance journalist
Allyn Gaestel, freelance reporter, CNN, Los Angeles Times
Leah Gordon, artist and photographer
Michelle Karshan, Haiti activist and researcher
Kathie Klarreich, Knight International Journalism Fellow and author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti
Sasha Kramer, SOIL
Nicole Lee, Esq., President, TransAfrica Forum Inc.
Carmen Lopez, filmmaker and journalist
Melinda Miles, Founder and Director, Let Haiti Live
Eleanor Miller, freelance journalist
Arikia Millkan, Community Manager of Haiti Rewired
Carla Murphy, founding editor, Develop Haiti
Maura R. O'Connor, freelance foreign correspondent
Leah Nevada Page, economic development consultant
Claire Payton, PhD Candidate, NYU, Haiti Memory Project
Nathalie Pierre, PhD Candidate, NYU
Andrea Schmidt, Producer, Al Jazeera English
Jeena Shah, LERN Fellow, Attorney at Bureau Des Avocats Internationaux, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti
Alice Smeets, photojournalist
Alice Speri, freelance journalist
Maggie Steber, photographer, educator, curator, author of Dancing on Fire
Chelsea Stieber, PhD Candidate, NYU
Emily Troutman, freelance writer and photographer, AOL, AFP
Marjorie Valbrun, contributing writer at the Root.com and blogger at Slate.com
Note: The views expressed in this letter represent those of individual authors and signatories and do not necessarily represent the opinions of their organizations.